In a Nutshell…
Read the passage here.
Our passage today picks up the narrative after the birth of Ishmael – Abram’s illegitimate son through whom Abram tried to ensure or enact God’s promises by human power. What we saw in our passage last week is that we cannot take hold of the promises of God by human effort or ingenuity. It also picks up a motif we mentioned previously. Abram’s journey is one of ups and downs as he learns to trust in God – or put another way, as he learns that God is trustworthy.
So it’s perhaps instructive for us that after Abram’s latest blunder, God once again affirms his covenant with Abram and his descendants. That after Abram fails once again to trust in God, that God shows Himself trustworthy.
We’ve already talked about covenant so we won’t re-hash it here. This is the third time in the story that God announces his purposes to and for Abram (Genesis 12, 15, and here in 17). Each time, it seems, we get a little bit more information about the nature of the covenant.
Here, we get a reiteration of the covenant promises which include offspring, kingship, and land – all of which sum up nationhood. To put it in more familiar language, all of this talks about what it means to be a people. A lot of the Old Testament needs to be understood in this framework – what it means to be a people/a nation.
And it’s this theme of nationhood/becoming a people which shapes how the covenant promises are understood. When God promises or covenants with Abram to give him land, descendants, and (later, through Moses) Law, what He is doing is creating a people. And this is understood in the context of the other nations who exist alongside the Hebrews. So ultimately, the question is “whose people are we?”
In considering our passage today, the first thing I want to consider is the changing of Abram’s name to Abraham. And we can’t ignore the fact that this name change is inextricably tied up to God’s pronouncement of covenant relationship. This is another of those motifs that we see throughout scripture that has important implications. We see it here:
- Abram to Abraham and Sarai to Sarah
- Jacob to Israel (Genesis 32)
- Simon to Peter (Gospels)
The changing of names in Scripture seem to correspond each time with a changing of purpose. In other words, God’s changing of a person’s name seems to have something to do with that person being explicitly called to a God-ordained purpose. This isn’t to say that people in the Bible don’t have a purpose without a new name – simply that the changing of the name seems to be an indication of the shift. At the least, we can recognize that the changing of Abraham’s name corresponds to the first time he’s being given a specific responsibility to acknowledge and therefore live according to God’s covenant.
The second element that we need to consider, the one that perhaps stands out the most, is circumcision. Verses 9-14 say:
9 Then God said to Abraham, “As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. 10 This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. 12 For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner—those who are not your offspring. 13 Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. 14 Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”
Let’s consider what it may in fact mean. Unfortunately, there’s no text that explains the meaning or symbolism of circumcision per se. However, some passages may give us some insight (as it relates to our discussion today):
Deuteronomy 30:6 says:
6 The Lord your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live.
And it’s along these lines that the New Testament writers also talk about circumcision. In the NT era, the question arose whether or not non-Jews had to become circumcised in order to be Christians. Here are a few responses to that question:
12 Those who want to impress people by means of the flesh are trying to compel you to be circumcised. The only reason they do this is to avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ. 13 Not even those who are circumcised keep the law, yet they want you to be circumcised that they may boast about your circumcision in the flesh. 14 May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. 15 Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation.
2 Watch out for those dogs, those evildoers, those mutilators of the flesh. 3 For it is we who are the circumcision, we who serve God by his Spirit, who boast in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh—4 though I myself have reasons for such confidence.
9 For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, 10 and in Christ you have been brought to fullness. He is the head over every power and authority. 11 In him you were also circumcised with a circumcision not performed by human hands. Your whole self ruled by the flesh s was put off when you were circumcised by Christ, 12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead.
Now Paul seems to be directly contradicting what God tells Abraham here – that one does not need to be circumcised in order to be part of the people of God. This is significant because circumcision specifically held such a high place in the Jewish understanding of keeping covenant. But Paul is working off of the understanding of Deuteronomy 30:6 which seems to indicate that the physical act of circumcision is somehow a precursor to the “circumcision of the heart.”
In other words, Paul understands that the physical mentioned in Genesis 17 is a representation of the thing, but it is not the thing. So what is the thing? And it seems that the thing [of which circumcision is a sign] is that we are the people of God.
There’s a lot to be said about this but what I want us to think about is the pattern that’s been established and is being established. The grace comes first and then we respond to it. This is the pattern that we see in Abraham’s story. It’s also the story of the Israelites being delivered from Egypt. God rescues the people and then gives them the law (how is Israel to respond to God’s grace).
It’s the same emphasis that Paul has when he says,
8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
It is out of saving grace that we respond by right living. It is not “right living” that leads us into God’s grace.
So we are not required to be circumcised. Then what does this whole passage have to do with us?
I think that we have to remember the place that this has in the whole story of covenant, which we cannot forget is the means by which God is creating a people for Himself, creating a nation, which God intends to bless in order to be a blessing, which in other words is integral to God redeeming His creation.
Now so far, Abraham’s story has been about God’s sovereign proclamation of grace. God is doing the work and Abraham is learning to have faith in God’s work. Today is the first indication of a reciprocal relationship – we also have a part. But (I think) it’s significant that the part we have is not a work. It is not the work of fulfilling the covenant. That is God’s work alone.
So circumcision isn’t a work. What is it then?
Verse 11 tells us: 11 You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. And I think that’s the key. Circumcision is a sign. It’s a sign of the covenant between God and His people. In other words, if I can take a little bit of liberty, circumcision is the sign of whose people we are (or Abraham and his descendants are).
God proclaims His covenant, proclaims his intention to redeem, to raise up a nation to bless and to be a blessing, and this is the sign of one’s response. It’s a sign of whose we are.
So What Now…?
If we can depart from this specific text and think a little more of the greater biblical context, we want to think about how do we indicate whose we are. And this question is not, “how do we indicate to other people whose we are.” Because Paul, especially, makes it clear that it’s not about religious observance. And we have lots of those. We have lots of ways to show that we’re religious.
It’s for this reason that in Deuteronomy and the letters of Paul we get the indication (or outright assertion) that physical circumcision is not the thing. We can do all the right religious things but have no real devotion or commitment to God. We can be religious but not be His.
And that’s really, I think, at the heart of what’s going on in this passage. In God’s directive to Abraham. God has been walking with Abraham for many years now. He has told Abraham of His plans for Abraham’s life and the lives of His descendants. And Abraham has lots of options. There are powerful nations out there with military and financial might – but God wants to make Abraham into a new nation. There are lots of gods with lots of perks available to worship but God has said that He would be Abraham’s God. So God is asking Him, are you in?
So that’s what I hope that we are constantly asking ourselves. Whose are we? And how does the way I live, and the way I understand how I live, testify to whose we are? Does my life point people, not to a set of rules or expectations but to a living, redeeming God?