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by Marlin Vis
Thus Abraham and his son Ishmael were circumcised on that very day;
and all his household, his homeborn slaves and those that had been bought
from outsiders, were circumcised with him. Genesis 17:26–27
The boy watches as his father walks toward him from the ridge above. The youngster knows his father’s brisk stride and always marvels at the way the old man can scurry up and down the hills and valleys that mark the many places where they have lived. The son knows that he holds favored status within the tribal family. He also knows there is tension between his father’s two wives, Sarai and Hagar, his mother. And he knows that somehow he is the cause of this ill will. He feels the hostility directed at him from Sarai, his father’s first wife—and first love too. He feels it and has learned to fear it, with good reason.
His father sees him and waves. The boy begins to lift his hand to return the greeting when suddenly the old man falls face down on the rocky ground. The boy looks around to see if some enemy has struck his father with a rock or some other instrument of pain. But he sees no one. He worries that maybe the old Bedouin has tripped and fallen. But it didn’t look like that. It looked as if his father had hurled himself to the ground.
Abram lies there with his face buried in the dirt and listens to that familiar whisper, the voice of the one who identifies himself as El Shaddai, God Almighty. Abram hears again the absurd promise of a multiplicity of progeny—the father of many nations—as if one nation wouldn’t be promise enough. Just what he needed, a God with a global vision.
Now Abram is told that the name given to him by his father Terah is to be changed to a name too large for him: Abraham, “father of a multitude.” For a moment it flashes through his mind to bring up the fact that he has only one son, that he is getting on in age, and that a “multitude” seems a bit of a stretch. But this is a crazy God who has crazy ideas, and so newly named Abraham decides to keep his own counsel for the time being. He pushes himself up to his knees just in time to see his son running up the long, steep incline. Even from a distance he can see the fear on the boy’s handsome face. He motions for Ishmael to slow down. He’s a good boy, an obedient son.
The voice tells him that Sarai’s name is to be changed as well, to Sarah. A change in name seems to signify a change in destiny. The childless couple will have a son through Sarah, and they will be the ancestors of many nations and great kings. Again Abraham falls on his face, this time not so much in reverence and awe, but rather to hide the fact that he is laughing. The old man lifts his head and nods in the direction of his approaching son. “Let Ishmael find favor in your eyes,” he mutters.
“No, Sarah’s son is the one. Name him Isaac. Ishmael I will bless as well, but Isaac is the one I choose.”
And God is gone.
Breathless, young Ishmael reaches his father and falls into the inviting arms. “Father, are you alright? I saw you fall.”
The old man pulls his son’s head into his breast and clings to him for a moment. They help each other to their feet and head back down the hill into the valley.
“Son,” says the father.
“Here I am.”
“Go to Eliezer and tell him to sharpen the boning knives. Tell him to make them keen enough to cut through the thinnest skin.”
“I don’t know, son. I just do what I’m told, no matter how crazy it sounds.”
“Sarai?” asks the boy.
The old man laughs, and rubs a rough hand through the boy’s black hair. “No, son, not Sarah—someone even tougher than Sarah. Now go.”
Thus Abraham and his son Ishmael were circumcised on that very day; and all his household, his homeborn slaves and those that had been bought from outsiders, were circumcised with him.
It is telling that the Hebrew Bible, written as much to justify the Hebrews’ possession of this land as anything else, takes such pains to include Ishmael in the circumcision, the sign of the covenant between God and Abraham’s seed. And not Ishmael only, but also the members of the household who were not blood—”the homeborn slaves and those bought from outsiders . . .” Why is that? Is the covenant meant to be inclusive, or was this act of circumcising Ishmael and the others simply a reflection of the generous nature of Abraham? Or maybe it was like branding? You know, marking out those that belong to the tribe.
Whatever circumcision was, Ishmael and the others were included, and there is a lesson here for all of us who want to draw lines and brand those who belong, both to identify those who are out and to mark those who are in.
The power in this passage, and in others like it, is found and felt in the persistent passion of El Shaddai to bless the world and all the world’s people through a path that stubbornly involves willing participants like Abraham. This fearsome, tough, and crazy God will work through people. And God will do it God’s way. And God refuses to give up on Sarah, even though Sarah has given up on her husband’s God, and in fact, even though Abraham has given up on Sarah.
We read these passages as if they are about the exclusion of Ishmael and his seed, when I think they are really about the inclusion of Sarah and her seed. Ishmael was “in” through Abraham. It is Sarah who is left out here, and it is Sarah who is brought back in through the miraculous birth of Isaac.
Sarah’s seed ought to remember that. And by the way, we who follow Jesus ought to remember that we are brought in through a miraculous birth as well. We ought to be grateful. We ought to be generous. We ought to be like Abraham, who was willing to share the promise, willing to expand the family circle.