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One might suppose that the announcement of the advent of Abraham’s son Isaac and the wonderful covenant that has come into being between God and the descendants of Isaac would call for a celebration.
Instead, Abraham becomes concerned that his first son, Ishmael, the cherished child born of Hagar, will now be ignored in favor of Isaac. Perhaps, Abraham worries, Ishmael will die early or be left out of the blessings after Isaac is born. As a loving father, Abraham pleads with God about the fate of Ishmael, saying, “o that Ishmael might live before thee!” or, in another translation, “If only Ishmael might live under your blessing.” – Genesis 17:18.
To allay Abraham’s fears, God reaffirms the blessings that will be bestowed upon Ishmael and outlines them in even greater detail:
And as for Ishmael, I have heard thee (remember the pun in this phrase; Ishmael means “god hears”); 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. – Genesis 17:20.
Having reassured Abraham that all the promises made to Ishmael will be fulfilled, God continues:
But my covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you at this season next year. – Genesis 17:21.
The agreement with Isaac is not intended to be a short one because, God explains, “…I will establish my covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, and with his seed after him.” – Genesis 17:19.
Among the great Prophets was Abraham, Who, being an iconoclast and a Herald of the oneness of God, was banished from His native land. He founded a family upon which the blessing of God descended, and it was owing to this religious basis and ordination that the Abrahamic house progressed and advanced. Through the divine benediction noteworthy and luminous prophets issued from His lineage. There appeared Isaac, Ishmael, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, David and Solomon. The Holy Land was conquered by the power of the Covenant of God with Abraham, and the glory of the Solomonic wisdom and sovereignty dawned. All this was due to the religion of God which this blessed lineage established and upheld. It is evident that throughout the history of Abraham and His posterity this was the source of their honor, advancement and civilization. Even today the descendants of His household and lineage are found throughout the world. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 361.
The elaborate and everlasting covenant with Isaac is sealed with a sacrifice, just like the first covenant. This time, though, the sacrifice is quite different. No animals or birds are needed. Instead, God says:
…every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. – Genesis 17:23.
All the males in Abraham’s camp are to be circumcised, and newborns will undergo the procedure when they are eight days old. Abraham obediently seals the covenant as directed:
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. And Abraham was ninety years old and nine, when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. And Ishmael his son was thirteen years old, when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. – Genesis 17:23-25.
Before the time of Abraham, there were already places in the world, including Australia and Egypt, where young men were routinely circumcised, probably as a symbol of passage into adulthood. The law given by Abraham differed from these customs, however, because it applied to babies. The initial circumcision, of course, was of the older males in Abraham’s household, but when Isaac was born, he was circumcised on the eighth day of his life, thus setting a pattern for when the operation should be performed. The law included the provision that in the generations to come, any male whose foreskin was not circumcised would be cut off from his people for breaking the covenant, a mandate that had the effect of ensuring that devout parents would circumcise their babies.
From that time on, circumcision of male babies as a sign of the continuing covenant between God and man began to be practiced among the followers of Abraham, and it continued among the followers of Moses. At least some of the Arabs who descended from Ishmael also practiced circumcision, though it is not clear if Muhammad was circumcised or not. After Muhammad’s death, many of his followers took up the practice of circumcision as a sign of their understanding of the relationship between Abraham and Muhammad—even though Muhammad himself did not comment on circumcision in the Qur’an. Currently, circumcision is the norm in most Muslim countries. The Baha’i Faith has no rites or rituals, including circumcision, and leaves that decision up to the parents.
In pondering the rationale behind the rite of male circumcision (female circumcision, by contrast, is never mentioned or condoned in any of the divine scriptures), one wonders why such a procedure was chosen, especially since the child has no say in the matter.
It is possible that Abraham chose circumcision simply because his followers would need, over the next few centuries, a significant rite by which to remember their relationship to the covenant and to the revelation of Abraham. Circumcision certainly serves as a powerful tool for connecting the heart of a father—who sympathizes completely with the cries of his baby—to the heart of Abraham when he heard the cries of his own children.
But, aside from all the drama and symbolism, valuable though they might be in establishing a group’s religious identity, there is another excellent reason why Abraham might have chosen circumcision rather than a tattoo or some other mark of faith. Circumcising males when they are just a few days old turns out to be an extremely effective public health measure. Large medical studies done in the late Twentieth century revealed a purely physical side benefit that the American Urological Association sums up this way: “For the first three to six months of life, the incidence of urinary tract infections is at least ten times higher in uncircumcised than circumcised boys.”
In a pre-antibiotic age, urinary-tract infections could easily kill a baby or damage the kidneys of those who survived. The followers of Abraham who faithfully circumcised their boys would have been rewarded with healthier babies and a higher survival rate than groups who didn’t practice early circumcision, even though they wouldn’t have been aware of the science behind the survival.
Like the kosher laws of Judaism, Abraham’s rite of circumcision may have protected the health of his followers for centuries to come.
Next: Abraham’s Three Visitors