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Politics of Scripture

The Politics of Abraham’s Foreskin—Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16 (Alastair Roberts)

The promise that Abraham will become a great nation is connected with the circumcision of his foreskin, forging a connection between sex and politics. This connection has controversial and unsettling resonances in a liberal society that would often separate the two.

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. 2And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.” 3Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him,

4“As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. 5No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. 6I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you.

7I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.

15God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. 16I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.”

In Genesis 17 God establishes his covenant with Abram, giving him the new name, Abraham—‘Father of a Multitude’. Abraham is ninety-nine and only has one child, Ishmael, born to his wife Sarai’s maid, Hagar. God promises him that he will open the womb of Sarai—who is granted the name Sarah—that she will bear a son and that she will be the mother of nations. In the context of this promise of a son and as the seal of the covenant, God gives Abraham the rite of circumcision.

The character of the rite of circumcision is not irrelevant: it is a lasting mark upon the male sexual organ, rendering the flesh of Abraham and his people a site of divine meaning. In the context of Genesis 17, it highlights the intergenerational character of the covenant, the claim that God makes upon Abraham’s sexual activity, and—mostly importantly—the covenant promise that undergirds his relations with his wife, Sarah, and will secure its issue.

The raw physicality of the covenant sign may come as a shock to those with delicate sensibilities. Perhaps it is for this reason that this week’s lection elides the part of the passage that speaks of it. Yet the fact that this foundational text pays so much attention to the foreskin of Abraham and to the womb of Sarah is a matter worthy of reflection. In opening the womb of Sarah and claiming Abraham’s flesh and sexual agency with the rite of circumcision, the bodies of Abraham, Sarah, and their descendants came to bear and to perpetuate covenant meaning.

As Paul Kahn has observed, the story of Abraham in Genesis punctures a liberal myth of the separation of private and public, of sex and politics.[1] God’s claiming of the flesh and sexual agency of Abraham and Sarah ensures that the intergenerational project of the family can be one that sustains covenant purpose and identity and yields the promise that Abraham and Sarah will become a great nation. Sexual relations—on account of their procreative potential—are a vocation in service of a higher public purpose, turned towards the task of (re)producing covenantal and societal meaning. It is out of the love and calling of the family that politics grows: the promise of the nation cannot be detached from the claiming of the foreskin and the opening of the womb. Those who refused the covenant claim upon their sexual organ were excluded from the covenant project (v.14).

Likewise, it is through the promise of a particular son—Isaac—that the promise that Abraham will become a great nation is refracted. Many want sharply to divide the private realm of the family from the public realm of the state. However, in our love for and training of our children we aren’t just preserving the species, but are sustaining and developing the bonds of identity and meaning that transcend generations and constitute the very fabric of society. As Neil Postman expresses it, ‘Children are the living messages we send to a time we will not see.’[2]In the following chapter of Genesis, in speaking of the promise that Abraham will become a mighty nation, YHWH declares:

I have chosen him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice; so that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.[3]

The promise of the covenant nation that is sealed with the claiming of Abraham’s sexual organ will be realized through the loving pedagogy of the family. Politics and society are conceived in the bedroom and are cradled in the family.

This political vision of sex and family is coupled with recognition of the disastrous effects for the health of the polity entailed by sexual anarchy and family disintegration. Such a perverse connection between sex and polity is typified in the city of Sodom, where sex has become violent, lawless, and sterile, the body the source of its own rebellious meanings, rather than the bearer of covenant purpose and promise.[4] Kahn speaks of pornography in this context, as the sundering of the connection between sex and the reproduction of meaning, primarily seen in the bearing of children:

Pornography is a form of sexuality shorn of the ordinary, generative characteristics of the body. The pornographic act produces no offspring: no children, no discourse, no enduring relationship to an other, no useful products. It is marked by the absence of labor in both of the biblical senses. It is episodic; it exists neither as a form of historical memory nor as a claim upon the future.[5]

Pornography’s vision is one of freedom from the responsibility of history and the shackles of sex as the generation of meaning. It is a wilful assertion, albeit an impotent one, of our sexual autonomy.

In our own day, although marriage and family may never have been more vexed as political issues, there is a steady movement towards the privatization and deinstitutionalization of sexual relations and marriage. Marriage is being shorn of a telos that exceeds the private ends of the parties within it, increasingly rendering the actual form of the union as a bespoke one and the conformity of society’s behaviour to its moral norms an entirely optional matter. Marriage becomes purely a realm of private lifestyle choices rather than a matter of participation in an intergenerational societal project that imposes expectations upon our sexual and relational conduct. The vision of autonomous sexuality, freed from the labour of history—a vision most fully expressed in pornography—has become paradigmatic for an ascendant vision of marriage.

The story of YHWH’s gift of circumcision as the sign of his covenant with Abraham has unsettling resonances for contemporary liberal visions of both sex and politics. It suggests that even the privatized and autonomous vision of sexuality held out in the antipolitics of pornography is politically constitutive, that any reinvention of the family is a reinvention of our politics and vice versa. It leaves us with the question of what happens to politics when the family abandons its political vocation. Is a political order once founded upon love, sacrifice, and procreation abandoned for the sterility of technique and soulless legislation? Is the transcendence involved in the passing on of inherited meaning in our children lost to the stifling immanence and immediacy of a politics of the pure present? Wherever we may stand on the particular questions regarding marriage that occupy our societies, these are issues that merit our reflection.

[1] Paul Kahn, Putting Liberalism in its Place (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005)
[2] Neil Postman, The Disappearance of Childhood (New York, NY: Vintage, 1994), xi
[3] Genesis 18:19
[4] Kahn, Putting Liberalism in its Place, 187
[5] Ibid. 204

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