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Verses 1-27

The Covenant of Circumcision

This chapter is from the Priestly document, of which it shows marked characteristics: see preface to Genesis 15.

1. Ninety years old and nine] Ishmael was now thirteen years old, and Abraham probably expected no other heir. But his faith was to be put to a further test. The Almighty God] Heb. el Shaddai: the name of power shows the ability to perform what was promised. Walk before me, and be thou perfeet] i.e. always conscious of My presence, and living a pious, whole-hearted, upright life. These are the conditions required by God in connexion with the covenant about to be made.

2. God, on His part, promises to make Abraham the ancestor of many nations, and to give Canaan to his descendants.

4, 5. The patriarch’s name in Babylonia had been Abram, meaning, perhaps, ’exalted father,’ or, according to others, ’Ram (the lofty one) is father’; cp. Hiram, ’Earn is brother.’ Under the form Abu-Ramu it appears to be a recognised proper name in the Assyrian inscriptions. On entering into a new relationship with God by covenant, of which the sign was circumcision, the patriarch received a new name, ’Abraham.’ This is probably a variation on ’Abram,’ but its meaning is unknown, the popular explanation ’father of multitude’ being considered untenable. In commemoration of this event Jewish children receive their name when admitted to the covenant by circumcision (Luke 1:59), as do Christian children when baptised into the Church of Christ. The ’many nations’ of Genesis 17:4 and Genesis 17:6 included not only Israelites but also Ishmaelites, Edomites (through Esau), Midianites (by Keturah), Arabs (by Hagar).

10. This is my covenant] i.e. this is the sign of the covenant, viz. circumcision. Not§ that both parties undertake obligations here as contrasted with the covenant in Genesis 15.

Circumcision] (lit. ’cutting round’) is the removal of the foreskin. The rite has always been practised by the Jews from Abraham’s time to the present day. Other ancient nations also observed the ceremony, such as the Egyptians and Phænicians, but not the Philistines, Babylonians, Greeks or Romans. It is still observed, not only by Mohammedan nations who claim to be descended from Abraham, but by the Abyssinian, Egyptian, Polynesian and other peoples. Among these latter the rite is generally performed about the age of ten or twelve years, as a preliminary to marriage, and as admitting to full civil and religious tribal privileges. With the Hebrews circumcision had a special significance. They regarded it as a sign of the covenant between God and His people, and they alone of all nations circumcised their infants, thereby devoting them from their birth to Jehovah. With them, too, the shedding of the blood of that part upon which depends the perpetuation of life was the symbol of the continuous consecration of the nation from one generation to another. The spiritual significance of the rite is frequently insisted on by the inspired writers. The outward sign must be accompanied by the putting away of fleshly and sinful desires: cp. Deuteronomy 10:16; Romans 2:28, Romans 2:29.

The Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles to the Romans, Galatians, and Colossians witness to the desire of the Jewish Christians to impose the obligation of circumcision on their Gentile brethren, and to the struggle in which St. Paul was successful in freeing his converts from the yoke of Judaism.

11. The flesh of your foreskin] better, ’the foreskin of your flesh.’

12. Eight days old] Until the eighth day children were considered unclean, and so unfit to be offered to God.

12, 13. The law of circumcision applied to all male members of Jewish households, who were henceforth regarded as Israelites, and shared in the national and religious privileges of the chosen race.

14. That soul shall be cut off from his people] This expression seems usually to mean that the offender is to be excommunicated, or cut off from all connexion with the Hebrew community, and from any share in the blessings of the covenant, nor could he claim protection for life or property: cp. Exodus 12:15, Exodus 12:19; Numbers 9:13; Numbers 19:13. But the sentence of death seems sometimes to be added in the case of presumptuous sins, such as the sacrificing of children to Moloch, and the deliberate nonobservance of the sabbath: see Exodus 31:14; Leviticus 20:1-6; Numbers 15:30-36. ’Cutting off’ in such cases is plainly equivalent to putting to death.

15. Sarah’s name, like Abraham’s, is changed on admission to the covenant. Sarah means ’princess’: the exact meaning of Sarai is doubtful.

18. Abraham was unwilling that Ishmael should be deposed from his position as heir: but God would prosper him also (Genesis 17:20).

19. Isaac] i.e. he laughs. The name would recall an event which made Abraham laugh with joy and probably also with wonder.

20. Twelve princes] see Genesis 25:12.

25. Ishmael was circumcised when thirteen years old, the age still observed by Mohammedans: cp. on Genesis 17:10.

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