Genesis 17 – Genesis 16 ends with Abram at the age of 86 and chap. 17 begins thirteen years later when he is 99. For thirteen years Sara still is childless, having given up all hope of having a child she is now 89 years old. God had not forgotten His promise and now once again He appears to Abram and God speaks of the covenant with Abram 13 times.
God is identified here as El Shaddai which means the Almighty God coming from the Hebrew El which means God and Shaddai from a related word that means “mountain,” thus picturing God as the overpowering, almighty One, standing on a mountain. God reminds Abram to continue His walk with Him. The expression blameless in the Hebrew is tamiym, taw-meem’; which describes an attitude of integrity and truth at times it is translated in English as a person who is complete and upright.
Today we call such a man a mensch. God is now ready to implement His promise to Abram and wants to remind Abram of the importance of continued fellowship with Him and walking in His ways. First God promises to make him the father of a multitude of nations and to confirm this to Abram he changes his name to Abraham which means “father of a multitude” in Hebrew. God then promises further that His covenant with Abraham will not only be with him but to his descendants as a permanent or everlasting covenant.
Abraham’s descendants will never permanently be removed from the land. This is repeatedly confirmed in Scripture consider Jeremiah 31:31ff. In Genesis 17:8 God says “I will be their God.” Romans 11 has stated that there has always been a remnant who have remained faithful.
God now commands Abraham to circumcise himself and all males in his household. This not only included his children but also included his servants. This was to be the sign of the covenant with Abraham. An interesting side blessing of this seemingly strange practice has been proven cleanliness and what some believe to be a reason for the hardiness of the Jewish people to endure throughout the ages.
This sign was not a public one but one to the individual his parents and later his wife. This was a sign to the parents that they had passed the rights of the covenant to their sons and to a wife that her husband was part of the covenant people. Why was this area chosen as the place where the sign would be physically revealed.
In all likelihood it was to be a reminder to the sons of Abraham not to participate in the sexual sins and perversions of the nations that surrounded them. Still further it is a reminder of the promised seed. For seed is transmitted sexually and the promised seed was to come through a people set apart and distinct from all the nations. Circumcision was an act of obedience and faith.
Later when God gave the Law on Mt. Sinai God instructed Israel to circumcise on the eighth day after birth upon children of natives, servants, and aliens (Leviticus 9:3). Circumcision was carried out by the father initially, utilizing a flint knife (Joshua 5:3). Later specialists were employed among the Jewish people.
Circumcision is used in a figurative sense later on by the prophets and the New Covenant. The uncircumcised are those who are insensitive to God’s leadership. Circumcision of the heart implies total devotion to God (Deuteronomy 10:16) “Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer.” (Jeremiah 4:4) “Circumcise yourselves to the LORD, circumcise your hearts, you men of Judah and people of Jerusalem, or my wrath will break out and burn like fire because of the evil you have done– burn with no one to quench it.”
The uncircumcised heart causes our ears not to hear so as to respond to the Lord and our the words of our mouth to be unclean as well. Circumcision was therefore an external sign of an internal heart committed to the Lord. Circumcision and Christianity Controversy arose in the early church (Acts 10-15) over the issue of whether Gentile converts needed to be circumcised.
First century A.D. Jews disdained the uncircumcised. The leadership Paul in the Jerusalem Council was crucial in the settlement of the dispute. It was decided that physical circumcision was not essential to Christian faith and fellowship. Circumcision of the heart via repentance and faith were the only requirements (Romans 4:9-12; Galatians 2:15-21).
Genesis 17:15-19 After the instructions concerning circumcision, God also changes Sarai’s name from Sarai to Sarah. The name “Sarai” may come from the Hebrew verb sarah, meaning “to persist,” “to exert oneself,” “to persevere.” Sarai also could mean “to contend”. As “Sarai” changed from a mere contender for her position as first lady in the home, into the recipient of the divine promise, she became “Sarah,” i.e., a “princess” (from sarar, Hebrew, “to rule”).
Sarah now is 90 years old and Abram 100. Abraham;s response is to laugh with joy, unlike Sarah’s laugh of doubt later when she learns that God promises to give her a child. Then Abraham asks God to remember his son Ishmael lest he be removed from blessing before the Lord.
Genesis 17:20 God hears Abraham’s concern for Ishmael and promises to bless him and make him fruitful and to multiply him, and to bring 12 princes from him. Just as God made 12 tribes from Isaac and Jacob, so too did God make 12 princes from Ishmael. In Genesis 17:21 God makes it clear that while he will bless Ishmael, His covenant would be with Isaac and his offspring and not Ishmael. This is further clarification of the seed plot of the Bible. In Genesis 25 we will look at the twelve princes promised to Ishmael.
Following these promises Abraham set about the task of circumcising his household. This included himself, Ishmael and all the servants and members of his party. This took a great deal of faith, as it would leave him vulnerable to attack for a number of days.