The scripture reading for Lent 2 in most Protestant churches is Genesis 17:1-7 and 15-16. The left-out verses have to do with the promise of the land to Israel and the sign of circumcision. Whether the intent or not of the devisers of the lectionary (they would say they tried to shorten up passages to fit the attention span of modern hearers), this omission seems too politically correct. The promise of the land and circumcision may offend some, but can you really argue that they aren’t central to this passage? Most pastors have the discretion to read the whole passage. I would urge them to do so.
The LORD appears to Abram and says, “I am El-Shaddai ; walk in my presence and be blameless.” Exodus 6:3 says “I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as El-Shaddai ; but by my name YHWH I was not known to them.” So this keeps to that idea. Only at the time of Moses did God give Israel his distinctive name. He was worshiped by other names by the patriarchs.
But what does El-Shaddai mean? Usually our English Bibles say “God Almighty.” Von Rad’s commentary suggested that behind this was the meaning God-of-mountains or even God-of-breasts–mountains and breasts being the same word like in the French derived Grand Teton mountains. It is possible that this was a Canaanite name for a god. But for the Hebrews I suggest that it had the meaning God-who-suffices or God-who-provides-enough.
God says he is the God who suffices, so walk in his presence (as Enoch and Noah had “walked with God”). In addition to walking with God, Abram is to be blameless. The word for blameless actually means whole or complete. The Message paraphrase says “live to the hilt.” But that goes too far. This passage is part of the priestly tradition, and the priests probably meant something like blameless. It may mean whole in the sense of totally authentic or entirely genuine. Micah 6:8 says the requirement of God is to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. I would interpret what God requires of Abram through that lens.
So God gives Abram his new name of Abraham and promises that he will be the father of many nations and that the covenant God establishes with him will be “everlasting.” Everlasting is not a philosophical concept of infinite time. It means the covenant will extend to all the generations of Abraham’s children.
The children of Abraham would be given a sign of this covenant. All the male children would be circumcised. This would be a connection that they would have back to the original, historical Abraham.
Of course, many today would say that Abraham is not a historical figure. Only the Hebrew epic in Genesis tells his story. We don’t even know to what century to assign his life. Some scholars say he never existed.
But in the real life of peoples, there are ritual connections to the past as well as textual and archeological traces. For Christians the ritual of the Lord’s Supper connects us to the historical Jesus who ate and drank with his disciples. For Jews, the generation-after-generation rite of male circumcision connects them to their patriarchs. That is why it is not something that enlightened moderns, like folks who recently tried to outlaw circumcision in San Francisco, can do away with. It is a living link to ancient events.
Finally, here are a couple of other items worth knowing.
First, Jews were far from the only people in the eastern Mediterranean to practice circumcision. The Philistines and the Babylonians did not. But the Egyptians (at least their mummified royalty) practiced it. The Phoenicians in ancient Lebanon seem to have practiced it. The Moabites, Edomites, and Ammonites in ancient Jordan practiced it. Some of these people also claimed Abraham as an ancestor.
Second, Abraham may have descended from the Hyksos, a Semitic people who ruled both Canaan and Lower Egypt until they were over-powered by the native Egyptians in about 1550 BCE. If so, Abraham may have understood that God’s promise of the land was a promise to restore land that had belonged to his ancestors and was rightfully his.