You are currently viewing Genesis 17:1-21 God’s Sign of the Covenant with Abraham and Circumcising the Heart

Genesis 17:1-21 God’s Sign of the Covenant with Abraham and Circumcising the Heart

This chapter develops the promise of the covenant in Genesis 12 and the making of the covenant in Genesis 15 with the Lord’s covenant sign, circumcision. The Lord appeared to Abram as He had done in Genesis 12:7 and Genesis 15:1. He revealed Himself for the first time as El-Shaddai (God Almighty), though the term ‘El-Shaddai’ is used 48 times in the Tanakh (Old Testament).

The Lord commanded Abram to walk before Him and be blameless. How could Abram achieve that? Though ‘blameless’ is rendered ‘perfect’ in the KJV, it refers to being blameless before the Lord. How much more should we examine our hearts and ask the Lord to examine our ways before Him?

Thirteen years had passed in Abram’s life since Ishmael was born (Genesis 16:16). Fructenbaum observes that, “As far Abram knew at this point, Ishmael was the promised son, but this was about to change.”[i]According to Ibn Ezra, the reason being was to impress on Abram, the fear of the Lord so he would circumcise himself.[ii] In support of Ibn Ezra, Chizkuni adds that as result of that circumcision, Abram’s body would be made more perfect.[iii] Although circumcision was an important sign of the covenant, it did not justify someone’s ways before the Lord (Colossians 2:11-14). Also, at the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, Gentile believers were not required to be circumcised.

Warren Wiersbe reasons  that the reason the Lord revealed Himself at that point was ‘because the Lord would speak to His friend announcing that Sarah was going to have a son’[iv]Notice in this chapter the repetition whereby God says, “I will”. It was something that He would accomplish. In Genesis 15, it was the Lord that initiated and made the covenant with Abram whilst he was asleep.

So the promises of Genesis 12 are revisited and extended, yet further. Abram was formerly promised he would beget a great nation, but would now become a ‘father of many nations’. Hence his name change from ‘Abram’ meaning ‘lofty father’ to ‘Abraham’ meaning ‘father of many nations’. Furthermore, he would be exceedingly fruitful, the Lord would make nations from him and kings would come from him.

Imagine the response Abraham might have faced following his name change! A ninety nine year old man with only one son through Hagar, now known as ‘father of many nations’. What would have kept him trusting the Lord despite the apparent unlikelihood of that happening? Previously it was foretold his descendants would be as the stars in the sky and sand on the seashore. Though he was ninety nine, Abraham obeyed God and was circumcised. That would be a constant reminder. Today, the Jewish people have survived and multiplied. The stars and sand are still a constant reminder.

As the Lord was speaking to Abraham, he fell on his face. That should be our response. Abraham was a friend of God, yet he knew Him as El-Shaddai, God Almighty. He was told to walk before the Lord and be blameless. How can we do that? Obey the Lord through His Word and choose not to be overcome by circumstances, but to trust Him. Every time someone called Abraham by his name, he would recall God’s promise. Every time we read the Word of God we are reminded that He is God Almighty and keeps His covenants and promises.

In verses 7-9, the Lord established an everlasting covenant to be their God and to give them the land of Canaan. This was passed to Abraham’s descendants as an everlasting possession and everlasting covenant. Jewish ownership depends solely on God’s gracious covenant with Abraham, but possession depends on faithfulness to the Lord.[v]

It is a miracle that exactly as God’s Word states, the Jewish people have been both scattered and regathered. What other nation has been scattered across the globe for nearly two millennia and then been replanted in their land? Abraham was justified before he was circumcised and there is a blessing for those walking by faith in the steps of Abraham. This means that since the Lord has kept His covenant with Israel, He will keep His promises to the believer in Him.

The sign of the covenant-circumcision

Sometimes, the Lord uses a sign for a covenant to help us remember His covenant faithfulness. Just as the rainbow is the sign of the Noachide covenant, circumcision is the sign of the Abrahamic covenant.[vi]Ibn Ezra reasons that the Lord commanded Abraham to circumcise himself prior to when Sarah became pregnant, so that his seed would be holy.[vii]Remember that the blood on the doors was the sign for the Lord who would pass over judgement. When we see the rainbow, we are assured of God’s promise to never flood the earth again. When we see Jewish people in the land of Israel we are reminded of the Abrahamic covenant. When we see the bread and the wine at the Lord’s Supper, we are reminded God spared us from his wrath and judgement.

Circumcision was not an unusual practise at that time in the Ancient World. Nonetheless they were given the command to circumcise the Hebrew males on the eighth day. This day for circumcision is the least painful, and when the vitamin K is most active enabling the blood to clot. John MacArthur adds that, “Historically, Jewish women have had the lowest rate of cervical cancer”.[viii]This reveals the Lord’s wisdom and understanding ahead of our time and the need for us to humbly obey Him.

Ultimately the Lord desires for believers to be circumcised in their hearts. This command has always been given both in the Torah (Deuteronomy 10:16) and the Brit Hadasha (New Testament Romans 2:29). The Lord wants believers to be loyal and faithful to Him and to exercise that through obedience. Hence unbelief is also described as having an uncircumcised heart (Jeremiah 9:25-26).

Verse 14 tells us that the uncircumcised would be “cut off” from the people. There is debate concerning whether that means being ousted or being killed. However in Exodus 4:24-26, Moses’ son was not circumcised and the Lord met him to kill him. Thankfully Zipporah swiftly intervened and cut off the foreskin of her son at Moses’ feet saying, “You are a husband of blood!” If Moses needed to be careful, how much more should we heed God’s Word?

It was vital that Sarai also received a new name given that she became a ‘princess of many nations’. This would also remind Abraham that the child of promise would come through her, not Hagar. When we try to engineer God’s purposes, we cause ourselves major and unnecessary problems. Think of Hagar and Sarah, Isaac and Ishmael and the resultant problems of their descendants evident still today in the Middle East.

Abraham fell on his face and laughed. Many such as Rashi[ix] and the Targum Onkelos[x] and Targum Jonathan[xi] think that Abraham laughed, meaning he rejoiced or wondered. Fructenbaum and others think it was a laugh of disbelief.[xii] Nonetheless, it is interesting that in verse 17 he immediately refers to his wife as ‘Sarah’, her new name. That itself was an act of faith and obedience.

But still, Abraham pleaded that Ishmael might live before Him. Tur HaAroch[xiii] and Nachmanides thought Abraham was worried that Ishmael might die prematurely. However, the Lord confirmed Isaac would be the son of promise and He would also bless Ishmael.

Real hope for today and tomorrow

God’s everlasting covenant would be with Isaac, but Ishmael would beget twelve princes. What were the Lord’s plans for Isaac and Ishmael and their descendants? After all, there was prolonged antagonism between Sarah and Hagar and Isaac and Ishmael. When Abraham died, Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah where Abraham had buried Sarah. Sometimes through adversity and especially death, there can be reconciliation and at other times in part.

Isaiah 19:18-25 speaks of a time still future when Israel, Egypt and Assyria will be as one. Zechariah 14 foretells all the families of the earth, keeping the Feast of the Tabernacles. How could this be possible? Only through the death and resurrection of Yeshua (Jesus) as Messiah. Only He can bring real and lasting peace including peace with God and peace with others.

Back in Genesis 12, God promised Abram that in him all the families of the earth would be blessed. How would they be blessed? Through the Son of Abraham, the Lord Jesus, the Saviour of the world. Many Gentiles were previously strangers to the commonwealth of Israel, with no hope and without God in this world. But in Yeshua, they have been brought near, by His blood that was shed which made atonement for sin. Like Abraham, the believer is justified by faith. The blood of the Lord Jesus cleanses the believer from all unrighteousness. Therefore circumcise your heart and trust in Him alone.

[i] Arnold G. Fructenbaum Ariel’s Bible Commentary The Book of Genesis Exposition from a Messianic Jewish Perspective (Ariel, 2009; San Antonio), p295

[ii] Ibn Ezra on Genesis 17

[iii] Chizkuni on Genesis 17

[iv] Warren W. Wiersbe The Wiersbe Bible Commentary The Complete Old Testament in one volume (David C. Cook, 2007; Colorado Springs), p73

[v] Ibid, p74

[vi] The Jewish Study Bible Tanakh Jewish Publication Society (Oxford University Press, 2004; New York), p38

[vii] Ibn Ezra on Genesis 17

[viii] John MacArthur The MacArthur Bible Commentary (Thomas Nelson, 2005; Nashville), p39

[ix] Rashi on Genesis 17

[x] Targum Onkelos Genesis 17  

[xi] Targum Jonathan Genesis 17

[xii] Fructenbaum, p304

[xiii] Tur HaArokh on Genesis 17 (notice he cites Nachmanides)