In this chapter, God makes yet another covenant, but this time a bunch of animals cut in half won’t satisfy the human side of the exchange. This time, God wants man-flesh. More specifically, God wants phallic man-flesh.
More promises of land
When Abram was 99 years old, God comes to visit Abram to tell him (again) that he will “multiply you exceedingly” (Gen. 17:2). This causes Abram to fall on his face (Gen. 17:3). Surely, he didn’t fall on his face (!!) in surprise since this is the third time God is telling him this (not counting the time God said it to Hagar since she may not have relayed the message).
Although if Abram has been falling on his face each time, God may be repeating himself just for the lolz.
The second shocker is that God will give to Abram’s descendants “all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession” (Gen. 17:8). Oops, that one didn’t quite work out!
The only new part of God’s side of the bargain is that he specifies that “kings shall come forth from you” (Gen. 17:6). I’m hoping he doesn’t mean this in the Athenian sense…
Some name changes
As part of this covenant, God changes some names. Abram becomes Abraham, and Sarai becomes Sarah.
I talked a little about the the power of naming in my post about Genesis 2. My study bible says that these new names are just cultural variants of the original names, so the names aren’t even really being changed. It’s more like God is just flexing his muscles, reminding Abraham and Sarah of his ownership of them.
All your foreskin are belong to us
Unlike the other covenants, this time humans have to give something back in return. That thing is their foreskin.
This covenant is binding on Abraham and all his (male) descendants – “You shall keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you throughout their generations” (Gen. 17:9). All males bound by Abraham’s agreement (though I use the term loosely, since he never actually gives his consent) must be circumcised when he is 8 days old.
For those who are already passed being 8 days old (such as Abraham, who is approaching his first century), God provides a convenient list of all the people Abraham should by snipping. “Both he that is born in your house and he that is bought with your money, shall be circumcised” (Gen. 17:13).
I feel I have to quickly point out that the reference to the people in Abraham’s household who have been “bought with your money” occurs four times in this chapter (Gen. 17:12, 13, 23, 27), and is never once does anyone say “hey, wait a minute. Slavery is bad, okay?” There is no covenant with God in which Abraham must free his slaves and his descendants may not own human beings. No, God’s only concern is that Abraham makes sure he gets all their foreskins lobbed off.
So what’s the punishment for those who escape having Abraham come at their crotches with a knife? “Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant” (Gen. 17:14). My understanding of the cultural milieu is that it was extremely tribal. Being cut off from one’s people would mean having no place or protection in the society and would, effectively, have been a death sentence. (Please correct me if I’m wrong – I’m really out of my depth with this.) How horrible that refusal to cut the group’s membership badge into the flesh of one’s infant son would earn such a terrible punishment for him!
Of Ishmael and Isaac
After telling Abraham repeatedly to make sure he cuts off bits of his, and his household’s, genitals, God tells him that his wife will bear him a son in a year. Abraham falls on his face again (Gen. 17:17), and this time he’s laughing too (this may be the very first confirmed incident of someone ROFLing). What’s so funny about this? Well, he’s nearly 100 years old and Sarah is 90.
Now, as someone in her twenties who recently went through a pregnancy, I can safely say that it’s no laughing matter. I can only imagine how much less so it would be were I 90 years old. And what 90-year-old wants to be up all night with a screaming baby, anyway? Bending over to change diapers, chasing after a toddler, stooping to pick up an infant… No, ROFLing is definitely not an appropriate response.
But all right, 90-year-old Sarah is going to have a son, and he must be named Isaac (once again, God is showing everyone who’s boss by naming people). Abraham, displaying a rare moment of decency, asks what will become of Ishmael if his first wife will be producing an heir. So God promises that Ishmael will be blessed and “fruitful.” He’ll be the father of twelve prices and be a great nation. “But I will establish my covenant with Isaac” (Gen. 17:21). Just so Ishmael doesn’t get any ideas.
Now that God’s done, Abraham gets Ishmael and all his male slaves and starts cutting.