CONTEXT: This is the P (Priestly writer) version of the brit between God and the patriarch–the earlier JE version is in chapter 15 (“Promises in the Dark”). P lived in the 5th century BCE, following the return from Babylonian exile. Under Persian domination there was no king in Jerusalem–priests held authority. P advances the Yishamael alienation theme and presents here the last of seven promises that the patriarch will have many children. Most P writing in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, is legalistic, concerning the priest run sacrificial cult, the form of worship that characterized the second Temple. Here he presents God’s name ElShadai, brit and circumcision, and the annunciation: Sarah will bear a son to be called Yitschak.
            Yitschak, “he will laugh:” P has Avraham doing the laughing. J builds an episode around Sarah doing the laughing (18:12). E has Sarah talking about the extraordinarily late birth as God’s “joke,” at which everyone would laugh (21:5, tsachok, צחוק, יצחק).
            GLOSSARY: Brit is one of those Hebrew words I prefer to leave untranslated (~ ben, kodesh, chalilah). The word came to mean “covenant,” i.e. mutual obligation. In Genesis it designates “bond,” or “special relationship,” specifically, the narrator’s projection of the deity’s directed attention to the patriarchs. Here the brit is “set up,” or “given.” In the J narrative, the expression is “to cut a brit.” Yahh cut a brit with Avram (15:18, כרת/karat). But, for P, cutting comes up as the sign of the brit.
            “Walk before me and be with integrity.” Literally, “walk back and forth before me” leans towards the modern expressions, “walk the walk” and “walk with God.” “Integrity” renders tamim, frequently translated “perfect, blameless,” though it comes from a root meaning “complete, simple.”
            The word n-t-n, נתן, “give,” occurs six times in this chapter. This translation leaves it to the reader to see various meanings in the several contexts: extend, set, decree, cause to be, etc.
            “God,” Elohim, אלהים, is today used as proper noun, signifying the deity in monotheism. However, the word, with its plural form, also serves as generic for “god” or gods. My understanding is that where it occurs without an article or pronoun ending, it is the proper noun, with initial capital letter. Where it appears with “the” as in v. 18, or followed by a personal pronoun, the meaning is generic. Our ancestors were not monotheists. They acknowledged many gods: your god, my god, our god, their god, the god with whom the character interacts.
            SIGNIFICANT NAMES: ElShadai, is explained in Exodus 6:3 as the name by which Yahh was known to the patriarchs–six occurances in Genesis, attributed to P. Ezekiel uses the name poetically, in a simile: “The voice of angels wings is heard to the outer courtyard like the voice of ElShadai in his speaking.” (10:5) Twice in Job there is a play on El and el, the former referring to “god,” and the latter, the preposition “to.” Job wants to address Shadai, to speak to god (8:5, 13:3). El (as in ElElyon, Genesis 14) means “power, strength, god,” and was the personal name of a deity worshiped by the indigenous population. Shadai is frequently translated “almighty”: JPS, 1917, Vulgate: deus omnipotens, but no convincing etymology has been found. An interesting suggestion connects the name with shadayim, “breasts.” Septuagint reads here θεος σου, “your god.” In Ex 6:3, θεος ων αυτων “God, I am himself.”
            The change from Avram to Avraham seems to be a word play on “patriarch of a multitude (hamon, המון) of nations.” Sarai/Sarah is a shift from an old to a new form of the same word, meaning “ranking woman.”

            1It happened that Avram was 99 years old and Yahh appeared to him:
            “I am ElShadai!
                        Walk about before me             and be with integrity
                        2and I will give my brit                        between me and you.
                                    And I will multiply you greatly, greatly.”
3Avram fell on his face as God continued speaking to him.
            4“I–here’s My brit with you:
                        You shall become a father             a multitude of nations.
            5No longer shall your name be called Avram.            Let your name be Avraham
for I have given you to be father of a multitude of nations.
6I will make you fruitful, greatly, greatly:
            I give you into nations.            Kings shall come out of you.
7And I will set up my brit between me and you
and your seed after you,            through their generations:
for an eternal brit to become god for you and for your seed after you.
8I will give you and your seed after you the land of your sojourning,
the whole land of K’na’an, as an eternal holding.
And I will become god for them.”
9God said to Avraham:
“And you, keep my brit,             you and your seed following you through their generations.
10This is my brit that you shall keep between me and you and your seed following you:
your being circumcised, every male.
·      11You shall be circumcised of the flesh of your foreskin and it will become a sign of the brit between me and you.
·      12An eight day old shall be circumcised for you, every male throughout your generations, home born or acquired with your silver from any outsider who is not of your seed.
·      13Circumcised, be circumcised, home born or acquired with your silver, and my brit in your flesh shall become an eternal brit
·      14A foreskined one, a male the flesh of whose foreskin has not been circumcised, that person shall be cut off from its people: he has broken my brit.
            15God said to Avraham: “Sarai, your woman, you shall no longer call her name Sarai, for Sarah is her name. 16I will bless her and even give you a son from her. And I will bless her that she become nations. Kings of peoples shall be from her.”
            17Avraham fell on his face and laughed. He said in his heart, “Shall there be one born to a hundred-year-old?  And Sarah! Shall a ninety-year-old give birth?” 
            18To the god Avraham said: “Would that Yishma’el live before you.”
            19God said: “Still Sarah your woman is bearing you a son! You shall call his name Yitschak. I will set up my brit with him as an eternal brit with his seed following him.
20“As for Yishma’el, I have heard you. You see I have blessed him and I shall make him fruitful and multiply him greatly, greatly.  He shall beget twelve chiefs and I shall give him into a great nation. 21But My brit I will set up with Yitschak whom Sarah will bear to you at this season in another year.” 22God finished speaking with Avraham and went up from him.
            23Avraham took Yishma’el his son and all his home born and all acquired with his silver, every male of the individuals of the House of Avraham, He circumcised the flesh of their foreskin on that very day just as God had spoken to him. 24Avraham was 99 years old at his circumcision of the flesh of his foreskin. 25His son Yishma’el was 13 years old at his being circumcised of the flesh of his foreskin. 26On that very day Avraham was circumcised, and Yishma’el his son, and all the men of his house, home born or acquired by silver from an outsider, they were circumcised with him.

© Rabbi David L. Kline  

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