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The Blue Letter Bible

David Guzik :: Study Guide for Genesis 17

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God Reaffirms the Covenant

A. An appearance from God, a change of name for Abram.

1. (Gen 17:1-2) 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. The Lord appeared to Abram: Undoubtedly, this is another appearance of God in the person of Jesus, who took on a temporary human appearance before His incarnation on earth.

b. I am Almighty God: First, God told Abram who He is. By this name El Shaddai, He 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. Barnhouse: 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: Shaddai comes from the root shadad, which means “to display power.”

v. We do know the Septuagint translates the word with the Greek pantokrator “Almighty,” the “One who has His hand on everything.”

c. Walk before Me and be blameless: Then God told Abram what was expected of him. We can only do what God expects of us when we know who He is and know it in a full, personal, real way.

i. The word blameless literally means “whole.” God wanted all of Abram, wanting a total commitment.

d. I will make My covenant between Me and you: God also reminded Abram He has 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 more than 13 years before. Seemingly, Abram had 13 years of “normal” fellowship with God, waiting for the promise all the time. Surely, at times during those years, Abram felt God forgot.

ii. 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, interspersed with a few spectacular encounters with the Lord.

2. (Gen 17:3-8) 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. No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham: To encourage Abram’s faith in the promise of descendants, 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 is almost preposterous 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 preposterous.

b. As an everlasting possession: To encourage Abraham’s faith in the promise of the land, God repeated the promise again, reminding Abraham it is an everlasting possession given by an everlasting covenant.

3. (Gen 17:9-14) 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. 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 them to take upon themselves a sign of the covenant, showing they received the covenant by faith.

b. 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 practice 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 showing an incredibly 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.

c. 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.

d. 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. The closest Christian parallel we have to circumcision is baptism. Paul relates the two ideas together in Colossians 2:11-12. However, baptism is also a “sign” of the covenant; it does not save us, but is a sign of the covenant that does. Being baptized does not save us, but no Christian should refuse baptism.

B. The promise of a son to both Abraham and Sarah.

1. (Gen 17:15-16) 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. “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: God made it plain that this son will not come about by another surrogate-mother situation (as with Hagar and Ishmael). Sarah herself will give birth, even though it is past her time in life to do so (Sarah was about 90 years old at this time).

2. (Gen 17:17-18) 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 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? He knew both he and Sarah were well past the time people normally have children. Yet, 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. (Gen 17:19-22) 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 will 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 (because Abraham prayed he would), but the covenant and its promises will pass only through the son to come, the son of promise.

4. (Gen 17:23-27) 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), prompt (that very same day), and 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.

©2013 David Guzik – No distribution beyond personal use without permission

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