Summary: God renews His covenant with Abram in 2 ways--a name change, and a mark of ownership. Circumcision becomes Abraham’s signature on his new pact with God.
The Sign of the Covenant” Genesis 17:1-13 Pastor Bob Leroe, Cliftondale Congregational Church, Saugus, Massachusetts
As we consider our needs and wants, we work out various ways to achieve them. Facing a new year, many of us will make resolutions. Abram had an understandable yearning for a son, but his means of fulfilling his desire was outside of God’s will. We also have legitimate needs, which can be met either through responsible or irresponsible behavior. We can identify with Abram and Sarai; we can thank God that He was patient with them, and with us.
Rather than revoke His covenant, God appears before Abram and declares that His promise will remain intact. His graciousness, though, contains a subtle rebuke. As God reminds Abram of His power, Abram recalls his efforts to “help God out” and prove his own virility. What God promises, only God can give. Abram thought the only possible fulfillment of God’s covenant was Ishmael. Abram was still learning about the ability of His Lord.
There are many names for God recorded in the Bible. The one revealed in verse 1 is, in Hebrew, “el Shaddai”. This is the first of many times this reassuring Name appears. It’s often translated as “God Almighty”. It could also be translated “mountain”, a symbol of strength. God is without limits, the all-sufficient Lord of the impossible. Paul writes, “God can do exceeding abundantly beyond all that we ask or think” (Eph 3:20). This means even altering the laws of nature, which He established. This Name also implies nourishment, that God will richly supply all that we need as we feed upon His goodness.
God means business. He wants Abram to understand the certainty of the promise. In the first eight verses of chapter 17, God ways “I will” seven times…“I will confirm My covenant…I will make you fruitful…I will make nations of you…I will give you the land of Canaan as an everlasting possession,” and so on.
After assuring Abram of His might, God tells Abram to do two things: “Walk before Me, and be blameless.” Abram won’t walk alone; God will be with him every step of the way. He calls Abram to follow the path set before him. God has a plan for us, and the greatest success in life is in faithfully obeying His will. Living a “blameless” life means being single-minded, following one Master; for Abram, this was a call to integrity. We are God’s children, so we shouldn’t live like orphans!
God signs and seals His covenant in two ways: First, there is a name change. People in the Bible sometimes received new names from God at turning points in their lives. Jacob became Israel, Simon became Peter, Saul became Paul. The name Abram means “exalted father”, and is changed in verse 5 to Abraham, “father of nations.” This signified the certainty that God’s promise would be realized. Just picture Abram meeting some Bedouin trader and upon telling his name, “exalted father”, he’s asked, “Oh, so how many children do you have?” For so many years, the embarrassing answer was: “None.” Sarai’s name is changed to Sarah; the meaning is basically the same, but with a stronger emphasis. Sarah is a name of greater dignity, and is translated, “princess” or “mistress.”
In Bible times, a person’s name was more than a mere identifier. One’s name said something about who the person was, just as God’s Name reveals His attributes and character. Names are important; you who have had the challenging task of choosing names for your children know what I’m talking about. We chose Matthew, “Gift of God,” and Ruth, “Beloved Friend”, and regularly reminded our children who they are.
God reassures Abraham that the land of Canaan will belong to his descendants (vs 8). What follows is the 2nd sign of God’s covenant. God wants the children of Abraham to be a distinct people. God directs Abraham to have every male in his tribe circumcised (vs 10). The Hebrew word for covenant is “bris”, which is the Jewish name for this ritual of initiation. Circumcision becomes Abraham’s signature on his new pact with God.
Considering this development, Abraham may have thought, “If I had trouble having children before, I’m really going to have trouble now!” This cutting away of the flesh meant the renunciation of human effort, as well as a mark of identification as a person who belongs to God.
Although some people view circumcision as entrance into an “all-male club”, by virtue of her new name, Sarah is clearly included in God’s covenant. She and Abraham together form an important couple. From these two will come God’s chosen people. “What’s in a name?” Their new names indicate their vital part in God’s plan
Circumcision may seem like an unusual practice. Medical science has learned that there are hygienic benefits to the procedure, and that the safest day to do the surgery on newborns is the 8th day…which in verse 12 is the day God tells Abraham to perform the ritual. Circumcision became a mark of ownership, symbolizing for Jews their entrance into the world as children of the covenant. It also came to be regarded as a discarding of heathen ways. The Gentiles became known as “the uncircumcised.”