An Unusual Sign

Genesis 17

Alan Lewis
Elon, North Carolina
May 2015

This morning we will be looking at Genesis 17.  It is a fascinating chapter. I have studied this chapter before.  I taught it before but there were all kinds of things in it that I never noticed until now.  Before we look at it, I have to explain the setting of the chapter.  Genesis 17 is a continuation of Genesis 16.  We have to do a little review.  What happened in the last chapter?

In the last chapter, Abraham and Sarah had a problem.  They were childless.  God promised them a son but no son was born.  Ten years went by and there was still no son, so Sarah came up with a plan. 

They didn’t ask God about the plan.  They just talked among themselves.  The plan was for Abraham to sleep with Sarah’s slave Hagar to have a child.  Abraham agreed and the plan worked.  Hagar got pregnant.  She had a son. 

Abraham now has his first baby.  He is very excited.  He got what he always wanted and he believes that this is the child God promised them. 

Last week, some asked, How do we know that Abraham believed that he did the right thing in the last chapter?  Abraham only did what was socially acceptable in his day. It was something you did back in those days to solve the problem of infertility.

There were no infertility clinics in Abraham’s day.  You just used one of your slaves to have kids.  It doesn’t make much sense to us today but in Abraham’s mind it did and he even said in this chapter, “Oh that Ishmael might live before you” (17:18 ESV).  Ishmael was Abraham’s only son at this time.  He was a teenager and Abraham was very attached to him.  He loved Ishmael. 

He told God, “May Ishmael live under you special blessing” (NLT).  He believed that he was the fulfillment of God’s promises.  What a terrible thing when God has something better for you but you are happy with your own plan and are praying for God to bless your own plan.  You are perfectly content with second best when God wants to give you more. God had other plans for Abraham.

Now God did bless Ishmael.  God said, “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 (17:20). 

Why did God bless Ishmael and his descendants?  Ishmael was not supposed to be born.  We have people today in the same category.  Their birth was not a result of obedience but of disobedience.  The answer is that God can bring good out of evil.  He makes all things work together for good.

The problem is that this was not the will of God for Abraham.  He takes a detour.  He gets out of the will of God, like he did in Genesis 12 when he went to Egypt.  How do we know?  He committed a sin.  He committed adultery.  How do we know this was not God’s will?  This is review from last week. 

They didn’t consult God first.  They didn’t ask him if this was the right thing to do.  Isaiah 31:1 says, “Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help and rely on horses, who trust in chariots because they are many and in horsemen because they are very strong, but do not look to the Holy One of Israel or consult the Lord!” 

They never talked to God and God never talked to them and after he was born, God said nothing to him.  We saw that last week.  He spoke to Hagar but he never spoke to Abraham or Sarah in chapter 16.  Thirteen years went by and God still never said a word to them.

When we read Genesis, we think God was talking to Abraham every day.  That is not true.  There were thirteen years of silence.  God was silent for thirteen whole years. 

How do we know it was thirteen years later?  Abraham was eighty-six at the end of the chapter (16:16) and he is ninety-nine year old at the beginning of this chapter (17:1).  If you do the math, you come up with thirteen years. 

Abraham got what he wanted and God stepped back and let Abraham reap what he sowed.  That birth caused problems (problems among Abraham and Sarah, problems among Sarah and Hagar).  After thirteen years, something happened.  All of the sudden, without any warning, God appeared to Abraham.  Abraham has a fresh encounter with God. 

God speaks to him.  He speaks to him five times in this chapter.  Five times we see the words “God said to him” and this revelation was interactive.  Abraham asked God some questions. 

He asks God two questions in this chapter.  He asks, “Will Sarah and I indeed have a son?”  He also asks, “Will you bless Ishmael?”  God answers both questions in this chapter. 

This revelation lasts most of the chapter.  God appears to Abraham in the first verse and doesn’t leave him until the twenty-first verse.  Genesis 17:22 says, “When he had finished talking with him, God went up from Abraham.” 

This raises an important question.  Why did God appear to Abraham in this chapter?  Thirteen years went by with no appearance.  Why did Abraham get one now?  There are two reasons.

The first reason is that the promised son will be born in one year.  It is coming soon.  The second reason that God appeared now is that Abraham still thinks that Ishmael will fulfill the promises of God.  He thinks that this is the program of God.  God has to set the record straight. 

God says to Abraham, “I know that you love Ishmael and I will bless him but you are getting another son by Sarah and that son will inherit all of the promises, not Ishmael”.  Nothing that Abraham did with Hagar changes the plan.  That is interesting.  It added some complications but it did not stop the plan of God.  Even Abraham’s sin could not stop the promises from being fulfilled.

Fortunately God does not do this today.  If God did this today and snuck up on a ninety-nine year old man in a nursing home with a bad heart, he would drop dead.  What was Abraham’s reaction to this appearance?  How did he respond when God started talking to him?  Abraham falls on his face. 

In fact, Abraham does that not once but twice in this chapter (17:3; 17). That is one of the positions of prayer.  That is the way Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane.  He prayed with his face to the ground (Matthew 26:39). What does God tell Abraham?  He gives him four new things.

1. A New Exhortation

“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” (17:1)

God told Abraham to do two things: walk before Him and be blameless.  This is something that applies to us.  God wants us to walk before Him and to be blameless.  Let’s talk about these two things.

Walk Before Me

Noah walked WITH God.  Abraham was to walk BEFORE God.  Abraham was told not just to believe in God but to walk before God.  It has the idea of live in God’s presence.  Live your life like God is looking at you.  It means “to live one’s entire life in the presence of God, under the authority of God, to the glory of God” (to use the language of RC Sproul).  Who do you walk before?  Why do you do the things you do?  Who do you try to please?  People or God.

Be Blameless

He was also told to be blameless.  The same word is used of Noah.  Noah was “blameless in his generations” (6:9).  Job 1:1 says, “There once was a man named Job who lived in the land of Uz. He was blameless–a man of complete integrity. He feared God and stayed away from evil” (NLT).  Let’s talk about this idea of blameless.  Notice what it does not say.

Notice that God did NOT tell Abraham to be religious.  He told him to be blameless.  Not everyone who is religious is blameless.  Notice also that God did NOT command Abraham to be perfect (as the KJV reads) just blameless. 

Without blame does not mean without sin.  Deacons in the church are to be blameless (I Timothy 3:10) and so are elders (Titus 1:6).  If they have to be without sin, we would not have any elders or deacons in the church. 

What does that mean?  What does it mean to be blameless?  It means to be above reproach.  Preachers should be blameless and so should every Christian.  II Peter 3:14 says, “So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him.”

Philippians 2:14-15 says, “Do everything without grumbling or arguing, 15 so that you may become blameless and pure, ‘children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.’”

Ephesians 1:4 says, “For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight”.  None of us are sinless.  We all have faults but we can still be blameless.

What are some signs that we are not blameless?  We live in open sin or break the law, we are not blameless.  David prays, “Keep your servant also from willful sin Then will I be blameless” (Psalm 19:13).

When we have affairs and break our marriage vow, we are not blameless. When a scandal ruins our reputation and good name, we are not blameless.  When we break the law, we are not blameless.  When we have an unhealthy addiction (drugs or alcohol), we are not blameless.

Why was this the first thing God told him when He appeared to him? “Walk before Me and be blameless“.  The last thirteen years, Abraham was not blameless. He had an affair and committed adultery.  He used deception before that and lied about his wife.  He had a lapse of faith.

2. A New Name

The second thing that God does in this chapter is to give Abram and Sarai new names.  Abram means “father of many”.  God gave him that name when he was childless.  Now God changes his name at the age of ninety-nine.  “No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations” (17:5).

Abram’s new name is Abraham. Can you imagine how embarrassing that must have been?  Abram gets all excited and runs out and says to a stranger, “God just spoke to me last night and gave me a new name”.  What is your new name?  Abraham.  What does the name mean? It means “father of a multitude”.  How many kids do you have?  “I have only one.”

Sarai’s name changes to Sarah.  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.’” (17:15-16). 

Sarah means “princess”.  She is the first Jewish Princess.  Sarah will be the mother of many nations.  She is a matriarch and kings will come from her. That makes Sarah a royal princess.  Sarah is the only woman in the Bible whose name was changed by God.  God changes the names of many men but this is the only woman whose name was changed by God.

Not only does Abraham and Sarah get a new name, God gets a new name in this chapter.  There are some interesting names of God in Genesis. Melchizedek called God El Elyon (the Most High God) in 14:19-20.

Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth. And blessed be God Most High, who has defeated your enemies for you.” Melchizedek calls God El Elyon.  He is the sovereign ruler of the universe.  He is the one who is in perfect control over everything that happens in the world today. 

The Egyptian slave Hagar has a different name for God.  When God appeared and spoke to her in the wilderness, after she ran away, she called God El Roi in her time of deepest distress.  Genesis 16:13 says, “The slave girl gave a name to the Lord who spoke to her: “You are ‘God who sees me,’” because she said to herself, “Have I really seen God who sees me?” (NCV). 

El Roi means The God who Sees,” not the God who provides or heals or blesses or protects us but the God who sees us.  He saw Hagar and knew everything she went through.  He heard her affliction. 

He hears ours as well, even when no one else does.  Whatever you are feeling or experiencing right now, God sees and knows.  He understands us, even when people have hurt or mistreated you.  That is what happened to Hagar.

In this chapter, we see another Hebrew name for God, El Shaddai.  When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to him and said, “I am El Shaddai.” It is used 48 times in the Bible and this is the first time.  What does that name mean?  Why did God give Abraham that name at this time? 

El Shaddai has two meanings.  El Shaddai means “All Powerful.”  It is usually translated “God Almighty”.  The one who created the universe is El Shaddai .  He is a God of infinite power. Because God is all powerful, He is the one who can supply all of your needs, even when things look completely hopeless. 

3. A New Sign

Then God said to Abraham, “As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner—those who are not your offspring. Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.” (17:9-14)

God reaffirms the Abrahamic Covenant in this chapter.  We see that in v. 2-9.  It is called “an everlasting covenant” (17:7).  It was not only between God and Abraham, it was between God and Abraham’s descendants (17:7-8). 

What does God promise Abraham here?  Abraham has one child at this point.  God says, “You will have a lot more than that. Nations will come from Abraham.  Kings will come from Abraham.  He also promises to gave his descendants “the land of Canaan” not as a temporary possession but as an “EVERLASTING possession” (17:8).

This is the second covenant that is mentioned in Genesis.  The first one was called the Noahic Covenant.  God made a covenant with Noah and everything on the planet. 

He promised to never again destroy the earth with a flood of water.  That covenant had a sign.  It is the rainbow.  A bow is a defensive weapon and it points up in the sky.  That is a sign that everyone on the planet can see.

Now God makes another covenant.  This one is not with everyone on the planet, it is just with Abraham but it also has a sign.  This sign is different.  It involves human participation.  This sign involves a medical procedure.  It involves surgery and it is limited to men. 

Only males can receive this sign.  There is female circumcision (female genital mutilation) which has been practiced in Africa for century but that was not the sign.  It was a sign only to be performed on men.  It seems like a rather strange sign to us. 

The Jews did not invent circumcision.  It was an ancient custom.  It existed before the time of Abraham.  It is one of the oldest medical procedures which are still performed today.  It is not an exclusively Jewish custom but people do circumcisions for many reasons.

Some do it for medical reasons.  Some do it for sanitary and hygienic reasons.  Uncircumcised males have a higher incidence of STDs (e.g., AIDS, Syphilis).  Others used it as an initiatory rite as an introduction to puberty.  It was a rite of passage from childhood to adulthood. 

The Arabs practiced it at the age of thirteen.  The Egyptians performed it on boys between the ages of six and twelve.  The Jews did not invent circumcision but they were the first to give it any religious significance.  For the Jews, circumcision is not just a social rite, it is a religious rite.  It was the sign of the covenant between God and the Jews.

They were also the first to practice infant circumcision, as far as I know.  This practice was to be performed on babies. God said that this was to be done on the eighth day.  Now we know why he gave these instructions.  There is a medical reason.

Babies should not be circumcised until they have enough vitamin K.  Babies are born with little vitamin K.  Vitamin K helps with blood clotting.  It is much safer, although there is a vitamin K shot.  On the eighth day, there is less pain, less bleeding, and a better healing process.

It seems like a strange sign to us, a sign that focuses on the male sex organs.  It is a sign that you cannot even see.  Why was this the sign of the covenant?  What does it represent?  Keith Krell suggests it was a physical reminder of sexual fidelity.

“The male organ of procreation was to be set apart for the Lord’s purposes rather than for sexual immortality. Abram had committed sexual immortality by sleeping with Hagar. Now he was to submit it to God. The male organ of procreation would be the vehicle through which the seed of man would pass, ultimately preparing the way for the Messiah.

This sign alerted a member of the covenant never to use the organ bearing this mark in a promiscuous manner. If this part of man’s body is devoted to the Lord, the entire man will be devoted to the Lord… No Israelite man could ever engage in sexual relations without being reminded of the fact that he belonged to God.”[1]

4. A New Command

God gave Abraham a rather strange command.  He was to be circumcised at the age of ninety-nine.  That sounds painful.  I do not know if they had any anesthetics in that day like they do today.  None only was Abraham to be circumcised, so was every male in his household was to be circumcised. 

Abraham does exactly what God tells him to do.  He circumcises himself.  He circumcised his thirteen year old son Ishmael and he circumcised his whole household.  The text says that he did this “on that very day” (17:23).  It was instant obedience.  Abraham obeyed God completely and he obeyed immediately. 

If you remember, in the last chapter Abraham failed as a leader in the home. His wife leads him into sin and he does exactly what she says no questions asked.  Then she mistreats her slave and Abraham does absolutely nothing to stop it.  In this chapter, Abraham gets high marks in the area of spiritual leadership. 

He is the role model of spiritual leadership in the home.  That raises the question.  Are we good leaders in our home?  This is an encouragement for the husbands who have blown it at times in this area.  There is still hope for us.






One Response to An Unusual Sign

  1. Myra says:

    An excellent study with great insight.

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