Genesis 17-Reader Discretion Advised

Genesis 17:1-14

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, “I am God Almighty[a]; walk before me faithfully and be blameless. Then I will make my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.”

Abram fell facedown, and God said to him, “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. No longer will you be called Abram[b]; your name will be Abraham,[c] for I have made you a father of many nations. I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. The whole land of Canaan, where you now reside as a foreigner, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God.”

Then God said to Abraham, “As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. 10 This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. 12 For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner—those who are not your offspring. 13 Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. 14 Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”

Focusing On the Symbol And Not The Flesh

I was tempted to skip this chapter entirely, not merely because we broach the subject of circumcision, but because there’s not much else that happens here except this promise extended to Abraham.

That being said, the covenant of circumcision we might see as a rather strange gesture that we either overlook or choose to ignore. And although we don’t really tend to spend time talking about this covenant, I think we can draw some symbolic conclusions of the gesture. I say this because I find it hard to believe that God would desire mutilation of Abraham for the sake of the mutilation itself. Rather, the gesture, although on its surface perhaps grotesque, I believe carries some symbolic weight.

Just for this reading we will venture away from speaking to the human condition and spend some time on symbolism. Because of this, this will also be a shorter read.

The nature of circumcision is certainly adult in nature, so this topic is best reserved for a mature audience.

Cast Off

When we talk about circumcision, it’s perhaps easier to understand it as we consider St. Paul’s words on being circumcised not in the flesh, but in the heart.

St. Paul refers here to the importance of a “hardness of heart” being cut off, the superficial layer being discarded. This harkens to a kind of “shedding of skin” gesture, a sign of renewal. Abraham has had made some poor decisions before, but now he is asked to show his recommitment to God through this act of circumcision. And interestingly, Abraham has less blunders here on out.

If we think of reptiles for a moment, we get an apt image of a spiritual circumcision. A reptile sheds its skin because a reptile continually grows. Reptiles never stop growing, and they constantly shed their skin to give way for more growth. This image serves us to remind us of the need to start over, to cast off our old behaviors and tendencies, to recognize our constant need of growth, and to appear new through our action.

Not only are we encouraged to discard old habits, behaviors, and proclivities, but we see through this covenant act that there is likely to be pain involved when we leave that unnecessary part of ourselves behind. Giving up an addiction, coping mechanism, or pattern of behavior will cause pain, but this is all part of that casting off of the old self.


The act of circumcision is also a mark for Abraham to remember.

In Christianity, Baptism and Confession are our marks of renewal, but there’s not a whole lot of physical manifestation of this. At best, we might remember the sacraments we engage in, but in times of distress or temptation conjuring up those memories and feelings might prove difficult.

Abraham is given a task to mark his body. This is not unlike a scar that reminds a soldier of a battle won or lost. Abraham is to remember the old self that died and to remember how he survived by God’s grace, but this new scar upon his body. The marking hopefully reminds Abraham of his sins that he needs to stay away from and also remind him of the new person he is called to become.

Perhaps even more appropriate is that Abraham has engaged in body modification to mark a “rite of passage”. It’s not uncommon in other civilizations to see how body modification is a kind of initiation of a child into adulthood. We see this continue today as often 18 year olds will go to a tattoo parlor to mark their first day as an adult. Abraham, ironically, is reaching 100 years old, but this is a testimony that not only his repentance and initiation into a life with God but ours too can come at any age. It’s never too late to repent, not even on our death beds.


The nature of circumcision also encompasses the theme of vulnerability.

What is lost in circumcision is protection for the male, and the symbolic gesture of this vulnerability for the male is significant.

We Males can have a hard time of letting down our guard, of opening up to others, asking for help, and conceding our weakness. Women can struggle here too.

Abraham has walked his life with wavering trust in God, with reservations of God’s plan, without including Him much when it came to the famine in Egypt or his wife’s barrenness. Abraham takes his strife on his own shoulders most of the time, not considering that God’s speaking to him is an invitation for synergy.


Lastly, the act of circumcision is a private one, a covenant not meant to be boasted of. There is nothing to be proud of this act.

This marking of the covenant likely was to prevent Abraham and Israel from becoming too air headed about their privileged place with God. Even St. Paul speaks to the vanity and “boasting” that is a temptation of the Jewish law, commenting how there is nothing to boast of circumcision, but that one should boast in Christ and boast in the Lord.

All praise is due to God, not to His followers, and so Abraham’s new marking is not something that socially will be accepted to be broadcast. Instead, Abraham is given a marking that reminds him that his covenant with God is personal and requires some introspective work. Further, God reminds us through this private marking His value on humility.

Today, consider the following:

  • What marked my coming to age? What marked my coming to faith? What reminders do I have to keep me anchored in difficult times or times of temptation?
  • How vulnerable am I with God? How vulnerable am I with others? Where do I need to grow in relying on my support?
  • How often do I talk about myself, focus on myself, or acknowledge my own accomplishments (or even my own suffering)? What behavior do I engage in which places the attention on me and not on others or on God?
  • What are my “rough edges” and who can help me identify them? How might I “shed off” old behaviors and growing edges?

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