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Genesis 17:1-16

Genesis 17:1-22

Background to the Book of Genesis

Literary Features: Genesis is a fascinating book which begins with two creation accounts of the world in Gen 1-3, continues with stories about humanity in general through to the end of Gen 11 before we come to the specific journeys of Abraham. Gen 1-11 is often referred to as universal history or primeval history and is applicable to all of humanity. The genealogies enable Abraham to be descended from Adam and Eve. Indeed, another purpose of the genealogies is to divide these eleven chapters as follows into a 5-fold division:

  • Gen 2:4a heaven and earth - these are the generations of the heavens and the earth ...
  • Gen 5:1 ff Adam - This is the book of the generations of Adam.
  • Gen 6:9 Noah - And Noah had three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth
  • Gen 10:1 Noah’s 3 sons - These are the generations of the sons of Noah. ...
  • Gen 11:10 Shem - These are the descendants of Shem ...

Besides the suggested division above, scholars have proposed different recurring literary patterns such as sin, speech, punishment - Gen 1-3, 4, 6-9,11 (Westermann) in Gen 1-11: von Rad includes forgiveness: sin, speech, forgiveness, punishment. Whether one wants to go along with any of the above suggestions about the literary divisions or patterns in Gen 1-11, there is almost unanimous agreement that there is a tightly formed literary pattern and we are meant read it as a unity. Creation of the world and humans is torn apart when the relationship between God and humans is told in Gen 3 and between humans and humans in Gen 4. One of the literary patterns which may be considered to not only be present in Gen 1-11, but also extend through into the remainder of the book of Genesis is that connected with the command in Gen 1:28 - ‘be fruitful and multiply’. Not only does the phrase occur in a number of places, but the lists of genealogies show that indeed the people have been fruitful and multiplied - Gen 5, 10, 11. The genealogies continue in Gen 12-50 at particular points: Gen 25:12 (These are the generations of Ishmael), Gen 25:19 (These are the generations of Isaac), Gen 36:1, (These are the generations of Esau), Gen 37:2 (These are the generations of Jacob). The genealogies not only show that God's command in Gen 1:28 has been followed, but the promises to Abraham in Gen 12:1-3, Gen 15:5 have come true. That is, Abram will have many descendants and become a great nation. At the point where each of the genealogies are listed we have the story of that person in the following chapters. Abraham in Gen 11:27-25:18: Jacob in Gen 25:19-36:43: Joseph, Judah and Jacob's family in Gen 37:1-50:26. There are a number of covenants mentioned in the Book of Genesis all of which come into the category of unconditional or promissory. Unlike the condition covenant in Exod 19 in which God seeks a response of obedience from the people, the covenants in Genesis are based on first person pronouncements by God. In Gen 9 it is an universal covenant with all living creatures, but once we move into Gen 12 the covenants are specific to Abraham and his descendants. The relationship has been set up from creation when humans were created to be in special relationship with God (Gen 1:26-27).

Attempts have been made since the 18th century to explain such things as: a different word used for God -Yahwist or Elohim: multiple versions of the same story = Abraham’s pretence, Gen 12:10-20, 20:1-18, 26:6-16: repetition within the same story = Gen 6:5-7, 11-12: contradictions - for example, Exod 20:24 gives permission to offer sacrifices at numerous altars v Deut 12:13-14 which forbids this and restricts sacrifice to one place only or Gen 7:17 in which the flood remains for 40 days v Gen 7:24 in which the flood remains for 150 days and other examples. The classic theory suggests that the Pentateuch has a number of written sources as well as the early oral traditions which account for the sort of differences mentioned above. In Gen 1-11 there is the Priestly source which can be seen in Gen1:1-2:4a, 6:9-22, some verses in Gen 7-8, 9:1-17, 10:1-7, 11:10-27 and the remaining texts come from the Yahwistic source. Some characteristics of what is know as the 'P' source are: the use of the Hebrew term toledoth/generations, the writing is sophisticated and often in a liturgical style (Gen1:1-2:4a), in the creation account God speaks and it happens, humans are made in the image of God, the covenant is unconditional and can be made with the animals, and an abiding concern to state numbers and years. The Yahwistic source uses myths and sagas to tell the story, God and animals speak (anthropomorphic), the world is very small (Gen 2:10-14) compared with the universal world of the 'P' source (Gen 1:1-2:4a).

Historical: (History within the text). Gen 12-50 tells the stories about Abram and his descendants as they move from Haran into the land of Canaan and begin wandering around the land and then into Egypt. These stories began as oral traditions passed down within the tribes long before they became part of the written tradition. It is the way many cultures remember their history, but in the Western world we became influenced by the enlightened definition of 'history' which understood 'history' as written facts from an objective viewpoint. This has caused many scholars to debate whether the Patriarchs can be proven to be true people through archaeological means. Other scholars say that this is not possible and therefore they cannot be historical people. If this argument was applied to Bedouin tribes or Australian Aboriginal people we deny them any history. History as oral tradition passed down is the history of a people, and does not need to be justified by Western values. The people are portrayed as very human with all their faults and strengths - they lie, deceive, steal, test God, they have courage, journey into the unknown, seek God, question God and are obedient. These traits apply to men and women, and many of the women (Sarah, Rebecca, Tamar) play a significant role in the working out of the promises of God. I encourage people to read these stories for themselves. After the story of Abram in Gen 11:27-25:18 the next block, Gen 11:19-36:43, tells us about Jacob and finally about Joseph in Gen 37:1-50:26. At the end of the book we are placed ready to begin the story of Moses, the release of the Hebrews from Egypt and their wanderings in the wilderness.

We know something of this period from the discoveries of the Mari Tablets - 20,000 tablets in old Akkadian of which 5,000 were official correspondence (J.Bright. A History of Israel. London: SCM Press, 57). Mari was a great city with highly sophisticated living conditions and the centre of trade. Terah and his family would have travelled through Mari to get to Haran. Mesopotamia was a centre of civilisation in the Far East in the same way that Egypt was in the Near East.

It is a period in which some people lived in cities and others lived a semi nomadic life travelling with their herds and stopping for periods, but rarely settling to an agrarian life style. We seem to have examples of both these life styles within the story of Abraham.

Context of Genesis 17:1-22
After the initial covenant in Gen 12 Abram continues his journeys and associated adventures. In Gen 14 he rescues Lot from some foreign kings who had taken him captive as they fled back to their own territory. He traveled north to Dan to rescue Lot, his goods and the goods of the Kings of Sodom and Salem. The King of Salem was Melchizedek, who was also a priest of the God Most High (Gen 14:17-20). He brought our bread and wine and blessed Abram which is a very unusual act by a foreign priest, unless one wants to suggest that Melchizedek was a foreign priest of Yahweh. However, one wants to explain it there are unusual features. On this occasion Abram refuses to take all of the booty which he had gained by the acceptable means of war. Gen 15 is an account of a different covenant in which God reassures Abram he will have descendants and prophecies the time in Egypt before they come into the promised land. Hagar is offered to Abram in order that he can have a son because Sarai fails to conceive. Sarai is jealous and throws Hagar out of camp into the wilderness where she meets an angel who instructs her to return and call her child Ishmael. Another covenant is spoken of Gen 17 which introduces the practice of circumcision and we look at in more detail below. Circumcision is a sign of this covenant and becomes one of the marks of identity for the Jews. Following the visitation of the messengers in Gen 18, Abraham goes with the messengers to Sodom and the story of Lot and his wife interrupts the flow of the story about Abraham and Sarah (Gen 18:16-19:38). Part of its purpose is to explain why the Moabites and Ammonites were hated by the Israelites - they were conceived by incest. Abraham continues his journey into the Negev and for the third time passes Sarah off as his sister to a foreign king, this time the King of Gerar. God speaks to the king telling him Sarah is the wife of another man who had told him she was his sister. Abraham has two excuses for his behaviour (Gen20:11-12) and had instructed Sarah to say that Abraham was her brother. Again Abraham benefits enormously with more cattle, goods and money. We return then to Sarah and Abraham and finally there is a son born who was promised in Gen 12. After the birth of Isaac, Sarah casts Hagar and her son, Ishmael by Abraham, out into the wilderness. There God rescues them and promises that the descendants of Ishmael will become a great nation. 

Insights/Message of Genesis 17:1-22:
Literary Insights
:The Lectionary reading (Gen 17:1-7, 15-16) is part of the block of material which talk about another covenant with Abram. In this covenant both he and Sarai's names are changed. Sarai and Abram (the father is exalted) are changed to Sarah (princess) and Abraham (father of nations). One can see both similarities and differences between this covenant and that spoken of in Gen 15. It is likely that they come from different traditions and Gen 17 is seen by most scholars as coming from the hand of the Priestly writer. The language and theology is similar to that in other writings which are easily identified as Priestly, for example, it is an eternal covenant, the phrase exceedingly fruitful and multiply picks up the command from Gen 1 (Gen 1:26-28), and circumcision. The promise focuses more on Abram and less on land (Fretheim: 457). The covenant begins with God appearing to Abram (v.1) and is completed when God finishes speaking with him (v.22). God is the main speaker throughout this covenant (vv.1b-2, 3b-16, 19-21) who declares how Abraham will behave, you will ... (Scullion: 145). The Hebrew word for covenant is used thirteen times ensuring that the listener understands the significance, and the promise of descendents is stated in a variety of ways. The theology of these verses is summed up in v.7 which is expanded and explained in the following verses. The instructions about circumcision are surrounded by the promises of descendants (vv.2-8) and the promise of a son (vv.15-21). Initially, circumcision was not tied to the Patriarchal period, but in exile it became a mark of distinction from their neighbours. Associating circumcision with such a great figure of the past, gave it greater authority. Three different names for God are used in the first three verses: Yahweh, El-Shaddai (some Eng.transl. God Almighty) and Elohim. This particular form of the name of God (El-Shaddai) is used mainly in the Book of Genesis with its shortened form (Shaddai) used thirty-one times in the Book of Job. It is likely to be a form that derived from a Canaanite origin although there can be no certainty about it (Scullion: 147-148).

Message:WhaCovenant is about relationship and in this particular case Abram acknowledges God by 'falling on his face'. However, in this relationship Abraham is able, both to be in awe and also to laugh at the impossibility of the promise (Gen 17:17). The Priestly writer by using the three different forms of God's name made certain that people from any tradition would be able to identify with the message. It is the same as using different methods for distribution of the communion elements in order for people to feel their tradition is being honoured. Although the section about circumcision is omitted from the Lectionary reading it is an important part of the total narrative. Circumcision will be the sign of the nation's faithfulness to God as the rainbow was the sign of God's faithfulness to the people. For Christians the sign of the cross is used in baptism to show that the person belongs to God/Christ and it is a reason why some people wear a cross. The cross is about identity with God who gave the gift of a son, who became human, walked this path on earth, was betrayed, died on the cross, and whom God raised. As circumcision is part of a Jews' identity, so a cross is part of a Christians' identity.

Although God does not speak with Sarah direct, but through Abraham (Gen17:15-16), she is included in the covenant. She is named as the mother of nations whereas previously only Abram had been named as the progenitor of the future nation. Brueggemann suggests that because this promise is linked to the creation accounts in Gen 1, Abram becomes the first fruit of the new creation (Brueggemann: 153). I don't find this New Testament language helpful in understanding the Priestly theology. This command to be fruitful and multiply is the prologue to the whole narrative which becomes centred on the historical figure of Abram and the promise of descendants in Gen 12:1-3. We are only part way through this story which unfolds through many twists and turns before this nation finally comes into being, and the promise is fulfilled.

Resources/Worship for Genesis 17:1-22
Resources: Commentaries:

The Old Testament Guides (OTG) by Sheffield Academic Press are an excellent small resource which give many suggestions for readings on particular aspects in the Book of Genesis, the author is R.W.L.Moberly, 1992. (Genesis 12-50)

Brenner, Athalya, ed. A Feminist companion to Genesis. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993.
---. ed. Genesis. Feminist companion to the Bible (Second Series), 1. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998.
*Brueggemann, Walter. Genesis. Int. Atlanta, Ga.: John Knox 1982.
Coats, George W. Genesis, with an Introduction to Narrative Literature. FOTL. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W. B. Eerdmans, 1983.
Davies, Philip R., and David J. A. Clines, eds. The world of Genesis: Persons, Places, Perspectives. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998.
*Fretheim,Terrence E. "The Book of Genesis: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections." In The New Interpreter's Bible. Vol 1. Abingdon: Nashville, 1994.
Hamilton,Victor P. The Book of Genesis: Chapters 1-17. NICOT. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W. B. Eerdmans, 1990.
---. The Book of Genesis: Chapters 18-50. NICOT, Grand Rapids, Mich.: W. B. Eerdmans, 1995.
Hess, Richard S., and David Toshio Tsumura, eds. I Studied Inscriptions from before the Flood: Ancient Near Eastern, Literary, and Linguistic Approaches to Genesis 1-11. Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 1994.
*Moberly, R. W. L. Genesis 12-50. OTG. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1992.
*Rogerson, J. W. Genesis 1-11, OTG. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1996.
Scullion, John J. Genesis: A Commentary for Students, Teachers, and Preachers. Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1992.
Waltke, Bruce K., and Cathi J. Fredricks. Genesis: A Commentary. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, c2001. Call Number: 222.11077 W237g
Wenham,Gordon J. Genesis 1-15. WBC. Waco, Tex.: Word Books, 1987.
---. Genesis 16-50. WBC. Dallas, Tex.: Word Books, 1994.
Westermann, Claus. Genesis: A Practical Commentary. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W. B. Eerdmans, 1987.

The Dramatised Bible: ed. Michael Perry. London: Marshall Pickering: Bible Society, 1989

Web sites with helpful lectionary resources: These links were updated 30/12/11

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