Genesis 15-17

Good morning! Today’s reading is Genesis 15-17, where God “makes it official” with Abram in the manner of biblical covenants, comes to the aid of the Egyptian slave woman Hagar, and then institutes a name change and circumcision as a sign of covenant.

For all his legendary faith, in Genesis 15 Abram is getting worried about God’s ability to follow through on the promises of offspring and land. With no children, Abram and Sarai are without the “social security” and care in their elder years that descendants symbolize. But God again repeats the promise of children, and points Abram to the stars as a visible marker of the abundant descendants he and Sarai would have. Abram likewise asks for proof that the Promised Land was truly his, so God manifests in a smoking fire pot and flaming torch as a guarantee that Abram was not misled.

We learn more about Abram’s wife Sarai in Genesis 16, and see the grim consequences of slavery for Hagar. Though Sarai is barren, she coerces her Egyptian slave Hagar into secondary marriage with Abram to give him offspring. When Hagar conceives in just the way Sarai intended, Sarai nevertheless blames Abram and mistreats Hagar, until she runs away. Here we witness the care of God for all members of this household. An angel appears to Hagar and counsels her to return to Sarai, but promises countless people in her lineage through this firstborn son, who is called Ishmael upon his birth. As I understand it, Muslims today consider themselves descended from Ishmael, tracing their faith lineage back to Abraham through Hagar and this firstborn son.

But since this is a Jewish narrative, the story doesn’t end with Ishmael. Abram (at the ripe old age of ninety-nine!) again meets with God in chapter 17. God reiterates the promise of offspring through Sarai, but changes their names to Abraham and Sarah. (Much can be made of the name-change significance—I wonder what you think it means. A sign of new identity or commitment, like a name given in Christian baptisms? Simply a way of bringing together oral traditions with different names for the main character? Or something else?) This version of the covenant requires a permanent mark among the men of Abraham’s household. From this time on, circumcision is understood to indicate who is “covered” by the promise of God. Note that Ishmael is promised a legacy and circumcised along with all the others, even though he’s not the one through whom Jews ultimately trace the lineage of faith. Ishmael’s inclusion suggests to me that Muslims today are not excluded from God’s promises of blessing, the covenant of care for Abraham, Sarah, and all their descendants. What do you think? Happy reading!

Read Genesis 15-17.

Please join discussion of this passage at the Daily Bible Facebook group, or comment below. Tomorrow’s passage is Genesis 18-20. Thanks for reading!

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