God's Covenant With Abraham (Genesis 17:1-27)
God’s plan for Abram has been slowly revealed in stages. First, Abram was promised that he would become a great nation and that his descendants would occupy the land of Canaan (12:1-9). Later, God clarified that this nation would come from Abram’s biological son, not an adopted heir, and he made a covenant with Abram to fulfill his promise (15:1-21). In Genesis 17, God provides a treasure trove of new details about the covenant he’s made with Abram.
God fulfills his promises for the good of his people.
If we can compare God’s covenant to Abram with a coin, chapters 15 and 17 would be the coin’s two sides. In the same way that Samuel would one day privately anoint Saul as Israel’s king and then publically announce him as such (1 Samuel 10:1, 20-24), the public implications of the covenant God made in private with Abram back in chapter 15 are now spelled out.
Thirteen years have now passed since Hagar gave birth to Ishmael, and Abram is now ninety-nine years old (or “as good as dead” - Hebrews 11:12). The extreme unlikelihood of him fathering another child – especially one by Sarai who is also old as well as barren – explains how God begins this conversation: “I am God Almighty”. This name (El Shaddai in Hebrew) often stresses God’s power in contrast to man’s helplessness and is frequently mentioned when God’s people need reassurance (see Genesis 28:3; 35:11; 43:14). Staggering claims are about to be made by the God powerful enough to fulfill them.
God then tells Abram to “walk before me, and be blameless” (v. 1). To “walk” with God means to orient our lives entirely around him. This naturally requires our obedience (“be blameless”). “Blameless” doesn’t mean sinless perfection. It refers to “wholeness” or “integrity”. It means to put all our energies toward the one goal of pursuing God. He’s not pleased with half-hearted obedience or mere lip-service.
God’s role in the covenant is seen in verses 4-8. He’s going to make Abram the father of many nations, not just one. To underscore this, God changes Abram’s name (which means “Exalted Father”) to Abraham (“father of a multitude”). Every time Abraham hears his new name, he’ll be reminded of God’s promise. It’s also new information that “kings shall come from” Abraham and that this covenant will be an “everlasting” one.
In verses 9-14, we see Abraham’s role in the covenant. He and his descendants are to “keep” the covenant by circumcising every male. Circumcision was widely practiced at the time, usually to mark passage into adulthood. In Israel’s case though, it was to be administered to male infants as a sign that they, like Abraham, were in covenant with God, receiving its benefits and under joyful obligation to walk with God for the entirety of their lives.
Sarai’s role is found in verses 15-16. She too is given a new name, Sarah. The difference is small. Both mean “princess”, but Sarai probably looked back to her noble descent, while Sarah looked forward to her noble descendants. For the first time, it’s explicitly stated that the promised child will be her biological child as well.
Abraham can’t help but laugh at the idea of him and Sarah having a child in their old age. Then an unsettling thought hits him: what does this mean for Ishmael? If he’s not the covenant child, what will become of him? Abraham prays that God will fulfill his promises through Ishmael, but God tells him that Sarah will have a child in the next year, and they’re to name him Isaac, meaning “he laughs” (in response to Abraham’s reaction in verse 17). It’s through this child, born by God’s strength alone, that God will fulfill his promises. Nevertheless, God responds to Abraham’s prayer and promises to bless Ishmael greatly. And Abraham in turn takes all the men in his household and circumcises them (vv. 23-27).
It’s important also not to miss the heart of the covenant: “I will be their God” (v. 8). Behind the gifts of land and offspring is the gift of God himself. This personal dimension to the covenant shows up repeatedly in the Old Testament, usually along the lines of “I will be your God, and you shall be my people.”
- Read Revelation 7:9; 21:1-4. What parallels do you see between these passages and Genesis 17?
- Read Galatians 3:27-29. How are Christians today a fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham? According to verse 28, how should this affect the way we treat one another?
- What gifts of God are you tempted to enjoy more than God himself?
- The name “God Almighty” emphasizes God’s strength in contrast to our weakness and helplessness. When do you most need to be reminded of this name of God?
Leviticus 26:12 – “And I will walk among you and will be your God, and you shall be my people.”
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