Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
GENESIS 9-21: THE CONTEXT
The context for the covenant story of Abraham has its roots in the covenant story of Noah, because the covenant that God established with Noah shares certain characteristics with the covenant that God establishes now with Abram/Abraham.
• God initiated both covenants (6:18; 9:9, 11; 15:18; 17:2).
• Both covenants favor the humans. In the case of Noah, the covenant promises that “neither will there ever again be a flood to destroy the earth” (9:11). In the case of Abram, God promises to make Abram multiply “exceedingly” (17:2)—”the father of a multitude of nations” (17:5).
• In both cases, there is a sign to serve as a reminder. The rainbow is a sign to remind God of his promise not to destroy humankind through floods again (17:12-17). Circumcision serves to remind both God and man of the covenant that God has established with Abram/Abraham (17:11).
Abram’s story began with his call. When God called Abram to leave his father’s house and go to a land that God would show him (12:1), God promised, “I will make of you a great nation. I will bless you and make your name great. You will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you. All of the families of the earth will be blessed in you” (12:2-3). The covenant in chapter 17 expands on that promise that God made much earlier.
Some years later, in response to Abram’s complaint that he remained childless and a slave would become his heir (15:2), God promised that Abram’s own issue would be his heir (15:4)—and that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars (15:5)—and that God would give Abram’s descendants the land from the River Nile to the River Euphrates (15:18). Abram “believed in Yahweh; and he reckoned it to him for righteousness” (15:6).
But then Sarai and Abram took matters into their own hands, demonstrating that their faith was less than complete. At Sarai’s suggestion, Abram took Sarai’s servant, Hagar, as his concubine, and she bore a son, Ishmael (16:1-15). “Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore Ishmael to Abram” (16:16).
Then, when Abram was ninety-nine years old (17:1), God made a covenant with Abram, promising to make him multiply “exceedingly” (17:3)—and to make him “the father of a multitude of nations” (17:4). In recognition of the significance of this event, God changed Abram’s name to Abraham (17:5) and Sarai’s name to Sarah (17:15). God specifically named Sarah as the one through whom the promise would be fulfilled (17:16), at which point Abraham laughed at the absurdity of an old man fathering a child and an old woman bearing a child (17:17). But God promised a son of the covenant through Sarah and ordered Abraham to name the boy Isaac (17:19).
God required Abraham to circumcise “every male among you” (17:10) as “a token of the covenant” between God and Abraham (17:11-12). Abraham complied with that order “the same day” (17:23).
God reiterated the promise of a son to Abraham and Sarah in chapter 18, but Isaac was finally born in chapter 21 when Abraham was one hundred years old (21:5).
Chapters 15 and 17 both tell of God’s covenant with Abram/Abraham. The differences in the two accounts are interesting:
• Chapter 15 uses the word Yahweh (Hebrew: YHWH) repeatedly to refer to God. The name used for God in chapter 17 is Elohim (Hebrew: elo·him)—although Yahweh and El Shaddai (Hebrew: el sad·day) are each found once in 17:1.
• Chapter 17 is more complete. For instance, it includes a lengthy account of Elohim establishing a requirement for Abraham, the male members of his household, and his male descendants to be circumcised (17:9-14).
• Chapter 17 expands on the promises made in chapter 15. For instance, in chapter 15, Yahweh promises to give Abram’s descendants the land “from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates” (15:19). In chapter 17, Elohim promises that Abram will be “the father of a multitude of nations” (17:5).
Some scholars conclude that chapters 15 and 17 are parallel accounts written by two different authors. They attribute chapter 15 to the Yahwist (J—after the German spelling—Jahwist) and chapter 17 to the Priestly writer (P). These same scholars attribute Genesis 18:1-15 to the Yahwist. In that account, three visitors reiterate the promise of a son be born to Sarah.
In this view (parallel accounts by different authors), the author is writing from the perspective of the Babylonian Exile, in which the people of Israel had experienced the loss of Jerusalem, the temple, and their nation.
Other scholars see chapter 17 simply as an expansion of the promises made by God in chapters 12 and 15 and a ratification of the covenant made in chapter 15.
GENESIS 17:1-3a. I WILL MAKE MY COVENANT BETWEEN ME AND YOU
1When Abram was ninety-nine years old, Yahweh appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty. Walk before me, and be blameless. 2 I will make my covenant between me and you, and will multiply you exceedingly.” 3aAbram fell on his face.
“When Abram was ninety-nine years old” (v. 1a). It has been twenty-four years since Abram departed from Haran to go where God would lead (12:4). Chapter 16 closed with the birth of Ishmael to Abram and Hagar, and the narrator noted that Abram was eighty-six years old at that time (16:16). Now, in the very next verse, the narrator notes that Abram is ninety-nine years old, so thirteen years have passed since Ishmael’s birth—thirteen silent years in which we heard nothing of Abram or his family.
“Yahweh appeared to Abram” (v. 1b). As noted above, YHWH (Yahweh) is the name used for God in chapter 15 (and also in chapter 16). This is its only occurrence in chapter 17. The Jewish people came to revere this name to the extent that they refused to say it lest they become guilty of profaning God’s name in violation of Exodus 20:7. They substituted the name Adonai for Yahweh.
In this appearance, it is God that appears to Abram unbidden. Events are taking place on the Lord’s timetable rather than Abram’s. It is at the Lord’s initiative that Abram is chosen and blessed. Abram is a good man, as men go, but hardly perfect. He once persuaded Sarai to claim to be Abram’s sister rather than his wife so that potentially jealous Egyptians would not kill him (12:10-20). He also allowed Sarai to persuade him to take Hagar as his concubine to insure his progeny rather than relying on God’s promise (chapter 16). God has only imperfect humans to do his work. God chooses whom God chooses. If the chosen heed the call, God makes them adequate to the call.
“I am God Almighty”(el sad·day—El Shaddai) (v. 1c). This is the second name for God in this verse. El is a generic word for any god. El Shaddai (or Shaddai without the El) is used many times in the Hebrew Scriptures (Genesis 28:3; 35:11; 43:14; 48:3; 49:25; Exodus 6:3; Ezekiel 10:5; thirty-one times in the book of Job without the El). El Shaddai can mean “God of the Mountain,” but the LXX (the Septuagint—the Greek version of the Hebrew Scriptures) translates sad·day as pantokrator, which means Almighty. Most English translations follow the LXX by translating El Shaddai as “God Almighty.”
“Walk before me” (lepa·nay—walk before my face) (v. 1d). Abram is to walk before God’s face—the kind of subservience that one would show a king—the kind of subservience where the subordinate is always conscious of the superior’s presence and whereabouts, like the sunflower that constantly adjusts its direction so that it always faces the sun. To walk before God’s face is to devote oneself to God and God’s service. To walk before God’s face is to live a life where the pre-eminent fact of life is God’s presence and will.
“and be blameless” (ta·mim) (v. 1e). If Abram walks before God’s face, he will be conscious of God’s presence. That will help Abram to avoid temptation—will aid him in his blameless walk.
However, ta·mim is not a requirement for a sinless life, which would be an impossibly high standard. Noah was called ta·mim (6:9), but was guilty of drunkenness after the flood (9:21). God is calling Abram to a high standard, but not to an impossible one. Von Rad says that ta·mim in this context has more to do with a proper relationship with God than with moral perfection (Von Rad, 198). Hartley adds, “The standard is pure devotion toward God, not moral perfection” (Hartley, 170).
“I will make my covenant between me and you, and will multiply you exceedingly”(v. 2). God is requiring two things of Abram—to “walk before me” and to “be blameless.” Now he offers two rewards—a covenant and numerous descendants.
“Abram fell on his face” (v. 3a). This is a gesture of respect. A person might fall on his/her face in the presence of a king. It is even more fitting to fall on one’s face in the presence of God. By falling on his face, Abram acknowledges his subordinate position in relationship to God.
We need to regain this sense of awe. We live in a world where people loathe to admit that anyone is better than anyone else. Our lack of respect for others often morphs into lack of respect for God. It is all too easy to regard God as just one more guy who puts on his pants one leg at a time. It would help us to observe gestures of obeisance—bowing, kneeling, etc.—to help us to recover our sense of reverence in the presence of God.
GENESIS 17:3b-8. YOU WILL BE THE FATHER OF A MULTITUDE OF NATIONS
3bGod talked with him, saying, 4“As for me, behold, my covenant is with you. You will be the father of a multitude of nations. 5Neither will your name any more be called Abram, but your name will 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 nations of you. Kings will come out of you. 7 I will establish my covenant between me and you and your seed after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God to you and to your seed after you. 8 I will give to you, and to your seed after you, the land where you are traveling, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession. I will be their God.”
“God (elo·him—Elohim) talked with him, saying, ‘As for me, behold, my covenant is with you'” (vv. 3b-4a). As in verse 2 and later verses, God is the one who initiates the covenant and establishes its terms. God first sets forth the benefits which he will provide to Abram (vv. 4b-8), and then sets forth the requirements that he will expect Abram to fulfill (vv. 9-14).
“You will be the father of a multitude of nations” (v. 4b). God earlier promised to make of Abram a great nation (12:2) and to give “from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates” to Abram’s descendants (15:18). Now God expands the promises so that Abram will be the father, not of one nation, but of many.
“Neither will your name any more be called Abram, but your name will be Abraham; for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations” (v. 5). Names have always been important. Our names stand as a proxy for ourselves. Our name in the form of a signature on a legal document binds us legally to certain obligations. We like for people to call us by name, and hearing our name called tends to get our attention, even if the voice is distant—perhaps especially if the voice is distant.
In some cultures, parents give their children names that have special meanings—Native Americans come to mind—and a person’s name might be changed later to commemorate a significant accomplishment by that person.
God, on several occasions, changed a person’s name to signify a change in that person’s life and relationship with God. Abram becomes Abraham (17:5). Sarai becomes Sarah (17:15). Jacob becomes Israel (32:28). “Name and existence come extraordinarily close together in Hebrew thought. Perhaps it is going too far to say that the Hebrews believed that nothing existed unless it had a name (cf. Eccl 6:10a). But certainly they believed that one’s name lived on in one’s descendants (Gen. 48:16), and that without male heirs one would be left with ‘neither name nor remnant upon the face of the earth’ (2 S. 14:7; cf. Dt. 25:5-10)” (Bromiley, 481).
In this instance, God changes Abram’s name to Abraham and gives the reason—”for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations.” Ab means “father.” Abram could mean “the father is exalted” or “he is exalted as to his father” (Hamilton, 464). God combines Abram’s original name with the Hebrew word for “father of a multitude”—‘ab-hamon—to create the new name, Abraham.
“for I have made you” (v. 5b) indicates an action already accomplished. God has already made Abraham the father of many nations, even though Abraham has not yet fathered Isaac, who will be the child of promise. God has set the action in motion. All that remains is for Abraham to exercise patience and faith while awaiting the fulfillment of the promise.
“I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make nations of you. Kings will come out of you” (v. 6). There is a threefold progression in this verse. “Exceedingly fruitful” points to the many descendants that Abraham will father. But he will not only be the father of many descendants, but will also be the father of many nations—”a multitude of nations” (v. 4). And not only will he be the father of nations, but he will also be the father of kings.
This verse causes those of us who know the rest of the story to think ahead to the multiplication of the Israelites in Egypt—and King David and King Solomon. However, we need also to remember Abraham’s descendants through his concubine Keturah (25:1-4) and Ishmael, who had twelve sons whom Genesis calls “twelve princes” (25:12-16). We need also to remember the descendants of Esau, father of the Edomites (36:9-43). Many people other than Israel trace their lineage to Abraham today.
“I will establish my covenant between me and you and your seed after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God to you and to your seed after you” (v. 7). God expands the covenant even further. Not only will the covenant apply to Abraham, but it will also apply to his offspring “throughout their generations”—an everlasting covenant. Throughout the rest of time, there will never be a time when God is not the God of Abraham’s offspring.
“The Hebrew word translated ‘offspring’ or ‘seed’ is singular in number. The writer of Galatians 3:16 took the singularity literally when he understood ‘seed’ to be a reference forward to Christ” (Towner, 164).
“I will give to you, and to your seed after you, the land where you are traveling, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession. I will be their God” (v. 8). This verse is not in the lectionary reading. One wonders why. Perhaps the decision to eliminate this verse has something to do with modern-day tensions in Israel. I would vote to read the verse. It is an integral part of the covenant promises that God makes to Abraham—and it is holy writ.
God promises the land of Canaan to Abraham and his descendants. This restates the earlier promise, “all the land which you see, I will give to you, and to your offspring forever” (13:15). It is a land where Abraham is currently an alien. He has already become prosperous to the extent that he and Lot have had to separate themselves from one another to provide adequate pasture for their flocks (chapter 13). However, the only legal ownership of land by Abraham recorded in Genesis is the purchase of the cave of Machpelah as a burial place for Sarah (chapter 23). Most of the promises made by God to Abraham will be fulfilled after his death rather than during his lifetime. The author of Hebrews says that “faith is assurance of things hoped for, proof of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1)—and then outlines how Abraham and others “died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them and embraced them” (Hebrews 11:13).
However, ownership of the land will be contingent on faithfulness by Abraham’s descendants. God will reserve the right to dispossess them when they are unfaithful (Leviticus 26:27-39), but will promise to return them to their land when they repent (Leviticus 26:40-45).
Neither Ishmael nor Esau will be privileged to enjoy these covenant promises. Sarah will tell Abraham to cast out Ishmael “For the son of this handmaid will not be heir with my son, Isaac” (21:10)—and God will tell Abraham to do that, “For from Isaac will your seed be called” (21:12; see also Galatians 4:30). Esau will sell his birthright to Jacob (25:33; see also Hebrews 12:16)—which will disqualify him as part of the inheritance.
GENESIS 17:9-14. YOU SHALL CIRCUMCISE YOUR FORESKINS
These verses are not in the lectionary reading, but the preacher needs to be aware of them. They outline God’s requirement that Abraham and his male offspring and all male members of his household will observe circumcision as “a token of the covenant between me and you” (v. 11).
GENESIS 17:15-16. HER NAME WILL BE SARAH
15God (elo·him—Elohim) said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but her name will be Sarah. 16 I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. Yes, I will bless her, and she will be a mother of nations. Kings of peoples will come from her.”
“God said to Abraham, ‘As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but her name will be Sarah'” (v. 15). Just as God changed Abram’s name to Abraham to acknowledge the covenant relationship, so also God changes Sarai’s name to Sarah, which means “princess”—but God makes no reference to its meaning here, and the meaning of Sarai might also be “princess.” The point is simply that God has chosen Sarah rather than Hagar as the woman through whom he will establish his people.
God does not change Sarai’s name directly, but tasks Abraham to do so.
“I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. Yes, I will bless her, and she will be a mother of nations. Kings of peoples will come from her” (v. 16). God confers on Sarah the same blessings that he bestowed earlier on Abraham (albeit in different words). She can expect to give birth to a son and to receive God’s blessings. She will be mother to nations and kings, just as Abraham will be their father.
It seems obvious that Sarah would share in Abraham’s siring a son. He cannot sire a son on his own. What is noteworthy here is that God acknowledges Sarah’s role in God’s plan—and that he confers essentially the same blessings on her that he confers on Abraham. In the patriarchal culture in which Genesis was written, the emphasis tended to be on the role of men—although there are exceptions, such as this one.
GENESIS 17:17-22. ABRAHAM FELL ON HIS FACE AND LAUGHED
These verses are not in the lectionary passage, but the preacher needs to be aware of them. In verse 3, Abraham fell on his face in his awe of God, but now he falls on his face and laughs at the absurdity of a century-old man siring a child and a ninety-year-old woman giving birth. He says, “Oh that Ishmael might live before you” (v. 18b), showing that he is not as full of faith as Hebrews 11 might suggest.
But God quickly counters that Sarah will bear a son, and Abraham shall name him Isaac. The covenant will be carried out through Isaac. God will also take care of Ishmael, but the promise is through Sarah and Isaac—not Hagar and Ishmael.
GENESIS 17:23-27. ABRAHAM CIRCUMCISED THEIR FORESKINS
These verses are not in the lectionary reading, but the preacher needs to be aware of them. They tell of Abraham complying with the requirement for circumcision “the same day” (v. 26).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Wenham, Gordon J., Word Biblical Commentary: Genesis 16-50 (Dallas: Word Books, 1994)
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Copyright 2008, 2010, Richard Niell Donovan