Covenant Partners: An Egalitarian Reading of Genesis 17:15–16 | CBE International

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Covenant Partners: An Egalitarian Reading of Genesis 17:15–16

Personhood is deeply intertwined with the names we are given. In the biblical narrative, names of characters brim with meaning. Such meaning is enhanced in those instances in which a person takes or is given a new name.1 A rare example of a woman undergoing a name change is Sarai, who takes on the new identity of “Sarah” in Gen 17. This transpires within the various iterations of God’s covenant with Abraham (the Abrahamic covenant) found in Gen 12–17. What makes Gen 17:15–16 of particular interest is not only Sarai’s name change, but her inclusion in the promise of blessings. The primacy of Abraham correlates with the patriarchal ordering of society in the ancient Near East, and God’s covenantal interactions with Abraham reflect this social reality. When God does speak regarding Sarah, Abraham functions as the intermediary.2 However, this does not imply that Sarah is any less of a covenant partner or inheritor than Abraham.

This article begins with careful consideration of both the covenant and the narrative elements within Gen 15–18 that undergird a sense of movement toward egalitarianism. The resulting interpretation of Gen 15–18 will place Gen 17:15–16 as its thematic center. Lastly, implications of the egalitarian progression in Gen 17 will be applied in family and church contexts.

Tracing the Covenant

The Abrahamic covenant has a triad of iterations in Gen 12–17. The covenants detailed in chs. 12 and 15 include God’s promise to give Abram and Sarai both territory and progeny. Genesis 17 reiterates these promises, but they now become contingent upon adherence to the covenantal sign of circumcision (introduced in 17:9–14).

Terence Fretheim notes the parallels between chs. 15 and 17, but adds that there are “elements of freshness,” which include name changes not only for Abram and Sarai, but even for God, who is called El Shaddai for the first time in 17:1.3 Fretheim proposes that the promises of ch. 17 “are a renewal of the covenant established by God in Gen 15, only now in a somewhat different time and place. . .”4 Of particular importance in this covenant renewal is Sarah’s express inclusion in the promise and covenant.5

Many scholars believe these narratives took their final shape during the Babylonian exile (hence the sixth century BC), and this context helps us understand the importance of the promises made to the patriarchs and matriarchs. Given that the Babylonian exile unsettled Israelite theology, it makes sense to “look back to the promises made to Abraham” in search of hope for the present predicament of God’s chosen people.6 Thus the promises made to Abraham and Sarah in Gen 17 play a role in fostering hope for those in exile. The words of God in 17:16b, “I will bless her [Sarah], and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her” (NRSV), would have provided anticipation for the restoration of the Israelite monarchy even after the destruction of both the northern and southern kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Likewise, the promise of children in spite of barrenness becomes not only a story of how God blessed this particular matriarch and her family, but of how God brought about restoration and made something possible even when it seemed impossible. In short, it demonstrates both the faithfulness and the power of Israel’s God, which takes on a profound significance in the exilic context where the Babylonian deity Marduk reigned supreme. This is an example of how the polemical nature of Genesis emphasizes the contrast between Israel’s God and Marduk, claiming that the God of Israel is the only true God.7

Genesis 17 within Narrative Arcs and Themes of the Pentateuch

Placing Gen 17:15–16 within the larger story of Abraham and Sarah’s family, several specific narrative themes become apparent. First, there is Abraham and Sarah’s strained relationship. Aspects of this unbalanced relationship are highlighted in two remarkably similar stories in Genesis (chs 12 and 20). In both instances, the fear of death leads Abraham to lie about his relationship with Sarah in order to save his own life.8 Abraham is keenly aware of the danger posed to his life in a culture where women desired by powerful men are simply taken. Thus, Abraham seeks to save his own life by stating that Sarah is his sister. But God warns both Pharaoh (through plagues, Gen 12:17) and Abimelech (in a dream, Gen 20:6–7); therefore Sarah remains Abraham’s wife.9 Why does God intervene in such a dramatic manner? Was it to preserve Abraham and Sarah’s marriage in some way? The answer seems to be that, had God not intervened, the blessings of God would not have come to life through Abraham and Sarah. In order for the covenant to be fulfilled, Abraham would then have needed another wife. But in light of Gen 17, we know that God clearly intends for Sarah to be the woman through whom the covenant promises flow.10 As such, God chooses to protect the marriage. As expected for an ancient patriarchal society, Abraham here treats Sarah as property rather than as a partner. Pharaoh and Abimelech also treat Sarah as property to be attained.11 Yet, in spite of such culturally-based mistreatment, God shows concern for Sarah and affirms her importance in the salvation narrative—thus revealing an egalitarian aspect of the text and of God’s character.

The issue of Sarah’s infertility becomes one of the central conflicts in this story. This chronic plight creates a great deal of distress and uncertainty for both Abraham and Sarah. Ultimately, the two of them fail to trust in God’s ability to fulfill the promise of progeny. As a result, they decide to take things into their own hands. In ch. 16, Sarah plans to have Abraham impregnate her servant, Hagar (compare Abraham’s similar plan in ch. 15). Although Hagar does bear a son, Ishmael, God reveals that the covenant promise will come through a son born to Sarah herself (Gen 17:15–16). This story indicates that Sarah has a degree of autonomy, but this autonomy is overshadowed by the tension and conflict that both Abraham and Sarah’s actions create within the family unit. More importantly, this story illustrates the failure on both Abraham and Sarah’s part to trust in God and to believe “that the ultimate authority of the family leader (or any other leader) has its source in God.”12 Furthermore, God’s insistence on the covenant promises coming to fruition through Sarah displays again her role as an equally vital covenant partner.

Continued Egalitarian Progression in Genesis 17:15–16

Genesis 17:15–16 further confirms that Sarah is essential to the realization of God’s covenant promises:

God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I 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.” (Gen 17:15–16 NRSV)

Sarah’s designation as “a mother of nations” highlights just how universal these blessings are. Sarah’s inclusion in these blessings indeed demonstrates that God’s care is not limited to Abraham despite the initial absence of Sarah from the covenant iterations in Gen 12 and 15.

The final element of significance to the egalitarian progression of Gen 17 is the modification of Sarai’s name to Sarah. The change is just as subtle—a change of one letter—in English as in biblical Hebrew. Paul Keim offers etymological insight on the shift in names:

These “new” names actually represent regional or dialectical variations of the same names. . . The renaming here is a form of word play called paronomasia. Ancient literature, including the Bible, is full of such popular etymologies whereby a poetic bond is formed between memory and identity. In this case, a promise of progeny has been made all the more confounding in the face of chronic barrenness.13

The bond that melds “memory and identity” is an important aspect of the name change. In designating this change, God has ingrained the covenant promises in the minds of Abraham and Sarah. Whenever their new names are spoken, the “poetic bond . . . between memory and identity” is renewed. This renewal presents itself not only in terms of memory but also in terms of ongoing relationship. As Fretheim states, “The new names signal a re-characterization of their relationship with God.”14 This sense of regeneration influences the relationship between Sarah and Abraham, as well as their relationship with God. It indicates to both of them that God has given them not only new identities but also new roles. Sandra Richter expands on this:

With these changes of name God repeats and expands his promises of fertility and territory. . . In Abraham and Sarah’s world, when a person was raised to a new position—a princeling to a throne, or a servant to an office—it was common for the patron to change that person’s name in order to signify the new role. Thus, when Yahweh changes his clients’ names, he formalizes their new roles as the parents of a new line of chosen people. Basically, what we have here is the designation of a new Adam and Eve.15

Abraham and Sarah have taken on the role of God’s image-bearers. Through both of them, God’s promises will flow out into the world. God will use the fruit of their relationship, in spite of all their flaws, to bless the nations. Sarah’s crucial role in the accomplishment of God’s purposes cannot be over-emphasized.

Egalitarian Progression and Interpretation of Scripture

The interpretation of Scripture is an ongoing task for the church. We all enter the reading of Scripture with biases, worldviews, and assumptions about the overarching narrative of the Bible. Patriarchal cultures have undoubtedly influenced the process of translation and interpretation. The Bible was composed, passed down, and then translated within male-dominated cultures, many of which reinforced deep assumptions about the “masculinity” of God as well as the rule of Adam over Eve. Certain long-standing modes of translating also have built-in biases toward male dominance that may not have been as present in the writer’s mind, and certainly not in God’s.

Consider, for example, that many people, when they read “God,” assume it refers to a male deity. However, the Christian view is that “God” is a united community of three persons. The Genesis creation narrative itself reveals that “God” is neither male nor female, and that both “male and female” humans are in “his” image (Gen 1:27). The use of “his” in reference to God is merely grammatical, and also practical since the repeated use of “God” in every instance would be cumbersome. Partnership rather than patriarchy was the creational design for men and women.

Genesis 17 indicates that Sarah and Abraham both function (in some sense) as a new Eve and a new Adam. With this in mind, it becomes important for the church to reflect on elements of Adam and Eve’s relationship in the creation account. An egalitarian interpretation, such as that outlined above for Gen 17, flows from how the church understands the relationship between man and woman from the onset of creation. Church tradition has often upheld assumptions about women and the supposed roles they should or should not undertake. These prohibitions range from the exclusion of women from leadership in church settings to the subordination of women in marriage relationships. Both OT and NT texts, when read incorrectly, can contribute to this line of interpretation. We will examine several additional OT examples in an attempt to further showcase the egalitarian movement of Scripture that we have seen in the Abrahamic covenant.

In Gen 2, for example, the seeming primacy of Adam in the created order often leads to inferences about the superiority of the male sex. However, while it seems clear to the modern English reader that the first human created, adam, is a man, a close reading of the Hebrew actually suggests that this individual is not initially gendered.16 Genesis 2:21–22 describes the separation/creation of Eve from Adam, which could be understood as the differentiation of an androgynous being into gendered male and female beings. What is even more relevant to the case for interpreting the creation account in an egalitarian manner is that Eve is taken/created from Adam’s side. Numerous commentators have argued that this implies Eve is not subservient or supplementary to Adam, but essential to Adam’s existence—in short, his equal.17

Two other texts in Genesis merit comment. Genesis 2:20 says there was no “helper” suitable for Adam. As a result, God forms a woman from one of Adam’s ribs. Most translations render ezer here as “helper.” The seemingly unavoidable implication then is that this helper is subordinate (or even inferior) to Adam, someone who serves and meets Adam’s needs. However, the word ezer is often used in the OT to describe God as Israel’s ezer. It would be absurd to view God as a subordinate or assistant when clearly the term is a positive one. In fact, some have noted that “helper” is not nearly a strong enough term to communicate the meaning of ezer. In fact, in other places ezer typically “connotes active intervention on behalf of someone, especially in military contexts, as often in Psalms.”18 As Phipps notes, “an examination of the . . . other usages of ezer in [the] Hebrew Scriptures displays that it never connotes someone in a servile role. It often refers to a superior person and occasionally is associated with divine assistance.”19 It is also critical to pair ezer with the subsequent Hebrew word kenegedo, which essentially means a corresponding “counterpart.”20

Another Genesis text that is often misappropriated is Gen 3:16, in which God describes the consequences for Adam and Eve’s disobedience. When speaking to Eve, God says, “yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” (Gen 3:16b NRSV). The ESV promotes a prescriptive rather than descriptive reading of this passage: “Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you” (italics added). In other words, God’s curse determines the way things will be as a result of the fall. The ESV proposes that the rulership of man over woman is normative. However, a descriptive reading of this passage means that it is not God who demands this state of relationship. Rather, Gen 3:16 is detailing the inevitable outcome of the fall. What the ESV does not take into account is that, “In every fashion, Eve is presented as Adam’s equal in Genesis 1.”21 By the time we reach Gen 3:16, something has changed. That change is sin. As Richter puts it, “with the Fall, this mutuality is shattered.”22 Unfortunately, the ESV propagates the idea that this lack of mutuality is God’s will. In fact, it suggests there was never mutuality in the first place! Fretheim offers sharp insight that should refute the prescriptive interpretation of 3:16:

Most would say that 3:14–19 is descriptive (of what happens in the wake of sin) rather than prescriptive (divinely established orders for the future). . . [Adam and Eve] reap the consequences of their own deeds. . . Every aspect of creaturely life is touched . . . [including] marriage and sexuality. . . It is especially remarkable that the “rule” of the man over the woman is seen as a consequence of sin; hence it stands against God’s creational intention. . . this state of affairs has not been put in place for all time to come. [Rather,] as with any consequence of sin, or divine judgments, every effort should be made to relieve the toil, pain, patriarchy, and negative effects on nature. Such endeavors harmonize with God’s intentions in creation, though continuing sinfulness impedes the effort.23

Ecclesial and Relational Applications of Genesis 17:15–16

Relating Gen 17:15–16 to a twenty-first century church context may seem difficult at first glance, and in some respects it certainly is. We live in an increasingly polarized society where many of the vestiges of our patriarchal past are being cast aside. In an environment hostile to anything deemed outdated, the Bible often finds itself at the center of questions regarding the ongoing relevance of biblical texts or ideas that seem to promote oppression and inequality. The criticism the church faces today is often linked to various texts within the Bible and the way these passages have been applied throughout history. The criticism of such application is largely justified.

Scripture undeniably reflects each era in which it was written, and many of these ideas and worldviews are no longer acceptable. Broadly speaking, the church should acknowledge this. At the same time, the church should be cautious about allowing others to misread and misrepresent the Bible as a whole. It is, unfortunately, easy to read twenty-first century expectations and ideals into Scripture. Reading the Bible in this manner only conforms the text into our own image. This defeats the purpose of reading it in the first place. Scripture is a living text and should speak to us as we read, question, and interpret it. Scripture does engage modern questions and concerns. Still, the contextual nature of Scripture requires us to read it carefully. Imposing worldviews upon the text that were foreign to its authors and audience inevitably leads to poor interpretation and application.

The beauty of Scripture is that, when we actually read it on its own terms, we discover that much of it does in fact reflect a God who desires the prosperity of humanity, both male and female. When we read Scripture on its own terms, we often find that the authors do not easily fit our categories of proper thinking and anthropology. More than anything, this shows the human side of the Bible. It reminds us that the characters of the Bible, and even its writers as well, though moved through divine inspiration, were sinful humans. To the degree that the Bible reflects the sin of humanity, it also reflects prejudice and bias. But this is not cause for the rejection of the Bible. If anything, God uses the imperfections of the biblical characters to highlight our own imperfections. God uses the failings of Abraham and Sarah to show what happens when people take God’s plans into their own hands. God uses the story of Sarah and Abraham to teach us how we can be different, treating each other with dignity by placing trust and authority in God and not in ourselves.

Conclusion

Like many other biblical texts, Gen 17:15–16 invades our worldview and reminds us that God sought out covenant partners—both male and female—to bring blessings to all the nations. The promises for Sarah are promises that extend to all nations and to every woman grafted into God’s missional purposes. This implication means that the church is a place where God’s blessings are extended not only to men but to women, because since the beginning of creation, God has partnered with women, from Eve to Sarah and from Mary to the sons and daughters of the living God.

Notes

1. Other well-known examples apart from Abram and Sarai include Jacob/Israel (Gen 32:28, 35:10) and Simon/Peter (John 1:42).

2. The theory of divine accommodation is pertinent here and functions as an important interpretive principle, particularly in light of NT passages such as Gal 3:28. On one hand, we have to account for the appearance of differing theologies in both testaments with regard to the equality of women. God speaks directly to Abraham and not to Sarah, which reflects the patriarchal reality of that time. In speaking to Abraham and not Sarah, God accommodated (or allowed the authors to construe it as such) to the cultural norms of the time. Yet this accommodation is countered by the inclusion of Sarah in the covenant. Therefore, this progression towards egalitarianism reflects God’s desire to move people in a new direction in spite of allowing less than ideal situations to persist. On the theory of divine accommodation, see Gregory A. Boyd, Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Interpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross, Volume 2: The Cruciform Thesis (Fortress, 2017) 701–63.

3. Terence E. Fretheim, “Commentary on Genesis 17:1–7, 15–16,” Revised Common Lectionary, First Reading, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=257.

4. Fretheim, “Commentary on Genesis 17:1–7, 15–16,” First Reading.

5. Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler, eds., Jewish Study Bible (Oxford University Press, 2014) 34.

6. Berlin and Brettler, Jewish Study Bible, 34.

7. Mark A. Throntveit, “Law and Narrative” (lecture notes, Luther Seminary, fall 2018).

8. Gen 12 describes an encounter with the Egyptian Pharaoh, while the parallel account in Gen 20 describes a similar encounter with King Abimelech of Gerar, albeit with more details.

9. See Gen 20:3–7.

10. There are clear similarities between Gen 12 and Gen 20. Various scholars have proposed that Gen 12 is characteristic of one source (J) while Gen 20 is attributed to another (E).

11. The wording in biblical Hebrew used to describe what we call “marriage” is indicative of hierarchy and “implies inequality.” “. . . the most common expression used [for marriage] instead says that a certain man ‘takes’ a certain woman ‘as/for a [his] woman’ (Heb., laqah le ishah).” Describing marriage this way, the language presents “the man as the subject of the verb and the woman as the object,” which “conveys the notion that he owns her.” See Karla G. Bohmbach, Sandra L. Gravett, F. V. Greifenhagen, and Donald C. Polaski, An Introduction to the Hebrew Bible: A Thematic Approach (Westminster John Knox, 2008) 103.

12. Lea Danihelova and Jasmine Fraser, “Family Leadership: Legacies from the Abrahamic Family,” The Journal of Applied Christian Leadership 6 (Fall 2012) 58.

13. Paul A. Keim, “The Legacy of Sarah and Abraham: A Sermon on Genesis 17 and Romans 4,” Vision 13/2 (Fall 2012) 29. The eleventh-century Jewish commentator Rashi offers a different view, noting that Sarai in Hebrew is “suffixed by the letter Yud,” and since the name Sarai means “princess,” the possessive suffix implies that “she is a princess for Abraham, but not for others.” However, the “absence of any suffix [on ‘Sarah’] indicates that she will be a princess for all mankind.” See Chaim Miller, ed., Chumash: The Gutnick Edition (The Five Books of the Torah): With Rashi’s Commentary, Targum Onkelos and Haftoras with a Commentary Anthologized from Classic Rabbinic Texts and the works of the Lubavitcher Rebbe (Kol Menachem, 2006) 91.

14. Terence E. Fretheim, Abraham: Trial of Family and Faith (University of South Carolina Press, 2007) 41.

15. Sandra L. Richter, The Epic of Eden: A Christian Entry into the Old Testament (InterVarsity, 2008) 163.

16. See J. M. Callaghan, “The Genesis of Gender” (Bethel University, MN: March 2017), https://academia.edu/36789075/THE_GENESIS_OF_GENDER, where I explore this further.

17. Christine Hayes, Introduction to the Bible (Yale University Press, 2012) 36; see also William E. Phipps, “Adam’s Rib: Bone of Contention,” ThTo 33/3 (Oct 1976) 263–73.

18. See Robert Alter, Five Books of Moses (Norton, 2004) 22.

19. Phipps, “Adam’s Rib,” 271.

20. Phipps, “Adam’s Rib,” 271.

21. Richter, Epic of Eden, 109.

22. Richter, Epic of Eden, 109.

23. Terence E. Fretheim, God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation (Abingdon, 2005) 75–76.

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