Barbara J. Campbell, Pastor
God’s promise to Abram changes soon after Yishmael is born. Yahweh declares that the promise will become a covenant; an agreement between God and Abram and all of Abram’s descendants. God’s part of the sacred agreement begins with God’s initial promises, that Abram will be the ancestor of a multitude of nations, and the God will give to Abram and his offspring the land of Canaan.
When the promises become a covenant several things change. God promises, for the first time, to be their God. But is it: “To be their God. To be their God. or… To be their God.” God’s promise, up until this point, was with Abraham alone; the promise was part of a personal faith and relationship Abram had with the divine Creator. It is now expanded to include the whole community and eventually all who will follow after Abram. Perhaps the promise is also phrased in such a way to redefine how God would relate to Abram’s people (To be their God) and/or how the people would relate to Abram’s God (To be their God).
In making the promise a covenant, God also changes Abram’s name. Author Everett Fox writes that a person’s name in the biblical world related specifically to their personality and fate, so to receive a new name meant that their life was significantly different. We see this same practice even today when Roman Catholic nuns make their final vows, or when popes or kings are crowned. (Five Books of Moses, pg 70)
A bit later Sarai receives a new name also, when it becomes clear that her life is about to change dramatically as well. Both names are changed by the addition of the same Hebrew letter, a hei, a breathing sound and the letter that appears twice in God’s name, YHWH. Abram becomes Abraham and Sarai becomes Sarah. (Waskow, The Tent of Abraham, pg 9)
Finally, Abraham is told that he will now be expected to hold up his end of the bargain. A covenant was an agreement between two parties, both of whom had certain conditions to uphold. There are two parts to Abraham’s end of the bargain. Most importantly, Abraham and his descendants are to do what is right and just in the eyes of God, but this part doesn’t come up until a bit later. The first requirement Abraham is given is to bear the mark of this covenant in the flesh.
Now, the list of things God covenanted to do for Abraham was pretty fantastic: descendants, land, to be God for them, and to rename them into a new life. But we still might expect that Abraham’s response could have been something like , “You want me to cut what?”
Actually, ritual circumcision was and still is quite common. It has been part of the rites of puberty and marriage in many cultures throughout history. The Canaanites and Egyptians, like many other cultures, circumcised their boys at the onset of puberty as a rite that initiated them into manhood.
The revising of this ritual to take place 8 days after birth lessens it’s connection to sexuality and emphasizes instead a lifelong commitment to God’s covenant; a reminder of a life long mission to live in harmony with God’s will. Some think that marking this particular part of human flesh symbolizes the ultimate submission to God’s will rather than to human desires and urges.
Within Judaism the rite of ritual cleansing also developed which included both men and women, but this ritual was more about purification, than about being in covenant with God. When Christianity started in own branch on the tree, the ritual of cleansing transformed into a ritual of belonging called baptism; a covenantal ritual in which not only women, but also Greek and Roman believers could be included. We baptize, however, not as a symbol or reminder of how we are going to hold up our end of the covenant, but as a symbol of God’s love and acceptance of each new child into the household of God.
Yesterday, the Muslim world began Ramadan, their ritual of fasting during daylight hours for 30 days. As Friday’s Oregonian explained “Muslims believe that fasting teaches them self-restraint, reminds them of their own frailty and dependence of God and deepens their compassion for those who face hunger day in and day out.” Fasting is a mark of their faith; I’m not sure if it is part of a covenant or not.
The early Christian evangelists like Paul, began to experience the life and death of Jesus, as the coming of God’s Messiah and as the sealing of a new covenant with God. Many saw Jesus’ death as God’s way of initiating a new covenant in which faith was all that was required of humanity in order to receive God’s saving grace.
We tend to shy away from any covenantal aspects of our faith; and instead emphasize only the unconditional love and unmerited grace that we experience.
Do you think “grace alone, faith alone” (in the words of some of the Reformers) is enough in our relationship with God? What is our end of the bargain, if we still live in covenant with God?
After God calls for a marking of the flesh, God changes Sarai’s name to Sara, which means princess; adding to her name the mark of God’s creative breath; giving to her a new identity and a fresh start. And again God promises to bless her by giving Abraham a son through her so that she will also become nations and kings of people shall come from her!
Abraham has heard this promise before, though, and he is no longer able to even hope that this promise will be fulfilled. Abraham falls on his face laughing in utter disbelief that such hope should still exist; that he would still be hearing this promise from God.
How often do we fall on our faces laughing at the absurdity of God’s promises? Do we laugh when we hear that God promises blessings because our lives have felt so unblessed for so long? Do we often settle for less hope? Would we rather be satisfied with less than be continually disappointed at having to wait for more?
What do you think?
Abraham would be satisfied with a promise that Yishmael would simply live to adulthood and hopefully live within God’s covenant. But the Divine Voice of Hope will not be silenced in Abraham, promising still that Sara will bear a son. Even though Yishmael will be blessed as the father of twelve tribal leaders who will create a great nation, another child, Yitzhak/Isaac; the child whose name means laughter, will be the one with whom God’s covenant will be established. Was this a polemic added by the story tellers to validate Israel’s “chosen” status? Perhaps.
But after Sara receives her new identity and another promise of fertility, and Abraham is the first to be circumcised as a sign of his commitment, the next to bear the mark is Yishmael, Abraham’s firstborn, not Yitzhak/Isaac.
Yishmael just happens to be 13 years old at the time. We might wonder if Yishamel’s age hadn’t triggered some spiritual awakening in Abraham for a symbolic physical mark of commitment to the new covenant that he was experiencing with God. Yishmael is circumcised; committed to living a right and just life in the eyes of God, when the birth of Isaac was still only laughable to Abraham.
Finally, with an act that at least symbolized full inclusion since women were still not covered, Abraham’s entire household is brought into the covenant through circumcision. The literal translation from Hebrew of “house born or money bought” includes those born within the household to family members or servants and those who were purchased as servants from outsiders.
There is not a soul who is part of the household of God who cannot be included in the agreement God makes with us to give us a future and new identity in God’s forgiveness, and to be our God. There is not a single soul who cannot bear the covenant; who cannot with their bodies, minds, and spirits strive to live lives that are right and just in God’s eyes.