Genesis17

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After Ishmael was born, God demonstrated that he keeps his promises. So he came to Abram and initiated Part B of the ritual to establish the covenant with him. This involved a name change. Where Abram meant “exalted father” and was heretofore an ironic name, now God changed his name to Abraham, which means “father of many nations”.

But the important transition that occurs here is that the ritual of circumcision is instituted. Before this time, Abraham’s worship of God was of the character of a personal devotion. Setting aside Hagar’s interlude with God, which was a special case to ensure Ishmael would be in Abraham’s household, all of the human-divine interactions had occurred solely between Abraham and God. Sarah followed Abraham because she loved him and was his wife, but one could imagine that she was humoring him when he made pillow talk about Yahweh speaking to him. Ishmael looked up to his father. His servants followed him because they were either owned by him, or at least employed by him.

But now, with the introduction of the ritual of circumcision, the worship of Yahweh became corporate worship. And this proto-Judaism was something that would be embedded in the culture, rather than a creed adopted by choice, for baby boys would be circumcised when they were eight days old, and anyone who was not circumcised was to be cut off from the people, so to speak.

There is, actually, an evolutionary benefit to circumcision. No longer protected by the foreskin, the glan of the penis is chafed day and night by clothing, and the brain responds by reducing its sensitivity to the 4,000 nerve endings there. It turns down the “volume”. This results in the ability of a man to last somewhat longer during intercourse before making that funny noise that means it’s all over. And that, in turn, means a happy lady who is less likely to sleep around on him.

God told Abraham to rename his wife from Sarai to Sarah, and promised that she would bear him a son as well. And that was too much for Abraham. He fell on his face and laughed, and God stood there and took it. Perhaps there were complex emotions at play, the emotions of a new father, a father who only became a father near the end of his life. Abraham came to his senses and began to fear that God was going to have Sarah bear his son because something bad was going to happen to his first son.

And Abraham said unto God, O that Ishmael might live before thee!

One cannot blame Abraham. After all, Ismael, now thirteen years old, was the son he actually had, and not the son who was yet to be. Ishmael was Abraham’s legal son, because Hagar was his second wife. God insisted that Sarah would bear him a son, to be named Isaac, and he would establish a covenant with him and his sons after him. One can imagine Abraham hearing these words but not fully grasping them. He was near the end of his life, and God was telling him that after Abraham was gone he was going to continue his dealings down the line of his younger son, who was yet to be.

It is tempting for the descendants of that younger son, who kept the history and the geneaology, to turn back and denigrate Ishmael, to paint him and his seed as somehow naturally wicked because God chose Isaac over Ishmael. But Abraham, as father of both, stands in the breach between both sides. As for Ishmael, God assured Abraham that he would be fruitful indeed, and become the father of twelve princes, and God would make of him a great nation as well.

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