The Covenant of the Circumcision
Before now God has made no demands on Abraham in return for His Promise. A fundamental change is to take place in this one-sided obligation. As a sign of the completion of the Covenant, God gives Abraham and his wife new names. The descendants of Abraham will bear the Mark of the Covenant on their flesh. Now Abraham and his progeny will be partners in the obligation of covenant.
From the onset of verse one we learn that Abram is now 99 years old. It has been 13 years since Hagar gave birth to Ishmael. I have to stop and think how often we expect instant response to our prayers. God once again appears to Abram and announces, "I am El Shaddai. Walk in My Ways and be blameless. I will establish My Covenant between Me and you and I will make you exceedingly numerous."
In modern Christian culture we have been told that El Shaddai translates to God Almighty. This is probably the most frequent translation, but scholars actually do not know what this phrase means. Some feel that Shaddai comes from the Akkadian phrase for "Mountain" or from the root "To send rain." The famous Rebbe Rashi explained that the name means "I Am He Whose Divinity is sufficient to all creation."
God asks of Abram to Walk in His Ways and be blameless. He used the same phrase with Noah.
Abram prostrates himself on the ground as is the custom in front of kings.
Once again God promises Abram that he will be the father of nations and he will be exceedingly fertile. He seals the covenant by giving Abram a new name. He will know be known as Abraham. Abram may have been a contraction of Abi-ram which means my father is exulted. The additional syllable Ha adds a part of God’s name to his.
Not only does God once again state that Abraham will be the father of a nation through his offspring, but God promises to him the land of Canaan in which he sojourns. He goes on to say that Abraham and his offspring shall bear a sign as a reminder of the Covenant. Abraham and every male offspring among his people will be circumcised. God states that this should be done on the eighth day after birth. This would not only include all of Abraham's family and progeny, but any slave whether they be home-born or purchased. If any man does not become circumcised they shall be cut off from their kin.
God also shares His covenant with Sarai and changes her name to Sarah. He blesses her and states that rulers will issue from her. (The name Sarah can be translated to "princess.")
We are told that Abraham threw himself on his face and laughed at the Almighty and said, "Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old and to a woman who is ninety? Oh that Ishmael might live by Your favor."
God replies to Abraham, "Never the less you will have a son and you will name him Isaac; and I will maintain My Covenant with him as an everlasting Covenant for his offspring to come."
"As for Ishmael," God states, "I have heeded you and I will bless him. He will be fertile and exceedingly numerous and will be the father of twelve chieftain. But My Covenant I will maintain through Isaac whom Sarah will bear to you next season."
When God was done speaking, He was gone.
Isaac or Yitzak is a Hebrew name that means to laugh. Be careful what you say in God's presence. Additionally the name Ishmael you may recall means God will heed.
Like his predecesor Noah, Abraham spares no time in following God's command. He walked in His ways and was blameless. Abraham went on to circumcise himself and his son Ishmael and the flesh of all the men of his household. The flesh of the home-born slaves and any that were purchased were circumcised as well.
Let me interrupt here. When I was a very young man I was trained and became certified as an operating room technician. In this capacity I passed surgeons their instruments and was able to do some surgical assisting. I was familiar with many of the procedures including adult circumcision. Infant circumcision is a much simpler procedure in the hospital. It is up to the doctor regarding anesthesia since the injection site may cause swelling. However topical anesthesia is the norm. As for adult circumcision, depending on the surgeon, it can be a procedure that can involve one to one and a half hours of actual surgery and can involve extensive cutting. Advances in surgical tools, since the 1970's have made adult circumcision a much easier process. something that was unknown to Abraham and his peers. Instead of razor sharp scalpels, the tool of choice for Abraham was a flint knife.
Jews have a wonderful and significant ceremony that can be held at their home or synagogue called a Brit Milah, the covenant of circumcision. For a healthy male child this is held on the eighth day from their birth and all the babies relatives attend. The rite is performed by a specially trained rabbi called a Mohel. This rite of passage confirms the infants special relationship in the community, but does not make him a Jew.
When Jews did not practice the rite of circumcision, they neglected God's Covenant. Perhaps they wilfully rejected God's Covenant and at times this seemed like a prelude to divine punishment.
During the Roman reign of Antiochus lV circumcision was prohibited by royal decree, although Jews practiced it even upon risk of death. One hundred years later, upper class Jews neglected this rite in order to assimilate into Roman society. During the reign of Hadrian not only was circumcision banned, so was reading of Torah. Once again observant Jews undertook the chance of death and kept the rite. Even during the Nazi reign of terror, circumcision was one way of determining the Jewishness of a male victim by their persecutors. However Jews continued to circumcise their male children in accordance with God's commandment. In Russia, during the communist era, the practice nearly disappeared. In the United States most males are routinely circumcised as a hygienic measure although this is not the same as Brit Milah.
Circumcision was not just practiced by the Jews. The prophet Jeremiah indicates that the Egyptians, Moabites and Ammonites all underwent circumcision. Among the nations bordering Israel only the Philistines did not practice it. In modern times it is also a Moslem practice.
Why was it so widespread? Ancient scholars sited the hygienic reasons and also stated that it reduced sexual activity to a manageable level. It also was due to popularity of fertility rites and in some instances it was an initiation to puberty or manhood prior to marriage. This holds true today with some African tribes.
In the Torah God gave woman no such sign.
Abram's name is changed to Abraham and Sarai to Sarah. We see name changes throughout the Bible. Jacob to Israel, Hoshea to Joshua, Mattaniah to Zedekiah, Simon to Peter, Levi to Matthew, Saul to Paul. In each instance the name change symbolizes a change in personality or status of the bearer.
Kings and Popes take on new names to reflect their new status. In marriage the wife may take on the husband's surname to reflect her married status. The same with adoptions. Names may say something about a civilizations culture. For instance Ibn Ezra or Ibn Chayim (Ibn is Arabic for son) expressed the joining together of Israeli and Arabic cultures. Names given not only in Puritan times, but to Amish, Jewish and even Christian peoples expressed commitment to religious tradition in using names from the Bible. Jesus, Mary, Joseph even Angel and Archangel are common Hispanic names.
At the Brit Milah, the child is officially named. It may be the name of a deceased relative. One way of providing tribute to someone that has passed is to use the initials of their name. To honor a name is not only to be true to one's self but also to that tradition for which the name stands.