Verses 1-14: Abraham > Abram
God reiterates the promises to Abram, then changes his name from Abram to Abraham. The name change signifies a change in their relationship. God proceeds to tell Abraham to comply with a physical sign of the covenant between them: circumcision of the male organ. Within Abraham’s house, all males that were eight days or older were to be circumcised. At the age of eight days, infants would have been old enough to withstand infection yet young enough to not remember the pain. All males that were natural born, or that were bought as a foreigner (slaves) were to be circumcised immediately. He who was not circumcised was to be “cut off” (a seeming pun of sorts) from the people of God.
Circumcision, as a physical sign of the covenant has been compared to the idea of baptism in the New Testament. While we should recognize the perspective that circumcision is not necessarily the Old Testament equivalent of the New Testament form of baptism, there are, I believe, enough similarities between the two to at least consider them parallel ideas within the two separate covenants represented by the Old and New Testaments. Both are commandments, and the results of circumcision and the results of baptism impart the idea of inclusion in something, namely the favor and acceptance of God. Circumcision is strictly a physical act, requiring only obedience and submission and the result is that the male would be part of the covenant as long as he was a descendant of Abraham and he completed the act. Baptism, on the other hand, is a physical act with spiritual consequences. Baptism can be completed by anyone, man or woman, born directly from Abraham or not.
In the sense that the God’s old covenant with Abraham and the Israelites was limited to that population only, circumcision identified the male segment of that “saved” or “favored” population, but this limit was binding. Baptism, also a commanded act, also identifies believers in Him, but baptism supersedes the limiting qualifications that were part of the circumcision commandment. In fact, it is Jesus Christ’s sacrifice and the new covenant that affords baptism (into the death of Jesus Christ) the power to save us.
Circumcision and baptism are good aspects (as physical acts) of the old and new covenants that can be used to understand the challenges that the old law incorporated and also the freedom that the new law offers under Jesus Christ.
Verses 15-27: Isaac > Ishmael
In these verses, God changes Sarai’s name to Sarah, again representative of the change in their relationship. Sarah shall be a mother of nations and kings shall come from her. Abraham laughs first at this idea due to their age. In Genesis 18, Sarah will laugh at the idea herself. Abraham was around 100 years old and Sarah was around 90, so their dubiousness at the idea is understandable.
With this idea of their bearing a child together, Abraham raises the idea of Ishmael, his son by Sarah’s handmaiden Hagar, whose birth we read of in Genesis 16. But God says that Ishmael is not the answer to Abraham’s doubt; Isaac shall be born of Abraham and Sarah’s union, and God will establish His everlasting covenant with Isaac and with his descendants. Ishmael will still be blessed as the father of twelve princes and the father of a great nation, but God is clear that the all-important covenant will be carried out through the lineage of Isaac. After all, Ishmael was an illegitimate son while Isaac will be the legitimate son of Abraham and Sarah and thus the true recipient of the covenant.
Verses 23-27 account Abraham circumcising all the males of his house exactly as God has prescribed. This of course included Abraham and Ishmael.
There are actually quite a few lessons we can learn from this chapter, but not all them will be new to us and our study of Genesis:
- God’s covenant will be kept
- God asks for and rewards immediate obedience
- God values legitimacy
- Significance of name changes
- Abram – “exalted father”; Abraham – father of many”
- Sarai & Sarah both mean “princess”
- Circumcision/baptism comparison and study
- A new relationship with God brings blessing
- The value of obedience
When we consider Genesis 17, the ideas of confirming and sealing the covenant ought to stand out. God’s sealing the covenant with the command of circumcision is, at this point in the Bible story, the strongest evidence yet that God is marking His people as His own.