Post Series on Genesis 17:1-27:
- The Command with a Promise (Genesis 17:1-2)
- The Promise with a Command (Genesis 17:3-14)
- The Faith and Obedience of Abraham (Genesis 17:15-27)
13 years had passed since Abram’s illegitimate son Ishmael was born to him by Hagar. Despite God’s promises that he would provide Abram a son from his very own body (Gen. 15:4), Ishmael is still the only son of the 99-year-old patriarch.
God, however, had not abandoned his promise, and so he approaches Abram to bring a command with a promise:
1When 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, 2that I may make my covenant between me and you, and may multiply you greatly.” (Gen. 17:1-2)
God insists that Abram “walk before me, and be blameless” in order that God may make his covenant with Abram, to multiply him greatly. In Genesis, only four people are described as having “walked before the LORD”: Enoch (5:22, 24), Noah (6:9), Abraham (17:1; 24:40), and Isaac (with Abraham, 48:15). Only two are described as “blameless”: Noah (6:9), and Abraham (here). (See John Sailhamer, The Pentateuch as Narrative, p. 160.)
The command to “walk before me” is a command for Abram to orient the entirety of his life in obedience toward the Lord. In all of his dealings, through all of his interactions, God was calling Abram to a fully obedient life.
The command to be “blameless” confirms and bolsters the meaning of “walk before me.” The word was often used in connection with sacrificial animals:
Stereotyped priestly formulae (cf. Lev 22:21) specify that every offering “must be without defect or blemish to be acceptable” (to the Lord); that is, to say, tamim designates the unobjectionable condition of an offering animal, one that is healthy, without defect, and free of any blemish (Lev 9:2; cf. Exod 12:5; Num 6:14; 28:19). It is further used to indicate the serenity of the unclouded relationship between God and the righteous (Gen 6:9; 17:1; Deut 18:13; Josh 24:14)….
(J. P. J. Olivier, “Tamim,” in the New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis, vol. 4, 307)
To this point, Abram’s faith has been up and down: up to leave his home to follow God to the Promised Land, and down to go to Egypt during the famine. Down to offer Lot his pick of the Promised Land, and up to believe God’s Promise to bless him. Up to trust God by rescuing Lot and to experience the blessing of Melchizedek, and down to take Hagar as a wife.
But now, God is taking his covenantal relationship with Abram to the next level, insisting that Abram walk before him in blamelessness.
The Command with a Promise
And yet, God does not issue a bare command apart from a promise of his own grace in Abram’s life. Before he utters his command for Abram to walk before him, and to be blameless, God reminds Abram that “I am God Almighty.” By insisting that he is God Almighty, God is not offering a vain boast, but a kind promise that whatever God requires, he provides.
John Calvin explains this principle well:
…as if God would declare, that he had sufficient power for Abram’s protection: because our faith can only stand firmly, while we are certainly persuaded that the defence of God is alone sufficient for us, and can sincerely despise everything in the world which is opposed to our salvation. God, therefore, does not boast of that power which lies concealed within himself; but of that which he manifests towards his children; and he does so, in order that Abram might hence derive materials for confidence. Thus, in these words, a promise is included.
(John Calvin, Commentary Upon the Book of Genesis, p. 443; CCEL)
God wasn’t so much telling Abram to go big or go home, nor insinuating that God was tiring of Abram’s half-heartedness. Rather, God was continuing to draw Abram to himself with the promise of the Gospel, insisting that God Almighty himself would aid Abram to walk before him and to be blameless.
And indeed, God said all of this in light of the fact that he was about to further confirm his covenant with Abram with the visible, tangible sign and seal of circumcision.
This is the way the Gospel works. God still demands our holiness today. Jesus says, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). But God never intends for us to run with that command on our own, attempting to obey it in our own strength. What God commands, he also provides. Where God demands perfection, he provides a perfectly sanctifying Gospel–and he covers all of our shortcomings with the blood of his own Son Jesus Christ.
Do you attempt to obey apart from faith? Do you attempt to make yourself righteous in God’s sight apart from the grace that he offers to you? Do you attempt to keep God’s commands apart from God’s promises?
God never intends to separate the two. God issues his command with a promise–he did so with Abram, and he does so in Jesus Christ. We obey the Gospel by believing the promise that Jesus has already accomplished everything necessary for our salvation. There was not a separate hope for Abram, and there is not a separate hope for us apart from what God promises to do for us in the Gospel.