Relevant Verses: Genesis 12-17
Theme: A Relational World
Leading Question: How do you describe a good relationship?
The covenant found in Genesis 12–17 is known as the “Covenant Between the Parts.” The covenant was for Abraham and his offspring. In Genesis 12–17, we are able to recognize three developments of the covenant: In Genesis 12, God promises Abram land, descendants, and blessings, but does not place any stipulations or conditions for the covenant to be fulfilled.
According to Genesis 15, God vows to fulfill His promises again without conditions. He shows Abram a vision of a fiery torch passing between the animal parts of a heifer, a goat, a ram, a dove, and a pigion. This ancient ritual conveys the message that God is taking the responsibility solely upon himself to keep his promises to Abram.
There is more to the story of Genesis 15 that speaks of covenant and relationship, even before Abram gets to watch the fiery torch pass between the animal parts. For the first time, Abram is in a diaglogue with God, and he has some very pertinent questions to ask. After having waited in vain for ten years for the promised heir, Abram breaks his silence and replies to God in quite the emotional outburst: “O Sovereign LORD, what do you give me?” (Gen 15:2). Then, after God promises the land again, Abram erupts again, “O Sovereign LORD, how do I know?” (Gen 15:8). In between the questions, we read that Abram believed. Here is how Abram’s story looks like,
A “O Sovereign LORD, what do you give me?” (v. 2) X “He believed” (v. 6) A’ “O Sovereign LORD, how do I know?” (v. 8)
Here is Abram and God, deeply “entangled” with each other.
In my personal experience as a parent of two children, I value the moments when they did not shy away, or were silent, or hide from me, but when they asked bold and hard questions. It was in the times when we wrestle together that we were closest, and our relationship was strongest.
“Faith is born not in the answer but in the question, not in harmony but in dissonance” (Sacks, Radical Then, Radical Now, 54).
Question: How do you relate to God when he fails to answer you?
In Genesis 17, the covenant offered as God’s promise is confirmed by performing circumcision as a ritual act for all males in Abram’s household. Along with circumcision goes the change of Abram’s name to Abraham, “father of a multitude” (Gen 17:5).
Question: Why was circumcision the sign of the covenant between God and Abraham?
Interpreters of the story about circumcision in Genesis 17 and of the law in Leviticus 12, argue that to understand the meaning of circumcision as a covenant sign, it is important to go beyond God’s claim over Israel as a people group or a chosen nation, and learn from the prophet Hosea what it means for God to hold on to His people within the most intimate of relationships. Hosea lived in the eighth century BCE when the Northern Kingdom of Israel had slipped into lawlessness, idolatry, and chaos. Over the course of just fifteen years (747 and 732 BCE), there were no less than five kings who took the throne by betrayal, intrigue, and a series of bloody struggles for power. According to Hosea, “There is no faithfulness or kindness, and no knowledge of God in the land; there is swearing, desception, murder, stealing and adultery; they employ violence so that bloodshed follows bloodshed” (Hos 4:1–2; NASB).
Hosea knew that Israel’s survival depended on its faithfulness to God in order to build a society where all people lived with dignity. What makes Hosea’s description of covenant remarkable in such a devastating context of life are the first three chapters of the book. God tells the prophet to marry a prostitute and have children with her. The names of the children signify God’s sense of the betrayal He suffered as well as His deep commitment to the people nonetheless. It is a powerful passage with an astonishing assertion: More than the people love God, God loves the people. Even though God feels betrayed, hurt, and angry, He will forgive. He will take His people on a second “honeymoon” so that they renew their marriage vows together:
“Therefore, behold, I will allure her;
Bring her into the wilderness and speak kindly to her . . .
I will betroth you to me forever;
Yes, I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice,
In lovingkindness and in compassion, I will betroth you to me in faithfulness,
Then you will know the Lord.”
In the midst of Hosea’s prophetic poetry about the renewal of “marriage” between God and His people, is a complex covenant metaphor:
“In that day, declares the Lord, you will call me ‘my husband’ [ishi];
You will no longer call me ‘my master’ [baali].”
The last sentence in this verse is a pun on words. Baal, in Hebrew, meant a “husband” in a specific sense; a baal-husband meant a “master,” “owner,” “possessor,” and “controller”—a husband who holds power over his wife. Baal was also the name of the god whose prophets got challenged by Elijah in the famous confrontation at Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18). Baal was the god of fertility, the weather, and rainstorms, who according to the Ugaritic myths of the Baal Cycle, defeated Mot, the god of sterility and death, in the springtime when he brought rain and “impregnated” the earth so it would become fertile soil. Baal worship was about a god in power over nature and the cycle of seasons.
Hosea contrasts a baal-relationship of power with an ish-relationship. God’s ish-relationship with Israel recalls the first speech when the man becomes aware of the woman:
“This is now bone of my bones,
Flesh of my flesh;
She shall be called Woman [ishah],
Because she was taken from Man [ish].”
In Genesis 2, the male-female relationship is built on something that is the very opposite of power, dominance, ownership, and control. The relationship is one of perfect equality, mutual loyalty, and trust. This is what Hosea’s marriage-as-covenant addresses; it is a pledge to honor and cherish the other in deep love and commitment.
Not only is this a radical way of reconceptualizing the relationship between man and woman: it is also the way we should think of the relationship between human beings and God. God reaches out to humanity not as power (like Baal, the storm, thunder, and rain god) but as love with deep and abiding passion that survives disappointments and betrayals. Even when Israel fails to behave lovingly toward God, says Hosea, God loves Israel and will never cease to do so.
“Now we understand,” concludes Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “why the sign of the covenant is circumcision. For faith to be more than the worship of power, it must affect the most intimate relationship between men and women. In a society founded on covenant, relationships must be built on something other and gentler than male dominance, masculine power, sexual desire, and the drive to own, control, and possess. Baal must become ish” (“The Sign of the Covenant”).
The book of Deuteronomy adds further meaning to the covenant sign of circumcision when it speaks of circumcision of the heart as a dramatic change of course, “Circumcise your hearts and stiffen your neck no longer” (Deut 10:16; cf. 30:6). Here, circumcision is a figure for repentance and the transformation of the heart. The prophet Jeremiah calls the people of Judah to repent and change their lives in view of the looming destruction by the Babylonians (Jer 4:4). The circumstances in Jeremiah’s days are so serious that the Lord is directly addressing those who are physically circumsiced with these words, “Behold, the days are coming,” declares the LORD, “that I will punish all who are circumcised and yet uncircumcised” (Jer 9:25). According to Deuteronomy and Jeremiah, a relationship with God built on the physical act of circumcision is not enough. There is the need for a spiritual relationship founded on a profound inner transformation. This inner transformation is the work of God with the goal to “love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, so that you may live” (Jer 30:6).