By Dr. Mark Scott
Cutting a Covenant
A covenant is “cut”—literally. In fact, the Greek word for circumcision actually means “cut around.” Choosing a rainbow as a sign (last week’s lesson) is one thing, but circumcision? It does seem like an odd sign for a covenant, but maybe it is more profound than first thought. There are several reasons for this.
One reason might be memory. When a Jewish male took care of “daily responsibilities” there was a reminder of his religious identity. Another reason might be sexual identity. Sex is not what a married couple has; it is who they are. Our sexual identity is fixed to our primal reality (in contrast to the sexual dysphoria of our current culture). There is also a sense in which the wife shares in her husband’s circumcision through sexual intimacy. Finally, there is inner identity—of the deepest kind. If the rainbow was a sign of a most public nature, then circumcision was a sign of the most private nature. It is very private (Genesis 3:7, 21). But that is also why Scripture speaks of circumcision of the heart (Deuteronomy 30:6; Romans 2:29), which shows why, at the end of the day, circumcision is really for everyone (Galatians 6:13; Philippians 3:3).
Making a Covenant
While Noah was featured in last week’s lesson, Abram is featured in this week’s lesson. Thirteen years had passed since Genesis 16 concluded. When Abram was called he was 75 (Genesis 12:4). When he fathered Ishmael he was 86 (16:16). The sign (circumcision) of the covenant was given when Abram was 99. Maybe since it had been a while since God appeared or had spoken with Abram, God identified himself (Lord Almighty, “El Shaddai”) and called Abram to walk faithfully and be blameless.
One thing is clear. God made the covenant. God informed Abram four times in this section that he (God) was establishing this agreement (17:2, 4, 7, and 8).
We learn three important things in this section about the covenant God made with Abram. First, this covenant is about numbers—lots of them. God had always intended for his people to be fruitful and multiply (Genesis 1:28; 8:17). God promised Abram that he (Abram) would greatly increase. Abram’s name change was also about numbers. Whereas Abram means “great nation,” Abraham means “father of many nations.” Nations and even kings would come from this covenant.
Second, this covenant is about eternity. Twice we read that this covenant is everlasting (17:7, 8). The Hebrew word can mean “forever” (time unending), but it can also mean “for a long time.” There is a sense that the Abrahamic covenant morphs into God’s universal and eternal covenant for everyone in Christ (Romans 4:9-12; Galatians 3:7-9). Finally, this covenant is about the land. It is identified in our text as the whole land of Canaan. Abraham was only a foreigner (sojourner) for the time being. But in the far off future Abraham’s descendants would occupy the land, so that the good news for the whole world could come out of Zion (Isaiah 40:9-11).
Keeping the Covenant
While God defined the terms of the covenant, he still called Abraham to obey the covenant. This had been predicted when God told Abram to walk before me faithfully and be blameless (meaning “without blemish” or “upright”). Now God called Abraham to keep the covenant. The command “to keep” the covenant was not restricted to Abraham. All of his descendants were to keep it as well.
The sign of obedience was circumcision. We learn three things about keeping that sign. First, the sign was to be performed for every male on the eighth day following birth. Second, this was inclusive of all males. Third, any male not circumcised would be cut off from God’s people. God was as serious about this bloodletting as he could be (Exodus 4:24-26). Ultimately covenants in the Bible have to do with blood.
Dr. Mark Scott teaches Preaching and New Testament at Ozark Christian College in Joplin, Missouri.
Based on International Sunday School Lesson, © 2013, by the Lesson Committee. Scripture quotations are from the New International Version ©2011, unless otherwise indicated.