S1E15 Transcript

015 - Cutting the Flesh

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Season 1, Episode 15
Series: Journey Through the Old Testament
Length: 19:33


In Genesis chapter 17, God Institutes the ritual of male circumcision as a sign of the covenant between Abraham and his family and God. But why circumcision? Why that peculiar and rather awkward symbol at the heart of this relationship. Why just Abraham and why just men?  

We have to remember that we are dealing with an ancient patriarchal culture. And in a patriarchal culture, males were absolutely the head of the family. We can critique the patriarchy all that we want, but it simply was a fact of life in the ancient world. It is still predominantly a way of life in the Middle East even today. But in Abraham’s context, it is a patriarchal male-dominated culture, and God is dealing with the realities of his people in that moment in time. And as a part of a patriarchal society, males, the men, the adult males, were the ones who entered into binding relationships on behalf of the the extended family in the marketplace and business contracts. Those type of situations.  

The adult male in the family, especially the head of the family, the patriarch, the father of the family, was not only representing himself and his interests or his activities, but the whole family and the well-being of the whole family at the. Same time and so when the male or the father entered into an agreement into entered into some kind of a contract, a legal binding contract, it had implications for everybody in the family. The family was bound to that.  

Remember that the act of cutting of the flesh was a common symbolic sealing and public affirmation of a covenant agreement between these two parties. And circumcision as an active cutting of the flesh plays that same role here between Abraham and his family and God. But now this symbolic sealing that is demonstrated by physical cutting of flesh is transferred to the very body, the physical body of the male, of the head of the family and all males that come after that. And therefore by extension to the whole family.  

But why? Why the cutting of the male genitalia in particular? Why not some other part of the body? Why not a tattoo or a brand, or a piercing of the ear? Why circumcision of the male genitalia?  

The significance here in the context of the covenant is that this involves the means of sexual procreation and that’s very, very significant here. Because, remember, the covenant with Abraham that’s in play. The circumcision is the symbol of the sealing of the covenant, but the covenant itself is the promise that God is going to build, quite literally, a nation of people. Biological reproduction is obviously at the heart of that promise being fulfilled. And remember that it was Abraham and Sarah’s inability to reproduce as a couple that is the obstacle. That’s what makes this covenant so powerful.  

In the Ancient Near East, and especially in the religious systems of that ancient world, male virility was the dominant means for a man to demonstrate his power and his significance in the world in life. The more children you have, the more virile you are, the more powerful you are, the more significant you are. Now we see this even in Scripture itself. We think Psalm 127:3-5. Many of us, especially those of us that have large families, know this. And what does the psalm say? Children are a heritage from the Lord, and there’s a word in here: inheritance. You’re dealing with this idea of the significance of the family, the continuation of the family, this is meaningful. Then the line that follows: the fruit of the womb, the children are reward. The sense that somehow God is rewarding those who have the ability to produce many children.  

And then this great line — and as a father of five myself, I can greatly appreciate this—Psalm 127 equates having many children to a warrior, an archer who has many arrows and a quiver full of arrows. And in battle, an archer that is ready to go engage, who’s going to be effective, who’s going to be a powerful warrior, has many arrows that he can pull out and just begin to fire one after the other.  

And the psalm says a man with children, with many children is like that. Now, this sense that having many children is a blessing, it’s a demonstration of reward or divine favor or power — it’s not unique to the Bible, or even to the Jewish culture. We do find the same sentiment that is expressed in any number of ancient documents from back in Abraham’s time and even before in the Akkadian culture and the Egyptian culture. There’s one Egyptian artifact that, it records a father’s advice to his son that a man with many children is saluted respectfully with regard to his children.  

Part of this is that there is an obvious close connection between children and economic welfare in the ancient world. These texts would hold the view, they would proclaim the view that a man with many children would go on to acquire great wealth and having many children was a sign of great wealth. And part of that was because children provided their parents with security in later life. This there wasn’t, there wasn’t Social Security checks to fall back on, and there wasn’t Medicare and Medicaid. When you got old and you were feeble and you couldn’t take care of yourself, it was your children. And if you had many of them and they were prosperous, then you were going to have a good life in the sunset years.  

Children are also an important source of Labor. In the Ancient Near East, the economic backbone of society was agriculture and animal husbandry, so having lots of children around to be able to help out was key to prosperity. The more labor that you had, and therefore the more prosperous you could be, and you needed to be prosperous in order to take care of those children and their families and their children and the servants that would come along with these kind of large estates. The public acclaim and the demonstration of virility and the blessings and the reward because you could bear children on your own was a major factor in the ancient world. And it’s a big part of the reason that Abraham and Sarah being childless themselves was such an issue that even though he had wealth. There was still a pretty significant social defect.  

So, what’s going on here in the context of the covenant with procreation and circumcision? Well, in God’s promise, Abraham was going to become the patriarch, the father of many nations, and this was going to be true biologically, not just metaphorically. And recall that God had told Abraham in that earlier conversation not to adopt his servant Eliazar as his heir because God says to Abraham that his heir would be his own biological child, as unlikely as it seemed at the moment.  

The greater lesson in all of this here in Genesis 17 is that the means of bringing this promise to fulfillment would be under God’s control, not Abraham’s. That the greatness of Abraham’s future family and the reputation that would come with that — again, in an ancient world in which reputation was everything and the more children was a demonstration of your virility and your power — the greatness of Abraham’s future family would not be a demonstration of Abraham’s virility and power but of God’s power and God’s faithfulness.  

This also takes us back to Genesis 2 and the two trees in Eden. It’s a great time to go back and listen to the one of the earlier episodes in this series here about the trees. But this act, the act of biological procreation between a husband and wife. it’s tremendous creative power and authority. We bring new life into existence through that act. And God’s design in us and for us as that we can bring forth that life. Itself, we participate in the creation of new life by a voluntary and a pleasurable act that involves a companion who is a compliment to us rather than just a copy.  

The whole mechanism of human marriage that goes hand in hand with that is such a powerful lesson and explanation and demonstration of who God himself is. And it’s why human marriage and sexuality is the highest form of demonstrating the image of. God and creation. Now there’s a whole lot here we could say that that will have to happen in another episode. But let it just suffice to say for this conversation that in our capacity to engage in biological procreation, we have been given incredible freedom and power to multiply, to fill, and to have dominion. That’s the language right out of creation, right out of Genesis 1. We participate in that, in the bringing forth of new life. But under God’s rule. It must happen on his terms and within the bounds of his reign and direction, not our own.  

And that’s what’s in play here with circumcision in the context of the covenant. In the context of the ancient world’s thinking about reputation and family and status, and and significance, circumcision is a physical, symbolic reminder to Abraham and all that come later, the very heart of how God will work to redeem his world. How he’s going to bring about and sustain life in that process as he raises up a nation and the way that God is going to fulfill his promises will happen God’s way. Abraham and his family, all of his descendants, are to live under God’s authority. This is not about a demonstration of Abraham’s virility. Of our virility of our greatness, our scheming, our power.  

The lesson here is about who is God, what is God going to do? What does he like? And so male circumcision becomes the tangible symbol of that relationship with God, that covenant with God, at the very point of the question of where will Abraham’s descendants come from? God puts his mark right there. And it represents not only the man who bears that mark in his flesh, but his whole family. He’s tied his family into this covenant. It’s both individual and corporate. Because God’s Kingdom and creation and his method of redemption beginning with a family that he’s going to raise up from a childless couple is meant for both individual and corporate life.  

Now the order of events here in Genesis in this section of Genesis is quite instructive. And how how things happen and what order? OK, so we’ve been looking at Genesis 17 in in this episode, with the circumcision itself. But if we zoom out just a little bit, we observe that chapter 17 about circumcision is sandwiched in between chapter 16 that comes before it which is the story of Hagar and Ishmael, and Chapter 18 that follows, which is the prophecy of Sarah’s pregnancy. And this is quite powerful for me. I remember when I first kind of began to realize the sequence of events in the chapter. And the orders in which these things happened. And it’s quite an eye-opening thing you see.  

In Chapter 16, God’s already made the promise — going back to Genesis 12 — God’s already made the promise to Abraham, “Abraham, I’m going to give you a child” And Abraham says how is this going to work exactly, God, because we can’t have children. And God says, Abraham. I will do it. I’m going to make you a father. We get to 16 — and we’ve talked about Hagar and Ishmael already — but in Chapter 16, what do we see? Abraham is attempting to bring about God’s promise, but in his way in Abraham’s way. Abraham: he’s trusting that God’s promise is going to come true. But thinking, yeah, maybe God needs a little bit of help getting it done. I’ve got to go make it happen. So at the nudge from his wife Sarah, why don’t you go and have a child with Hagar? Perfectly legal, perfectly acceptable socially. But Abraham is attempting to bring about God’s promises through Abraham’s own efforts.  

OK, that’s that’s chapter 16. Here comes chapter 17. God putting kind of the finishing touches on the covenant and says, Abraham, I’m putting my mark of authority upon your reproductive organ that in the previous chapter you just had used in a way that I didn’t intend for you to do. And then here comes chapters 18. And in in the transition from the covenant going into the events of Chapter 18 comes this name change, right? Accompanied by …The act of circumcision is accompanied by these, the changing of names for both Sarah and Abram. The affirmation, yet again, Abraham’s already made one attempt to make the promise of the child come about. That is going to lead to great problems for millennia.  

Now God comes along with the covenant of Circumcision with Abraham. Once again the affirmation is, you are going to be the father. You’re not just an Exalted patriarch, you are going to be the biological father of many nations. And Sarah, your name is now being changed too, because this great nation will be a son of yours, Sarah, not just simply a son of Abraham’s, which you guys already tried. But it will be the barren one who will bear the one through whom redemption will come. It’s the family that matters. It’s Abraham and Sarah together, who matter not just simply Abraham’s genetics. And that’s where Abraham trusts. But it’s skewed. It’s immature, it’s incomplete. I’ve got to help God out.  

The bookend on the backside of this is chapter 18. Three divine visitors appear to Abraham and Sarah out in the wilderness and Abraham shares with them in the traditional Near Eastern meal of hospitality. And while they’re sitting there eating the meal, the Lord tells Abraham this time next year, Sarah will give birth to a son. And, Sarah, who overhears this, finds it so unbelievable and so implausible and unlikely that she burst out laughing. Could it be possible?  

And, the Lord knowing this, or maybe hearing the laugh, says to both Abraham and Sarah, “Why is it that you laugh? Is there anything that is too hard for God to do?” Therein lies the very question running through this great promise and the covenant that God had made with Abraham. Is there anything that is too hard for God to do in his mission to put his world back together and to remedy what had gone so radically wrong? Abraham had tried it, multiple times, multiple ways to preserve his own life, to protect himself in order to help ensure that he would be there for God to deliver him the family that he had promised. Abraham acts on his own to have a son, to have Ishmael.  

All that led to naught. Because this isn’t about Abraham’s virility and strength and greatness. But about who God is and what God is going to do. That he’s going to call the family and he’s going to begin with a childless couple. And through them, he’s going to work miracles, one after the other to demonstrate over and over and over again to his people, to his world who he is and how good and how faithful and how powerful he is to act on their behalf.