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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible
Genesis 17

 

 

Verse 1-2

‘And when Abram was ninety nine years old Yahweh appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am El Shaddai (God Almighty). Walk before me and be perfect and I will make my covenant between me and you and will multiply you greatly”.’

Again the number is significant. It indicates that the miracle heir will be born when Abram is ‘one hundred’, in other words at God’s perfect timing.

(Note however that Abraham can at the same time describe himself as ‘a hundred years old’ (Genesis 17:17 - compare Genesis 17:24). We must not tie the ancients down to our exact methods of using numbers. They indicated a different thing by them).

“I am El Shaddai” - ‘God Almighty’ - the One Who is ‘competent’ to perform what He promises. Previously God’s covenant has been with His chosen people as Yahweh. But now He will make a covenant that includes other peoples and other nations. To them therefore He is El Shaddai, ‘God Almighty’. Previously every covenant has been from ‘Yahweh’, and very personal, now Yahweh reveals Himself as not just Lord of one nation but of many nations.

This has, of course, been implicit in what has been revealed to Abram previously, but now it is made explicit. He is not only Yahweh, their personal God, but El Shaddai, God over all. He will not only govern the destiny of the chosen nation but of other related nations too to whom He will not be known as Yahweh. This will include the descendants of Ishmael, and also later of the Edomites and the sons of Keturah (Genesis 25:1 on). And to ratify this covenant an outward sign that can be seen by all nations is introduced, circumcision on the eighth day.

“Walk before me and be perfect ---”. Enoch and Noah walked with God (Genesis 5:22; Genesis 6:9). Those were days when the presence of God was more intimately known than now. Now Abram can only walk before God as God watches over him. Being ‘perfect’ means walking within the covenant stipulations, fulfilling all God’s requirements, being a faithful liegeman (compare Deuteronomy 18:13).

“I will make my covenant with you ---”. Abram is already a man of the covenant. But the birth of Ishmael indicates the necessity for a wider and broader covenant. Abram has failed in faith and pre-empted God. Now God calls him back to obedience and will establish a wider covenant which will include Ishmael and his promised seed. Of course, while Ishmael is with the family tribe Yahweh watches over him. But once he leaves he will come under the provenance of God as El, -- El Roi (Genesis 16:13), El Shaddai.

Here the impression given is that it is Abram’s obedience that will result in the blessing. But we must not forget that the blessing has already been guaranteed in response to Abram’s faith (Genesis 15:6). Thus we have the perfect example of the fact that God’s covenant is made with us as a gift of grace in response to faith, but that as a result obedience is expected through which the blessing will be received. Genuine faith will always produce obedience (‘works’).

As in Genesis 15 Abram is the passive receiver of the covenant. It is Yahweh, El Shaddai, Who determines its content and promises. It is the Great King Who speaks to His liegeman. And yet Abram is more than a liegeman, he is the chosen of Yahweh.


Verses 3-8

Genesis 17:4

‘And Abram fell on his face, and God talked with him saying, “As for me, behold my covenant is with you and you will be the father of a multitude of nations”.’

The presence of Yahweh is so real and awe-inspiring that Abram ‘falls on his face’ as before a great king (compare Genesis 17:22 - which demonstrates that this is a genuine theophany). The title ‘God’ is used because Yahweh is here representing Himself as ‘God Almighty’ (El Shaddai). So throughout this passage He is spoken of as ‘God’, that is ‘El Shaddai’ for it reaches beyond those who worship Him as Yahweh.

Genesis 17:5

“Neither shall your name any more be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations.”

The change of name indicates a new beginning. Now the thought is of more than one nation. The name ‘Abram’ is found in many contemporary ancient texts, often in the form ‘Abi-ram’ - ‘my father is Ram - the exalted One’, it may also mean ‘my father is exalted’. The name ‘Ab-raham’ is also similarly found and may mean ‘father of a multitude’ but there is a typical play on words rather than the name necessarily meaning that. Thus the name change, although being an alternative form rather than a new name, (it is like changing Steve to Stephen), indicates the extending of the promises to Abram.

Genesis 17:6

“And I will make you exceeding fruitful, and I will make nations of you and kings shall come from you.”

Now it is more than one nation that will come out of Abram and his seed, and the added promise is made of ‘kings’, rulers of peoples, re-emphasising the extension of the promise to many peoples so that there will be many tribes. It is to miss the point to see this as directly a prophecy of the Davidic kingship, although later readers would read it so. This is not as specific as that. It is the natural result of a man in Abram’s position producing many tribes and peoples necessitating many rulers. Not one nation but many. And his descendants will rule over them. This reaches its final culmination when all nations are Abraham’s seed in Christ the king and all the nations of the world are blessed (Genesis 12:3).

Genesis 17:7

“And 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.”

Here God makes explicit what has previously been implicit, that the covenant is with, and includes, all generations of his seed to come. It is a covenant that will never cease. God will never cease to be their God. The covenant is permanent and ‘everlasting’.

“Me and you and your seed after you --”. The latter is repeated three times to confirm the completeness of the covenant. His descendants are now specifically brought in to the covenant. But there is still a stress on Abraham’s favoured position. His descendants are blessed because of him. His seed includes all his seed, the nations that will spring from him.

Genesis 17:8

“And I will give to you, and to your seed after you, the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, and I will be their God.”

At present they are dwellers in the land, but much of the land is owned by others. They are sojourners, they merely have ‘temporary residence rights’. But one day his descendants will own and possess the land in the name of Almighty God Who can do whatever He will. There may be a hint here that Abraham has been becoming concerned about the fact that his reception of the land has seemed to be delayed. This stresses that God has not overlooked him.

And He will be God to them. His sovereign power will be exerted on their behalf and He will rule over them receiving their homage and worship. It is interesting that in Exodus 3-6 the reverse situation applies. Here, as Yahweh, He is revealing Himself in the name ‘El Shaddai’ as the God Who is over all because His new covenant includes those outside the original covenant who will not be part of that covenant until all nations are blessed in Abram. In Exodus He Who is their God (El Shaddai), as they dwell outside the land, Who will also reveal Himself as the God of the covenant, as Yahweh, as ‘the One Who is there’, acting in history in the actual fulfilling of the promises by possession of the land.


Verses 9-11

‘And God said to Abraham, “And as for you, you will keep my covenant, you and your seed after you throughout their generations. This is my covenant that you shall keep between me and you and your seed after you, every male among you shall be circumcised. And you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin, and it will be a token of a covenant between me and you”.’

In Genesis 15 a sign was given to Abram in the form of a covenant ceremony where the blood of animals was shed to seal the covenant. Here that is replaced by the shedding of blood in person in each one who would enter the covenant. By being specifically circumcised with a view to membership in the covenant community they showed their response to God’s covenant with His people and their commitment to the God of the covenant.

We note here that the respective positions are made clear. It is God Who ‘establishes’ the covenant (Genesis 17:7). It is Abraham who ‘keeps’ it (Genesis 17:9-10). Circumcision is not the making of a covenant but the response to a covenant already established by God.

The rite, which was restricted to males, was to be carried out on the eighth day after birth (Genesis 17:12) although any male who was uncircumcised and who wished to join the covenant community at any age was also required to be circumcised whether slave or free (Genesis 17:12-13).

We have unintentional confirmation of how ancient this ceremony is in Joshua 3:5 where we are told that Joshua used flint knives for the performance of the rite at a time when the use of metal was well known. It is clear from that that the ceremony was seen as so sacred that the original methods had to be followed. Moses’ failure to circumcise his son led to almost fatal illness until the situation was remedied (Exodus 4:24-26). Again a flint was used. At the Exodus it is stipulated that the Feast of the Passover could only be celebrated by circumcised males (Exodus 12:44; Exodus 12:48).

Circumcision was an ancient institution not limited to the family tribe of Abraham and was practised in Egypt in the Old Kingdom period. But there it was carried out during boyhood rather than at infancy. A sixth dynasty Egyptian tomb relief depicts a boy being circumcised and two prisoners of a Canaanite king depicted on a 12th century BC Megiddo ivory were also circumcised. But it is clear that in Abraham’s family tribe general circumcision was not practised up to this point, and it was not generally practised in Mesopotamia from where Abraham came. Modern medicine has shown the value of circumcision in protecting the health of those who live in semi-desert conditions as it helps to prevent foreign bodies becoming trapped under the foreskin.

Later the peoples round Israel are also seen to be in the main circumcised for the Philistines are disparagingly marked down as ‘the uncircumcised Philistines’ (Judges 14:3; Judges 15:18), because their state was considered unusual and despised. How far this arose from connection with the covenant with Abraham (and later Moses) and how far from Egyptian and other influence we do not know. It is to be noted that the inhabitants of Shechem were recognised as being uncircumcised at the time of Jacob (Genesis 34). Thus we have here an example, as later with the sacrificial system, of a more general practise which is taken over and given specific meaning.

Circumcision would also become the symbol of the need for a purified heart - see Deuteronomy 10:16; Deuteronomy 30:6; Jeremiah 9:25-26. Just as ritual circumcision was the outward sign of entry into the covenant, so ‘spiritual circumcision’ signified a genuine commitment of the heart to God’s covenant and obedience to His commands. Without the latter the former was meaningless. Moses spoke of himself as having ‘uncircumcised lips’ (Exodus 6:12; Exodus 6:30). This is probably metaphorical and demonstrates early usage of such an idea. It may mean that Pharaoh would see him as inferior, or be a reference to his lack of ability as an orator. It is signifying that he is not fit to do the task required.

Genesis 17:12-14

“And he who is eight days old will be circumcised among you, every male throughout your generations, he who is born in the house or bought with wealth from any stranger, who is not of your seed. He who is born in your house and he who is bought with your wealth must necessarily be circumcised, and my covenant will be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. And the uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that soul shall be cut off from his people. He has broken my covenant.”

To share in the benefits of God’s covenant circumcision is now required. It becomes the symbol of response to and commitment to the covenant. It applies to all, both slave and free. This is confirmation that even the lowest of the low in the family tribe were seen as within God’s covenant and therefore as His people. Refusal would mean excommunication or worse, but this is an emphasis on the totality of the requirement rather than being given as a practical alternative. It is not really facing people with a choice. The one who refused would be revealing himself as deliberately blaspheming God, but there is always the possibility of those who will take an extreme position. Compare the seriousness with which Moses’ lapse was treated (Exodus 4:24-26).

We note again here how the covenant community was made up of nationals from many nations.


Verse 15

‘And God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you will not call her name Sarai, but her name shall be Sarah (princess).”

The new name again stresses a new beginning in a new situation. Sarah is to share in Abraham’s honour and her position as the producer of the chosen line is emphasised. She is given a new dignity and brought directly into the covenant, receiving a personal blessing. (Sarai is probably simply an older form of Sarah. It is the change of name and not the change of meaning that is significant).

Genesis 17:16

“And I will bless her and give you a son from her. Yes, I will bless her and she shall be a mother (princess?) of nations, kings of peoples shall be of her.”

God declares that Sarah is to have a natural son in spite of her age, and that she too will have nations and kings who will look back to her as their source. There is no word for ‘mother’ in the original, it has to be read in. On the basis of the name change and the context it may be that ‘princess’ is the idea to be read in. Not just a mother but a mother-princess. The promise is of course an extension of the promise to Abraham.


Verses 17-21

‘Then Abraham fell on his face, and laughed, and said in his heart, “Shall a child be born to him who is a hundred years old, and shall Sarah who is ninety years old produce a child?” And Abraham said to God, “Oh that Ishmael might live before you”.’

The writer makes clear that Abraham’s faith falters. He is clearly possessed with a mixture of emotions. At the words he expressly renews his attitude of obedient submission, he ‘falls on his face’ (compare Genesis 17:3). But he laughs. The laughter may well be in his heart as are the words. The context shows that it means he is incredulous (compare Genesis 18:12). Whoever heard of such a thing?

(This was Abraham’s view. It is of course possible for a hundred year old vigorous man to beget a child. Who can say what was possible with a healthy but barren 90 year old woman who was still vigorous and would live to 127, at a time when longevity was more the norm so that the ageing process was clearly slower? But we are told that her periods have ceased - Genesis 18:11. Whether this was to be a specific miracle or just an unusual scientific phenomena we are not told).

“Oh that Ishmael might live before you”. We cannot avoid the suggestion here that Abraham actually sees God as mistaken. Abraham himself has understandably lost hope. He does not want to have to wait any longer. He tells God that he is willing to accept Ishmael as the fulfilment of God’s promise. How often we accept second best because the best seems impossible.

‘And God said, “No. Sarah your wife will bear a son, and you will call his name Isaac (which means ‘laughter’)”. And I will establish my covenant with him for an everlasting covenant for his seed after him. And as for Ishmael, I have heard you. Behold I have blessed him and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him greatly. Twelve princes will he beget and I will make him a great nation. But my covenant will I establish with Isaac whom Sarah will bear to you at this set time in the next year”.’

God understands Abraham’s doubts and confirms exactly what He has promised. Sarah will genuinely have a child of her own. The name ‘laughter’ unquestionably has in mind the fact that Abraham laughed in his heart, but it also has in mind the joy that the child will bring, not only to Abraham and Sarah but to the world. His sceptical laughter will be turned into so great a joyous laughter, that in the end the first laughter is forgotten.

So the name Isaac signifies ‘do not doubt my promises’ but it also means ‘from him blessings will abound’.

It is now made clear that the basic covenant for the chosen line is with Isaac. But this will withhold nothing from Ishmael. He too is part of the wider covenant and will produce a nation and be the father of rulers. Indeed he will parallel Isaac. Twelve rulers will descend from him. (Twelve was another number that contained within it the idea of tribal completeness. As we shall see later twelve was looked on as the ideal tribal confederation). Yet the use of ‘prince’ (nasi) rather than ‘king’ (melek) may hint at a slightly less exalted level of blessing, although alternately it may more reflect Ishmael’s prophesied type of lifestyle (Genesis 16:12). Bedouins did not have ‘kings’. And it is only through Isaac that ‘all the nations of the world will be blessed’ (Genesis 12:3).

God now commits Himself as to time. Abraham does not have long to wait. Isaac will be born in a year’s time. This time note tallies with Genesis 17:1 demonstrating that this section is a genuine part of this whole covenant narrative and not a later insertion.


Verse 22

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

The order in the second phrase suggests that the first phrase means it was God Who left off talking with Abraham. The covenant was complete. Its various ramifications had been explained. Now the theophany ceases.

“God went up ---”. Compare 35:13; Judges 13:20. This indicates the end of a theophany. God departs, but not to another place. He leaves this world for His own abode, away from this world. His activity in this world is over for the present. It reminds us that Abraham received more than messages in his heart. He experienced the visible, awe-inspiring presence of God.


Verse 23

‘And Abraham took Ishmael his son, and all who were born in his house, and all who were bought with his wealth, every male among the men of Abraham’s house, and circumcised the flesh of their foreskin on the selfsame day as God had said to him.’

Abraham obeyed immediately. No doubt he gathered the men together and explained the wonderful theophany he had experienced and described the terms of the covenant, and then the ceremony would take place as a dedication to the God of the covenant. But what matters is that the demands were fulfilled. Then the covenant was put into writing and the following final verses are the confirmation of the fulfilment of the demands of the covenant.


Verses 24-27

‘And Abraham was ninety nine years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, and Ishmael his son was thirteen years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. In the selfsame day was Abraham circumcised and Ishmael his son, and all the men of his house, those born in the house and those bought with wealth from the stranger, were circumcised with him.’

Ishmael is mentioned separately as one named in the covenant. His age shows that he is at the beginning of manhood and thus old enough to participate in a covenant meaningfully. So ends another covenant record. But this time a covenant including Ishmael and offered to a number of nations. It is significant that the circumcision of the final one of the trio, Isaac, is also recorded. It is found in Genesis 21:4, the only other mention in Genesis of an individual’s circumcision.

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Genesis 17:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/genesis-17.html. 2013.

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, October 15th, 2019
the Week of Proper 23 / Ordinary 28
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