New European Commentary

 

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Deeper Commentary

17:1 When Abram was ninety-nine years old, Yahweh appeared to Abram, and said to him, I am God Almighty- The Hebrew word shaddai (Almighty) is often linked in the Pentateuch with the idea of fruitfulness and provision of good things (Gen. 17:1; 28:3; 35:11; 43:14; 49:25). The Hebrew root shad is the word for 'breast'. The references in Genesis speak of the Almighty making the promises; elsewhere  we see that the promises were made by the Angels. Thus the Angels were perceived as providers of all good things, which would explain why the book of Job so frequently uses 'shaddai' as the word for God; and why one of the purposes of the book is to correct the wrong idea of shaddai as a giver of only  good things, perhaps through the desire to contrast the true God with other contemporary fertility gods who were thought to provide all good things.

The promises to Abraham promised "blessing", and this is interpretted in the New Testament as the blessing of forgiveness of sins and salvation. The Divine title "El Shaddai", God Almighty, is often associated with the blessings promised to Abraham and his seed (Gen. 17:1; 28:3; 35:11; 48:3; 49:25). But a case can be made that "shaddai" is related to the Egyptian and other Semitic verb shadi , to save, or as a noun, shady, Saviour (1). It has been observed that the Egyptians and other Semites connected their personal name to that of their god by this idea of shad- [name of god]-shad-[personal name], i.e., 'God so and so saves me' (2). El Shaddai, God the Saviour, is revealed as such through the promises of spiritual blessing, i.e. salvation, which were made to the fathers.


Walk before me, and be blameless- It could be that :1,2 are an appeal to Abraham to dedicate himself more fully to God, an to accept that He is indeed "almighty". The last we have heard of Abraham is 13 years previously, when Ishmael was born as a result of Abraham's lack of faith in the fulfilment of the Divine promises (Gen. 16:16). Perhaps he backslid during those years. The idea of walking before God is understood by Abraham in :18 as meaning being in covenant relationship. We enter that covenant by baptism now, or in those days, by circumcision. But to abide in the covenant meant living in daily life as if in God's presence, before Him, in the light of His face.

Mt. 5:48 alludes here: "Be perfect...". But the command "Be perfect" (AV) can be translated "Be perfected" (Gen. 17:1). There's some support for this when we consider the inspired commentary upon the promises to Abraham in Heb. 11:39,40: "[He] received not the promise: God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be perfected". "The promise" and being "perfected" are thus paralleled. In this we may have in Gen. 17:1 another promise to Abraham- to 'be perfected', and this could only come true through God's perfect righteousness being imputed to him. The New Testament informs us quite simply that Abraham believed the promise of being in the Kingdom, and he was therefore 'justified', or counted righteous (Gen. 15:6). But God led him in appreciating what those promises really implied. If he was going to live eternally in God's Kingdom, then he would only be there because God counted him righteous. And so it seems to me that God developed Abraham's mind further by promising him in Gen. 17:1 that he would indeed "be perfected", which could only have come about through God imputing righteousness to him. It could be that when Abraham "believed" the promise of the Kingdom in Gen. 15:6, he didn't realize that in Heaven, God was so thrilled with his faith that He counted Abraham as righteous, in order to fulfill the promise of giving him eternal life. And then in Gen. 17:1, God communicated this to Abraham in the promise that He would 'perfect' him. And God patiently works with us likewise, as we struggle to really, really believe that we will live eternally in His Kingdom; and as we progressively realize throughout life that this can only be possible by the Lord's perfection being counted to us.


The Hebrew certainly reads as if Abraham had to be "perfect" and walk before God, and then, God would make a covenant with him and multiply him. Abraham falls to his face; and then God announces that actually, He will make the covenant anyway, and the promises which are part of that covenant, Abraham should consider as having been fulfilled already, they were so certain of fulfilment.

As Abraham was commanded to "be perfect", so Israel were told: "You [after the pattern of father Abraham] shall be perfect with the Lord" (Dt. 19:13). Moses’ books were helping the wilderness generation to see where they were coming from historically. Abraham was to be their personal example, as he is for the new Israel. See on Gen. 13:3.

17:2 I will make my covenant between me and you, and will multiply you exceedingly- What began as promises from God to Abram now become a covenant between God and Abraham. Abraham perceived the wonder of it all- that the God of the cosmos should chose to make a covenant with him personally, as in Gen. 15. Nothing specifically is asked of Abraham apart from, axiomatically, believing it. He was to walk before God (:1), in His presence, and allow himself to be perfected (see on :1), to keep in the Divine program and not resign from it.


17:3 Abram fell on his face. God talked with him, saying- The Hebrew translated "fell on his face" is exactly the same as that translated "his countenance fell" in Gen. 4:5,6 (see too Job 29:24). Another reading of this incident could therefore be that Abraham's face fell on hearing that the covenant would be conditional upon his walking perfectly- but then God made the covenant anyway with him, and therefore in verse 17 he falls on his face and laughs with joy. This, perhaps, is the more likely, realistic reading; and it also avoids the problem of Abraham falling to his face twice with no record of him standing up again.

17:4 As for Me, behold, My covenant is with you. You will be the father of a multitude of nations- Consider the wording: "Behold, my covenant is [present tense- right now, i.e. Abraham didn't have to prove himself "perfect"] with thee, and you shall be [future] a father of many nations... your name shall be Abraham, for a father of many nations have I made thee" (Gen. 17:4,5 AV). The Abrahamic promises, which we too have received, are a reflection of unconditional love and grace on God's part, just as we observed in Gen. 15. At the end of all the Divine announcements, we read that Abraham again falls on his face and laughs for joy (Gen. 17:17).

 Perhaps by Angelic invitation (as with Daniel), Abraham had stood up from the floor to hear God's promises from the mouth of the Angel- and now he collapses again. The sheer wonder of God's grace in these promises is simply so great. What is conditional upon our walking 'perfectly' has been given to us anyway, by grace- for righteousness has been imputed to us as it was to Abraham. As a side comment, it seems to me that surprised laughter occurs when we encounter a difference between the expected, and an unexpected reality that takes us pleasantly by surprise. That observation would indicate Abraham's seeing by faith the reality of what God had promised; and yet it would also suggest that prior to this, Abraham was not really expecting God to completely fulfil the implication of the promises.


17:5 Neither will your name any more be called Abram, but your name will be Abraham- Abram means 'high / exalted father', and can mean "he is of exalted i.e. good ancestry". Yet Abram's name was changed. He had been commanded to break with his family when he was first called, and as we noted on Gen. 11:31-12:4, he didn't do that. He left Ur not in obedience to the calling to leave Ur and his family, but rather because his father took Abram with him. He likewise didn't separate from Lot until God arranged circumstances which meant that Lot separated from him. Now the Divine program went further, in changing Abram's name, away from the exaltation of his own father. He was to grow up, at 99 years old, to come of age, to no longer be living out parental expectation. He was to be the father of a new family, as 'Abraham' implied, and to sever all connection with his human ancestry and family. The way ‘Abram’ was changed to ‘AbraHAm’ and ‘Sarah’ to ‘SarAH’ shows how God wishes to mix syllables of His Name with that of men. Jacob was changed to Isra-el, mixing God’s name with that of his father. This is indeed mutuality between God and man- and it demands so much. No longer was Abram all about exalting his own father; he was himself to be a father. We too as Abraham's children pass through this sense of redefinition; we are new creations, no longer just defined by our place in a line of genetics or ancestors, but making a radically new start, producing spiritual children who in that sense shall continue the line which we begin by the sowing of the Gospel seed.

It has been pointed out that Abram or Abiram was one of the most common names in the near East- it was common in Babylon as Abirami, and in Egypt as Abu-reheni or Abram (J.B. Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament (Oxford: O.U.P., 1950) p. 242, p. 329 note 9). Into this very common name- as normal and common as the names we bear in our societies- was added the Name of Yahweh. Abram became Abraham. The central letter of Yahweh's Name became the central letter of Abraham's. But Abram means 'my father is exalted', or more strictly as W.F. Albright suggests 'I am exalted with regard to / because of my father'. To jettison this name was to trash all Abraham and his culture held so dear- definition in terms of their father, where they came from. The call of the Lord Jesus in our age is in essence no different- to reject father and mother and instead follow Him, to be His. Not in the sense of hating them, but in being new persons, carved out as a totally new family. The 'h' in the middle of Yahweh's Name was now inserted into the middle of Abraham's name; Abram became Abraham, father of a multitude, a new family. Some miserable philological critics have claimed that 'h' was an unknown sound in the near East of Abraham's time (Angel Gonzales, Abraham: Father of Believers (New York: Herder and Herder, 1967) p. 26).  And maybe they're right, in which case 'h' would've been a new sound. It would be rather like importing the single Russian letter pronounced 'shch' into the English alphabet. The answer to the question 'What's your name?' would've been arresting and challenging to Abraham's contemporaries: 'Abraham' would've sounded strange and new to them. There will be something equally challenging and arresting to the world surrounding Abraham's seed as people come to know our name, to perceive who we really are.

For I have made you the father of a multitude of nations- The promise was that Abram would become one great nation (Gen. 12:2). The plural here could therefore simply be an intensive plural, meaning 'one great nation'. Paul notes the past tense, the "prophetic perfect" in Hebrew, and comments that God speaks of things which are not as if they are, so certain is His word of fulfilment (Rom. 4:17). This is why there is a sense in which we are already saved, the now but not yet.

17:6 I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make nations of you. Kings will come out of you- Blessings of many children, a specific seed / son who would bring glory and blessing, and a name change... are all frequently found in records of wedding blessings (Claus Westermann, "Promises to the Patriarchs," in The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Keith Crinn et al. (Nashville: Abingdon, 1976), p. 692). In making those promises to Abraham, in mixing the letters of His Name with that of Abram... Yahweh was entering a marriage covenant with Abraham the impotent, the childless, the humanly hopeless. And He does the very same for each of us who are baptized into that same Name and become recipients of the very same promises. What was weird and so counter-instinctive in this wedding- was the token of the marriage covenant. Abraham was to mutilate his male generative organ as a sign that God would generate him a great seed and family. Academics are divided as to whether such circumcision was in fact a common practice at the time [in which case it would fail to be a very unique token], or whether this was actually a radical and unusually intimate and shocking requirement from God (This is the view documented by J.G. Janzen, Abraham And All The Families Of The Earth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993) pp. 50,51). The unique nature of God's covenant with Abraham, that he alone had God known of all families of the earth, suggests to me that the latter view is likely to be correct. And remember time and again, that these same promises, this same covenant, is made to us in Christ (Gal. 3:27-29). Our response to what God has promised us requires us to likewise respond in a counter-cultural and counter-instinctive way. To give up this world in order to gain it, to lose now in order to win ultimately and eternally.


17:7 I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your seed after you throughout their generations- There is the sustained implication that the personal relationship between Jesus and each of His followers is totally personal and unique. The Abrahamic covenant is made personally with every member of the seed "in their generations" (Gen. 17:7). The records of the renewing of the covenant to Isaac and Jacob are but indicators that this is the experience of each one of the seed. This means that the covenant love of God and the promise of personal inheritance of the land is made personally, and confirmed by the shedding of Christ's blood, to each of us. Paul appreciated this when he spoke of how the Son of God had loved him and died for him personally, even though that act of death was performed for many others (Gal. 2:20).

For an everlasting covenant, to be a God to you and to your seed after you- God promised Abraham that through Christ, His seed, blessing would come on people from all nations, with the result that God would be the God of Abraham's multitudinous seed: "To be a God unto... thy seed... I will be their God" (Gen. 17:7,8 AV). The seed is Christ, and the "God" is Yahweh. Let's not confuse them. In Revelation 21:3 this fundamental promise is alluded to;  God Himself will be our God then; we will see Him and have a personal relationship with Him. This would mean that this idea of personally being with God is a fundamental part of the Gospel preached to Abraham.

"A covenant is of force over dead [victims or sacrifices]... it is never held to be of force while he who is the appointed [sacrifice] is alive" (Heb. 10:17 Bullinger). Over that dead body of the Lord Jesus, the personal covenant to each of us (Gen. 17:7) came into real, living operation.

Paul spoke of how those who join themselves with unbelievers (and marriage must surely have been in his mind) had to retract or repent of that relationship, and then God would receive them and be their God (2 Cor. 6:14-17). He was referring back to the Abrahamic promise of Gen. 17:7, that God would be the God of Abraham's seed. Is not the suggestion that those who unrepentantly make covenant with the world have broken their covenant with God? 

 

17:8 I will give to you, and to your seed after you, the land in which you are travelling, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession. I will be their God- God promised Abraham that through Christ, His seed, blessing would come on people from all nations, with the result that God would be the God of Abraham's multitudinous seed. The seed is Christ, and the "God" is Yahweh. Let's not confuse them. In Rev. 21:3 this fundamental promise is alluded to;  God Himself will be our God then; we will see Him and have a personal relationship with Him. This would mean that this idea of personally being with God is a fundamental part of the Gospel preached to Abraham. 

David could praise God simply because He was ''my God'' (Ps. 118:28)- an allusion back to the Abrahamic promise. Of course, the main fulfillment of this promise will be in the Kingdom; but in principle, the promise has already been fulfilled to Abraham's seed- i.e., us! This earth on which we live is ours! We are rulers of all we survey. All things are ours (1 Cor. 3:21). We are just strangers here, waiting for the call to rise up and take what is now ours. This is fundamental. We are brainwashed by capitalist materialism to think that we must work our hearts out to achieve ownership of things and land now; so we can put a fence round it and say it's ours, buy a security system or rent a guard to make sure it stays ours, buy insurance to make sure no 'act of God' will take it from us... all this is quite contrary to the most essential teaching of the promises to Abraham. Personal 'ownership' of property and possessions may well be something which is inescapable for us; but let's never forget that actually all things are ours, and we buy these things with the same feeling Abraham must have had when he had to buy part of his own land in which to bury his wife. It was his land, but he hadn't at that time received it. And so with us, with the whole world and all that is in it.

The most oft repeated feature of the promises to Abraham can for that very reason be easily overlooked. Notice how the personal pronouns are the key words: "I will establish my covenant…between me and you and your descendants… to be your God… I will be their God" (Gen. 17:6-8). God Almighty is committing Himself to Abraham and Abraham's seed in a way so insistent and so awesome that only contemplation of it can elicit the true sense of wonder which we ought to have at being in covenant relationship with God Almighty. The fact that the basis of our relationship with God is an eternal covenant means that we do not drift in and out of fellowship with God according to our awareness of Him. We are His people. Every hour of every day.

The definitions of the promised territory vary. The eretz promised was originally the land between the Nile and Euphrates; but the northern and southern borders were never well defined. Now, it is specifically Canaan, a small part of that territory. The tribal allotments found in Joshua are also not precisely Canaan but somewhat more in some areas, and they do not extend to the Nile nor Euphrates. The tribal cantons as described in the later chapters of Ezekiel are also hard to specifically define. And Rom. 4:13 says that God promised Abraham "the world". The exact material definition of our future inheritance is therefore not so important, the essence is the promised blessing of forgiveness (Acts 3:25,26) and relationship with God, now and for ever. It could of course be that God amended His descriptions and definitions of the promised land in accordance with what He thought His people at the time could realistically rise up to and relate to. And we must consider what this may imply for us.

17:9 God said to Abraham, As for you, you will keep My covenant, you and your seed after you throughout their generations- The eternity of God's covenant was on account of the fact that He foresaw generations of individuals wishing to enter the covenant and accept it. This is why we will often meet in future Biblical history the idea of the covenant being renewed with individuals. God gave the covenant, but men choose to "keep" it, or, as Israel often did, to break it; or, as Ishmael did, to just reject it as unimportant to them.

"You will keep my covenant" was a prediction rather than a command, in line with the words we shall soon read in Gen. 18:19 AV: "For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the LORD, to do justice and judgment". And likewise when in 17:21 we read that "My covenant will I establish with Isaac"; this was a prediction, rather than a statement that He would establish the covenant with Isaac rather than with Ishmael (see note there).

17:10 This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your seed after you- “The blood of the covenant” in later Judaism came to refer to the blood of circumcision  and it could be that the Lord was seeking to draw a comparison between circumcision and the breaking of bread; for the token of the new covenant is to take the cup of the covenant. For this is how His words would have sounded in the ears of His initial hearers (See A.J.B. Higgins, The Lord’s Supper In The New Testament (London: S.C.M., 1952) p. 33). This is how vital and defining it is to partake of it. These very words were used by the Lord in introducing the emblems of the breaking of bread (Mk. 14:24). This is how important it is. We are showing that we are the covenant, special Israel of God amidst a Gentile world.

Every male among you shall be circumcised- As explained on :12, we are missing the point if we consider that only males could be circumcised and thereby be in covenant. The fact women could be in covenant without circumcision was glaringly obvious- and it highlighted the point, that circumcision of itself was nothing, it was what it represented which was so critical. Paul makes this point in Romans 2- circumcision is nothing of itself, it was what it represented which was and is critical to covenant relationship with God, namely, the cutting off of "the flesh" and a transformed mind. This is why the circumcised Israelites were asked to circumcise their hearts (Dt. 30:6; Jer. 4:4). The surrounding tribes practiced various cuttings of the flesh, on both male and female, to identify themselves. God's people were different; there was to be a highly intimate and deeply personal cutting on the males, hidden from the view of anyone else. The question 'And what about the women?' was purposefully built into this. The physical sign of circumcision did not publically define membership of God's people, because it was so concealed. The conclusion was therefore that literal circumcision was not the sign of identity; it was a circumcised heart which was the sign. And so the New Testament likewise insists that if we have not the spirit of Christ, the mind of the Spirit, the possession of the Spirit and God's operation upon our hearts- then we too are not part of His people. Spiritual mindedness, the presence of the Spirit in our hearts, is therefore the crucial defining feature of God's people. And this at times cuts across the boundaries caused by differing interpretations of this or that passage of scripture, or issues of theology. To cite this verse as evidence that God or His word is somehow anti-women is to miss His subtlety. God is not so primitive.

17:11 You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin. It will be a token of the covenant between Me and you- Col. 2:12 presents baptism as the equivalent in our day if we wish to enter the new covenant, which is based upon the same promises to Abraham. But there is more to new covenant relationship than simply the ritual of baptism. Circumcision spoke of a cutting off of the flesh in the most private and intimate place. We always read of circumcision as being done to a person. Water baptism enables us to receive the birth of the Spirit, whereby the Lord will work through the Spirit to change our hearts, to cut off our flesh in the most private and personal recesses of human hearts.


17:12 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 money from any foreigner who is not of your seed- Cuttings of the flesh as a sign of tribal affiliation were common amongst the surrounding tribes, as they are to this day in less developed tribal areas of the world. The signs are always public and immediately evident- you can tell instantly that a person belongs to this or that tribe by a cut in the ear or nose or cheek, or the removal of certain teeth, or the painting of a certain symbol on a visible part of the body. But circumcision was not at all outwardly evident. It was not mere tribalism; it taught that God's demands were upon the most private part of human life. Women also could be in covenant, and they must have wondered what was required for them. They would've quickly figured that lack of physical cutting was not to say they weren't in covenant, and that therefore, the real token of the covenant was not circumcision in itself, but what circumcision represented- the cutting off of the flesh in our most personal areas. 


17:13 He who is born in your house, and he who is bought with your money, must be circumcised. My covenant will be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant- Circumcision was the token of covenant relationship (:11), just as baptism is today. And yet just as there were household baptisms in Acts, when the head of the household decided to enter the same new covenant, so here it appears that there was no volition exercised by those who received circumcision. This at first blush strikes us as strange. Perhaps the idea of "must be circumcised" was that Abraham's family life was to be based around covenant relationship with God, and those who didn't want to participate would have to leave the household.


17:14 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-
Col. 2:11 speaks of circumcision as another type of baptism, in that only the circumcised were in covenant with God. We either "cut off" the flesh, or God will cut us off. "The uncircumcised [un-cut off] man... shall be cut off". He who would not accept Jesus as Messiah in Messiah were to be “destroyed from among the people” (Acts 3:25), using a very similar phrase to the LXX of Gen. 17:14, where the uncircumcised man was to be “cut off from his people”. Circumcision was the entry point of covenant relationship with God. The record of these Old Testament occurrences also brings out the converse- what happened to all those who were not in covenant with God, who had not received the typical 'baptism'. The unbaptized Egyptians were "cut off" (Ex. 9:15); "all flesh" that was not baptized into the Christ-ark was "cut off" (Gen. 9:15). The New Testament matches this by the oft repeated teaching that outside of Christ, there can be no salvation. The language is very similar to that of the punishment for those who refused to keep Passover, or did so with leavened bread (Ex. 12:15). Positively, the only ones to be cut off are those who wilfully refuse to accept and proclaim their covenant relationship with God in Christ. We can limit God's plans to save others in the ecclesia by our attitude to them. We can make others stumble from the path to His salvation. If parents didn’t circumcise their children, then they made their sons break covenant with God- they made others excluded from the covenant by their decisions and laziness.

17:15 God said to Abraham, As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but her name will be Sarah- As with "Abraham", the middle letter of the YHWH Name became part of her name. We are baptized into the Name, by which we accept our part in the Abrahamic promises. And thereby in spiritual terms and in heaven's book, the Name is mixed with our name. Our name, as that of Sarai, is not obliterated beneath the dominance of 'God manifestation'. We as persons shall be saved; but with God's Name and ways intimately linked to our own. We are to be given a unique name for eternity (Rev. 2:17), it's not that we simply bear the Lord's Name and we thereby are subsumed beneath it into some kind of nirvana.


17:16 I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. Yes, I will bless her, and she will be a mother of nations. Kings of peoples will come from her- This same promise is repeated concerning Hagar and her son Ishmael (:20). There was to be no reason for jealousy between Hagar and Sarah. But potentially at least, the son of the slave girl was being put on the same level as the son of the free. The paradox is, as Paul brings out in Gal. 4:24,25, that the physical descendants of Sarah ended up in the same category as those of Hagar, in that they refused the new covenant promises to Abraham.

The promise that kings of peoples would be in Sarah's line never really came true on the level of natural descent. For Israel never had an empire, nor did they rule over Gentiles. The total lack of fulfilment encourages us to see that the promise came true but in a spiritual sense, in that those in Christ, the seed, shall be king-priests reigning on earth (Rev. 5:10), some over five cities and others over two (Lk. 19:19).

17:17 Then Abraham fell on his face, and laughed, and said in his heart, A child shall be born to him who is one hundred years old! Sarah, who is ninety years old, shall give birth!- Jn. 8:56 says that “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day; and he saw it, and was glad”. The only time Abraham is recorded to have laughed and been glad was when he was given the promise that he would have a seed; he understood that ultimately that promise had reference to Jesus (Gen. 17:17). Abraham “saw” ahead to Christ through the promises made to him concerning Jesus. He cryptically commented about the future sacrifice of Jesus: “In the mount of the Lord it shall be seen” (Gen. 22:14). It was in this sense that Jesus speaks of Abraham as having seen him. It is in this context of speaking about the promises that Jesus could say “Before Abraham was, I am”. He appreciated that God’s promises to Abraham were revealing the plan about Jesus which God had known from the beginning of the world. That purpose, which had been “before Abraham was”, had been revealed to Abraham in the promises to him, and was now being fulfilled in the eyes of the Jews of the first century, as they stood in a ring around Jesus, “the word (of promise) made flesh”.

17:18 Abraham said to God, Oh that Ishmael might live before you!- As Abraham used his handmaid to try to produce the promised seed (Gen. 16:2), so Jacob, Rachel and Leah did. God had told Abraham clearly that the covenant would continue through Isaac rather than Ishmael, and that circumcision was the sign of that covenant; and yet Abraham remonstrates with God: "Oh that Ishmael might live before you!", employing the idea of 'living before God' in a covenantal sense. That is how God has just used the term, in asking Abraham to walk or live daily life before Him (:1). When God again repeats His purpose with Isaac, Abraham goes and circumcises Ishmael, as if he was to still participate in the covenant God wished to continue through Isaac (Gen. 17:23). The fact that Abraham's circumcision of Ishmael is specifically recorded highlights his insistence on trying to make God's promises fulfil as he would like them to. Isaac did the same, insistent upon giving the covenant blessing to Esau rather than Jacob; Jacob likewise did something similar when he tried to reverse the blessing upon Ephraim and Manasseh (Gen. 48:18).

But we can read this another way. Abraham didn't want there to arise a situation whereby Isaac was the chosen covenant seed, and Ishmael was not. And God, ever so sensitive to human prayer and feeling, agreed to modify His plan accordingly. Ishmael was circumcised, receiving the token of the covenant, and thus lived before God, i.e. in covenant relationship with Him. He was given the same promises as Isaac, and from him also arose a great nation based around his 12 sons. The difference was simply that Ishmael chose not to abide within the covenant, and therefore it happened that God's covenant was established with Isaac, because Ishmael didn't want it. And Isaac's natural seed didn't want the new covenant, which was and is based upon the promises made to him.

17:19 God said, No, but Sarah, your wife, will bear you a son. You shall call his name Isaac. I will establish My covenant with him for an everlasting covenant for his seed after him- The insertion of "No" is most unfortunate. There is no corresponding word in the Hebrew. And as explained on :19,20 and :21, God heard Abraham's request, and did give Ishmael the covenant; he was circumcised, the token of the covenant, and received the same promises. The covenant would be established with Isaac (see on :21) because Isaac was open to that relationship; it was made with Ishmael but not established with him because he was closed to it and wished to go his own way.

17:20 As for Ishmael, I have heard you. Behold, I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly. He will become the father of twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation- The blessings upon Ishmael were exactly those upon Isaac, and he too was to become a great nation of 12 tribes, just as Jacob did. As explained on :21 and elsewhere, Ishmael could have remained within the covenant; for he was circumcised into it, and God heard Abraham's request that Ishmael might live "before God", in His covenant presence (:18). But he chose not to remain in the covenant, and became a nation with the material blessings, but without the spiritual blessing. And thus he became as Israel after the flesh, who were just the same as the seed of Ishmael (Gal. 4:24,25).

17:21 But My covenant I establish with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you at this set time next year- This is a prediction of how things were to develop, rather than an arbitrary decision by God against Ishmael and for Isaac. See on :9, where God makes a similar prediction about Abraham. It is not that fate and predestiny are somehow against the seed of Ishmael. Any individual could and can enter the new covenant, based upon the Abrahamic promises. That God's covenant was established with Isaac doesn't mean that it would not be established with Ishmael; the fact Ishmael was circumcised, receiving the token of the covenant, is proof enough. But Isaac was open to the further establishment of the covenant with him and his seed, whereas Ishmael was not. Ishmael was given the same promises as Isaac. It is emphasized that circumcision was the sign of the covenant- and Ishmael was circumcised. But Ishmael chose not to remain within that covenant, and became representative of Israel after the flesh (Gal. 4:24), who likewise refused the new covenant, based as it was on the Abrahamic promises. We have to choose to accept the establishment of covenant relationship with us, and Ishmael's seed didn't do so. The covenant is established with individuals who believe it and therefore it is established afresh with each believer (Lev. 26:9; Dt. 8:18). It was not as if God's establishment of a covenant with Isaac meant that all his descendants were automatically within it. We have many examples of where this didn't happen- thus his own grandson Esau was presumably circumcised, but chose not to remain within the covenant, and his descendants were not within the covenant people. And Israel, Isaac's seed, broke the covenant bond (Dt. 31:16). Being in covenant with God, for those in Abraham's seed, was as simple as it is today- a willingness to say "Yes" to it, and to demonstrate the token of the covenant- which in our time is baptism, and possibly the taking of the cup of the covenant in the breaking of bread. I say "possibly" because now is not so particularly the age of ritual, but of faith in the heart.

17:22 When He finished talking with him, God went up from Abraham- 'Went up' matches 'coming down', which is an idiom for a Divine manifestation. It could simply mean that the manifestation ended; although it could describe a literal ascent of the Angel to heaven, as experienced by Samson's parents.


17:23 Abraham took Ishmael his son, all who were born in his house, and all who were bought with his money; every male among the men of Abraham’s house, and circumcised the flesh of their foreskin in the same day, as God had said to him- The way Abraham personally circumcised all the males, having done so to himself, indicates his desire for intimate connection with them all. It was a delicate operation, requiring the men to trust Abraham, and to be revealed before him completely. This is a profound statement about the closeness of fellowship which arises between those who are all in covenant relationship. We wonder whether the men voluntarily submitted to circumcision, or whether they simply followed the pack, or did so at the insistence of Abraham as head of the household. The equivalent of circumcision under the new covenant is baptism, and we likewise have the same questions when we read of household baptisms in the New Testament.


17:24 Abraham was ninety-nine years old, when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin-
He was impotent at the time (Rom. 4:19), so this would have been perceived as a cutting off of that wherein he already had no hope. This is how God works- He brings us to a position whereby we cannot rely upon the flesh, but must throw ourselves completely upon faith in Him.

17:25 Ishmael, his son, was thirteen years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin- Circumcision was the sign of the covenant- and it is emphasized that Ishmael was circumcised. He therefore had the opportunity of covenant relationship with God, and was given almost identical promises to those given to Isaac. Perhaps we are to perceive that God's saving purpose could have flanged out to cover both lines, through Ishmael and Isaac; but Ishmael chose not to go further with it. Such potentials are often to be found in the Divine plan, but are so often not realized due to human dysfunction and allowing the immediate and concrete to blot out the implications of the long term, eternal and spiritual.


17:26 In the same day both Abraham and Ishmael, his son, were circumcised- This again serves to reflect the unity between them. As noted on :25 and elsewhere, Ishmael was indeed Abraham's son and was within the bonds of the covenant. But he later chose to not go further with the potential set up.


17:27 All the men of his house, those born in the house, and those bought with money of a foreigner, were circumcised with him- This is similar to the language later to be used about how the Gentiles living with the Israelites were to obey the Passover legislation. "With him" suggests that they entered covenant relationship on account of this one man Abraham, just as the record of the flood stresses that the other seven and the animals were saved with Noah, on account of their connection with him. This is the power of one in the salvation of others. And it points up the crucial importance of the things encompassed in the promises made to Abraham, the new covenant, the things of Jesus and His Kingdom.