Genesis 17 – God Reaffirms the Covenant
A. An appearance from God, a change of name for Abram.
1. (1-2) God appears to Abram when he is 99 years old.
When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am Almighty God; walk before Me and be blameless. And I will make My covenant between Me and you, and will multiply you exceedingly.”
a. When Abram was ninety-nine years old: Abram was 75 years old when he left Haran (Genesis 12:4). He was 86 years old when the son Ishmael was born of Hagar, the servant girl (Genesis 16:15-16). He had waited some 25 years for the fulfillment of God’s promise to give a son through Sarai. It had been some 13 years since his last recorded word from God.
b. The LORD appeared to Abram: Undoubtedly, this was another appearance of God in the person of Jesus, who took on a temporary human appearance before His incarnation on earth (as with Hagar in Genesis 16:7-9).
c. I am Almighty God: God’s first words to Abram made an introduction and a declaration of His being. By this name El Shaddai (God Almighty), God revealed His Person and character to Abram. However, there is some debate as to what exactly the name El Shaddai means.
i. Kidner: “A traditional analysis of the name is ‘God (el) who (sa) is sufficient (day).’”
ii. Clarke: “El shaddai, I am God all-sufficient; from shadah, to shed, to pour out. I am that God who pours out blessings, who gives them richly, abundantly, continually.”
iii. Donald Barnhouse took the approach that the Hebrew word shad means “chest” or “breast.” It may have in mind the strength of a man’s chest (God Almighty) or the comfort and nourishment of a woman’s breast (God of Tender Care).
iv. Leupold explained that Shaddai comes from the root shadad, which means “to display power.”
v. The Septuagint – a translation of the Hebrew scriptures into Greek before the time of Jesus – translates Almighty with the Greek word pantokrator, the “One who has His hand on everything.”
d. Walk before Me and be blameless: After the proclamation of His name El Shaddai, God then told Abram what was expected of him. It was first revelation and then expectation. This communicates the principle that we can only do what God expects of us when we know who He is, and we know it in a full, personal, and real way.
i. The word blameless literally means “whole.” God wanted all of Abram, a total commitment.
e. I will make My covenant between Me and you: God also reminded Abram He had not forgotten the covenant. Though it had been some 25 years since the promise was first made, and though it maybe seemed to Abram God forgot, God didn’t forget anything.
i. The last time we are told the LORD communicated with Abram directly was some 13 years before (Genesis 16:15-16). Seemingly, Abram had 13 years of “normal” fellowship with God, waiting for the promise all the time. It would be understandable if, at times during those 13 years, Abram felt that God forgot His promise.
ii. “All these thirteen years, so far as Scripture informs us, Abram had not a single visit from his God. We do not find any record of his either doing anything memorable or having so much as a single audience with the Most High.” (Spurgeon)
iii. Abram was becoming a great man of faith, but you don’t make a great man of faith overnight. It takes years of God’s work in them, years of almost mundane trusting in God, perhaps interrupted with a few spectacular encounters with the LORD.
2. (3-8) God refers to specific terms of the covenant He has not forgotten.
Then Abram fell on his face, and God talked with him, saying: “As for Me, behold, My covenant is with you, and you shall be a father of many nations. No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you a father of many nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. And I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you in their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and your descendants after you. Also I give to you and your descendants after you the land in which you are a stranger, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.”
a. Abram fell on his face: As this seems to be a direct, personal appearance of God, Abram did the proper and reverent thing; he fell on his face, showing submission and giving honor to God.
b. No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham: To encourage Abram’s faith in the promise of descendants through Sarai, God changed Abram’s name from Abram (father of many) to Abraham (father of many nations).
i. There was, no doubt, a sense in which Abram, “father of many,” was a hard name to bear for a man who was the father of none, especially in a culture where inquiry about one’s personal life was a courteous practice. Now, God went a step further and made his name “father of many nations.” It was almost crazy for a childless man to have such a name.
ii. Think of when Abraham announced his name change to others. They must have thought he wanted to escape the burden of his name. Instead, he increased the burden.
iii. There are many wonderful name changes in the Bible, such as when God changed Jacob’s name to Israel (Genesis 32:28), and when He changed Simon’s name to Peter (Mark 3:16). God promises a wonderful new name to every overcomer in Him (Revelation 2:17).
iv. God gives us many names in faith (saint, righteous, chosen, royal priesthood, sons of God, and so forth), and He knows He will accomplish the meaning of the name in us – even it if seems somewhat crazy.
c. Father of many nations… exceedingly fruitful… make nations of you, and kings shall come from you: In almost every dimension, God made the long-delayed promise to Abraham greater. Never before had God specifically said that multiple nations would come from Abraham (a singular nation was promised in Genesis 12:2). Never before had God specifically said that kings would descend from Abraham.
i. “Oh! those glorious ‘wills’ and ‘shalls.’ Brethren, ye cannot serve the Lord with a perfect heart until first your faith gets a grip of the divine ‘will’ and ‘shall.’” (Spurgeon)
d. I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you in their generations, for an everlasting covenant: God also specifically promised that the covenant He originally made with Abram in Genesis 12:1-3 would be passed to his chosen descendants, those not yet born. The covenant was not only for Abram, but it was an everlasting covenant.
e. I give to you and your descendants after you the land… for an everlasting possession: The specific promise of the land was made not only to Abraham, but also to his covenant descendants. This everlasting covenant was just as valid for them as it was for Abraham himself. The land was and is God’s covenant promise to the Jewish people.
3. (9-14) God institutes a sign of the covenant for Abraham and his descendants.
And God said to Abraham: “As for you, you shall keep My covenant, you and your descendants after you throughout their generations. This is My covenant which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: Every male child among you shall be circumcised; and you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you. He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised, every male child in your generations, he who is born in your house or bought with money from any foreigner who is not your descendant. He who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money must be circumcised, and My covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. And the uncircumcised male child, who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant.”
a. This is My covenant which you shall keep: God introduced the command regarding circumcision with these words. The cutting and removal of the foreskin of every male among Abraham’s covenant descendants would mark them as those who were in the covenant. Since this covenant was made with the literal, genetic descendants of Abraham through the promise of God, it was appropriate that this sign of the covenant be given to those born into the covenant and was associated with the reproductive part of their body.
i. “Circumcision indicated to the seed of Abraham that there was a defilement of the flesh in man which must for ever be taken away, or man would remain impure, and out of covenant with God.” (Spurgeon)
b. Every male child among you shall be circumcised: For the first time, God gave Abraham something to do in regard to the covenant. He told him that his descendants must take upon themselves a sign of the covenant, showing they received the covenant by faith.
c. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins: The sign was circumcision, the cutting away of the male foreskin. God chose this sign for many important reasons.
i. Circumcision was not unknown in the world at that time. It was a ritual practiced among various peoples.
ii. There were undoubtedly hygienic reasons, especially making sense in the ancient world. “There is some medical evidence that this practice has indeed contributed to the long-lasting vigor of the Jewish race.” (Morris) McMillen, in None of These Diseases, noted studies in 1949 and 1954 that showed a remarkably low rate of cervical cancer for Jewish women, because they mostly have husbands who are circumcised.
iii. But more importantly, circumcision is a cutting away of the flesh and an appropriate sign of the covenant for those who should put no trust in the flesh.
iv. Also, because circumcision deals with the organ of procreation, it was a reminder of the special seed of Abraham, which would ultimately bring the Messiah.
d. He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised: Since the covenant descendants of Abraham are born into that covenant by their natural birth, it logically followed that the sign of the covenant should be given to them in their infancy.
i. In Colossians 2:11-12, the Apostle Paul connected the ideas of circumcision and Christian baptism. His idea was that in Jesus we are spiritually circumcised, and we were also buried with Jesus in baptism. Paul did not say that baptism is the sign of the covenant Christians receive and live under, the new covenant. Even if that connection is made, it is important to note that one was genetically born into the covenant described here in Genesis 17. One is not genetically born into the new covenant; one is born into it by God’s grace through faith. It is wrong and harmful to make the analogy, “babies were circumcised, so babies should be baptized.”
ii. “In the type the seed of Abraham are circumcised; you draw the inference that all typified by the seed of Abraham ought to be baptised, and I do not cavil at the conclusion; but I ask you, who are the true seed of Abraham? Paul answers in Romans 9:8, ‘They which are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God: but the children of the promise are counted for the seed.’” (Spurgeon)
iii. “As many as believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, whether they be Jews or Gentiles, are Abraham’s seed. Whether eight days old in grace, or more or less, every one of Abraham’s seed has a right to baptism. But I deny that the unregenerate, whether children or adults, are of the spiritual seed of Abraham.” (Spurgeon)
e. He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised: God probably commanded the circumcision of children to take place on the eighth day because this is the day when an infant’s immune system is at the optimum level for such a procedure.
i. McMillen also notes newborn children have a peculiar susceptibility to bleeding between the second and fifth days of life. It seems an important blood-clotting agent, vitamin K, is not formed in the normal amount until the fifth to seventh day of life. Another blood-clotting agent, prothrombin, is at its highest levels in infants on precisely the eighth day of life, making the eighth day the safest, earliest day to circumcise an infant.
f. The uncircumcised male child… he has broken My covenant: Those who rejected circumcision rejected the sign of the covenant. They were no friends of the covenant God made with Abraham. It wasn’t that circumcision made them a part of the covenant (faith did), but rejection of circumcision was a rejection of the covenant.
i. Unfortunately, through the centuries, the Jews began to trust more in the sign of the covenant (circumcision) than in the God of the covenant, believing that circumcision by itself was sufficient and necessary to save. Paul refutes this idea extensively, especially in light of the finished work of Jesus (Galatians 5:1-15).
ii. Therefore, Christians are free to either circumcise or not. One may do so for social or hygienic reasons, but it doesn’t get us any closer to God: For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but faith working through love (Galatians 5:6).
iii. Again, Paul spoke of circumcision and baptism in Colossians 2:11-12, connecting them without saying they are the same thing. In this sense, at least, they are connected: circumcision did not save a Jewish man, but refusing to be circumcised meant disobedience to the covenant, and perhaps rejection of it. In the same sense, being baptized does not save us, but no Christian should refuse baptism.
B. The promise of a son to both Abraham and Sarah.
1. (15-16) The promise is stated: a son will come through Sarah, whose name is changed from Sarai.
Then God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. And I will bless her and also give you a son by her; then I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of peoples shall be from her.”
a. As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name: There is only a subtle difference between Sarai and Sarah, but it is an important difference. Sarah indicates a higher standing and status than Sarai.
i. “Sarai signifies my lady, or my princess, which confines her dominion to one family; but Sarah signifies either a lady or princess, simply and absolutely without restriction, or the princess of a multitude.” (Poole)
b. And I will bless her and also give you a son by her: By emphasizing the word “her,” God made it plain that this son will not come about by another surrogate-mother situation (as with Hagar and Ishmael). Sarah herself would give birth, even though it was past her time in life to do so (Sarah was about 90 years old at this time).
2. (17-18) Abraham’s response to the promise.
Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said in his heart, “Shall a child be born to a man who is one hundred years old? And shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” And Abraham said to God, “Oh, that Ishmael might live before You!”
a. Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed: Abraham’s laugh didn’t seem to be one of cynical doubt, but instead of rejoicing in something he knew was impossible by all outward appearance, but that God could perform.
b. Shall a child be born to a man who is one hundred years old: Abraham knew both he and Sarah were well past the time people normally have children. Yet Abraham believed, and in Romans 4:17-21, Paul wonderfully described Abraham’s faith in this promise.
i. In the presence of Him whom he believed; God, who gives life to the dead and calls those things which do not exist as though they did; who, contrary to hope, in hope believed, so that he became the father of many nations, according to what was spoken, “So shall your descendants be.” And not being weak in faith, he did not consider his own body, already dead (since he was about a hundred years old), and the deadness of Sarah’s womb. He did not waver at the promise of God through unbelief, but was strengthened in faith, giving glory to God, and being fully convinced that what He had promised He was also able to perform. (Romans 4:17-21)
c. Oh, that Ishmael might live before You: At the same time, Abraham didn’t really understand God’s promise completely. He perhaps thought God simply meant Ishmael would be Sarah’s spiritual son. Abraham – like all of us – found it hard to trust God for more than what he could conceive of.
3. (19-22) God repeats the promise and names the child who will come forth from Abraham and Sarah.
Then God said: “No, Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac; I will establish My covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, and with his descendants after him. And as for Ishmael, I have heard you. Behold, I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly. He shall beget twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation. But My covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this set time next year.” Then He finished talking with him, and God went up from Abraham.
a. Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac: The son will be named Isaac (laughter) because he would be such a joy to his parents, but also to always remind Abraham he laughed at God’s promise to give him a son through Sarah at this late age.
b. As for Ishmael, I have heard you. Behold, I have blessed him: Ishmael will be blessed. God would answer Abraham’s prayer for blessing on Ishmael, making him fruitful and to multiply him exceedingly. Nevertheless, the covenant and its promises would pass only through the son to come, the son of promise.
4. (23-27) Abraham carries out God’s command of circumcision.
So Abraham took Ishmael his son, all who were born in his house and all who were bought with his money, every male among the men of Abraham’s house, and circumcised the flesh of their foreskins that very same day, as God had said to him. Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. And Ishmael his son was thirteen years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. That very same day Abraham was circumcised, and his son Ishmael; and all the men of his house, born in the house or bought with money from a foreigner, were circumcised with him.
a. And circumcised the flesh of their foreskins that very same day, as God had said to him: Abraham’s belief in the covenant was proved by his obedience to the command. What we really believe will show in our actions.
b. That very same day Abraham was circumcised: Abraham’s obedience was complete (every male among the men of Abraham’s house), it was prompt (that very same day), and it was daring (to virtually incapacitate all his fighting men at the same time).
i. Abraham didn’t need to pray about this. He didn’t need to grow or transition into this. God said it, and he did it. This is a wonderful example of obedience from a great man of faith.
©2018 David Guzik – No distribution beyond personal use without permission