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Bible Commentaries

Whedon's Commentary on the Bible
Genesis 17

 

 

Verse 1

THE COVENANT OF CIRCUMCISION, Genesis 17:1-27.

1. Ninety years old and nine — Thirteen years after the birth of Ishmael. Comp. Genesis 16:16; Genesis 18:25. Slowly the years roll on, and God keeps promising, but not fulfilling.

The Lord appeared — The words imply some visible theophany. Probably the appearance of Jehovah’s Angel, as in Genesis 16:7. Comp. Genesis 17:22.

I am the Almighty God — Hebrews, I am El-Shaddai. Compare the use of this word in Genesis 28:3; Genesis 35:11; Genesis 43:14; Genesis 48:3; Genesis 49:25; and in Exodus 6:3; where see note. We have met with the name El-Elion in Genesis 14:18-20; Genesis 14:22, which designates the Supreme God, or God Most High. El-Shaddai denotes the Powerful or Omnipotent God. This name is appropriately introduced here as designating the Almighty Power which can override all opposing forces, and work miracles in order to fulfil the divine promises and plans. The deadness of Abram’s body, and also that of Sarai’s womb, (Romans 4:19,) shall not hinder the accomplishment of what El-Shaddai pledges.

Walk before me — Let thy heart, thy life, thy character be such as one should be on whom El-Shaddai gazes. The long deferring of the promised seed was, that Abram might acquire a permanence of faith in God: something like Enoch, who walked three hundred years with Elohim.

Genesis 5:22. El-Shaddai would lift Abram from a passive to an active faith.

Be thou perfect — Complete, finished, blameless. The conscientious walking as in the sight of the Almighty leadeth on to perfection.


Verse 2

2. I will make my covenant — The formal and symbolical cutting of the covenant was described in chap. xv; here Jehovah gives Abram the sign and seal of the covenant. Accordingly we note that in chap. 15:18, the Hebrew expression is cut ( כרת) a covenant; here it is give ( נתן) a covenant. “The freedom of the covenant of promise is expressed in this latter phrase. It was a gift from a superior, rather than a bargain between equals; and as it was accompanied by the rite of circumcision, it was typical of the freedom of that covenant made afterwards to Christians, and sealed to them in the sacred rite of baptism.” — Speaker’s Commentary.


Verse 3

3. Abram fell on his face — Overwhelmed by the fulness and majesty of the revelation.

God talked with him — Here the word for God is Elohim, and so in the space of these three verses we have the three divine names, Jehovah, El-Shaddai, and Elohim — a strange anomaly in the Jehovistic and Elohistic document hypothesis. Compare Introd., pp. 51-54.


Verse 4

4. As for me — Contrast the thou in Genesis 17:9. Here God declares what he will do for his part; there he directs what Abram must do.

A father of many nations — Or, of a noise of nations; a tumultuous mass of nations. The Ishmaelites, the Edomites, and the descendants of Keturah, (xxv, 1,) as well as the twelve tribes of Israel, sprang from Abram. So that Abram was literally the father of a great multitude of nations, and no name is more honoured in the East to day.


Verse 5

5. Abram… Abraham — With the giving of the covenant of circumcision is given also a new name. Hence the custom of giving names at the time of circumcision. Abram signifies high father; Abraham, father of a multitude, (by the addition of הםapparently shortened form of המון, translated many, or multitude, in this same verse and in Genesis 17:4. This seems a simpler derivation than to assume, as Gesenius and others, a lost root, רהם.) Compare Genesis 17:15, where Sarai’s name is changed to Sarah. Thus the letter H, ( ה,) which occurs twice in the memorial name Jehovah, is incorporated in the new names of both the father and mother of the chosen seed. Comp. the “new name” of Revelation 2:17; Revelation 3:12. By these new names Abraham and Sarah become divinely consecrated, as they had not so fully been before.


Verse 6

6. Exceeding fruitful… nations… kings — A threefold promise, enhanced in the two following verses by the mention of “an everlasting covenant” and “an everlasting possession.” Mark the gradation. 1) A numerous posterity, in itself an enviable blessing, and the glory of a Hebrew. 2) That posterity would branch out into nations; a higher honour still than merely that of a numerous family. 3) These nations should rise to the dignity of mighty civil powers, and be represented and ruled by mighty kings. 4) God’s covenant with Abraham would abide through all the ages, an everlasting covenant, by which all the families of the earth should be blessed. 5) The land of Canaan for an everlasting possession. The whole is crowned by the closing words of Genesis 17:8.

And I will be their God — Here observes Murphy, “the temporal and the spiritual are brought together. The land of promise is made sure to the heirs of promise for a perpetual possession, and God engages to be their God. The phrase perpetual possession has here two elements of meaning: first, that the possession, in its coming form of a certain land, shall last as long as the co-existing relations of things are continued; and, secondly, that the said possession, in all the variety of its ever grander phases, will last absolutely forever. Each form will be perfectly adequate to each stage of a progressive humanity. But in all its forms, and at every stage, it will be their chief glory that God is their God.”


Verse 9

9. Thou shalt keep — God has now said what he for his part will do; here he directs Abraham’s part of observing the covenant. Comp. Genesis 17:4, note.


Verse 10

10. This is my covenant, which ye shall keep — That is, this is the sign or seal of the covenant which it will be your place to observe. Hence Stephen said: “He gave him the covenant of circumcision.” Acts 7:8.

Every man child among you shall be circumcised — Here was a positive commandment, as direct and uncompromising as the absolute prohibition of the fruit of the tree of knowledge. Genesis 2:17.

Obedience must now supplement faith. “Circumcision was confined to the male sex. This was neither owing to the physical nor to the ethical state of woman, but to the dependent position which she occupied in antiquity. Circumcision implies as much the humiliation as the exaltation of man, expressing as it did both his natural incapacity for being a member of the covenant, and his special divine calling in that direction. The absence of circumcision does not convey that these lessons and privileges applied not 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.” — Kurtz.


Verse 11

11. Circumcise the flesh of your foreskin — The act of circumcision consisted in cutting off the prepuce, or foreskin, which covers the glans of the penis in males. Whether this custom originated with this covenant with Abraham, or whether it was in use among ancient peoples before this time, is a disputed question. It appears probable, on the whole, that the practice was older than Abraham, and the language here used seems to favour this view. Were this the origin of circumcision, we should naturally have expected particular directions as to the mode of performing it, but the absence of such directions rather implies that the custom was not new, or strange. As the rainbow appeared in the sky before it was made the token of God’s covenant with Noah, and as divers baptisms were in use before the baptism of water was made a sacrament of the Christian Church, so circumcision may have been practised before Abram’s time, but was consecrated into a new meaning by the Abrahamic covenant. Abraham “received the sign of circumcision,” says the apostle, “a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had yet being uncircumcised.”

Romans 4:11. The typical significance of circumcision arises from the consideration that, as the depravity and corruption of human nature are transmitted by generation, and the promise is to the seed of Abraham, so the organs of generation receive the symbol of “putting off the body of the sins of the flesh,” (Colossians 2:11,) and the chosen seed are thereby set apart and consecrated as holy unto the Lord. The spiritual significance of the rite is recognised in such texts as Leviticus 26:41; Deuteronomy 10:16; Deuteronomy 30:6; Ezekiel 44:7; Romans 2:28-29. For more on the subject of circumcision, see note at the end of this chapter.


Verse 12

12. Eight days old — A whole seven days must pass, and on the eighth day the ceremony. Comp. Genesis 21:4; Leviticus 12:3; Luke 1:59; Luke 2:21; Philippians 3:5. For this, perhaps, a twofold reason may be assigned: the symbolism of the sacred number seven, and the necessity that the child should have sufficient age to endure the operation.


Verse 13

13. He that is born in thy house — The bond slave of a patriarchal family as distinguished from one bought or taken in war. Comp. Genesis 14:14.


Verse 14

14. Shall be cut off from his people — This may mean either excommunication, or, as these words seem to signify in Exodus 31:14, the penalty of death. The neglect of such a sign and ordinance would be an open breach of the covenant, and demand a severe penalty.

He hath broken my covenant — To neglect this sign was looked upon as open and defiant disobedience. It was equivalent to a violation of the covenant itself.

Note now the five points of circumcision: 1) It was an outward ceremony of the flesh. 2) It was the token of the covenant. 3) It was to be performed on the eighth day. 4) It was to be applied to all the regular household. 5) It was imperative and inviolable under penalty of death.


Verse 15

15. Sarai… Sarah — The precise meaning of the name Sarai ( שׂרי) is not easy to decide, but the sense of my princess, generally adopted by the older interpreters, appears the most simple. In this sense she is heroine, princely, noble, in a more special idea of being the princess of a single race; or high princess, as Abram was high father. Sarah means princess, and “aptly is she so named, for she is to bear the child of promise, to become nations, and be the mother of kings.” — Murphy. Compare note on change of Abram’s name, Genesis 17:5. Though Sarah and her female descendants receive not the sign of the covenant, they nevertheless are divinely recognised as identified with the chosen people, and heirs of the promise.


Verse 16

16. She shall be a mother of nations — Hebrews, she shall become nations. Hence appropriately named Sarah, the princess.


Verse 17

17. Laughed — Abraham’s prostration, and the whole tenor of this history, forbid the supposition that this was the laughter of incredulity. It was the excessive outburst of joyful emotion over these precious promises. By faith Abraham now saw the day of redemption and was glad. John 8:56.

Said in his heart — The questions which follow are not to be understood as the expressions of doubt, but as exclamations of exultant wonder.


Verse 18

18. O that Ishmael might live before thee — The patriarch seems to fear that Ishmael is to be cut off. The boy of thirteen has won a deep place in his father’s heart, and notwithstanding the promise of a son by Sarah, he yearns to see Ishmael blessed of God.


Verse 19

19. Call his name Isaac — Which means, he shall laugh. A memorial of Abraham’s joyful emotion and wonder here recorded.


Verse 20

20. Ishmael, I have heard — Allusion to the meaning of the name, God will hear. See Genesis 16:11, note.

Twelve princes — See Genesis 25:12-16.


Verse 22

22. God went up from Abraham — These words imply some open epiphany. Probably the Angel of the Lord appearing and ascending, as in the case of Manoah. Judges 13:20.


Verse 23

23. Abraham… in the selfsame day — The promptness of his obedience is noticeable. Abraham’s “faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect.” James 2:22.


Verse 25

25. Thirteen years old — Josephus (Ant., 1:12, 2) says the Arabians, because of this, do not circumcise their children until the thirteenth year.

ADDITIONAL NOTE ON CIRCUMCISION.

The practice of circumcision obtained among many ancient nations, and was probably in use before the time of Abraham. See note on Genesis 17:11 above. Herodotus was unable to determine whether the Egyptians learned the custom from the Ethiopians, or the Ethiopians from the Egyptians. Herod., 2:104. Both nations observed the custom from the earliest times, and it is difficult to believe that they would have borrowed it from the Hebrews. The practice also prevailed among the Colchians of Asia and the savage Troglodytes of Africa, (Diod. Sic., 3:31,) and is still continued by several African tribes and the inhabitants of many islands of the Pacific. PICKERING, Races of Men, pp. 153, 199. The Abyssinian Christians are said also to perform this rite at the present day, and upon both sexes. LUDOLF, Hist. Ethiopia, 1. 19. The practice prevailed also among the Phoenicians and Syrians (Herod., 2:104) and the Moabites, Ammonites, and Edomites. Jeremiah 9:25. The Arabians perform the rite after the thirteenth year, thus following the example of Ishmael. Genesis 17:25 above, note. Mohammed was circumcised, according to the custom of his countrymen; and, though the Koran does not enjoin the practice, circumcision is as common among the Mohammedans as among the Jews. As to the origin and reason of this practice many hold that it was introduced in those southern countries not as a religious rite, but from a physical cause. It is believed that the burning temperature of those climes, in many cases combined with a peculiar bodily structure of those races, gave rise to the custom. It was thought to prevent painful diseases and such disorders as phimosis, and gonorrhoea spuria. Modern travellers testify that it precludes great physical inconvenience among the Bush-men; and the Christian missionaries who tried to abolish it in Abyssinia, were compelled, by the dangerous physical consequences, to desist from their plans. Herodotus observes that the Egyptian priests were circumcised for the sake of cleanliness, deeming it better to be clean than handsome. Herod., 2:37. It was observed, however, in the course of time, that many tribes and nations inhabiting the same zones remained uncircumcised without perceptible injury or inconvenience. The Philistines seem never to have adopted the custom. The Edomites neglected it, (Josephus, Ant., 13:9, 1,) and some classes of the Egyptians omitted it; and when, in the time of the Persian and Greek dominion, the primitive institutions of Egypt were neglected or underwent important modifications, circumcision ceased to be a national custom. The priests alone preserved it as a mark of their superior purity. Kalisch. But whatever the occasion or reason of its origin, the Egyptian priests doubtless connected some religious significance with the rite of circumcision. Other nations also probably associated it with sacred mysteries. It has been thought that among idolatrous peoples it may have had some reference to the deification of the powers of nature, and especially those of generation. It is impossible, however, to determine exactly what religious significance the heathen nations attached to the custom. But if it seem strange that a custom practised by idolatrous tribes should have been made a sign and seal of God’s covenant with Abraham, let us consider that almost every religious ceremony of the Hebrew people was based upon some prevailing Eastern custom or tradition, and that it was divested of base and superstitious elements by such appropriation to new purposes, and exalted to be the vehicle of lofty doctrines. This accommodation to traditionary practices, says Kalisch, secured the external success of the true religion, while the transformation of rotten and idolatrous institutions into laws of indestructible vitality, constitutes its indisputable claim to originality, and commands the admiration of all ages.

With Abraham and his posterity it became the sacred token of a blood-covenant, the most solemn and obligatory conceivable, between man and God. Abraham became henceforth, ina notable sense, “the friend of God.” 2 Chronicles 20:7; Isaiah 41:8; James 2:23. Genesis 17:10-11, above, are thus paraphrased by Trumbull: “The blood-covenant of friendship shall be consummated by your giving to me of your personal blood at the very source of paternity — ’under your girdle;’ thereby pledging yourself to me, and pledging also to me those who shall come after you in the line of natural descent.” The Blood Covenant, p. 217. New York, 1885.

The rite was in the earliest times performed with a stone knife, (Exodus 4:25; Joshua 5:2,) sometimes by the mother, but generally by the father of the child. Afterwards it became the business of a physician, but in modern times it is performed by a special officer. The eighth day after birth was the usual time for the circumcision, (Leviticus 12:3; Luke 1:59,) at which time the child is named. In the course of the ceremony the following is uttered: “Blessed art thou, O Lord, our God! who hath sanctified his beloved from the womb, and ordained an ordinance for his kindred, and sealed his descendants with the mark of his holy covenant. Preserve this child to his father and mother, and let his name be called in Israel, A, the son of B. Let the father rejoice in those that go forth from his loins, and let his mother be glad in the fruit of her womb.” See more in the Biblical Cyclopedias, under the word Circumcision.

 


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Bibliography Information
Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Genesis 17:4". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/whe/genesis-17.html. 1874-1909.

Lectionary Calendar
Sunday, October 20th, 2019
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29
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