This blog offers a meditation on the Common Lectionary daily reading along with a headline from world news:
Good News Translation (GNT)
15 Hagar bore Abram a son, and he named him Ishmael. 16 Abram was eighty-six years old at the time.
Circumcision, the Sign of the Covenant
17 When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, “I am the Almighty God. Obey me and always do what is right. 2 I will make my covenant with you and give you many descendants.” 3 Abram bowed down with his face touching the ground, and God said, 4 “I make this covenant with you: I promise that you will be the ancestor of many nations. 5 Your name will no longer be Abram, but Abraham,[a] because I am making you the ancestor of many nations. 6 I will give you many descendants, and some of them will be kings. You will have so many descendants that they will become nations.
7 “I will keep my promise to you and to your descendants in future generations as an everlasting covenant. I will be your God and the God of your descendants. 8 I will give to you and to your descendants this land in which you are now a foreigner. The whole land of Canaan will belong to your descendants forever, and I will be their God.”
9 God said to Abraham, “You also must agree to keep the covenant with me, both you and your descendants in future generations. 10 You and your descendants must all agree to circumcise every male among you. 11-12 From now on you must circumcise every baby boy when he is eight days old, including slaves born in your homes and slaves bought from foreigners. This will show that there is a covenant between you and me. 13 Each one must be circumcised, and this will be a physical sign to show that my covenant with you is everlasting. 14 Any male who has not been circumcised will no longer be considered one of my people, because he has not kept the covenant with me.”
The statement of Ishmael’s birth is immediately overtaken by a renewal of God’s promise to Abram, who becomes the great father ofg many nations although he only has one child, and that one by his slave girl. The promise to Abraham includes:
1. Many descendants
2. The possession of the land
3. The Lord’s favour.
In return the males born to this tribe must be circumcised. God insists that this mark on the “organ of generation” will be a sign of His ownership of the people and their offspring. No doubt like other Semitic tribes Abraham’s people already had this custom; here its receives a new meaning, that life, in the form of human fertility, is the gift of God. Of course it follows that circumcision is the mark of “belonging to Israel” and entry into the covenant of Abraham. As this episode stands, there is nothing to suggest that Ishmael will be outside this covenant.
St. Paul rejects physical circumcision as part of the old religious Law, appropriate to Israel; whereas he advocates a “circumcision of the heart”, a dedication of the whole person to Jesus Messiah, as its replacement for believers. This is part of Paul’s theology of God’s purpose; In Jesus Messiah God is extending the blessing of Abraham to the whole world, which as we have see in Genesis, was its purpose in the first place. I admire what Paul is doing, but his vehemence against the physical rite does not do justice to this public/ private mark which signifies an intimate belonging to God at the heart of human sexuality. Yes, it s one-sided, being only a male honour, yet it reckons with what Paul calls “the flesh” in a more positive way than he does. It’s only a short step from saying that a mark in the flesh is not important to saying that the flesh itself is not valuable, and Paul does at times, take that further step. Here in Genesis is a sane and lovely theology which values human sexuality and fertility as a gift of God and consecrates it to the purposes of God.
I’m not suggesting that Christianity should return to circumcision but rather that believers should return to the book of Genesis, to learn perspectives which are fruitful for our lives.