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17. The Covenant of Circumcision

And when Abram was ninety years old and nine, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said unto him, I am the Almighty God; walk before me, and be thou perfect. 2And I will make my covenant between me and thee, and will multiply thee exceedingly. 3And Abram fell on his face: and God talked with him, saying, 4As for me, behold, my covenant is with thee, and thou shalt be a father of many nations. 5Neither shall thy name any more be called Abram, but thy name shall be Abraham; for a father of many nations have I made thee. 6And I will make thee exceeding fruitful, and I will make nations of thee, and kings shall come out of thee. 7And I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee. 8And I will give unto thee, and to thy seed after thee, the land wherein thou art a stranger, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.

9And God said unto Abraham, Thou shalt keep my covenant therefore, thou, and thy seed after thee in their generations. 10This is my covenant, which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee; Every man child among you shall be circumcised. 11And ye shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of the covenant betwixt me and you. 12And he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every man child in your generations, he that is born in the house, or bought with money of any stranger, which is not of thy seed. 13He that is born in thy house, and he that is bought with thy money, must needs be circumcised: and my covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. 14And the uncircumcised man child whose flesh of his foreskin is not circumcised, that soul shall be cut off from his people; he hath broken my covenant.

15And God said unto Abraham, As for Sarai thy wife, thou shalt not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall her name be. 16And I will bless her, and give thee a son also of her: yea, I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of people shall be of her. 17Then Abraham fell upon his face, and laughed, and said in his heart, Shall a child be born unto him that is an hundred years old? and shall Sarah, that is ninety years old, bear? 18And Abraham said unto God, O that Ishmael might live before thee! 19And God said, Sarah thy wife shall bear thee a son indeed; and thou shalt call his name Isaac: and I will establish my covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, and with his seed after him. 20And as for Ishmael, I have heard thee: 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. 21But my covenant will I establish with Isaac, which Sarah shall bear unto thee at this set time in the next year. 22And he left off talking with him, and God went up from Abraham.

23And 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. 24And Abraham was ninety years old and nine, when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. 25And Ishmael his son was thirteen years old, when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. 26In the selfsame day was Abraham circumcised, and Ishmael his son. 27And all the men of his house, born in the house, and bought with money of the stranger, were circumcised with him.

14. And the uncircumcised man-child In order that circumcision might be the more attended to, God denounces a severe punishment on any one who should neglect it. And as this shows God’s great care for the salvation of men; so, on the other hand, it rebukes their negligence. For since God thus benignantly offers a pledge of his love, and of eternal life, for what purpose does he add threatening but to rouse the sluggishness of those whose duty it is to run with diligence? Therefore, this denunciation of punishment virtually charges men with foul ingratitude, because they either reject or despise the grace of God. The passage however teaches, that such contempt shall not pass unpunished. And since God threatens punishment only to despisers, we infer that the uncircumcision of children would do them no harm, if they died before the eighth day. For the bare promise of God was effectual to their salvation. He did not so attest this salvation by external signs, as to restrict his own effectual working to those signs. Moses, indeed, sets aside all controversy on this subject, by adducing as a reason, that they would make void the covenant of God: for we know, that the covenant was not violated, when the power of keeping it was taken away. Let us then consider, that the salvation of the race of Abraham was included in that expression, ‘I will be a God to thy seed.’ And although circumcision was added as a confirmation, it nevertheless did not deprive the word of its force and efficacy. But because it is not in the power of man to sever what God has joined together; no one could despise or neglect the sign, without both rejecting the word itself; and depriving himself of the benefit therein offered. And therefore the Lord punished bare neglect with such severity. But if any infants were deprived by death of the tokens of salvation, he spared them, because they had done nothing derogatory to the covenant of God. The same reasoning is at this day in force respecting baptism. Whoever, having neglected baptism, feigns himself to be contented with the bare promise, tramples, as much as in him lies, upon the blood of Christ, or at least does not suffer it to flow for the washing of his own children. Therefore, just punishment follows the contempt of the sign, in the privation of grace; because, by an impious severance of the sign and the word, or rather by a laceration of them, the covenant of God is violated. To consign to destruction those infants, whom a sudden death has not allowed to be presented for baptism, before any neglect of parents could intervene, is a cruelty originating in superstition. But that the promise belongs to such children, is not in the least doubtful. For what can be more absurd than that the symbol, which is added for the sake of confirming the promise, should really enervate its force? Wherefore, the common opinion, by which baptism is supposed to be necessary to salvation, ought to be so moderated, that it should not bind the grace of Gods or the power of the Spirit, to external symbols, and bring against God a charge of falsehood.

He hath broken my covenant For the covenant of God is ratified, when by faith we embrace what he promises. Should any one object, that infants were guiltless of this fault, because they hitherto were destitute of reason: I answer, we ought not to press this divine declaration too closely, as if God held the infants as chargeable with a fault of their own: but we must observe the antithesis, that as God adopts the infant son in the person of his father, so when the father repudiates such a benefit, the infant is said to cut himself off from the Church. For the meaning of the expression is this, ‘He shall be blotted out from the people whom God had chosen to himself’. The explanation of some, that they who remained in uncircumcision would not be Jews, and would have no place in the census of that people, is too frigid. We must go farther, and say, that God, indeed, will not acknowledge those as among his people, who will not bear the mark and token of adoption.


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