Genesis 17

BABEL to AVRAM

Friday June 22:

Genesis Chapter 17

Circumcision of adults makes some guys queasy. Surely childbirth hurts more. The meaning of each is not in the nerve cells, but in the social meaning. Consider how this story works as an explanation of the origins of defining rituals of a cultural and religious group.

After 13 years, since Ishmael was born to Hagar. Avram changes name, getting another syllable: Avraham, ancestor of a multitude. Sarai’s name changes, too, to Sarah. Ishmael comes of age as a circumcised part of the clan. Avraham will be father of many nations, Sarah will be a princess – but Ishmael too will be father of 12 princes of 12 tribes, the Arab neighbours of the Jews.

Note the promises made to Ishmael, father of 12 princes, a great nation, though the covenant promise goes to the younger one Isaac – named but not conceived yet. Now, what do you make of circumcision – which includes Ishmael? In the biblical taxonomy, we start with 12 chapters of common universal humanity, children of Adam, children of Noah, scattered from Babel. Then there are children of Avram and of Avraham, many tribes and a couple of peoples, within that Abrahamic covenant prior to Yitzaak’s covenant, and in turn Yaakov’s covenant which includes 12 tribes.

We need more familiarity with Quranic parallel stories, and Muslim traditions about Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac and Jacob. They say Abraham always loved Ishmael, visited often, never renounced him as son. We will see in very few days that Ishmael returns to bury Abraham with Yitzaak. Does being ‘chosen’ necessarily mean that the other is ‘rejected’? Can the other be differently ‘chosen’ for other collective identity and legacy?

On the other hand, collective identity evidenced by a mark like circumcision is partly given, and partly chosen. It is possible for an individual to reject the collective identity and its mark, and for the group to exclude a member who refuses the marks and behaviours required by the collective group. Cultural appropriation is what we call it if an individual claims to belong, without the group confirmation. Who is black, or native, or LGBTQ?

I expect there will be more resistance to my reading of chapter 17 than of others – in church terms, we ask ‘members’: Do you want to be a member? Do you believe in God your creator, redeemer, and guide? Will you grow with this people, participating in the church’s celebration and service? Then we ask the whole congregation, hearing affirmations of all three, ‘will you welcome them?’ There are no ‘second generation Christians’ – each in turn has to claim it