Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

Genesis 17

Verse 1



(1) Abram was ninety years old and nine.—Thirteen years, therefore, had passed by since the birth of Ishmael, who doubtless during this time had grown very dear to the childless old man, as we gather from the wish expressed in Genesis 17:18.

I am the Almighty God.—Heb., El shaddai. The word is Archaic, but there is no doubt that it means strong so as to overpower. Besides its use in Genesis we find it employed as the name of Deity by Balaam (Numbers 24:4; Numbers 24:16); by Naomi (Ruth 1:20); and in the Book of Job, where it occurs thirty-one times. We may thus regard it as “one of the more general worldwide titles of the Most High” (Speaker’s Commentary). In Exodus 6:3 it is said, with evident reference to this place, that El shaddai was the name of God revealed to the patriarchs, but that He was not known to them by His name Jehovah. Here, nevertheless, in a passage said by commentators to be Elohistic, we read that “Jehovah appeared to Abram, and said to him I am El shaddai.” But the very gist of the passage is the identification of Jehovah and El shaddai, and the great object of the manifest care with which Moses distinguishes the Divine names seems to be to show, that though Jehovah became the special name of Elohim in His covenant relation to Israel after the Exodus, yet that the name was one old and primeval (Genesis 4:26), and that the God of revelation, under various titles, was ever one and the same. And so is it now, though we, by following a Jewish superstition, have well-nigh forfeited the use of the name Jehovah, so greatly prized of old (Genesis 4:1).

Walk before me.—The same verb as that used of Enoch (Genesis 5:22), and of Noah (Genesis 6:9), but the preposition before implies less closeness than with. On the other hand, Noah was described as “perfect among his contemporaries” (ibid.), while Abram is required still to strive after this integrity (see Note on Genesis 6:9).

Verse 2

(2) I will make my covenant.—In Genesis 15:18 the Heb. word for “make” is cut, and refers to the severing of the victims; here it is “give,” “place,” and implies that it was an act of grace on God’s part (comp. Note on Genesis 9:9). Abram had now waited twenty-five years after leaving Ur-Chasdim, and fourteen or fifteen years since the ratification of the solemn covenant between him and Jehovah (Genesis 15:17); but the time had at length arrived for the fulfilment of the promise, and in token thereof Abram and Sarai were to change their names, and all the males be brought near to God by a solemn sacrament.

Verse 4

(4) Of many nations.—This is a feeble rendering of a remarkable phrase. Literally the word signifies a confused noise like the din of a populous city. Abram is to be the father of a thronging crowd of nations. And so in Genesis 17:5.

Verse 5

(5) Abram.—That is, high father.

Abraham = Father of a multitude, “raham” being an Arabic word, perhaps current in Hebrew in ancient times. Another interpretation of Abram is that it is equivalent to Abi-aram, Father of Aram, or Syria. This too is an Arabic form, like Abimael in Genesis 10:28. By some commentators the stress is thrown upon the insertion of the letter “h,” as being the representative of the name Yahveh or Yehveh. (Compare the change of Oshea into Jehoshua, Numbers 13:16.)

Verse 10

(10) Shall be circumcised.—It is stated by Herodotus (Book ii. 104) that the Egyptians were circumcised, and that the Syrians in Palestine confessed that they learned this practice from the Egyptians. Origen, however, seems to limit circumcision to the priesthood (Epist. ad Rom., § ii. 13); and the statement of Herodotus is not only very loose, but his date is too far posterior to the time of Abram for us to be able to place implicit confidence in it. If we turn to the evidence of Egyptian monuments and of the mummies, we find proof of the rite having become general in Egypt only in quite recent times. The discussion is, however, merely of archaeological importance; for circumcision was just as appropriate a sign of the covenant if borrowed from institutions already existing as if then used for the first time. It is, moreover, an acknowledged fact that the Bible is always true to the local colouring. Chaldæan influence is predominant in those early portions of Genesis which we owe to Abram, a citizen of Ur of the Chaldees; his life and surroundings subsequently are those of an Arab sheik; while Egyptian influence is strongly marked in the latter part of Genesis, and in the history of the Exodus from that country. In this fact we have a sufficient answer to the theories which would bring down the composition of the Pentateuch to a late period: for the author would certainly have written in accordance with the facts and ideas of his own times. If, however, Abram had seen circumcision in Egypt, when the famine drove him thither, and had learned the significance of the rite, and that the idea of it was connected with moral purity, there was in this even a reason why God should choose it as the outward sign of the sacrament which He was now bestowing upon the patriarch.

The fitness of circumcision to be a sign of entering into a covenant, and especially into one to which children were to be admitted, consisted in its being a representation of a new birth by the putting off of the old man, and the dedication of the new man unto holiness. The flesh was cast away that the spirit might grow strong; and the change of name in Abram and Sarai was typical of this change of condition. They had been born again, and so must again be named. And though women could not indeed be admitted directly into the covenant, yet they shared in its privileges by virtue of their consanguinity to the men, who were as sponsors for them; and thus Sarai changes her name equally with her husband.

Verse 12

(12) Eight days old.—That is, just one week after birth, as the day of birth was counted among the eight days.

Verse 13

(13) He that is born in thy house . . . —Two things follow from this wide extension of the rite of circumcision: the first, that all members of Abram’s household, being thus sharers in the covenant, were also numbered as belonging to the nations that sprang from him. We have seen that even in early days his followers must have numbered six or seven hundred men (Genesis 14:14), and they were growing in multitude all the rest of his life, and during the lifetime of Isaac. They were then divided between Esau and Jacob at Isaac’s death (Genesis 35:27; Genesis 36:6-7), but the diminution in the number of Jacob’s family thus caused must have been compensated by those whom he gathered for himself in Mesopotamia (Genesis 30:43). All his household went down with him into Egypt, as part of his taf, translated “little ones” in Genesis 46:5, but really signifying the whole body of dependents, men, women, and children. Placed there in the fruitful Delta, they would be counted as members of that tribe to the chief of which they belonged, and would swell the numbers of the vast host which left Egypt (Exodus 12:37). The second point is, that as all who were circumcised were regarded as Israelites, so also circumcision was confined to the Israelites. It was not ‘a catholic ordinance, intended, like baptism, for all people and all times. Nor was it primarily a religious institution. The bought slave was circumcised first, and instructed afterwards. No profession of faith was required, but he was admitted to the privilege in right of his master. The reason of this was that it was an admission into the Jewish nation first, and by consequence only into the church. It is one of the many points which distinguish slavery, as practised among the Jews, from the degrading form of it which existed in modem times, that from the days of Abram onwards the slave by being circumcised was proclaimed to be one of the same race and nation as his master, and thereby entitled to share in his national and religious privileges.

Verse 14

(14) Shall be cut off from his people.—Jewish commentators generally consider that this penalty consisted in the offender being left to the direct interposition of God, who would punish him with childlessness and premature death (Talmud: Tract Yebam, 55). Most Christian commentators suppose that the offender was to be put to death by the civil magistrate; but this view is untenable. For a distinction is constantly drawn between the penalty of death, and the being “cut off from among the people,” as, for instance, in Leviticus 20. So, too, the killing of a clean beast anywhere, except at the door of the tabernacle (Leviticus 17:4), and the eating of blood (Leviticus 17:9; Leviticus 17:14), are to be thus dealt with, while blasphemy and murder are to be punished with death (Leviticus 24:16-17). Now it became very common to kill clean beasts in all parts of the land, and the eating of blood, though regarded with horror (1 Samuel 14:32-34), apparently had no penalty attached to it. The Jewish commentators seem to err only in being too special, and in defining the method in which God would punish. The punishment really seems to have been that of excommunication or outlawry, to which other penalties might have been attached by custom: but the main point was that one uncircumcised (as subsequently one who violated the principles of the Mosaic law) forfeited his privileges as a member of the Jewish nation, could claim no protection from the elders for life and property, and could not take his place at the gate of the city.

Verse 15

(15) Sarai.—Probably princely, an adjective of the same form as shaddai, Genesis 17:1; while Sarah means princess. The change of name shows that she was admitted to the covenant. (Comp. Genesis 17:10.)

Verse 16

(16) A son . . . of her.—This is the first place where it was definitely promised that Abram’s heir should be Sarah’s own son. This must be remembered in estimating the conduct of Abram and Sarah in the matter of Hagar. They had long waited, and hoped, before taking measures of their own for the fulfilment of the promise. The rest of the verse should be translated, “she shall become (grow into) nations: kings of peoples shall become of her, that is, “shall spring from her.”

Verse 17

(17) Abraham . . . laughed.—The Jewish interpreters regard Abraham’s laugh as one of joy, and Sarah’s (Genesis 18:12) as one of unbelief. We may, however, well doubt whether there really was this difference between them; but our Lord confirms the View that joy was uppermost in Abraham’s heart (John 8:56). Still with belief there was surprise, and the feeling that what was promised was so strange as to be well-nigh incredible. One who was ready to sacrifice his only son at God’s word (Hebrews 11:19) would not be staggered by this strangeness, and yet the thought of Sarah’s bearing a child at the age of ninety might easily present itself to his mind in a ludicrous aspect. As for Sarah, there is no proof that at the time when she laughed she knew or even suspected that the three travellers were more than men. She overheard their conversation, and laughed, imagining perhaps that they did not know how old she was. Really, the idea brought out by this double laughter is that Isaac’s birth was contrary to nature.

Verse 18

(18) O that Ishmael . . . —For thirteen years Ishmael had been the “son of the house” (Genesis 15:3), and regarded probably as the true heir. Mingled then with Abraham’s joy there was also the pain, natural to a father, of knowing that this transference of the promise to Sarah’s child meant the deposition and disappointment of one who for so long had held the post of honour. Stoicism would have repressed this upright and natural feeling, but God hears and accepts the father’s prayers; and while the birthright and religious pre-eminence is justly given to the son of the freewoman, there is a large earthly blessing for the handmaid’s son.

Verse 19

(19) Indeed.—In the Hebrew this word comes first, and is intended to remove all doubt or desire for any other turn of affairs. It should be rendered, “And God said, For a certainty Sarah thy wife shall bear thee a son.”

Thou shalt call his name Isaac.—That is, he laughs. The name was to be a perpetual memorial that Isaac’s birth was naturally such an impossibility as to excite ridicule.

Verse 25

(25) Ishmael. . . . was thirteen years old.—Hence the Mohammedans defer circumcision to the thirteenth year.

Verse 26

(26) In the selfsame day.—Heb., In the bone of this day, and so in Genesis 17:23 (see Genesis 2:23). In the circumcising of the household together with Abraham and his son we see that no impassable interval separated the Hebrew slave from his master, but that he was to share all the national and religious privileges of the freeman.

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Bibliographical Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Genesis 17". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". 1905.