Genesis 17

Genesis 17:1-2 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.”

It is thought that 13-14 years had passed since the events of Genesis 16.  This means that Hagar bore Ishmael, and that he was around 13 years old here.  Hagar was still part of Abram’s clan, and according to God’s instructions to her, she was still a servant of Sarai.

This passage in Genesis 17 includes the first instance in Scripture of the term “Almighty” (Shadday).  We read in Exodus 6:3 that it is by this name that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob knew God.  The specific references include:

  • Genesis 28:3 – When Isaac blessed Jacob before sending him to his family in Padanaram to find himself a wife.
  • Genesis 35:11 – When God appeared to Jacob when he returned to Canaan and God gave Jacob a new name, Israel.
  • Genesis 49:25 – When Jacob prophesied that Joseph would receive blessings from the Almighty.
  • Exodus 6:3 – When God responded to Moses, who didn’t understand why his mission to free the children of Israel from Egypt was only making things worse for them.  God responded by reminding Moses that he was the same Almighty who had appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and that is how they knew God.  God told Moses that they did not know God by the name Jehovah (which means “the existing One”).

Back in Genesis 15, God had made a covenant with Abram which guaranteed over 300,000 square miles of territory would be passed to Abraham’s descendents, who would be so numerous that their numbers could not be counted.  The conditions of the covenant were taken on by God Himself, and He also took on the punishment for breaking the terms.  Abram would have been able to continue on from that day with absolute faith in the covenant’s terms, because God literally put His own life on the line. But in the very next chapter, we read how Abram and Sarai wavered in their faith, and ultimately gave in to their fears to take the matter of their progeny into their own hands.  Their actions made a pretty big mess of things, so maybe God should have reconsidered His covenant and tried to find a more faithful man?  Uh, no.  Abram wasn’t perfect, and just like us he struggled with the promises of God.  But he did not struggle with one thing: seeing God as the Almighty, and believing Him (Genesis 15:6 Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness).  We also can be reminded by Psalm 56:3 that although we will battle with fear, we have an answer: When I am afraid, I put my trust in you.

God didn’t address Abram’s faithlessness.  Instead, He reminded Abram of what was required by the covenant: that Abram walk before the Lord blameless.  He also let Abram know that it was about to get very personal for him.  God wasn’t going to ask Abram to do something impossible, but He was going to ask him to do something both tangible and symbolic.  There would be a physical sign, as well as something that happened in Abram’s heart.

What does it mean to walk blameless? James 1:3-4 says you should [know] that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing.  In fear, Abram wavered before his patience had been perfected.  What God asked of Abram in Genesis 17:1 was to be “all in” with his commitment to God’s plan, no matter what the circumstances looked like.  We can walk blameless before God when we whole-heartedly and single-mindedly aim to please God with our hearts.  We won’t be perfect until we get to heaven, but we can be blameless while we are still here.

Genesis 17:3-8 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.”

Abram’s name had meant “exalted father.”  It identified him as a man of influence and honor, but it did not necessarily set him apart from anyone else.  It definitely did not represent any guarantee that his children would amount to anything.  So God changed his name to Abraham, which meant “chief of multitude.”  God restated the blessings of the covenant, and reiterated that it was to be an “everlasting covenant.” Whatever else happens in the world’s future, even in the next age, God’s covenant with Abraham is everlasting: there will always be a nation of Israel, and they will always possess the land that God promised to Abraham.  Satan has tried to unravel this covenant for nearly 4,000 years, because if he could make God break this promise, then God would be made a liar.  But no matter what it looks like, or however bad it could look in the future, you can guarantee that the covenant won’t ever be broken.

Genesis 17:9-14 And God said to Abraham: “As for you, you shall keep My covenant, you and your descendants after you throughout their generations. 10 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; 11 and you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you. 12 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. 13 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. 14 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.”

The covenant that God made with Abraham in Genesis 15 involved the killing of animals and did not involve Abraham placing his life on the line.  But now, God was placing an outward sign that Abraham and all his male descendents would need to perform in order to represent their commitment to the covenant: circumcision.  God had already placed the burden for keeping the conditions and even suffering the penalties on himself.  Abram’s responsibility (and his descendents as well) was to walk blameless before the Lord and to identify themselves with the covenant by cutting off the flesh.

So the question is, was it circumcision alone that separated Abraham and his descendents from everyone else, making them God’s people?  If so, then perhaps the ancient Egyptians could make an argument for being God’s people, because they were probably practicing male circumcision hundreds of years before Abraham’s generation.  The ancient Phoenicians, Ethiopians, Colchians, and Syrians could also make their claims, because according to Herodotus, they all practiced it as well.  Circumcision was a ritual performed for various reasons before God had called Abraham to be the father of His chosen people.  So, circumcision’s role in God’s covenant only makes sense if it is combined with a spiritual significance: people who have cut off the fleshly life and walk in the Spirit. It is a huge mistake to place the emphasis only on circumcision and neglect the spiritual meaning.  Paul addressed this error in Romans 2:25-29 (NLT):

The Jewish ceremony of circumcision has value only if you obey God’s law. But if you don’t obey God’s law, you are no better off than an uncircumcised Gentile. 26 And if the Gentiles obey God’s law, won’t God declare them to be his own people? 27 In fact, uncircumcised Gentiles who keep God’s law will condemn you Jews who are circumcised and possess God’s law but don’t obey it.

28 For you are not a true Jew just because you were born of Jewish parents or because you have gone through the ceremony of circumcision. 29 No, a true Jew is one whose heart is right with God. And true circumcision is not merely obeying the letter of the law; rather, it is a change of heart produced by God’s Spirit. And a person with a changed heart seeks praise from God, not from people.

God’s intention for circumcision in Abraham’s descendents (the Jews) was to physically identify a people who would be spiritually minded in their walks with God.  The physical cutting was symbolic, while the reality of the covenant was to have a heart which separated itself from the sinful nature of man and serve God in the Spirit.  But any time we take the symbols of our faith (circumcision for the Jews, baptism and communion for the followers of Christ) and place more meaning on them that on what they represent, we are in the same error that Paul spoke of above.  Paul also reminded us of what these symbols actually meant in Colossians 2:11: When you came to Christ, you were “circumcised,” but not by a physical procedure. Christ performed a spiritual circumcision—the cutting away of your sinful nature. 12 For you were buried with Christ when you were baptized. And with him you were raised to new life because you trusted the mighty power of God, who raised Christ from the dead.13 You were dead because of your sins and because your sinful nature was not yet cut away. Then God made you alive with Christ, for he forgave all our sins.

It was not circumcision (nor being identified with a group that practices it) that produced salvation.  It was forgiveness of sin.  Abraham was justified before he was circumcised (Romans 4:9-10).  The sign of circumcision was given to Abraham so that all who believe (walk in the steps of faith, in Christ) could be justified, whether they were circumcised or not. (Romans 4:11-12).

Genesis 17:15-16 Then God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. 16 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.”

God in His grace and mercy had a blessing for Sarai as well!  She was the one who had brought Hagar to Abraham and perhaps felt a personal burden for her role in instigating their sin.  But God didn’t bring that up.  Instead He restored her faith, giving her new name which meant “noblewoman.” Her previous name had meant “princess” which doesn’t sound too shabby either.  But in reality, she went from being an individual having a royal title to being a mother of nations and kings, a truly more noble calling than a simple princess.

Genesis 17:17 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?

Have you ever been told something that so blew you away, because it was so amazing, that the excitement and joy generated by the news made impossible to do anything except laugh?  Not a disbelieving laugh, or a nervous laugh, but one of joy.  This is what happened to Abraham.  Maybe this is the first time he actually really took hold of the promise that God had been telling him for all those years.

Genesis 17:18 And Abraham said to God, “Oh, that Ishmael might live before You!”

Uh-oh.  Abraham was Ishmael’s father, and they must have been close.  Maybe while he was laughing at the joyful prospect of having a son with his wife (not a substitute) he realized what it would mean to the son he had gained Hagar.  Abraham was experiencing something that is common to us all: when God finally gets us to a place where we can truly put off the flesh and walk in His Spirit, and we might even get a joyful glimpse of what that will be like, we can so easily look at what we are going to give up in the process.  We often will be required to walk away from works of the flesh that we might have even become extremely attached to.  Abraham was struggling with what the son of promise would mean to his 13-year old son of the flesh.

Genesis 19:19-22 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. 20 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. 21 But My covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this set time next year.” 22 Then He finished talking with him, and God went up from Abraham.

God’s plan all along was for Sarah to bear the son.  Isaac’s name meant “he laughs.” A very fitting name, considering Abraham’s reaction to God’s news a few verses ago.  But more importantly, even though Abraham and Sarah had messed things up with their efforts to help God out, God’s plan would still prevail.  Isaac would be the son to receive the covenant, not Ishmael or any other son of Abraham.  The blessings of the covenant (being called as a set-apart people and possessing the land), would be given to Isaac’s descendents.

Ishmael received blessings as well.  Abraham had asked that Ishmael would live before God, and God answered this prayer.  The answer was slightly different than what Abraham had been angling for though.  Abraham had offered Ishmael as the son of promise.  God’s answer is awesome. “No, Abraham, I am going to bless you with Isaac, and IN ADDITION, I am going to grant your request for a blessing for Ishmael, because he is going to be a great man and father of a great nation.  Not only will I take care of Isaac, but I will take care of Ishmael, too.”  God had said, “I have heard you.”  Abraham hadn’t even prayed correctly, and God let him know that He had heard him anyway.  We can take assurance from this, that even when we don’t quite get things right, even praying for the wrong thing, God hears us.  He will answer, and do His will, and bless us in the process.

Genesis 19:23-27 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. 24 Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. 25 And Ishmael his son was thirteen years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. 26 That very same day Abraham was circumcised, and his son Ishmael; 27 and all the men of his house, born in the house or bought with money from a foreigner, were circumcised with him.

That very day, after hearing from the Lord, Abraham followed through with God’s instructions.  The first step in a heart that walks blameless before the Lord is to become a heart obedient to God’s Word.  I suppose Abraham could have thought the first order of business would be to visit Sarah’s tent, because that would be the natural first step towards having receiving a a new baby Isaac.  But he was more interested in being fully obedient to what God had told him, no matter what it meant.  After being circumcised, an adult would need as long as six weeks of recovery time, so he didn’t make that choice lightly.  But his single-minded focus was to fulfill God’s request that he walk before the Lord, blameless.  That symbolic act of separating himself from the fleshly life, and making sure that his whole household did as well, would be a reflection of his obedience, and his desire to walk in God’s Spirit.

  • Romans 13:14 But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill its lusts.
  • Galatians 5:16 I say then: Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh.

“Lord, help me to be obedient to Your Word, not because I want to go through the motions of creating an appearance of holiness, but because I want my heart to be blameless before you.  Like Abraham, I want to respond to Your call to me to walk before You, blameless, in obedience.  In Jesus’ name, Amen.”