In the last lesson, it finally looked from Abram’s point of view that God had satisfied Abram’s long awaited promise of a son named Ishmael. At the age of eighty-six, Abram was a dad in his own right. Hagar had acted as a surrogate mother in her mistress’s Sarai’s stead. There were big problems in the family which had caused Hagar to leave. But the LORD had intervened and seems to have sorted everything out. Hagar returned home and bore Ishmael to Abram. But the story of Abram and sarai was about to take a new twist.
Exposition of the Text
Fast forward thirteen years from the end of the last chapter and we come to chapter 17. Abram is 99 years old, and his son Ishmael is 12. Things seems to be going on autopilot. Ishmael was at the age of becoming a man in legal standing. There isn’t any mention of the conflict between Sarai and Hagar. But a sea change is about to happen in Abram and Sarai’s life. It starts simply by saying, “The LORD appeared to Abram.” By now we should be tipped off that the LORD was about to do something both great and unexpected in the life of Abram.
The LORD revealed himself as the Almighty God or “El-Shaddai”. This was a revelation of a new title for the LORD to Abram which expresses the idea that God is able to make anything happen. God reveals Himself by many names or titles in the Bible simply because no single title can express who God is. The LORD then asks Abram to walk before Him and be perfect. I don’t know how Abram reacted to that, but I do know when Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount tells us His followers to be perfect, even as our Father in Heaven is perfect, I shudder. How can this be? Certainly I am not perfect, nor can I say that my walk before God is anything close to perfect on God’s terms. If this is to be so, it must be the work of God. Perhaps this is what El-Shaddai reminds us also that nothing is impossible with Almighty God.
The LORD tells Abram that he is making a covenant between Himself and Abram. At this point we must remind ourselves that in Chapter 15, God cut a covenant with Abram which was based solely on God walking though the bloody trench. It was a covenant of grace as Abram could not make a covenant with the LORD and keep it. So now we have a second covenant which is being cut, one that has Abram personally involved and requires Him to walk perfectly before the LORD. So the natural question to ask at this point is, “What gives?”
This covenant to be made between the LORD and Abraham stipulated the covenant promises God will make to Abram. He is going to multiply Abram exceedingly. Abram responds to this by prostrating Himself before the Almighty God in a posture of worship. God continues with the promise that Abram would be the father of not just one but many nations. As the first sign of the covenant to Abram, the LORD changes Abram’s name which had meant “exalted father” to Abraham which means “father of many nations”. In other words, Abraham’s new name is descriptive of what God is going to do in blessing Abraham.
As we have gone along in this study, we have referred to the five ways God originally blessed Adam, life, fellowship, land, seed, and dominion. The work of God’s redemption was to restore these to humankind who had lost the fullness of these blessings because of Adam and Eve’s disobedience. These restorations are evident in the life of Abraham as part of the plan of redemption which would be fully realized in Jesus Christ. In this passage, we see again the promise of seed, that is descendant(s), and here dominion in verse 6 in that he would be the father of kings. The promise of the covenant was to be everlasting in scope which concerns the restoration of life. The fact that God was talking with Abraham was the restoration of fellowship with God. And in verse eight is the promise of land. So here we see the promises of the fivefold restoration of blessing.
However, in verse nine comes the stipulation that Abraham and his descendants would have to keep in order to keep the covenant in effect. Basically, Abraham was in the same position of Adam in the Garden of Eden and Sarah in the position of Eve. This is a promise of a new humanity from within a sea of wickedness. Abram and his descendants were to be perfectly obedient.
The token of this obedience was to be circumcision. The covenant that was established in chapter 15 involved the cutting of animals whose blood filled the trench. Here the cutting was to be made in the flesh and blood of Abraham, his descendants, and even his servants. Anyone who was not circumcised on the eighth day was to be cut off from the people of God. This seems to be an impossible demand. I will answer this later, but let it be sufficient for now for us to clearly notice the priority of the covenant of chapter 15 and the one here in chapter 17.
The next bombshell in this appearance of God to Abram comes in verse 15. Sarai’s name is changed to Sarah which means “princess”. The LORD goes on to say that Sarah will become a mother of her own son. She will be the mother with Abraham of nations and kings. Abraham bowed down before the LORD in worship as was to be expected. But the external bowing did not cover the internal doubts he had. The text says that Abraham said to himself in laughter how a hundred year old man and a ninety year old woman would have a child. So Abraham tells the LORD that the promised child Ishmael who was 12 was sufficient. God did not have to prove Himself further. God had worked within the possible realm. Eighty Six year old men can father children of a woman in her youth. But a hundred year old man and his ninety year old wife would be a physical impossibility. We often blame Sarah for unbelief and her laughter at this announcement, but we would do well to see that Abraham laughed first.
The Almighty God reiterated His promise that this miracle was indeed going to happen. The totally impossible was about to happen. Sarah was going to conceive and God was going to make an everlasting covenant with her seed and the seed after him. We will later come to appreciate this as a fulfillment of Genesis 3:15. We will find out later that God was talking about His Son Jesus Christ as the promised seed. For this point in the story, we now see that the promised seed was not going to come through Ishmael any more than through Lot of Eliezer of Damascus. The LORD named the child to be born “Isaac” which means “laughter” because Abraham laughed.
The LORD also tells Abraham that he would bless his son Ishmael as well. But he would not be the one with whom God would make a covenant. He would make this covenant through the descendant of Isaac. He would be the father of twelve tribes and would become a great nation, but he is not the line of promise. This would be reckoned through Sarah. She would become a mother in one year. Keep this time in mind as it will be important in understanding the incident with Abimelech later.
Abraham did as the LORD had commanded him and circumcised himself, Ishmael and all the make servants of his household. He apparently did this even before telling his wife Sarah what the LORD has said concerning her.
We have been introduced not to two covenants, one made unilaterally by God and now one which required perfect obedience. The first covenant was cut into animals who bled in which the LORD passed through the blood in behalf of both parties which means that if either party broke the covenant that it would be required of God. We learned that Jesus as a result paid the price for our breaking of the covenant.
Now how do we understand the later covenant which was cut into the flesh of Abraham and his descendants and required perfect obedience for its promises. This would be a covenant of works and would prove impossible to keep. The fivefold promises of blessing would become the fivefold curse if the descendants of Abraham proved in any way unfaithful. We know full well of the failures of the covenant of works. We too have groaned under its oppression. The Law could express the perfect will of God, but as we learn through the Book of Hebrews, this perfectly revealed will of God was unable to make the imperfect perfect. Paul says that sin took advantage of our imperfection and made God’s good and perfect will the means of our own fall. This is why Jesus had to come and die in our place.
We must find our hope not in the second covenant made with Abraham based on human works and blood of cutting. Our only hope lies in the first covenant in Genesis 15 which God makes by grace. We are used to thinking that the covenant we live under is the New Covenant in the blood of Jesus. However, what we know as the New Covenant is actually older than what we call the covenant of works which is Genesis 17. The covenant God made in chapter 15 cannot be disannulled by chapter 17.
Paul tells us that the covenant of works of the Law acted as a schoolmaster until the time of Christ who is the promised seed of Abraham and Sarah. Even though the chapter 15 covenant happened before the chapter 17 covenant, the stipulations of what the covenant in chapter 15 did not become clear until the time that Jesus Christ came in the flesh, who offered a life of perfect obedience that we could not offer God, by which the chapter 17 covenant was perfectly kept. This allows us to experience the fivefold blessing promised by the chapter 17 covenant. It wasn’t the blood from severed foreskins but the blood of Cavalry. Jesus is the one who walked perfectly before God in our place so that now He has become our necessary righteousness by which we can enter in the presence of God, in whom is not one speck of darkness. The covenant of chapter 15 based on believing the promise of God which was fulfilled in Jesus Christ is the covenant for us. The one in chapter 17 is the one Christ kept for us by which we obtain eternal blessings of life, fellowship, land, family, and dominion. Thanks be to God through the Lord Jesus Christ for His gift.