In The Beginning

Genesis Chapter Seventeen

I

As the scene shifts from Genesis chapter sixteen to Genesis chapter seventeen, we're going to find that a lot of time has passed by since we last saw Abram and Sarai in the previous chapter. Abram and Sarai have now been together for about 50 years or so and they have been living in the land that God promised to give them for approximately 25 of those years. 

Abram's son Ishmael (who was born near the end of Genesis chapter sixteen) has now grown to be about 13 years old, and even though God had spoken to Abram a number of times in the past, there is no record of any communication between God and Abram since before Ishmael was born.  

But that's about to change…

"When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, 'I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless'" (Genesis 17:1).

After what seems to be a long period of silence, God reopened His line of communication with Abram and identified Himself in a new way: I am the Almighty God. Now you might remember that God had previously made Himself known to Abram as "the LORD" or the self-existent, eternal Being back in Genesis 15:7. Now God further identifies Himself as El Shaddai or the Almighty God, the One who is all-powerful and all-sufficient.

So why would God choose this time to communicate this new revelation about Himself? Well, it seems that God is setting the right foundation for everything else that He is about to say to Abram. 

You see, God had some specific plans in mind for Abram- plans that were totally impossible to accomplish by any human means. So by first identifying Himself as the Almighty God, God communicated to Abram that He had ability to accomplish everything that He wanted to do in Abram's life. 

Before anything else was said, God wanted Abram to understand that He had the ability to follow through on His plans- and He communicated that truth by identifying Himself to Abram as the all-sufficient and all-powerful God. 

Now God is going to do plenty of things for Abram, but God also has something for Abram to do as well: "...walk before me and be blameless."  So what does it mean to walk before God? Well, we there are a few different ways to understand and apply this idea and we'll look at some of those ways next.

II

"I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless" (Genesis 17:1).

What does this idea of "walking before God" refer to? Well first, we walk before God in the sense that we can never go any place that God cannot see us. In fact, everyone "walks before God" in this sense because no human being can ever go anywhere outside of God's view.

This concept of "walking before God" can also carry the idea of living responsibly before God. This is almost certainly what God was talking about when He told Abram to "...walk before me and be blameless." "Walking before God" in this sense refers to the God-honoring manner in which someone conducts their life. 

"Walking before God" can also be understood a reference to the idea of going in God's direction. You see. the person who walks before God knows which way God is going and travels with Him in that same direction. When understood in this manner, we can "walk before God" in the sense that we keep in step with His direction for our lives. This implies that we should move slowly and steadily forward in our relationship with God, just as we do whenever we physically walk with someone. In other words, we shouldn't sprint, stop and start, or go backward in our walk with God- we keep moving forward. 

This also means that we have to be where God is going if we really want to walk with Him- and the direction that God is going is spelled out in the Old Testament book of Micah... 

"He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God" (Micah 6:8). 

So if you want to walk with God then you have to be where He's going- and the path that God is walking includes things like justice, mercy, and humility.

So God told Abram, "Walk before Me and be blameless" or "be perfect" as it says in some translations. Now it's important to understand that the word "blameless" does not mean "sinless." The idea of blamelessness refers to a complete, whole-hearted commitment. It involves the characteristics of integrity and dedication in someone's walk before God instead of a half-hearted or indifferent commitment to Him. 

To "walk before God and be blameless" is the opposite of another type of relationship with God that's described later on in the Bible...

"They claim to know God, but by their actions they deny him" (Titus 1:6). 

III

s been about 25 years since God first spoke to Abram and promised to make him into a great nation (see Genesis 12:2). Now 25 years is a long time to wait, and perhaps Abram thought that God had forgotten about this promise that He made so many years earlier. 

But God hadn't forgotten...

"And I will make My covenant between Me and you, and will multiply you exceedingly" (Genesis 17:2). 

Even though there was a long period of time when it seemed like nothing was happening, God was ready to act on His guarantee to Abram when the time was right- and the countdown for delivery on that guarantee was closing in on 0:00.

So what was Abram's response as God said these things to him? Well, the next verse tells us that "...Abram fell on his face..." as God spoke to him. In other words, Abram demonstrated total respect and reverence for God as God interacted with him. This response is very different from the attitude that people sometimes have towards God when it comes to the way that He has directed certain events in their life. 

For example, when God did not immediately act on Abram's desire to have a son, Abram might have said, "I'm not happy with this situation and I want some explanations from God." This is this kind of attitude that some people have towards God when they feel that He hasn't met their expectations or hasn't moved quickly enough to grant their request. 

But when you look at the people who interact with God in the Scriptures, you'll find that they certainly don't take an aggressive, confrontational attitude toward God. Instead, they respond just as Abram did; they treat God with deep respect and reverence. 

For instance, check out this conversation between God and a man named Job...

"Then the Lord said to Job, 'Do you still want to argue with the Almighty? You are God’s critic, but do you have the answers?' Then Job replied to the Lord, 'I am nothing—how could I ever find the answers? I will cover my mouth with my hand. I have said too much already. I have nothing more to say'” (Job 40:1-5 NLT). 

A similar thing happened when God appeared to the prophet Isaiah. The Scriptures tell us that Isaiah responded to that event by saying, "'...I'm doomed! Everything I say is sinful, and so are the words of everyone around me. Yet I have seen the King, the LORD All-Powerful'" (Isaiah 6:5 CEV).

So while it's not necessarily wrong to ask God questions, He should always be treated with respect- even when we don't understand the reasons behind His actions.

IV

"As for Me, behold, My covenant is with you, and you shall be a father of many nations. Neither shall your name any more be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham. For I have made you a father of many nations. And I will make you exceedingly fruitful, greatly so, and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come out of you. 

And I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your seed after you in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God to you and to your seed after you. And I will give the land to you in which you are a stranger, and to your seed after you, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession. And I will be their God" (Genesis 17:4-8).

So God changed Abram's name from Abram (a name that means "exalted father" (1) to a new name that we're much more familiar with today. That would be the name "Abraham," which means "father of a multitude." (2)

Now before we go on, we should remember that Abram was a man who was childless for many years until he finally had a son with a woman that he had taken as a second wife (see Genesis 16:15-16). For a man whose name meant "exalted father," this reality was something that was probably a source of pain, confusion, and embarrassment for Abram. 

So it's likely that Abram was thankful to hear that God had decided to change his name- until he found out that his new name meant "father of a multitude." This was something that was even more challenging to believe, especially for a guy who was 99 years old and had gone childless with the 90 year old woman that he had been married to for decades. 

Because of this, we can say that the very meaning of Abraham's new name represented another area where He had to place his faith and trust in God.

"'And God said to Abraham, And you shall keep My covenant, you and your seed after you in their generations'" (Genesis 17:9).

God had already promised to keep up His end of this agreement and now He reminded Abraham that he and his descendants had a responsibility to honor their side of their covenant as well. 

God is also going to ask Abraham to physically do something in connection with this covenant as well- and we'll take a look what God directs Abraham to do next.

(1) "Abram" The Online Bible Thayer's Greek Lexicon And Brown Driver & Briggs' Hebrew Lexicon

(2) "Abraham" Smith's Bible Dictionary

V

"'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. 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. 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" (Genesis 17:10-14).

Now before we continue, let's talk first about what God is instructing Abraham to do here. When this passage says, "You shall be circumcised..." it's making a reference to the fact that every boy is born with a small fold of skin covering the top part of his penis called a foreskin. "Circumcision" is the act of removing this small fold of skin.

So what was the point of doing this? Well, the act of circumcision was designed to be a visible sign of God's agreement with Abraham and his descendants. But why would God choose this particular act? After all, there were any number of marks or signs that God could have chosen to display the reality of this covenant. What was the reason behind the commandment to be circumcised?

Well, let's think back to God's original promise to Abram in Genesis 12. In that passage of Scripture, God told Abram, "I will make you into a great nation..." (Genesis 12:2, emphasis added). So the answer is that God planned to build a nation through the specific genetic line that would be produced through Abraham and his male descendants- that's one reason why this sign specifically involves his reproductive organs. It also helps explain why Abraham received a physical sign but his wife didn't. 

This sign also would serve as a specific reminder to Abraham and his descendants that they were set apart by God and were not like everybody else. This responsibility applied to Abraham and any male who was associated with his family, even if they weren't physically related. This meant that anyone who was connected with Abraham or his future descendants also had to demonstrate that they were serious about doing what God said.

VI

"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" (Genesis 17:14).

One important thing to remember is that this outward act of circumcision didn't make Abraham right with God- it was faith that made him right with God. We know this because Genesis 15:6 tells us that, "Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness." 

In other words, the Scriptures specifically tell us that Abraham had "right standing" (or "righteousness") with God because of his faith- and this occurred way before God commanded Abraham to undergo the act of circumcision. 

Unfortunately, attitudes had changed in the period between Abraham's life and Jesus' arrival in the New Testament era. You see, many people in the religious leadership of Jesus' day were convinced that anyone who was related to Abraham would be OK with God just by undergoing this act of circumcision. This kind of attitude lead to a serious warning from John the Baptist...

"Don’t just say to each other, ‘We’re safe, for we are descendants of Abraham.’ That means nothing, for I tell you, God can create children of Abraham from these very stones'" (Matthew 3:9 NLT).

The truth is that being born into a certain family (even a "religious" one) or participating in a church ceremony or ritual doesn't serve to make people right with God. The Apostle Paul explained what God is really after in the New Testament book of Romans... 

"… For God is not looking for those who cut their bodies in actual body circumcision, but he is looking for those with changed hearts and minds" (Romans 2:29 TLB).

So real circumcision -the kind that God is looking for- is not just some mere outward observance; it's a new attitude towards God that's generated by a relationship with Jesus Christ.

"God also said to Abraham, 'As for Sarai your wife, you are no longer to call her Sarai; her name will be Sarah. I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her'" (Genesis 17:15-16).

The name "Sarai" means "my princess" and "Sarah" means, "princess" or "noble woman" in a more general sense. So in providing Sarai with this name change, God is indicating that she would become a woman of honor to many families, and not just to Abraham in particular.

So what was Abraham's response to all this? Well, it wasn't what you might think.

VII

"Abraham fell facedown; he laughed and said to himself, 'Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?' And Abraham said to God, 'If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!'" (Genesis 17:17-18).

So Abraham demonstrated his deep respect for God by bowing with his face to the ground and immediately using the new name that God had given to his wife. But the rest of God's message to Abraham caused him to laugh silently to himself. 

Now perhaps Abraham laughed because this promise seemed to be almost too incredible to accept. It also seems as if Abraham wanted to try and make it easy on God by saying, "Why not let Ishmael inherit what you have promised me?" (CEV). The problem with that idea was that Ishmael was not the son that God was talking about...

 "Then God said, 'Yes, but your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will call him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him. 

And as for Ishmael, I have heard you: I will surely bless him; I will make him fruitful and will greatly increase his numbers. He will be the father of twelve rulers, and I will make him into a great nation. 

But my covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you by this time next year.' When he had finished speaking with Abraham, God went up from him" (Genesis 17:18-22).

So the final countdown has now started on the fulfillment of God's promise to Abraham: "...my covenant will be confirmed with Isaac, who will be born to you and Sarah about this time next year" (NLT).

"On that very day Abraham took his son Ishmael and all those born in his household or bought with his money, every male in his household, and circumcised them, as God told him. 

Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he was circumcised, and his son Ishmael was thirteen; Abraham and his son Ishmael were both circumcised on that same day. And every male in Abraham's household, including those born in his household or bought from a foreigner, was circumcised with him." (Genesis 17:23-27).

It's clear that Abraham was someone who was really serious about doing what God said. He never tried to argue, negotiate, or complain about God's instructions- he simply did what God told him to do, even when it wasn't easy. 

Remember that Abraham also had a small army under his leadership- and these soldiers couldn't have been happy about this. But Abraham made sure to back up his faith with action even if meant doing something that was sure to be unpopular and questioned by others.

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