The Surprising Sign
When God said to Abraham (in Genesis 17:10), “Every male among you shall be circumcised,” I assume that there was something in that aged man that wanted to scream out, “God, you can’t be serious about this! You are not really going to have me cut off the foreskin of my penis as a sign by which people will know that I belong to You, are You?” The covenant of circumcision makes me think that God has a sick sense of humor, or God is weird, or there is something here that I need to look at more closely.
Genesis 17:11 refer to circumcision as “a sign of the covenant.” A “sign” is a marker that points people to something or that spells out the significance of something. What does circumcision point to? What meaning does it communicate?
Circumcision points our attention to two dynamics of our relationship with God: intimacy and cost.
Intimacy: In his book The Rest of God, Mark Buchanan points out, “To be circumcised is to be wounded in a place of intimacy and vulnerability. It is to permit, even invite an act of violence—a sharp knife, a painful cut, a bloody removal—in that part of a man he otherwise most guards and hides. It is also the part he most intimately joins with a woman. Circumcision is being scarred in a place of deep identity, where a man understands himself to be a man. It is being wounded at the only source where a man can create life. Many parts of a man’s anatomy are useful: with his mind he imagines, with his hands he devises, with his feet he deploys. A man can create many things, but only in this one place can he create life. It is here the knife is applied. The scar, the wound, sets this man apart: it says that here, even here, especially here, he is a marked man. He is one who belongs to God.” (P. 96)
In the website “The Thirsty Theologian,” David Kjos adds, “I believe circumcision demonstrates the depth of intimacy God wants to have with his people. He wants such an intimate connection with us that he put the physical mark of his covenant with us in the most intimate possible place. Furthermore, the removal of the foreskin represents the uncovering of our most hidden parts. Think about it: even when a man is entirely naked, his most private part is still covered by his foreskin. Only under the most intimate of circumstances is he entirely exposed, and then only to the one with whom the intimacy is shared. God wants that degree of intimacy with us.”
The reality of our faith is that God invites us into a deep, vulnerable, and intimate relationship with Him. Circumcision points our attention to this fact.
Cost: In The Devil’s Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce defines a “Christian” as “One who believes that the New Testament is a divinely inspired book admirably suited to the spiritual needs of his neighbor; one who follows the teachings of Christ in so far as they are not inconsistent with a life of sin.” Bierce captures the popular thinking: The Christian faith is to be embraced whenever it makes us happy but placed on a shelf whenever it becomes uncomfortable to us.
But Mark Labberton remarks, “Seeking a call that evades suffering is a decision neither to follow Jesus nor to live in the real world. How can we read the Gospels and hear Jesus say, ‘Take up [your] cross and follow me’ (Matthew 16:24), and believe that isn’t for us? Suffering is not the goal of following Jesus. It will, however, be a consequence, because it’s a call to love the real and suffering world. The ‘cross’ we take up isn’t an accident of circumstances but a willful choice to imitate the love of Jesus, who took up his cross out of love and calls us to do likewise.” (Called, p. 126)
Circumcision points us to the fact that faith is not always comfortable to us. Circumcision points us to the fact that faith is costly at its core.
Interestingly, circumcision was a sign that was not easily seen or noticed by others. Though James Michener includes a moving scene in his book The Source about a handsome ancient Jewish lad who fell in love with Greek culture and endured the pain of a reversed circumcision to fit in with the Greek athletes. When the athletes paraded through the city naked, the boy’s rabbi father saw that his son had cast aside the mark of the covenant, and it broke the father’s heart.
The apostle Paul tells us that since the time of Jesus, we are given a different mark to identify us as God’s people. In Ephesians 1:13b-14, Paul writes, “Having believed, you were marked in Him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of His glory.”
Though the Spirit of God is invisible, the Spirit’s presence in our lives is meant to be seen. In Matthew 5:14-16, Jesus states, “You are the light of the world…. Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” And in John 13:35 Jesus stresses, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
The mark we have received is the Holy Spirit, and this mark is to be seen not through a change to our physical appearance but through a change in our heart. This mark is to be seen and recognized through our love for others.
The God who cannot walk away from an empty heart
Some passages in the Bible are downright ugly, for the simple reason that the Bible honestly reports the ugly consequences of human sin. Genesis 16 is one of those ugly passages—full of emotional abuse, sexual manipulation, physical abuse, and a prophetic warning of perennial ethnic strife.
God had promised to give Abram descendants, but Abram is old, and no children have arrived, so Abram complains to God (Genesis 15:2-3). God renews his promise to Abram, but still no children arrive. Abram’s impatience grows. Apparently, Abram complains to Sarai at least as much as he complains to God about it, and apparently he says to her the same thing he said to God, “You have given me no offspring!” Apparently, Abram nagged Sarai with reminders of the Babylonian law of the day, the Code of Hammurabi, which stipulated that an infertile wife should provide her husband with a surrogate child-bearer. Eventually Sarai gives in and says to Abram, “Go in to my slave-girl; it may be that I shall obtain children by her,” but it seems that she continues to resent the pressure Abram had put on her, for when the slave-girl becomes pregnant, Sarai says to Abram, “May the wrong done to me be on you!…. May the Lord judge between you and me!”
As far as the society of that day was concerned, Hagar was a person of virtually no value. She is used as a vessel through which Abram and Sarai can have their child. Through this arrangement Hagar does not replace Sarai as Abram’s wife; she doesn’t even become a second wife to Abram; she is simply a surrogate mother. According to the law of that day, Hagar does not even have claim to her own child. The law considered her baby the child of Abram and Sarai.
A young woman, whose blog site is titled “The Journal of My Insignificant Life,” writes, “If I don’t need love, why am I crying? If I don’t need love, why am I suffering? When I’m alone, I feel like dying. My soul is ripping, so heart-breaking. ‘Cause I dream of love, though I tried to hate it. Yes, I dream of love, and I know I’ll never find it.”
Those could have been Hagar’s words. By law, she is merely a surrogate child-bearer, but she longs for more. Society allows her to be used and abused, but she longs to be loved.
So she runs away. By the time we meet up with her by a spring in the wilderness (in Genesis 16:7), she is alone, impoverished, pregnant and miserable. As Ann Spangler points out in her devotional on Hagar, “There is almost no worse nightmare for a woman.”
But, in the midst of this ugly chapter, God shows up. Larry Crabb explains why: “It isn’t only nature that abhors a vacuum. God does too. But the vacuum he abhors is spiritual. He can see a dry riverbed and not fill it. But he cannot see an empty heart and walk away. His love won’t let him.” (The PAPA Prayer, p. 145)
The angel of God finds the runaway slave-girl and, with a play on words, asks her, “Hagar (which means “Flight”), from where are you fleeing? And to where are you flying?” As the conversation continues, the angel tells her to name her child Ishmael, explaining, “For the Lord has given heed to your affliction. Ishmael means, “God hears.” That child’s name would be a constant reminder to Hagar, and to everyone else, that God heard the groaning of Hagar’s heart, and that God cared for her. Hagar then gave to God the name El Roi, which means “God sees me.” It is actually the same word we find at the beginning of Psalm 23. There it is translated as “The Lord is my Shepherd,” but it is literally, “God is the One who watches over me.” And the well there becomes known as Beer-lahai-roi, which means, “The well of the Living One who sees me.”
In the midst of this ugly chapter, Hagar met the God who heard her angst and who saw her sorrow.
Jerry Sittser lost his wife, his mother, and his daughter when a drunk driver hit the family van he was driving. He writes about the grief and pain he endured in his book A Grace Disguised. He also describes how God found him even in his pain: “To our shock and bewilderment, we discover that there is a Being in the universe who, despite our brokenness and sin, loves us fiercely. In coming to the end of ourselves, we have come to the beginning of our true selves. We have found the One whose love gives shape to our being.” (p. 90)
Even in the midst of the greatest ugliness of life, there is a God who “cannot see an empty heart and walk away,” who hears our groans, and who takes notice of us in our sorrow.
Give up trying for a flawless faith
I struggle with perfectionism. I buy into the lie that my worth is dependent on how good (flawless) I can appear to be.
David Benner nails me in his book The Gift of Being Yourself: “The roots of our pretend self lie in our childhood discovery that we can secure love by presenting ourselves in the most flattering light. A little girl hides her hatred of her brother because she knows that she should love him. This lack of integrity is then reinforced by her parents, who commend her loving behavior. A young boy denies his resentment after he fails to get something he desires. In so doing, he takes a step toward a loss of awareness of what he is really feeling. In short, we learn to fake it, appearing as we think important others want us to be and ignoring the evidence to the contrary” (p. 61-62).
So I am caught by surprise when Genesis 15:6 says about Abram, “He believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”
What is so righteous about what Abram? That he “believed the Lord”? How flawless was his belief? Just before this (in Genesis 15:2-3), Abram was expressing his doubts to God and complaining because God had not brought him any children. Just after this (in Genesis 15:8), Abram is expressing his doubts again, wondering how he can believe that God will give him the promised land.
Apparently, righteousness is not determined by flawless believing or by pretending that one’s faith is stronger than it is. Apparently, in God’s assessment, righteousness has more to do with integrity of relationship with God. Apparently, righteousness is more about right relationship than about flawless faith. Apparently, righteousness has more to do with God’s grace than our ‘perfect’ behavior.
The rest of Genesis 15 makes this particularly clear. God told Abram to bring a three-year-old heifer, a three-year-old female goat, a three-year-old ram, a turtledove and a young pigeon, and Abram cut the heifer, goat and ram in two and set the halves across a rut from each other.
This may seem bizarre to us, but it made sense to Abram. To seal—or to “cut”—a covenant between two parties in that culture, animals were “cut” in two. The halves were then set on opposite sides of a depression, with the blood of the severed animals draining into the space between them. The two parties making the covenant would remove their sandals and walk through the pool of blood between the severed creatures. In doing so, each person would be making a statement: This covenant is now sealed with blood. May it be done to me, as it has been done to these creatures, if I should ever break the covenant we have established between us. Or may it be done to you, as it has been done to these animals, if you should ever break the covenant we have established between us.
Abram understood the cutting of a covenant. What he didn’t understand was how an individual was to cut a covenant with the invisible, transcendent God. He understood that he, Abram, was capable of taking off his sandals and walking through that pool so that the blood stained his feet as a visible sign of the covenant God was cutting with him, but how could God do it? It made sense to him that he—a mortal—should pledge his life to the Almighty God, but how and why would God Almighty pledge his life to Abram?
It seemed to Abram that he would be the one who could and who should walk through the blood and pledge his life, but the One giving direction had not yet told him to do so. Thus, Abram waited…and chased away vulture…and waited.
Then Abram saw the most amazing sight. He saw God, like “a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch” pass between the severed animals! As it turned out, it wasn’t Abram who swore upon himself the punishment of a broken covenant. It was God! It wasn’t Abram who promised to pay with his life if anything went awry. It was God! It wasn’t Abram who ended up with blood on him. It was God!
What Abram saw that night was fulfilled in Jesus, for it was in Jesus that God took upon Himself the punishment for our sin (for us breaking the covenant between God and people).
Abram’s righteousness, as it turns out, was not contingent on Abram’s flawless faith or perfect behavior, but was covered by God’s grace. And our righteousness, as it turns out, is not contingent on our flawless faith or our efforts at perfect behavior, but is covered by God’s grace.
I pray for God to help me to give up my efforts to appear flawless, and I pray for God to help me to live more deeply in His grace.
Life presents us with many tests—many opportunities to determine what is in us, and many opportunities for us to sink to the lowest or to rise to the highest.
Life presented Abram with many tests. When he faced the test of scarcity, with a severe famine in the land, his trust in God floundered, and he fled to Egypt. When he faced the test of fear, his integrity floundered, and he passed his wife off as his sister. In Genesis 13 and 14, Abram faces tests of prosperity (abundance). Genesis 13:2 tells us that when Abram came back to Canaan from Egypt, he “was very rich in livestock, in silver, and in gold.” Verses 5-6 add, “Now Lot, who went with Abram, also had flocks and herds and tents, so that the land could not support both of them living together.” How will Abram handle himself in this test?
A student once sent a letter to Jay Kesler. In the letter he asked, “I have been told that money is the root of all evil…. Is it all right for Christians to have money? What attitude should a Christian have toward wealth?”
Kesler answered, “First of all, it’s the love of money, not money itself, that is a root of all kinds of evil. People sometimes toss around a little slogan: Love people; use things. Unfortunately, we often turn that around: we use people and love things. The Bible suggests a word that has helped me: ‘stewardship.’ Nothing we have—time, money, talents, resources—belongs exclusively to us. The resources belong to God and are merely loaned to us. We are stewards, managers. The Bible does not make an issue of how much money we have so much as our use of it and our attitude toward it.
“God allows some people to acquire a large amount of money. They are responsible to use it wisely according to Christian values. Others have less. But certainly by global standards, most Americans are wealthy. Sin comes when one is selfish or irresponsible in the use of income or accumulated wealth, regardless of degree. Wealth should be used to help others, particularly those in need….
“It is not hard to see, then, where both communism and capitalism conflict with Christianity. Communism assumes that wealth itself is bad. And capitalism allows wealth to be used selfishly. Christianity, on the other hand, calls for a compassionate use of what we have. But when 10 percent of the world’s population uses 90 percent of the world’s resources, something is out of focus.”
When the love of money consumes us, we close our hearts to others; we set aside compassion and we set aside ethics; we love things and use others; we step on others to get the things we want.
We see a bit of this attitude in Lot. When choosing what land to take, Lot made careful consideration of the economic factors but overlooked the moral and spiritual factors. Though Abram was his elder and should have had first choice of the land, and though Lot should have at least offered to share the good land with his uncle, Lot “chose for himself all the plain of the Jordan.” Lot then turned a blind eye on the corruption of Sodom and kept moving closer and closer until he took up residence in the wicked city.
But Abram did not become consumed by the love of money. In the midst of conflict with his nephew over desired grazing land, Abram approached Lot with gentleness and consideration. His priority was peace with his nephew rather than profit. He was willing to suffer loss for the sake of his relationship with Lot. When a foreign army attacked Sodom and carried Lot away as a slave, Abram did not gloat self-righteously that Lot got what he deserved, nor did he hide himself away to protect himself and his goods. He risked his life in battle to rescue Lot. When the king of the wicked city of Sodom offered to reward Abram, with the possible obligation of being beholding to him, Abram turned it down. Abram’s integrity mattered more to him than the accumulation of wealth. Instead, Abram tithed a tenth of everything to Melchizedek, priest of God Most High.
Abram passed this test. Integrity, faithfulness, and concern for others mattered more to Abram than wealth.