ALIVE: Chapter 33, The Painful Covenant

The birth of Ishmael presented to Abram the life he had yearned for. How he loved his precious son. Ishmael had his father's eyes and his hands; tiny versions of his own. Abram stared at Ishmael's tiny fingers and contemplated all that he would teach them to do. He was happy to cuddle the baby in his arms and pace the tent when he cried. Tossing him in the air to make him giggle.

Ishmael was one lucky boy, the only son of a wealthy old man who adored him. He was treated as a prince everywhere he went. As Ishmael grew up he returned the love of his father. Abram's 90th birthday party was a feast to be long remembered throughout the land. Four year old Ishmael had prepared a song for his father. The audience was delighted. There could be no doubt that this was his father's son.

Yet, Ishmael failed to be the son Sarai thought she would have. Hagar never let go. She so enjoyed keeping the child close to her and away from Sarai. How could a child feel any affection from the woman who despised his mother, nor did Sarai care. Yet, she never forbade Abram from fathering his son, knowing that some day the child would grow into manhood and would care for them both.

Months passed slowly into years, and Ishmael grew with them. On his tenth birthday Abram presented Ishmael with his own horse. A happier boy there never was. Together, father and son rode throughout the territory as king and prince for all the world to admire.

Ishmael learned quickly. By the time he was thirteen there was nothing that Abram did around the estate that Ishmael couldn't do almost as well. Ishmael learned to avoid Sarai. He loved to listen to Abram's stories of God, the God of Creation. His thirsty young mind wished that he too could experience visitations from the God of his father, but he knew that such an omnipotent and sovereign God spoke only to those he chose, and so far, God had not chosen to speak to Ishmael, only to his mother once. They both clung to those words of how great Ishmael would become.

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, and Ishmael was a young man of thirteen, the Lord appeared to Abram one day when he least expected it, and said to him, "I am God Almighty, walk before me and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between Me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous." Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, "As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you. And I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now an alien, all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding; and I will be their God."

God said again to Abraham, "As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you, the land where you are now an alien, all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding; and I will be their God."

Then God said something to Abraham that was so outrageous that if anyone else had suggested this, it would have meant war. Never before had God ever indicated why he chose Abram, but after 40 years or more of divine visitations, Abraham was going to show himself worthy of this holy relationship.

Perambula blurted, "Ahhh, Lord, am I finally going to see why You were so patient with Abram when he gave his wife to Pharaoh and when Sarai gave him to Hagar!"

God smiled mysteriously as if not necessarily to concur with Perambula.

"What does Abram, I mean Abraham have to do to hold up his end of the covenant. He gets all the land, and nations of descendants, including kings, and what do you get my Lord?"

"God chuckled and before announcing the requirement to Abraham he whispered to Perambula, "Foreskin."

"What!" exclaimed Perambula. Perambula had known God to be creative and wise, but this deal, even for God seemed strange to say the least. Then Perambula heard God tell Abraham:

"As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you:

Perambula focused on Abraham who was listening attentively with eyes closed while sitting under his favorite tree on a cool morning, waiting for God to spill it, wondering why He was hedging so long, curious as curious can be. What could the God of the universe ask from a mere mortal like him, and a flawed one at that. Finally He said it:

"Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskins..."

Abraham's eyes opened abruptly and then nearly popped out of his head. He took a big gulp of air to reign himself back in. Did he really hear what he thought he heard God say? At first Abraham wrestled within himself, vacillating between belief and doubt. Finally he decided that it must have been God, because never in a million years would he have come up with such a thing as to ask every man in his home, including himself and his precious son Ishmael to put a knife to their penises.

God continued, "Throughout your your generations every male among you shall be circumcised when he is eight days old, including the slave born in your house and the one bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant."

Silence. Abraham sat dumbfounded. How could he possibly convince his entire household to clip every penis among them? He knew that for him to have the land and the enormous family and heritage was worth everything, but what could he tell the shoemaker and the butcher that would keep him from fleeing, or worse revolting? Wouldn't it be enough just to circumcise himself and Ishmael, and their children?

God continued, "Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant."

"Okay," thought Abraham. God answered his question. No one, especially no man wants to be banished. He would use the power of the human bond to convince everyone to submit to the operation. They would, because it will be the only way they can maintain participation in Abraham's community. He would convince them that the God who commands circumcision will also protect them from their enemies, and feed them. He would explain to them Who this God is, and they will accept the pain and humiliation of circumcision for the lofty reason that this sacrifice will, in the long run, ensure their security. God was nation building, the beginning of many nations of Abraham. Abraham still feared giving this announcement, but at least he knew what his argument would be.

God continued to speak. Never before had He spent so much time with Abraham. Never before had God so much to say.

God said to Abraham, "As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her."

Perambula looked at God at that moment and said, "Now I get it! You blew life into Adam with a HA! and into Abram when you added HA to his name to signify your breath of life. And by adding ah to Sarai, you joined them to each other as one complete breath! Right?" God looked at Perambula quizzically.

Meanwhile, Abraham, who could not hear Perambula, but heard God clearly, fell on his face and laughed and said to himself, "Can a child be born to a man who is an hundred years old? Can Sarah who is ninety years old, bear a child?" And Abraham said to God, "Oh, that Ishmael might live in your sight!"

God said, "No, but your wife Sarah shall bear you a son and you shall name him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him. As for Ishmael, I have heard you; I will bless him and make him fruitful and exceedingly numerous; he shall be the father of twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation. But my covenant I will establish with Isaac, who Sarah shall bear to you at the season next year." Then God departed from Abraham. He had nothing more to say leaving Abraham with the problem of how to present this mass surgery to his people. Abraham thought he risked a mass exodus, but where would they go? These people were bound to him. If they left, the neighbors would round them up and bring them back.

Finally, Abraham mustered up the courage and told his chief servant to round up all the men, every hand from the fields and the carpenters and blacksmiths, and the cooks, butchers, and every man was called to Abraham's meeting. Even the boys were called. Ishmael rounded up all the boys who could walk. Father carried their infant sons.

When everyone was gathered Abraham spoke.

"Men," he said, "The God of all creation who formed this earth and all of the animals in it, who formed the heavens with its moon and stars has spoken to me on this day. He wants to mark us, you and me as His special people among all the peoples of the earth. He asks us to sacrifice a small piece of our flesh in return for His infinite blessings and protection."

The men looked at each other confused, wondering specifically what Abraham wanted them to do.

Abraham understood that he needed to get specific. "Men and boys, there is a piece of flesh on your penis at the tip that is unnecessary. In fact sometimes it can harbor dirt and germs. We are asked by God to remove that piece..."

Suddenly a loud gaff erupted from the audience in horror and disbelief.

"Please, calm down, listen to me!"

"It will only bring you pain for a little while. Thereafter we will be marked as the people of a mighty God that we are, that we want to be. God is asking us to sacrifice a tiny bit, yes even with some pain, but He is a generous God, and He will not ask more than we can take. My son Ishmael and I will be the first to undergo this operation.

Will all the butchers come forward."

Muscular young Ishmael sauntered out of the crowd and slowly and hesitating approached his father. Everyone's eyes focused on this feisty lad, beloved of his powerful father. Had Abraham gone mad? What would Ishmael do? Would Ishmael actually present himself to enter into a covenant with God?

Ishmael felt himself approach his father as if he was having an out of body experience. Logic told him to run away, but his love for his father, and his father's love for Ishmael drew him to Abraham's side. Abraham was proud of Ishmael once again.

There for all the world to see Ishmael, and then Abraham became the first to undergo the incision that would painfully mark them as God's chosen people, God's faithful business partners.

Seeing spunky thirteen year old Ishmael humble himself to his father impressed all of the men. One by one in his heart each man knew that he had no choice but to succumb to the knife. Never before had they been asked for so much. As the slave-girl Hagar gave her body to her master, so too would each slave-man, and each free man be required to offer up his body too. What was in it for them? The bond between master and slave would never be greater than on that day.

Abraham was relieved that his men willingly joined in this covenant with his God and with him. Somehow the mass suffering made it easier. He noticed a few men slip away and run into the hills and he let them go. Even Abraham didn't fully understand what the covenant would mean in his lifetime since God mostly referred to a faraway future. Yet, he knew in his heart that any man who would sacrifice himself, who would willingly obey God with adult circumcision would indeed receive in return the reward of His divine protection. No one else was offered land or children to become kings, but all suffered just the same, and God counted that as righteousness.

The men moaned for a week. Within the following three months sixteen baby boys were born and on their eighth day, they too were circumcised, they were given the mark of Abrham's covenant with God.

This massive first covenant act marked a mass conversion unlike any other in the history of humankind. Men from many tribes and backgrounds, now living in Hebron, united with Abraham to become a Hebrew tribe united by this hidden seal of God.

If Abraham was crazy, they were crazy too.

That there were no enemies surrounding them to take advantage of their temporary frailty showed them that perhaps they were protected by an invisible God. These proud men and boys in pain never felt so alive.