Back to the story of Abraham. By the time the family returned from Egypt, Abraham and Sarai were quite old–in their nineties, according to tradition. At this point, God and Abraham have a personal relationship. God speaks directly to him, offering advice and continuing to promise descendants numberless as the stars.
Sarai urges Abraham to impregnate her maidservant/slave Hagar. Abraham does, and Hagar bears a son, Ishmael. Despite Sarai’s recommendation, she is furious with Hagar and has have Abraham send Hagar and the baby away. This image, which suggests some ambivalence, is by the 17th century Italian painter Cristoforo Salvolini.
Hagar and the baby are lost and on the point of death when an angel appears and sends them back to Abraham. The angel promises Ishmael too will have numberless descendants. Once the family is reunited, God makes two strange requests of Abraham. The first is that Abraham, and all the men in his household, including 13-year old Ishmael be circumcised as a symbol of their covenant–that is, a special, self-expending relationship–as shown here by the 17th century Flemish engraver Michael Vandergucht.
God’s next request is yet more painful.