Genesis 17. An Amendment to the Covenant: Circumcision.
Key Notes: New names. Circumcision as a spiritual message.
17:1–8 Thirteen years later, when Abram was 99, God again appeared to Abram; when He finished talking to him, God went up from Abraham."(17:22). This was a theophany.
God used a new name "El Shaddai", God Almighty. The origin of the word “shaddai” is not clear. One possible derivation is from a word for power “shadai”: thus, God the all-powerful. The other suggested origin is from the word “shad” meaning the breast. God is seen to be the one who nourishes and supplies all needs, and here in the context of having children.
"......by God Almighty who will bless you...blessings of the deep that crouches beneath, blessings of the breasts and of the womb." (Gen..49:25)
God changed his name from Abram (“the father is exalted” or “the father of many”) to Abraham ("father of a multitude"). He renewed the promise that Abraham would be the father of a multitude and Canaan would be their everlasting possession.
The multitude was slow in coming. Abraham would have only one heir, Isaac. Isaac had only two sons, Jacob and Esau. But Jacob would have twelve sons by two wives and two concubines. After that the multitude developed—a hundred years down the way--during the family’s long sojourn in Egypt. At the time of the Exodus, it would be a mass of humanity--perhaps two million people. Ex.12:37
It was not just faith that Abraham needed. He needed patience and a sense of humor. Since Abraham was wealthy, he would provide hospitality to a stream of passing caravans and travelers. They would naturally ask his name and enquire about his children. “Abram? Father of many? What? No children? Heh, Heh. How can you be a great man with such a name and no children?”
And when his name was changed to “Abraham, father of a multitude”, and they asked about his family: “you must have many, many children—a multitude.”He would reply, “I have one.” “Heh. Heh. You worship a strange God.” This chaffing went on for more than twenty years and Abraham would have to bear it patiently.
17:9–14 As a sign of the promise, Abraham was to be circumcised, with all the males in his household, from the eight-day-old to the centenarian.
17:15–21 God renamed Abraham, and Sarah and named her child Isaac (“Laughter”) in advance. Sarai, now Sarah, was promised a son of her own. Her name-change does not change the meaning of her name (“Princess”). Abraham was overcome with amusement--a child for a hundred year-old man and his 90-year-old wife? Why not let Ishmael be the child? No, Sarah would be the mother. And the date is given--a year from now. And God would bless Ishmael as well and make him the father of 12 princes.
17:22–27 Circumcision was duly carried out on all the males in Abraham's company.
God repeated His covenant with Abram emphatically. Seven times in the first eight verses God says "I will..." His intensity is palpable, and his intention clear to bless Abram for His own reasons, rather than in response to Abram's plea.
Four times God said "as for....".
"As for Me, behold My covenant is with you....(17:4)
"As for you, you shall keep My covenant, you and your descendants...." (17:9)
"As for Sarai your wife...Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will you a son by her." (17:15)
"As for Ishmael, I have heard you; behold I will bless him...." (7:20)
God lays out His plan for all the principals in the covenant on His initiative, rather than in response to their requests. Also the text suggests integrity of outline and detail.
Steps in Abraham's salvation:
a. He left Chaldea and followed when God called him. (Gen.12:1; Heb.11:8).
b. He believed that through him, God would bless the world. On this basis, the hope in the Coming One, he was justified (Gen.15:6; Rom.4:1–5), acquitted from the penalty of sin.
c. He was given the sacrificial treaty covenant, which God initiated, putting Abraham to sleep so that he was not under threat of condemnation (Gen.15:12;,Rom.8:1) and so that God alone was responsible for the outcome. This was a guarantee of justification, his acquittal, being made righteous before God.
d. He was given the rite of circumcision, as a mark of a change of heart. "Walk before me and be blameless ". (Gen.17:1). Later Moses preached it to Israel: "The Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring so that you will love the Lord your God will all your heart and with all your soul that you may live." (Deut.30:6)
The mark of circumcision symbolizes cutting away the flesh, the old sinful nature, "circumcising the heart". It is taught in the OT (Deut.10:16; 30:6; Jer.4:4; 9:26) as well as the NT (Rom.2:29; Gal.5:11–12; Col.2:11-- "putting off the body of flesh in the circumcision of Christ"). It is a sign of regeneration and sanctification. The old life is past, replaced by the new. And justification was given to Abraham before his circumcision and before Moses' Law, thus making it clear that casting off the old sinful nature was not due to the circumcision (Rom.4:9–11), nor done in his obedience to the Law. (Rom.4:13–15). It is clear in the NT, that physical circumcision no longer has a spiritual significance. (Gal.6:12–16). The Jewish believers contested the issue early (Acts 15:1,’, 21) but Gentiles were exempted.
Circumcision was performed by Egyptians (Ezek.32:19), and by Edomites and Moabites (Jer.9:25) but not by Philistines. (I Sam.18:25). It does not have religious significance for most of the world’s people, but it continues to be widely done for hygienic reasons. The incidence of local infection and penile cancer, among other things, is virtually zero in circumcised males and the risk of HIV is decreased. In contrast, female circumcision, practiced in some parts of Africa, is a painful, mutilating, and useless procedure.
The message is that the fleshly self must be seen as dirty and useless.
"Now the works of the flesh are plain: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing and the like." (Gal.5:19)
The flesh must be cut away and cast off.
Jeremiah preached it to Israel: "Circumcise yourselves to the Lord, remove the foreskin of your hearts." (Jer.4:4)
And Paul wrote “In Him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of flesh in the circumcision of Christ... Col.2:11–12)
Our task as believers is to recognize our fleshly impulses and discard them, get rid of them "...hating even the garment spotted by the flesh." (Jude 23)