The Cutting Off of Flesh
In Genesis 17, twenty-four years after leaving Haran, YHWH gives Abram circumcision, the sign of the covenant, and a new name, Abraham – Father of a Multitude. All males in Abraham’s household must be circumcised. The rite off circumcision involves the cutting off of flesh. There are two forms that this excision. First, the foreskin of the males must be removed (17:10-13). Second, any males who are not circumcised must be cut off from his people (17:14).
This cutting off of the flesh should remind us of the previous cutting off of flesh, when all flesh was cut off at the flood (9:11). It is important that we recognize the connection between these two events. Circumcision is an act that occurs in preparation for the coming of God in judgment. By cutting off the flesh in circumcision, one can be protected from the cutting off of flesh in divine destruction.
The timing of the institution of circumcision is significant in this regard, as we shall see, coming immediately before the arrival of the angels who will bring judgment upon the land, with the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. With the arrival of the Angel of YHWH, the entire land becomes holy, and holy ground is a deadly place for the unclean to be. Circumcision is introduced in part as protection against this judgment, a mark to set apart the righteous and preserve them from the coming divine wrath when YHWH comes down.
A number of other stories of circumcision exhibit this same pattern. In Exodus 4:24-26, Moses’ son has to be circumcised under threat of death as they encounter the Angel of YHWH at the night camp. The Passover is closely associated with circumcision (Exodus 12:43-49). Uncircumcised males were not permitted to eat it. It was also something instituted in a situation of peril, with those who did not observe its proper preparations being ‘cut off’ from the people (Exodus 12:15, 19). The cutting off of Egypt’s leaven seems to function as a corporate circumcision for Israel, leaven presumably being associated with a potent and virile life principle, like the male genitals or the firstborn sons. It was preparation for the arrival of the Angel of YHWH bringing death to all of the firstborn males of Egypt.
Circumcision and the removal of leaven and the cutting off of those who fail to do so from the people serve to divide the people of YHWH from the objects of future judgment. A combination of these themes can also be observed in Joshua 5, where a corporate circumcision and celebration of the Passover precedes Joshua’s encounter with the Angel of YHWH, who comes as the Commander of the army of YHWH to bring divine vengeance to the land. The land is a very dangerous place to be when the Angel of YHWH arrives. Circumcision is YHWH’s mark upon the righteous, in preparation for the time when he sends the avengers out to slay the wicked (cf. Ezekiel 9; Revelation 7, 14).
In the New Testament, John the Baptist’s ministry plays a similar role, preparing the people for the coming of Christ, the Angel of YHWH incarnate (cf. Malachi 3:1).
The Promised Son
An important theme in both Genesis 17 and 18 is the promise of a firstborn son for Abraham and Sarah (17:15-19; 18:9-15). This shouldn’t surprise us, given the accumulation of exodus themes in the near vicinity. As I have argued elsewhere, in a theme that I will touch upon at various points in this series, the Exodus is a story of new birth, of the opening of wombs. It is a story of death brought to formerly fertile places, and of new life to the barren or those struggling to give birth.
The naming of the promised child is given significance (17:19), a name associated with the laughter (or ‘Isaac-ing’) of both Abraham (17:17) and Sarah (18:12). The mourning of the barren will be turned to laughter. Significantly, Sarah is standing in the tent door when she hears this news, the doorway being associated with birth elsewhere in Scripture (Genesis 18:10; cf. 1 Samuel 1:9; 2 Kings 4:15; 1 Kings 14:6-17).
As part of this exodus event, new life is promised to Abraham and Sarah. The death and barrenness brought to the formerly fruitful land of Sodom and to Lot and his family is contrasted with the opening of the womb and renewed vitality that Abraham and Sarah will experience. These need to be seen as two sides of the same event.
The Angel of YHWH and the Two Witnesses
In Genesis 18, after circumcision has been given and Abraham and his sheikhdom have been prepared for the coming judgment, three men appear to Abraham (v.2). One of the three men is presumably the Angel of YHWH, who is seen as a manifestation of God’s own presence (many Christians have, rightly I believe, regarded the Angel of YHWH as a pre-incarnate manifestation of Christ). This fact can be seen from the fact that YHWH appears to Abraham in 18:1, in an event obviously related to the three men of verse 2. YHWH remains to speak with Abraham, while the other men turn away and go to Sodom (v.22). In 19:1, ‘the two angels’ arrive in Sodom.
The Angel of YHWH is, as Meredith Kline observes, the paradigmatic prophet. YHWH’s name and authority is in him (Exodus 23:20-23) and he acts as the chief representative of the Heavenly Council, enacting its judgments and effecting its deliverances. To be a true prophet is to be a member of the Heavenly Council, serving as a representative within it, participating in its deliberations, and delivering its messages and judgments. When the Angel of YHWH comes on the scene, the chief messenger of the Heavenly Council, something momentous is afoot.
In Genesis 18 we see the Angel of YHWH accompanied by two witnesses, witnesses who will later enter into Sodom itself. Later, in Exodus, the Angel of YHWH will appear to Moses and commission him and Aaron as the prophetic witnesses and emissaries of the Heavenly Council to Pharaoh. Up to this point, the Heavenly Council carries out its own deliberations, without the involvement of men. We see the pattern of the Council’s deliberation, followed by coming down to enact sentence in the judgment on Babel (Genesis 11:7), where the decision of the Heavenly Council parodies that of the council of the builders of Babel (11:4). The pattern of divine seeing or a rising outcry, followed by the coming down of the Angel, is also seen in Exodus 3:7-8.
A notable development occurs in Genesis 18 as YHWH includes Abraham in his deliberations concerning Sodom (vv.17-33). Up until this point we have seen Abraham as a priest establishing true worship within the land and as a king-type figure, gaining military victories over other kings. However, now he is raised even higher, to the level of a prophet. Later on, in Genesis 20:7, YHWH will explicitly refer to Abraham as a prophet to Abimelech.
The Exodus from Sodom
A connection between Sodom and Egypt has already been made in Genesis 13:10 (cf. Revelation 11:8). Like Egypt, the land of Sodom is a fertile and well-watered land. Lot had chosen the land of the plain for himself: right after leaving Egypt, he had chosen to return to a place like Egypt (13:11). Lot had obviously gained prominence in Sodom, becoming one of the judges in the gate (19:1, 9). However, like Egypt will one day be, Sodom is utterly destroyed and rendered barren by YHWH.
The Exodus themes accumulate rapidly in Genesis 19. I have remarked on these before:
The angels are ‘passing by’ (Genesis 18:3, 5), just as they would later do with Egypt. There is a threat to life at the doorway, and the doorway becomes a site of angelic protection and judgment upon those outside. There is the pressing call to leave the city with all relatives and possessions and the notion that the ‘outcry’ against a city or the voice of the oppressed has reached the ear of YHWH. An evening meal of unleavened bread is eaten. The angels seize the hands of Lot and his family to get them to escape (cf. Jeremiah 31:32). Lot is instructed to flee, literally, to The Mountain (not ‘the mountains’). A witnessing pillar/heap is established (as God judges Lot’s wife by turning her into a pillar of salt).
Once again, the doorway is a significant theme. It is the threshold dividing those to be judged from those to be protected (Genesis 19:9-11; cf. 7:16; Exodus 12:22-23). The doorway is the site of birth and death.
The decisive judgment or transition occurs just after sun rises. We may return to this theme at a later point, but we see the same transition from darkness to light and the completion of divine judgment in other Exodus events. For instance, the darkness, the anticipation of the coming of the dawn, and the sun rise, when the dénouement occurs is a pattern to be seen in Jacob’s wrestling at the Jabbok in Genesis 32:22-32 and also in the crossing of the Red Sea in Exodus 14:19-31.
Lot’s exodus takes a tragic turn, an ironic reversal of Abraham’s experience. In wanting to return to a place like Egypt, he lost almost all that he possessed to the judgment apportioned to Egypt. Abraham’s doorway becomes associated with new birth and life; Lot’s doorway becomes a place of threat and death. The angels’ news of Isaac’s birth is met with laughter and Isaac is named for this laughter, a laughter of disbelief that will be transformed into the laughter of joy with the birth of a son. Lot’s warning to his sons-in-law is thought to be mere mockery (‘Isaac-ing’), something that will lead to their death. Abraham’s wife will be miraculously transformed into a fruitful mother; Lot’s wife becomes as barren as a pillar of salt. Rather than going to the mountain and joining with Abraham, as the angels instructed him, Lot decides to go to Zoar instead. Abraham ends up on the mountain, while Lot finally ends up in a cave (19:20), a place associated with death and the grave.
Lot’s story takes one last horrible twist. The apocalyptic tone of the narrative of Lot – the man who wanted to return to Egypt – continues as his daughters speak as if there were no men left on the earth (19:31). In an event with echoes of Genesis 9:20-27, Lot is made to drink wine on two successive evenings, while his daughters sleep with him. The father who was prepared to surrender his daughters to a crowd of rapists (v.8) was himself raped by his daughters (vv.30-38). Through these incestuous relationships, two people groups arise: the Moabites and the Ammonites. Incest, the turning of history back on itself, is the sad terminus of Lot’s story.
In these chapters we see God’s preparation of Abraham as a prophetic member of the Heavenly Council. The barren wife is promised fruitfulness and the impotent body of Abraham assured of future virility. A history that seemed closed off opens up, producing a brimming laughter. Against this backdrop, we see the preference of Lot for Egypt and his abortive exodus of Lot from Sodom. Death, barrenness, and the collapse of the future into an incestuous relationship with the past is the portion of Lot and his family. Stripped of possessions, Lot is left for us as a tragic warning of the consequences of turning back.