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Bible Commentaries

Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible - Unabridged
Genesis 17

 

 

Verse 1

And when Abram was ninety years old and nine the LORD appeared to Abram and said unto him I am And when Abram was ninety years old and nine, the LORD appeared to Abram, and said unto him, I am the Almighty God; walk before me, and be thou perfect.

Abram was ninety years old and nine - thirteen years after the birth of Ishmael. During that interval he had enjoyed the comforts of communion with God, but had been favoured with no special revelation as formerly. It was a period of spiritual desertion, probably on account of his hasty and blameable marriage with Hagar, and the promise of his son was so long deferred that the faith of Abram and Sarai might be tried, and God's power at their extreme age illustriously displayed, the Lord appeared-some visible manifestation of the divine presence, probably the shechinah, or radiant glory of overpowering effulgence.

I am the Almighty God - [Hebrew, 'Eel (Hebrew #410) Shaday (Hebrew #7706) from shaadad (Hebrew #7703), to be strong or powerful, to lay waste, to desolate.] It is strictly speaking a plural termination; but it is never joined [like 'Elohiym (Hebrew #430)] with an adjective or verb plural. It is a name of God that seems to have come into use after the flood, being not found in the Scriptures previous to that destructive dispensation, but soon after it, in perhaps the oldest book in the world, that of Job, thirty-one times. It is used once in this book by itself (Genesis 49:25 : cf. Ruth 1:20-21; Isaiah 13:6; Ezekiel 1:24; Ezekiel 10:5; Joel 1:15); but in six other passages it appears as a compound title, as here, with "God" prefixed (Genesis 28:3; Genesis 35:11; Genesis 43:14; Genesis 48:3; Exodus 6:3; Ezekiel 10:5); and in all of these it denotes the second person in the Godhead. It was the name by which He made himself known to the patriarchs, designed to convey the sense of 'all-sufficient' (Psalms 16:5-6; Psalms 73:25); and accordingly, in harmony with the object of this manifestation, the lord announces himself as El Shaddai-a Mighty Promiser of blessings-this name, used only in the progressive development of the covenant, being a pledge of their fulfillment. Nothing was more appropriate or more needful to be kept before the mind of Abram than that the Divine Being, on whose word he relied, was able to do things which seemed above and contrary to nature (cf. Hebrews 11:11-12.)

Walk ... and be ... perfect - upright, sincere (Psalms 41:6) in heart, speech, and behaviour. Faith was to be manifested by works, and by works to be made perfect (James 2:22).


Verse 2

And I will make my covenant between me and thee, and will multiply thee exceedingly.

And I will make my covenant , [Hebrew, w


Verse 3

And Abram fell on his face: and God talked with him, saying,

Abram fell on his face - the attitude of profoundest reverence assumed by eastern people. It consists in the prostrate body resting on the hands and knees, with the face bent until the forehead touches the ground. It is an expression of conscious humility and profound reverence.


Verse 4

As for me, behold, my covenant is with thee, and thou shalt be a father of many nations.

My covenant is with thee - renewed mention is made of it as the foundation of the communication that follows. It is the covenant of grace made with all who believe in the Saviour. It deserves notice that although many of the promises to Abram are recorded (see Genesis 12:1-20; Genesis 13:1-18), they are not termed a "covenant" until an account is given in Genesis 15:1-21 of their being solemnly ratified.


Verse 5

Neither shall thy name any more be called Abram, but thy name shall be Abraham; for a father of many nations have I made thee.

Name shall be Abraham. In eastern countries the name given in infancy is sometimes in the course of life altered: a change of name is an advertisement of some new circumstance in the history, rank, or religion of the individual who bears it. The change is made variously-by the old name being entirely dropped for the new, or by conjoining the new with the old, or sometimes only a few letters are inserted, so that the altered form may express the difference in the owner's state or prospects. It is surprising how soon a new name is known, and its import spread through the country. In dealing with Abraham and Sarai, God was pleased to adapt His procedure to the ideas and customs of the country and age. There was no way, according to prevailing notions, in which the divine promise would be so well remembered, and the splendid prospects of the patriarch become more widely known than by giving him and his wife new names, significant of their high destiny. Instead of Abram = Ab or Abba, father, and ram, high, 'a high father,' he was to be called Abraham = Ab-rab-hamon, father of a great multitude; and this has been verified, whether he is considered as the ancestor of the Jews, Arabs, etc., or as the Father of the Faithful.


Verse 6

And I will make thee exceeding fruitful, and I will make nations of thee, and kings shall come out of thee.

Kings shall come out of thee - (cf. Micah 5:2.)


Verse 7

And I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee.

I will establish my covenant ... to be a God unto thee. Had this communication to Abram been made at the time of his call, it could have conveyed no other idea to the mind of one who had been an idolater, and was imbued with the prejudices engendered by idolatry, than that, instead of the ideal fictitious deities he had been accustomed to look to and worship, the true, living, personal God was to be substituted. But he had now for a long series of years become familiarized with the name, appearances, and educational training of Him who had called him, and therefore he was prepared to accept the promise in a wider and more comprehensive sense-to understand, in short, that to 'be a God unto him' included all that God had been, or had promised to be to him and his posterity-an instructor, a guide, a governor, a friend, a wise and loving father, who would confer upon them whatever was for their good, chasten them whenever they did wrong, and fit them for the high and important destiny for which he had chosen them.

It is perfectly clear that this promise was primarily meant to refer to the natural descendants of Abram, who, by the election or grace, were to be separated from the rest of the nations, and to the temporal blessings which it guaranteed to them (Romans 11:16; Romans 15:8). They were in their collective capacity to form the visible external Church; and in the sense of their being "a chosen generation, a special people," though many of them were unbelievers, they were to be called the people of God, as is manifest from the words "in their generations." In this sense partly the covenant is called an 'everlasting covenant;' for it continued in force down until the promulgation of the Gospel, when the national distinction ceased, by the admission of all mankind to the spiritual blessings contained in the Abrahamic covenant (Ephesians 2:14). But further, in a spiritual point of view, it is called "an everlasting covenant." The promise is a promise made to the Church of all ages; because He who is not the God of the dead, but of the living, made it to "Abraham, and to his seed" (cf. Galatians 3:17).

The sign of circumcision was annexed to it under the Jewish dispensation (cf. Acts 2:38-39; Galatians 3:6-7; Galatians 3:9; Galatians 3:14; Galatians 3:22; Galatians 3:26; Galatians 3:29; Hebrews 8:10), and that of baptism under the Christian dispensation. The latter denotes the very same things which were formerly symbolized by circumcision, and recognizes the same relation between parent and child (Acts 2:39, last clause). Circumcision is expressly pronounced by Paul to have been both a sign and a seal of spiritual blessings (Romans 4:11). It was a sign denoting "the putting off the body of the sins of the flesh" - i:e., denoting the necessity of the removal of the defilement of sin-the necessity of inward as well as of outward purity. It was also a seal of the covenant. It was to Abraham "a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had, being yet uncircumcised, that he might be the father of all them that believe, though they be not circumcised, that righteousness might be imputed to them also" - i:e, not a seal of his own personal justification, but a seal of that covenant, according to the provisions of which all who should in any age believe shall be justified by faith. It was on the part of God a solemn pledge of faithfulness in the fulfillment of the promises of his covenant (Romans 3:1-2).

As observed by Abraham, therefore, as well as by all believing parents among the Jews, it was a solemn declaration of their reliance on these promises in the very act of dedicating their children to the Lord. Just as does baptism. This is one with the promise of God the Father, to make us sons "by the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Ghost," through faith in the blood of God the son, "shed for the remission of sins." With this promise the sign with water is now connected, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.


Verse 8

And I will give unto thee, and to thy seed after thee, the land wherein thou art a stranger, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.

I will give ... the land. The grant of Canaan had been previously promised to Abraham and his posterity (Genesis 15:18); but it is here repeated in connection with the promise, "I will be a God unto you," as the crowning blessing of all their possessions and privileges in the land of their inheritance. But since the patriarch himself never acquired any property in Canaan, except a burying-place, and, maintaining to the end of his life the character of a pilgrim, 'confessed that he sought a country,' there is reason to believe that the grant of the land, as "an everlasting possession," typyfied heaven, "the better country, that is, an heavenly" (Hebrews 11:16).


Verse 9

And God said unto Abraham, Thou shalt keep my covenant therefore, thou, and thy seed after thee in their generations.

No JFB commentary on this verse.


Verse 10

This is my covenant, which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee; Every man child among you shall be circumcised.

Every man-child ... circumcised. This was the sign in the Old Testament Church, as baptism is in the New Testament Church, and hence, the covenant is called "covenant of circumcision" (Acts 7:8; Romans 4:1 :ll). The terms of the covenant were these-on the one hand, Abraham and his seed were to observe the rite of circumcision; and on the other, God promised, in the event of such observance, to give them Canaan for a perpetual possession, to be a God to him and his posterity, and that in him and his seed all nations should be blessed. It must be carefully observed, however, that when it is said, "This is my covenant, every man-child among you shall be circumcised," the observance of this prescribed rite did not constitute the keeping of God's covenant, although the modern Jews identify circumcision with the covenant and Christian writers sometimes imitate their phraseology ('Israel after the Flesh,' p. 15). It was only the "token" or sign "of the covenant." The possession of this token denoted that the Jews were a nation in covenant with God; but, on the other hand, a neglect of the terms-namely, the national acknowledgment of God-even although the people might be circumcised, implied a violation of the covenant. Circumcision was indispensably necessary, as has been well observed, 'to mark a person entitled to the privileges of the covenant:' it did not necessarily follow that every circumcised person made good his title, or received the blessings ('Israel after the Flesh').


Verse 11

And ye shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of the covenant betwixt me and you.

No JFB commentary on this verse.


Verse 12

And he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every man child in your generations, he that is born in the house, or bought with money of any stranger, which is not of thy seed.

He that is eight days old shall be circumcised. This rite was practiced by many ancient nations: by the Egyptians, Ethiopians, Colchians (a branch of the old Egyptians), the Syrians, Phoenicians, among the Troglodites on the coast of the Red Sea (Rawlinson's 'Herod,' b. 2:, ch. 37, 104) - nay, even among the Bechuana and Caffre tribes south of the Zambesi in Africa, and traces of it have been found in the South Sea Islands, and even in the heart of the New World. The rite was practiced in Egypt as early as the fourth dynasty, and probably earlier, long before the birth of Abraham, (Wilkinson, in Rawlinson's 'Herod'.) But among these people it was by no means universal, as an extensive examination of mummies has proved that it was undergone by no larger proportion than about one in fifty, and that, too, at the age of fourteen and upwards, when political, sanitary, or prudential reasons prompted it; whereas it was enjoined upon the posterity of Abraham almost as soon as they came into the world-to be performed on the eighth day after birth. Since it was a national distinction, it was imperative on all classes, from the highest to the lowest grades of Jewish society; and, above all, it was symbolical of important religious sentiments.


Verse 13

He that is born in thy house, and he that is bought with thy money, must needs be circumcised: and my covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant.

He that is born in thy house, and he that is bought with thy money - [Hebrew, uwmiqnat (Hebrew #4736) kacpekaa (Hebrew #3701); Septuagint, 'argurooneetos.] No servant of a foreign nation could remain in the family of an Israelite without becoming a proselyte. Compliance with this condition, through submission to the rite of circumcision, was the price of the privilege.


Verse 14

And the uncircumcised man child whose flesh of his foreskin is not circumcised, that soul shall be cut off from his people; he hath broken my covenant.

The uncircumcised man-child ... shall be cut off from his people - i:e., he should not participate in the privileges of the covenant. The consequence of neglecting the rite was disastrous both for Jewish boy and the male servant who was an inmate of a Jewish family. It reduced them to a state of excommunication. The prevalence of this peculiar practice among many ancient pagan nations carries back our thoughts to a primeval ordinance, which, like that of sacrifice, belonged to the earliest age after the fall; nor is there anything in the language of the sacred historian to forbid the ascription of it to so ancient an origin.

On the contrary, the manner in which the injunction was laid upon Abram implies that it was an old and well-known usage; because no explanation is given either of what it was, or how the rite was to be performed. And assuming it to have been an ordinance of primeval antiquity, the appointment of this ancient symbol to be a divine ordinance in the Old Testament Church corresponded exactly to the consecrated use of the common element of water, which, having been always associated with ideas of purity, was instituted by the direct authority of our Lord to symbolize in the Christian Church the cleansing efficacy of his atoning blood, as well as the sanctifying influences of the Holy Spirit on the soul of the recipient.


Verse 15

And God said unto Abraham, As for Sarai thy wife, thou shalt not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall her name be.

As for Sarai thy wife ... Sarah shall her name be - [Hebrew, Saaraay (Hebrew #8297); Septuagint, Sara, Sarai] The etymology of this word is uncertain. The old commentators universally interpreted it 'my princess;' and the change of it for another as intimating that, instead of being the princess of a particular tribe, she was to be a princess in the eyes of all mankind. But modern scholars are not satisfied with this explanation; and Ewald derives it from a root-verb [ saaraah (Hebrew #8283)] whose third meaning, as given by Genenius, is to contend, to strive. The change, then, of the original name, Sarai, contentious, violent, which suggested unpleasant ideas of temper, into [ saaraah (Hebrew #8283)] the feminine of [ sar (Hebrew #8269)] prince, [Septuagint, Sarra], Sarah, was an honourable distinction conferred on the wife of Abraham.


Verse 16

And I will bless her, and give thee a son also of her: yea, I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of people shall be of her.

Give thee a son also of her. God's purposes are gradually made known. A son had been long ago promised to Abraham. Now, at length, for the first time, he is informed that it was to be a child of Sarai.


Verse 17

Then Abraham fell upon his face, and laughed, and said in his heart, Shall a child be born unto him that is an hundred years old? and shall Sarah, that is ninety years old, bear?

Abraham fell upon his face, and laughed. It was not the sneer of unbelief, but a smile of delight at the prospect of so improbable an event (Romans 4:20); he fully believed the word of God: there was humility blended with wonder and joy. This is what our Lord alluded to, John 8:56. Since Abraham saw heaven in the promise of Canaan, so he saw Christ in the promise of Isaac (laughter).


Verse 18

And Abraham said unto God, O that Ishmael might live before thee!

O that Ishmael. This expressed the natural solicitude of a parent. But God's thoughts are not as man's thoughts.


Verses 19-21

And God said, Sarah thy wife shall bear thee a son indeed; and thou shalt call his name Isaac: and I will establish my covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, and with his seed after him.

The blessings of the covenant are reserved for Isaac, but common blessings were abundantly promised to Ishmael; and though the visible Church did not descend from his family, yet personally he might, and it is to be hoped did, enjoy its benefits.


Verse 22

And he left off talking with him, and God went up from Abraham.

No JFB commentary on this verse.


Verses 23-27

And Abraham took Ishmael his son, and all that were born in his house, and all that were bought with his money, every male among the men of Abraham's house; and circumcised the flesh of their foreskin in the selfsame day, as God had said unto him.

Abraham took Ishmael his son, ... Here is an instance of prompt obedience to the divine command. It was in accordance with the patriarch's pious character and course of procedure; but he had an additional motive for ready compliance in the happy announcement which had been made to him (Genesis 17:16). It is important to observe the time when the patriarch was instructed to practice this peculiar rite, which had a relation to the birth of the Saviour, who was to appear "in the likeness of sinful flesh," and be made sin for us. Being appointed as the seal of the covenant made with Abraham, which had a direct reference to the Messiah, it was in the eye of faith a constant remembrancer of the special relation in which the patriarch stood to the promised seed; and accordingly it is deserving of particular notice, that it was not enjoined on Abraham previous to the birth of Ishmael, his son by the bond-woman, but at the very time of his receiving the promise of a son by Sarah; nor did he become the father of the child of promise until he had performed this rite. Many of the Christian fathers held that there was a mystical reference even in the circumstances that marked, as they assumed, the first observance of circumcision.

Abraham's household consisted, as they alleged, besides Ishmael, of 318 male servants, and that number involved a mysterious truth: for of the two Greek letters which represent 18, I stands for 10, and H for 8, which was a cipher (I H) in common use among the early Christians for the sacred name Jesus; and the letter Tau, the form of which suggests the idea of a cross, stands for 300; so that the number 318 was mystically significant of the 'cross of Jesus.' But the sacred historian does not say that 'all the men of Abraham's house (Genesis 17:27) who were circumcised,' were 318. That was the number of servants he selected for a warlike expedition fifteen years before; and since he must have left a sufficient number at home to take charge of his immense flocks, his household must have become suddenly and greatly reduced, if it comprised no more than 318 males "trained" men, slaves, and children.

This allegorical interpretation of the fathers, therefore, is not only a mere fanciful conjecture, but based on an unwarrantable assumption. Michaelis dwells on the difficulties connected with the simultaneous circumcision of all the males, master and servants, in the household:-all work must have ceased, and the cattle could not have been foddered. But there is no necessity for supposing that the collective body of males in the establishment were subjected to the operation at once. The conditions of the sacred narrative appear to be satisfied by considering that Abraham and his son Ishmael were circumcised on the self-same day on which the divine injunction had been given him while his servants followed in succession as rapidly as convenience allowed. And this is clearly implied in the record of Moses, who, while he first states (Genesis 17:23) the general fact that the rite was observed, seems to hint (Genesis 17:26-27) an order in the time of observance throughout the numerous household (see further the note at Joshua 5:5; Joshua 5:7).

In considering the views advanced in the exposition of this chapter, it naturally occurs to ask, 'What may be said to constitute the special and distinctive differences between the pagan and the Hebrew rite of circumcision?' It is not unlikely that this usage was connected first of all with the idea of generative purity, and so of a transcendent fitness for religious service and the higher culture of the intellect. As such it had continued to be prized in Egypt by the members of the hierarchy (no persons uncircumcised being allowed to study the sacerdotal or hieroglyphic characters), even though it was neglected or disparaged by the bulk of the people, among whom, indeed, on losing its original significance, it came to be regarded merely as an ancient custom or a sanitary and prudential regulation. It might also in some districts be perverted, with corruptions of religious thought, into a species of bloody offering, or might even, as a substitute for human sacrifices, be administered in every case with the intention of propitiating an angry god like Moloch. But whatever had become the pagan version of this symbol, no one will deny that when the Hebrew patriarch circumcised the members of his household, he both acted with a definite purpose and was animated with a spirit thoroughly religious.

The symbol was profoundly ethical, and was distinguished not only for its equal operation, but the grandeur of the end for which it was appointed. Translated into words-the meaning of it was-`Be ye holy, for I am holy.' Outward in the flesh, and so, accordant with the sterner genius of the old economy, it imprinted on the mind of every Hebrew the special closeness of his own relations to the pure and perfect God, and the necessity therein implied of fearing and loving Him, and circumcising (Deuteronomy 10:12-16) more and more 'the foreskin of the heart' (Hardwick.) The narrative describes the rite as performed upon "every male" in 'Abraham's house.' 'Females had no equivalent for it. The absence of circumcision, however, did not convey the idea that the privileges of the covenant were not applicable to woman also, but that she was dependent, and that her position in the natural and covenant-life was not "without" the husband, but in and with him-not in her capacity as woman, but as wife (and mother). Woman was sanctified and set apart in and with man; in and with him she had part in the covenant, and so far as her nature and position demanded and admitted of it, she had to cooperate in the development of the covenant' (Kurtz). (See a summary of the literature of this subject, religious moral, political, and medical, par Le Dr. Vanier du Havre, Paris, 1847.)

 


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Bibliography Information
Jamieson, Robert, D.D.; Fausset, A. R.; Brown, David. "Commentary on Genesis 17:4". "Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible - Unabridged". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/jfu/genesis-17.html. 1871-8.

Lectionary Calendar
Thursday, October 17th, 2019
the Week of Proper 23 / Ordinary 28
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