God’s Covenant with Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 17)

The story of God’s promise to Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 17:1-12a, 15-16).

This is one of the most important events in the Judeo-Christian story. God makes an “everlasting covenant” with Abraham and his offspring. Despite his advanced age of 99, the childless Abraham and Sarah will become the ancestors of a multitude of nations. This covenant is marked by two external signs: a name change for both Abram and Sarai and the institution of the practice of circumcision.

I’ve never been sure about how to extract personal meaning from this story. For one thing, it offends my modern sensibilities to think about forcing circumcision on slaves who do not choose this religion. After all, we live in an age where we are sensitive to human rights, including freedom of religion. And with our Christian notions of personal salvation, I wonder about the value of this for the slave. Is one “saved” by taking on outward signs alone? Of course not. So what’s this all about?

What helps me to understand this an experience I had as a pastor’s wife. We pastored a church of people who had fled to Canada as refugees due to severe political oppression. They came from a place where there is no law and where you never know if the people you love will be killed today on some whim of a dictator’s henchmen. This creates a people with a very different idea of morality. These Christians had little or no sense for the basic 10 commandments, let alone anything else. It took a long time for me to realize the profound effect of their experiences on their spirits.

As a people, this group was still in the first stages of Kohlberg’s stages of moral development. Young children learn morality by being taught clear rules and by being punished when they break those rules. We hope that as they grow, they will internalize these basic moral rules and be able to expand their capacity for moral reasoning.

These outward signs of the covenant — the name changes and circumcision — were concrete signs of membership in a certain group. They set the context. Later, the 10 commandments would formalize the basic moral rules, along with the hundreds of smaller laws.

None of this was really a question of individual choice. We’re talking about a time and culture where the community is much more important than the individual. None of Abraham and Sarah’s future descendants would be asked about whether or not they wanted to belong to the group, so perhaps they weren’t in such a different position from the slaves. These signs were a way of concretely setting apart a group for a purpose, whether or not any given individual chose to participate in that purpose. And the overall community would decide on what it meant to participate in that covenant and would put pressure on individuals to conform.

It’s hard for me to fully understand this, but my cross-cultural experiences and study help.

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