By Pamela Lewis
A Reading from Genesis 17:1-12a, 15-16
1 When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. 2And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.” 3Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, 4”As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. 5No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. 6I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. 7I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. 8And I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now an alien, all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding; and I will be their God.”
9 God said to Abraham, “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. 10This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. 12aThroughout your generations every male among you shall be circumcised when he is eight days old.”
15 God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. 16I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.”
The covenant story of Abraham is rooted in the covenant account about Noah, and both stories share similar characteristics. After the Flood, God initiates a covenant with Noah and shows his favor to humankind by promising to never again destroy it with a flood. God favors Abram by promising to multiply his seed to such degree that he will be the father of many nations, a reference to God’s earlier promise made in chapter 15, verse 5, to make his seed as numerous as the stars in the heavens. God expands his covenant further by promising to give Abram and his descendants the land of Canaan, in which he has been a foreigner. These are the benefits Abram will receive for being fully conscious of God (“walking before” God) and for having a proper (“blameless”) relationship with him.
At first blush, the circumcision of every male child who is eight days old seems barbaric. But this is God’s covenant, not man’s. This token, inscribed in the flesh of the organ that procreates, attests to the depth of God’s covenant with his people. Circumcision binds God to his people, while also signifying that they are distinct and set apart for a particular destiny.
The ending verses of this story underscore that God makes spectacular promises, even if they appear impossible or laughable, and that he also makes extraordinary demands. He changes Abram’s name to Abraham, and instructs Abraham to change Sarai’s name to Sarah. They are old people given new names and new identities. Sarah will conceive a son and thereby have a role in creating the great nations prophesied by God. This extraordinary covenant will be fully realized through human flesh.
Pamela A. Lewis taught French for thirty years before retirement. A lifelong resident of Queens, N.Y., she attends Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue, and serves on various lay ministries. She writes for The Episcopal New Yorker, Episcopal Journal, and The Living Church.
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Daily Devotional Cycle of Prayer
Today we pray for:
Diocese of Gasabo (Rwanda) and the Rt. Rev. Onesphore Rwaje
Diocese of Gboko (Nigeria) and the Rt. Rev. Emmanuel Nyitsse
Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral