The Abrahamic Covenant and the Sign of Circumcision
Genesis 17
 
Genesis 17 is a chapter of new names. First God reveals Himself to Abram under a new name: El-Shaddai, the Almighty God. Then He gives Abram a new name: Abraham. Then He gives Sarai a new name: Sarah. In summary, the chapter gives us a new departure in God’s ways with Abraham. Once all human efforts to produce blessing were exhausted, God comes fourth in sovereign blessing! In this chapter God enters into a covenant relationship with Abraham, and reveals Himself as the Almighty God. It is perhaps one of the highest experiences in Abraham’s life to this point.
 
 

The Abrahamic Covenant Enriched (17:1-8)

CHAPTER 17
1 And Abram was ninety-nine years old, when Jehovah appeared to Abram, and said to him, I am the Almighty GOD: walk before my face, and be perfect. 2 And I will set my covenant between me and thee, and will very greatly multiply thee. vv.1-2 The Almighty God Revealed to Abram. Thirteen years have transpired since the events of ch.16. We saw Abram and Sarah attempting to fulfill the promise through human energy in the previous chapter, when Sarai was unable to have children, but Abram was still able. God does not give Abram and Sarai a child until Abram’s body was too old as well. Hebrews 11:12 says “and him as good as dead”. God waits until it was medically impossible for both Sarai and Abram to reproduce. He waits until all human efforts are exhausted. God will allow man no part in the accomplishment of His promises. It is all grace. Now God comes to Abram, introducing Himself under a new name.

The name of Almighty God has the thought of special strength on behalf of those who are called by Him; i.e. power and provision for His people. It is a special name of character and relationship with those to whom God was revealed as such. God was revealed under the name "El Shaddai" first to Abraham, when he said "I (Jehovah) am El Shaddai; walk before me" (Gen. 17:1; Exodus 6:3). Again, He revealed Himself to Jacob (Gen. 35:11) as the Almighty God. The name is found forty-eight times in the Old Testament. The name El Shaddai is connected with the dispensational principle of calling.

Read more… It wasn’t merely that God would Abram’s shield and exceeding great reward, but that He was mighty on behalf of all those who trust in Him. This is the highest revelation yet that God had made to Abram.1 The command “walk before my face, and be perfect” is full of instruction. The higher our relationship with God, the higher our conduct ought to be. This is what God desires. Are you walking before God’s face, or before the face of man? We should live for God’s approval alone; not the world’s approval, and not even our fellow believers’ approval. Note that the word “perfect” does not have the sense of literal moral perfectly, which would be impossible for Abram to do. Rather, it has the sense of walking blamelessly (Luke 1:6; Phil. 2:15; 3:6; 1 Thess. 5:23; 1 Tim. 3:2). The call to walk before God’s face is coupled with an enhancement of the promise.
 
3 And Abram [‘exalted father’] fell on his face; and God talked with him, saying, 4 It is I: behold, my covenant is with thee, and thou shalt be a father of a multitude of nations. 5 And thy name shall no more be called Abram, but thy name shall be Abraham [‘father of many nations’]; for a father of a multitude of nations have I made thee. 6 And I will make thee exceedingly fruitful, and I will make nations of thee, and kings shall come out of thee. vv.3-6 Abram’s Name Changed. This was such a tremendous revelation to Abram that he falls on his face. He gets low before God. This is what communion with God is; “God talked with him”. This is perhaps the highest point in Abram’s experience thus far. God enters into a covenant relationship with Abram, and therefore changes his name from Abram, which means “father”, to Abraham, which means “a father of many nations”. Emphasis is laid on Abraham’s unique place as singled out of all people; “behold, my covenant is with thee, and thou shalt be, etc.” This illustrates the truth of election; the choice of one, out of many, for blessing. God first made His covenant with Abram in Genesis 15, and we find it expanded in Genesis 17. In Genesis 15 we find it was limited to the promise of the land of Canaan to Abraham’s seed, the children of Israel. But in Genesis 17 it is greatly expanded to include “a multitude of nations”
 
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 to thee, and to thy seed after thee. v.7 An Everlasting Covenant. This covenant goes beyond the possession of Canaan, although that is certainly included (v.8). It has to do with God being for Abraham, and his seed; “to be a God to thee, and to thy seed after thee”. Furthermore, the Abrahamic covenant is said to be “everlasting”. It is helpful to understand that in the Old Testament, the term “everlasting” has the thought of throughout all time, or as long as time shall run. This fits, because in the eternal state there will be no distinction between Jew and Gentile. It wouldn’t make sense for the Abrahamic covenant to be eternal. Instead, it is a covenant with is in effect within the bounds of time. This is similar to the priestly covenant with Phinehas (Num. 25:13), the kingly covenant with David (2 Sam. 23:5); both are said to be everlasting. 
 
8 And I give to thee, and to thy seed after thee, the land of thy sojourning, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be a God to them. v.8 An Everlasting Possession. The land-promise is included in the Abrahamic covenant. Those who espouse replacement theology and others who deny Israel’s future restoration have a serious moral issue with the Abrahamic covenant. The land of Canaan was promised unconditionally to the children of Israel as long as time shall run! Yet in the ways of God, Israel is cast out of their land, and if they are there today, it is in unbelief. They will one day be restored to their place under the reign of Messiah. Note that Abraham does not ask for a proof that he would inherit the land, as he had done in ch.15. His soul’s experience is advanced.
 

Circumcision: The Sign of the Covenant (17:9-14)

9 And God said to Abraham, And as for thee, thou shalt keep my covenant, thou and thy seed after thee in their generations. 10 This is my covenant which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee — that every male among you be circumcised. 11 And ye shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin; and that shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. vv.9-11 The Sign of the Covenant.

As we find in Genesis 17, circumcision was the sign of God's covenant with Abraham, just as the rainbow was the  sign of God's covenant with Noah. Circumcision itself did nothing inward for the soul. It was an outward sign of God's covenant pertaining to outward blessing. The sign was consequent on God’s unconditional promises made to Abraham and his descendants. Those promises will be fulfilled ultimately by Christ, because God is faithful. The sign of circumcision was not given to Abraham as a legal thing, but rather how Abraham might respond to the grace of God.2 Many years later, when the law was given with its conditional promises, it included circumcision as part of the ceremonial law. This linked circumcision with the moral law; "for I testify again to every man that is circumcised, that he is a debtor to do the whole law" (Gal. 5:3). Israel, in breaking the law, disqualified themselves from any outward blessing, and so circumcision became of no profit, and has no place in Christianity.

Read more…
 
The Spiritual Application of Circumcision. There are actually two kinds of circumcision. Paul speaks in Eph. 2:11 "the circumcision in the flesh made by hands" and in Col. 2:11 of "the circumcision made without hands". The former refers to that with outwardly identified the Jew; i.e. a physical mark in the flesh. The latter refers to the spiritual position that we have been brought into through Christ. Although literal circumcision has nothing to do with Christianity, and should not be practiced for religious purposes, yet it does represent something spiritual. As literal circumcision was physically the "cutting off" of the flesh, so it morally represents the believer passing judgment on the flesh. In Colossians circumcision is applied to the believer in this way. In Col. 2:11 it is viewed as something that a believer does when they believe the gospel; "In whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ". But then we find in Col. 3 that there is an ongoing need to pass judgment on the flesh as well. Paul speaks of it again in Philippians 3:3 ;"For we are the circumcision, which worship God in the spirit, and rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh." This is how circumcision is applied to the believer in the New Testament.
 
12 And at eight days old shall every male in your generations be circumcised among you — he who is born in the house, and he who is bought with money, any stranger who is not of thy seed. 13 He who is born in thy house, and he who is bought with thy money, must be circumcised; and my covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. 14 And the uncircumcised male who hath not been circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that soul shall be cut off from his peoples: he hath broken my covenant. vv.12-14 Application to the Household. God wanted all in Abraham’s household to bear the sign of the covenant. Whether is be male children or grandchildren, or servants purchased by the family, all the males were to be circumcised. Baby boys were to be circumcised on the eighth day, which has both medical and spiritual significance. Medically, the baby’s level of vitamin K is at its highest point on the eighth day. Vitamin K is instrumental in controlling blood clotting factors, and the healing of wounds. But spiritually, the number eight represents a new beginning. The eighth day is also the first day of a new week. Jesus rose from the dead on the eighth day, and He appeared on several occasions to the disciples on the first day of the week. Abraham and his family were entering into a new relationship with God, and sign of circumcision was a symbol of that.
 
Did Circumcision Make the Abrahamic Covenant Conditional? The Abrahamic covenant is definitely unconditional, as Paul clearly shows in Gal. 3:18 (“by promise”), but circumcision was the way Abraham’s household would participate in the covenant. It is the response of man to the grace of God. The terms of the covenant will be fulfilled regardless, but if a person wanted to be in the chosen household, they would need to take the sign. God was as much as saying, “My covenant is all of grace, and I will allow no flesh to glory in my sight”. As we have already remarked, circumcision was not given to Abraham as a legal obligation. It is interesting that in 2 Corinthians 6:17 – 7:1 Paul associated the name “Lord Almighty” with the promise “I will receive you; and I will be to you for a Father, and ye shall be to me for sons and daughters”, and even in the New Testament, a response is expected, “Having therefore these promises, beloved, let us purify ourselves from every pollution of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in God’s fear”. The knowledge of special association with God results in a positive response in the believer’s walk; especially purification from the things of the flesh, which circumcision speaks of.
 

Sarai’s Name Changed, the Promise of a Son (17:15-22)

15 And God said to Abraham, As to Sarai thy wife, thou shalt not call her name Sarai [‘my princess’], but Sarah [‘princess/mother of multitudes’] shall be her name. v.15 Sarai’s Name Changed. The Lord gives Sarai a new name. Giving someone a new name designates direct authority asserted over that person (Dan. 1:7; John 1:42). Like the name Abraham, the name Sarah (‘princess of multitudes’) is much broader than her previous name (‘my princess’), showing that God had widened out her privileges.
 
16 And I will bless her, and I will give thee a son also of her; and I will bless her, and she shall become nations: kings of peoples shall be of her. v.16 A Son Promised. God then shows Abraham that Sarah would be blessed, and would bear a biological son to Abraham. What a difference from ch.16! Abraham had already gotten a son through Hagar, and that in the wisdom and energy of the flesh. But now God clearly states that Sarah would have a son, and through that son would be the mother of nations.
 
17 And Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said in his heart, Shall a child be born to him that is a hundred years old? and shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear? v.17 Abraham’s Laughter. For the second time in the chapter, Abraham falls on his face. The first time he was staggered at the revelation of Almighty God, the second time he was staggered by the greatness of his own blessing. Abraham laughs, and it is hard to say exactly what is meant by it. There are two kinds of laughter: the laughter of joy and the laughter of unbelief. In Genesis 18:12-15 we find that Sarah laughs, but there it is a laugh of unbelief. She thought it was too hard for Jehovah to give her a child, and she was rebuked by the Lord for her unbelief. But later it is turned to joy, so that when she gives birth to Isaac, “Sarah said, God has made me laugh: all that hear will laugh with me” (Genesis 21:6). In our chapter, Abraham is not rebuked for his laughter, and therefore it his could be the laughter of joy, and what follows could be a confession of bewilderment, but not unbelief.3 Alternatively, it could be the laughter of unbelief, and what he said in his heart could be human reasoning, leading to doubts about the promise of a son.4 I do not know conclusively which interpretation is correct, but tend to see faith as more suitable to the context of the chapter. Also, it would seem strange to me in v.19 if God would name the child Isaac (‘laughter’) after an act of unbelief. But this is not conclusive proof.
 
18 And Abraham said to God, Oh that Ishmael might live before thee! v.18 Abraham Thinks of Ishmael. Abraham’s thoughts return to Ishmael. How you take v.17 defines how you take Abraham’s words in v.18. If he did not believe God in v.17, then v.18 is a reply to God; i.e. Abraham suggesting that perhaps God could make Hagar’s son the child of promise. But if he did believe God in v.17, then v.18 is an additional thought; i.e. Abraham wanting to make sure Ishmael did not get left out of the promises. In either case, Abraham’s thoughts were on lower things than God’s thoughts. In the thirteen years than had lapsed, Abraham had pinned his hopes on the son born after the flesh. But God was opening up something far higher! “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isa. 55:8-9).
 
19 And God said, Sarah thy wife shall indeed bear thee a son; and thou shalt call his name Isaac [‘laughter’]; and I will establish my covenant with him, for an everlasting covenant for his seed after him. 20 And for Ishmael I have heard thee: behold, I will bless him, and will make him fruitful, and will very greatly multiply him; twelve princes shall he beget, and I will make him a great nation. 21 But my covenant will I establish with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to thee at this appointed time in the next year. vv.19-21 Isaac and Ishmael. God confirms that Sarah would have a son, and even names him! If Abraham’s laughter was not unbelief, how beautiful that God would base the child’s name on his father’s faith! God makes it clear to Abraham that He would care for Ishmael, and even expands the blessing of Ishmael from ch.16, specifying “twelve princes shall he beget”. The twelve princes are fulfilled in Genesis 25:13-16. Yet, though Ishmael would not be forgotten, God’s covenant would be with Isaac, the son of the free woman. God even specifies the time of Isaac’s birth; one year later. We find that Sarah’s conclusion in Gen. 21:10 is based on God’s choice of Isaac.
 
22 And he left off talking with him; and God went up from Abraham. v.22 God Leaves Abraham. The divine communications with Abraham are completed, and “God went up from Abraham”. This shows that it was a pre-incarnate appearance of God to Abraham. What a privilege! And it would not be the last time God would come down to commune with His friend.
 

Abraham Circumcises His Household (17:23-27)

23 And Abraham took Ishmael his son, and all who were born in his house, and all who were bought with his money — every male among the people of Abraham’s house — and circumcised the flesh of their foreskin on that same day, as God had said to him. 24 And Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. 25 And Ishmael his son was thirteen years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. 26 In the selfsame day was Abraham circumcised, and Ishmael his son; 27 and all the men of his house, born in his house, or bought with money of the stranger, were circumcised with him. vv.23-27 Abraham Circumcises His Household. Abraham immediately obeyed the word of God, and circumcised all the males in his house. This all took place “on that same day”. It was not done in fear of a legal commandment, but the response of Abraham’s heart to the grace of God bestowed upon him. Grace appreciated will always produce a response in our life. “For the grace of God which carries with it salvation for all men has appeared, teaching us that, having denied impiety and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, and justly, and piously in the present course of things, awaiting the blessed hope and appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ; who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all lawlessness, and purify to himself a peculiar people, zealous for good works” (Titus 2:11-14).
 

Footnotes

  1. God therefore imparts the richest revelation ever made known up to that time. “I am the Almighty God; walk before me, and be thou perfect. And I will make my covenant between me and thee, and will multiply thee exceedingly.” – Kelly, W. Abraham, the Friend of God.
  2. Circumcision here [Genesis 17] accordingly is not introduced in a legal way, any more than the sabbath in Genesis 2. It is really the answer in man to the grace of God. - Kelly, W. Abram: The Friend of God.
  3. Abraham’s was the laughter of joy, I believe; but Sarah was ashamed of her laughing, because it was unbelief. – Darby, J.N. Hints on the Book of Genesis.
  4. Abraham’s faith was too weak to accept what God had positively spoken. He laughed inwardly, just as Sarah did later (Gen. 18:12). – Grant, L.M. The Book of Genesis.

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