This transcription of the seventh part of my series on the story of the family of Abraham was transcribed by Lorraine O’Neal. If you would be interested in her transcription services—for sermons, lectures, talks, or something else—you can contact her here.
I would very much like to provide transcripts for all of my videos, but I will require more support for this to be affordable. If you would like to help to make this possible, please consider supporting or donating using my Patreon or PayPal accounts. New sponsorship and donations are being earmarked for this specific purpose.
Welcome back. We have now reached Genesis 17 in our study of Abraham and his family, which is the seventh part of this series. Within this chapter, we see the events taking place in the ninety-ninth year of Abraham’s life. Now, this is thirteen years after the events of the previous chapter. At the end of the previous chapter, Abram is eighty-six. Thirteen years elapse between those points. Abraham was seventy-five years old when he left Haran, so eleven years passed between the end of chapter 11 and the end of chapter 16; in between chapters 16 and 17, thirteen years pass. And now, for the next few chapters, you have all the events occurring within the span of one or two years, until we reach chapter 21. There is a significant series of events that occur around this period of time, around the birth of Isaac.
Why ninety-nine years old? And what is the significance of the ages of the people here? Ishmael would be thirteen. He is entering puberty. And Abram is ninety-nine. Now, what are those numbers associated with? Well, one thing you could think of is a hundred is a sort of super-jubilee—it is a double jubilee—and fourteen is two weeks of years. It is fourteen years, two times seven. Seven times seven is forty-nine, and then the fiftieth year is the jubilee. Abram’s age is fifty times two, and then you have seven times two for the age of Ishmael. This is a significant transition point. Something is about to change. And this is an event that prepares them for this. The giving of the covenant of circumcision prepares Abram for what is about to take place, for the birth of Isaac.
Look through this chapter, and you might see there are traces of chiastic structures. If you look in verse 3, it says, “Then Abram fell on his face, and God talked with him, saying…” and in verse 17 it says, “Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said in his heart…” Abraham falling on his face appears at both ends. The next verse, it says, “As for Me, behold, My covenant is with you, and you shall be a father of many nations.” And the verse just before the end, is, “And I will bless her and also give you a son by her; then I will bless her and she shall be a mother of many nations; kings of peoples shall be from her.” In the first case, you have Abram promised that he will be the father of many nations, and, in the second, Sarai is told that she will be the mother of many nations.
What happens next? He is told that his name will be changed. No longer will he be Abram; he will be Abraham. And at the other end of the narrative, you have: “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name.” So, there is another transition that occurs there.
Next thing: God will establish His covenant “between Me and you, and your descendants after you in their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and your descendants after you.” And at the end: “And the uncircumcised male child, who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant.” This is a weaker connection, but I think the connection might be in the everlasting covenant—in both cases that is mentioned—and the establishment and the breaking of the covenant, which are juxtaposed. And perhaps also in a juxtaposition of the fruitfulness and the being cut-off. In one case, you have fruitfulness. In the other case, you have a sort of imposed barrenness, a cutting off from the life of the people.
In the centre, you have this event flanked by two smaller chiasms. You have the covenant declaration, and the covenant declaration is found in verses 9 to 11:
And God said to Abraham: “As for you, you shall keep My covenant, you and your descendants after you throughout their generations. This is My covenant which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: Every male child among you shall be circumcised, and you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you.”
This is a very significant event. It changes a number of things. Abraham has had this relationship with God. He has been given all these promises. This event solidifies a lot of these things. It is a sign—or, better, a symbol—that actually manifests something of the reality of the covenant.
It brings the covenant to light. The fact that it takes this particular form is not accidental. It takes that form because that form is appropriate for what is taking place. The covenant is, in part, a cutting of a covenant. And there is a sense, also, that Israel has been cut off from other nations. One of the things that circumcision does is it establishes a new body of people. Before this point, you have Abram very much associated with the line of Terah, with his brothers and others. And now you have this new body of people that are defined by this ritual. This differentiates them from their forebears. It differentiates them from others who would be associated with the broader line of Terah, and it gives them a very distinct identity.
Now, what does circumcision mean? There a lot of ways in which we can explore the meaning of circumcision, but I think the best thing to do is to focus upon the ways that the theme of circumcision is brought into relationship with other things in Scripture. For instance, in Exodus 22:29-31, we read,
You shall not delay to offer the first of your ripe produce and your juices. The firstborn of your sons you shall give to Me. Likewise, you shall do with your oxen and your sheep. It shall be with its mother seven days; on the eighth day you shall give it to Me. And you shall be holy men to Me: you shall not eat any meat which is torn by beasts in the field; you shall throw it to the dogs.
As you look at that, one of the things you notice—or you should notice—are that animals are fit to be sacrificed after the eighth day, when they are being separated from their mothers. Then they can be sacrificed—they are fitting sacrifices. Circumcision, I think, is associated in part with sacrifice. It is giving the child, dedicating the child to God. We see this theme playing out throughout the story of Genesis, this giving over of the son to God, handing over of the son, this holding of the son with the open hand so that God might actually take or require it from the hand of the person who offers.
Circumcision is also associated with rendering an organ functional. If you look through the Old Testament, and even in the New, you will see references to circumcision (or uncircumcision) in association with other bodily organs: the uncircumcised heart, the uncircumcised lips, the uncircumcised ears. In each of these cases, the uncircumcision is the inability of that wild organ—the organ that had not been tamed, that has not been circumcised—to perform its proper function. And so, there is a cutting off to render something functional. I use the word “wild” here. We will get to that in a moment. The uncircumcised organ or person is something that is wild, that has not being tamed, is not domesticated. It does not belong to the house.
Circumcision is also associated with fruitfulness and removing an obstacle to fertility. If you go to Leviticus 19:23-25, you read,
When you come into the land, and have planted all kinds of trees for food, then you shall count their fruit as uncircumcised. Three years it shall be as uncircumcised to you. It shall not be eaten. But in the fourth year all its fruit shall be holy, a praise to the Lord. And in the fifth year you may eat its fruit, that it may yield to you its increase: I am the Lord your God.
Here you have the trees planted for fruit and for food, and they are not supposed to eat of those for the first three years. And the fourth year, the fruit is dedicated to the Lord. After the fifth year, they can eat. So, these juvenile trees, which have just been planted, they are dedicated—or they are ‘uncircumcised’. No one can eat of them until the fourth year. That fruit is dedicated to the Lord—the first-fruits. And then, in the fifth year, the people can eat.
Now, what does this tell us about circumcision? Well, it connects the symbolism of the fruit and the tree with the organ of generation, the male organ of generation. And that is seen as something that brings forth fruit, that sows seed, that is prepared for bearing of spring in some way. What we see as we look in the example of the fruit tree, the cutting off or the pruning that would occur before that point—pruning the tree before it becomes fruitful—that that is preparing for greater fruitfulness.
It allows it to be more fertile later on. And that is part of the promise that is given, where it says, “And in the fifth year, you may eat its fruit, that it may yield to you its increase.” It is one of the things that makes it more fruitful. Now, throughout the Old Testament, what you will notice is that there is a close correlation between Israel and the land, animals, and other things like that (I have already commented on this at various points). So, when we look at Israel, we will see connections with the bull, with the ram, with the goat, with the turtledove and the pigeon. I mentioned that already. Israel is defined around these five sacrificial animals. And so, those are the animals that are laid out as symbolism of Abram’s descendants in chapter 15.
In chapter 16, we see Ishmael described, that he will be a ‘wild-ass’ man. This is a man that is not tamed. This is a man who will dwell among his brethren, but he is one of the strangers in the land. The donkey—or the ass—was a creature that was within the land but was not fully domesticated. It was not a clean animal in the same way. So, you have this ornery ass that is part of the farm, for instance. And it would be out there in the field, and it would be tethered, and it would be part of that broader order of the household. But it would not be able to be sacrificed in the same way as the son of the herd could, or the ram, or some other animal like that. Those are domestic animals, whereas the ass is the resident stranger. And it is not surprising that the ass should be associated with the son of Hagar—the stranger.
As you look throughout the Old Testament, you will see the way that the ass itself is treated in a way that shows that analogy between the ass and the stranger within the land, the foreigner who is part of many of the rites, who can participate in many respects, but in other respects is held out and restricted from what they can do.
Now, if we look through the other parallels that we see in Scripture, we will see parallels, for instance, between untended vines, which are described using the same terminology as the Nazarite with his untended hair (cf. Leviticus 25:5, 11). If we look through Scripture, the hair is compared to foliage. And so, the land and the human person are very closely related together. Within that sort of association, the fruitfulness of the person—the person being conceived of as a fruitful vine or something like that—is something that is related to trees of the land.
So, Israel, if it is going to be a tended vine—if it is not just going to be a wild vine—has to be circumcised. And circumcision is, in some sense, a domestication of the fruitfulness of the vine, so that it will be fruitful. It will bear more fruit and its fruit will be better.
This is significant. Circumcision is something that tends the natural wildness of fertility, particularly of the male’s sowing of the seed. That wildness is something that can be seen in the more general context that you see in Genesis, where you have, for instance, Shechem and the relationship with Dinah, or Abram and the relationship with Hagar, or the story of Sodom. These sorts of stories are stories that show untended sexuality, sexuality that is just wild, that has not been pruned in any way. And so, this, the creativity of the person, is being pruned so that it would be fruitful in the proper way. There is a restriction of that fertility, and a tending of it, and a bringing it into subjection to God. There is a sign of a sacrifice of that fertility to God, of its dedication to God.
Now, that difference between the wild and the cultivated, and circumcision being the pruned man, is important. As we look through these texts, I think what you will notice is that the phallus—the male penis—is associated with the flesh. It is associated with a lot of the other things that the flesh is associated with too.
If you look in the New Testament, you will see the flesh being spoken of as a sort of natural power of the spirited man. It is something that is associated with the body. It is something that is associated with sinful nature, in some senses. It is something that is also particularly focused upon the penis and upon the phallus—and that is not an accidental association—with male creative power, the power to form civilizations, to make a name for oneself, to make a generation, to be a powerful, fruitful vine.
That is something that we see in all societies: the danger of the untended phallus, of the sort of phallic power that is just left to run wild, that is untended, that is undomesticated and just exercises its fertility in whatever way it wants. God is tending this. The great sign of the covenant is the male generative organ, the male organ of creativity that symbolizes the man’s thumos—his spiritedness more generally—is something that is brought under divine control. It is sacrificed to God. There is a sort of symbolic castration involved here as well, as part of that organ is cut off. And that organ that symbolizes a man’s virility is symbolically offered to God.
Now, that is a very important thing to do. It is something that suggests the death of that organ, that Abram is as good as dead. There is a sense of a giving up of the life of this organ. He could bear a child of the flesh beforehand, but now he is a tended person. Now he is a pruned man. And as a pruned man, he is no longer bearing wild fruit. He is one who is going to bear the child of promise, the child that is the true seed that is given by God himself—God, who has now taken the people into the covenant, tending them as His vine, and preparing them to bear fruit.
What else is going on here? It is the eighth day. The eighth day is the day that the child is freed from the impurity that is associated with childbirth. So, if you look in Leviticus 12, it says, “If a woman has conceived, and borne a male child, then she shall be unclean seven days; as in the days of her customary impurity she shall be unclean. And on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.” So, there is a transition here. For seven days, the child is associated with the uncleanness of the mother. And on the eighth day—the earliest possible time—the child is circumcised.
If you look at other societies, many other societies celebrate circumcision, independent of Abrahamic influence. This is something that plays on a more general body symbolism. It is not something that is just instituted by God; it is something that has a natural symbolic significance, and you will see the same connections with fruit, and fertility, and trees, and the male generative organ in various African rites. A person to read on this who I found very helpful—and is at the root of many of these thoughts—is Howard Eilberg-Schwartz, whose book The Savage in Judaism, is an absolute splendid treatment of this particular issue of circumcision—“the fruitful cut,” as he calls it.
Circumcision is a symbolic cutting off of the flesh, then. It is something that tames the virility of man, and it is something that brings it into cultivation. It happens at the earliest possible time, on the eighth day. It is not a choice. This is something that is part of your identity. It is not something that is just a rite of passage that occurs at puberty; it is not a coming-of-age rite. It is a sign of one’s belonging. It is the start of the new week as well. And it creates a new body of people, as I mentioned earlier. Before the institution of circumcision, the boundaries of Abram’s house are not so clear. Who belongs to this new nation that God is going to make great? Who belongs to this new people? Who is in, who is out? Circumcision helps define the lines of that. It helps define the new peoplehood that is cut off from these previous peoplehoods, from these previous nations that we see in the events after the events of Babel.
It also creates a solidarity of men and a difference between men and women. The young male child is brought into the male community at that very early stage, at the age of eight days of age. He is connected with the male community, and there is a solidarity that is formed there. There is something patrilineal about this, that this connects fathers and sons. And as we look through the book of Genesis, we will see a focus upon patrilineality and this nation being formed from fathers, to sons, and then all the way down—lines of sons. And it is associated also with the giving of the name. We see this in the book of Luke as both John the Baptist and Jesus receive their names at the times of circumcision. It is something that is an acknowledgment of that child’s belonging. They have been released from their impurity, and now they belong to the community. They have been marked out as those who have this identity as part of this pruned vine, that they will be part of this people that will be fruitful.
And so, the connection of circumcision with the promise of seed is very important. The flesh that is cut off is again important; it is associated with the male generative organ that brings forth fruit. So, the cutting off of this is preparing to bear seed. And it creates a juxtaposition between men and women. This is a rite that is restricted to men. Women are not circumcised. Men are circumcised, and in circumcising men, it creates a sense of this male community, this bond between men and children, and that is always something that has more of a customary or cultural aspect to it that needs to be constructed in a way that the relationship between mother and child does not. When the child is born, there is a very natural connection with the mother, not just in the fact that it has proceeded from the womb, but also that it is being drawn to the breast—things like that. Whereas, with circumcision the male child who is born is connected with the father as the father is particularly responsible for circumcising them. There is an owning of that child. And the child is brought into a new solidarity.
There is also an indication that this is a people that has a destiny that is not individualistic. We tend to think about signs—signs of the covenant—in a very individualistic sense, that it is a thing for each individual. It is very much a sign of “what is true for me.” But the point of circumcision is that it is a sign of a peoplehood and your participation in that peoplehood. In the same way with baptism—we all have one baptism. Baptism is associated with childbirth. We are reborn. We are born of the Spirit, and we are begotten again. And all these themes help us to understand why it is that baptism takes the form that it does, why it is that baptism, for instance, is for males and females, not just for men.
But within this particular symbolism, how does the woman relate to circumcision? She is implicated. We see that later on in Chapter 34, where they say, after the seduction of Dinah—the seduction or rape, however you interpret that: we will get to that later on—that if they are circumcised, then they can intermarry. But if they are not circumcised, then they can not intermarry. And the assumption is that women who are part of a house in which the males are circumcised are implicated within that circumcision.
Now, this is a strange way of thinking for us. We think very individualistically; each person is working out their own identity. But within Israel, one of the things that you will notice throughout is that people are implicated in each other. The husband is the head of the house. The firstborn son is sort of the priestly figure who represents the household. But then, we see the firstborn son is often replaced, as we see it in the story throughout the book of Genesis and also as the firstborn of the story of the Exodus are replaced with the Levites in Numbers.
But if we see all of those stories, we will see that the firstborn son and that sons more generally have implications for every other person within the family. What happens to them—what they do—is something that covers everyone else. So, the sacrifice of the lamb is something that is for the whole family. It is not just for that individual. In the same way, the mother is the tree of life at the heart of the family. She is the heart of the life of the family. She is the one from whom the family grows, and the husband is the head of the family. He is the one who is the one from which it is named. He is the one who kind of sets the line of the patrilineal tree. And all these different relationships are ones that are implicated in each other. The woman has an interest in maintaining the tree of her husband. So, if the husband dies, she wants to maintain his name with the brother, as we see in Levirate marriage.
In all these different cases, I think what you are seeing is the fact that people are implicated in each other, that there is a common good, and each person is a member who represents part of that common good. I think I have discussed this in a recent video, on equality and the way that modern minds think about it, and how that differs from the Old Testament and New Testament texts in various ways.
Circumcision also creates a relationship with priesthood. The person who is circumcised is set apart for a sort of priestly vocation, and this is something that I think you see also in the priestly initiation rites, where the priest had blood put on his thumb, his big toe, and also upon his ear. These are each ‘corners’ of the human body. And I think that the phallus is another one. So, we have the four corners of the human body, like the four corners of the altar. It is associated with hearing, with walking, and stepping, and moving out into the world. The hand is the place of action, the thumb. And then, also, the ear is the site of hearing and obeying. Each of these are dedicated to God in the same way as the foreskin as dedicated to God. The priest, in all the extremities of his body, is dedicated to God. There is a sacrificial dimension to this. And if you look at the priestly initiation rites, there are sacrificial dimensions to that. Baptism is also associated with priesthood, or with drawing near. Whether that is priesthood or bridehood, these things are closely associated, and I could get into that on another occasion.
But the body is dedicated to God. There is a sacrificial element. We present our bodies as a (single) living sacrifice. Our bodies are presented to God. And in the same way, I think that circumcision and its association with priesthood show the way that the body as a whole is sacrificed to God.
What else can we see? What happens in this particular context? It is in the ninety-ninth year of Abraham’s life; it is in the thirteenth year of Ishmael’s life. There is a transition about to occur. As I have mentioned, there is a series of events that occur, one after another. However, most particularly there is judgment that falls upon the cities of the plain at this point. There is a cutting off point. And the cutting off of flesh should be connected, I think, with the cutting off of flesh that occurs in Sodom. We have seen the cutting off of flesh in the story of the Flood, but I think the significance of circumcision is connected with that cutting off of flesh.
What happens in circumcision? In circumcision, part of the flesh is cut off, the symbolic part, dedicating the whole body to the Lord. There is a pruning of the body so that the body would be dedicated to the Lord. And it is pruned so it will not just be all burned up and destroyed. That, then, connects the cutting off of flesh that we see in the judgment on the cities of the plain, where we see a sort of wild, untamed sexuality—a sexuality characterized by rapacious sexual relations, not honouring boundaries between men and angels, and the sort of relationship that is also seen in Lot’s relationship with his daughters, where there is a failure to honour the differences of the family, or recognize the danger of incest. And so, all these boundaries are broken down—and the difference that should be established between the sexes is also broken down in Sodom’s designed homosexual rape.
In each of these cases, you are seeing untamed sexuality, and circumcision is to tame that procreative power, to ensure that man’s procreative instinct—and also his phallic spiritedness more generally—would be tamed to God. And there is a sense in each of these cases, of death and sacrifice—that Abraham is symbolically castrating himself so that he will be brought back to life. And then these great powers that have not been tamed, that are wild, will be cut off. And that cutting off is something that we see elsewhere in Scripture.
Where else do we see a significance of circumcision? In Exodus 4, as Moses is entering into the land of Egypt, as God is about to come near and judge, he has to have his son circumcised. Gershom is circumcised and it is a crisis moment, because God comes near. God meets them on the way, and if he has not circumcised his son, his son could be forfeit. Again, this is a connection with priesthood. Circumcision equips the person to come into God’s presence, and God talks about the ‘wholeness’ of Abraham. And that wholeness, I think, is associated with circumcision. Circumcision renders—through a fruitful cut—the person whole.
Where else do we see circumcision? Circumcision must occur before someone participates in the Passover, and if someone does not participate in the Passover, they will be cut off. There is this threat with the coming of the Angel of Death. Are there any further occasions where circumcision occurs? It occurs just before the entering the Promised Land. When they are coming into God’s presence, when they are coming into the land, they must be circumcised.
Now, I think there must be some sort of almost Freudian theme there: that as you are entering into the land, you must prune the phallus—you must be prepared for entering into the land to sow the seed, to be rooted within the land. You must first be pruned before you can do that. You cannot be the wild people of the wilderness anymore. Now you have to be prepared to no longer just be like the strangers. The wild asses and animals like that—the camels, the creatures of the desert—may be part of the broader household, but they are strangers. They are not fully residents. They are not domesticated. You must be a domesticated people. And so, circumcision must occur before they enter into the land, and the land seen in feminine terms in various ways. That entrance in and circumcision, I think, are associated for that reason.
When God comes near, if the human being is not prepared, if flesh has not been cut off, then there is a threat. And that cutting off of the flesh, I think, is also one of the reasons why the cross can be talked about as the ‘circumcision of Christ’. It is the final decisive circumcision. It is the cutting off of the flesh in death. The cutting off of the Messiah is the cutting off that leads to a new fruitfulness. We are now—those who were once part of a wild vine—grafted into a cultivated vine. There is this cutting off of the tree as well. Christ is placed upon the tree. He is the fruit on the tree. And he is cut off. And this preparation for fruitfulness, I think, is part of what might be the underlying symbolism of Christ being crucified on a tree, and why Paul can speak about the circumcision of Christ.
Baptism is associated with that, as we are baptized into Christ, the fruitful one, the Son. And as we are baptized into Christ, we are baptized on the other side of circumcision. The cutting off has occurred, the flesh has been removed, and now we are placed within Christ. And if the flesh is not cut off, then we are subject to the cutting off of all flesh. So, the person who is not circumcised can be cut off from his people. In the ritual of circumcision, that is what happens to the person who has broken the covenant. The covenant, then, is intimately associated with circumcision. You cannot understand the covenant properly unless you connect it with the symbol, the symbol that brings to light what the covenant actually is.
This is something that is performed upon all the male members of the household. It is not restricted to biological descendants of Abraham; it is for every male who is within his household. And that, I believe, is important because everyone is implicated within this—not just by natural generation, but by divine promise, by inclusion within Abraham. This is something that you see later on in the story of the Exodus. Israel is surrounded by a great multitude—a mixed multitude—and that mixed multitude is a distinct body from those who are just directly descended from Israel. This is a body of people that is brought into the life of Israel and gradually becomes incorporated into the nation. They have Gentile ancestors, but they become part of the tribal order, being included into tribes. This, I believe, helps us to understand that circumcision is not just about the flesh. It occurs on the flesh, but it is about a negation of the flesh. And so, tribes have marks in the flesh. They are very much about the flesh.
But this symbol is about the cutting off of the flesh, the pruning of the flesh, so that we might be fruitful in the Spirit. God gives life where there is death.
This story is not just a story about the cutting off of the male foreskin. It is also a story about the opening of the womb. There is a parallel between the promise given to Abraham and the promise given to Sarai. Both of them have their names changed. Abram’s name is changed to Abraham, as one to be the “father of many nations.” That change is significant because it is not just that he will be the father of Ishmael’s nation. I believe this is referring not to Ishmael at this point, but to the nation that is descended from Jacob, the nation that is descended from Esau, and perhaps also Midianites and others that descended from Keturah. But that descent is something that makes Abram the father of many nations, a number of peoples. Likewise with Sarai. Sarai’s name is changed from ‘my princess’ to ‘princess’—a more absolute statement about her identity. And she is the mother of a great many nations. She will be a mother of nations. Kings of people shall be from her.
When Abraham says, “If only Ishmael would live before you.” God declares in response, “No, Sarah will bear a son, and you will call his name Isaac.” God will establish his covenant with him. But Ishmael will be blessed. He has already been blessed, and he will be made fruitful, and he will multiply exceedingly. So Ishmael and Isaac mirror each other to some extent.
And later on, it says, “He shall beget twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation.” Now, we should recognize the parallel between twelve princes and twelve tribes. There is a mirroring of Isaac and Ishmael. Again, I have talked about diptychs. We have a diptych between Abram and Lot. We have a diptych between Sarai and Hagar. We have a diptych now between Ishmael and Isaac that is starting to emerge—these two characters that will be juxtaposed to each other, and we will understand them better as we explore their relationship with each other.
What else can be said? As we look through this passage, I think one of the things that stands out is the significance of Isaac’s name. Isaac is called “laughter.” And Abraham laughs—that is his response, a laugh of joy. And later on, you will see, in chapter 18 that Sarah also laughs. As you look through the story of Isaac, you will see that theme of laughter occurring on a number of occasions. Ishmael is laughing (or ‘Isaac-ing’) at Isaac. There is a threatening of Isaac’s status, and this is something we discussed on a recent Theopolis podcast.
But look at these connections and you will see the way that a person’s name plays out their destiny. As you look through the story, you will see that Isaac’s name—‘laughter’—is played upon in a number of different ways. First of all, in Abraham’s response to the news, then in Sarah’s response to the news, then in the way that Ishmael laughs in a way that presents him as a threat to Isaac’s status. If Isaac is going to be the heir, then as long as Ishmael is there Isaac-ing, he would seem to be a threat to the clarity of Isaac’s status, so he has to be cast out. Later on, we see Isaac Isaac-ing with Rebekah, and Abimelech finding that out, and discovering the true nature of the relationship between the two of them. These are all significant ways in which we see that name playing itself out.
There is a preparation here: Abraham and his family are pruned in preparation for judgment. There is going to be a burning up of the false trees of the land, the wild trees, so that God can sow a cultivated, tamed, and pruned nation. And this is the pruning that prepares for God’s advent. This is something that occurs on the eighth day. It occurs on the foreskin. And I have discussed the significance of those things.
This is an event that is pivotal for understanding the story of Abraham. There is a movement here into an even greater stage of the covenant. We have looked, as we have gone through, at the way that the covenant promises ramp up, stage by stage. First of all, God promises that he will make Abraham’s name great, he will be a blessing, and he will bless many nations, etc. Then He promises that he will make his descendants numerous as the dust of the earth, etc. and that He will give them a place in the land. Then, all these different promises ramp up. There is a promise that the land will be given as an inheritance. There is the comparison to the stars of heaven, not just the dust of the earth.
And here, we have a cutting off of Israel from the other nations, a marking of the body with the covenant. They are now a vine tended by the Lord, a vine that will be fruitful, a vine that will receive the promise of seed that God has given. And now they are prepared for that time of judgment, where God will come upon the land, and there will be this initial judgment, as the cities of the plain, in the decisive act of judgment, will be removed from the scene.