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Bible Commentaries

Thomas Coke Commentary on the Holy Bible
Genesis 17

 

 

Introduction

CHAP. XVII.

God renews the covenant with Abram: changes his name, and institutes circumcision: he promises Sarah a son within the year: Abraham and Ishmael are circumcised.


Verse 1

Genesis 17:1. I am the Almighty, &c.— Thirteen years had now passed since the birth of Ishmael, Genesis 17:25 and Abram was advancing in his hundredth year, when all hope of offspring by Sarai must have been almost hopeless. At this time God appears to him again, to renew the covenant, and to assure him of a son by his wife. He introduces the information by saying, I am the Almighty God, as we render אלאּשׁדי eil-shadai Etymologists derive shadai from different roots; but the true derivation seems that of Schmidt, from שׁדה shadah, to pour out, to shed, whence, שׁד shad, a breast, and shadai, the pourer forth, or giver of blessings temporal and spiritual: an attribute peculiarly proper in this place, when God is about to renew his promise of blessing to Abram: and it is very observable, that this word is generally used where God is spoken of as the Giver of blessings, particularly of increase; see chap. Genesis 28:3. Genesis 35:11. &c. Those who will not allow of this interpretation, must understand the word as expressive of God's Omnipotence; in which sense it is to be considered as an argument for faith in Abram, who could not well doubt him who was able to perform all he should promise.

Walk before me, and be thou perfect i.e.. walk before me, in my presence, in faith and obedience; and be thou entire in thy faith, and universal internally and externally in thy obedience; see note on chap. 6: Genesis 35:9.


Verse 2

Genesis 17:2. I will make my covenant, &c.— "Continue thou to do thy part, and I will continue stedfast to the purpose of making my covenant, and establishing it with thee; and I appear to thee now to renew and confirm it." Struck with the awfulness of the Divine appearance, Abram fell prostrate on his face, and in this humble posture received the sacred oracles of his God.

REFLECTIONS.—We have here another manifestation of God's presence to the holy patriarch, for his comfort and support under the long exercise of his faith and patience. Observe,

1. The humble posture he appeared in before God: on his face. Learn, (1.) The nearer we come to God, the more shall we feel our sinfulness and vileness before him. (2.) Reverence and holy awe should be upon our heart and countenance, when we are speaking before God. (3.) When we are thus found before God in worship, God will be found near us in blessing.

2. The promise and command given to Abram. (1.) The promise, "I am God Almighty, or the pourer forth of blessings, I will multiply thee, &c." Note; 1. He who promises is able also to perform; for he is Almighty in himself, and All-sufficient for us. 2. They who have God as their Covenant-God, have enough, nor need wish for more, except an increase in the enjoyment of him. (2.) His command: "Walk before me, and be thou perfect."

Learn, 1. He who offers himself to be our God has a right to expect that we should be his entirely-devoted people. 2. God can ask for no less than our whole heart, and we can surely make him no less an offer.


Verse 4

Genesis 17:4. As for me The Almighty begins with setting forth his part of the covenant, with declaring what he would do for Abram; and in Genesis 17:9, &c. he sets forth Abram's part of it.—In token of that increase, which, in a temporal and spiritual sense, he would give to Abram, he changes his name to Abraham, the meaning of which name is also given, as is generally the case in Scripture: thy name shall be Abraham, for a father of many nations have I made thee. Abram, it is generally agreed, signifies mighty, or high father; as, Abraham, the father of a multitude, or of many nations. It was indeed usual with the Orientals, not only to give names of good omen to their children when born, but to change these names upon any particular event, whether happy or otherwise, which might befal them. Thus Jacob's name was changed into Israel; so Naomi's into Mara. See Ruth 1:20. In like manner Christ changed the name of Simon into Cephas, or Peter, Matthew 10:2; Matthew 16:18. So, in like manner, God here condescends to Abraham.


Verse 6

Genesis 17:6. I will make thee exceeding fruitful, &c.— Abraham was exceeding fruitful, and kings of nations descended from him; not only among the Israelites, but also the Ishmaelites, Edomites, Saracens, and others: and, above all the rest, from him descended the Messiah, the King of kings, and Lord of lords.


Verse 8

Genesis 17:8. I will be their God The spiritual and temporal covenant are blended together, and with propriety, as the latter was eminently typical of the former. The Scripture covenant with Abraham, and all his children by faith, is strictly everlasting; for it extends to the possession of that heavenly and better country, the celestial Canaan, where God will be the God of all faithful believers throughout eternity. See Revelation 21:3 and Jeremiah 31:33.


Verse 9

Genesis 17:9. God said unto Abraham, &c.— Having declared what he would himself perform, the Lord goes on to signify what he expected from Abraham, and to appoint a sign or token of his covenant with him. Thou shalt keep my covenant, i.e.. observe and fulfil thy part of it: and this is my covenant, i.e.. the token of the covenant betwixt me and you, Genesis 17:11. Every man-child shall be circumcised: a ceremony, which appears, as plain as words can make it, to have been now first instituted; and consequently both their opinion, who suppose that it was ordained from the fall, and theirs, who think that it was derived to the Jews from the AEgyptians, are erroneous. If it had been customary, or known to Abraham before this time, is it to be imagined that it would have been spoken of in such manner as we read in these verses, 9-14?

Herodotus is the author from whom the arguments are drawn for its original usage in AEgypt; but his credit is acknowledged to be very uncertain. The principal lexicographer of the Jews (Baal Aruch) observes, that the AEgyptians were circumcised in the times of Joseph; and when Joseph died they left off the custom. And if the custom did continue afterwards, it does not by any means appear, even from Herodotus himself, to have been universal in AEgypt, but of a very partial nature, probably confined only to their priests. Artapanus, a heathen writer, observes, that the AEthiopians, though enemies, had such a regard for Moses, that they learned from him the rite of circumcision. It is not very difficult to account how other nations, besides the Jews, should receive circumcision, which was first enjoined Abraham and his seed. The Ishmaelites had it from Ishmael the son of Abraham; from them the old Arabs; from the Arabs the Saracens; and from the Saracens the Turks to this day. Other Arabian nations, as the Midianites and others, received it from the sons of Abraham by Keturah; and perhaps the AEgyptians and AEthiopians from them, if the former had it not from the Israelites. The Edomites had it from Edom or Esau, the son of Isaac, the son of Abraham: so that all originally had it from Abraham, and he by a Divine command. They who would enter more minutely into the argument will find it well discussed in Calmet's dissertation on the subject.

REFLECTIONS.—1. By God's order Abram's name is changed into Abraham, correspondent to the promise, I will make thee a father of many nations. A new name from God is a new honour; but it is better still; it is a confirmation of his faith. What God calls him, he is. Though the children are unborn, faith gives subsistence to the things hoped for. More people probably this day are descended from him; and more kings have reigned, and do still reign, of his posterity, in Isaac, Ishmael, and the sons of Keturah, than from any man who lived in his or any succeeding time. But in a more exalted and extensive sense, as the father of the faithful, his seed are yet, or shall be, more numerous, and every one a king.

2. Observe God's covenant with him: full of promises great and precious; a numberless progeny, a fruitful land, a kingly throne, and everlasting possession of it: part to be fulfilled on earth, the better part in heaven, where Jesus is set down upon the throne for ever and ever. Note; (1.) The great blessing of the covenant of grace is, that all God is and hath are made over to us; wisdom to guide, grace to pardon, power to support, goodness to comfort; all things, in short, are ours, if God be ours. (2.) The crowning mercy is, It is eternal in its continuance.


Verse 11

Genesis 17:11. A token of the covenant, &c.— Here circumcision is called a token, as before it was called the covenant; so the Paschal Lamb is called the Passover of the Lord, Exodus 11:10 of which it was only a memorial: so the bread and wine are called the Body and Blood of Christ, of which they are only memorials, Matthew 26:26. &c. It is evident that circumcision was instituted solely as a token of that covenant which God entered into with Abraham, not as any peculiar mark of distinction: and like all other signs and tokens, it had no intrinsic excellence in itself, but as it became productive of that true circumcision of the heart, which alone is acceptable to God. See Romans 2:25-29. Deuteronomy 10:16.


Verse 14

Genesis 17:14. The uncircumcised man-child, &c.— It seems to follow very plainly from the foregoing verses, as well as from this, that nobody could possibly belong to Abraham's family who did not submit to this rite; but then, it follows as plainly, that the blessings of this Abrahamic covenant were not by any means confined to his descendants only: all who would embrace the terms and accept the sign of that covenant might share in its advantages. The eighth day was appointed for this operation, that parents might see it duly performed at a period least dangerous to the infant: and it was to be performed no sooner than the eighth day; because, say the Jewish writers, the infant was not looked upon as perfect till that time: for which reason brute animals were not to be offered to God till the eighth day after their birth, Exodus 22:30. Had circumcision been appointed earlier, the ordinary mortality of children from other causes soon after their birth would have been imputed to this rite; and had it been deferred much longer, the growing fondness of parents would often delay, and perhaps, in the end, defeat the institution.

We are informed by the Jewish writers, that, after the full establishment of their economy, certain officers of an institution, called the house of judgment, were bound to circumcise the children, if the parents neglected it: and if they did it not, through ignorance of the parent's neglect, the child, when he came of age, was bound himself to get it done. But if he omitted, then was to take place what is mentioned in this verse; for it cannot be supposed that the child should be cut off merely for a neglect which it could not prevent; and therefore we must understand, that he who, when he came to years of discretion, omitted this rite, should be cut off from his people, i.e.. should be separated from all the benefits and privileges which that people enjoyed through the covenant which God had made with them, whereof circumcision was the sign; and which whosoever refused, he consequently broke the covenant, omitting to do his part, and therefore having no right to expect that God should perform his. This appears the plain and natural sense of the passage; and thus interpreted, it plainly comprehends all spiritual as well as temporal loss, since both temporal and spiritual blessings are contained in the covenant. Some have supposed, and the Syriac version supports the opinion, that the parent or person omitting to circumcise should be cut off: Whosoever shall not circumcise, &c. shall be cut off. But the former seems the best interpretation: "Whosoever, when he comes to years of discretion, shall totally omit this rite, shall forfeit all the blessings and privileges of that covenant, whereof circumcision is the appointed sign."

REFLECTIONS.—The covenant being given, the seal of it is prescribed, circumcision; a bloody rite, to signify the necessity of shedding blood for the remission of sin; which all, from the infant to the aged, must in some sense submit to; for none can enter the kingdom of heaven but through the Blood of the covenant; intimating also the necessity of putting off the sins of the flesh, and of that inward circumcision, without which the other availed nothing, for he was not a Jew, who was one outwardly; and it was also armed with the threatening of excision on non-compliance, because neglect of the sign implied rejection of the covenant. Note; They who would have God for their God must consecrate themselves to him under the instituted seals of the covenant.


Verse 15

Genesis 17:15. As for Sarai thy wife, &c.— God now proceeds to reveal to Abraham, that the son of the promise should descend from his wife Sarai, whose name also he changes from Sarai, which signifies, say interpreters, my lady, to Sarah, which signifies, according to some, lady, or princess, absolutely, i.e.. not of one family only; or, according to others, princess of multitudes, which seems the most probable interpretation, not only from the occasion, but on account of the addition of the same letter ה to her name, which was added to Abram's; and which, consequently, should import the same thing.


Verse 17

Genesis 17:17. And laughed If we compare the twelfth verse of the following chapter, where Sarah expresses her incredulity by laughing, and consider the whole sentence here before us (especially the words, Genesis 17:18. O! that Ishmael might live before thee; as if he had said, to have a son by Sarah, in her advanced time of life, is too much for me to expect; it will be enough for me to be assured, that Ishmael shall live and share thy favour); and if, after this, we consider the reply which God makes, repeating the assurance with an emphasis, "Sarah shall bear thee a son INDEED," we shall judge it probable, from all these considerations, that the good old patriarch was a little doubtful, not whether an Omnipotent Being could, but whether he would, accomplish so extraordinary an event: for it is to be observed, that this is the first time that Abraham is directly told that Sarah is to be the mother of the promised seed: and perhaps the decays of age, and the infirmities of nature which he perceived in himself, might make him in some degree apprehend the event more incredible now than it appeared fifteen years before. Thus it is observed of Moses, who probably was not inferior to Abraham in piety and faith, that, after all the divine miracles he had seen, he was guilty of some distrust, and smote the rock twice. Numbers 20:11-12. However, we may observe, as to Abraham, that, if he doubts, it is with great modesty; for he falls upon his face, and checks the risings of unbelief, not daring to speak out what he thought; he only said in his heart, &c.

Be born to him that is an hundred, &c.— See the remarks on chap. Genesis 25:1-2, &c.


Verse 19

Genesis 17:19. Thou shalt call his name Isaac In remembrance of the laughter, both of the father and mother, Genesis 17:17 chap. Genesis 18:12.


Verse 20

Genesis 17:20. As for Ishmael, I have heard thee, &c.— The Lord is pleased to repeat to Abraham what he had promised Hagar before concerning Ishmael; namely, that he would make him fruitful and multiply him exceedingly; see notes on ch. Genesis 16:10. He is pleased, more particularly, to add, twelve princes shall he beget: a very extraordinary circumstance, as the Bishop of Bristol observes; but it was punctually fulfilled; and Moses hath given us the names of these twelve princes, or heads of tribes, ch. Genesis 25:12-16. Strabo frequently mentions the Arabian phylarchs, as he denominates them, or rulers of tribes: and Melo, quoted by Eusebius, relates, that "Abraham, of his AEgyptian wife, begat twelve sons, (he should have said one son, who begat twelve sons,) who, departing into Arabia, divided the region between them, and were the first kings of the inhabitants; whence, even to our days, the Arabians have twelve kings of the same names as the first;" and ever since, the people have been governed by phylarchs, and have lived in tribes, and still continue to do so, as Thevenot and other modern travellers testify.

I will make him a great nation This is repeated twice or thrice; and it was accomplished as soon as, in the regular course of nature, it could be accomplished. His seed, in process of time, grew up into a great nation, and such they continued for several ages, and such they continue to this day. They might indeed emphatically be styled a great nation, when the Saracens had made those rapid and extensive conquests, and erected one of the largest empires that ever was in the world. Who, continues the Bishop, can fairly lay all these particulars concerning Ishmael together, and not perceive the hand of God, in that whole affair, from the beginning to the end? None but God could describe so exactly the genius and manners, not only of a single person before he was born, but of a whole people, from the first founder of the race to the present time. It was somewhat wonderful, and not to be foreseen by human sagacity, that a man's whole posterity should so nearly resemble him, and retain the same inclinations, the same habits, the same customs, throughout all ages. These are the only people, besides the Jews, who have subsisted as a distinct people from the beginning; and in some respects they very much resemble each other. The Arabs, as well as the Jews, are descended from Abraham, and both boast of their descent from that father of the faithful. The Arabs, as well as the Jews, are circumcised, and both profess to have derived that ceremony from Abraham. The Arabs, as well as the Jews, had originally twelve patriarchs, or heads of tribes, who were their princes or governors. The Arabs, as well as the Jews, marry among themselves, and in their own tribes. The Arabs, as well as the Jews, are singular in several of their customs, and are standing monuments to all ages of the exactness of the Divine predictions, of the veracity of Scripture history. We may, if possible, with more confidence, believe the particulars related of Abraham and Ishmael, when we see them verified in their posterity at this day. This is having, as it were, ocular demonstration for our faith.


Verse 21-22

Genesis 17:21-22. My covenant will I establish, &c.— This is an abundant proof, that the covenant which God entered into with Abraham, was of a spiritual as well as a temporal nature, by being thus limited to his descendants by Isaac only; whom he condescends to promise him at a short and fixed period approaching, this set time in the next year. Michaelis has it, "my spiritual covenant with Christ." After this information, the Lord left off talking with him, and went up from Abraham, most probably in some resplendent cloud, the symbol of the Divine appearance, Judges 13:20.

REFLECTIONS.—God now more explicitly reveals his designs to Abraham.

1. A son is promised, not of the bond-woman, but of the free. Sarai shall share with Abraham in the blessing; she shall be a mother of kings and nations. Observe, (1.) Husband and wife must count their mercies one. (2.) A child from the Lord is a blessing, for which we cannot be enough thankful.

2. Sarai's name is changed. She has a new name, to intimate the new honour now to be conferred upon her. She is a princess, indeed, from whom he springs, who is King of kings and Lord of lords.

3. We have Abraham's prayer for Ishmael. Though Isaac is preferred, Ishmael shall not want a blessing. Note; God gives us more than we are wont to desire. He asked one blessing, God promises two.

4. When Abraham is fully satisfied, God withdraws, and leaves him for a while to meditate upon these wonders of mercy.


Verse 23

Genesis 17:23. In the self-same day, &c.— Thus the great patriarch shewed the most prompt obedience to the Divine command; and there can be no doubt, but the ready obedience of all his family to an injunction so severe and painful, sprung from the assurance which Abraham gave them of the Divine command. Josephus informs us, that the descendants of Ishmael circumcised their children at the age of thirteen.

Learn from this instant obedience of Abraham, that God's commands were law and reason to him. He cheerfully receives the seal, as he had gratefully accepted the promise. Note; 1. The positive institution of God admits no reasoning: it is enough he enjoins us the sign, for us to use it. 2. True obedience never defers till to-morrow what can be done to-day; for who knows what a day may bring forth? 3. They who would guide others in the right way, must first shew the example.

General reflections on the history of Abraham, from the time of his call, ch. 12: to his circumcision, ch. 17:

It was proper, that he who was appointed to be the father and the pattern of the faithful, should have his own faith thoroughly tried: for in a set copy every fault is important, and may be a rule of error. No son of Abraham can hope to escape trials, when he sees that bosom in which he desires to rest, so assaulted with difficulties.

As the first trial of his faith, Abraham is called to leave his country and his kindred; and to go to a place which he knew not, and where the people knew not him. It is comfort enough for a good man, that, wheresoever he is, he is acquainted with God. Never any man was a loser by his obedience to God: because Abraham readily obeyed, God promises to him and his seed the possession of Canaan. And behold, he takes possession for that seed which he had not, which in nature he was not like to have; of that land wherein he should not have one foot, wherein his seed should not be settled for almost five hundred years! The power of faith can prevent time, and make future things present. If we are the true children of Abraham, we have already (while we sojourn as pilgrims and strangers upon earth) the possession of our land of promise, our better country. While we seek it in obedience to the Almighty Lord of it, we have it! happy they who so seek it; who, after Abraham's example, are ready to leave all things at the call of God, waiting like him for that city, which hath foundations, and whose builder and maker will not be ashamed to be called their God! Read Hebrews 11:8-16.

But what shall we say of this great patriarch's weakness! hitherto hath Sarah been his wife; AEgypt now hath made her his sister! Alas, such is human frailty. He who lived by his faith, yet shrinketh and sinneth. But, be it observed to our comfort, that some small mixture of unbelief cannot hinder the praise and the power of faith: Abraham believed, and it was imputed to him for righteousness. He, who twice doubted of his own life, doubted, not of the life of his seed, even from the aged and barren Sarah, at least as soon as God had emphatically declared it: yet was it more difficult that his posterity should live in Sarah, than that Sarah's husband should live in AEgypt: this was above nature, yet he believes it. There are instances where the believer has hesitated at easy trials, and yet has broken through the greater temptations without fear. Abraham was old before this promise and hope of a son was given; and still the older, the greater the improbability, humanly speaking: yet God keeps him in suspense twenty-five years for the performance! No time is long to true faith, which learns to defer hopes without fainting; and fully assured of the Divine veracity, patiently waits God's time for the completion of all his gracious purposes! Lord, increase this powerful faith in all our hearts!

What a lively pattern may we observe in Abraham and Sarah of a strong, and of a weak faith! strong in Abraham, weak in Sarah! doubting of herself, she would substitute a Hagar to make good the Divine word: she will rather conceive by another, than be childless: again, when she hears of an impossibility to nature, she doubteth; and yet endeavours to hide her diffidence. On the other hand, Abraham hears and believes: he saith not, I am old and weak, and Sarah is old and barren: where are the many nations which shall spring from these withered loins? It is enough to him, that God hath said it; he sees not the means, he sees the promise. He knew that God would rather raise him up seed from the very stones he trod upon, than that he should fail of the numerous issue promised. Difficulties are frequently the proper objects of faith: God will assuredly bless those who trust in his infallible word: none was ever a loser by believing in him: none ever trusted in him and was confounded, or failed of an ample recompence. O that men would therefore confide in his promises, and humbly depend on his never-failing mercy!

But Abraham is not content only to wait for God; he is ready to smart for him: he is glad to bear a painful mark of his Creator's love: he is forward to seal this covenant with blood, betwixt God and him. The wound was not so grievous, as the signification was comfortable. For herein he saw, that from him should descend that blessed Seed, which should purify his soul from all corruption. Well is that part of us lost, which may give assurance of the salvation of the whole: well is the right hand cut off, if the remainder of the man may be preserved: our faith is not yet perfect, if it have not taught us to neglect pain for God.

The faith of Abraham triumphed over every difficulty: for he was satisfied, that the increasing these difficulties against the promise of God, was not able to retard them; and that God could renew the strength of a man of an hundred years. And it is to preserve the remembrance of the power of God, who had given a son to a man of a hundred years old; and also the remembrance of the faith of that man who waited for the same son, in spite of his advanced age, and of an operation so singular: it is, I say, to keep up the remembrance of this double event, among other reasons, that God prescribed to all the Jews the sacrament of circumcision. He thought fit that this token, received by Abraham's posterity, should be a perpetual memorial of their beginning: He thought fit that this token should bring back to their minds, at one and the same time, the faith of their father, who, against hope, believed in hope, and was not weak in faith; and the fidelity of their God, who, from one man only, and him very old, was able to raise up a people as numerous as the stars, or the sands upon the sea-shore.

Let us however once more observe, as we are admonished by St. Paul (Romans 4.) that Abraham was justified by faith before he received the sign of circumcision: whence the apostle concludes, that neither circumcision, nor any other external rite, can render a man acceptable to God: this can be effected only by a sincere faith, which necessarily produces a steady obedience. In this we are to copy after the example of Abraham. He is not a Jew who is one outwardly, neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh only: but he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, not in the letter, whose praise is not of men, but of God. Nevertheless, this same history shews, that the external signs of the Divine covenant are neither to be despised nor neglected; particularly the ceremonies which God hath expressly and minutely appointed, as means to strengthen our faith, and confirm his promises. May we be so wise, through God's grace, as to respect and observe them religiously; and to make so proper and happy an use of them, as may serve to confirm us in the love of Christ, and excite us more and more to the love of all mankind!

 


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Bibliography Information
Coke, Thomas. "Commentary on Genesis 17:4". Thomas Coke Commentary on the Holy Bible. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/tcc/genesis-17.html. 1801-1803.

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Monday, October 21st, 2019
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29
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