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.
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 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)
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.’
“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)
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).
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)
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’.
“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)