Parashat Lech L’cha – Gen 12:1 – 17:27

B’resheet/Genesis 17:11   And you shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskins; and it shall be for a sign of covenant between Me and you.


This week’s text starts with a grammatical anomaly. The verb ונמלתם appears to have too many letters: the second letter, nun, doesn’t belong there. As written, except that the vocalisation is wrong [1], ונמלתם looks like the Nif’al 2mp affix form of the geminate root [2] מלל, to circumcise, with a vav-reversive to make the tense future: “and you shall be circumcised”. But that can’t be right, because the verb is followed by את, the free-standing direct object indicator, which requires an active rather than passive verb. Rashi, at a loss for a good explanation, tries to brush it off by saying, “this has the same meaning as ומלתם , ‘you shall circumcise’. The nun in it is extra, an element which is dropped at times.” It is possibly a scribal error, adding the nun during copying, but all translations and traditions ignore it, treating it as if it were a normal Qal stem – “and you shall circumcise” – followed by its direct object: “the flesh of your foreskins”.

The grammar should not obscure the important point that this text carries. HaShem is telling Avraham that circumcision is a sign of covenant between Himself, on the one hand, and Avraham and his seed, on the other. Rabbi Hirsch explains that circumcision “is to be a sign for us, a constant reminder of our connection with G-d and our duty to Him, never to become of uncircumcised flesh, never unbridled, dissolute, but to tread even with the most powerful urges, with the whole of our bodily senses, the path which the G-d who sets the limits and purpose of everything, fixes for us.”

Who Is Sforno: Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno (1470-1550 CE), Italian rabbi, philosopher and physician; born in Cesena, he went to Rome to study medicine; left in 1525 and after some years of travel, settled in Bologna where he founded a yeshiva which he conducted until his death.

The Sforno adds that is is “a perpetual reminder to walk in His ways, it being as it were the master’s seal on his servant.” Nahum Sarna comments that circumcision is “an outward, physical reminder of the existence of the covenant.” On a slightly different tack, Maimonides suggests that “circumcision is the sign of belief in the unity of G-d” (Guide to the Perplexed 3:49).

Notice too that the phrase לאות ברית, “for a sign of covenant” is not definite – it is neither “the sign of covenant”, nor “a sign of the covenant”, nor even “the sign of the covenant.” It is “a sign of covenant”: a commanded ritual, the penalty for non-performance being cut off from the people, ceasing to be a part of the family and no longer in covenant with HaShem. It is perhaps the most important covenant sign, but it is only one of a number of covenant signs that the people of Israel are given. The first sign of covenant is perhaps the rainbow, which HaShem gave to Noah and his descendants – that is, all of mankind – after the flood: “I have set My bow in the clouds, and it shall serve for a covenant sign between Me and the earth” (B’resheet 9:13), where the identical Hebrew phrase is used.

Another covenant sign is the keeping of shabbat: “The Children of Israel shall observe the shabbat, to keep the shabbat for their generations: an everlasting covenant. It shall be an everlasting sign between Me and the people of Israel” (Shemot 31:16-17). While the Gentiles are welcome to keep shabbat – and it one of the ways in which Gentiles can demonstrate their commitment to follow the G-d of Israel: “As for the foreigners who attach themselves to the L-RD, to minister to Him, and to love the name of the L-RD, to be His servants — all who keep the sabbath and do not profane it, and who hold fast to My covenant — I will bring them to My sacred mount and let them rejoice in My house of prayer” (Isaiah 56:6-7, JPS) – the execution and significance of the sign is quite specifically given to the Children of Israel.

A third sign of covenant is given to Israel in the desert, when HaShem tells Moshe to “Speak to the Israelite people and instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments throughout the ages; let them attach a cord of blue to the fringe at each corner. That shall be your fringe; look at it and recall all the commandments of the L-RD and observe them … Thus you shall be reminded to observe all My commandments and to be holy to your G-d” (B’Midbar 15:38-40, JPS). Although the word ‘sign’ is not used, this is a strong visual mnemonic device to remind the Children of Israel at almost every turn, any time that other Jews were in sight or whenever they looked down at their own clothing. The tefillin, bound “as a sign upon your hand” and “on your forehead” (D’varim 6:8), which does use the word ‘sign’ and the verses of Scripture “written on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (v. 9) are similar visual devices to make the covenant an every day reality among the Jewish people.

The Hebrew Scriptures often talk about signs, for kings or for the people, before battles or during political crises. The gospels start in the same vein: Zechariah essentially asks for a sign and is told, “You will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place” (Luke 1:20, ESV); Mary is given the sign that “Your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren” (v. 36, ESV); the angels tell the shepherds, “This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger” (2:12, ESV). When Yeshua began His ministry and was baptised, John and perhaps the people saw that “the Holy Spirit descended on Him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased’” (Luke 3:22, ESV). During His ministry years, Yeshua performs many striking miracles as signs of who He is and the closeness of the kingdom, yet refuses to give a sign “on demand”, saying that “No sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah” (Luke 11:29, ESV). The healing of the lame man at the Gate of the Temple is described by the Sanhedrin as “a notable sign” (Acts 4:16, ESV) and the text refers to it as “this sign of healing” (v. 22, ESV) rather than simply a miracle.

In the centuries since the times of the Bible, miracles and signs have been downplayed. The rabbis teach that Jews do not rely on miracles (b. Pesachim 64b). Cessationalist Christian teachers maintain that miracles and the supernatural gifts of the Spirit ceased after the sub-apostolic times. Human nature, on the other hand, has not changed: just as man has always looked to heaven and either directly or indirectly asked for a sign, for a signal or an indication about which choice to take, which course of action to follow, so man today still looks heavenward and asks for a sign. This is, of course, especially true when the choices are difficult, when a lot hangs on a particular decision, where life and illness may be at stake. Then it becomes critically important: how can we take the right decision? What does G-d want us to do? The most important subject of all is exactly the same as it was for the ancient Israelites – what are the signs of covenant. How can we be sure about G-d and our relationship with Him today? Two covenant signs are available for all today!

The first proposal is to see how you feel about Rav Sha’ul’s statement to the congregations in Rome: “If you confess with your mouth that Yeshua is Lord and believe in your heart that G-d raised Him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9, ESV). How comfortable are you about doing that? Could you walk up to an unknown stranger in the street and tell them (in clearly audible tones and a language that you expect them to understand) that Yeshua is the Messiah, crucified and raised from the dead three days later in fulfillment of the Scriptures to prove that He is the Son of G-d and to provide forgiveness for your sin? Well, perhaps not; not everyone is cut out for such a high-profile profession of faith. But how about close friends or family members – could you do it then? Could you tell anyone about your faith in Messiah? Well, you need to be able to do that in some way, since that is a sign of covenant for you and for others. If you can verbalise your faith in a clear simple form, without being embarrassed, but making a simple declaration of being a believer in Messiah and a follower of the G-d of Israel, then that is a sign of covenant.

The second sign revolves around the way you spend your time, or more accurately, how you prioritise your time. Do you always make time for G-d? Do you want to read your Bible every day and feel that you’ve missed something important on a day when that gets lost or forgotten, even when you’re stuck in the middle of Ezekiel, Daniel or Judges? Do you want to spend time in prayer, talking to G-d and listening to Him? Or are these things that you only ever do in church on Sunday? Being genuinely interested in, taking pleasure in and prioritising time with G-d on a regular and frequent basis is a sign of covenant. We all need to become passionate about showing and seeing signs of covenant in our lives!

[1] – That is, the vowels indicated by the nikud, or pointing, are not correct for the Nif’al stem, which should probably look like (Davidson).

[2] – A geminate verb is one where the second and third letters of the root are the same.

Further Study: Psalm 65:5-13; Mark 16:17-18; Philippians 1:27-28; Hebrews 2:1-4

Application: How good are you at spotting signs of covenant in yourself and others? How could you stir up those signs in your life and so help others to find and build their signs? A call to the Master Signwriter never goes unanswered!