Abram – The Early Years
By Genesis 17, Abram has left home and went his separate ways from Lot. He’s already met with Melchizedek, received the covenant from God for the land from the Nile to the Euphrates, and then the unpleasant business with Sarai’s handmaiden. Now that is over and Ishmael is just becoming a teenager. Abram is 99 and Sarai is 90 when the events of Genesis 17 take place.
Genesis 17 at a Glance
This chapter features the institution of circumcision and the promise of Isaac. God renames Abram to Abraham and Sarai to Sarah. Too many amazing details are present in this story to try and relate them all, so we shall try to learn a few key things and see what of this story relates to us and our own eternal hope.
Gen 17:1-2 When Abram was ninety-nine years old the Lord appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am God Almighty [Hebrew: El Shaddai]; walk before me, and be blameless, that I may make my covenant between me and you, and may multiply you greatly.” God called Abram. In context there’s no reason to think Abram was calling God, asking Him to visit and change his name, asking if he could cut off his foreskin, or asking for his old wife to bare him a son. In fact, its inconceivable to me that any man of any amount of faith could have dreamed up such things on his own. As for God’s request, He asked Abram to be a doer and to do the right things. Our God always gives more than he asks for, and in this case He promised to fulfill his earlier covenant. In fact, through the balance of Genesis 17 we see the great covenant of Genesis 15 revised and expanded or, as they say – new and improved.
What’s in a Name?
Gen 17:5 No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. Abram literally means exalted father. Abraham literally means father of a multitude. Back in Gen 15 he got the covenant for offspring like the stars. But Abraham, in spite of his belief in God’s promise, didn’t have patience. He took matters into his own hands and begat Ishmael through Hagar. It is really not surprising then that Abram got put in his place in Gen 17:1. God had a much bigger plan for Abraham’s progeny and he was trying to accomplish that plan on his own. The good news here is that God made a promise and not only kept it, but poured out vastly more blessings than Abraham even could have hoped for.
It Gets Personal
Gen 17:6-7 I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. More than a land contract, the covenant with Abraham is an everlasting promise to be God to him and his offspring. God quite literally promised an eternal personal relationship.
Signing the Contract
Gen 17:10-11 This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. Blood serves many purposes. One purpose, as described here, is the ‘blood oath.’ As a sign, blood (sacrificed from the most intimate part of man’s body) literally signed the oath of the covenant between Abraham and his descendants. The following verses provide more detail, but the important thing to know is that blood was required to sign the contract between God and Abraham. It was a pretty good deal, if you consider that giving up a little medically unnecessary skin meant you were automatically keeping at least one major condition of the contract for an eternal relationship with God. Note that in Gen 17:22-27 Abraham makes good on the promise and is circumcised along with all the other males in his company.
Too Good to be True?
Gen 17:16-17 I will bless her, and moreover, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall become nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.” Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed and said to himself, “Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” Is it any wonder Abraham laughed? We look at this with 20/20 hindsight and think that after all this other stuff God was promising it should have been a no-brainer, but consider how strange it must have sounded to Abraham. God has a wonderful sense of humor, but the odd thing is, He never jokes.
Gen 17:19 God said, “No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him. Isaac literally means ‘he laughs.’ This is quite remarkable considering Isaac would later nearly become a sacrifice at his own father’s hand. In the process he would be a nearly perfectly crystal clear picture of the role of Jesus as the atonement sacrifice for the world. I’ve heard people say Isaac’s name is based on Abraham’s joy of fathering a child by Sarah. I’ve also heard it said Isaac was so happy with Jacob. I think Isaac’s name is really another case of God’s humor at work in His chastening of Abraham for laughing at Him for His promise. On the other hand, who wouldn’t be happy with a promise of an everlasting covenant of the personal relationship with God and all the blessings that go with it?
Good News of Genesis 17
We’ve all heard promises that were too good to be true. They sounded like wild fantastic stories conjured up to convince us to trade what we’ve earned for some illusion of temporary pleasure. With age and experience we “loose our innocence” and as a result we all tend to become jaded and skeptical. The rest of Genesis, all the balance of the writings of Moses, and the whole Old Testament are built on the promises God made to Abraham in Genesis 17. God’s promises exceed the believable, yet He not only expects us to believe Him, He requires it. Childlike faith is required because children are innocent – they have no reason to laugh at a promise. Our God is not a god of guile and deceit. He is holy and honest and His promises are sure. He promised that his covenant was good for all eternity. His covenant wasn’t just a place, but a home. Not just a presence, but a personal relationship. Not just long life or life extended through children and generations, but eternal life.
If you don’t have that personal relationship, I want you to know there’s hope. He stands at the door of your heart and knocks. You don’t have to be physically circumcised to be included – that’s only an outward sign. Our Lord and Savior will circumcise your heart, cutting away the sin and evil from his sight when you open your heart to Him, trust him to keep His promise, and in loving response to this unearned grace, this otherwise unattainable gift, you enter that personal relationship of love. Love means admitting His is God. It means submitting your will to His authority. It means committing your life to Him because you want to and you understand both the risk and the reward. And perhaps the best part this side of eternity is you get a chance to share this experience with others. That’s the good news, and not just of Genesis 17.