the BIG story: Genesis 17:1-16

When Mother Teresa was asked about her work, she replied

“I am just a little pencil in God’s hands…doing something beautiful for God.”

In a mysterious way, we’re not called to work for God, but to let God work through us. So to in Genesis 17:1-16, we see a mixture of divine sovereignty and human responsibility.

1. God is a covenant-keeping God (17:1-8).
There have been thirteen years of silence between God and Abram. God referred to himself as El Shaddai. So far, the name by which the Lord has revealed himself is Elohim (the God who creates and sustains nature).

El Shaddai, on the other hand, refers to the God who constrains nature. God is capable of working miracles. He created natural laws; He can violate natural laws. The name emphasises God’s infinite power (Ex 6:3). The word El means “the strong one,” while the word Shadd refers to the breast of a nursing mother. In this tender image, God is saying that we are empowered to live out our covenant responsibilities by feeding on Him, just as a child grows by feeding on its mother’s milk.

Abram was about to learn that God’s promises are fulfilled not by might, nor by power, but by the Spirit of the Lord Almighty (Zech 4:6). It would be El Shaddai who would accomplish His will in Abram’s life! God is able, whatever the circumstance and whatever the difficulty (Eph 3:20).

This almighty God commanded Abram to, “Walk before me, and be blameless” (17:1), just as Enoch and Noah had done.  Abram is also to “be blameless.” – complete, whole, having integrity. Abram was to conduct himself as if always being in God’s presence. What a challenge for Abram and for us. Bill Hybels wrote a book called, Who You are When No One’s Looking.  God wants His disciples to be people of integrity, not duplicity.

Upon hearing these words, “Abram fell on his face, and God talked with him” (17:3).  Why? He’d met with God! When men and women meet with God, there is some form of physical expression. Our posture reflects the attitude of our heart. It is very difficult to worship God without being expressive. The idea of worshipping God in one’s heart is western! It is not the practice in the rest of the world and will not be in heaven (Rev 4-5).

In these verses, God also changes Abram’s name. “Abram” means “exalted father.” Now God changes Abram’s name to “Abraham,” which means “father of a multitude.”  Now he gets his family together and announces his new name. Changing one’s name when becoming a Christian is not unusual elsewhere in the world. People do so because they recognise that they are new individuals with a new identity. They will never be the same again. They are expressing the same thought that God did when He gave Abram a new name (Neh 9:7). As believers in Jesus Christ, we have also been given a new name and a new identity. Thus, we seek to live according to who we are.

God’s side of the covenant is also clear:

    1. “I will make you very fruitful.”

    2. “I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you.” Eventually culminating in Jesus—“the King of Kings.”

    3. “I will establish my covenant …. between me and you and your descendants.”

    4. “I will give you and your descendants the land as an everlasting possession.”

    5. “I will be their God." God wants to be our God. 

2. God expects our obedience (17:9-16). 
Many people wrestle with the nature of an unconditional covenant. Although God’s promises to Abram were unconditional; Abram’s enjoyment of the blessings was conditional. Within God’s unconditional promises, God makes demands. In the case of Abraham, he was to circumcise himself and every male in his household. In the patriarchal society of the ancient Near East people considered that a girl or woman shared the condition of her father if she was single, or her husband if she was married.

Thomas L. Constable, Notes on Genesis, suggests circumcision was a fitting symbol for at least three reasons:

1. It would have been a sign to every circumcised male that God’s promises involved children.

2. It was a physical reminder of sexual and spiritual fidelity. Abram had committed sexual immortality by sleeping with Hagar. Now he was to submit it to God. If this part of man’s body is devoted to the Lord, the entire man will be devoted to the Lord.  Circumcision assured a wife of her husband’s submission to the Lord. It reminded a husband that he belonged to the Lord. No Israelite man could ever engage in sexual relations without being reminded of the fact that he belonged to God.

3. It was an illustration of God’s approach to dealing with the flesh (Col 2:10-12). The circumcised male was one who repudiated “the flesh” in favour of trust in the Lord and His spiritual promises. Circumcision didn’t save Abram or make him righteous before God (Rom 4:9-12). His righteous standing before God was on the basis of faith (11:30-31).

In the New Testament, the physical act of circumcision is no longer required for believers. We are to be circumcised in our hearts, which is the seat of decision-making.

Like Abram, Sarah had been immoral. She had asked her husband to commit adultery and polygamy. But God still blesses her too. Abram undoubtedly assumed that Ishmael would be the promised heir until God told him that Sarah would bear his heir herself. That revelation is the most important feature of this passage. God is a God of grace.

Soren Kierkegaard said,

“When you read God’s Word, you must constantly be saying to yourself, ‘It is talking to me, and about me.’”

So what does this passage say about and to me?