Why Circumcision?

Genesis 17 is a strange chapter. Today we’re going to look at two main questions:


1) If God made a covenant with Abram in Genesis 15, why does he make a covenant again in Genesis 17?


2) Why establish circumcision as the sign of this covenant?


In order to answer these questions, we have to understand the story of Abram up until this point. So as I recount the story, I want you to focus on two aspects: the increasing specificity of God’s promise, and the increasing maturity and growing faith of Abram.

Increasing Specificity and Increasing Maturity

When we meet Abram in Genesis 11, he is living with his father Terah, his nephew Lot, in the land of Haran. He’s about 75 years old and he has no children because his wife Sarai is barren. After the death of his father, God calls Abram to leave his country and his kindred, and God makes some very great promises to Abram. However, the initial promise is broad and contains a lot of unknowns. 1) Go to the land I will show you (but which land and how big it is must wait) 2) I will make you great so that you will be a blessing (no mention of children); 3) I will protect you for the sake of all the families of the world. Abram listens and follows the Lord, and he becomes a priest, establishing worship in the land that God shows him. He claims the land through worship, building altars where people can call upon the name of the Lord.


Genesis 13 emphasizes on the land. Abram and Lot separate because the land can’t support them both. God gives greater specificity about the land; he takes Abram on a walking tour of Canaan and shows him the region north, south, east, and west. More importantly, we get the first mention of offspring (13:15-16). The land will belong to Abram’s offspring, and they will be as numerous as the dust of the earth. And Abram continues his priestly work, building altars and offering God simple, basic worship and obedience.


In Genesis 14, we see Abram’s increasing maturity and prominence as he rescues Lot from a confederation of great kings in the midst of a great war. He defeats kings in battle. He rejects payment from a wicked king. And he pays tribute to a godly king. In other words, Abram distinguishes between good and evil, which is the definition of royal wisdom. Abram is not just a priest, but a king, and he rules in wisdom and exercises dominion over God’s land.


In Genesis 15, we see Abram as a prophet. He’s lived in the land for about 3 years (I read one commentator who suggested that the reason the animals that Abram sacrificed in Genesis 15 needed to be three years old is that they were an offering of the firstfruits of the land that God promised to Abram and his descendants). So he’s 78 years old, and God appears to him in a vision, encouraging him in his faith, and addressing the problems with the promise. God promised offspring; there were no offspring. And so God gives Abram more specificity about the promise: “one from your loins, Abram, will be your heir, not your servant Eliezer. And your descendants will be as countless as the stars.” (Gen. 15:4)


And then we get the strange ritual that I argued is about the land: the divided animals represent the weak, divided, war-torn land, and the flaming torch and smoking firepot represents the presence of God, binding Abram to the land. This is an anticipation of the exodus, and in fact, God gives the prophet Abram greater specific detail about what is to come. “Know for certain that your offspring will sojourn in a foreign land, be afflicted for 400 years. God will judge the oppressive nation, and Abram’s children will come out with great wealth, and then come back to the promised land.” What’s more, God gives greater definition to the promised land—it stretches from the Nile to the Euphrates, and includes all the territories of these peoples.


And finally, God’s promise becomes a covenant. A covenant is a formal relationship; it has order and structure. It involves promises and oaths, blessings and curses. It’s as though God is putting his promise in writing. However, at this point, the accent of the covenant is on God’s initiation and promise, and Abram’s simple response of faith. God’s word carries the force of reality with Abram. He has the assurance of things hoped for, and he’s embraced the evidence of the future, unseen things.


In Genesis 16, priest, king, and prophet Abram is now 85 years old. It’s been seven years since God promised that one from his loins will be his heir. No doubt he and his wife have been trying to conceive a son. But they don’t. And so, Sarah finally gets tired of waiting, and Abram and Sarah take matters into their own hands. As Pastor Jonathan pointed out last week, there are many echoes of Genesis 3 in this passage. Like Adam and Eve, this is Abram and Sarah’s fall:


          1)    In Genesis 3, God gave the command to Adam, who then instructed his wife Eve. In Genesis 15-16, God made the promise to Abram, who then passed it on his wife Sarah.

2)    In Genesis 3, Eve believes that God is withholding something good from them (being like God, knowing good and evil). In Genesis 16, Sarah believes that the Lord is withholding something from her, preventing her from having children.

3)    In Genesis 3, Eve gives the forbidden fruit to Adam. In Genesis 16, Sarah gives her servant to Abram. In both cases, the couple believes that taking the fruit/Hagar will lead to blessing, honor, and glory.

4)    In both passages, seizing what’s forbidden leads to shame and blame. Hagar looks with contempt upon her barren mistress, just as Adam and Eve knew their nakedness and were ashamed. And then Sarah blames Abram for all of it, just as Adam and Eve blamed others for their sin.


Now at this point, we get a variation on Genesis 3. In Genesis 3, God drives Adam and Eve out of the garden. In Genesis 16, it’s not Abram and Sarah who are driven out; instead Sarah, with Abram’s permission, drives out Hagar, who flees pregnant, into the wilderness.


Let me insert a little word about Hagar here. In this story, Hagar is not the temptress. She doesn’t tempt Abram to fall. Sarah does. Hagar is the fruit. She’s an Egyptian servant, a slave. She’s the pawn in this situation, used by Abram and Sarah, and then discarded. She’s not completely innocent; she does show contempt for her mistress. She is both sinned against and sinning. And there are people in here who know what that’s like. You’ve been used by the “important” people. You’ve served their needs, and then been rejected once they’re done with you. You’ve been sinned against, and in response, you’ve sinned back. And you might feel dirty and used and worthless and you might just want to run away. And I want to encourage you with the story of Hagar.


You may have been used by people, but you have not been forgotten by God. God meets Hagar in the wilderness. He promises to multiply her offspring so that they too are numberless. He urges her to be faithful in the hard situation, returning and submitting to her mistress. Listen to God’s words to her: “Behold you are pregnant and shall bear a son. You shall call his name Ishmael.” What does that remind you of? It’s the way God speaks to Mary in Luke 1:31. “You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.” The name Ishmael means “God hears.” And Hagar calls God “The God who sees” because she met the one who was looking after her. If you’ve been used and broken today, sinned against and sinning, you need to know God hears. God sees. God looks after you. So be faithful where you are, for God is with you.

Genesis 17

All of that brings us to Genesis 17. Abram is now 99 years old. It’s thirteen years after Abram and Sarah do their Ishmael Plan. And there’s no indication that anything is wrong. Ishmael was born and has grown up. No doubt, all of Abram’s hopes for the future are bound up with his son. No doubt there are still tensions and bitterness between Hagar and Sarah. But there have now been thirteen years of thinking that the promises are coming true because of what Abram and Sarah and Hagar did. And then God shows up to talk about the covenant.


Now I’m not sure whether we should call this a renewal of the covenant or simply a deepening of the covenant, so I just want to focus on the greater specificity and detail that God provides here, and then show you the new element in the covenant. First, it’s interesting that God says, “Walk before me and be blameless,” and Abram immediately falls down in worship. “Walk.” Fall. And the lesson I take is that walking before the Lord begins with worship. Second, we get more specifics about what exactly God is promising to Abram. And whereas Genesis 15 focused heavily on the land, this promise focuses heavily on the offspring.


          1)    God is going to multiply nations from Abram, so much so that he needs a name change (17:4-5).

2)    Not only nations, but kings will come from Abraham (17:6).

3)    The covenant will be everlasting (17:7) Now the word “everlasting” or “forever” in Hebrew doesn’t necessarily mean eternal or without end. Sometimes it means open-ended or, without reservation.

4)    God promises his perpetual presence with his people (17:7-8). He will be God to his people.

5)    The land of Canaan will be their everlasting possession (17:8)


So multiple nations, kings, everlasting covenant, perpetual presence, and an everlasting possession. Genesis 17 deepens and fills out and gives greater detail about God’s commitment in this covenant. But more than that, it brings something new to the foreground: it highlights Abram’s obligations in the covenant. Perhaps we can think of it this way. In Genesis 12, God makes Abram an offer: “Go, and I’ll bless you.” Abram takes the offer. In Genesis 15, after Abram has grown and matured, God lets him in on the plan and initiates the covenant: “Know for certain about the future.” And in response Abram believes. Simple faith in what God will do.


Now, God is formalizing this covenant relationship. God makes promises and has obligations. And now Abraham does too. Abraham and his descendants must “keep” the covenant (17:9-10). And at this point, what it means to keep the covenant is simply to take the covenant sign. For Abraham and his descendants, “signing on the dotted line” takes the form of circumcision, a bloody cutting off of the foreskin. Anyone who won’t cut off the foreskin breaks the covenant and will be cut off from the people (17:14).


This is a strange sign. The bloody cutting of part of the body is the sign of God’s covenant? Why? What does it mean? In order to answer that, we need to understand the rest of Genesis 17. There is still more newness and detail. In the second half of the chapter, we discover something else about the promise of Abraham’s offspring. Not only did God not forget Hagar, he didn’t forget Sarah either.


Remember: in Genesis 15, God had said that one from Abram’s loins would be his heir. God didn’t say anything about Sarah. That’s probably why, after seven years of trying to conceive, Sarah concludes that God is done with her, and so God must intend to fulfill the promise some other way, and thus the Hagar Plan, the Ishmael Plan, is born. And for thirteen years, it looks like Sarah was right. The Ishmael Plan was the right plan. Now we find out that God hadn’t forgotten Sarah. Sarah will conceive and have a son, and it is this son, not Ishmael, that will be the heir of the everlasting covenant that God is establishing. It’s from Sarah that the nations and kings will come. Sarah’s loins will be as exceedingly fruitful as Abraham’s.


Abraham is, of course, incredulous. He can’t believe it. He falls on his face again, this time with laughter. To himself he says, “Shall a child be born when I’m 100 and she’s 90? Ha!” And to God he says, “Oh that Ishmael may live before you.” “Use the Ishmael Plan, God. It’s a good plan. It’s been hard and awkward and tense. It’s cost us a lot, but it’s worked these thirteen years. Let’s stick with the Ishmael Plan.” And God simply says “No.” Sarah matters here. And so does Hagar. And so does Ishmael. God doesn’t reject Ishmael. He made a promise to Hagar, and he echoes it (with more detail) to Abraham. In fact, Ishmael will essentially be the first Israel—a great nation with 12 princes (anticipating the 12 sons of Jacob who father the 12 tribes of Israel). But he won’t be the heir of the covenant. Isaac (whose name means “laughter”), the child of Abraham and Sarah, will be the heir.


Now at this point, I’d love to talk about the way that God uses even our sinful missteps for his glory and our good. Abram and Sarah tried to seize the promise for themselves, and God wove their impatience and error and sin into his story, and made it even better. No purpose of God’s will be thwarted. I’d love to reflect further on how Genesis 16-17 shows the dignity of women (both Hagar and Sarah) and the dignity of marriage. But we need to answer the big question about circumcision, so let’s turn there now.


To begin, we note that the passage stresses Abraham’s complete and total obedience to God’s covenant. Abraham is all-in. “That very day” (Gen 17:23-26) he circumcises himself, Ishmael, and the rest of his household. No delay. No thinking it over. He’s seen God show himself faithful time and time again, and so he presses into this covenant, this structured bond, and takes the sign on himself and his house. So, why circumcision?


First, note that circumcision is a sign (17:11). It’s a symbol. It represents something. It’s not arbitrary. Thus, it’s right for us to think about what it represents.


Second, we need to remember two things from the early chapters of Genesis.


1)    We need to remember the effects of the Fall, namely, the spread of sin, the corruption of all flesh, and the judgment of God. Adam and Eve sinned, they were exiled from God’s presence, and sin and violence spread through Cain and Abel, through Lamech, through the compromised sons of God who marry the daughters of man. Sin spreads, fills the whole earth with violence, and corrupts all flesh (Gen. 6:12), so that God determines to destroy all flesh through the flood. God is at war with corrupt flesh, corrupt humanity. And he makes an end of all flesh, except Noah and those in the ark. And then, after the flood, God puts a covenant sign in the sky (the rainbow) and says, “Never again shall all flesh be cut off by floodwaters” (Gen. 9:11). Cut off.


2)    We need to remember in Genesis 3:15 that God promised to crush the serpent and put the world back to rights through a seed, a male offspring of the woman, who would win his victory at great cost to himself. And we ought to see the promise to Abraham, beginning in Genesis 12, as a part of the fulfillment of that promise. From Adam and Eve, up through Noah, through Abram, worshipers of God are looking and waiting for a male child who will put the world to rights. And so the covenant with Abraham has something to do with the male seed, the male offspring who will crush the serpent.


So, remember God’s war on the corruption of all flesh, and the cutting off of all flesh at the flood. And remember God’s promise to send a male child to put the world to rights. Now what does that have to do with circumcision?


1)    Circumcision is a symbolic death to avoid ultimate death. In circumcision, Abraham cuts off the foreskin of his flesh, so that God doesn’t cut him off completely. Circumcision acts like Noah’s ark; it separates God’s people from all flesh who will be destroyed in God’s judgment. It’s like the blood on the doorposts at Passover that separates the Hebrews so the angel of death doesn’t destroy their firstborn. And it’s no accident that God commands circumcision in Genesis 17, and then in Genesis 18-19 sends his angels of death to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah with fire and sulfur. That’s why the language of “cut off” in Genesis 9:11 and Genesis 17:14 is so important. Abraham cuts off part of his flesh so that he’s not cut off in God’s war against corrupt flesh. Abraham cuts off part of his manhood so that he’s not cut off in God’s war against corrupt humanity. He marks himself with a bloody, symbolic death, so that he doesn’t get swept away in God’s war against flesh.


2)    Circumcision is a symbolic castration. If the hope of the world is a male child who will crush the serpent, if the hope of Abraham is a male heir to inherit the blessing, the promises, and the land, then circumcision acknowledges our impotence to accomplish that hope. Circumcision cuts off the flesh in order to say, “We place no confidence in the flesh.” Circumcision is a sign of the covenant, a sign of the righteousness Abraham has by faith, and his faith is in God to do impossible things—like bring countless offspring from a weak body and a barren womb. In other words, in circumcision, Abraham is renouncing the Ishmael Plan. The Ishmael Plan was about confidence in the flesh. The Hagar Plan, the Ishmael Plan was born in unbelief and impatience. “God promised a child, and we’re tired of waiting. So we’ll take matters into our hands. Human hands. We will place our confidence in ourselves and what we can do.” By making circumcision the covenant sign, God says, “Renounce that confidence in the flesh. Turn away from trusting in yourselves and what you can do. The rescue of the world from sin and death will come through a male child, but it will not be because of human efforts.”


This means that, even though we no longer keep covenant with God by circumcising our sons, circumcision still instructs us. Because I’m willing to bet that there are a lot of Ishmael Plans in the room. Plans born from impatience and unbelief. Plans that have caused tension and strife in your families. Plans that place their confidence in your power, in what you can accomplish. Genesis 17 addresses us this morning and says, “Put to death your Ishmael Plans. Don’t cling to your plan, to your self-made efforts, to your power. You’re powerless to save yourself. Your plans simply produce shame and blame and tension and bitterness. God has promises for you, new good that you can’t even imagine. Be patient. Trust him. Hope in him to do the impossible. He created the world from nothing. He made the barren give birth. He is with you and for you. He is your God, and he is mighty to save.”

The Table

This brings us to the Table. I said that we no longer keep covenant with God through circumcision. The New Testament is abundantly clear about this. This table is the reason. Paul tells us in Colossians 2 that we have been circumcised without hands (i.e. not a physical act), by putting off the body of the flesh in the death of Jesus. He calls this the circumcision of Christ. The cross of Christ is the decisive and final cutting off of the flesh. He was cut off for us so that we aren’t destroyed in God’s war on corrupt humanity. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, God condemned sin in the flesh, and he did so without condemning us along with it.


Jesus died, for our sins and shame, for all of our Ishmael Plans, and he cancelled our debt in his death. And, Paul says, we share in the circumcision of Christ through baptism and faith. We were buried with Jesus in baptism and raised with Jesus in baptism through our faith in the powerful working of God, who raised Jesus from the dead. That’s what we remember and proclaim at this Table. So come, and welcome, to the circumcision of Christ.