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B'resheet/Genesis 21:5 And Avraham was a hundred years old when his son Yitz'khak was born to him.
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The Torah, which is not known for its superfluity of words, here seems to be telling us something we already know. Chapter seventeen provides the datum. It starts by telling us that "When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram" (B'resheet 17:1, NJPS), narratesHaShem giving Avraham his exalted name and the covenant of circumcision - "You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and that shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you" (v. 11, NJPS) - records the explicit promise of a son, "My covenant I will maintain with Yitz'khak, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this season next year" (v. 21, NJPS), and then tells us Avraham's age again: "Avraham was ninety-nine years old when he circumcised the flesh of his foreskin" (v. 24, NJPS). In passing it also reminds us of something else: "his son Ishmael was thirteen years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. Thus Avraham and his son Ishmael were circumcised on that very day" (vv. 25-26, NJPS). Quite a family affair!
The story goes on in chapter eighteen, when Avraham is resting in the heat of the day and receives three unexpected visitors. One says, "I will return to you next year, and your wife Sarah shall have a son!" (18:10, NJPS), then, after Sarah has laughed, repeats his statement: "Is anything too wondrous for the LORD? I will return to you at the time next year, and Sarah shall have a son" (v. 14, NJPS). If we hadn't already worked it out, Avraham - who is currently ninety-nine - will have a son in a year's time, when he will be one hundred years old. The Torah takes a few chapters to tell us about Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot's angelically arranged escape and subsequent fathering of children with his daughters, before returning to Avraham's second time of trying to pass his wife off as his sister. Finally, in chapter twenty-one, in a few brief verses, we learn that Sarah conceived and bore a son, whom Avraham named Yitz'khak and then circumcised when he was eight days old. Slipped into that block of verses is our text, telling us that Avraham reached his centenary before Yitz'khak was born.
Why does the Torah feel it necessary to tell us this again at this point? WhileIbn Kaspi unhelpfully shrugs his shoulders and says that, "Scripture frequently repeats significant matters, without any intent to add a message, so that readers would be less likely to forget them", that is not enough for the Sforno, who adduces that "although Avraham was one hundred years old and Yitz'khak the beloved son of his old age, he trusted HaShem and was not afraid to circumcise him." Perhaps like Moshe, "his eyes were undimmed, and his vigor unabated" (D'varim 34:7, NJPS), enabling him to perform the procedure without risk. Gordon Wenham offers the idea that "the frequent reference in genealogies to the age at which a man fathered his first child suggests this was regarded as a most important milestone in his life."1 Many men today testify that becoming a father when their first child was born completely changed their lives! At whatever age, it is no laughing matter. Attempting a word play on Yitz'khak name, James McKeown remarks that "a child born to a one hundred year old man is well worth a laugh."2
We might be tempted to call it a day there, assuming that was all the Torah really had to say, were our text not shortly followed by the report of Yitz'khak's weaning feast - according to Iain Provan, "weaning in ancient times would have been around two to three years old"3 - and Sarah's insistence that Hagar and Ishmael must be expelled from Avraham's household so that her son alone would be seen and counted as Avraham's son. Setting aside the issues of sibling rivalry and inappropriate behaviour, there is something significant behind Sarah's rejection of Ishmael. Sarah saw Ishmael . The Pi'el participle of the verb , to laugh, the leitwort that has run through the story of Sarah's miraculous pregnancy and delivery even as far as Yitz'khak's name, this means "to mock, scoff, make fun of". Although some translations soften this back to 'playing', the majority correctly report that Sarah saw Ishmael mocking her son Yitz'khak, making fun of him, on this big public day, the feast that Avraham had given to celebrate his weaning.
Just messing about? A bit of light-hearted banter? Sarah certainly didn't think so. What had she seen and understood? That Ishmael was the son of uncircumcision, while Yitz'khak was the son of circumcision. That is the key thing that the whole story of Avraham's ages tells us. Ishmael was born fourteen years before Yitz'khak, when Avraham was not circumcised; Yitz'khak was born after Avraham had been circumcised - he was, in a way, the fruit of that circumcision, he was the child of the promise. He was circumcised on the eighth day rather than at age thirteen. Consequently there is a distinction between Yitz'kah and Ishmael and that distinction makes for trouble: Ishmael mocks or makes fun of Yitz'kah. Rav Sha'ul points out that the same difference applies to the followers of Yeshua in Galatia: "Now you, brothers, like Yitz'khak, are children of promise. But just as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so also it is now" (Galatians 4:28-29, ESV).
Conversely, writing to the Romans some years later, Sha'ul uses the story the other way round to prove that G-d is G-d for both Jews and Gentiles, arguing that He will "justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith" (Romans 3:30, ESV). How so? Because Avraham's faith in HaShem started when he was uncircumcised and continued when he became circumcised: "He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well" (4:11, ESV). Richard Longenecker explains that "G-d credited righteousness to Avraham before he was circumcised (B'resheet 15:6) and not after he was circumcised (17:24). The ritual of circumcision neither altered or annulled the paradigmatic importance of Avraham's faith in G-d."4 Therefore we can say that the fatherhood of Avraham is therefore for all people of faith (whether 'circumcised' Jew or 'uncircumcised' Gentile). Both are rightly described as "children of Avraham" and both have righteousness credited to them because of their faith.
Each of us - whether Jew or Gentile - nevertheless, has an element of uncircumcision within us. Moshe recognised this when he told our people, "Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn" (D'varim 10:16, ESV) and Jeremiah proclaimed - to people who had been physically circumcised for generations - that "all the house of Israel are uncircumcised in heart" (Jeremiah 9:26, ESV). Rav Sha'ul explains that, really (and despite appearances), "true circumcision is not only external and physical" (Romans 2:28, CJB). What matters is the heart and one's inner orientation: "circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter" (v. 29, ESV). While Sha'ul can say of himself, "It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me" (Galatians 2:20, ESV), he also admits, "I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing" (Romans 7:19, ESV). The quantum change that happened when we came to faith in Yeshua - the "old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing" (Romans 6:6, ESV) - is still being worked out. Sha'ul writes that we are being taught three things (Ephesians 4:22-24, ESV):
This takes time and intentionality. Not only do we have to admit that this process is right and needs to happen if we are to be conformed to the image of Yeshua, but we have to actively cooperate with the nudging and direction of the Spirit: we have to want the changes that He prescribes and we have to develop new habits of thinking, talking, and behaving. A great deal of work is required and, in the meantime, stuff happens which springs from the old self and is not according to the Spirit - we stumble and fall. Of course, we repent, we are ashamed of our weakness and we ask for forgiveness, which in Yeshua is graciously given. We dust ourselves off, get back to our feet resolved not to do that again and ask the Lord what He wants us to do now. This is the process of discipleship; it is no different from Yeshua's first disciples who all had their moment of old-self-ishness. If they got through it, so can you! Being a hundred years old is no excuse - we all need to hit the road with Yeshua and learn to be like Him.
1. - Gordon Wenham, Genesis 16-50, Word Biblical Commentary, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1994), page 80.
2. - James McKeown, Genesis, Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008), page 113.
3. - Iain Provan, Discovering Genesis: Content, Interpretation, Reception, (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2016), 142.
4. - Richard J. Longenecker, The Epistle to the Romans, NIGTC, (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2016), page 505.,
Further Study: Colossians 3:5-11; James 1:19-21; 1 Peter 2:1-3
Application: What do we do in our uncircumcision of our hearts? Can you identify a pattern or habit that is driven by the old self and needs to die so that it can be replaced by the new self created in the image of Yeshua? Ask the Spirit today to show you where the next change He wants to make in you is located and work with Him to make it happen!
Comment - 20:37 17Oct21 Joshua VanTine: Don't want to miss Him appearing and the opportunity for my heart to be truly transformed. Really appreciated how Sarah like Zipporah understood the importance of the hour in partnering with the Holy One in His Kingdom work and accomplishing their specific tasks necessary for the promises of HaShem to flourish. Whether we are blessed to see it ourselves or need the 'good old elbow in the ribs' from the godly woman in our lives to dust ourselves off and act for His name sake, let us work diligently for G-d's promises to materialize in, through, around and behind our lives.
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© Jonathan Allen, 2021
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