Thirteen years pass between chapters 16 and 17, thirteen years I would dearly like to know about. What was life like for Hagar after she went back? Did Sarai realize she’d crossed a line and treat her better? Did she find a real place in the household as the mother of Abram’s heir? What was it like for Ishmael, being born to a man old enough to be his great-grandfather? Were they close? Did Sarai take part in raising him?
But the story shifts back to Abram, and God yet again promising to give him countless ancestors. It’s in this passage that God renames Abram and Sarai as Abraham and Sarah, which is what I’ll call them from now on, to the joy of my spellchecker, which does not like “Sarai.”
Two other points of note before we get on to the big item. God identifies himself as El Shaddai, traditionally rendered as “God Almighty,” though no one is entirely clear what “Shaddai” means. The two main theories I’ve seen are “of the mountains” or “of the breasts.” The fertility aspect of the latter makes sense in the context of God promising Abraham will be “the ancestors of a multitude of nations” (v 4). And that’s the other point I want to make: God is now saying Abraham will father multiple peoples, undoubtedly referring to God’s decision to bless Hagar and Ishmael.
The big elephant in the room for this passage is circumcision. The Japanese term for this, katsurei, means “cutting ritual,” and the English word comes from Latin for “cutting around.” It’s been a particularly controversial issue recently, particularly in the last few months with a court in Germany ruling that it violates a child’s civil rights and should be illegal. A lot of Jewish advocates have been calling anti-Semitism on this, but the real target of the ruling is Muslims, who are becoming an increasingly numerous and increasingly unwelcome part of European culture. I know there’s an argument to be made that circumcision of minors is wrong and I won’t contest that. But the case itself bears the whiff of European Islamophobia.
That said, I have no idea whether I would choose to circumcise my son or not – one of the many, many reasons I don’t particularly want to have children. I know from working in a preschool here that no boys are circumcised in Japan, and I don’t know what their reactions are to reading these verses.
Abraham has not only his son Ishmael circumcised at thirteen (the age for most Muslim boys) but also himself (at 99) and all his slaves. And the passage is pretty explicit that “[a]ny uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.” (v 14) But at the same time, I know there are some Jewish people who argue that it should be replaced with a ritual that doesn’t involve pain and potential risk to infant boys. I respect Jewish people’s rights to debate that issue for themselves. I can certainly see both sides of the issue – and there are some health benefits to circumcision, though whether they outweigh the drawbacks is, I think, the heart of the issue.
Anyway, enough of issues I have conflicting feelings on. The Japanese for this chapter: mattaki “perfect, complete” (v 1), hirefusu “to prostrate oneself” (v 3), han’ei “flourishing” (v 6), katsurei “circumcision” (v 10), houhi “foreskin,” and chokkei “direct descendent” (v 11).
The next two chapters deal with the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, so there’s that to look forward to.