As always, thank you for joining me, I am your host Randy Duncan, and we are continuing to make our way through the book of Genesis, verse by verse.
In the last episode we completed chapter 16, which saw Sarah offer up her maidservant, Hagar, to Abraham as a surrogate child bearer. We saw how that worked out for everyone involved. It resulted in the birth of Ishmael, with Sarah still not having a child with Abraham. Sarah’s desperate strategy has failed. And we are going to see that 13 years have now passed, and God’s promises still remain unfullfilled.
To attempt, as Sarah did, to independently help God bring about His purposes is what theologians call synergism. But synergism usually leads to disaster or situations like we saw in the last episode. Which brings us now to chapter 17.
V1-4 – When Abram was ninety-nine years old the Lord appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless, 2 that I may make my covenant between me and you, and may multiply you greatly.” 3 Then Abram fell on his face. And God said to him, 4 “Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations.
If you remember, the last chapter closed by telling us Abraham was 86 years old. How old is he now? 99! So we know that 13 years have passed. In fact, in all, 25 years have now passed since the first conversation God had with Abraham back in Haran!
God tells Abraham to “walk before me and be blameless”. That Hebrew word for blameless “tamim” (ta-meem), signifies wholeness of relationship and integrity rather than no sin. It is actually the same word that was used to describe Noah.
“Walk before me”, or “walk in my ways” seems to be a technical Akkadian term for absolute loyalty to a king. But here in the Bible it also takes on an added dimension, To take on allegiance to God means to live your entire life, to orient your life, by the awareness of his presence and in response to his demands.
Old Testament scholar Claus Westermann states that “God orders Abraham (now representing Israel) to live his life before God in such a way, that every single step is made with reference to God and every day experiences Him close at hand”.
I wonder how many of us have wished at some time or the other that we could experience God close at hand? I would say many of us have. If we don’t feel God close at hand, maybe we should ask ourselves if we have lived our life in such a way that every step is made with reference to God, and is our life oriented by the awareness of His presence and in response to His demands? If not, then we shouldn’t be surprised that we don’t feel close to God. I mean, why would we? We wouldn’t even feel close to our spouse if we didn’t put in the time and effort, so why would we think we would feel close to the Creator of the universe without any effort.
It’s sort of like the saying, “Don’t be upset with the results you didn’t get based on the work and effort you didn’t put in”. And applying this to our relationship with God, you shouldn’t be upset if you don’t feel God close at hand when you haven’t made the effort to orient your life by the awareness of His presence.
But the good news is that the Bible teaches us in James 4:8 that if we will draw near to God, He will draw near to us”.
So, what we are going to see here with Abraham is an expansion of God’s covenant promises, but they will now require Abraham to be completely obedient and committed. And rather than being a passive recipient like he has been in the past, God now calls Abraham to be an active partner in the covenant
‘Fell on his face” is an expression of awe and submission in the presence of God, and is a typical act of worship
God also now tells Abraham that he will be the father of many nations. And we continue in verses 5-8
5 No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. 6 I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. 7 And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. 8 And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.”
So in verse 5, we finally reach the point where God changes Abram’s name to Abraham. Now I don’t have to worry about calling him Abraham this whole time for the sake of listeners, because now it is official!
In the ancient world, a name change signified an important event. And we actually still see this today. For example, when a Roman Catholic cardinal is elected Pope, what is the first thing he does? He changes his name. And here, God changes Abram’s name to signify that something major is about to happen.
Abraham’s former name, Abram, meant Exalted Father, and spoke of either his father, Terah, or God, or himself. His new name, Abraham, means father of a multitude”, or, as the text clearly tells us, “father of many nations”.
God also tells Abraham that “kings will come from you”. Now this is no doubt a reference to the Kings of Israel who will be descendents of Abraham, but I also think a reference to THE King, the messianic king, the meshiac nagid, King Jesus, who would come from the line of Abraham.
God promises Abraham that he will make this an “everlasting covenant, with him and his descendents, and He will give them the land as an everlasting possession”
So God is electing Israel to be his special people, but He will demand exclusive allegiance in return. The association of the Jewish people, and God, and their land is intertwined in a very unique way.
You think about this. The Jews are the only intact people and culture and language and religion from the ancient world. There are still a number of ancient people from the ancient world, yes. But none of them speak the same language and practice the same religion as they did in ancient times.
As Abba Eban, who was Israel’s foreign minister in the 1960s and 70s said, “Israel is the only nation whose citizens live on the same land, speak the same language, and practice the same religion as their ancestors did 3,000 years ago”. Now, do you think that is a coincidence? I don’t.
9 And God said to Abraham, “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. 10 This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 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 throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, 13 both he who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money, shall surely be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. 14 Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”
So, here, we see the Law of Circumcision introduced. God’s promises are now going to require an active response from those who will benefit. As Sarna notes, “ Circumcision is both a token of God’s covenant and a symbol of the Jews’ consecration and committment to a life lived in the consciousness of that covenant”.
Now, for someone not familiar with the ancient Near East, they might read these verses and assume that God came up with this new practice called circumcision. However, circumcision was practiced widely in the ancient near east as a rite of puberty or marriage. As Walton has said, “But what God was doing was taking a well-known sociological practice and adapting it for a unique theological function”. In other words, for the Jews, this practice was used as a rite of passage into a covenant relationship, into a covenantal community, not merely as a rite of passage into adulthood or marriage.
In V11, God says that “it shall be a sign between me and you”. So the circumcision is an outward, physical sign, a reminder, of the existence of the covenant, sort of like the sign of the rainbow was a reminder, or a sign, after the flood. Like I mentioned when we were in chapter 6, at the time right after the flood, it wasn’t like there had never been a rainbow before, that light had never been refracted to create a rainbow. It was just that God used the rainbow as a sign going forward. Likewise, although circumcision was already practiced in the ancient near east, God was now using it as a sign, and was infusing it with deeper and more significant meaning.
Oh, and just for the record, when circumcision in the ancient near east was performed in relation to marriage, legal terminology suggests that it was the male in-laws that performed the circumcision, indicating that the new groom was coming under the protection of the family. Guys, how would you like that? To have your father-in-law perform your circumcision?? No thank you. I will take God’s new practice of having it perfomed at 8 days old
Speaking of it being performed on the 8th day, this may simply be a symbol that now the baby has completed the cycle of time corresponding to the course of creation week. I have heard the argument that God directed it to be performed on the 8th day because newborns have a spike in vitamin K and prothrombin on the 8th day, and these are essential in blood clotting. However, I haven’t been able to find enough reliable sources to confirm that hypothesis. Most of what I have researched indicated that both vitamin K and prothrombin are actually very low until the baby is 6 months old, which is why babies are given a shot of vitamin K prior to the circumcision
One final note regarding circumcision, it says ‘Every male among you shall be circumcised”. Notice that God said every “male” shall be circumcised. It is limited to males, which excludes the barbaric practice of female circumcision that is seen in many parts of the world.
V14 says that any male who fails to be circumcised “shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.” The Hebrew word used here for “to be cut-off” is karat (kaw-rath). The idea of being “cut-off” here means to be excluded from the covenental community and God’s blessings, and it also carries the thought of dooming oneself to premature death.
What is interesting is that this is the same word used by the angel Gabriel when he is providing the prophet Daniel with a prophecy in Daniel 9:26, where he says of the coming Messiah, “And after sixty- two weeks shall Messiah be karat (kaw-rath), cut off,” Meaning, the Messiah would be killed.
Now, we are going to shift gears for a few verses. I am just going to read verses 15-21 because I don’t want to interrupt the flow of these verses. So I’m going to read them, then we will go back and see what we can pull out.
So starting in verse 15…15 And God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai (sair-eye), but Sarah shall be her name. 16 I will bless her, and moreover, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall become nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.” 17 Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed and said to himself, “Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” 18 And Abraham said to God, “Oh that Ishmael might live before you!” 19 God said, “No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him. 20 As for Ishmael, I have heard you; behold, I have blessed him and will make him fruitful and multiply him greatly. He shall father twelve princes, and I will make him into a great nation. 21 But I will establish my covenant with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this time next year.”
So, a lot happening here in these verses. For starters, not only has God changed Abram’s name to Abraham, now he also changes Sarai’s name to Sarah. This is significant, and Sarah’s importance in the history of salvation is demonstrated by the fact that she is the only woman in the Bible whose name is changed, and whose age at death is recorded.
Also significant here is that finally, God actually names Sarah as the mother of Abraham’s child he has promised him.
How does Abraham respond to this news? He falls down laughing! It says that Abraham fell down on his face and laughed. And he said to himself, “Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” Abraham’s laughter here underscores the natural impossibility of what God was promising.
Notice Abraham didn’t say that out loud to God. The Bible says that Abraham said that to himself. Like God couldn’t hear him. Like God didn’t know his thoughts.
What Abraham actually says out loud is “Oh that Ishmael might live before you!” What Abraham is saying here is “Oh that Ishmael might live by your favor”. Abraham heard exactly what God said. And he is probably concerned that the words of God seem to completely exclude Ishmael. Remember, Ishmael is Abraham’s son too, and he has been raising him for the last 13 years. I’m sure Abraham loved him very much. And this may even be very difficult news for Abraham to hear.
And so how does God respond to Abraham’s concern for Ishmael? First of all, God says, No! but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him. So God tells Abraham, No! He is honest wth him. Straightforward. Just tells Abraham, “Here is how it’s going to be”.
But then, He reassures him. God reassures Abraham concerning Ishmael, by saying “As for Ishmael, I have heard you; behold, I have blessed him and will make him fruitful and multiply him greatly. He shall father twelve princes, and I will make him into a great nation.
And after reassuring Abraham, God goes right back to Isaac, saying” But I will establish my covenant with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this time next year.” Not only that, but finally, God reveals to Abraham when Sarah would give birth to Isaac.This time next year.
God also tells Abraham that he would name his son Isaac. The name Isaac, actually pronounced (yitzak) in Hebrew, means “laughter” or, “he laughs”. Almost like God has a sense of humor. Upon hearing the news, what did Abraham do? He laughed. God knew that, and now tells him to name the child Yitzak, which means laughter. We will see in the next episode that Sarah has the exact same response upon hearing the news, laughter. And so both parents’ responses to God’s news is laughter, so, well, here is what you’re going to name your child. Isaac….Laughter
Now, to finish out the verses in this chapter, verses 22-27 read… 22 When he had finished talking with him, God went up from Abraham. 23 Then Abraham took Ishmael his son and all those born in his house or bought with his money, every male among the men of Abraham’s house, and he circumcised the flesh of their foreskins that very 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 day Abraham and his son Ishmael were circumcised. 27 And all the men of his house, those born in the house and those bought with money from a foreigner, were circumcised with him.
The takeaway from these verses are that Abraham did as God instructed, he had all the males in his household circumcised. And when did he do it? Without delay. That very day!! He didn’t wait. He didn’t procrastinate. He didn’t try to sell it. He did what God instructed on that very day!
So circumcision was an important symbol in God’s covenant with Abraham. But what is the real takeaway here? The main point is this…cirumcision of the flesh was of no spiritual value unless there was also a circumcision of the heart. That is the reality that it symbolized. Throughout salvation history, God makes it perfectly clear that it is a circumcised heart that satisfies the covenant relationship.
Today, God doesn’t define people by their physical descent from Abraham, but by their position and relationship to Jesus Christ. Circumcision was the old outward sign of initiation into a covenant community, but it has been replaced by a new outward sign, baptism, which is simply an outward expression of the fact that, as Col 2:11 tells us, one’s heart has been circumcised, not a circumcision done by the hands of men, but with the circumcision done by Christ.
But I want to end this episode focusing for a minute on Isaac. Isaac represents God’s triumph over nature, over barrenness, over Sarah’s natural inability to have a child. God’s chosen people did not come by natural generation, but by an act of supernatural power and grace at the ordained time.
Again, if you think of Sarah’s womb as dead, both based on her inability to have a child, as well as being 90 years old, Isaac also symbolically represents life from non-life, or life from death. From an environment of death and hopelessness, God supernaturally creates life.
You know, there was another significant time, about 2000 years after Abraham, when, in an environment of despair, hopelessness, brokenness, and sorrow, that God would once again step in, and ressurect life from the dead. 2000 years ago, Jesus was resurrected, proving that he was exactly who he claimed to be.
Can you imagine for a moment how the family of Jesus felt after his crucifixion? Can you possibly imagine how his mother, Mary felt, watching them do that to her innocent son? This was the Messiah after all! Can you imagine what it was like for the disciples? Their whole world shattered. Everything they thought they knew and believed, all they had given up and left their homes for, all gone. All ended with the crucifixion of Jesus. They were all in hiding, scared that they would be next, confused, hurting, and looking for answers.
I heard a song during church service this morning, and one of the lines said “When all I see is the cross, God you see the empty tomb”. Although you and I don’t know exactly what lies ahead in our lives, God does. God knows the end from the beginning, and so we should learn to trust in Him.Proverbs 3:5-6 tells us Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding;6 in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight
When I look at Abraham and Sarah, they didn’t have the benefit of experiencing Jesus, or the benefit of the resurrection. All they had to go on was God’s word, which was still new to them. But they would slowly start to realize that even in the face of the impossible, God would keep his word. Even when it looked like all hope was lost, just as it did to the disciples, God would find a way.
And for you, even when you think all hope is lost with whatever you are going through, whatever you are facing, whatever battles you are fighting, turn to God, seek him first, accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior, and in all sincerity, ask God for a sign, and He will make a way to reach you.