Commentary on Genesis 17

Last updated: July 5, 2009

English Translation (ESV)

1When 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, 2that I may make my covenant between me and you, and may multiply you greatly.” 3Then 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. 5No 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. 6I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. 7And 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. 8And 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.”

9And God said to Abraham, “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. 10This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. 12He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised. Every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, 13both he who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money, shall surely be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. 14Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”

15And God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. 16I 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.” 17Then 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?” 18And Abraham said to God, “Oh that Ishmael might live before you!” 19God 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. 20As 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. 21But I will establish my covenant with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this time next year.”

22When he had finished talking with him, God went up from Abraham. 23Then Abraham took Ishmael his son and all those born in his house or bought with his money, every male among the men of Abraham’s house, and he circumcised the flesh of their foreskins that very day, as God had said to him. 24Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. 25And Ishmael his son was thirteen years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. 26That very day Abraham and his son Ishmael were circumcised. 27And all the men of his house, those born in the house and those bought with money from a foreigner, were circumcised with him.

Notes

1-2 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, that I may make my covenant between me and you, and may multiply you greatly.”

Abram has been in the land for twenty-four years (12:4) and it has been thirteen years since Ishmael’s birth (16:16). “God Almighty” is a translation of El Shaddai. The meaning of Shaddai is uncertain. To “walk before” someone usually expresses the service or devotion of a faithful servant to his king, whether human or divine1. Noah was “blameless” (6:9) and it is a goal for Abram to become blameless. This divine imperative has more of an ethical charge than previous imperatives2. The covenant has already been inaugurated as the result of divine initiative (15:18), but its confirmation involves a human response3.

3-4 Then Abram fell on his face. And God said to him, “Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations.

Abram fell on his face in an expression of awe and submission to God. The genealogical lists in chapters 25 and 36 list peoples descended from Abram.

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.

This is the first time in Genesis an individual’s name is changed. Abram means “he is exalted (as to his) father” or “the father is exalted”4. Abraham does not literally mean “father of nations” but is similar phonemically to it (ab hamon)5.

Names often represented statements of blessing and destiny. When parents gave a name it often expressed their hopes and dreams. Considering God’s sovereignty, his giving of a name is much more determinative. Up until now, God has been interacting with Abram and directing him, but this is more like taking him into his household. He promises “to be your God and the God of your descendants after you” (v. 7).6

6 I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you.

At least Ishmael’s tribal rulers (25:12-17), Edom’s kings (36:9-43), and the kings of Israel and Judah were Abraham’s descendants.

9 And God said to Abraham, “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations.

However subsidiary one makes the human commitment to the divine obligation, it still remains a vital part of this covenant relationship”7.

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.

Circumcision was practiced before Abraham’s time8. In this context it has religious, not social, connotations. The designation of circumcision as “my covenant” is a “synecdoche for covenantal obligation: ‘this is [the aspect of] my covenant you must keep’”9. Females are not commanded to 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.

[C]ircumcision is a means by which Abraham and his seed ratify God’s lordship over them. It is their identity sign as God’s covenant people. As such, circumcision is not a cognition sign, one for God’s benefit, but rather a confirmation sign, one bearing witness to Abraham’s belief that God would fulfill his promises with respect to progeny. Accordingly, Abraham’s circumcision is as much an amen to Yahweh as was his affirmation in 15:6.10

Several passages (Lev 26:41; Deut 10:16; 30:6; Jer 4:4) speak of the circumcision of the heart, suggesting that the rite itself expressed faith and obedience to God”11.

12-13 He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised. Every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, both he who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money, shall surely be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant.

God’s covenant was for the entire household. The covenant can no more be reversed than the circumcision.

14 Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”

One must be cut (in his foreskin) or be cut off (from his people). The meaning of “cut off from his people” is disputed. Does it refer to excommunication or execution? Does God execute this judgment or do the courts?

15 And God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name.

Sarah (“princess”) appears to be a dialectical variant of Sarai12. This name change is not explained. There may be a link between Sarah and sar (“prince, ruler”)13.

16 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.”

This verse complements verse 6. Based on 18:9, it appears that Abraham kept this revelation a secret from Sarah for Sarah laughs when she overhears Yahweh speaking, not when Abraham tells her the news.

18 And Abraham said to God, “Oh that Ishmael might live before you!”

In chapter 15 Abraham suggested his servant Eliezer as an heir. Here he puts forth Ishmael.

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.

The name Isaac means “he laughs” (cf. 17:17; 18:12; 21:6).

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.

The twelve princes (nasi) are listed in 25:12-16.

21 But I will establish my covenant with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this time next year.”

The covenant is established solely with Isaac, not Ishmael.

22 When he had finished talking with him, God went up from Abraham.

God visibly ascended from Abraham’s view14.

23 Then Abraham took Ishmael his son and all those born in his house or bought with his money, every male among the men of Abraham’s house, and he circumcised the flesh of their foreskins that very day, as God had said to him.

Abraham’s obedience was immediate (“that very day”) and in accord with God’s command (“as God had said to him”).

Bibliography

Hamilton, Victor P. The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1-17. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament 1A. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990.

Mathews, Kenneth A. Genesis 11:27-50:26. The New American Commentary Volume 1B. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2005.

Sarna, Nahum M. JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis. 1st ed. Jewish Publication Society of America, 1989.

Walton, John H. Genesis. The NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001.

Wenham, Gordon J. Genesis 16-50. Vol. 2. Word Biblical Commentary. Thomas Nelson, 1994.

1Genesis 5:22, 24; 6:9; 24:40; 48:15; Deuteronomy 10:8; 18:7; Judges 20:28; 1 Kings 1:2; 10:8; Jeremiah 52:12; Ezekiel 44:15

2Genesis 12:1; 13:14; 15:1, 5, 9

3Wenham, Genesis 16-50, 2:20.

4Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1-17, 464.

5Ibid.

6Walton, Genesis, 449-450.

7Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1-17, 468.

8Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1-17, 469; Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, 385-386; Wenham, Genesis 16-50, 2:23-24.

9Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1-17, 470.

10Ibid., 472.

11Wenham, Genesis 16-50, 2:31.

12Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1-17, 476.

13Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, 126.

14Mathews, Genesis 11:27-50:26, 207.

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