41. Genesis 17:1-14 and 17:22-27

III. A. 2. continued

e) The Sign of Circumcision (Genesis 17:1-14 and 17:22-27)

And so the period of silence passed. Ishmael was thirteen years old; Abram was ninety nine, and the year was about 2059 b.c. more or less. At last, God appeared to Abram the fifth time. There were still two aspects of the Covenant of Revelation that had not been considered: the sign and the name, not indispensable but normal. The sign of a covenant is the most visible part of the covenant and we will consider that aspect first.

It would seem that Abram was at a low point spiritually, and that God Most High had waited until this opportune moment to renew His visits. Timing is a large part of communication, and God Most High is the Master. He waits to speak until we are most in need of hearing Him, and sometimes that means waiting until we are on the point of giving up. Abram was on the point of losing hope and it was time to give him another push in the right direction. By “losing hope”, I do not mean that Abram was about to give up on God and His promises entirely; I mean that Abram was ready to settle for “good enough”. He may have felt little attachment to Ishmael before his birth, but now he had grown to love Ishmael as an only son. He was content, happy, willing to do the legal thing, the traditional thing, and count Ishmael as Sarai’s son, and just get on with enjoying his life and prosperity and happiness.

For this fifth appearance, God used a very different form of greeting than previously: “I am God Almighty; walk before Me and be blameless.” The phrase that is translated “be blameless” could be translated in many different ways, such as “have integrity” or “be complete” or “be perfect”. The tone was not reassuring, but demanding. He was not addressing a man who was afraid, but a man who was on the point of settling for less than God intended. Abram didn’t need reassurance; he needed a pep talk. It was not that Abram had decided that God had failed, but that this partial fulfillment of His promise was really pretty good, quite good enough. Abram was old, he was tired. God had been very good to him and he just wanted to grow old in peace. It was time to retire.

So what did He mean, this God who was as short on action as He was on demands, what did He mean by telling Abram to “be perfect”? As yet God had given no commands to Abram except the original call to leave his home and go to a strange country. Being blameless before God had been easy in every sense of the word. Abram had not had to change his habits in any new or unusual way. The migrant lifestyle may have been new to him but it was certainly an ancestral tradition and he would have been familiar with it; so he had not had to make any extraordinary lifestyle changes. The only thing he had done was believe God’s promise and move to a new land, one that he seems to have planned to visit in any case. Otherwise walking before God was mainly just waiting for when God might next speak. There had been no commandments to obey, no required rituals. The Most High God had left him alone, so far, and seemed easy enough to please … unless … unless He was about to spring a surprise, some unexpected assignment. And He was and He did and it was a difficult one: every male in the household, every male in his whole little nomadic nation, was to be circumcised. The long neglected sign of the Covenant of Revelation was finally being appointed and it was circumcision.

With no anaesthetics and no antiseptics it was a little dangerous and quite painful. With 300+ trained warriors, and servants, and shepherds, and the sons of them all from eight days old and upwards, there were easily between five hundred and a thousand men and boys who had to be circumcised, unless some of them had been already. What if they wouldn’t go along with it? Make them? It says a lot about Abram’s relationship with his people that they did go along with this. They hadn’t been included in the visions, they hadn’t heard God Most High give the command to be circumcised. They only had Abram’s word to go on, and that was enough for them. It didn’t even take him long to convince them: they did the circumcision that very day. Abram had credibility. Abram was a leader that people would follow.

Though the absence of a sign did not nullify the Covenant, we would be wrong to thing it was a mere technicality that was optional, to be tacked on or left off at will. The sign of the covenant, once established, was critical enough to the covenant that it became identified with the covenant. It became interchangeable with the covenant. Genesis 17:10 says, “This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: every male among you shall be circumcised.” No mention had been made of circumcision when the Covenant had first been established, but now circumcision was made equal to the Covenant as far as Abram’s people were concerned. The sign was so central to the Covenant that to neglect or refuse the sign was considered the same as neglecting or refusing the Covenant itself.

We are not accustomed, in western culture, to taking signs so seriously. The wedding ring, for example, is not that closely identified with the marriage. Either husband or wife might well remove the ring, might even destroy the ring for some reason, without damaging or disrespecting the marriage. The closest equivalent we have in modern America is the honor we bestow on the flag as a sign of our nation. Those who feel that disrespect to the American flag is the same as disrespect to America itself have a very covenantal understanding of America.

Circumcision was the fourth explicit sign given in Genesis. Sexuality/marriage was the first, the rainbow was the second, blood was the third, and now circumcision. The Sabbath also was a sign, but since it has played no role in the revelation to this point, I am not counting it yet. Unlike the other three signs, circumcision was given only to God’s people. The reason is that it was a sign of the Covenant of Revelation which was only given to this one family and not yet to the whole world. Circumcision was practiced in the Middle East in ancient times but to those people it was simply a traditional practice, with none of the meaning it had for Abram or his descendants. Circumcision was the first of the Middle Eastern traditions that God “stole”, that He took from those cultures and reinterpreted and used for His own purposes. It wasn’t that God lacked the imagination to come up with original symbols for His own religion. Rather, because His intent was to speak to those peoples through this Covenant, He modified their symbols to make it all more accessible to them. At the same time, circumcision was not practiced by the peoples who had already settled in the land of Canaan or by Abram’s Amorite ancestors, nor would it be practiced by the Canaanites when they finally arrived. In this way, circumcision served both to make a cultural bridge to the Middle East and simultaneously a cultural barrier to the people who would live in Canaan a few centuries down the road.

What then does circumcision symbolize? What is it the sign of? Being the sign of the covenant, it was clearly a sign of the faith that was counted to Abram as righteousness on which the Covenant was established, but it was more complex than a simple one to one correspondence. The process of circumcision does not obviously “look like” God counting righteousness to Abram. In circumcision a rather intimate surgery was performed and a part of the man was cast aside to be destroyed. Circumcision made a permanent mark on the man showing that something of him had been discarded, destroyed, killed.  What does this have to do with the Covenant of Revelation? What does this have to do with the faith of Abram that was counted as righteousness and provided the rationale for the Covenant? It is somewhat complicated.

The faith was Abram’s faith, but the Covenant was made with all of Abram’s household, with those who had a faith like Abram’s and with those who did not. Faith was not required for inclusion in the Covenant. Everyone who was born into Abram’s household, everyone who was bought by Abram with his money, regardless of their spiritual state, was included in the Covenant of Revelation. His soldiers, his servants, none of them are certified as having a faith like Abram’s. The eight day old baby boys born to them certainly did not have a faith like Abram’s. Therefore circumcision was not a sign of the faith of the person who was circumcised. Did it have anything to do with faith, then? Yes, Paul asserted in Romans 4 that circumcision was given to Abram as a sign of the faith that he had before he was circumcised. In the context of Genesis, then, in the context of the Hebrew scriptures, circumcision was a sign of Abram’s faith even when it was others who were being circumcised. Ishmael was circumcised that very day and the rite of circumcision performed on Ishmael was a sign of Abram’s faith, not Ishmael’s faith. So it was with them all, so it was through their generations. Throughout the centuries every Israelite man carried, and still carries, the sign of Abram’s faith that was counted to him as righteousness.

But there is more. The physical process of circumcision would seem to point toward something that is taken away rather than something that is given. And so it does. Circumcision was a symbol – more accurately, circumcision was a promise – that God would perform in the hearts of His people a form of spiritual surgery in which a part of the person would be cut off and cast aside to be destroyed. So if circumcision is a sign of God’s removal of something rather than God’s gift of something, what is it that God removes? Is it not what the New Testament calls the “old nature” or the “sinful nature” or the “flesh” or the principle of death? Ultimately then circumcision symbolizes death, being crucified with Christ, but in the context of Genesis we have a long long way to go to get to that understanding. Later the revelation would place some emphasis on what would be called the “circumcision of the heart”, and Paul would emphasize in the letter to the Romans that this circumcision which was inward, by the Spirit and not by the letter, was the essence of what was important.

Paul would later call circumcision a “seal”. A seal is a mark of official certification, a notarization, a signature on a warranty or contract pledging the genuineness of the article. Circumcision was not just a sign of a spiritual reality, faith, which might or might not be there. It was the pledge God made that He would carry it out, that He would make it real, that the sign would not signify nothing. Circumcision was a way to emphasize that God’s promises were always and only accomplished by God Himself. Here I am importing meaning from the scriptures given two millennia after Abram. The meaning of it all at that time, if they were trying to decipher it,  would have been very obscure. The complete meaning of any progressive revelation always lies in the future and will always have aspects that are mysterious in the present.

In short, circumcision was a sign of two things: the removal, in some kind of spiritual surgery, of part of the man’s nature; and the gift of righteousness on the basis of faith. We distinguish the two ideas theologically. We might call the spiritual surgery “sanctification”, and the gift of righteousness is usually called “justification”, but in Genesis the way the sign functions the two are simultaneous, a single act of God. This is a Christian perspective and not at all what the men of Abram’s household would have thought or imagined. The meaning of the sign would not have been apparent to them or to Abram, but it was given to them for us. All Abram knew was that God Most High had decided on circumcision for reasons of His own, and all Abram’s people knew was that Abram said God wanted them to do this. It was enough for that time.

Any male who was not circumcised was “cut off” from his people; if the foreskin had not been cut off of the man, then the man himself was “cut off” instead. Not only was he not considered a member of the Covenant, but none of his future descendants were included in the Covenant either. In this way, inclusion in the Covenant was similar to citizenship in a country: if a person loses his citizenship or forfeits his citizenship, then his future children automatically lose their citizenship as well. Consider this well: any Israelite who was not circumcised was not circumcised as a result of his parents despising or ignoring the Covenant on the eighth day after his birth. It was his parents’ choice that cut him off from the Covenant (and also cut his parents off with him) or it was his parents’ respect for the Covenant that established him in it. Not a single one of God’s people was in the Covenant of Revelation by his own choice, though they could choose to despise the Covenant and leave it later on. But we shall see that through history God didn’t always take a hard-line legalistic approach to the issue. Commandments, to be commandments, must sound more harsh than grace is willing to be.

It was necessary that those who were uncircumcised be excluded from the Covenant to emphasize the necessity of the work of God in each individual. Unless God acts to surgically remove the offending part of our nature then we cannot be admitted to His Covenant, to His people, we cannot belong to God in the way that Abram belonged to Him. If we are not, at some point, spiritually circumcised, if the truth of the sign is not accomplished in us, then the whole point of the Covenant has failed; and God, who is our spiritual Father, is the only one who can perform the surgery. What was really going on here was the introduction of a rather complex idea, what the Messiah would call “being born again”. Even this act of obedience to this one command was designed to make Abram and his children aware of how their tie to God depended on His power and not on their obedience.

What then is the value or meaning of a pledge from God to a man who is free to just walk away? What did circumcision seal to those who despised the Covenant and took their children with them? What did circumcision seal to those who obeyed the command to have their children circumcised but who actually had no faith in anything? How are the sign and the spiritual reality connected? What actually happened when an infant was circumcised? Did God always perform eventually the spiritual act that the circumcision symbolized? Did the rabbi, the priest, the parent have some part in accomplishing the spiritual act by their obedience in using the sign? These are all modern theological questions regarding sacraments that would not have occurred to anyone in Abram’s day, but ultimately it is all a matter of God making seemingly absurd promises like 17:7: “And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant to be God to you and to your offspring after you.” The signs themselves are not what is important, they are only tools in the hands of God. It is the promise of God that is important. It is the promise of God that is powerful. God promised to be the God of Abram’s offspring whether they wanted Him to be or not.

We must ask: if the sign was such an important part of the Covenant, why did God wait so long after making the Covenant to give the sign? There is an important reason why the sign of circumcision was ultimately inadequate for God’s purposes: it ignored the importance of women to the Covenant. It is evident that in waiting so long He had deliberately loosened the connection between the sign and the Covenant. It hinted that the sign might not be absolutely indispensable to the Covenant. It hinted that people might be able to belong to the Covenant without the sign, like Abram had, and like all women did. It hinted that the sign itself might someday be modified to another sign (as I think it has), another sign that would display the central importance of women to God’s purposes.

But I think the sign of circumcision only seems to marginalize women. It’s purpose was revelatory, to point to specific concepts that needed to be clear. First it pointed to a Covenant whose foundation was faith counted as righteousness. Were women marginalized from this meaning? Granted that women do not bear the mark that carries this meaning, does this then mean that their faith will not be counted as righteousness? Or does it mean that they don’t need righteousness counted to them? Or does it mean that women cannot be counted as righteous? Certainly the New Testament answers “no” to each of those absurd questions. Second, circumcision was a seal of God’s pledge to remove a part of our nature, to circumcise our hearts, to sanctify us. Granted that women do not carry the mark that bears this meaning, does this then mean that God does not promise to remove part of their nature? Does this mean that women do not or cannot be circumcised in their hearts? Does this mean that women are not sanctified, or that they don’t need sanctification? The New Testament again answers “no” to each of these absurd questions.

The sign is not important. It is the meaning of the sign that is important.  It is the reality that the sign points to that is important. Particularly after the long passage of time before the sign was given. Particularly when the sign was changed as soon as its meaning was accomplished. For the purpose of making a clear revelation, God chose a sign that was not borne by women, but the meaning of the sign was given to the whole world, Jew and Gentile, circumcised and uncircumcised, male and female. To carry a sign is no great privilege to those who despise its meaning; they only condemn themselves in their own flesh. To be without a sign is no great deprivation to those who honor its meaning; they only show that the truth of the sign is revealed in their hearts. It seems to me that even today those who marginalize the role of women in the church are making the sign more important than its meaning.


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