08 Jan

Chapter 05: The Covenant of Circumcision

5.1 “Walk before Me”

(1)And when Abram was ninety years old and nine, HaShem appeared to Abram, and said unto him, ‘I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be thou wholehearted. (2) And I will make My covenant between Me and thee, and will multiply thee exceedingly’.

By this time, Ishmael was 13 years of age and Abraham must recognize that Ishmael cannot be the continuator of his affairs. Abraham’s reorientation towards Isaac is connected here to Abraham’s renewal of his covenant with God.

In the past, the covenant consisted of a promise that Abraham would have descendants who would inherit the Land: “In that day HaShem made a covenant with Abram, saying, Unto thy seed have I given this land…” (15:18). This time the covenant also includes circumcision, changing of names, and changing Abraham’s spiritual level, and so “I will establish My covenant” is said in the future tense.

The words “walk before me, and be thou perfect” resonate with the Torah’s description of Noah who was “in his generations a man righteous and wholehearted; Noah walked with God” (Genesis 6:9), but the two verses nonetheless have vital differences. Abraham and Noah are two types of righteous men, who are often compared and contrasted in Jewish tradition. If Noah has already attained the level of uprightness (tamim in Hebrew means wholeness, perfection), then why is uprightness specified as a goal for Abraham? The reason is that Noah’s virtuousness is local, “among the people of his time,” while Abraham’s virtuousness is global, for all time. Noah walks “with God,” never stepping aside from Him, always precisely and unquestioningly following His instructions (to build the ark and use it to escape the flood). Abraham walks “before God,” in front of Him, sometimes resisting and not agreeing with Him—for example, in the story of Sodom’s destruction. For this reason, Noah was the rescuee, while Abraham was the rescuer; Noah was a “righteous man in a fur coat,” hiding from the passing of history in his corner, while Abraham is the father of the Jewish nation who fans the flames and warms all of humanity.

5.2 “Thy Name Shall Be Abraham”

(3) And Abram fell on his face: and God talked with him, saying, (4) ‘As for Me, behold, My covenant is with thee, and thou shalt be a father of a multitude of nations. (5) Neither shall thy name any more be called Abram, but thy name shall be Abraham; for the father of a multitude of nations have I made thee. (6) And I will make thee exceeding fruitful, and I will make nations of thee, and kings shall come out of thee.

“Fell on his face”—as long as Abraham had not yet undergone circumcision or a name change, he cannot withstand God’s revelation on the level of the Four-letter Name, the Tetragrammaton (used in 17:1). So later (in 17:3) the dialogue with Abraham is conducted on the level of “God” [Elohim][1].

(Although the meaning of the name “Abraham” is fairly apparent in these verses, the etymology of the name itself is unclear. The letter hei added to the name Abram, is derived by the Midrash from the word hamon, (multitude), connecting it to the explanation provided in the verse: “av hamon goyim”—“the father of a multitude of nations.” But the expression “av hamon goyim” lacks the letter resh; where does it come from in the name “Avraham”? One explanation states that this sound came from his previous name Av Aram (meaning, “the father of Aram” or “exalted Father”). Others note that the ancient Arabic language retained the Semitic root raham, (multitude), which was not preserved in Hebrew, and then Avraham literally means “father of a multitude”).

Nations that descend from Abraham are unusual. Earlier the Torah described the nations descended from Noah’s children—Shem, Ham, and Yafet. But the people who come from Abraham are different; they are of a “religious” type. These are Israel, Ishmael (Islam), and Edom (Christianity).

These Abrahamic religious systems progressively take over humanity and so Abraham is an av hamon goyim (the father of a multitude of nations)—not only in the sense that several nations descend from him, but also in that his ideas and ideals must eventually spread to all of humanity.

(7) And I will establish My covenant between Me and thee and thy seed after thee throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee. (8) And I will give unto thee, and to thy seed after thee, the land of thy sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God’

As in every covenant with the forefathers, three parameters are established here: transformation of the descendants into a nation, giving them the Land of Israel, and the promise that they will be the nation of God. In other words, this is a revelation of God’s plan for the creation of a nation as a political reality, as a nation-state education system in their Land through which God reveals Himself. There is no mention here about commandments or laws of the Torah, about which we will hear much later in the book of Exodus, at the Sinai revelation.

Thus, the national element was not alien to Judaism to begin with; on the contrary, the laws of the Torah should be considered some sort of a supplementary (rather than an original) element in the process of the nation’s formation. For this reason, Rashi’s commentary on this verse explains that “living beyond the borders of the Land of Israel is like one who does not have a God.” But one who lives in the Land of Israel, although he may not appear to be a typical religious person, encounters God Himself in his everyday life.

Of course, the Torah and its commandments are very important, even necessary to normal Jewish life. However, along with this, we must remember that the main content of the covenant, that will transform all of humanity, is not the commandments of the Torah per se, but the national-political existence of the Jewish nation.

5.3 Circumcision as a Sign of the Covenant

(9) And God said unto Abraham, ‘And as for thee, thou shalt keep My covenant, thou, and thy seed after thee throughout their generations. (10) This is My covenant, which ye shall keep, between Me and you and thy seed after thee; every male among you shall be circumcised. (11) And ye shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of the covenant betwixt Me and you. (12) And he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every male throughout your generations, he that is born in the house, or he that is bought with money of any foreigner, that is not of thy seed. (13) He that is born in thy house, and he that is bought with thy money, must needs be circumcised: and My covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. (14) And the uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that soul shall be cut off from his people; he hath broken my covenant. 

Although Abraham will be the “father of a multitude of nations,” it is emphasized that the covenant will be sealed specifically with the Jewish nation. Despite this, Abraham’s covenant regards circumcision not as one of many commandments, but as a symbol of the covenant, its visible expression.

The idea behind circumcision is that the “natural person,” the way he is when born, is by no means perfect. This concept reflects a very important difference between the Jewish and Greek approaches to the world. The Greek perspective considers the “natural man” to be in full harmony and “a measure of all things.” For this reason, the Greeks (and Romans) scorned circumcision, as it interferes with nature; and when the Hellenistic Seleucid Empire began to persecute Judaism (in the events leading up to the story of Hanukkah), one of the Greeks’ main demands was a ban on circumcision. The Jewish approach, on the other hand, denies “perfection from nature” and insists a human is only potentially perfect, and must undergo a long journey of development to come within reach of this perfection.

Awareness of the imperfection of the natural state is the point that begins the connection with the transcendental, that which exceeds nature. The Greeks saw the natural world as whole and perfect; Judaism does not consider the natural state to be whole. This “insufficiency of the natural state” at circumcision is emphasized even more by the creation of an additional “defect in relation to nature.”

This is especially important in the context of procreation, development, and advancement. After all, it is only the imperfection and incompleteness of the world that makes it possible for it to connect with the transcendental and eternal.

5.4 “Sarah shall her Name be”

(15) And God said unto Abraham, ‘As for Sarai thy wife, thou shalt not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall her name be. (16) And I will bless her, and moreover I will give thee a son of her: yea, I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of peoples shall be of her’.

Following the commandment of circumcision, the Torah relates the Divine order regarding the changing of Sarah’s name. She was originally called Sarai, (the ruler for me), but will now be called Sarah, or simply “ruler,” i.e. ruler of the world.

As already noted, it is said regarding Abraham, “Thy name shall be,” that is the name itself undergoes transformation; but about Sarah it says, “Thou shalt not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall her name be,” in other words, the name remains what it was before (it was not yet manifested, and only now is revealed). That is, Sarah was already on the spiritual level necessary for giving birth to Isaac, but Abraham had to attain this level, which he achieved when he fulfilled the commandment of circumcision.

The Torah emphasizes that Abraham’s successor can be born only from Sarah because both of his parents must be “Hebrews.” This principle reveals God’s plan of creating a “purely national” (unique, separate from others) people, through which HaShem’s light will be revealed to all humanity.

The covenant with God separates Jews from other nations, but it is specifically this treaty that creates the prerequisites for the realization of a universal Jewish mission.

5.5 The Basis of Universality: Proper Nationalism

In the European humanistic tradition, the prevalent opinion is that “nationalism” opposes “universalism,” that maintaining an isolated national life separates the nation from all of humanity. But here the Torah says exactly the opposite: in order to become universal, it is necessary for a nation to first realize its own unique national character, and only then will it have something to offer the world. Because of this, it is only when Abraham performs the circumcision commandment and thereby concentrates on his Jewish identity, that God gives Abraham and Sarah names that emphasize their universal significance.

Abraham’s ideas could not continue spreading to humanity until a special nation was created which would take upon themselves the burden of conveying them.

In this way, the basis of universality is the correct form of nationality, the realization of one’s own national specifics, and not cosmopolitism and the rejection of national orientation.

5.6 The Crisis of Isaac’s Birth

(17) Then Abraham fell upon his face, and laughed, and said in his heart, ‘Shall a child be born unto him that is an hundred years old? And shall Sarah, that is ninety years old, bear?’ (18) And Abraham said unto G-d, ‘Oh that Ishmael might live before Thee!

Abraham’s laughter and his final words show that although he perceives God’s words as a gift and a miracle, the prospect of Sarah giving birth to a son is rather problematic for him. We have already discussed that in Abraham’s eyes Ishmael, Hagar’s son who represents the great Egyptian civilization, is in some ways preferable as the founder of the chosen people to Sarah’s son, who would ethically be only an “Ivri.” To Abraham, it seems it would be easier to influence the world through the connection with Egypt; possibly, he even sees Divine Providence in that Sarah has no children, and that a son is born to Hagar.

When God tells Abraham that Sarah will give birth, he is confused: does God really want him to return to that “shallow” national plan, which, thanks to Ishmael’s birth, Abraham seems to have escaped? Maybe, God will change His strange decision; maybe He will agree to Ishmael?

(19) And God said, ‘Nay, but Sarah thy wife shall bear thee a son; and thou shalt call his name Isaac: and I will establish My covenant with him for an everlasting covenant for his seed after him. (20) And as for Ishmael, I have heard thee: Behold, I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly; twelve princes shall he beget, and I will make him a great nation. (21) But My covenant will I establish with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear unto thee at this set time in the next year’.

God opposes Abraham: “Nay, but Sarah thy wife shall bear thee a son”; and here “nay, but” is emphasized, that is, despite all of your objections. However, it is again stressed here that Abraham’s preference for Ishmael did not go unnoticed, and so God divides Abraham’s inheritance: “multiply exceedingly” goes to Ishmael; “the covenant and the Land”– to Isaac.

(22) And he left off talking with him, and God went up from Abraham.

God leaves, distances Himself from Abraham. It seems He is angry, as it were. He says, “That which I originally wanted to give entirely to your offspring from Sarah, will now be divided into two parts. You ask on behalf of Ishmael, so the blessing of a multitudinous nation I will give to him, but My covenant, of course, I will enact with Isaac.” This division will hinder Isaac’s offspring fulfillment of their mission in the future.

5.7 The Circumcision of the House of Abraham

(23) And Abraham took Ishmael his son, and all that were born in his house, and all that were bought with his money, every male among the men of Abraham’s house; and circumcised the flesh of their foreskin in the selfsame day, as God had said unto him. (24) And Abraham was ninety years old and nine, when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. (25) And Ishmael his son was thirteen years old, when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. (26) In the selfsame day was Abraham circumcised, and Ishmael his son. (27) And all the men of his house, those born in the house, and those bought with money of a foreigner, were circumcised with him.

Only now was it mentioned that circumcision should be performed ideally on the eighth day after birth. However, here it is emphasized that neither Abraham nor Ishmael meets these requirements. Therefore, the first “Jew from birth” was Isaac.


Lech Lekha (Get thee out)—the portion that describes Abram’s transformation into Abraham– concludes with the description of the covenant with God, into which all of the people of the house of Abraham have now entered. This chapter begins with the idea of leaving his current surroundings, with the Divine command, “Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will show thee” (12:1). It closes with circumcision and the transformation of Abram into Abraham, which symbolizes the end of the first stage of his life.

The process of Abraham becoming a Jewish patriarch and “the father of a multitude of nations” begins with his identifying himself as an “Ivri,” with his desire to revive Eber’s religion, “to break idols” and bring humanity to monotheism through a multitude of students. The progression culminates when Abraham recognizes that neither his students, nor his nephew Lot, nor Hagar’s son Ishmael, can be the continuators of his affairs. This continuator can only be Abraham’s son from Sarah, whose birth the Torah will now relate.

[1] For more specifics on the relationship between the names “God” and “Lord,” see chapter 4 in my book “Two Stories of the Creation of the World.”

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