8. Covenant Sign of Circumcision (17:1-27)

Thirteen years after the birth of Ishmael (16:16; 17:1,24), the Lord appeared to Abram again, reiterating the promises of descendants and land (12:1-3; 13:14-17; 15:1,4-5,18-21) and instructing him in the sign and seal of covenant circumcision. The theophanic message addressed the same question of an heir both Abram and Sarai had raised. Abram had proposed the substitute Eliezer (15:3), and Sarai had provided the surrogate wife, Hagar (16:2), whose son Ishmael Abram hoped would be accepted (17:18). The Lord, however, would accomplish his better plan through Isaac, the heir to be born to Abram’s wife (vv. 16,19,21). The covenant promises in chap. 17 echo what had already been announced to Abram but with the new emphasis on the covenant’s perpetuity (vv. 7,8,13,19; cp. 13:15) and the new feature of the “sign” of circumcision (v. 11). Circumcision of the male’s foreskin as a sign and seal is especially fitting for the covenant’s orientation toward future generations (vv. 7-10,19). The Lord provides also new assurances to Abram by conferring the names “Abraham” and “Sarah,” attributing promissory significance to the couple’s status as progenitors of new “nations” (gôyim, vv. 4-5,15-16; cp. 12:2). Even Ishmael, the nonelect son, will father “a great nation [gôy]” by divine promise (v. 20). Ishmael, although he too is circumcised (v. 23), does not inherit the covenant (v. 21), and, while he receives “blessing” (v. 20), it is not in perpetuity.

Composition. Chapter 17 is commonly treated as a literary unity coming from the Priestly writer (P) because of its legislation of circumcision and the chapter’s “P-like” vocabulary (e.g., “El Shaddai,” “confirm” [heqîm] a covenant). The chapter, as we noted above, mirrors the Noahic covenant in significant features (9:8-17), which source critics also universally consider priestly (P). The date of the chapter is exilic, answering the exiles’ need for assurance that there would yet be kings and a land for them. Typically, scholars interpreted chaps. 15 (E/J sources) and 17 (P source) as parallel traditions (“doublets”), recognizing that chap. 17 especially emphasizes the promise of numerous descendants. Yet other voices explain chap. 17 as a free composition relying on a complex compilation of earlier sources rather than a true doublet to chap. 15’s covenant account. McEvenue believes that 17:1-8 relies directly on chap. 15 and 17:15-22 rests on 18:1-16,33, the Yahwist’s account of the promise of an heir. Chapter 17 is the priestly reinterpretation of both passages, transforming the simple oath and promise into an eternal covenant legislating circumcision.

Not only is chap. 17 usually accepted as a late advancement over the earlier stories, many believe the chapter exhibits an original independence of its present context. Among the arguments Carr puts forward are these: the appearance of El Shaddai indicates that the story comes from a literary layer in which the patriarchs do not know the name Yahweh (unlike 15:7); mention is made of the promises of children and land, but chap. 17 appears unaware of the same promises in prior stories (e.g., 15:4-5,7-18); the announcement of the birth, mention of Sarah’s old age, and the surprise of Abraham (17:15-21) recur in 18:10-14, but this time it is Sarah’s laughter, not Abraham’s; and finally the author of chap. 17, if aware of the present context, would not have “replayed” the events but would have modified them in his new composition.

We will show below that the author of chap. 17 is fully aware of the Abraham events, but not to the extent of direct literary dependence. Alexander has demonstrated that the proposed correlations between chap. 17 and chaps. 15 and 18 are not sufficiently clear to support a literary indebtedness. The passages selected for comparison from chaps. 15 and 18 are limited to a few verses from each rather than the whole of the respective accounts. If the author of chap. 17 wants to adapt (or even “correct”) the account of the patriarchal oath, it is striking that he avoids any mention of the animal slaughter (vv. 9-10), a subject that ordinarily was important to priests and a long-lost cultic practice probably desired by the exiles. Also it is difficult to see how such a tightly ordered structure as found in chap. 17 (see “Structure” below) could be achieved if the author embedded portions of two other pericopes without significant modifications. Moreover, the repetitions of chap. 17 with chaps. 15 and 18 are better explained on different rhetorical and exegetical grounds. Repetition of the promises, for example, is a common feature of the Abraham narrative as a whole, and there is no reason to insist that chap. 17 crossreferences earlier notices of the promises. Also the use of divine names (e.g., El Shaddai) for discerning different sources or redactional layers is now recognized by many critics as unreliable. Finally, the appeal to P’s unique vocabulary is equally problematic as a criterion since the same words may appear in non-P passages. As we will show below (see “Covenant”) the Noahic covenant (chaps. 6-9, see vol. 1a, pp. 352-56) and chap. 17 share remarkably the same terms; this is not the result of the same source (P), however, but the consequence of sharing the same subject matter of covenant and the use of the same basic covenant framework of a royal grant.

Chapter 17’s episode is not unfamiliar with the events of chaps. 15-18, calling into question the popular view of an independent source. The author of chap. 17 is fully aware of the Abraham complex of stories, especially chap. 15. It fits comfortably in the horizon of the promissory theme in the Abraham story, presupposing the promises of chaps. 12-13 and 15-16. Abraham’s proposal of Ishmael as heir (17:18) makes sense only in light of the events in chaps. 15 and 16; further, the divine predictions respecting Isaac and his rival Ishmael (17:19-21) echo the same concerns raised by Abram and Sarai in 15:2-4 and chap. 16, pertaining to substitute heirs and a future for the outcast Ishmael. Chronological notices in 16:16 and 17:1 provide a smooth transition between the chapters. The promise of “many nations” (17:4-5) is presaged by the prediction of Ishmael’s prodigious future (16:10; 17:20). Also chap. 17 anticipates the additional revelation in chap. 18 by the prediction of the heir born to Sarah in a year’s time (17:21; 18:10,14); in turn 18:9-15 presumes the names “Abraham” and “Sarah” (17:5,15). Sarah, as did Abraham, laughs at the impossibility of God’s announcement (17:17; 18:12), but the differences in their respective exegetical functions make it unlikely that the two occasions are the result of a borrowing. Chapters 17 and 18 also share interest in what the covenant meant for the destinies of Abraham’s rejected relatives, Ishmael (17:20) and Lot (18:16-33). Both narratives introduce and conclude their theophanic revelation by “appeared” (wayyeraʿ; 17:1; 18:1) and “finished speaking” (kalâ dibber; 17:22; 18:33).

Finally, there is similarity in the narrative structures occurring in chap. 17 and chaps. 15-16 and 18-19; chap. 17 has parallel units or panels as found in chaps. 15-16 and is also chiastic in arrangement as found in 16:7-14 and chaps. 18-19 (see commentary there). Taken together, the evidence points to chap. 17 as an original part of the complex of Abraham stories concerning Ishmael and Isaac created by the same author. Chapter 17 is not a literary doublet of chap. 15, although the two are related. We will now examine how best to explain exegetically and theologically the continuity and discontinuity the two chapters exhibit.

Covenant. The “covenant of circumcision” (Acts 7:8) is a subsequent stage in the revelation of the covenant made with Abram (15:18, “made a covenant,” karat berît) and formally ratified by animal rite (15:17). Some scholars prefer to characterize chap. 17 as a “confirmation” or “reaffirmation” of the initial covenant. In this view too, however, many admit that the covenant of chap. 17 evidences some development or clarification of chap. 15. Although there is a difference in these two interpretations, we do not want to overdraw them. What they hold in common is more important, namely, that there is one covenant in view, not two covenants. The idea of “covenant” is central to chap. 17; the term berit̂ occurs thirteen times in nine verses (vv. 2,4,7,9,10,11,13,14,19). The patriarchal promises of heir, numerous descendants, land, nations, and blessing all appear in this one chapter. Chapter 17, at the center of the Abraham narrative (chaps. 12-22), emphasizes the transformation of barrenness to fruitfulness at the personal, community, and national levels. Unlike the covenant in chap. 15, which had no requirements, chap. 17 includes two demands: (1) to live uprightly before the Lord (v. 2) and (2) to practice circumcision faithfully (vv. 9-11). These obligations, however, did not constitute a covenant relationship but presupposed one already in place. As J. A. Motyer observed, “Circumcision involves the idea of consecration to God but not as its essence.” That the covenant is fundamentally a spiritual relationship, founded and maintained by God’s elective grace, is apparent by the continuation of the covenant despite the repeated failures of the patriarch and his successors to observe a blameless life, for example, the wife-sister ploy (chaps. 20,26) and the circumcision ploy (chap. 34).

The differences between the accounts of the covenant in chaps. 15 and 17 oppose the idea that chap. 17 is a priestly retread (P) of chap. 15’s oath (E/J). These dissimilarities, however, do not indicate two separate covenants. The Abraham narrative describes the giving of the same covenant in successive narrative stages, thereby maintaining the story’s tension and heightening the Genesis theology of divine provision expressed through human instrumentation (12:1-3; 13:14-17; 15:4-21; 17:1-22; 18:3-15; 21:1-7,10; 22:15-18). The differences in the settings and purposes of the stages explain the progressive character of the giving of the covenant. Chapters 12 and 22 form the introduction and conclusion to the narrative account of the covenant giving, requiring the patriarch at both points to act upon the divine word (12:2; 22:2). The call of Abraham entails the promises of the covenant (12:1-3; Acts 7:3; Heb 11:8-10), which are formally presented in the animal rite of 15:7-21. The covenant rite in chap. 15 answers Abraham’s perplexity over an heir (15:4-5), reaffirming the promises made in 12:1-2c about the man and his progeny. Chapter 17 establishes the sign and seal of the covenant (Rom 4:3,11) and, as in 12:1, calls upon Abraham to obey the Lord’s demands (17:1b-2; Acts 7:8), which he also fulfills (12:4; 17:3a,23-24). Chapter 17 also answers Abraham’s question of an heir (chap. 15) but from the perspective of Ishmael’s birth (chap. 16). The orientation of the covenant in chap. 17 is the promises pertaining to blessing for the nations, as in 12:2d-3c; the author achieves this by emphasizing Abraham’s prodigious future, that is, circumcision, the new names “Abraham” and “Sarah.” Finally, chap. 22 attaches to the covenant a divine oath (22:16; Heb 6:13-14,17), which follows the climactic act of obedience (22:2,10-12; Heb 11:17; Jas 2:21). The intervals between the announcement of the promises, the ratification, the giving of the sign, and the offering of Isaac are due to the theological explanation of the development of Abraham’s faith. We recognize the same characterization of Jacob and of Jacob’s sons, who undergo a progressive moral and spiritual transformation. The series of trials to Abraham’s faith create the foils for the progressive revelations of God’s promissory covenant. The tension of an heir in chaps. 12-14 are partially alleviated in the night vision of chap. 15; the interference of Sarai in chap. 16 by the birth of Ishmael receives the divine demand for obedience and the clarification of the identity of the appointed heir in chap. 17. Moreover, the broadened horizon of “many nations” and “kings” featured in chap. 17 has its faith challenge in the issue of God’s justice and righteousness, as well as Abraham’s conduct (18:18-19), in chaps. 18-21. Chapter 22 provides the occasion for Abraham to express his faith through obedience, which receives the final confirmation of divine oath. The oath repeats the essential elements of nationhood (descendants, land) and international blessing (22:15-18). Theologically, this progression from faith to obedience is not an acrimonious pairing of opposites, as the apostle James shows in his interpretation of Abraham’s offering of Isaac (Jas 2:21-24). A progression also is seen in the Noahic covenant in which the promissory announcement (6:18) is followed by obedience (6:22; 7:5,9,16) and, last, the sign of covenant (9:1-17).

The apostle Paul treats the covenant chapters in Genesis as one covenant when he contends on the basis of the life of Abraham that salvation is received by faith alone (Rom 4:1-25). The chronological arrangement of the Genesis narrative in which Abraham’s circumcision (17:24) follows his faith (15:6) demonstrates that the rite was a “sign” (semeion) of faith, that is, a “confirmation” or “seal” (sphragida), confirming the righteousness he had already received while he was still “uncircumcised” (en te akrobystia; Rom 4:11). In his letter to the Galatians, he argued that Gentile Christians as imitators of Abraham’s faith were genuine heirs of the promises through Christ (Gal 3:6-5:12). He appealed to the example of Abraham, without maintaining the order of chaps. 15 and 17. Paul avoided the covenant of circumcision of chap. 17, relying on chaps. 12; 15; 18; and 22 and on the Hagar-Sarah episodes of chaps. 16 and 21. F. Thielman observes how the covenant of circumcision taken alone, with its insistence on ritual observance and by its nature as eternal, could be appropriated by his opponents to make their case. By the way the apostle treats chap. 17 in both passages, that is, the chronological argument in Romans and its omission in Galatians, he viewed chap. 17’s circumcision as secondary to the promissory essence of the covenant.

The covenant of circumcision shares important features with the Noahic covenant (6:18; 9:8-17): the covenants are patterned after a royal land grant; covenant “signs” (ʿôt) are established (9:12-13,17; 17:11); the covenants are “everlasting” (ʾôlam; 9:12,16; 17:7-8,13,19); and they share covenant vocabulary, “establish a covenant” (heqîm berît and variations; 6:18; 9:9,11,17; 17:7,19,21; Exod 6:4), “give a covenant” (natan berît; 9:12; 17:2; Num 25:12), and a covenant “between me and you (pl.)” (bênî ûbênêkem; 9:12,15; 17:10,11; Exod 31:13; see vol. 1a, pp. 367-68, 407-12). The Noahic grant, however, is made with all creation (9:9,12,13,16,17), while the covenant of circumcision pertains to Abram and his future generations (17:7,8,9,10), for example, “between me and the earth” (9:13) versus “between me and you (sg.)” (i.e., Abram; 17:2,17).

Circumcision functions as a “sign” like the rainbow for the Noahic covenant and the Sabbath for the Mosaic covenant, all reminders of God’s gracious promises. The rainbow is a reminder to God (9:15-16), whereas circumcision and Sabbath are reminders to both God and Israel, indicating that Israel belongs to the Lord. Also circumcision and Sabbath involve community obligations which when practiced distinguish the community as members of the covenant. Failure to observe these rites resulted in expulsion (17:4) or death (Exod 4:24-26; 31:14). Circumcision signified that the community members were fit for God’s purposes (e.g., 17:7-11; Josh 5:2-9); the metaphorical use of the rite, such as “circumcision of the heart,” indicated spiritual readiness (e.g., Deut 10:16; 30:6; Jer 4:4; 9:25-26; Col 2:11).

Circumcision was not unique to the Hebrews; the Egyptians and some west Semitic groups employed circumcision (Jer 9:25-26), predominantly as a puberty rite or marriage rite. Apparently, some of Israel’s immediate neighbors did not practice the rite (e.g., Shechemites, Gen 34; Philistines, Judg 14:3; 15:18; 1 Sam 17:26,36). The term “uncircumcised” (ʾarel) when used metaphorically as a slur ridiculed Israel’s enemies, who were considered wicked (“unclean,” Isa 52:1; cp. Ezek 28:10; 31:18; 32:17-32). For the Hebrews circumcision above all possessed spiritual significance, which distinguished them as the people of God. Salvation at the Passover event in Egypt required the sign of circumcision (Exod 12:44,48). Circumcision by itself, however, had no probative value (Gal 5:6; 1 Cor 7:19) since it could be exercised by the unrighteous (Gen 34:15; Lev 26:41; Jer 9:25-26). Its practice upon infants on the eighth day (17:12; Lev 12:3, Luke 1:59; 2:21; Phil 3:5) reflected the covenant’s attention to the whole household who inherited the promises by virtue of relationship to Abraham. This relationship, although initiated by divine call and promise, demanded moral accountability (17:1,9).

When later Judaism faced the threat of an encroaching hellenization (second century b.c.), circumcision created a stir between the hellenized Jews and the orthodox. Although they agreed that spiritual circumcision was necessary, they differed over the requirement of ritual circumcision to be considered “Jewish” (e.g., Jub. 1:23-25; 15:25-34; Jdt 14:10; Esth 8:17, lxx; Josephus, Ant. 12.241; 20.38-48; 139,145; 1 Macc. 1:15; 2:46; Philo, Migr. 92; QE 2.2). The sectarian Qumran community differentiated itself from the “apostate Jews” in Jerusalem (who were also circumcised) by insisting they were the truly circumcised of heart (e.g., CD 16:4-6; 1QS 5:5). The church faced a similar debate over the requirement of circumcision for the acceptance of the Gentiles (e.g., Acts 10:45; 11:2; 15:1-5; Gal 2:12; 5:11-12; 6:12; Phil 3:2; Titus 1:10). The apostle Paul addressed this early schism repeatedly and argued that circumcision was permissible, even expedient at times (Acts 16:3), but was not required of the Gentiles (e.g., Acts 15:2,28-29; 21:21; 1 Cor 7:18; Col 3:11). Spiritual circumcision alone was required for salvation, and physical circumcision when promoted as a requirement was to be repudiated (e.g., Rom 2:28-29; 3:30; 4:9-12; 1 Cor 2:11; 3:11; Gal 6:15; Phil 3:2-3). Circumcision, in fact, could be a liability, for it only had value to those who completely obeyed the Mosaic law in every other respect (e.g., Rom 2:25-26; 3:1-2; Gal 5:2-3; 6:13).

Structure. Abraham’s “ninety-nine years” introduces and concludes the chapter (vv. 1a,24a). The theophanic revelation dominates the passage (vv. 1b-22), consisting of three parts: the promises are announced (vv. 1b-8) and explained (vv. 15-22), with instructions concerning the “sign” of the covenant (vv. 9-14) sandwiched in between. The chapter is more of a theological treatise than the typical Abraham story; the terse responses of Abraham (vv. 3a,17-18) take a minor place, giving the interchange the visage of a dialogue. After the divine pronouncements, a brief narrative reports Abraham’s immediate compliance by undergoing circumcision (v. 23). The lengthy and repetitive divine speeches are met by the author with the directness of a single statement. The final verses give the ages of Abraham and Ishmael and a summary of the chapter’s events (vv. 24-27).

v. 1a Introduction: Abram “ninety-nine”

vv. 1b-22 Covenant revealed

vv. 1b-8 Covenant promises announced

vv. 9-14 Sign of circumcision prescribed

vv. 15-22 Covenant promises explained

v. 23 Circumcision inaugurated

vv. 24-27 Conclusion: Abraham “ninety-nine”

The major unit (vv. 1b-22) can be further analyzed in terms of the five divine speeches and Abraham’s two responses. The speeches show counterbalancing themes: speeches one-two (vv. 1c-8) address the general promise of many progeny, and speeches four-five (vv. 15-16,19-21) move to the specific concern in an individual heir. The center speech (vv. 9-14) contains the instruction on circumcision. Although only circumcision is specifically identified as a memorial “sign” (v. 11), each section of the covenant revelation contains its own reminder: the name “Abraham” for the first part (vv. 1b-8), circumcision for the second (vv. 9-14), and “Sarah” for the third part (vv. 15-22).

v. 1b The Lord appears

vv. 1c-2 Lord: self-identification (“El Shaddai”) and preamble

v. 3a Abram’s response: collapses

vv. 3b-8 Lord: “Abraham’s” name, divine promise

vv. 9-14 Lord: “Sign” of circumcision and obligations

vv. 15-16 Lord: “Sarah’s” name, divine promise

vv. 17-18 Abraham’s response: collapses, laughs, and offers Ishmael

vv. 19-21 Lord’s rebuttal: future for Isaac and Ishmael

v. 22 The Lord ascends

S. E. McEvenue observed a chiasmus in vv. 1-25 (yet not perfectly symmetrical) and two panels of parallel elements (cp. 15:1-6,7-21; 16:2-6). In both the chiasmus and the parallel panels, circumcision is the structural focus. Below is the chapter’s twin panels:


Yahweh’s intention to make an oath about progeny (1-2)


Abraham falls on his face (3a)


Abraham father of nations (4b-6)


God will carry out his oath forever (7)


The sign of the oath (9-14)


God’s intention to bless Sarah with progeny (16)


Abraham falls on his face (17-18)


Sarah mother of son, Isaac (19)


God will carry out his oath forever (19b, 21a)


The sign of the oath (23-27)

—New American Commentary