Almost 25 years after God calls Abram to leave his home in Mesopotamia and go to the land of Canaan, God formally establishes a covenant with him (Genesis 17:4ff.). Like that established with Noah, his descendants, and all living beings (9:8ff.), it is unconditional, everlasting, includes blessings and promises, and carries with it a sign decided upon by God. However, unlike the rainbow, placed in the clouds and passively received by humanity, the sign of God's covenant with Abraham — male circumcision — is something with which Abram and his descendants, not God, are entrusted. They are to circumcise their sons and other male children in their household on the eighth day after birth as a physical sign of the covenant. The punishment for failing to do so is severe. "An uncircumcised male who has not circumcised the flesh of his foreskin," says God, " … shall be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant" (17:14).
By the early second millennium B.C.E., the time in which, according to tradition, Abraham and his wife, Sarah are said to have lived, male circumcision was not unknown in the ancient Near East, nor was the concept of covenant. The Egyptians, for example, circumcised their sons as part of a prenuptial ceremony or, more likely, near the age of puberty as an initiation into manhood (Jack M. Sasson, "Circumcision in the Ancient Near East," Journal of Biblical Literature, 1966, p. 474). The Canaanites, like the neighboring Ammonites, Edomites, and Moabites, also practiced circumcision (Roland de Vaux, Ancient Israel, Volume I: Social Institutions [NY: McGraw-Hill, 1965], p.47) and archeological discoveries have shown the resemblance of the Hebrew covenant to other covenants of the ancient Near East (George E. Mendenhall, "Covenant," The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, vol. 1, Abingdon Press, 1962, pp. 714-723). Indeed, the literary-juristic form of the covenant between God and Abraham bears a striking resemblance to covenants made between Hittite sovereigns and their vassals dating back to the third millennium B.C.E. Yet what is unique about God's covenant with Abraham is the explicit connection between the covenant and male circumcision, as well as, in contrast to the gods and goddesses of ancient Mesopotamia whose "capriciousness was taken for granted," specific unconditional and eternal commitments by God (Nahum M. Sarna, Understanding Genesis: The Heritage of Biblical Israel, vol. 1 [NY: Schocken Books, 1970], pp. 126-127). God promises Abram progeny (Genesis 17:4: "You shall be the father of a multitude of peoples") and land (Genesis 17:8: "the whole land of Canaan") and to signify his change in status, changes his name from Abram to Abraham, an expanded form of Abram indicating the many nations that will descend from him.
It is not arbitrary that God chooses circumcision as the covenantal sign. Fertility is central among God's promises here, as are concerns about lineage by the priestly editors of Genesis 17 (Lawrence A. Hoffman, Covenant of Blood: Circumcision and Gender in Rabbinic Judaism [Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1996], p. 41). Male blood, shed during circumcision, came to be seen as salvific, in contrast to women's impure menstrual blood (ibid., p. 100ff.) and by the end of the first century C.E., with the growth of Christianity, circumcision became recognized as a sign of Jewish difference and as a marking in the flesh of the intimate relationship between God and the Jewish people.
But what about women? When God changes Sarai's name to Sarah (Genesis 17:15) and tells Abraham: "I will bless her and she shall become [the progenitor of] nations; rulers of people shall come from her" (Genesis 17:16), it is made clear that the covenant will not be established through Abraham's first child, Ishmael, the son of Abraham and Hagar, Sarah's Egyptian slave, but rather through Isaac, the son of Abraham and Sarah. As with Abraham, God's covenantal promise to Sarah includes fertility, and her name change may symbolize the end of her barrenness (Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 16b). While this promise isn't seared into Sarah's flesh or that of her female descendants, they too will be full covenantal members.
One can argue that Sarah is "not a covenantal person in her own right" since she does not bear the physical sign of the covenant, although as the one who gives birth to Isaac, she is "essential to the covenantal process" (Shaye J.D. Cohen, Why Aren't Jewish Women Circumcised: Gender and Covenant in Judaism [Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2005, pp. 12-13). Yet one might also claim, as I would, that the centrality of women to Judaism — a role that includes but is not solely predicated on our giving birth — belies this former argument. While one need not have a (circumcised) phallus to be a covenantal person in one's own right, perhaps we need more private acknowledgement and public celebration of this religious truth.
B'rit banot ( the covenant of daughters) rituals, alternately named simchat bat (celebration of a daughter) rituals, in which Jewish girls are named and welcomed as full members of the covenant, need to become more mainstream than they are today. They need to be seen as obligatory, in the same way that most Jews see male circumcision as a religious or cultural obligation. And I hope that the time when this ritual for baby girls takes place can be agreed upon, if not universally, then at least by individual Jewish communities or religious movements: on the eighth day after birth as a parallel ritual to b'rit milah; on the 13th day: the biblical end of women's state of impurity following the birth of a daughter; or on the first Rosh Chodesh (New Moon) following the girl's birth, in acknowledgement of Rosh Chodesh as a special holiday for women (Pirkei D'Rabbi Eliezer 45). "Abraham's covenant belongs to [all of] Israel, and the covenant of the flesh belongs to the people who mystically belong to the flesh of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob," including women (Tikva Frymer-Kensky, Studies in Bible and Feminist Criticism [Philadelphia: JPS, 2006], p. 154).
Dr. Ellen M. Umansky is the Carl and Dorothy Bennett Professor of Judaic Studies at Fairfield University in Fairfield, CT; Professor of Religious Studies; and director of the university's Bennett Center for Judaic Studies . She is a long-time member of Reform Congregation Kol Ami in White Plains, NY.
The covenant God establishes with Abram in Genesis 17 originates in God's call to Abram at the beginning of Parashat Lech L'cha: "Go forth from your land, your birthplace, your father's house, to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and it shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and I will pronounce doom on those who curse you; through you all the families of the earth shall be blessed" (Genesis 12:1-3).
As enticing as these promises are, it must have taken significant courage for Abram to set out from Haran for an unspecified land. But without asking a single question, Abram went forth from Haran with Sarai, his nephew Lot and their possessions for the land of Canaan.
God then appears to Abram a second time, adding an important element to this covenant: "I am giving this land to your descendants" (Genesis 12:7). So the most significant aspects of the covenant — progeny and land — are promised as we begin the story of Abram. But only later is this agreement called a b'rit, a "covenant," and spelled out in more detail, including the requirement of circumcision for every male (see Genesis 15:8, 17:1ff.). Why is it only later that the term b'rit is used and that circumcision is introduced?
Abram's leaving home and journeying to Canaan was apparently not enough to demonstrate he was ready to fully assume the responsibilities of the covenant. Rather, he had to demonstrate — both to God and to himself — that he was committed to the covenant and prepared to commit future generations to this covenant. In the ensuing chapters, Abram faces a number of challenges, what the Rabbis call tests, which demonstrate that he is ready to assume the covenant. Two of these challenges are particularly significant.
The first challenge occurs when "a quarrel broke out between Abram's cattle herders and Lot's cattle herders" (Genesis 13:7). It is time for them to go their separate ways and Abram gives Lot the choice whether to go north or south. Abram has succeeded in defusing this conflict and God immediately affirms that the land will be given to him and to his descendants (Genesis 13:15). Still, God is not ready to completely affirm the covenant.
Only after Abram laments, "Look — to me You have given no offspring, and one of my slaves is my heir!" (Genesis 15:3) are the events set in motion which will conclude in the formal affirmation of the covenant. God assures Abram that his servant will not be his heir. But Sarai is still barren, so she tells Abram to sleep with her slave, Hagar, so that he will have a son. This leads to one of Abram's most trying tests (at least until the Akeidah), as Sarai turns on Hagar after she becomes pregnant. Abram tells Sarai to do to Hagar as she pleases and Sarai treats her so poorly that Hagar runs away. Only when this incident is resolved — God's angel tells Hagar to return and she gives birth to Ishmael — does God affirm the covenant, changing Abram's and Sarai's names and requiring the eternal sign of circumcision.
Why does it take all of this before God affirms the covenant? And what specifically triggers God's decision to do so? While the text does not clearly indicate an answer to these questions, we can infer the answers from the intervening stories. In both the conflict with Lot and his cattle herders and the conflict between Sarai and Hagar, Abram allows the others (Lot and Sarai) to make the crucial decisions. Abram tells Lot to choose which land to settle and he tells Sarai to do what she wants with Hagar.
Allowing others to make these decisions is not a sign of weakness. Rather it demonstrates a trust in Lot and Sarai on the one hand, and ultimately trust in God, that these conflicts will be resolved in the appropriate ways. It is this trust that shows God that Abram is indeed worthy of the covenant, which is affirmed through the changing of names and the sign of circumcision.
Lech L’cha, Genesis 12:1-17:27
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 91-117; Revised Edition, pp. 88-117;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 59-84
Haftarah, Isaiah 40:27–41:16
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 330−333; Revised Edition, pp. 118−120