As the Stars of Heaven
In our previous post, we started looking at God’s promises, His covenants with us, His creatures, His people. We also saw from Isaiah 62:7 and the story of the Flood in Genesis that God wants us to remind Him of his promises to us. Whenever I think of this, I marvel that God would want us to remind Him of what He cannot forget! We saw that this was because He wants a loving and intimate relationship with us, one where we are able to call Him to account for His word in the same way that we would call another person to account.
This week, we are going to explore this idea further as we trace the thread though Scripture, the thread of redemption and salvation that culminates with God’s ultimate act of reducing Himself to our level and exalting us to His level, the Incarnation of His Son, His death on the Cross for our sins, His victory over death in the Resurrection and the pouring out of His Holy Spirit into and upon us. It is a glorious and amazing story enacted through the centuries.
We are looking this week at God’s covenants with Abram. I use the plural because there were two solemn covenants that God made with Abram.
We read about the first one in Genesis Chapter 15, the Covenant of the Halves. In this chapter we see that God made two main promises to Abram. The first was that his direct descendants (not the offspring of a surrogate such as his servant) would be as numerous as the stars of Heaven. The second was that his offspring would inherit the land upon which Abram walked. It is interesting that the Scripture tells us in verse 6 that Abram believed the Lord’s promise of numberless descendants but it seems that he needed some reassurance when it came to the matter of where his descendant would live. “And He said to him, ‘I am the LORD who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess it.’ He said, ‘O Lord GOD, how may I know that I will possess it?’” (Genesis 15:7-8)
However, God did not let Abram’s question disturb Him. In fact, it was right in line with His purposes. Abram had such a relationship with God that he could ask Him such a question and expect God to answer him. It is worth noting that the Muslims have a special name for Abram (Abraham). They call him the “Friend of God.” God’s response is to tell Abram to take several animals and cut them in half placing the halves on the ground with space between them. Then, that night, God appeared in the form of a burning fire and moved between the halves. This may seem very odd to our modern minds but it was a traditional way of sealing a solemn covenant at the time of Abram. An animal would be cut in two and the parties to the agreement would walk together between them. The meaning of this was that if either party should break the agreement than he would be dealt with as the animals, his life would be forfeit. That’s about as solemn and binding an oath as you can get. Still, in this, God’s second recorded covenant, it is one-way as was the covenant with Noah and all living beings. Only God went between the halves. Abram was a witness to this but not a participant. It was God’s sworn promise to him but there was nothing for him to do in return.
This changes, however, two chapters over in Genesis 17. We do not know how old Abram was when God established the Covenant of the Halves but we do know that it was at over thirteen years later when God comes to Abram again. He is now ninety-nine years old. In the meantime, Abram has tried to help God fulfill His promise (how often we do that…) by taking his wife’s servant to his bed so that she could bear a son because Sarai (the one chosen by God to bear the one who would inherit the promise) was barren. Now, that son, Ishmael, is thirteen years old. This time, God goes another step or two farther. He appears to Abram and commands him to walk before God and be blameless so that, “’I may establish My covenant between Me and you, And I will multiply you exceedingly.’” (Genesis 15:2) God’s promise is the same, to multiply Abrams descendants but this time He says that this covenant is between Him and Abram and that Abram has a condition to fulfill, to walk blameless before the Lord. It is now a two-way agreement. With this word, He also changes Abram’s name and he becomes Abraham as we now call him—“Father of Nations.” Not only is this covenant between God and Abraham, it is between God and all of Abraham’s descendants, the nations to come from his loins. They are to receive the land that God has promised to them and they are to accept Him, Jehovah, as their God.
Being a two-way covenant, there is something required of Abraham and his descendants to seal the covenant. It has a sign.
God said further to Abraham, “Now as for you, you shall keep My covenant, you and your descendants after you throughout their generations. This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: every male among you shall be circumcised. And you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you.” (Genesis 17:9-11)
They are to seal the covenant by carrying the sign of it in their flesh for their whole lives. This is the Covenant of Circumcision. We will see in subsequent months that later on there is more that God required of His people as their part in the covenant, but for now we will look at this one requirement that God is making.
To accept God as their God and to receive His promise of a land of their own—these nomadic wanderers with no set place to call their own—they were to walk faithfully before Him and were given one specific thing to do. They were to circumcise every male member of the group.
What an odd thing to require of Abraham and his descendants! Why circumcision? Many people, in contemplating this question, have answered it with reasons of health and hygiene. They point out that, among those who practice circumcision, the women have a lower incidence of cervical cancer. This may be true but if so it is merely another example of how God does many things at once—all in our best interests. There is a much more important, a more fundamental reason for this command to circumcise all the males in the community whether or not they are direct descendants of Abraham. They are to carry an indelible sign of God’s promise in their very flesh as a life-long reminder. But, guess what! This is not a reminder to the circumcised person. It is to remind God! And how is it a reminder to God? We shall see.
These circumcised males, the eight-day-old infants in the future generations, all grow up to become husbands and fathers. When a family stands before God to be counted and to report to Him, the proper order is for the head of the family, the father and husband to stand facing God with his wife, children and household servants behind him. Imagine all the families of the community of God’s people standing before Him. They are not an unorganized crowd, they are standing in orderly rows with the family head in the very front. When God looks upon that family, He sees the head of that family first of all. When he looks on that head of that family, what is out in front? His circumcision (or lack of it). God sees the sign that this man and his family have kept God’s covenant of circumcision. He sees that this family acknowledges Him as their God and that they are heirs of His promises to them. This is why it is circumcision of the foreskin. The sign is in front of the man who stands in front of His family. It is the first thing God sees. It is placed out in front to remind God of His covenant with the man and his family. It is the sign of this covenant.
As we saw in the story of the Flood, the sign of the covenant is to be between the parties to the covenant, it is between God and Mankind. The sign of circumcision is in that place.
There is one other aspect of this covenant sign that is important for us to remember (you see, we do have our own part to remember, it is not God alone who must remember…). This covenant is sealed with the shedding of blood—perhaps just a drop, but, nevertheless, blood is shed. We know this to be true from the episode in Exodus 4:24 to 26, when God stops Moses from doing the very thing that He had commanded him to do, to proclaim God’s deliverance to the descendants of Abraham in Egypt. We read that the Lord met him and sought to put him to death. Why? Because he was sent to proclaim God’s deliverance but had not fulfilled his own part in keeping the covenant. He had not circumcised his own sons. His wife does the deed and flings the dripping foreskins at Moses feet calling him a “bloody husband.”
But, why blood? This goes back to before the Flood. We will look at this next week.