Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Genesis Chapter 17 ~ New Names & Circumcision

Genesis Chapter 17

God had a different plan than Sarai or Abram could have conceived of when they tried to take matters into their own hands in trying to fulfill God’s promise that they would have children from chapter 15 by having children through Hagar. It turns out that the continuance of the lineage of Eve’s offspring through which a messiah would come to bruise Satan’s head would not be through the line of Ishmael, but a son born to Abram through Sarai. In this chapter God is reaffirming His covenant with Abram from chapter 15.

Abram was 99 years old, and the LORD appeared to him and said, “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.” (Gen. 17:1-2)

Abram was humbled and fell on his face, then God said:
“Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. 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. I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. 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. 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.” (Gen. 17:4-8)
God’s covenant promise entails two things: (1) multitude of offspring and (2) the land of Canaan, which will be fulfilled (Neh. 9:7-8). Notice that along with the covenant of God that here God gives Abram a new name, Abraham. This is the first time in Scripture when God changes someone’s name in connection with a covenant. What’s going on here? Well, the Hebrew meaning of Abram is “ab” or father combined with “ram” or to be high. This spoke of Abram’s noble God, his noble ancestry, or his own highness. The Hebrew meaning of Abraham is thought to be “ab” or father combined with “raham” likely derived from “hamon” meaning crowd. This etymology would seem to be a stretch, but this is the meaning of his name as God defines it, “for I have made you a father of a multitude of nations.” (see Bruce Waltke, 259-60 and Victor Hamilton, 464). His new name marks off a new identity. Man no longer defines him, and Abraham himself is not the author of his own destiny. In essence, God is saying, “You are mine, and your life will now be defined by me...your life is now defined by the promise and commission I have given you to become the father of many nations.”

It turns out that God’s covenant with Abram wasn’t only for Abram but for his offspring as well. God continued to speak:
“As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. 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.” (Gen. 17:9-14)
Offerings and sacrifices of grain and animals were used in the worship of God up until this time, but not by the direct command of God (at least from what Scripture tells us up to this point). Beyond merely offering animal sacrifices as a means of worshipping God it seems that here God requires more, the very blood of men in circumcision. God made a covenant with Abram in Genesis 15, and Abram was completely passive in that covenant. However, here Abraham is being called to an active participation in the covenant through circumcision. To be in covenant with God sacrifice not only of material possessions is required, but also personal physical mutilation is required for males. Is this for the sake of cleanliness? Well, that may be an affect, but circumcision doesn’t seem to be merely a pragmatic command in order to prevent infection and disease. God’s people are to be marked off in some way. They are different. Circumcision is the outward sign of what should be an inward reality, a life consecrated to God in one’s heart, mind, and strength.

God further constitutes the covenant He is making with Abraham, and his wife. Sarai, is now to be called Sarah. Sarai and Sarah are just older and newer ways of saying princess (see Derek Kidner, 141). Then God specifically outlines His plan:
“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.” (Gen. 17:16)
What’s Abraham’s response? He falls over, but not in humility this time like in verse 3, rather he falls over in laughter questioning God’s plan. After this he asks God to use Ishmael in this way, but God said ,"No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac," which means “he laughs” almost as if God is playing off of Abraham’s (Gen. 17:17) and later Sarah’s laughter (18:12-15). God then told Abraham that he was going to further establish His covenant with Isaac (Gen. 17:19). God told Abraham that He heard him regarding Ishmael and promised that He would (1) bless Ishmael, (2) give him many descendants, (3) that 12 princes would come from him (Gen. 17:20; 25:12-18), and (4) that from Ishmael would come a great nation. It’s clear that God is choosing to bless Isaac’s line in a uniquely covenantal way, not Ishmael’s. There is promise of blessing here for Ishmael, but no covenant. Then God told Abraham Isaac would be born in the next year.

After this conversation with God Abraham took all in his household and had them circumcised the same day. So Abraham was 99 years old when he was circumcised, and Ishmael was 13 years old. Circumcision from here forward became the physical sign of the covenant of God. God is determined to bless the nations through Abraham, and we see that the specific plan will be through Isaac. God chose to maintain or further establish His covenant through Isaac’s lineage and not Ishmael’s. Isaac is God’s chosen one, not Ishmael (despite what Islam teaches). This is the line through which God would bless the nations through Jesus Christ (Matt. 1:2; Luke 3:34). The one true and living God is Yahweh, who is often described as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; not, Abraham, Ishmael, and Nebaioth (Gen. 25:13). This doesn’t mean that Ishmael was not part of the sign of the covenant through Abraham’s family, but it does mean that unless Ishmael and his offspring would follow God along with Isaac’s offspring (which never happened) that they would be cut off. Isaac is elect and Ishmael is not. God is progressively revealing Himself through His covenant with His people.

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