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Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16

*Warning, this article addresses circumcision and FGM.  Though I will not get graphic, some readers may have experiences which will make the content of this commentary uncomfortable, or may find it triggering due to past traumas.  Please read and share with care.*

The revised common lectionary, which A Plain Account follows, is a wonderful tool for developing a habit of daily scripture reading.  But it's not a perfect tool.  The RCL has a bad habit of selectively cutting passages in such a way that difficult questions are often left unasked.  In it, storylines and characters of the bible are frequently portrayed in uncomplicated ways that sand off the rough edges.  This is not entirely intentional, the purpose of the lectionary is to foster a broad knowledge of scripture, not a deep knowledge of it.  It’s a field survey, not an excavation. 

One of the great things about following the lectionary through a resource like A Plain Account is that the authors here will frequently help to fill in gaps, and foster a deeper reading; and that’s what I’ll be attempting to do here; because the OT reading today is from a story in Genesis often called ‘the Covenant of Circumcision’, but the RCL (kind of confusingly), cuts out the actual covenant of circumcision from the center of the text.

If you are a man and live in certain parts of the world, or were born during particular points of medical history, circumcision may have always been just a commonplace, uncomplicated part of life for you.  For others, it likely seems like a very strange, antiquated, and unnecessary practice.  Still for others who come from cultures which practice or recently practiced FGM; circumcision might seem commonplace, but by no means uncomplicated (and let me just reaffirm, on the off chance someone who doesn’t know this already is reading; FGM is in no way, shape, or form permitted or required by either the Old or New Testaments.  Biblical circumcision refers exclusively to the removal of the foreskin from male genitalia.  Furthermore, FGM serves no medical purpose, and treating FGM like a sensitive cultural issue that should be ignored or permitted for the sake of multiculturalism puts countless young women in serious physical danger each year).

Regardless of your cultural background, you may nevertheless find it odd that, of all the requirements God could extract from Abraham in exchange for His divine favor, circumcision was His big ask.  The RCL skips over the bit on circumcision, and focuses instead on the miraculous promise of a child through Sarah.  Then it cuts off the conversation before Abraham can respond.  So ask yourself, why is God’s covenant hinged on circumcision now (realize, this is not the first time God promised these things to Abraham, but it is the first time He brings up circumcision); and why is God being so explicit about the promise coming through Sarah?  Now, if you haven’t already, go back and read the chapter in its entirety; better yet, read chapters 15-17.  It’s not a long section; only about a page and a half.

Ah, do you see?  Do you see what transpired since the last time God promised Abraham progeny and territory?  Abram and Sarai sexually exploit a slave girl, Hagar, in order to generate an heir rather than trusting God; and as a result, Sarai becomes jealous, and physically and emotionally abuses Hagar with Abram’s blessing to do so.  They treated a human being with none of the dignity that one who bears the image of God deserves; they treated a young woman of their house who depended on them for food, clothing, and safety, who likely had only them to look up to as parental figures, as though she were nothing but a disembodied womb to be used and then tossed.

So God returns; and He makes the same promise, but this time with greater specificity so as not to be misunderstood again.  But unlike the previous instance where God asked nothing of Abram but his faithfulness, this time God requires something from Abraham and all the men of his household; of whom He is careful to include the servants and enslaved persons so as to emphasize their inherent worthiness as full members of the house; a lesson Abraham and Sarah clearly needed to learn.  Abraham’s failure was a failure chiefly of dehumanizing sexual exploitation against a young woman, so God’s requirement of Abraham and all of his male descendants after him was that they carry in the flesh of their own body a mark that stands as a reminder that their reproductive capacity is a gift from God which must never be abused or used as a tool to abuse others.

At the same time as God is promising that the child of the covenant would be a product of His own direct intervention in the reproductive abilities of Abraham and his wife, He is also instituting a perpetual reminder to the descendants of that child that their very existence is owed to their ancestor’s faith in Him.  Abraham, for what it’s worth, loved Ishmael in spite of the evil he committed against Hagar to produce him; and pleads with YHWH to choose the son he already has instead.  But for the sake of the covenant, the child YHWH will choose, especially after Abraham and Sarah’s failure, must be the unquestionable product of His divine faithfulness.  Ishmael is unable to inherit the promise, not because of anything he had done, not because he was unworthy, not because of who he was born to, but because of whose will he had been born by.  And so as to demonstrate Ishmael’s inherent worthiness in spite of his inability to inherit the promise, YHWH grants Ishmael a promise of his own, a beautiful future of security and prominence, with progeny and land of his own.  A future which would raise him and his mother far above the circumstances of his birth and demonstrate YHWH’s love for them.

Ishmael too is circumcised into the covenant of Abraham, though he is already 13 years old by that point.  And even after he is disinherited, and abandoned by the tribe of Abraham, when his father passed away, Ishmael came to the aid and comfort of his baby brother Isaac, and helped him with the funerary rights for their father.  They parted amicably, and never once are recorded as striving in conflict with one another. 

I point this out only because, at the time of writing this, there is a war in Gaza, though it’s currently under a brief pause; and I have heard it frequently said by westerners who don’t know the history of the region that this is an ancient conflict spanning back to Ishmael picking on his little brother, Isaac.  But friends, this conflict is not nearly that ancient, nor is it in any way apparent from the biblical texts that there was any sort of great hostility between the two brothers.  Suggesting otherwise contributes to a deterministic, almost nihilistic, attitude towards these conflicts as though they are inevitable and irresolvable.  The history of these conflicts is complicated, and it is closing in on being a century old; it will take incredibly hard work, and major sacrifices for the hostilities to find a permanent solution, but let’s not make the problem out to be any bigger than it already is.

Getting back on point though, for Christians the covenant of circumcision has been superseded by the covenant of baptism.  If you read the rest of the lectionary, the passage from Romans will speak to how, even while the covenant of circumcision still operated as a mark of being a child of Abraham, it was in fact the faith that accompanied that mark which made one a child of the promise.  Abraham’s faith in God which led to the gift of Isaac does not erase his past failures or the consequences they produced, but it did set a precedent for God’s people going forward that real faith leads to obedience.  And more than that, God’s abundant and loving blessing toward Hagar and Ishmael show that even when His own people fail and cause harm to others, His love does not fail, and His eyes see the affliction of the hurting. 

This is the second Sunday of Lent; a time for reflection, self-denial, and self-sacrifice.  It’s a good reminder that our reliance is ultimately on the God who has raised us from the grave.  If circumcision taught Abraham and his descendants that their lives and reproductivity were gifts from God that should never be abused or used to abuse others, then our baptism ought to teach us that our new life is also a gift from God; that our freedom, our joy, our very being is a direct result of His intervention against the powers of sin and death.  Therefore, brothers and sisters, may this new life we live be forever devoted to the One in whom we live; may it never be used again in service of the abuse of others, or of the powers that entrap them.  Instead, may our new lives be used in service of the One who will break every chain, the Victor over the grave, the Living One Who Sees the affliction of the afflicted, and the One who will restore justice to the victims of our unjust world.  Our Baptism only makes us children of the resurrection, daughters and sons of our Father, so long as it is accompanied by faith leading to obedience, and born of love.  Be at peace.