Day 5 (Jan. 5): God and Abraham’s covenant, sacrifices, Hagar’s relationship with God, circumcision

Welcome to BibleBum where we are exploring the entire Bible in one year to better learn how to follow God’s instructions and discover the purpose for our lives.  The BibleBum blog uses The One Year Chronological Bible, the New Living Translation version.  At the end of each day’s reading, Rob, a cultural history aficionado and seminary graduate, answers questions from Leigh An, the blogger host, about the daily scripture.  To start from the beginning, click on “Index” and select Day 1.

Genesis 15-17

Questions & Observations

O. (15:5): I would love to be a fly on the wall at this conversation.  I can’t imagine the Lord telling me that I am the root of all of these descendants.  How incredible that must have felt to be handed that kind of “trophy.”  If we all trust in God, we can feel that way too.

Q. (15:9): You talked about sacrifices in Day 4’s readings, but I still don’t get it.  Killing animals seems so violent.  I just don’t understand why such violence would be pleasing.  Maybe it’s something for me not to understand?  Also, I see the three’s in this passage — a goat, a ram and a heifer, all 3 years old.

A. I’m afraid there’s not much I can do to help you address the violent aspects of the usage of animal sacrifices; this was simply the world that they lived in, and, frankly, our entire world lived in until a couple of generations ago.  Today, we are mostly spared from the sight of animal slaughter, but it is a reality in our continued survival, vegetarian and vegan company excluded.  Let’s stick to this passage for the moment, and I will address the reasons for the sacrifice system when that comes up in Leviticus.  There are particular circumstances going on in Gen 15 that I want to make sure we understand.

This ceremony that takes place between Abram and God in this passage is unique as it comes to sacrifices.  The animals are not sacrificed to cover sin, but rather to confirm a covenant.  As I understand it, in the ancient Middle East, a king would hold a covenant ceremony with a servant or vassal who agreed to serve the king (God of course is the King, and Abram the vassal).  The king and servant would conduct a ceremony in which animals were sawed in half (violent, I know, but it was the ritual) and the participating parties would walk between the two halves (as God does in verse 17 with the movement of the torch) to symbolize the establishment of the covenant relationship.  The sawed animals represented the punishment is either party broke the covenant, though not in a literal way.  The parties basically said, “may I be sawed in half like these animals if I violate this sacred relationship.”

God is using this ceremony to formalize the relationship between Himself and Abram in a way that Abram (and the subsequent readers) would clearly understand.  Though it seems foreign and violent to us, it would have been an especially significant experience to Abram and the ancient Jews who read these words.

I will try to keep addressing the sacrifice system as it comes up, but frankly, the Bible does not shy away from the violence (of many sorts) that takes place on its pages.

O. (15:13-16): The Lord tells of the Israelites saga.  There’s so much back-and-forth references in the Bible that it’s foolproof.  I am surprised that people still try to dispute it!

Q. (16:12): If the Lord or anyone told me that I was going to have a child wilder than a donkey, I would be a little upset.  And, God tells Hagar to go back to live with Sarai who was treating her poorly.  Hagar does not seem to be troubled with any of this.  God said that he had heard her cries, so maybe she was a believer and trusted God?

A. While it seems harsh (a common theme so far I guess), the story of Hagar is actually one of my favorites from the OT.  God made His promises to Abraham and Sarah, and a slave like Hagar could be excused for thinking that her actions (and her child) did not matter to God.  But she is wrong!  God sees her, as she points out, and cares greatly for her needs, as well as the needs of her son.  We will see more of this story in a few chapters, because it happens again.

Q. (17:12-14): Circumcision is something I totally don’t understand.  It is such a violent act for a newborn boy.  And, if it’s the mark of the everlasting covenant, no one can visibly see it unless they are naked.  So, what is the purpose?  Is this still one of God’s requirements today?

A. Regarding the current requirement of circumcision: yes, pious Jews will tell you that circumcising a male child on the eighth day is one of their most sacred duties as a new parent: the circumcision is the ritual for a child becoming “part of the family”.  And just FYI, it is part of pious Muslim ritual as well, and called “Khitan”.  Some Christians choose to participate, but there is disagreement about the requirement.  Christians who argue that we are no longer under the Law because of Jesus may still choose to do so in order to honor God.

Circumcision was (and frankly still is) a unique way of marking a person as a follower of God — and it would have been completely unique in the ancient world.  This gets at a larger theme of the first five books of the OT: that God is requiring that His chosen people act in various ways to show that they are set apart from the world (and other tribes) around them.  I won’t try to defend the violence of the act (like a broken record, I guess that would be the title for our Day 5 discussion), but there are Jews, Muslims, and Christians who to this day see circumcision as bringing their children into covenant relationship with God — something that can literally have eternal consequences.

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