Gen 17: My Covenant in your Flesh

We have in verse one the first reference to Abraham’s age; we do not know how old he was when he left Haran to go to Canaan, but here he is old. However virile Abraham was at his age, and however well preserved Sarah was in chapter 20 so as to excite desire (historical sequence of events are not critical here; the structure is what is important), it is clear that they were well beyond natural ability to procreate. This fact is critical, setting the context for the great sign of the covenant, circumcision.

Everything centers on the phallus; the “covenant is in your flesh an everlasting covenant” (v. 13). What this does is theologizes the male member. True, other peoples circumcised their males for various reasons at various ages, but in Israel, circumcision is directly linked to covenant, to relationships both divine and human. Here in the structure of the Abrahamic covenant where the promise of land is established in chapters 12 and 15, the covenant now turns to the second great promise of the covenant, that of seed. The phallus is that through which the seed passes. Foreskin symbolizes alienation from God, moral dissolution, spiritual lostness and purposelessness ─ in short, everything which even a son of Abram is by nature, fallen from original glory. Therefore, the foreskin must be removed on the eight day, or the boy is to be “cut off” from the community.

As a symbol, circumcision is very rich with multiple meanings, a meditation on what it means to be a son of the covenant. A man has to think twice about how he uses his member; it is not his own to do with whatever he pleases. Circumcision not only links him to God, but is the bond with his wife; she becomes a daughter of the covenant through her father and later through her husband. Covenant with God necessitates sacred covenantal bond with one’s wife. The phallus is the most intimate place on a man; covenant with God and wife is intimate. Intimacy therefore becomes the very center of covenant, a revelation of the very heart of God. This explains the rather strange imagery of having a “circumcised heart” (Dt. 10:16, 30:6). Thus the physical and the spiritual come together by this covenantal symbol and sign. The covenant is “in the flesh” thus spiritualizing the flesh.

Every Hebrew entered into covenant apart from personal choice; he was born into this grace. However, he was to grow into this grace by choice and become what he was born to be. There is no hint of modern individualism and existentialism here. Born alone and alienated, he was quickly brought into community and salvation through the objective act of the knife. It is an irremovable mark. True, there is always the danger of merely being circumcised outwardly and not inwardly, but this did not necessitate in their minds the rejecting of ritual and retreating into their spiritual interiors! No! The objective and the subjective must work together or nothing works at all.

Moreover, circumcision is in the context of the creation promise of filling the world (13:16, 15:5). Therefore, the sign of the covenant is eschatological. The world is to be filled with the circumcised. The pagan world around them worshiped the phallus; it becomes magical on one hand, or profane on the other, or both. Again, everything centers on the phallus; it becomes a weapon of lust among the pagans, or a means of intimacy and relationship among the new covenantal people of God. In the context of Genesis 3:15 and the promise of the woman’s seed crushing the head of the serpent’s seed, circumcision becomes the eschatological sign fulfilled ultimately in Christ, the only true Israelite, the only truly circumcised.

We now see the link between circumcision and spirituality. The whole chapter is prefaced by El Shaddai’s command to Abram to “walk before Him and be perfect” (v. 1). Circumcision is a symbol of wholeness; done to the part, it symbolizes the whole. The word for “walk” is the very same word used in the garden when God would “walk” in the evening (3:8). Once circumcised, Abram supernaturally impregnated his aged wife. Circumcision is the physical symbol of the supernatural life lived in the Promised Land, a return to the Garden in Eden.

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