The Covenant of Circumcision
The year was 2047 from Creation. Ismael is 13 years old and Sarah is eighty-nine. The momentous importance of the covenant required that it be precisely dated.
God waited thirteen years from the birth of Ismael before instructing Abraham to circumcise himself – an act preparatory to Isaac’s conception. This was in order that Isaac be born when Abraham was a hundred years old, thus enhancing the miracle; and to display Abraham’s love of God, for he circumcised himself when he was old and frail. The commandment was given prior to Isaac’s birth in order that Isaac’s conception take place in holiness and in order to emphasize the miracle that Abraham could have a child even though his organ had been weakened.
Because He wanted Isaac to be holy from his conception, God wanted Abraham’s physical prowess to be diminished. This He accomplished by waiting until Abraham was advanced in age and by weakening him through circumcision. In addition, Isaac’s conception and birth were miraculous. Thus he was ideally suited for holiness. (Malbim)
17:1 “..I am El Shaddai;” – Exodus 6:3 “And I appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as El Shaddai.’ The commentators differ on the interpretation of this Name – most commonly translated as God Almighty.
This particular Name was chosen for this communication to inspire Abraham with awe so that he should submit to the following command of circumcision.
This Name, implying Might was used in introducing the command of circumcision because man is weakened when circumcised. Therefore lest Abraham be apprehensive that after he would undergo circumcision, he would be incapacitated during his recovery and easy prey for his enemies. God appeared to him with this Name as if to reassure him: I am God Who will grant you and your descendants sufficient strength to overcome your enemies.
Ma’or Vashemesh comments that the Name Shaddai implies hidden miracles. God revealed Himself to Abraham as the Almighty, Who could bend the forces of nature to His service, in this case, by enabling Abraham to transcend his natural fate of childlessness. He would now have children with whom there would be an eternal covenant. This is the reason that God had communicated the Name Shaddai to Abraham at this time.
“..walk before Me..” – The Midrash contrasts the command in this verse that Abraham walk ‘before’ God, with 6:9 where Noah is described as walking ‘with’ God in the sense that he needed His support to maintain his righteousness while Abraham was morally strong enough to walk alone, ‘before’ God.
Tanchuma likens the description of the Patriarchs as walking before God (48:15) to a ruler whose elders walk before him and proclaim his glory. Similarly, the Patriarchs walked before God, proclaiming His Glory.
“..and be perfect.” – This is a separate command: Be wholehearted in all the trials to which I will submit you. The Midrash, however, perceives this not as a separate command, but as a natural consequence of the former one: Walk before Me (by observing the mitzvah of circumcision) and as a result of this you will become perfect – for as long as you remain uncircumcised, you lack perfection.
Midrash HaGadol notes that circumcision was one of the ten trials of Abraham. Although he was commanded to undergo this difficult ordeal in his advanced age, he did not disobey the words of his Creator. And by the virtue of compliance with this commandment you will be ‘perfect’ because on your flesh will be a sign dedicated to Me.
Turnus Rufus (the Roman general) asked Rabbi Akiva: If your God desires circumcision why is a child not born circumcised?. Rabbi Akiva replied: Because God gave mitvahs (commandments) to Israel only in order to purify them – i.e., God wished that man attain perfection by his own efforts through performance of the commandments.
17:2 God now transferred irrevocably to Abraham all the covenants previously made with mankind. Because Abraham had made himself the suitable instrument for their fulfillment, he was appointed the embryo from which the covenants would develop. (Hirsch)
In the covenant of the Land, it was God Who had made a covenant that day (15:18); it was a unilateral pledge by God, requiring no reciprocal deed on the part of Abraham. In this covenant (of circumcision), however, Abraham undertook a reciprocal obligation – for this covenant would be “Between Me and you”. By his compliance, he and his descendants would be instrumental in ‘perfecting; the Work of Creation, and this ‘perfection’ would begin within his own ‘miniature world’ – his body. (Malbim)
17:3 Until he was circumcised, Abraham was unable to stand while the Holy Spirit was above him and so he literally fell to the ground.
The Midrash notes that twice Abraham fell upon his face – here and in verse 17 – foretelling the two times that his descendants would be deprived of circumcision: in Egypt and in the desert. In Egypt, Moses came and circumcised them; in the desert Joshua arranged their circumcision before they captured the Promised Land.
Note: Moses and Joshua, too, cast themselves down upon the ground symbolizing total submissions: ‘and Moses heard and fell upon his face’ (Numbers 16:4): ‘and Joshua fell upon his face’ (Joshua 5:14. Because they submitted totally to the will of God, they were granted the privilege of being instrumental in the circumcision of the nation – Moses prior to the Exodus, and Joshua after the entry into the Land. At both of those times the majority of the nation was uncircumcised: in Egypt due to the rigors of the enslavement, and in the desert. Because Moses and Joshua emulated Abraham, the task of supervising the masses of Israel was entrusted to them.
The details of the covenant
The two ‘sides’ of the covenant are clearly defined. God’s obligations are listed in verses 4-8. What God expected of Abraham and his descendants are enumerated in verses 9-14.
17:4 The meaning of the verse is: As for Me, I already have a covenant with you since the Covenant between the Parts at which time I understood certain obligations. As a result of that covenant, you will be the father of a multitude of nations, as I promised you then. Now I have come to announce something greater: the change of name by which you will be come a new person, greater in statue. This Covenant will be not only between you and Me, but will also include your descendants for posterity, without regard to time or place. (Abarbanel) Everyone who will undergo circumcision and conversion will consider you his Patriarch.
17:5 That is, your contemporaries and those after you will no longer refer to you by your former name. They will tell one another how God has changed your name, and thereby the miracle which I am to perform for you will be come manifest to all generations for eternity. (Radak)
It is a deep-rooted custom to change someone’s name when he rises in stature. The change signifies that the ‘new’ person has outgrown his old status. This was also the case with Sarah (Sarai); Joseph (Tzafnas Paane’ach); Joshua (Hoshea); Chananiah, Mishael and Azariah (Shadrach, Mishach, and Abed Nego).
Why were the names of Abraham and Jacob changed but not that of Isaac? Since both of the above were named by man, God changed their name (to reflect their new mission). Isaac’s name was not changed because the name, Isaac, was designated for him by God before his birth (see verse 19)
17:6 “..and kings shall descend..” – Not only will there descend from you sages who are qualified to instruct the nations, but there will come forth from you monarchs with the power to suppress idolatry from the nations. Such occurred during King Solomon’s reign, and will again occur during the reign of King Messiah.
17:7 “..to be a God to you..” – The concept has a dual connotation: To be on the one hand the object of your worship and great respect, and on the other hand, to be your God, Protector, and Benefactor.
17:8 “..everlasting possession.” – This expression does not imply that they would dwell eternally in the Land and never be exiled – that would depend on their deeds. Rather the expression means that the Land would remain their inalienable possession even though they may be in exile. The promise was that come what may the Land would always belong to them; they would eventually return to reclaim it and Hashem would be their God. (Radak)
“and I will be their God.” – According to Malbim: When they will comply with the covenant and take possession of the land, then they will merit ‘in their own right’ that I be their God, not only because I was the God of their fathers. At that time, they themselves will be worthy of Godliness; Hashem is called the God of Israel by virtue of their sanctity and righteousness.
17:9 The obligation on Abraham’s part. Rashi comments that the word begins with the conjunction ‘and’ to imply that it is joined to the previous verses – i.e. I have specified obligations to you (verses 4-8); as a result you must obligate yourself to comply with your obligations to Me as outlined in the following verses regarding circumstances.
Hirsch elaborates upon this concept. Since God pledged that His assurance was eternally valid, He charged Abraham and his descendants not to create conditions that would make them unworthy of God’s gifts under the Covenant. Furthermore, they should remember that were it not for Abraham’s pledge, Israel would not have existence for Isaac’s birth was a direct result of the Covenant. And this obligation did not rest upon Abraham alone, but extended as well to his descendants.
17:10 The definition of the Covenant. Hirsch notes an apparent discrepancy between our verse and verse 11. Here it is called My Covenant, implying that the physical act of circumcision is sufficient fulfillment of the covenant. Later it is described as the sign or symbol of the covenant, implying that the act is no more than a symbol, and not a complete fulfillment. He explains that there are two inseparable elements: the act without realization of the idea is insufficient, likewise the concept without the act is not enough. The act of circumcision must be performed, and it must be recognized as symbolic of the eternal bond between God and Israel.
Rav Yosef Albo writes: The commandment of circumcision was given as an external sign of the covenant binding God and Abraham’s descendants who maintain His covenant. Since that sign exists continually in our nation, it shows that the divine bond is still with us… The Midrash states that Abraham sits at the door to Gehinnom* and prevents the circumcised from going in. Therefore, as long as this sign of the Covenant is maintained in the nation we must not despair of redemption… for it points to the bond between God and us… that through the bond of the nation will return to its original strength and cleave to God as was prophesied.
- Gehinnom is a small valley in Jerusalem and the Jewish and Christian analogue of hell. The terms are derived from a place outside ancient Jerusalem known in the Hebrew Bible as the Valley of the Son of Hinnom. The Hebrew Bible also notes that it was initially where some of the kings of Judah sacrificed their children by fire. Thereafter, it was deemed to be cursed. See Jeremiah 7:31 and 19:2-6.
17:11 This is a positive commandment requiring every father to circumcise his son, and obligating every child to have himself circumcised when he become a Bar Mitzvah if he had not already been circumcised by his father. (Radak)
“..and that shall be the sign of the covenant.” – Circumcision is the supreme, unequaled sign inasmuch as it is indelibly sealed in the body of man. (Radik) It is a perpetual reminder to walk in His ways, for it is, as it were, the Master’s seal on His servant. (Sforno)
17:12 “..at the age of 8 days..” – The Talmud derives from the use of the word ‘days’ that circumcision is performed by day and not by night (Shabbos 132a). The Mechilta comments: Great is the Sabbath for a child is not circumcised until he has lived through a Sabbath.
Even though a child born of a maidservant or purchased from another is considered a slave, they must still be circumcised for they are, as the next verse continues, home born in your house and purchased by your money and hence subject to your obligations. (Abarbanel)
17:13 Rashi points out a Talmudic discussion: ‘For it was taught… a slave born in his master’s household is sometimes circumcised on the first day (from his birth) and sometimes on the eighth day; a slave purchased with money is sometimes circumcised on the first day (he was acquired, even If he was not yet eight days old), and sometimes on the eighth day. The general rule is that a child who was born a Jew is circumcised on the eighth day. A slave can be considered Jewish for this purpose because non-Jewish slaves owned by Jews are responsible for many commandments.
“..My covenant shall be in your flesh..” – Flesh is sometimes used in Scripture as a euphemism for the reproductive organ. The verse thus indicates that since the Covenant is, in the physical sense, associated with the organ whereby the species is perpetuated, it symbolized the continuity of the Covenant upon his descendants for eternity. (Sforno, Hoffmann)
17:14 As pointed out in verse 11, one who was circumcised neither by his father nor by Beth Din*, is obligated from the time he reaches Bar Mitzvah** to arrange for his own circumcision. The consequences for one who remains uncircumcised in violation of the commandment until the age of twenty, when he becomes liable to excision***, are given in this verse.
*Beth Din – A house of judgment – a rabbinical Court of Judaism. In ancient times, it was the building block of the legal system in the Biblical Land of Israel.
**Bar Mitzvah – Bar is a Jewish Babylonia Aramaic word literally meaning son while Bat means daughter in Hebrew and mitzvah means commandment or law. Although the term is commonly used to refer to the ritual itself, in fact the phrase originally refers to the person. According to Jewish law, when Jewish boys become 13 years old, they become accountable for their actions and become a bar mitzvah. A girl becomes a bat mitzvah at the age of 12. Prior to reaching bar mitzvah age, the child’s parents hold the responsibility for the child’s actions. After this age, the boys and girls bear their own responsibility for Jewish ritual law, tradition, and ethics, and are able to participate in all areas of Jewish community life.
***The punishment of excision – being cut off from his people – involves dying a childless and untimely death. (Shabbos 104a)
The punishment is not only in This World. It extends into the Hereafter as well. The severest retribution beyond which punishment cannot go, is that the soul should be cut off and not attain the life hereafter… It is to this destruction that the prophets metaphorically apply such terms as ‘Pit of Destruction (Psalms 55:23 (English version) or verse 24 (Jewish version)) because it is an irrevocable loss for which repentance is not possible. (Rambam)
In addition to the spiritual oblivion in the Hereafter, the Talmud (Moed Katan 28a) comments that one liable to excision will die between the ages of fifty and sixty.
In the literal sense, this phrase indicates that the transgressor will no longer be associated with his nation and will be ostracized from the mainstream of his people inasmuch as he violated their beliefs by his transgression of this law, and does not bear their seal of servitude to God. This is the literal meaning of ‘this soul shall be cut off’ whenever it appears in Scripture. Conversely, ‘and he was gathered onto his people’ (49:33) is the expression used for the righteous.
“..he has broken my covenant.” – He has not actually destroyed the covenant, for it is not within the power for any person to do so. What he has done is to render the covenant ‘ineffective’ in the sense that it no longer assures him the eternal blessings of Abraham. (Hirsch)