Friday of Week 12 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 17:1, 9-10, 15-22

Today’s reading opens with God reminding Abram of their covenant agreement:

Walk in my presence and be blameless.

It is a call for Abram to maintain his faith and trust in God’s promises – yet to be fulfilled. We have here another covenant narrative. The same covenant promises are confirmed which we saw in Wednesday’s reading, but this time it not only lays down religious and moral obligations but also imposes circumcision as the badge of recognition for God’s people.

In intervening verses (not included in our reading) God has also formally announced that Abram’s name has been changed to Abraham (v5), because it sounds like ab hamon, ‘father of a multitude’. For the ancients, a name did not merely indicate, rather it made a thing what it was, and a change of name meant a change of destiny. Abraham is soon to be the father he long wanted to be.

Abram and Abraham, it seems, are in fact just two dialectal forms of the same name whose meaning is ‘he is great by reason of his father, he is of noble descent’. In this context, however, Abraham is interpreted on the strength of its similarity with ab hamon, ‘father of a multitude’.

God now speaks to Abraham and tells him both he and his descendants are to observe this covenant down the ages. And, from now on, as a sign of the covenant, every male is to be circumcised.

The Jerusalem Bible comments:

“Circumcision was originally a rite initiatory to marriage and to the life of the clan. Here it becomes a sign which, like the rainbow after the Flood, is to remind God of his Covenant and humans of the obligations deriving from their belonging to the Chosen People. Nevertheless, the legislative texts allude to this injunction only on two occasions (Exod 12:44; Lev 12:3). It is only at the Exile and after that it receives its full prominence, (see 1 Macch 1:63; 2 Macch 6:10). Paul explains it as the “seal of the righteousness of faith” (Rom 4:11). On the ‘circumcision of the heart’ (see Jer 4:4).”

The origin of the custom of circumcision is likely to have been hygienic but, as in several of Israel’s customs, it is given a divine sanction and a ritualistic significance which guarantees its observance. It then becomes a distinctive badge of the race. It was to be administered eight days after birth, and was to be performed on every member of the household and even on outsiders and non-Jews bought (as slaves) and brought into the household. To be uncircumcised was to be seen in violation of the covenant:

Where the foreskin has not been cut away, that man will be cut away from the community. He has broken my covenant.
(Gen 17:14)

Ironically, it has also become the badge of the followers of Islam, who borrowed it from their future nemesis, and who, in some places, have extended it to women as well.

Returning to our reading, God next formally announces to Abraham that his wife Sarai is henceforth to be known as Sarah. The two words are actually forms of the same name, meaning ‘princess’. Sarah is to be – a long way in the future, to be sure – the mother of kings. And God says he is going to bless her and give Abraham a son by her. The son will also be blessed and will have many descendants and “rulers of peoples shall issue from him”.

Abraham’s response is to prostrate himself in deep reverence before God but at the same time he laughs.

Can a child be born to a man who is 100 years old? Or can Sarah give birth at 90?

Abraham’s laughter is a sign not so much of unbelief, as of surprise at the extraordinary announcement.

Abraham’s laugh will be echoed later by Sarah, who laughed when she found her periods had stopped, a sign of her pregnancy – something she finds incredible at her age. She will laugh again after the birth with a feeling of vindication. Each is a play on the name Isaac, an abbreviation of the name Yshq-El which means “May God smile, be kind” or “God has smiled, been kind”.

Abraham also begs God that Ishmael, soon to be displaced as the true son, continue to be favoured. Mentioning Ishmael, up to now the heir-apparent to the Promise, is an implicit request for reassurance.

God again announces that Sarah will have a son and that he is to be called Isaac. The covenant made with Abraham will now continue with Isaac as an everlasting pact with his descendants forever.

Abraham’s appeal for Ishmael is also heard. He will be blessed and be fertile and have many descendants. He will be the father of twelve chieftains and they will become a great nation, but they will be outside the covenant. The covenant, originally made with Abraham, will now pass to Isaac, who will be born within the coming year.

And our reading concludes with God leaving Abraham to his future. That very day Abraham, his son Ishmael and all the males in his household are then circumcised according to the Lord’s command (this last is not included in today’s reading).

The issue of circumcision will become very contentious in the apostolic Church where Jewish Christians wished to have the custom continued. However, it will be seen as an excessive burden on Gentile converts, and is soon dropped as a requirement. Later, Paul will emphasise that true circumcision is in the heart and not in an external operation.

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