The Sign of the Covenant

Davis comments that we are on ‘strange ground’ here.  In the ancient world, gods did not make covenants with humans.  Only in Israel.  Only Israel’s God is willing to commit to perpetual relationship with his people.

Clearly, the idea of ‘covenant’ is central to this chapter: the word occurs 13 times.  Noteworthy too is that fact that the chapter consists mainly of the Lord’s speeches (vv1-8, 9-14, 15-22).  Abraham’s response comes in vv23-27.

Kidner remarks that chapters 15 and 17 mark two stages in covenant-making.  In chapter 15, nothing was required of Abraham except faith.  In the present chapter, that faith must express itself in an outward act of commitment – circumcision.  ‘Together then the two chapters set out the personal and the corporate participation; the inward faith and the outward seal (cf. Rom. 4:9, 11); imputed righteousness and expressed devotion (Gen 15:6; 17:1).’

A number of features mark this chapter out as an important turning point in the narrative: (a) the change of names for Abram and Sarai; (b) the precise time markers (Gen 16:16; 17:1, 17, 24); (c) the lengthy divine speeches (which become less frequent later in Genesis); (d) the fact that this chapter does not simply repeat the terms of God’s covenant with Abraham, but shows how it is ratified by the rite of circumcision.

Note that the covenant contains promises (“As for me…”, vv4-8) and stipulations (“As for you…”, vv9-14).

Duguid comments that Abraham had, up until this point, failed in a number of ways.  Not least of these was the fact that, ‘tired of waiting for God to fulfill his promise, Abram gave in to his wife’s nagging and had a child by her maid, Hagar.’  Now, thirteen years later, he must have been wondering, whether God still have a future for him.  This chapter replies with a resounding ‘Yes!’  The promises made in chapter 12 and chapter 15 are not only repeated, but enlarged.

17:1 When Abram was 99 years old, the LORD appeared to him and said, “I am the sovereign God. Walk before me and be blameless. 17:2 Then I will confirm my covenant between me and you, and I will give you a multitude of descendants.”

Abram was 99 years old – making it 13 years since the birth of Ishmael.  Still there is not sign of a child for Sarah, and she must have given up all hope (Gen 18:11).  Abraham, accordingly, has concluded that Ishmael must be the promised son (v18).  Yet, as the following chapter will make clear, the birth of Isaac was just one year away.

God is never in a hurry

Davis makes the point that in the 13-year gap between the end of chapter 16 and the beginning of chapter 17 nothing worthy of note seems to have happened.  Then, when in the present chapter, God makes lavish promises to Abraham, their fulfilment is still future, and so unlikely that Abraham feels the need to come up with his own ‘Plan B’ (i.e. ask the Lord to treat Ishmael as the son of promise).

This lack of hurry often perplexes us as it must have perplexed Abraham.  Davis concludes that during that 13-year wait covenant life went on without much drama:-

‘Most of the time was spent over things like getting goat’s milk for morning cereal, doing veterinary work, brushing teeth, getting over the flu, settling disputes over water rights. Great swatches of covenant life are like that. It consists of grocery stores and oil changes, of taking inventory and standing at copy machines, of getting allergy shots and going for music lessons and pulling casseroles out of the oven. Which springs the question: Can you stand the ordinariness of the Christian life?’

Davis, Dale Ralph. Faith of our Father: Expositions of Genesis 12-25. Christian Focus Publications.

The Lord appeared to him – This is the only occurence of ‘the Lord’ in this chapter.  Elsewhere it is ‘God’ or ‘El Shaddai’.

“I am God Almighty” – Lit. ‘El Shaddai’.  The principle name of the Lord before the time of Moses (cf. Ex 6:2f).  In fact, the name is so ancient that traslators, old and new, are uncertain of its meaning.

‘Although its etymology is obscure, the epithet conveys in context the majesty and power of the divine person (e.g., Exod 6:3; Num 24:4, 16; Job 11:7). Shaddai is associated in Genesis with the divine promise of children and nations (Gen 28:3; 35:11; 43:14; 48:3; 49:25; cp. Ruth 1:20; Ps 22:10).’ (NAC)

Wenham agrees that the title ‘is always used in connection with promises of descendants: Shaddai evokes the idea that God is able to make the barren fertile and to fulfill his promises.’

‘His own name for himself is El Shaddai, “God Almighty,” and all his actions illustrate the omnipotence which this name proclaims. He promises Abraham and his wife a son in their nineties, and he rebukes Sarah for her incredulous-and, as it proved, unjustified-laughter: “Is anything too hard for the LORD?” (Gen 18:14). And it is not only at isolated moments that God takes control of events, either; all history is under his sway. Proof of this is given by his detailed predictions of the tremendous destiny which he purposed to work out for Abraham’s seed (Gen 12:1-3; 13:14-17; 15:13-21; and so on).’ (Packer, Knowing God)

“Walk before me” – Such that ‘that every single step is made with reference to God and every day experiences him close at hand.’ (Westermann)

To be blameless is not to be sinless, but to conduct oneself with integrity.

“My covenant” – Referred to as such nine times in the narrative.  This is by no means a contract between two equals: the initiative is entirely on God’s side.

A covenant relationship

‘What does it mean when we say that our relationship with God is based on a covenant? In the first place, it means that we cannot set the terms of our relationship with God. The terms of the covenant are not negotiable.

‘Imagine the weaker king in an ancient covenant saying to the great king, “Fine. Let’s do a deal here, but I want to be in charge in this relationship. I want to say what you can do and what you can be like—and don’t come making demands of me.” It’s absurd, isn’t it? He would have found his head on a pole and his limbs distributed to the four corners of the empire before you could say “Assyria rules, okay!” Yet many people think that they can strike their own private bargains with God. They say, “I like to think of God as …”—as if they can decide what God will be like. They want to pick and choose what they will believe and what they will do—and they certainly don’t want a God who makes too many demands on them. “My God isn’t like that,” they will tell you. In other words, they don’t want a God who is God.’

‘The real question, however, is not what you would like God to be like, but what he is really like. And he has revealed himself as the God who has made a covenant with his people. When the great king comes and offers to establish a covenant with you, you really have only two choices: you can accept the covenant relationship on his terms and receive its benefits, or you can refuse it and face the consequences.

‘Many people approach religion as if they were interviewing God for a job, the position of “personal deity in my life.” “I want to find a philosophy that works for me,” they say. But if God is really who he claims to be, Almighty God, then that is what he is, whether the idea “works for you” or not. You can interview idols and ideologies, but the God who created the universe offers you only two choices: surrender on his terms or face the consequences.’ (Duguid)

17:3 Abram bowed down with his face to the ground, and God said to him, 17:4 “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of a multitude of nations. 17:5 No longer will your name be Abram. Instead, your name will be Abraham because I will make you the father of a multitude of nations. 17:6 I will make you extremely fruitful. I will make nations of you, and kings will descend from you. 17:7 I will confirm my covenant as a perpetual covenant between me and you. It will extend to your descendants after you throughout their generations. I will be your God and the God of your descendants after you. 17:8 I will give the whole land of Canaan—the land where you are now residing—to you and your descendants after you as a permanent possession. I will be their God.”

“As for me…” – God sets out the promises of the covenant.  Cf. vv9-14 (“As for you…”), which set out the stipulations.

“Your name will be Abraham” – ‘in traditional societies, and particularly in the OT, names were much more important than they are today. If for us personal names are little more than labels, in the OT they express a person’s character and destiny, at least as the parents perceive them (cf. Gen 4:1, 25; 5:29; 16:15); usually children are named at birth by their parents. Here, however, and later with Sarah (v 15) and Jacob (Gen 32:28), we have God himself dictating a name change in midlife. This makes the name Abraham more than a pious parental hope that the child may or may not fulfill but a divinely guaranteed statement about Abraham’s identity and future destiny. His very name guarantees that he will father many nations.’ (Wenham)

Noting that Sarai was also given a new name, Duguid comments: ‘From then on, every time their names were spoken, Abraham and Sarah would be reminded that they were not their own, but belonged to God.’

Wiersbe comments on the significance of names in the Bible: ‘Names might record something significant about one’s birth (Gen. 29:31–30:24) or about some life-changing experience. Jacob was renamed Israel after a night of wrestling with God (32:24–32), and Simon received the name Peter (rock) when he met Jesus Christ (John 1:40–42). The names assigned to unborn babies even carried messages (Gen. 16:11; Matt. 1:18–25).’

‘“Abram” means “exalted father”; “Abraham” means “father of a multitude.” When Abraham informed the people in his camp that he had a new name, some of them must have smiled and said, “Father of a multitude! Why, he and his wife are too old to have children!”’ (Wiersbe)

“I will make you extremely fruitful” – ‘“Fruitful” (pārâ) is the common metaphor for physical descendants, here echoing the creation ordinance (Gen 1:22, 28) and the Noahic covenant (Gen 8:17; 9:1, 7); the imagery of fecundity depicts future multitudes, constituting new nations (e.g., Gen 17:20; 28:3; 35:11; 41:52; 48:4; Lev 26:9; Ps 105:24). The beginning fulfillment of the blessing is the population explosion experienced by the Hebrews in Egypt, precipitating their oppression and expulsion (Gen 47:27; Exod 1:7).’ (Matthews)

‘“be fruitful and multiply” was the first command given to man (Gen 1:28) and was repeated to Noah (Gen 8:17; 9:1, 7). Here a similar remark is made to Abraham, who, like Adam and Noah, stands at the beginning of an epoch in human history. God’s original purpose for mankind, thwarted by the fall and faltering again in the post-Noah period, is eventually to be achieved by Abraham’s descendants.’ (Wenham)

“I will make you the father of a multitude of nations” – not merely ‘a great nation’ (Gen 12:2).

“Kings will descend from you” – ‘Reference to “kings” among Abraham’s descendants indicates that autonomous nations will result (Gen 17:16; 35:11); Abraham, though not a king himself, is the ancestor of multiple royal houses. Genesis shows the progressive realization of this promise by including genealogical lists of Ishmael’s tribal rulers (Gen 17:16; 25:12–17) and Edom’s kings (Gen 36:9–43); allusion to future rulers in Jacob’s household is the blessing of Judah’s “scepter” (Gen 49:10; cf. 36:31).’ (Matthews)

‘Kingship was implicit in the promise of great nationhood (Gen 12:2), a passage rich in royal ideology. However, here it is made explicit for the first time. Throughout the Pentateuch, it is anticipated that Israel will one day have a king, but rarely is it mentioned (Gen 17:16; 35:11; 49:10; Num 24:17; Deut 17:14–20; 28:36).’ (Wenham)

“An everlasting covenant…to be your God”– ‘All Christians inherit this promise through faith in Christ, as Paul argues in Galatians 3:15–29. What does it mean? It is in truth a pantechnicon promise: it contains everything. “This is the first and fundamental promise,” declared Sibbes, the Puritan; “indeed, it is the life and soul of all the promises” (Works VI, 8). Brooks, another Puritan, opens it up as follows:

That is as if he said, You shall have as true an interest in all my attributes for your good, as they are mine for my own glory. . . . My grace, saith God, shall be yours to pardon you, and my power shall be yours to protect you, and my wisdom shall be yours to direct you, and my goodness shall be yours to relieve you, and my mercy shall be yours to supply you, and my glory shall be yours to crown you. This is a comprehensive promise, for God to be our God: it includes all. Deus meus et omnia [God is mine, and everything is mine], said Luther. (Works Y, 308)’ (Packer, Knowing God)

We may wonder (writes Matthews) how this covenant could be ‘perpetual’, if circumcision ceased to be a requirement for the followers of Christ, Abraham’s ‘seed’.  But circumcision was the sign, and not the essence, of the covenant.  (The reverse is also true: others, such as Ishmael, were circumcised, even though excluded from the covenant).  Spiritual circumcision remains as the test and sign of regeneration (Deut 10:16; 30:6; Jer 4:4; Col 2:11).

‘The continuance of the covenant, intimated in three things:

  1. It is established; not to be altered nor revoked. It is fixed, it is ratified, it is made as firm as the divine power and truth can make it.
  2. It is entailed; it is a covenant, not with Abraham only (then it would die with him), but with his seed after him, not only his seed after the flesh, but his spiritual seed.
  3. It is everlasting in the evangelical sense and meaning of it. The covenant of grace is everlasting. It is from everlasting in the counsels of it, and to everlasting in the consequences of it; and the external administration of it is transmitted with the seal of it to the seed of believers, and the internal administration of it by the Spirit of Christ’s seed in every age.’ (MHC)

“I will be your God and the God of your descendants after you” – This defines the essence of the covenant, and, for the first time, Abraham’s descendants are included in the promise.

‘The essential heart of the covenant is defined: “I shall be their God.” I, El Shaddai the omnipotent creator of the world and redeemer of mankind, will be Israel’s God. This nation descended from Abraham is to be unique, because unlike the other nations, Israel enjoys a unique relationship with the only true God.’

“I will be your God”

‘All the privileges of the covenant, all its joys and all its hopes, are summed up in this. A man needs desire no more than this to make him happy. What God is himself, that he will be to his people: his wisdom theirs, to guide and counsel them; his power theirs, to protect and support them; his goodness theirs, to supply and comfort them.’ (MHC)

What did God say to Abraham? ‘I will be your God.’ What does that mean? It means that God is saying to Abraham, ‘I will be for you. I will exist for you. I will exercise my God-ness for you. I will be committed to you.’ There is no way that can be improved upon! There is no more glorious promise: not in Romans, not in Hebrews, not in Revelation, not in the Gospel of John, not in the Upper Room: nowhere! These words of the Abrahamic covenant have never been excelled and never will (A Faith to Live By, 251).

‘When Yahweh says, ‘I will be God to you,’ he is pledging to be all that God should and could and would be to his servant; all that God should be and would be he will be to his people. Once God says this to you, he establishes ‘a caring, protecting relationship which is as permanent as the living God who makes it’ (R. T. France, Matthew, 318). This is a relation that no time can exhaust, no circumstance can change, no disaster destroy, no catastrophe can crush, that no human abandonment can alter. When Yahweh says, ‘I will be God to you,’ you have the world!’ (Davis)

He offers himself

‘He offers himself, and you can’t have a relationship with him without it changing your life. It makes sense when you think about it. After all, you wouldn’t expect to get married without it modifying your life at all. Imagine someone saying to you, “Oh yes, I’m married, but I don’t let it affect my life. I do what I want with my money and my time. No, I don’t spend time with my wife. Yes, I talk to her occasionally, but only when I really need something from her.” You would think that was a pretty strange way to behave—yet people think that they can behave that way with God. They want God to be their God at least so that when they die, he will take them to be with him in heaven, but they don’t show the least desire to be with him or his people now! They don’t want a relationship with God that changes their lives. But that is the only kind of relationship God offers. God will be your God and come into your life and change it completely—or he will not be your God at all, with all the consequences that has.’ (Duguid)

“I will give the whole land of Canaan…as a permanent possession” – This is the first time such a precise definition of the land has been given (cf. Gen 12:5).

‘The promise of the land as an everlasting possession was deep in the consciousness of Jewish people. However, as later stipulated in the law, their occupation of the land was conditional on their obedience to God’s laws (e.g., Lev. 26:27–39). Whenever Israel stubbornly persisted in disobeying God’s laws, God would expel it from the land as the severest punishment. Nevertheless, should his people become scattered far from the promised land, God promised to restore them to the land upon their repentance (e.g., Lev. 26:40–45). During the exile, this promise of the land as an eternal possession, combined with the possibility for restoration expressed in the law and prophets, kept alive the people’s hope of returning to Canaan.’ (Hartley)

‘The church expanded the land grant to include the whole earth (Rom 4:3; Matt 5:5 with Ps 37:9) and interpreted it as the inheritance of eternal life (Heb 11:8; 1 Pet 1:4).’ (Matthews)

The land as a 'permanent possession'
The belief that this promise to Israel is of literal application to this very day is well represented by Wiersbe:-

‘God’s everlasting covenant also included an everlasting possession: the land of Canaan. This land is a battleground today and always will be until the Lord returns to reign. But as far as God’s covenant is concerned, the land belongs to Israel.

‘The Jews’ ownership of the land depends solely on God’s gracious covenant with Abraham: God gave them the land. But their possession and enjoyment of the land depends on their faithfulness to obey the Lord. This was the theme of Moses’ messages in Deuteronomy. More than sixty times in that book, Moses told the people they would inherit or possess the land; and at least twenty-five times, Moses reminded them that the land was a gift from the Lord. God’s name was there (Deut. 12:5, 11, 21), and He would watch over the land to bless it, if His people walked in His ways.

‘The only piece of ground all the patriarchs possessed was the cave Abraham purchased from Ephron, the son of Zohar, to become a family burial place (Gen. 23; 49:29–31). Jacob and his family had to leave the land and go to Egypt (Gen. 46), but God had promised that they would return to Canaan at the appointed time (15:13–17).

‘Joshua led them into their land where they conquered the inhabitants and claimed their inheritance. But the people did not stay true to the covenant, so God had to discipline them in the land (Jud. 2:10–23). He raised up enemy nations to defeat Israel and put her in bondage. Israel was in the land, but she did not control it or enjoy it (Deut. 28:15ff).

‘During the reigns of David and Solomon, the people enjoyed their inheritance and served the Lord faithfully. But after the kingdom divided, Israel and Judah both decayed spiritually (except for occasional interludes of revival) and ended up in bondage: Assyria defeated Israel, and Babylon conquered Judah. It was then that God disciplined His people outside their land. It was as though He were saying, “You have polluted My land with your idols, so I will put you in a land that is addicted to idols. Get your fill of it! After you have been away from your land for seventy years, maybe you will learn to appreciate what I gave you.”

‘God permitted a remnant to return to the land, rebuild the city and the temple, and restore the nation; but it never became a great power again. However, whether Israel is faithful or faithless, the land belongs to her; and one day she will inherit it and enjoy it to the glory of God. Israel’s title deed to the land is a vital part of God’s everlasting covenant with Abraham.’

The heavenly Canaan

‘Where it is promised for an everlasting possession, surely it must be looked upon as a type of heaven’s happiness, that everlasting rest which remains for the people of God, Heb. 4:9. This is that better country to which Abraham had an eye, and the grant of which was that which answered to the vast extent and compass of that promise, that God would be to them a God; so that, if God had not prepared and designed this, he would have been ashamed to be called their God, Heb. 11:16. As the land of Canaan was secured to the seed of Abraham according to the flesh, so heaven is secured to all his spiritual seed, by a covenant, and for a possession, truly everlasting. The offer of this eternal life is made in the word, and confirmed by the sacraments, to all that are under the external administration of the covenant; and the earnest of it is given to all believers, Eph. 1:14. Canaan is here said to be the land wherein Abraham was a stranger; and the heavenly Canaan is a land to which we are strangers, for it does not yet appear what we shall be.’ (MHC)

17:9 Then God said to Abraham, “As for you, you must keep the covenantal requirement I am imposing on you and your descendants after you throughout their generations. 17:10 This is my requirement that you and your descendants after you must keep: Every male among you must be circumcised. 17:11 You must circumcise the flesh of your foreskins. This will be a reminder of the covenant between me and you. 17:12 Throughout your generations every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, whether born in your house or bought with money from any foreigner who is not one of your descendants. 17:13 They must indeed be circumcised, whether born in your house or bought with money. The sign of my covenant will be visible in your flesh as a permanent reminder. 17:14 Any uncircumcised male who has not been circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin will be cut off from his people—he has failed to carry out my requirement.”

“As for you” – These words begin the stipulations of the covenant.

However, as Kidner remarks, ‘the striking feature of the stipulations is their lack of detail. To be committed was all. Circumcision was God’s brand; the moral implications could be left unwritten (until Sinai), for one was pledged to a Master, only secondarily to a way of life.’

Human response essential

‘If we go back…to the Abrahamic covenant in Genesis 17, we find a clear emphasis on the part played by Abraham’s faith. There is no covenant without this human response. In the Christian covenant, faith remains indispensable. John 3:16, for example, tells us that ‘God so loved the world’. That is God’s sovereign initiative. And yet God’s salvation reaches only those who believe: ‘whoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.’ There are forms of gospel proclamation which convey the impression that we simply announce God’s unilateral, one-sided accomplishment of salvation. We are told merely to inform men that their sins are forgiven and that they are already sons of God. There is no emphasis at all on the human response. In the Bible, by contrast, there is a firm emphasis on ‘whoever believes’. The indicatives are always followed by imperatives: ‘The kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel’ (Mark 1:15). That essential characteristic remains even in the redemptive covenant between God and man. The human response is an indispensable element in our experience of salvation.’ (Macleod, A Faith To Live By)

“Every male among you must be circumcised” – Although circumcision was a common practice in the ancient Near East, here it is invested with special meaning.  Among modern Arabs, it marks the transition to manhood; but here, it is a sign of the covenant.

‘That only males bore the sign of the covenant on their bodies should not be interpreted as evidence that God considered female members of the covenant to be inferior. Rather, it is to be understood in light of the orientation of the OT to social units instead of to individuals. Circumcision signified that an entire family was in covenant with God.’ (Hartley)

“Eight days old” – ‘Waiting until the eighth day to perform this ritual may reflect the high infant mortality rate and the desire to determine if the child was viable.’ (IVP Bible Background Commentary)

Circumcision, although a relatively minor procedure, involved some bloodshed and pain, as the foreskin is cut off with a flint stone (Exod 4:25; Josh 5:2).

‘The fact that blood is shed also signifies that this is a sacrificial ritual and may function as a substitution for human sacrifice, which was practiced by other people.’ (IVP Bible Background Commentary)

‘To be committed was all. Circumcision was God’s brand.’ (Kidner)

One important feature of circumcision is its permanence.

Davis: ‘Alec Motyer said that whenever Abraham would look upon that sign in his body, he would say, ‘I am the man to whom God has made promises.’.  Davis adds that circumcision not only marks out a man by God, but also marks him out as for God.  In this dual significance it is rather like a husband’s wedding ring: it says not only, “I am the man to whom promises have been made;” but also, “I am marked out as committed to another.”

‘[Circumcision] was performed on the organ of procreation because the covenant pertained to descendants set apart to God.’ (Waltke and Fredricks)

‘It was the extension of this rite to infants that characterized as different the role of circumcision in Israel. If infants are to be circumcised, the essence of circumcision must be what the Lord is saying to them, for they can say nothing to him.’ (Baldwin)

‘This was no “Sunday only” kind of religion, which occupies an hour of your week and leaves the rest of your life up to you. This was a faith that penetrated even to the most personal areas of Abraham’s life in a most painful way. What about you? Does your faith govern every area of your life, even the most personal and intimate? Does your relationship with God govern your sexuality? Does it govern your truthfulness at work and at home? Does it control the things with which you fill your mind, the ambitions and desires of your heart? If you are in a covenant relationship with God, then no area of your life can be unaffected. As Paul puts it, “We take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5).’ (Duguid)

Two covenantal signs

‘Circumcision, as the rainbow, might have been in existence before it was adopted as the token of a covenant. The sign of the covenant with Noah was a purely natural phenomenon, and therefore entirely independent of man. That of the Abrahamic covenant was an artificial process, and therefore, though prescribed by God, was dependent on the voluntary agency of man. The former marked the sovereignty of God in ratifying the covenant and insuring its fulfilment, notwithstanding the mutability of man; the latter indicates the responsibility of man, the trust he places in the word of promise, and the assent he gives to the terms of the divine mercy.’ (Barnes)

The mark, not the means, of salvation

‘Romans 4:9–12 makes it clear that the physical operation had nothing to do with Abraham’s eternal salvation. Abraham had believed God and received God’s righteousness before he ever was circumcised (Gen. 15:6). Circumcision was not the means of his salvation but the mark of his separation as a man in covenant relationship with God.’ (Wiersbe)

What does this mean for us today?

‘The seal of our salvation is not an external rite but the presence of an internal witness in the person of the Holy Spirit of God (Eph. 1:13; 4:30; Rom. 8:9, 16). We have experienced a “spiritual circumcision” (Col. 2:9–12) that makes us part of the “true circumcision” (Phil. 3:1–3). When we trusted Christ to save us, the Spirit of God performed “spiritual surgery” that enables us to have victory over the desires of the old nature and the old life. Circumcision removes only a part of the body, but the true “spiritual circumcision” puts off “the body of the sins of the flesh” (Col. 2:11) and deals radically with the sin nature.’ (Wiersbe)

Parental hope and parental responsibility

‘It is worthy of remark that in circumcision, after Abraham himself, the parent is the voluntary imponent, and the child merely the passive recipient of the sign of the covenant. Hereby is taught the lesson of parental responsibility and parental hope. This is the first formal step in a godly education, in which the parent acknowledges his obligation to perform all the rest. It is also, on the command of God, the formal admission of the believing parents’ offspring into the privileges of the covenant, and therefore cheers the heart of the parent in entering upon the parental task. This admission cannot be reversed but by the deliberate rebellion of the child.’ (Barnes)

Chosen

As Duguid observes, many people today want their children to be free to choose their own religion (or non-religion).  ‘But the message of the Bible is that we are not free to choose our own gods in the way we choose our favorite brand of laundry soap. It is not simply a matter of “finding the religion that works for you”; it is a matter of surrendering to the covenant-keeping God or facing the consequences. When God chose Abraham, he didn’t choose just him; he chose his children as well. God is not only the God of Abraham, but also the God of Isaac and Jacob. That is why Abraham was to circumcise his children: they needed to know that they were not free to choose their own gods. They were to receive the sign of the covenant to show them that they were part of the covenant people. They belonged to the one true God, and they were to submit to him.’

Eight days old – In contrast to the custom of surrounding nations, where the practice was to circumcise at puberty or prior to marriage.  These Israelite males are to be made holy not simply for marriage, but for the whole of life.

“Bought with money from any foreigner” – There is provision for foreigners to be circumcised, and thus included within the terms of the covenant, providing they are members of the community.

‘Thus there was to be no distinction between bond and free as being full-fledged members of the covenant.’ (Hartley)

‘The children of the strangers, of whom the master of the family was the true domestic owner, were to be circumcised (v. 12, 13), which looked favourable upon the Gentiles, who should in due time be brought into the family of Abraham, by faith. See Gal. 3:14.’ (MHC)

“Cut off from his people” – Note the word play: anyone who is not ‘cut’ will be ‘cut off’.

According the Hartley, ‘the precise meaning of being “cut off” has not been established. Possibly it meant that a person lost privilege to the benefits of the covenant. After Israel’s cult became operational, this penalty most likely excluded a person from worshiping at the central shrine.’

Matthews agrees that the expression, although also used of execution (Exod 21:14; Lev 20:3, 5; 1 Sam 28:9) or death in war, (Judg 21:5–6) here refers to the spiritual death of excommunication (as in Exod 12:15, 19; Lev 7:20–21, 27; Num 15:30; 19:13, 20).

Circumcision
Circumcision was (and is) practiced in many parts of the world.  Many of Israel’s neighbours, including the Egyptians, Canaanites and Arabs, practiced circumcision.  The Philistines did not, and were referred to disparagingly as ‘the uncircumcised’ (Judges 14:3).  It would seem that it was also not practiced in Mesopotamia, since Abraham had not previously been circumcised.

Stated reasons for circumcision included (a) prevention of infection; (b) purification; and (c) improving fertility.  To these, modern practitioners have added: (d) marking a man’s transition to manhood; (e) preparation for marriage; and (f) an offering to deity.  Wenham comments: ‘Functionally, it often incorporates a man into society and is a major rite of passage, usually at puberty.’

For the Israelites, circumcision marks a man out as a member of the covenant community (Gen 17:11).  Wenham argues that the primary function of this mark of the most private part of a man’s anatomy – coupled with the required to walk blamelessly before God (Gen 17:2) –  served as a permanent reminder to the man of God’s covenant and his obligations toward his God.

Circumcision and baptism
‘Today God defines his people not by their physical descent from Abraham but by their relationship with Jesus Christ, the only descendant of Abraham who kept God’s covenant without transgression. Moreover, God administers them by a new covenant. In this new covenant he grants his people his Holy Spirit and writes the law on their hearts, guaranteeing their circumcision (Jer. 31:31–34; esp. 33; Rom. 2:28–29; 2 Cor. 3:2–6; Gal. 6:15). Circumcision, the old sign of initiation into the covenant community, is replaced by a new sign, baptism. This rite symbolizes that the saint is “circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ” (Col. 2:11). It also symbolizes that they live not naturally but supernaturally by faith, “having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through [their] faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead” (Col. 2:12). Baptism is the symbol of inclusion in Christ’s church, the new expression of God’s covenant people, and the symbol of the cleansing of sin (Rom. 6:1–14; 11:16; 1 Cor. 7:14; Col. 2:11–12; 1 Peter 3:20).’ (Walke and Fredricks)
17:15 Then God said to Abraham, “As for your wife, you must no longer call her Sarai; Sarah will be her name. 17:16 I will bless her and will give you a son through her. I will bless her and she will become a mother of nations. Kings of countries will come from her!”

“I will bless her” – ‘Remarkably, the Lord announces blessing directly upon the woman, usually reserved in Genesis for the male progenitors (including Ishmael, v. 20; 12:2; 22:17; 26:24; cp. Luke 1:42).’ (Matthews)

Don’t forget Sarah

‘We must not minimize the place of Sarah in God’s great plan of salvation. Like her husband (and all of us), she had her faults; but also like her husband, she trusted God and accomplished His purposes (Heb. 11:11) [Sic – this text refers to Abraham more than to Sarah]. She is not only the mother of the Jewish nation (Isa. 51:2) but also a good example for Christian wives to follow (1 Peter 3:1–6).’ (Wiersbe)

17:17 Then Abraham bowed down with his face to the ground and laughed as he said to himself, “Can a son be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?” 17:18 Abraham said to God, “O that Ishmael might live before you!”

Abraham…laughed – in incredulity.  To him, it was ‘too good to be true’.

The womb – a holy place

Motherhood should be highly esteemed, and the birth of a baby welcomed with joy. While God does not call all women to marry, or all married women to bear children, He does have a special concern for both mothers and children (Pss. 113:9; 127:3–5; Matt. 19:14). In a selfish society, too many people see motherhood as a barrier and children as a burden. In fact, some people consider children such a burden that they destroy them before they have an opportunity to become a blessing.

The womb of the mother is a holy of holies where God is at work (Ps. 139:13–18). How tragic that we turn that womb into a tomb, that holy of holies into a holocaust.

(Wiersbe)

“O that Ishmael might live before you!” – Abraham, in his incredulity, pleads that Ishmael might be the chosen son.

‘For the last thirteen years Abraham has lived in the belief that Ishmael, the son of his old age, is the promised son and that God’s covenant will be carried out through him. All of his love, all of his hopes, and all of his dreams have been poured into this boy.’ (Walton.

Gen 21:11 testifies to Abraham’s love for Ishmael.

‘That is, Ishmael should become the official heir of this covenant. Abraham spoke as though he wanted to protect God from the embarrassment of failing to keep his word.’ (Hartley)

17:19 God said, “No, Sarah your wife is going to bear you a son, and you will name him Isaac. I will confirm my covenant with him as a perpetual covenant for his descendants after him. 17:20 As for Ishmael, I have heard you. I will indeed bless him, make him fruitful, and give him a multitude of descendants. He will become the father of twelve princes; I will make him into a great nation. 17:21 But I will establish my covenant with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you at this set time next year.” 17:22 When he finished speaking with Abraham, God went up from him.

“No” – NIV has, “Yes, but…”; the expression can have carry either meaning.

“A perpetual covenant” – ‘Even when Israel rebels and disregards the covenant, bringing upon herself the curse of exile, the covenant is not thereby invalidated: national repentance will lead to national restoration, as Lev 26:40–45 and Deut 30:1–10 affirm.’ (Wenham)

“I will indeed bless him” – ‘Now it becomes clear why the angel of Yahweh instructed Hagar to return to Abraham’s house, even though she had to endure mistreatment (16:9); it was in order that Ishmael might become the recipient of these promises. God’s instructions to her do not indicate that God approves any person’s abuse of another; but given human nature God does lead people to live in oppressive situations for a period of time in order to accomplish a higher purpose. After a time, though, God released Hagar from living in Abraham’s household (21:8–21).’ (Hartley)

17:23 Abraham took his son Ishmael and every male in his household (whether born in his house or bought with money) and circumcised them on that very same day, just as God had told him to do. 17:24 Now Abraham was 99 years old when he was circumcised; 17:25 his son Ishmael was thirteen years old when he was circumcised. 17:26 Abraham and his son Ishmael were circumcised on the very same day. 17:27 All the men of his household, whether born in his household or bought with money from a foreigner, were circumcised with him.

Greidanus asks: ‘Why would God select such a painful procedure as the sign of his covenant? Why not something painless like the rainbow? Will Abraham obey a God who demands pain of his servants and promises the impossible?’  This last question is quickly answered.

‘Abraham’s prompt action signaled a faith that indeed a child will be born to Sarah, as preposterous as it was to ponder (18:10–12). The writers of the New Testament recognized that Abraham believed that the Lord would intervene and provide a son from the aged couple (Rom 4:17–19; Heb 11:11–12).’ (Matthews)

‘All can be members of God’s covenant family, including infants as well as domestic and foreign slaves. The women are included with their husbands and fathers. This broad range of covenant membership comes close to Paul’s description of the new covenant: “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female” (Gal 3:28; cf. Exod 12:48–49).’ (Greidanus)

God’s covenant established, broken, and renewed

‘Israel soon broke God’s covenant by failing to circumcise their sons. Strangely, Moses failed to circumcise his son (Exod 4:25), and, even stranger, the whole generation that grew up in the desert was uncircumcised (Josh 5:7). Worse, they failed to follow the way of the covenant, “the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice” (Gen 18:19). Finally God “cut off” the whole nation from the Promised Land and sent them into exile in Babylonia, back to the place where Abram lived before God called him. In exile, applying circumcision became even more a deliberate confession of belonging to God’s covenant people “since the Babylonians … did not practice circumcision.” Those who were circumcised and thereby confessed to belonging to God’s covenant people lived in hope, for God had promised that this was an “everlasting covenant” (17:7, 13, 18) and that the land of Canaan was “a perpetual holding” (17:8). “So … the prophets spoke encouragingly about the permanence of the covenant relationship (Isa 24:5). In particular they looked forward to a new and eternal covenant: new in that this time Israel, not just the LORD, would observe it loyally (Jer 31:31–37; 32:40; Ezek 16:60; 37:26).” New because God’s law would no longer be external but internal, written on people’s hearts (Jer 31:33).

‘Jesus established this new covenant the night before he died. At the Last Supper he told his disciples, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20). The author of Hebrews confirms that Jesus established this new covenant: “For this reason he [Christ] is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, because a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions under the first covenant” (Heb 9:15; cf. Eph 3:6).’

(Greidanus)

Circumcision and baptism

As Greidanus notes:-

Jesus was circumcised (Lk 2:21), but sent his disciples out to baptise ‘all nations’ (Mt 28:19).

The Council held in Jerusalem determined that Gentile believers should not be required to undergo circumcision (Acts 15:28).

Jesus has shed his own blood for us, ending all the bloody rites and sacrifices of the old covenant.

To be circumcised or uncircumcised is therefore of no significance (Gal 6:15).

Baptism is the new sign of covenant membership (Gal 3:27–29; cf. Col 2:11–14).

Both males and females receive the sign of covenant membership (baptism).

But may infants be baptised?  Greidanus argues:-

‘If eight-day-old infants were included in the old covenant, one would expect that infants are also included in the new covenant. Certainly God’s grace is not less in the new covenant than it was in the old. In fact, Jesus was indignant when his disciples tried to block people with little children. He said, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs” (Mark 10:14). If the kingdom of God belongs to such little children, should they not receive the sign of membership in God’s royal family? On the day of Pentecost (the birthday of the New Testament church), Peter encouraged the people, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven.” And then, echoing God’s original covenant promise “to be a God to you and to your offspring after you” (Gen 17:7), he declares, “For the promise is for you, and for your children” (Acts 2:38–39). Accordingly, when Paul was in Philippi and speaking to women, among them Lydia (“a worshiper of God”), “the Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.… she and her household were baptized” (Acts 16:14–15). Later, when Paul “spoke the word of the Lord” to the Philippian jailer and those in his house, the jailer “and his entire family were baptized without delay” (Acts 16:32–33). Lydia, a woman, and her household were baptized; the Philippian jailer, a Gentile, “and his entire family were baptized.” If there were any children in those households, they were also baptized, for baptism can hardly be less inclusive than circumcision.’

Davis agrees that although circumcision and baptism are, obviously, different signs, the covenant pattern is the same.  It is the believing parents who see that their children are marked out to belong to God and his covenant community from the start.  But, says Davis, those parents should use baptism as an opportunity for in-house evangelism: perhaps celebrating the anniversary of baptism, discussing what baptism means, showing the child a copy of the vows made made the parents, calling the child (as a teenager) to make a decision to confirm those vows in a conscious and personal way.