Have you ever had such a shock that you fell over? Fainted perhaps? Or ever been overcome with fear or anxiety that you collapsed? Or laughed so hard that you fell over? In this chapter, Genesis 17, Abram has an encounter with God that knocks him off his feet, not once, but twice. And it is a shocking encounter.
The First Shocker: God Shows Up After 13 years
Gen. 16:16 Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore Ishmael to Abram. 17:1 When Abram was ninety-nine years old the LORD appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless, 2 that I may make my covenant between me and you, and may multiply you greatly.” 3 Then Abram fell on his face.
Its been 13 years since Ishmael was born, and the weight of that promise would have been upon him, Abram’s only son, his only son who was about to become a man. He's had 13 years of fathering Ishmael. God hadn't indicated to Abram to this point that Ishmael was not going to be the chosen son. In many Middle Eastern cultures, the age 13 was an important age, as it indicated a coming of age. Just as Ishmael reaches that precipice of manhood, God appears to Abraham, God appears to Abraham, not in a vision, or through a messenger, but reveals himself to Abraham in some sort of direct way. He introduces himself to Abraham as El Shaddai (we'll look at that later).
The Second Shocker: Abraham is going to Father Many Nations
3 Then Abram fell on his face. And God said to him, 4 “Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. 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. 6 I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you.
This had to have taken Abram by great surprise - not only that God has revealed himself to Abram after 13 years, but that the Lord tells him that he will be the father of a multitude of nations. It’s been 25 years since the Lord promised Abraham that he would make him a great nation (singular), and suddenly, with Ishmael about to come into manhood, what does it mean now that Abram will father a multitude of nations? Well there is a very literal sense in which, on account of Abraham’s fathering a son through his Egyptian servant, there will literally be multitudes of nations that look to him as their father. To this day, the Arab peoples of the middle of various nations in the Middle East, more than 400 million people still look to Abraham as their father through Ishmael. Obviously the Jewish people look to Abraham as their father as well, as have others such as the Edomites that no longer identify as nations today.
This expansion of the promise made by God to Abraham, would have been shocking enough, however, we know that God had something even grander in mind. For Abraham is called the spiritual father of faith for all who believe in Jesus, as the apostle Paul writes in Romans 4, the promise is:
“to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, 17 as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. 18 In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told, “So shall your offspring be.”
And so God expands the covenant to Abraham, on account of him now being recognized as the father of many nations, not just one. God expands this covenant with Abraham to be an everlasting covenant with an everlasting possession.
7 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. 8 And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.
That word everlasting is a key word, and a new word in these promises made to Abraham. Nothing can stop God from bringing about these promises made to Abraham and his descendants. This is why, on the one hand, many Bible interpreters see these promises as unconditional. God will bring them about and His promises cannot be broken. God will always be in covenant relationship with Abraham’s descendants, and the Land of Canaan will be their eternal possession. However, the next verses make clear that not all who descend from Abraham will remain in covenant with God, receiving the land as their eternal possession.
The Third Shocker: An Awkward Sign is Assigned
While the fulfillment of the promises of the covenant belongs to God, in order for Abraham and the nations emerging from him to experience the blessing of the covenant, they would need to keep, or guard, the covenant.
Gen. 17:9 And God said to Abraham, “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. 10 This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you.
God gives Abraham and his male descendants a special outward sign of the covenant, called circumcision, as a means of keeping the covenant, but note that this sign does not diminish faith but begins in and points to faith.
First, note that keeping of the covenant through this sign begins in Faith. God says to Abram:
Gen. 17:1 When Abram was ninety-nine years old the LORD appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless, 2 that I may make my covenant between me and you, and may multiply you greatly.” 3 Then Abram fell on his face. And God said to him, 4 “Behold, my covenant is with you …
Abraham has been walking with God by faith for 25 years before this point. He believed God and God counted his faith as righteousness, or as it says here, as Abraham walks with God, he will be blameless. It was not the act of circumcision that God counted as righteousness, but Abraham’s faith. It is our faith that produces the obedience that pleases God.
Second, note that keeping of the covenant through the covenant sign points to Faith. God gives Abraham and his sons a covenant sign of circumcision, the removal the foreskin of the male sexual organ, which Jewish men keep to this day.
This was not an unknown practice in Abraham’s day, yet God gives it a new significance.
- Sign is Given Apart from the Faith of the Child: In most of the nations around Israel, circumcision was seen as an initiation into manhood, to be done when the son comes of age, yet Abraham was told to circumcise his children on the 8th day. Thus, the inclusion of Abraham’s descendants into these promises affecting the nations would be by birth, not by their own personal choice, but by their descent from Abraham and those of the faith of Abraham. So there is a genealogical connection from father to son. They do not choose to be in covenant, God chooses them by virtue of birth.
- Sign is Given to the Foreigners as Well: Yet, second, the nations that emerge from Abraham were not only by genealogical descent, but that others could enter into the nation through entering in through circumcision. This is scene in the circumcising of Abraham’s entire household, including foreign-born slaves.
- The Covenant Can Be Broken By Failure to Keep the Sign: The failure to keep the covenant sign would cut off an individual and his family out of the covenant promise. Therefore, while many nations would descend from Abraham, not all that descend from Abraham will remain within this everlasting covenant.
- The covenant sign was a national sign, yet it was a personal sign. The sign connected one to others who identified as the faithful nations of Abraham, but no one would see the sign except for the individual and his spouse. It’s a weird choice for a sign, then isn’t it? Yet the personal nature of the sign is itself what point to faith.
Moses was the first to make this connection, calling on the children of Israel: Deut. 10:14 Behold, to the LORD your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it. 15 Yet the LORD set his heart in love on your fathers and chose their offspring after them, you above all peoples, as you are this day. 16 Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn.
Paul as well speaks to this in Romans 2:28 For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. 29 But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.
- The sign was placed upon the male sexual organ. This may be because the covenant would be passed on through the offspring of Abraham. the propose of preserving the nation would be to lead to not just any offspring of Abraham, but the particular son of Abraham who would appear as a blessing to the nations. This is why the sign is no longer necessary today, for that Son has appeared, Jesus Christ. He was born a son of Abraham, under that law, circumcised on the 8th day, and now that he is here to whom the promise has pointed, He has fulfilled that particular covenant sign. In fact, all who are united to Christ by faith are sons and daughters of the covenant, included in Him who bore the sign for us.
Colossians 2:11 In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, 12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.
Now that Christ has come, faith alone is the instrument uniting us to His covenant. Circumcision is no longer necessary for the anticipated faith has come. Baptism points to identification with Christ.
The Fourth Shocker: 90-year-old Sarah will have a Son
The third thing that God says that shock Abraham, is that his wife, Sarah will bear a son. She will become the mother of nations as well. God changes her name as well, although we are not quite sure that significance of her new name, as both of her names mean, Princess. Yet we can see how shocking this is to Abraham, as he literally falls over, laughs, and then tries to suggest something more reasonable to God. This by the way is Sarah’s response to God in the next chapter when she hears of this news;
Gen. 18:9 They said to him, “Where is Sarah your wife?” And he said, “She is in the tent.” 10 The LORD said, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent door behind him. 11 Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in years. The way of women had ceased to be with Sarah. 12 So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I am worn out, and my lord is old, shall I have pleasure?” 13 The LORD said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ 14 Is anything too hard for the LORD? At the appointed time I will return to you, about this time next year, and Sarah shall have a son.” 15 But Sarah denied it, saying, “I did not laugh,” for she was afraid. He said, “No, but you did laugh.”
Yet God confirms that Sarah will have a son, and the son will be given a very special name: Gen 17:19 God said, “No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. (Isaac means “Laughter”)
The Fifth Shocker: Isaac Will Supplant Ishmael as the Son of the Promise
Not only will Isaac be born to Sarah, but he will take the place in the covenant promises over Ishmael. God will still deal with Ishmael generously, but the covenantal promises will be passed on through Isaac.
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. 20 As for Ishmael, I have heard you; behold, I have blessed him and will make him fruitful and multiply him greatly. He shall father twelve princes, and I will make him into a great nation. 21 But I will establish my covenant with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this time next year.”
Twice God clarifies that he will establish his covenant with Isaac. Although he will make Ishmael a great nation, and multiply him greatly, he will not be the son through whom the covenant will be extended.
Implications and Applications
- Don’t settle on El Shaddai:
- There is a powerful yet not absolute connection between the faith of parents and children.
- Parents, teach your children the faith; children, take up the faith of your fathers. Do not exasperate your children, but bring them up in the nurture and instruction of the Lord. This is where the presbyterians have something to teach us as they have a category for seeing the children of believers, not as the world, yet not as fully of the faith yet, but part of a family in covenant with God.
- Parents, give your children over to God, by praying fro them. Abraham anticipated Ishmael to be the son of the covenant for the lord, and he prayed for the lord that his son may live before him; however powerful the connection is between the faith of a parent for their child, it is not absolute.
- Youth, your parents are seeking to model the Christian life for you, they are praying for you, they are in covenant with God, but you must keep the covenant for yourself.