Thursday, July 06, 2006

Genesis 17

Genesis 17: The Covenant of Circumcision; Abram and Sarai are given new names


In this chapter, God reiterates His covenant with Abram, and—as usual—gives just a bit more detail about it, too.

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to him and said, “I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless. I will confirm my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.”

Abram fell facedown, and God said to him, “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations. I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. The whole land of Canaan, where you are now an alien, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God.”

(verses 1–8)

As you will have noticed, God changed Abram’s name in this passage to Abraham. He does this a few times in the Bible; gives someone a new name, to better indicate what their life will be like, or what their relationship to God is. “Abram” means “exalted father”, whereas “Abraham” means “father of many”.

God then introduces the practice of circumcision, which is to be a sign of the covenant between God and Abraham’s descendants. Not only his blood descendants, but God specifies that even servants who are bought into households of Abraham’s descendants should be circumcised. God then says that any male who has not been circumcised in the flesh should be “cut off from his people” (verse 14). I think that this means the person should be banished, however, I remember a conversation—years and years ago—where my pastor said that he thinks this means executed.

After giving instructions on circumcision, God tells Abraham that He has a new name for Sarai, too: her new name will be Sarah. These names I’m a little less clear on; from the little research I did, “Sarai” means “my princess”, whereas “Sarah” just means “princess”. If that is true, I don’t know why God would go to the trouble of renaming “my princess” to “princess”. In fact, I found an entry in the Jewish Encyclopedia along the same lines:

The two forms of the name, “Sarah” and “Sarai,” are identical in meaning; it is difficult to understand the reason for the change. “Sarai” is probably the more archaic form of “Sarah,” though the termination “ai” is unusual in the feminine. The writer of Gen. xvii. 15 must have considered the “ah” of “Sarah” as implying in some way “yahu” or “yah” (the “Yhwh” element).… Perhaps it was the intention to read the name “Sarayahu,” the “hu” being added to “Sarai.” In that case the meaning “princess” now given to “Sarah” must be abandoned. The element “sarah” is identical with a part of the name “Israel,” and “Sarah” and “Sarai” are appropriate names for Israel’s mother…. The name “Sa-ra-a” is reported to occur in Babylonian tablets….

Some of this might seem like gibberish, but remember that Jews don’t write down the name of God. So they sometimes write “Yhwh”, which is God’s name without the vowels. In other words, the author is hypothesizing that maybe God changed Sarai’s name to “Sarah” because Sarah is closer to His name.

Tired of all of this name stuff? Too bad, we have one more to go, before the end of the chapter.

God also tells Abraham that Sarah will bear him a son. To which Abraham reacts by laughing to himself—will a 100 year old man really father a child? And a 90 year old woman bear it? He flat out doesn’t believe God, that this will happen; in fact, he even asks God to simply give His blessing to Ishmael instead. To which God replies: “Yes, but your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will call him Isaac” (verse 19). Our last defined name: “Isaac” means “he laughs”.

God assures Abraham that He will bless Ishmael, but that it’s with Isaac that He will establish His “everlasting covenant”. So Abraham, and all of the males in his household, are circumcised that day.


It should be noted that the act of circumcision is no longer required for Christians. Among other New Testament passages, 1 Corinthians 7:19 says “Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God’s commands is what counts.”

It seems a little brazen, to me, for Abraham to laugh to himself, when God tells him he’s going to have a son. But he’s not the only one; we’ll see a similar reaction from Sarah later on.

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