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)
In Genesis 17, God swears and confirms his covenantal faithfulness to Abraham, insisting that he would be God to Abraham and to Abraham’s offspring after him, and sealing that promise with the sign of circumcision. We might, then, expect that this would be the point at which Abraham breaks through, rising victoriously once and for all in faith in God’s promises.
But instead, Abraham is overwhelmed and astonished, laughing in awe-struck surprise at all God had sworn to him. And so we see that, even in Abraham’s response, God graciously carries him along in his faith.
15And God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. 16I will bless her, and moreover, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall become nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.” 17Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed and said to himself, “Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” 18And Abraham said to God, “Oh that Ishmael might live before you!” 19God said, “No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him. 20As for Ishmael, I have heard you; behold, I have blessed him and will make him fruitful and multiply him greatly. He shall father twelve princes, and I will make him into a great nation. 21But I will establish my covenant with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this time next year.
22When he had finished talking with him, God went up from Abraham. 23Then Abraham took Ishmael his son and all those born in his house or bought with his money, every male among the men of Abraham’s house, and he circumcised the flesh of their foreskins that very day, as God had said to him. 24Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. 25And Ishmael his son was thirteen years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. 26That very day Abraham and his son Ishmael were circumcised. 27And all the men of his house, those born in the house and those bought with money from a foreigner, were circumcised with him. (Genesis 17:15-27)
The Faltering Faith of Abraham
God announces to Abraham that he will cause a miracle to happen: Sarah, Abraham’s 90-year-old wife, will bear him a son. Previously, God had only specified that he would grant Abraham a son, but not necessarily that the son would be the biological child of Sarai. For this reason, Sarai imagined that perhaps having a surrogate child by Hagar would be the means that God would use to bring about his promise to Abraham.
But now God makes it crystal clear: the promised offspring would be the child not only of 100-year-old Abraham, but also of 90-year-old Sarah. And, to make it clear, God changes her name from Sarai to Sarah. Both words mean “princess,” but, as Calvin points out, the “i” has a 1st-person possessive force to it (“my princess”), but “this being now taken away, God designs that Sarah should every where, and without exception, be celebrated as a sovereign and princess” (John Calvin, Commentary Upon the Book of Genesis, p. 459; CCEL), since from her too “kings of peoples shall come” (v. 16).
In relation to this staggeringly wonderful news, Abraham stumbles in his faith in two major ways. First, he laughs (v. 17). Now, in chapter 18, Sarah also laughs at the news that she would conceive and bear a son; however, there seems to be some way in which the two laugh in different ways. God is clearly displeased with Sarah’s laughter (Gen. 18:13-15), but he does not seem to be similarly displeased with Abraham’s laughter in chapter 17.
Most probably, Abraham’s laughter expresses wonder, in addition to some level of disbelief, similar to Mary’s innocent question to the angel Gabriel: “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34). On the other hand, Sarah’s laughter must have been largely the laughter of disbelief, similar to Zechariah’s question to the angel Gabriel: “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years” (Luke 1:18). It seems that Abraham does have some kind of faith, although his faith isn’t nearly as robust as we might hope for or imagine.
Second, Abraham flat-out ignores what God has promised to plead for God simply to confirm his promise through Ishmael: “Oh that Ishmael might live before you!” (v. 18). God denies this request, to be sure, but God then confirms the promise that he had made to Hagar, that he will make a different covenant with Ishmael to be fruitful and to multiply greatly.
The Faith and Obedience of Abraham
But even so, Abraham faithfully obeys what God commands. He circumcises himself, but also Ishmael, and all those born in his house or bought with his money, just “as God has said to him” (v. 23). In fact, the text from v. 22-27 is very repetitive, stating in several ways that Abraham fully obeyed the commands of God.
In Abraham, we see a man who does not entirely understand what God is doing in his life. He doesn’t fully grasp what God wants to accomplish, or where God would ultimately take the nation that would descend from his (and Sarah’s) biological son.
And what’s more, Abraham doesn’t understand that God is forcing the chosen couple into a corner so that their bodies are as good as dead, reproductively speaking. Abraham doesn’t see that God wants his own power and glory to be displayed preeminently, so that the promised offspring is a miracle birth.
And ultimately, Abraham doesn’t understand that, in all of this, God was foreshadowing the way in which he would bring his own Son into this world, through an even greater miracle birth. At that time, the mother would not be beyond the age of reproduction, but a virgin who had never known a man sexually. But through Mary, God would bring forth a son, the promised Offspring of Abraham, a mighty King descended biologically from Abraham and Sarah, who would be cut off from the land of the living to take the covenant curse of all God’s people.
But through it all, even when Abraham didn’t understand, he believed and he obeyed. He was shocked, awed, and overwhelmed, but he continued faithfully to trust in the Living God. And so he became the father not only of the circumcised, but of the uncircumcised who follow him in the footsteps of faith.
May we today follow in the faith and obedience of Abraham through being grafted into his family by faith in Jesus Christ. For “if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (Galatians 3:29).