Gleanings From the Text
Ernest Hemingway once bet he could write a complete short story in six words. He reportedly thought this his best work: “For Sale: Baby Shoes. Never Worn.” The author of Genesis 17 distilled the essence of the entire chapter into the preamble of vv. 1-3a which may be reduced even further into: “God: ‘You LIVE; I GIVE.’ Abraham did.” Not six words, but a biblically complete seven!
When Abram was 99 and could have been thought to have already lived a life, God appeared to him using a special name--El Shaddai. He gives Abram and Sarai new names--Abraham and Sarah. God summons Abraham, and through Abraham his entire family throughout the generations, to live completely. God promises to give to this elderly couple greatly, without measure. El Shaddai means God (El) of the, perhaps, “mountain,” “field,” “guardian spirit,” or even “mother’s breast,” depending upon which biblical scholar you choose to follow. It is a name that in Genesis is always associated with the promise of future generations. The names Abraham and Sarah mean “father of many people” and “princess of many.” God is making a covenant; this covenant is balanced--and reciprocal.
Food for Thought
In verse 1, God commands Abraham to do much more than the NRSV translation conveys with the word “walk.” The Hebrew verb in question in its simplest form does mean “walk” but in Gen. 17:1 the verb is found in its iterative form--it is a hitpael verb. The hitpael describes a repeating action, a back and forth, back and forth, or an ebb and flow, ebb and flow or a continuous, steady repetition. Walk--hallek--here is hithallek, and it means the living of a “life before God in such a way that every single step is made with reference to God and every day experiences [God] close at hand” (Westermann, 259).
Abraham is also to be what the NRSV translates “blameless”--the Hebrew word tamim carries the broader meaning “complete, whole, entire.” God expects Abraham, Sarah and their generations to capital letter LIVE which means live everyday to their full potential in a wholesome relationship with God.
This relationship will allow God to give. The baby shoes Sarah stitched in anticipation of God’s earlier promise (chapter 15) will be worn and maybe even handed down. God will bless this couple with continuing life in a covenantal relationship, and verses 3b-7 detail God’s gifts of abundance (“you shall be the ancestor of a multitude”), honor (“kings shall come from you”), partnership (“my covenant between me and you”) and security (“I will give to you...land”).
This is the deal, the covenant, and Abraham in faith accepts it as we learn in verse 3a--the circumcision detailed in later verses is only a “seal,” as Paul tells us, “of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised” (Romans 4:11). Circumcision is a “religious act,” to use a phrase of Bonhoeffer’s, and, as he writes in one of his letters from prison, “the ‘religious act’ is always something partial; faith is something whole, involving the whole of one’s life. Jesus calls men [and women], not to a new religion, but to life.” God capital letter GIVES a covenant of not rules and rituals that circumscribe but an everlasting relationship continuously, steadily--with a lot of back and forth and many ebbs and flows--calling into existence new life.
Sink Your Teeth Into This
As my youngest babies reached speaking age they each, in turn, gave our eldest a name change that in some way or another spread to others in the family. Jacob was first nicknamed “Jay-bob”; my husband and I became “Dad-bob” and “Mom-bob.” Later, he and his brother were “Bubba” to their baby sister, but the name stuck to the eldest and is still used by our family today. Each of these name changes was a delight to me: they symbolized the promise and potential of a new relationship; they were the birth of a covenant. Each time our oldest son graciously--or uncomprehendingly--accepted the claim.
The Lord our God, in the words of Isaiah 43, redeems us, calls us by name, is with us through the waters, through the fire, honors us, loves us and promises to “do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” God claims us whether or not we comprehend the claim. But, God intends for us the fullness of the covenant. God summons us to live with God in a way that is, as one of our seminary professors daily reminded us, “joy and nothing less.”
Brown, Driver, Briggs, Hebrew and English Lexicon, Hendrickson Publishers, 2005, pp 236 & 1071.
Lambdin, Thomas O., Introduction to Biblical Hebrew, Prentice Hall, 1971, p. 250.
Ellison, Jesse, Newsweek, February 2, 2009, Vol. CLIII, No. 5, p. 10.
Towner, W. Sibley, Genesis, Westminster John Knox, 2001, p. 164.
Westermann, Claus, Genesis 12-36, Augsburg, 1985, p. 259.
Becky Purcell is a MACE student in the Extended Campus Program. She lives in Fayetteville, Arkansas where she is an elder in her church, a university professor’s wife, a mother of three and a member of the local school board.