The Theological Significance

by Tim Hegg

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My purpose in this paper is to explore the theological significance of circumcision within the narrative context of Genesis 17. My approach is to utilize literary methods of narrative interpretation, allowing these data to interpret the significance of circumcision found in the Abraham story. This approach differs from the purely theological approach, which interprets circumcision on the basis of formulated dogmatics.

My procedure will be to outline the narrative structure of Genesis 12-17 and to suggest, on the basis of this structure, that circumcision functions as the Divine resolution to the narrative complication. Next, I will attempt to strengthen this interpretation by demonstrating the distinctive aspects of Israelite circumcision when compared to circumcision in the Ancient Near East, and finally that this interpretation fits well with the later theological use of circumcision in Scripture.1

The Narrative Structure

In order to understand the inner workings of Genesis 17, it is necessary to see it as part of the narrative flow beginning in chapter 12. Commentators agree that chapters 12-25 function as a unit, as do chapters 25-36 and 37-50.2 In 12-25, the primary focus is that of the promised seed while 25-36 focuses in greater measure on the brother-to-brother relationships and 37-50 on brother-to brothers, reintroducing the promised seed motif. Even the style of the narrative shows these unit boundaries: 12-25 consists essentially of single narratives, 25-36 of larger units, and chapters 37-50 are a single, long narrative.3

Narrowing the scope of this investigation to the unit of 12-25, it is easy to see that the narrative divides into two main sections, 12-17 and 18-25. The change of scene at the beginning of 18 marks the beginning of a new sub-unit, and the narrative of 17 functions to gather the former story 12-16 and lead the reader into the new episodes of 18-25.

Within the many theories of narrative structure,4 I have adopted the more general scheme of exposition, complication and resolution as appropriate labels for describing basic narrative rise and fall. These may be explained generally: “exposition” gives the necessary details in order to give the reader the proper setting for the story, “complication” brings tension into the story, usually through an event or person, and “resolution” is the manner in which the complication is overcome and/or resolved.5 Using this framework, the narrative unit of 12-17 may be seen as a grouping of sub-units which address the three main promises of 12:1-3: land, blessing and seed. The opening paragraph of the 12, then, functions as a kind of “table of contents” for the larger unit, 12-17.

Chapter 12 begins with the announcement of God’s blessing upon Abraham (12:1-3) followed immediately by narrative exposition (12:4-9). Tension and complication are then introduced in 12:10-20. Famine “in the land” brings a complication in connection with the general promise of the land, for Abram leaves the land for Egypt in search of food. In addition, the scheme concocted by Abraham for self preservation (in the face of Sarai’s beauty and Pharaoh’s power) brings into question the promise that his seed would inherit the land.5 In both cases, the narrative is clear: resolution comes because God supernaturally intervenes to save, protect and bless His chosen vassal (12:17-20).

Chapter 13 begins with Abraham experiencing the blessings spoken by God: he is rich, back in the land, and he returns to worship God “at the site of the altar that he had built there at first” At this point complication again enters the story: the land will not support the growing population of people and livestock and thus Lot and Abraham separate. But rather than bringing a full resolution of the tension, the notice of 13:12-13 that “. . . the inhabitants of Sodom were very wicked sinners against YHWH” leaves the reader aware that problems will no doubt result. Nevertheless, this unit ends with Abraham living in the peace and prosperity of God’s promise, worshiping via sacrifice: “And Abram moved his tent, and came to dwell at the terebinths of Mamre, which are in Hebron; and he built an altar there to YHWH” (13:18).

As one would expect, chapter fourteen begins with a narrative exposition which sets the stage for the next complication. Abram the nomad will be challenged militarily. Caught in the middle of someone else’s war, Abram is obliged to rescue Lot from the marauding invaders. The promise of God is once again put to the challenge, as is Abram’s faith. But, as the reader has now come to expect, Abram is victorious and returns with Lot, his family and their possessions. And according to the narrative pattern, Abram worships God as the complication turns to resolution. This time he does so by honoring Melchizedek, “priest of God Most High,” with a tenth of the returned goods. Abram further announces his faith in YHWH when he refuses to retain any of the spoils for himself, even at the invitation of the king of Sodom. Thus, the promise initially given at the beginning of the narrative is intact, and Abram is living in the realization of it.6

Chapter fifteen begins the cycle again: God promises Abram blessing, in this case, protection. The victory against the kings of the north in the previous narrative was not permanent, and Abram the nomad could expect future battles. YHWH promises him protection by the divine, outstretched arm.

But a complication is introduced: while significant tangibles of the promise of land and blessing have been received, the promised offspring has not come. Moreover, whatever land parcel had been given to Abram was insignificant if he had no heir to claim it after him. YHWH responds by giving Abram a visual promise: the stars would illustrate the magnitude of his offspring. Yet Abram presses for covenant ratification in verse eight. After reiterating the promise of the land, Abram asks, “O Lord God, how shall I know that I am to possess it?” God answers by ratifying the covenant via a ceremony where He alone takes the oath. In other words, Abram would know for sure the reality of the promise on the basis of YHWH’s word and by no other means. Faith in YHWH would continue to be the hallmark of God’s covenant with Abraham.

Thus, the covenant ratification ceremony of chapter fifteen resolves the complication as far as Abram is concerned: YHWH swears an oath under penalty of death to give him the promised seed. But the narrative becomes increasingly tense. The heightened emphasis upon the promise of offspring also reminds the reader that the promised son has not yet arrived. The narrative continues to narrow its scope, to focus upon the issue of the seed to the exclusion of other matters.

Chapter sixteen opens with an exposition and complication: Sarai, Abram’s wife, is barren. If the former narrative settled the question of God’s full intention to give offspring, this unit questions the method by which the promise would be fulfilled. Abram follows the advice of his wife7 and takes Hagar as a second wife. The reader is aware immediately, however, that rather than solving the problem, the action of Abram and Sarai has introduced complication into the story. Hagar is identified as an Egyptian (16:2) reminding the reader of Abram’s descent to Egypt for food. Further, the narrative notes that Abram had dwelt ten years in the land before this event, a reminder on the one hand of God’s faithfulness to him but also emphasizing the lengthy period of time for which the promised seed was anticipated. In addition, the somewhat difficult phrase “perhaps I will be built up by her” would indicate that from Sarai’s viewpoint she had not yet attained a bona fide position as a covenant partner.8 Some feel that the use of bona is a play on the word ben, “son,”9 but its parallel in Genesis 30:3 in which the same phrase is used, more likely than not would indicate that this terminology was standard when attempting to acquire children through a surrogate. A woman in the patriarchal society was not considered a full member of that society until she gave her husband male children. It seems certain that Sarai’s actions reflect the pressure of androcentrism which controlled the lives of women without regard to their personhood.

The narrative at this point is compacted, short and terse. In the scope of only a few verses Abram has cohabited with Hagar, she has conceived, despised Sarai, and Sarai has given the ultimatum to Abram. The narrative continues to develop the tension and complication through the expulsion of Hagar and her subsequent return to bear Abram a son, Ishmael. Though Hagar’s meeting with the angel of the Lord and her return seems to signal a resolution of the conflict, the reader is keenly aware that Ishmael, rather than fulfilling the promise, has rather brought conflict into the narrative. The prophetic oracle in 16:11-12 alerts the reader of the ominous future for Ishmael. The narrative clearly announces that the promise is yet to be fulfilled and the reader looks ahead for the resolution.


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  1. This paper is a condensed section of a paper written in honor of my father, Dr. O. H. Hegg on the occasion of fifty years of pastoral service. The full version is contained in a festschrift entitled Feed My Sheep: Writings in Honor of Dr. O. H. Hegg.
  2. Westermann, Genesis, 2:29.
  3. Ibid., p. 33 
  4. Terminology used to discuss narrative structure varies. Robert Alter [The Art of Biblical Narrative (New York: Basic Books Inc., 1981)] uses only two units or structure elements in his analysis of several Genesis narratives: “exposition” and “narrative event.” The recent FOTL volume on Genesis [George W. Coats, Genesis with an Introduction to Narrative Literature The Forms of the Old Testament Literature (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983)] suggests three structural elements: exposition, complication, resolution. This corresponds well to Westermann’s Spannungsbogen (“arc of tension”) in his article “Arten der Erzahlung in der Genesis,” Forschung am Alten Testament (Muchen: Kaiser, 1965), 9-91. Note as well Adele Berlin, Poetics and Interpretation of Biblical Narrative (Sheffield: The Almond Press, 1983), 101-107; George W. Coats, ed., Saga, Legend, Tale, Novella, Fable: Narrative Forms of Old Testament Literature [JSOT Supplement 35] (Sheffield, 1985), 64-66; Meir Sternberg, The Poetics of Biblical Narrative (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1987); J. P. Fokkelman, Narrative Art in Genesis (Amsterdam: Van Gorcum, 1975); David Jobling The Sense of Biblical Narrative, 2 vols. (Sheffield: Univ. Press, 1986, 1987); Shimon Bar-Efrat, Narrative Art in the Bible (Sheffield: Almond Press, 1989); Peter D. Miscall, The Workings of OT Narrative (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983)
  5. The question of “sisterhood” as described in the Nuzi tablets is applied by some to this biblical incident. See A. A. MacRae, “Nuzi” in ZPEB, 4:472. Even if this does apply, Abraham was still making plans to save his own skin.
  6. The interpretation on the part of some that Abram’s oath in 14:22 constitutes a covenant oath taken at the inception of the promise is not well founded. In the first place, the phrase should be translated “I raise (not raised ) my hand to YHWH . . .” (= “I swear”) since the Hebrew perfect has a present meaning in direct speech (Westermann, Genesis 2:187; E. Kautzsch, Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar trans. A. Cowley (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1910), § 106. Abram is therefore not referring to an oath taken previously. Further, to postulate an oath on the part of Abram in connection with the promise of 12:1-3 is to introduce something into the narrative which simply is not there. The oath taken here by Abram relates specifically to this conquest and his determination not to accept anything from a foreign king. This makes good sense in view of the covenant relationship Abram had with YHWH as a result of His gracious promise.
  7. There seems to be sufficient ANE parallels for Sarah’s action, though such parallels in no way condone the disregard for the “oneness” principle revealed by God in the earlier creation narrative (Gen. 2:24). For parallels to the giving of a handmaid for the purpose of offspring, note K. Grayson and J. Van Seters, “The Childless Wife in Assyria and the Stories of Genesis,” OR 44 (1975), 485-486; S. E. McEvenue, “A Comparison of Narrative Styles in the Hagar Stories,” Semeia 3 (1975) 64-80; Note a Nuzi text which parallels the Hagar story, translated by Speiser in AASOR 10 (1930), 31ff. which is also contained in his commentary on Genesis [Genesis in The Anchor Bible, 44 Vols. (New York: Doubleday & Co., 1964), 1:120-21]. For a critical evaluation of these purposed parallels, see J. Van Seters, Abraham in History and Tradition (New Haven, 1975).
  8. This may not have been Sarai’s fault. Perhaps Abram had not sufficiently detailed the promises God had given to him, nor accepted her as an integral part of the covenant promises.
  9. See the note at Gen. 16:2 in Tanahk—The Holy Scriptures (New York: Jewish Publication Society, 1988), p. 22