"Avraham fell on his face and rejoiced." -Bereishit 17:17
Pirkei Avot, The Ethics of our Fathers 5:3 tells us that G-d tested Avraham with ten trials. However, we are not told what those trials were. Thus there are a number of rabbinic traditions regarding the ten trials of Avraham. According to the list of Maimonides—which is found in its entirety within Scripture, circumcision at an old age is the sixth trial. Whereas Rabbi Ovadiah of Bertinoro lists the same trial as the seventh of Avraham’s tests. Lists of the trials can also be found in MidrashTehillim, Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, Avot d’Rabbi Natan, and the commentary of the Meiri on Ethics of Our Fathers. Regardless of which tradition one follows, the trial of circumcision appears in the latter part of the majority of lists. This trial is bringing Avraham close to the last of his trials and is in itself a trial intended to reveal his spiritual identity by using a physical sign. A covenant by nature is a cutting, it requires the shedding of blood.
As is always the case, this trial is not a test in the sense that G-d is trying to figure out Avraham’s character, rather it is a proving of the character G-d already sees in Avraham. For all who, like the father of faith, have chosen to trust G-d through Messiah Yeshua, there is a profound lesson to be learned within the narrative of Genesis 17. The delight over the miraculous provision of G-d is often accompanied by a practical commitment. We act out in the physical realm the living picture of what we are trusting G-d for in the spiritual realm. There are times when being set apart unto G-d is a painful experience. There is a cost to the free gift of redemption, a pruning of the self.
The covenant of chapter 15 is incumbent upon G-d alone, with Avram, the father of trust and his progeny as the recipients. It is no accident that this was the first of the Abrahamic covenants: it is the very essence of the Gospel, redemption through blood and trust alone (Rom. 3:28; Gal. 2:16; Eph. 2:8-9). The covenant of the current chapter is the outworking of that trust. Here the fruit of faith is to be seen in action (circumcision). In many ways chapters 15 and 17 are a platform for the teaching of Rabbi Yaakov (James):
“Trust devoid of action is dead.” –Yaakov (James) 2:17
17:1 And when Avram was ninety nine years old, HaShem (YHVH: Mercy) appeared to Avram, and said to him, “Ani (I am) El (G-d) Shaddai (Almighty, all sufficient); walk before My face, and be tamiym (Whole, complete, healthful, sound, wholesome, innocent, entirely in accord with truth).
Avram is ninety nine years old, a significant number which falls just short of the ten by ten number of completion one hundred. He is also at an age, even by historical contextual standards, where seeding a child has become a medical impossibility.
The previous chapter emphasised the all-seeing attribute of G-d’s nature and His willingness to appear in angelic form in order to be seen by those He sought relationship with. Here G-d appears to Avram as El Shaddai (God, Ruler, Judge – Almighty, all sufficient). Perhaps this is intended to remind Avram of the immutable power of the One in whom he had placed his trust.
The instruction that follows is a poignant reminder of Avram’s attempt to father his own heir in an act of temporary mistrust. The All Sufficient G-d of Avram challenges Avram to walk intimately and perpetually with Him. Thus the Hebrew, “P’nei” (face). G-d explains to Avram that if Avram walks in intimate relationship with G-d he will become tamiym (Whole, complete, healthful, sound, wholesome, innocent, entirely in accord with truth).
The Hebrew, “tamiym” which is often translated perfect, has a much wider and holistic meaning. In fact the English word perfect can be easily misunderstood in this context. I believe the best example of the meaning for this Hebrew word is found in the healing practice of our Messiah Yeshua Who says:
“Your trust (In Me, as the Messiah and representative of G-d’s redemptive work) has made you (acted as the catalyst for making you) whole (tamiym).” –Mark 10:52
Notice that Avram is to, “be” tamiym (Whole, complete etc.) G-d has witnessed Avram’s wholeness and completion outside of the restraints of time and space. In a sense the text is both an instruction and an observation. We can read, “Walk before My face and you will become whole” and, “I’ve seen you walk before My face and become whole”.
“For by one offering He (Yeshua) has perfected (tamiym) for ever them that are sanctified.” –Hebrews 10:14
Gen 17:2 And I will set My covenant in the midst, between Me and you, and will make you great in exceeding abundance.”
The covenant of G-d is to be with Avram, in his midst and between G-d and him. This is an extremely intimate statement which conveys the intrinsic nature of the covenants made between G-d and humanity. It is the shedding of blood, which is the essence of physical life, which acts as a catalyst for the covenant/cutting of a binding agreement.
Gen 17:3 And Avram fell on his face: and speaking with him, G-d (God, Ruler, Judge) said, Gen 17:4 “As for me, behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall become a father of a roaring crowd of nations.
Throughout Scripture, when encountering the Holy G-d, many have fallen face down just as Avram does here. In the face of G-d, Avram hides his face, which is an act of humility and awe. This willing submission to G-d receives a response in the form of an affirmation of the promise formerly given to Avram concerning his offspring.
The Targum of Yonatan along with several other Jewish scholars (Yarchi, Pirke Eliezer), suggests that Avram’s uncircumcision as the reason that he fell on his face, citing subsequent encounters Avraham stood in G-d’s presence. While this may simply be conjecture filled tradition, it none the less teaches the true nature of heart circumcision, without which no one can stand before G-d or enter relationship with Him.
The phrase, “My covenant is with you” conveys the plain meaning that Avram is the second party in the covenant agreement. However, it can also be understood to infer that the covenant will remain with Avram and his descendants.
The literal translation of the Hebrew, “roaring crowd of nations” infers that the nations proceeding from Avram will make plenty of noise throughout history. In hindsight we can see that this is indeed the case.
The obligations of each of the two parties of the covenant of circumcision are listed as follows:
- G-d (verse 4-8)
- Avraham and his descendants (verses 9-14)
Gen 17:5 No longer will you continue to be called by the name Avram (Father of a great nation, father exalted), from now on your name shall be Avraham (Father of many nations); for a father of many nations have I made you.
The meaning of Avram’s name, like so many other aspects of study, is disputed. It may mean, “Father of Aram” from the Hebrew contraction Av-Aram, Aram being in his native country (Mesopotamia). Others suggest that it means, “Exalted Father” from the Hebrew contraction Av- Ram meaning G-d High. Avram’s disassociation with Aram makes the reish (r) superfluous, therefore I favour the meaning, “Father of a Nation” from the three Hebrew words, Av-Am.
Regardless of which of the interpretations of Avram’s name you prefer. The name change is almost universally understood to mean, “Father of a Multitude”, “Father of Many Nations” and, “Father of a Great number of Nations” respectively: from the Hebrew tri-unity, “Av-rabah-hamon”. The point being that G-d has intended from the beginning to birth multitudes through the humble trust of one man.
“Behold, he (Avraham) is the father of the whole world, who are gathered under the wings of the Shechinah.” – Maimonides, Hilchot Bikurim, c. 4. sect. 3.
Avram’s new name, Avraham, has great significance in relationship to his being the father of Trust, or, the Father of all who believe through faith.
“Though converts do not descend from the patriarchs… all converts are considered descendants of Avraham because the Torah calls him the father of… nations, and therefore a convert can be called a son of Avraham.” –Rambam, Commentary to Mishnah Bikkurim 1:4
It seems that the Rambam agrees with Rabbi Shaul the shaliach (Paul the Apostle), who writes:
“Therefore, the promise comes by trust (emunah: faith), so that it may be by grace (chesed) and may be guaranteed to all Avraham’s offspring—not only to those who are of the Torah but also to those who have the trust of Avraham. He is the father of us all.” –Romans 4:16
Gen 17:6 And I will make you fruitful exceeding, abundant, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall go out from you. Gen 17:7 And I will arise, establishing My covenant which is in the midst, between Me and you and your seed after you in their generations for an olam (everlasting, eternal, perpetual) covenant, I will be your God (God, Ruler, Judge), and God to your seed after you.
It is important to note that G-d’s promise to bring many nations forth from Avraham is in the future tense. This means that the covenant promise is for those yet to be born and does not apply to Y’sh’ma’el (Ishmael).
The blessing regarding kings relates to G-d’s Kingship over all things. The kings of Avraham’s descendants are tasked with representing the true King of kings and His attributes of Mercy and Judgement. Unfortunately this has rarely been the case in the history of Israel’s kings.
The greatest of these blessings is the one that bears them all, “I will be your G-d”. These are the words of a bridegroom, “I will”. The question remains, “Will you?” A bride is not secure in marriage until she utters the words, “I will”.
Gen 17:8 And I will give to you, and to your seed after you, the land where you now sojourn, all the land of Canaan (Lowland), for an olam (everlasting, eternal, perpetual) possession; and I will be their Elohim (God, Ruler, Judge).”
This addition, which follows the phrase, “I will be your G-d”, is an affirmation of the former promise of land which is incumbent upon G-d alone. It is not subject to the circumcision covenant because it has already been covenanted according to the first covenant of Genesis 15. In a sense, the, “And” at the beginning of this verse reads, “And, I haven’t forgotten what I already established with you in the former covenant”.
We note that the title Elohim, meaning G-d, Ruler and Judge, is being used here to convey the sense of binding law. It is a title of G-d that denotes security and authority over what some would term legal matters.
Gen 17:9 And Elohim (God: Ruler, Judge) said unto Avraham, “My covenant is for you to tish’mor (Keep, guard, observe, heed), you and your seed after you in their generations. Gen 17:10 This is My covenant, which you shall tish’m’roo (Keep, guard, observe, heed), between Me and you and your seed after you; Every male among you shall be circumcised.
There is little detail given here as to how the circumcision is to be performed. The covenant is said to simply rely on the practice and a faithful and perpetual keeping of it. Modern rabbinical Judaism has added a number of beautiful traditions to the ceremony of circumcision, but strictly speaking they are not inferred in the instruction of G-d’s Torah.
Circumcision was not unique to the Jewish people, many nations in the middle East already practiced it, with the exception of the Philistines. However, what makes this circumcision unique is the fact that it is done before a child has entered into the moral responsibilities of adulthood and is therefore the mark of his identity and belonging outside of any obligations to moral law. The instruction then is incumbent on the father of the child and not on the child himself. Of course, as the child grows and becomes a father himself, the covenant becomes incumbent upon him.
The early administration of the Jewish covenant of circumcision, implies a commitment to G-d’s chosen people (v14) and to G-d (Jeremiah 4:4). Later in Israel’s history it came to symbolize the discarding of heathen practices (Joshua 5:9).
From its inception circumcision has been a physical representation of the spiritual human need to receive a circumcised heart (core being).
“Circumcise your hearts (core being), therefore, and do not be stiff-necked (Full of pride) any longer.” –Deuteronomy 10:16
This covenant is open to the nations (v12-13), however, this was only the case when they became wholly devoted to belonging to the community of ethnic Israel (Exodus 12:45).
My mother tells me that although my father had lost touch with Jewish tradition, having been raised in a secular Jewish home, he none the less insisted that my brothers and I be circumcised when I was born. Somehow, deep within his Jewish soul he understood the need to perpetuate this sign in my flesh even though he was ritually disconnected from this covenant Jewish practice, this rite; this right of every Jewish male.
Radak notes that this instruction was given prior to Yitzchak’s conception, for the purpose of Yiztchak’s holy conception, and in order to emphasis the miracle of Avraham’s ability to father a child with a weakened organ.
The act of circumcision also brought attention to the symbolic nature of the male organ. We should note that Y’sh’ma’el was conceived while Avram was yet uncircumcised and is therefore according to the flesh (fallen man), whereas Yiztchak was to be conceived via the circumcised organ as a symbol of the need for human hearts to be spiritually circumcised.
Gen 17:11 And you shall circumcise the flesh of your orel (barrier, foreskin); and it shall be an ot (Sign, remembrance, distinguishing mark, banner, proof) of the covenant between Me and you.
The Hebrew word, “orel” translated as, “foreskin” also has a metaphorical meaning as a, “barrier”. In particular, a barrier that prevents beneficial results (Leviticus 26:41; Jeremiah 9:25-26; Ezekiel 44:7).
“The days are coming,” declares HaShem, “when I will punish all who are circumcised only in the flesh-- Egypt, Judah, Edom, Ammon, Moab and all who live in the wilderness in distant places. For all these nations are really uncircumcised, and even the whole house of Israel is uncircumcised (orel: barrier) in heart.” –Jeremiah 9:25-26
The ot (sign, mark) of circumcision is just that, a sign on the body of the servants of G-d.
Gen 17:12 And he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every male in your generations, he that is born in the house, or bought with money from any foreigner, which is not of your seed.
The practice of circumcision on the eighth day is both physically and spiritually illuminating. Medically speaking it is within the time period that a child’s skin heals more rapidly, and therefore causes much less pain than circumcisions carried out on adult males.
The number eight holds important spiritual value. Where seven represents completion, wholeness and perfection, as in the days of creation, the cycle of the years of the Shemittah etc. Eight represents the convergence of completion and new beginning. The eighth day is in fact the first day of the second week following creation. The covenant for the land and the building blocks for the progeny have already been completed, just as creation was completed. Now, at the beginning of the second week, something new.
It is important to remind ourselves again, that this new beginning, this circumcision of the heart, like that of the flesh, must be performed by someone other than ourselves. In this case, it is G-d Who will perform the circumcision through His Son (Fully Man & Fully G-d with us).
With regard to subsequent Jewish tradition the following are halachic rulings concerning variations of the practice of circumcision:
“And in the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.” –Vayikra (Leviticus) 12:3
"An infant might be circumcised on the eighth, ninth, tenth, eleventh, and twelfth, neither less nor more; (not less than eight days, nor more than twelve).” -Mishnah. Sabbat, c. 19. sect. 5.
“If he was born between the two evenings, he is circumcised on the ninth; if between the two evenings of the evening of the Sabbath, he is circumcised on the tenth; if on a festival day, after the Sabbath, he is circumcised on the eleventh; if on the two days of the beginning of the year, he is circumcised on the twelfth: an infant that is sick, they do not circumcise it until it is well.'' -Mishnah. Eracin, c. 2. sect. 2.
"They do not circumcise until the sun shines out on the eighth day of a child's birth, and all the day is fit for circumcision; but they that are prepared hasten to the commandment, and circumcise immediately in the morning; and indeed circumcision, which is not in its proper time, is never performed but in the day:'' -Schulchan Aruch, c. 262. sect. 1.
"A servant is born in the power of an Israelite, and another that is taken from Heathens, the master is bound to circumcise them; but he that is born in the house is circumcised on the eighth day; and he that is bought with money is circumcised on the day that he is received, even if he received him on the day he is born, he is circumcised on that day; if he receives a grown servant of Heathens, and the servant is not willing to be circumcised, he bears with him a whole year, but more than that it is forbidden to keep him, seeing he is uncircumcised, but he must send him again to the Heathens.'' -Maimonides. Hilchot Milah, c. 1. sect. 3, 6.
Gen 17:13 He that is born in your house, and he that is bought with your money, must be circumcised: and My covenant shall be in your flesh for an olam (everlasting, eternal, perpetual) covenant.
This covenant is open to the nations (v12-13), however, this was only the case when they became wholly devoted in belonging to the community of ethnic Israel (Exodus 12:45).
Gen 17:14 And the uncircumcised male (zakar) whose flesh of his orel (barrier, foreskin) is not circumcised, that person (nephesh: Life, soul) shall be separated, cut off from his people; My covenant he has broken.”
The Hebrew text is clear in identifying the uncircumcised male as being a male (zakar: literally, male of the species) rather than a child (yeled). This is because only a male who has reached the age of understanding can be justifiably required to keep the instruction. Radak teaches that if a Jewish male is not circumcised by his father when he is a child, he becomes responsible to arrange his own circumcision at the age of his bar mitzvah (13yrs).
Maimonides sees the phrase, “cut off from his people” as referring to those Jews who wilfully refuse circumcision up to the time of their death. Thus he sees a post death cutting off from the Olam Haba (World to come). This is yet another traditional view that correlates to the Messianic view of the need for circumcision of the heart prior to death. We are entirely reliant on the circumcising work of the Messiah in order to enter the tents of HaShem for all eternity.
“A father or a mother that transgress, and circumcise not, make void the affirmative commandment, but are not guilty of cutting off; for no cutting off depends but upon the uncircumcised person himself; and the Sanhedrim are commanded to circumcise a son or a servant in its time, that they may not leave an uncircumcised person in Israel, nor among their servants; if the thing is hid from the Sanhedrim, and they do not circumcise him, when he is grown up, he is bound to circumcise himself; and every day that passes over him, after he is grown up, and he does not circumcise himself, lo, he makes the commandment to cease; but he is not guilty of cutting off until he dies, and he is a presumptuous uncircumcised person;'' – Maimonides, Hilchot. Milah, c. 1. sect. 1, 2.
Gen 17:15 And Elohim (God, Judge, ruler) said to Avraham, As for Sarai (My Princess) your wife, you shall no longer call her name Sarai (My Princess), but Sarah (Woman of Nobility, Princess) shall be her name. Gen 17:16 And I will bless her, and give you a son also of her: yes, I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of peoples shall come out from her.
In changing Sarai’s name G-d makes her a co-participant in the covenant. The name Sarai, which is in the possessive, literally means, “My Princess” which implies that she owes her status to being Avraham’s wife. In changing her name to Sarah, meaning, Princess or Noble Woman, G-d gives her a unique position as the mother of nations and kings. As Rashi says, she became princess “par excellence”- to all humankind (Berachos 13a).
“Even as Sarah obeyed Avraham, calling him lord (Master, Husband): you are her daughters
as long as you do well, and are not afraid or in terror.” -1Peter 3:6
Sarah had previously been barren, but with her new name comes a promise of fertility, progeny and divine destiny. She was beyond the age of child bearing, however, while it was medically impossible for her to produce children, it would not be impossible for G-d. As a result, the birth of the promised son Yitzchak will be a miracle. One could say that Israel is born of miracles, and in turn we see the promised Messiah, the son of G-d born miraculously into time and space, his very birth dividing time itself.
Gen 17:17 Then Avraham fell upon his face, va’yitzchak (and laughed, rejoiced), and said in his lev (Core being, heart, centre), “I’ll have a son born to me, at a hundred years old? Is it possible that Sarah, a woman of ninety years old, could give birth?”
Note the position of prostration. Avram is again in awe and humbles himself at the pronouncement of G-d. This qualifies the nature of his laughter. It is not the laughter of incredulity but of awe and excitement. The Targums of Yonatan and Yerushalayim paraphrase it, "and he wondered". Onkelos renders v’chadi, “he rejoiced”. Thus his question is not one of doubt but of trust and hope, “Could this be possible?” And the answer, “For G-d all things are possible”.
“Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day; and he saw it, and was glad.” –Yochanan
Gen 17:18 And Avraham said to Ha-Elohim (The God, Ruler, Judge), “O that Yi’shma’el (Heard by God) might live before Your face!”
Rambam sees Avraham’s plea as a plea for Ishmael’s life, suggesting that Avraham thought Ishmael would die as a result of the birth of the legitimate heir Isaac. Others suggest that Avraham simply wanted the best for both his sons.
Gen 17:19 And Elohim (The God, Ruler, Judge) said, “Sarah (Woman of Nobility) your wife shall bear you a son indeed; and you shall call his name Yitzchak (Isaac: He laughs): and I will establish my covenant with him for an olam (everlasting, eternal, perpetual) covenant, and with his seed after him.
In answer to Avraham’s, “Could this be?” G-d assures him, “wife shall bear you a son indeed”.
Before G-d answers Avraham’s question regarding Ishmael He makes it very clear that He is establishing His covenant with Yitzchak and his seed after him, eternally.
Gen 17:20 And as for Yi’shma’el (Heard by God), I have heard you: Behold, I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly; twelve princes shall come from him, and I will make him a great nation.
The blessing for Ishmael comes by way of compensation but does not entitle him to the covenant promises of Avraham. Ishmael, as we have seen, has risen and ruled much of the known world through the religion of Islam (subjugation). However, as Rashi rightly notes, “n’shiim” translated here as princes, can also be rendered clouds, thus the Arab peoples will rise for a time, but in the end they will dissipate like clouds.
Gen 17:21 But my covenant I will establish with Yitzchak (Laughter), which Sarah shall bear to you at this set time in the next year.”
While sin has prevented Israel from receiving the fullness of the covenant promises of G-d to date, there is a future time coming when all Israel will be redeemed through Yeshua our Messiah (Romans 11) and as a result the fullness of G-d’s promises will be seen.
Gen 17:22 And having completed the words, Elohim arose from Avraham.
The literal reading here denotes an intimacy in the preceding conversation. Elohim gets up from sitting with Avraham.
Gen 17:23 And Avraham took Yi’shma’el (Heard by God) his son, and all that were born in his house, and all that were bought with his money, every male among the men of Avraham's house; and circumcised the flesh of their foreskin in that same day, as Elohim (God, Judge, ruler) had said to him.
Immediately after receiving the covenant of circumcision from G-d, Avraham circumcises every male member of his household. This was done within the same day, a lot of blood, suffering and tears, particularly for Avraham and the older males. Avraham understood that a barrier (foreskin) was separating the hearts of humanity from G-d, the barrier (foreskin) of fallen humanity’s sin. He also understood that without the shedding of blood a covenant could not be established. Thus he obeyed immediately in trust, having just finished spending time on his face with G-d.
Gen 17:24 And Avraham was ninety nine years old, when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin.
The text infers that the circumcision was done to Avraham. Therefore it was performed by someone else. Some suggest that Eli-etzer, his servant performed the circumcision of Avraham. This is a nice idea, given the meaning of Eli-etzer (My G-d is helper).
Jewish tradition suggests that Avraham sent for Shem (Name), the son of Noach (Comforter), who circumcised him and his son Ishmael (Pirke Eliezer, c. 29.). Another wonderful idea, given the meaning of the names Shem, Noach, Avraham and Ishmael. We could say that this tradition teaches that, “Avraham called on Yeshua (Shem, Name: for there is no other name under heaven by which one can be saved), son of The Comforter (Noach, G-d, The Holy Spirit), Who circumcised the hearts of many nations (Avraham) because G-d heard (Ishmael) their cry for salvation”.
Avraham was one year short of the number symbolizing compound completion and fullness (10 x 10).
Gen 17:25 And Yi’shma’el his son was thirteen years old, when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin.
Ishmael is circumcised at an age that denotes the relationship between G-d and Israel (1 G-d + 12 tribes).
Gen 17:26 In that same day Avraham was circumcised, and Yi’shma’el his son.
“He (Avraham) was circumcised on the day… appointed by Moses for Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement)… and in the place where he was circumcised the altar (Temple altar) was built.” -Pirke Eliezer, ut supra. (c. 29.)
Gen 17:27 And all the men of his house, born in the house, and bought with money from a foreigner, were circumcised with him.
The actions of Avraham are repeated for the purpose of remembrance. This is a common occurrence throughout Hebrew Scripture. To this day we glean from the repetition the observance of our faith and the practice of remembering what G-d has done, what He is doing, and what He has promised to do.
© Yaakov Brown 2016