SDMB weekly Bible Study (SDMBWBS)-Week 11 Genesis 17

Welcome to the SDMB weekly Bible Study (SDMBWBS). This week we will be discussing Genesis 17. Since the discussion can turn into a very broad and hijackable thread, we would like the following rules to be adhered to:

  1. These SDMBWBS threads are to deal with the books and stories in the Bible as literature. What I’m hoping to achieve is an understanding of the stories, the time in which they were written, context, and possibly its cultural relevance.

  2. While it is up to the individual to choose to believe or disbelieve any portion, that is not to be the discussion of the thread. If you must, please choose to witness/anti-witness in Great Debates.

  3. The intention is to go through the Bible from front to back in order. While different books are needed to be referred to in order to understand context, please try and keep the focus on the thread’s selected chapter(s)/verse(s).

  4. Since different religions have chosen which books to include or omit, the threads will use the Catholic version of 46 Old Testament Books and 27 New Testament Books. It’s encouraged to discuss why a book was included/omitted during the applicable threads only. BibleHub, as far as I know, is a good resource that compiles many different versions of the verses into one page.(Also the SDMB Staff Reports on Who Wrote the Bible). Please feel free to use whatever source you want, including-and even more helpfully-the original language.

  5. Hopefully we can get through these threads with little to no moderation. A gentle reminder that if a poster comes in and ignores these rules, please use the “report post” function instead of responding.

Links to previous threads:
Genesis 1:1 to 2:25
Genesis 3
Genesis 4
Genesis 5-6
Genesis 7-9:17
Genesis 9:18-10:32
Genesis 11
Genesis 12-13
Genesis 14-15
Genesis 16

Genesis 17
New International Version (NIV)
Translation from THE HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

The Covenant of Circumcision

Name Changes

At least eleven years have lapsed since God’s first covenant promises and oaths, and now Abram’s house is rife with discord and disbelief. Long tense years of strife with Sarai and Hagar (and Ishmael) living under the same roof have be swept by.

The God who gives the directives in this chapter is El Shaddai (usually “Almighty God”, but possibly “God Who Satisfies” or “God the Sufficient” or “God of the Mountain”). Abram is most often translated as meaning “Exalted Father” while Abraham means “Father of Multitudes”. Again, with numerous variations. Sarai means “Princess”, and Sarah means “Princess”. At least one scholar thinks the former means “My Princess”, belonging to Abram alone, while Sarah means “Princess of All”, but this strikes me as wishful thinking on the part of the interpreter.

Isaac means “he who laughs”. It is noteworthy that Abraham deceives others to save his own skin, and gives away his wife to another man, and is only told to be blameless from here on, but the Lord seems to come down hard on Sarai for laughing at having a baby when she’s old and barren.

cf. Leviticus 12.3: “And in the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.” Instruction for all male babies to be circumcised as a physical sign of the acceptance of God’s covenant with Israel.

According to the Hebrew Bible, it was “a reproach” for an Israelite to be uncircumcised (Joshua 5:9.) The term arelim (“uncircumcised” [plural]) is used opprobriously, denoting the Philistines and other non-Israelites (I Samuel 14:6, 31:4; II Samuel 1:20) and used in conjunction with tameh (unpure) for heathen (Isaiah 52:1). The word arel (“uncircumcised” [singular]) is also employed for “impermeable” (Leviticus 26:41, “their uncircumcised hearts”; compare Jeremiah 9:25; Ezekiel 44:7,9); it is also applied to the first three years’ fruit of a tree, which is forbidden (Leviticus 19:23).

However, the Israelites born in the wilderness after the Exodus from Egypt were not circumcised. Joshua 5:2-9, explains, “all the people that came out” of Egypt were circumcised, but those “born in the wilderness” were not. Therefore Joshua, before the celebration of the Passover, had them circumcised at Gilgal specifically before they entered Canaan.

The prophetic tradition emphasizes that God expects people to be good as well as pious, and that non-Jews will be judged based on their ethical behavior, see Noahide Law. Thus, Jeremiah 9:25-26 says that circumcised and uncircumcised will be punished alike by the Lord; for “all the nations are uncircumcised, and all the house of Israel are uncircumcised in heart.”

The penalty of non-observance is kareth (spiritual excision from the Jewish nation), as noted in Genesis 17:1-14. Conversion to Judaism for non-Israelites in Biblical times necessitated circumcision otherwise one could not partake in the Passover offering (Exodus 12:48). Today, as in the time of Abraham, it is required of converts in Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Judaism. (Genesis 34:14-16).

This is sometimes called the “covenant of the flesh” to distinguish from the “covenant of the pieces” in Chapter 15. For those believing in multiple authors, this is the P-version of the covenant with Abraham while Ch 15 is the J-version, based on many similarities between the two. Both open with standard contract form, identifying the parties: “I am…”; both promise a son; both promise that he will be the father of a multitude and receive the land; and both sections record Abraham expressing doubt that he can have children.

For those believing in a single Author, these are two different covenants. In Ch 15, Abra(ha)m is passive, and the covenant is unilateral on God’s part; here, Abraham is an active partner, circumcising himself and his family and household. The covenant here specifies that the heir will be a son of Sarai (now Sarah), and specifies (three times) that the covenant is “everlasting.”

Now, so textual commentary:

The opening sentence is translated here as “walk before me.” The Hebrew however is reflexive, literally “walk yourself”, there’s no English equivalent.

Names and their meanings are important in the text. A name change here implies a change in spiritual status. My recollection is that the only name changes in the text are Abraham, Sarah, and (later) Jacob, but I could be mistaken and await correction or confirmation.

The name Abram (according to Sarna) has “no certain, precise parallel … found so far in Near Eastern Sources.” The meaning could be Ab-Ram = Exalted Father, that’s the best guess (as per Prof P) but needn’t necessarily be. The meaning of the new name Abraham (Hebrew: AVRHM) is unclear. The text says it means “Father of many nations” but that’s not etymological. “Father of many nations” in Hebrew, and cited in the text, is av hamon goyim. One can pull letters to get av hamon goyim which is pretty much AV®HM – just missing the R.

Circumcision as a sign of the covenant is both contractual and poetic/symbolic. The implication is, “If I break my side of the covenant, may what was done to my penis happen to the rest of me.” Similarly, in the Covenant of Pieces in Ch 15, “If I don’t follow the covenant, may I be torn into pieces as were these animals.”

The circumcisions occur “on that very day.” The literal Hebrew text is “in the bone of that day.” The same phrase is used four times in the Pentateuch: at the Flood (Gen 8:13), circumcision (Gen 17:23, 26), the Exodus (Ex 12:51), and the death of Moses (Deut 32:48). These are turning points in the history of the world/Israelites, involving a new beginning and a significant change.

Note the importance of Sarah. One of the lessons that Abraham must learn is that she is not merely his property, but a partner in passing on his beliefs to the next generation.

I cannot think of another example in the Hebrew bible, but this theme of a name change signifying a spiritual watershed is echoed in the Christian NT: see Simon -> Peter and Saul -> Paul.


I believe those were the only name changes declared by G-d or by a heavenly agent. However, there have been a number of name changes initiated by human beings that were recognized in Scripture as the changed version being their true name:

Benjamin was originally named Ben-Oni by his mother, before his father changed it to the more familiar name.
Joshua (son of Nun) was originally Hosea, his name was changed by Moses.
Esther was originally Hadassah.

There are a number of people who were assigned additional non-Hebrew names by non-Israelite monarchs (Joseph by Pharaoh, Daniel, Mishael, Hananiah and Azariah by Nebucadnezzar), but I don’t think those are really “official” changes.

Then there are a number of people who were known by multiple names, either explicitly in scripture (Jethro/Putiel, King Uzziah/Azariah of Judah) or in Midrashim (Moses and Solomon come to mind).

That’s off the top of my head.

The word you translate as “bone” is “Etzem” which most literally means “middle”. The bone is the middle of the limb. The translation of the Hebrew text in the verses you mention is “in the middle of that day.”

My dictionary translates etzem as literally “bone” but can also mean “essence.” I agree that the more meaningful translation in this situation is “in the middle of that day” (or “broad daylight on that day”) as an idiom. The point I wanted to make is that the phrase is odd, and only appears at four critical (life-changing) points in the Torah, agreed?

Thanks for the commentary on other name changes. I was thinking only of God-initiated changes and didn’t express myself well. What I get for typing it after a li’l shnapps that evening.

New thread Genesis 18-19