Background to the Chapter
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. Genesis 17 is a reaffirmation of the Covenant which was made in Genesis 15 (first announced in Genesis 12) and was thirteen years after the promise of a son in Genesis 15. Genesis 17 presents an account of God’s intention to fulfill His plan to Abram through his wife Sarai.
Genesis 17 and the Documentary Hypothesis
Chapter 17 is commonly attributed as coming from the Priestly writer (P) or cultic sector of ancient Hebrew society because of its legislation of circumcision and the use of “P-like” vocabulary and terminology. It is thought that the prominent theme in Genesis 17 identifies the authors (or compilers) as priests who are responding to the experience of an exile.2 A synopsis of the use of words and phrases in the chapter by the Priestly (P) writer are:
• Verse 1: Lord (El Shaddai). Although some concerns re early rabbinic etymology of the word, there is evidence to suggest P.
• Verse 2: “I will grant my covenant.” Links to the choice of Hebrew words and to the follow up Hebrew words in verses 7 and 21 point to P.
• Verse 6: Follow my ways essentially requested Abraham to conduct himself in a way that was approving.
• Verse 7: Your offspring to follow or more literally “your seed after you” being a common phrase of P.
• Verse 8: In which you are now sojourning
• Verse 13: The use of the word “shall… be marked” literally “shall be,” language commonly used by P.
• Verse 15: Sarah – an old and specialized form of the work “saray.” The formal change of name (for Abraham also) is common for P (Gen 32:29). P commonly uses this to signify an external sign of an important “turn” for the person
• Verse 17: “he smiled.” The Hebrew variant is commonly used by P.
Supporting evidence for a Priestly writer include the detail to the addition of traditions, rituals, genealogies and blessing, as well as the writing in a format that concerns of the reintroduction of a theocracy, the emphasis of religious leaders as examples rather than political officials, the explanation of covenant rather than civil laws and rites, as well as liturgy as a community celebration rather than a national royal celebration/festival. Theologically, the Priestly writer portrays Israel as a community (edah) rather than a people (`am), they suggest that life is a service rather than a single encounter, are monotheistic (“no other gods before him”) and suggest an atmosphere of worship (“Abraham bowed down”). Of note are the similarities to the manner of writing of the Noahic covenant (9:8–17) as well as the theology and style of Genesis 1:1 to 2:4a all of which point to a Priestly writer5.
The date of the chapter is the late exilic or early postexilic period between 550 and 450 BCE, answering the exiles’ need for assurance that there would yet be kings and a land for them. The Priestly Tradition was thought initially to be after the Babylonian Captivity, written in a time of the restoration of the Priesthood to Jerusalem and the building of the Second Temple.
Some other aspects leading to a belief in a Priestly author are:
i. P structures their history by introducing laws and institutions as the consequence of certain major events in the history, i.e. the flood leads into the laws about the slaughter of animals and homicide (Gen. 9:1–6) followed by a covenant (v8–17). The covenant with Abraham is the occasion for the institution of the practice of circumcision as a sign of the covenant (Gen. 17).
ii. P modifies J’s themes of the divine promises and covenant with Abraham via repetition of the promise and then making them an eternal covenant (similar to Noah) by not referring to Israel as a “people” but a “covenant community” whose participation is conditional upon the observance of circumcision.7
iii. P and J differ in their treatment of the same event and their dissimilar approach to the Abraham. In chapters 15 and 17 the central theme is the covenant. J sees the covenant as a “future factor affecting all” whereas P sees the account from the primary perspective of a covenant ratified by circumcision. And much of the chapter is devoted to a formal pronouncement by God. The account in Genesis 15 is seen as being more personal whereas the approach by P is seen as being ritualistic and impersonal.
Theological Significance of the Covenant: Circumcision
Genesis 17 shows circumcision as a renewal of God’s covenant promise to Abraham, following the initial contract of Genesis 15. In Genesis 17, God once again promises to Abraham, lands and offspring as well as the sign of circumcision, a sign or “token”5 of covenant membership (Gen. 17:10). From the perspectives of the Israelites, circumcision was seen as a religious rite that intended to mark the beginning of a “singling out as a special people” for Abraham’s descendants rather than describing or being perceived as just a procedure of health. Circumcision was deemed to be the sign of the Abrahamic covenant, a religious ritual that was and to some extent still is, an identity marker within ancient Judaism
Circumcision in the ancient Near East was observed by many of Israel’s neighbors: the Egyptians, the Edomites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, and certain other nomadic elements (Jer. 9:25). The Philistines did not follow it (2 Sam 1:20), neither did the “Hivites” of Central Palestine (34:15)4 as well as the east Semitic peoples of Mesopotamia, the Canaanites, and the Shechemites.5
Circumcision started as a puberty rite and later became an infancy rite in Israel before becoming an identity marker of the tribe. It is supposed that Jews attached special significance to circumcision3 only toward the end of 7th century BCE although for Israelite males and their slaves, the covenant was a sign of identification of the “people of God.”1 For Second Temple Judaism it became the sign of the Jew, as observance of it by non-Jews waned under Hellenistic influence. Removal of the foreskin served not only as a sign of God’s covenant but also had ethical significance.
The application of circumcision was as follows:
1) Circumcision was to include all male children (v10).
2) Circumcision was a sign of the covenant and only a sign (v11). It signified that a person was dedicating and committing his life to believe the promises (covenant) of God and to follow after God with his whole heart.
3) Circumcision was to be performed at a set time: when the child was eight days old (v12).
4) Circumcision was to include every household: every male, free or enslaved (v12b–13).
5) Circumcision was to be an everlasting sign (v13). Here God is referring to the meaning lying behind the sign or ritual, referring to the covenant itself. The sign was to remind believers of God’s great covenant established with Abraham that,
• that the promised seed was assured; the Savior would come to the earth, and there would always be a nation of believers who followed God just as Abraham did, a nation of genuine believers who would live forever.
• that the promised land was assured; the true children of Abraham would inherit the land, an eternal land forever and ever.
6) Circumcision was to be strictly observed: refusal to share in the ritual was to be severely punished. A man who refused to be circumcised was to be cut off from the people. This meant that the person was to be removed from those who believed the covenant and followed God, cut off from those who walked after the faith of Abraham
Parallelism with Chapter 15 (E/J) and Chapter 17 (P)
A comparison of the structure of Genesis 15 and 17 shows a difference in covenant pericopes. In Genesis 15 there are two ‘parallel’ sections (v1–6, 7–21), each focusing on a different promissory aspect; viz. seed and land. In each, God assures Abraham with a promise, and then Abraham asks for further reassurance. God then amplifies the promise visually and verbally, and then the narrator offers a concluding observation. The structure of Genesis 17 differs from Genesis 15 in that there are three major ‘panels’ (v4–14, 15–16, 17–21) bracketed by an introduction (v1–3) and a conclusion (v22–27). The first of these three panels (v4–14) are divided into two parts, namely the covenant obligations of both divine (v4–8) and human (v9–14). Unlike the two sections in Genesis 15, each of the three main panels in Genesis 17 is linked by the promissory theme of nations and kings: in the case of Abraham (17:4–6) and Sarah (v. 16), and strongly alluded to in a discussion concerning the future of Isaac and Ishmael.
Rendsburg compares chapters 15 and 17 and suggests that whilst similar in content, the structure, use of words, emphasis and grammar suggest a different perspective of “authorship.”
In chapter 15 (J) the use of genealogy, itinerary and divine promise and blessing as framing structures are also seen in chapter 17 but the Priestly author modifies and expands these in distinctive ways.
The similarities of both chapters can be summarized as:
1. Both open with a theophany with Abraham (15:1a; 17:1a).
2. Both start with a reassurance of divine protection.
3. Both continue with God speaking of reward and increase (15:1; 17:2).
4. The promise of multitudinous offspring (17:4) is the corollary to Abraham’s complaint about having no offspring (15:3).
5. Some of the Hebrew grammar and words in 17:6 are similar to 15:4.
6. Both mention the Promised Land (15:7; 17:8).
7. Both follow the mentioning of the Promised Land with a description of a ceremonial ritual (15:9–11; 17:10–14).
8. Both then have the beginning of a second divine communication (15:13; 17:15), which in each case deals further with the promised offspring (15:13–16; 17:15–22).
9. Both episodes conclude with the completion of the ceremony described earlier (15:17; 17:23–27).