So far we have looked at the account of creation, Adam and Eve, Noah, the flood, God’s covenant, the Tower of Babel, how nations were formed and the move that would bring Abram from the mouth of the Euphrates, to Canaan. We saw how lot and Abram parted, and how Abram rescued Lot when the kings from the north attacked. We then saw how God specifically repeated his covenant with Abram. The last study looked at the birth of Ishmael.

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1 When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, ‘I am God Almighty; walk before me faithfully and be blameless. 2 Then I will make my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.’

It had been 13 years since the Lord had appeared to Hagar (17v25) and during those years Ishmael would have grown to recognise his place as the eldest son, and heir of the blessings to Abram. Abram would also have taught him aspects of the family and the business he was to inherit. But during those years it seems the Lord had been silent.

Now the Lord appears to Abram again, and this is a very definite theophany: ‘I am God Almighty’. Now he repeats his covenant, adding more detail, but for the first time also including some things Abram would have to do. The first of these is in verse 1: ‘walk before me faithfully and be blameless

What did that mean for Abram?

What would it mean for us?

Abram must keep his side of the bargain if he wanted the blessings that God had promised. How did Abram respond?

3 Abram fell face down’ I would imagine we would do the same!

God now repeats specific details of his covenant:

and God said to him, 4 ‘As for me, this is my covenant with you:

- you will be the father of many nations.

- 5 No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations.
(Abram means ‘exalted father’, Abraham means ‘father of many’)

- 6 I will make you very fruitful;

- I will make nations of you,

- and kings will come from you.

- 7 I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you.

- 8 The whole land of Canaan, where you now reside as a foreigner, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you;

- and I will be their God.’

What is the main theme of verses 4, 5 and 6?

(Father of many nations – fruitful)

What other promises are given (verses 3-8)?

Canaan was to be their land, and more importantly God was to be their God.

Why were these two things so important for a new nation?

God now introduces the sign of circumcision:

9 Then God said to Abraham, ‘As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. 10 This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. 12 For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner – those who are not your offspring. 13 Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. 14 Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.’

This was to be a constant reminder to every male – whose they were and who they served. This was an irreversible mark that they were a separated people. Anyone who rejected circumcision was himself to be rejected.

15 God also said to Abraham, ‘As for Sarai your wife, you are no longer to call her Sarai; her name will be Sarah. 16 I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her.’

17 Abraham fell face down; he laughed and said to himself, ‘Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?’ 18 And Abraham said to God, ‘If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!’

As far as we know today, Sarai and Sarah both mean ‘princess’. It has been suggested that Sarai meant ‘my princess’ whereas Sarah meant ‘princess of many’. It is interesting that both the names of Abram and Sarai had the same Hebrew letter added (H in English), and that in itself may have had a deeper significance which has since been lost (Note: Yahweh, the name for God is made up of four consonants – YHWH).

But God goes further and confirms that ‘I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her’ (v16). And not only will she herself have a son, but her son will be the progenitor of Kings and Nations.

What was Abraham’s response? ‘You must be joking!’ and he laughed.

But on a more serious note, Abraham honestly believed that God had left it too late now, and as he already had a son, what was wrong with Ishmael being his heir? And what was God’s response? – Yes, but.

19 Then God said, ‘Yes, but your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will call him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him. 20 And as for Ishmael, I have heard you: I will surely bless him; I will make him fruitful and will greatly increase his numbers. He will be the father of twelve rulers, and I will make him into a great nation. 21 But my covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you by this time next year.’ 22 When he had finished speaking with Abraham, God went up from him.

Ishmael would not be forgotten and would also be the father of a great nation (Traditionally the Arabs), but Isaac was to be God’s chosen one, and for him Abraham and Sarah would have to be patient a little longer!

For now, Abraham had a covenant to keep, so

23 On that very day Abraham took his son Ishmael and all those born in his household or bought with his money, every male in his household, and circumcised them, as God told him. 24 Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he was circumcised, 25 and his son Ishmael was thirteen; 26 Abraham and his son Ishmael were both circumcised on that very day. 27 And every male in Abraham’s household, including those born in his household or bought from a foreigner, was circumcised with him.

Why circumcision? Paul explains in Romans 8:7-13

7 ‘Blessed are those
    whose transgressions are forgiven,
    whose sins are covered.
8 Blessed is the one
    whose sin the Lord will never count against them.’

9 Is this blessedness only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? We have been saying that Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness. 10 Under what circumstances was it credited? Was it after he was circumcised, or before? It was not after, but before! 11 And he received circumcision as a sign, a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. So then, he is the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised, in order that righteousness might be credited to them. 12 And he is then also the father of the circumcised who not only are circumcised but who also follow in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.

13 It was not through the law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith.

This was to be a constant, physical reminder to all of Abraham’s descendants that they were consecrated to God and were to ‘walk before me faithfully and be blameless’ (Genesis 17:1).

Paul, in his letters, points out that for New Testament believers it is the life of faith that has become the sign of righteousness – those who insisted that new converts should also be circumcised were wrong:

Galatians 5:1-6

1 It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.

2 Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. 3 Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is required to obey the whole law. 4 You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. 5 For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope. 6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.

And Romans 27:25-29

25 Circumcision has value if you observe the law, but if you break the law, you have become as though you had not been circumcised. 26 So then, if those who are not circumcised keep the law’s requirements, will they not be regarded as though they were circumcised? 27 The one who is not circumcised physically and yet obeys the law will condemn you who, even though you have the written code and circumcision, are a law-breaker. 28 A person is not a Jew who is one only outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. 29 No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a person’s praise is not from other people, but from God.

This was spoken of prophetically by Moses in

Deuteronomy 30:4-6

4 Even if you have been banished to the most distant land under the heavens, from there the Lord your God will gather you and bring you back. 5 He will bring you to the land that belonged to your ancestors, and you will take possession of it. He will make you more prosperous and numerous than your ancestors. 6 The Lord your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live.

So we come to the end of the chapter – but also the end of a chapter in the lives of Abram and Sarai, and a new beginning starts.

Genesis 18Genesis 16

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Genesis 17:1-27 The Covenant repeated - Circumcision  - Abram & Sarai renamed