We end Lech-Lecha on some really high notes. I was feeling for a while that the bible’s authors would be taking Abram down a peg, but I have clearly misremembered so far. As it stands, Genesis 17 ends with Abram’s head held high, he wins favor for his first son, a promise of a second son, and he only had to cut off the tip of his penis to get it! Sounds like a bargain to me.
Let’s think on that. This IS a bargain, isn’t it? Not in the sense that it’s inexpensive, but this is the third repetition of the Abraham covenant (from Genesis chapters 12 and 15), but the first that clearly stipulates that there is a cost associated. In Genesis 12, Abram’s condition was that he leave Haran and his father and journey to Canaan. In Genesis 15, God doesn’t require any conditions at all. (If anything, Abram is bargaining some conditions with God.)
More after the break.
Circumcision is the big new wrinkle in this relationship and it’s interesting just how encompassing it is. Not only does Abram and his (male) family need to be circumcised, as will all future males in his line, and any and all male slaves whether they are members of his family or not. (Never mind that one day his family will be brought OUT of bondage; this seems very odd to me that the future Israelites could have Israelite slaves. Slavery is a big part of the rules that Moses will be given later, but I don’t recall Israelite-on-Israelite slavery.) The eight day rule is very interesting and it’s not clear why that number is chosen. Since Abram hasn’t been introduced to the Sabbath yet, no mention is made of what happens if the eighth day happens to be the Sabbath.
Another big change is the new names. Abram (אַבְרָם) is now Abraham (אַבְרָהָם) and Sarai (שרי) is now Sarah (שרה). Not speaking any Hebrew, I can’t tell much about what these changes mean. What is interesting is that this is the first case of a name change in the Torah: Jacob, Joseph, Joshua, and many others will undergo a similar process, usually when they are changed or touched by God in some way. In this case, Abram receives his name as part of the covenant, even before God explains the circumcision bit, but Sarah’s name change happens after. Is there any significance to this? Perhaps not. Looking forward, it’s interesting that Abraham’s new name really sticks and he is never called “Abram” again. This was not true of either Jacob or Joseph, for example, who were either called almost exclusively by their original name (Joseph) or had the twi used interchangeably (Jacob).
A few more things I noticed:
- Abraham laughs at God and gets away with it! Sarah will do this soon, on her first meeting with an angel, and she will be scolded for it (and then lie to God about it. Not a great day for her.) Isaac’s name means “He laughs” or “He will laugh” and so to have both of his parents laugh at God at the thought of his birth to be good symmetry.
- But having laughed at God, Abraham also lies to him and isn’t called on it. Abraham claims that he is 100 years old when the narrator says that he is 99. Close enough to be just a gloss, but these details are rarely stuck in there without thought. Could it be that the double parallel with bough Sarah and Abraham laughing and lying to God was deliberate? And in both cases, Sarah was scolded for it, but not Abraham. Is it because he’s the patriarch? Because he’s good and “walks with God” while she’s flawed, so small things can be forgiven? Is it because of her gender? Is God just still angry with her for mistreating Hagar? Someone could probably write a thesis on this.
- Having lost some points in my book, Abraham picks up a dozen more with his defense of Ishmael. When God tells Abraham that he will be given another son, it’s nice that his first thought is to his eldest and ensuring that God gives him a blessing. And he does, even better than the similar version in Genesis 15. This time, Ishmael is no “wild ass”, just a great nation.
The chapter ends with Abraham being circumcised with his whole family. In reading this, I can’t help but remember the Rape of Dinah and the aftermath of that story, when a tribe is attacked and wiped out while all the men were.. er.. unable to fight properly due to their recent circumcisions. Glad that didn’t happen this time.
And that ends Lech-Lecha. I’ll follow up with a post about interesting things that Rashi had to say about it, but Vayeira is about to appear.
Up next: Abraham and Sarah entertain guests!