GENESIS 17:1-27


As we come to this chapter, it will describe the Lord coming to Abraham and establishing His covenant with him.  It will seem at first to be merely a repetition of the covenant that was given in chapters 12 and 15.  The term “covenant” was not actually used in chapter 12, but it was found in chapter 15 to summarize the covenant cutting ceremony presented in that chapter.


Now as we come to chapter 17, the covenant idea seems almost anticlimactic.  We have already seen the covenant cutting ceremony in which the presence of God moved through the pieces of the animals.  We have already heard the promises of God.  We have already been told that God entered into a covenant with Abram.  But a closer examination will note some striking differences between these chapters.


Genesis 12

Genesis 15

Genesis 17

From Abram would come a great nation through which all the families of the earth would be blessed.

Confirms a great nation will come from Abram, then emphasizes Abram’s seed to be given the land of Canaan.

Reconfirms Abram to be the father of a great nation and given the land of Canaan.  This great nation will come through Sarai.

Emphasis:  Great nation.

Emphasis: Land of Canaan.

Emphasis: Multitude to come through Sarai.


With each progressive chapter and each giving of the covenant, there are additions and enlargements as God continues His program of progressive revelation.  This process of progressive revelation will continue, not just in the case of the Abrahamic Covenant, but throughout the entire Old Testament.  God is doing something through His people that is progressively revealed.


It is a bit like going to a theatrical play.  You sit in the theater and there is a stage before you, but the curtain hides the backdrop so that it is hidden from your view.  Then the curtain raises a foot from the ground and you are given a tantalizing view of just a small portion of what lies beyond.  Most of the backdrop is still hidden from your view, but now you can see just a little.  The curtain raises another foot and now you can see more than what was previously revealed.  You still cannot see the entire scope of the backdrop, but you can see more than you did before.


Throughout the entire Old Testament, the curtain is gradually being raised.  Bit by bit and line by line, we see a little more of what God is doing in the world.  As the curtain becomes high enough, it becomes evident that the primary theme of the backdrop is a picture of Jesus.  The covenant of promise is ultimately a promise of the coming of the One who will be a blessing to the world.


This chapter is presented in a chiastic format.  It is a format that is familiar to us in the book of Genesis.  The central point of this chapter will be the ordination of the initiatory rite of circumcision.


Abraham is 99 years old (17:1)



The Lord appeared to Abram (17:1-2).



God will make a covenant with Abram to multiply him (17:2).



Abram fell on his face (17:3).



Abram’s name changed to Abraham (17:4-8).

  • I will make nations of you.
  • Kings shall come forth from you


Circumcision commanded (17:9-14).


Sarai’s name changed to Sarah (17:15-16).

  • She shall be a mother of nations
  • Kings of peoples shall come from her.


Abraham fell on his face and laughed (17:17).



God promises multiplication through Isaac and Ishmael (17:18-21).



God went up from Abraham (17:22).


Abraham is 99, Ishmael is 13 years old (17:24-25).



This will be a chapter of name changes as the names of Abram and Sarai are changed to reflect their new status under the covenant.  It will also be a chapter of promises in which both Abraham and Sarah receives promises as to their descendants.  The central theme of this chapter will be upon the initiatory rite of circumcision.





            1 Now when 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. 2 And I will establish My covenant between Me and you, And I will multiply you exceedingly." (Genesis 17:1-2).


As the chapter opens, we find that thirteen years have passed since we last saw Abram at the close of Genesis 16.  He is now 99 years old and he has not yet had a son by his wife Sarai.  Nor is he expecting such a son, for he has Ishmael, his son by Hagar.  He has come to the conclusion that Ishmael is the son of promise and the one in whom all of the promises of God will eventually be fulfilled.


It is at such a time that the Lord appears to Abram.  The scene is set with three statements from the Lord.


1.         A Call from the Almighty:  I am God Almighty.


The title used here is El Shaddai.  By the use of this title, God is calling attention to His omnipotence.  If God is all powerful, then He is able to keep all of His promises and He is able to supply Abram’s every need.


2.         A Call to Walk:  Walk before Me.


This calls to mind what the writer of Genesis has already said of Enoch who walked with God (Genesis 5:24).  Abram is to live his life in the presence of God, trusting Him and obeying Him.  We are called to do the same thing.  In Colossians 1:10, Paul calls you to “walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects.”


3.         A Call to be Blameless:  And be blameless.


The call to be blameless—the KJV renders it as “perfect”—is a call to moral wholeness and integrity.  It is the same quality that characterized Noah (Genesis 6:9).  This sort of spiritual wholeness is to be characteristic of the Christian.  There are too many who seek to be spiritual without a corresponding emotional wellness.  The Bible knows nothing of such a spiritual schizophrenia.  Emotional health and spiritual health are inseperable.  A Christian cannot be spiritually mature while remaining emotionally immature.





            3 And Abram fell on his face, and God talked with him, saying, 4 "As for Me, behold, My covenant is with you, And you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. 5 No longer shall your name be called Abram, But your name shall be Abraham; For I will make you the father of a multitude of nations. 6 And I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come forth from you. 7 And I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you. 8 And I will give to you and to your descendants after you, the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God." (Genesis 17:3-8).


It had been more that thirteen years since the Lord had last spoken to Abram, but God had not forgotten His promises.  He once again confirms that He is going to establish His covenant with Abram.  Yet there is more to this promise in this newer revelation.  In the past, God has promised that Abram’s descendants will be greatly multiplied and that they will be innumerable.  Now we read that he will be the father of a multitude of nations.  It is not only a single nation that shall come from him, but many nations that shall be his descendants.


This new revelation will be commemorated by a new name.  His name will be changed from Abram to Abraham.



“Father of heights”, “Father of high places.”


“Father of a multitude.” [1]

The accent in Hebrew normally falls on final syllable.  In this case, the maqqef between ab; (“father of”) and hamon (“a multitude”) in the name changing clause joins them together so there is only one accent between them (on the final syllable).  If you speak it out loud to yourself quickly and without any undue emphasis (av‑ra‑HAM / av‑ha‑MON), you hear the play on words.


The name Abram looked back to Mesopotamia where the people of that land worshipped the gods in high places, often building ziggurats to the sky.  Abram’s old name may have reflected that old pagan worship out of which he had been called.


The name Abraham is a play on words.  Verse 5 says that he shall be called Abraham; because God will make him the father (Ab) of a multitude (hamon).  Abraham’s new name is to serve as a reminder of his new God-given heritage.


1.         Nations and Kings are to come from Abraham.


This has been literally fulfilled in nations and kings of Israel and Edom as well as from the various Arabian kingdoms.  In the broader sense, there have been countless kings and kingdoms that have looked to Abraham as their spiritual father.


2.         This is to be an Everlasting Covenant:  And I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant (17:7).

The apostle Paul makes it clear that the later giving of the Law does not nullify the eternal aspects of this everlasting covenant (Galatians 3:17-18).  God has made a promise and He will not break it.


How does this eternal promise impact our understanding of the promise of a land?  That promise had been initially very specific.  In Genesis 15, we were told that it comprised the land extending from the Euphrates River in the north to the River of Egypt in the South.  Here it is called more generally, the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan (17:8).


That promise saw partial fulfillments in the reigns of David and Solomon.  The Scriptures are specific in 2 Chronicles 9:26 to say that Solomon was the ruler over all the kings from the Euphrates River even to the land of the Philistines, and as far as the border of Egypt.  Yet this was hardly an everlasting covenant.  Following the death of Solomon, the kingdom broke apart and never against regained the fulness of its former glory.


On the one hand, we can say that there were conditional aspects to this covenant.  It was not a promise that unbelieving and apostate descendants of Abraham would inherit the kingdom.  The kingdom was torn from Solomon’s descendants because of his sin in worshiping other gods.


The good news is that there is One who came to fulfill the covenant requirements as well as the covenant promises.  Jesus is the Son of Abraham who was completely blameless in all His ways.  He is the One who is a blessing to all the nations so that all who believe in Him the way Abraham believed find that they have been blessed with Abraham


            7 Therefore, be sure that it is those who are of faith who are sons of Abraham. 8 And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, "All the nations shall be blessed in you." 9 So then those who are of faith are blessed with Abraham, the believer. (Galatians 3:7-9).


This means the land promises are not fulfilled only in reference to a parcel of land between the Euphrates River and the boarder of Egypt, but that they are extended to include an entirely new heaven and earth.





            9 God said further to Abraham, "Now as for you, you shall keep My covenant, you and your descendants after you throughout their generations. 10 This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 And you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you. 12 And every male among you who is eight days old shall be circumcised throughout your generations, a servant who is born in the house or who is bought with money from any foreigner, who is not of your descendants.

            13 "A servant who is born in your house or who is bought with your money shall surely be circumcised; thus shall My covenant be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. 14 But an uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant." (Genesis 17:9-14).


The sign of the Abrahamic Covenant is appropriate to the nature of that covenant.  This is seen when we contrast it to the sign of the Noahic Covenant.  The sign of the Noahic Covenant was the rainbow.  This was appropriate to a covenant that was made universally with mankind, with animals and with the earth itself.  This universal covenant had a corresponding universal sign.


By contrast, the Abrahamic Covenant is a personal covenant.  It deals with certain individuals.  It is therefore appropriate that the sign is found in the body of those individuals which whom it deals.


The Noahic Covenant

The Abrahamic Covenant

Involves men, animals and the entire world.

Involves Abraham and his descendants.

The sign is the rainbow and relates to the entire creation.

The sign if circumcision and relates to Abraham’s descendants.

A universal sign.

A personal sign.


The sign of circumcision was only know to the individual, his parents, and his wife.  It was not a sign that would be shown to people in general.  This indicates the personal nature of both the covenant and the sign of that covenant.


The sign of the Abrahamic Covenant is also appropriate when we remember that the covenant was centered around the promise of the seed.  It was a promise that involved the reproductive organs and the sign of the covenant was consistent with this theme.


The sign of circumcision involved the surgical “cutting” of the foreskin of the male organ.  This was later to become an illustration of Israel’s complete separation from the sins of the flesh in the world in which they lived, especially when such sins frequently involved the misuse of sexual relationships in adultery and fornication.  Thus, circumcision eventually became a symbol to the Jews that they were an elect nation, holy before God.  Not only were they circumcised physically, they were also to be circumcised in their hearts.


            Circumcise then your heart, and stiffen your neck no more (Deuteronomy 10:16).


Furthermore, the Lord promises that He Himself will accomplish this spiritual cutting in the hearts of His people.


            Moreover the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, in order that you may live. (Deuteronomy 30:6).


Circumcision was a sign of faith.  This is taught by Paul as he described the experience of Abraham in receiving circumcision — he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while uncircumcised, that he might be the father of all who believe without being circumcised, that righteousness might be reckoned to them (Romans 4:11).  This means circumcision was to the Abrahamic Covenant what baptism is to the New Covenant.


Abrahamic Covenant

New Covenant

The sign of the covenant is circumcision.

The sign of the covenant is baptism.

Circumcision was a sign of faith.

Baptism is a sign of faith.

Physical circumcision represented the spiritual process of cutting away sin.

Water baptism represents the identification with Christ and the spiritual cleansing that comes through the new birth.

Circumcision was limited to males.

There is no distinction in Baptism between male or female.


It is because of this correlation that the church has historically engaged in infant baptism.  Whether this is an appropriate correlation is the topic for another venue, but it should be noted that the correlation between circumcision and baptism is referenced in the New Testament by the Apostle Paul as he speaks of our identification with Christ in His death, burial and resurrection.


            11 ...and in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; 12 having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. 13 And when you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions (Colossians 2:11-13).


It could be argued that baptism is not exact in its correlation to circumcision.  After all, only male children were circumcised.  In this regard, circumcision was less inclusive than is baptism.  Baptism is more inclusive because it includes women as well as men.  The New Covenant is always WIDER in its scope than the old covenant.  In the New Covenant there is there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28).


Both the outward physical rite of circumcision and the outward physical rite of baptism are symbols of the salvation that we have in Christ.  Those outward rituals are meant to reflect an inward spiritual reality into which we have entered through faith.  


Notice that the one who refused the rite of circumcision was to be cut off from the people of God—an uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant (17:14).  In the same way, the Bible knows virtually nothing of an unbaptized Christian.  The only example one might be able to find in the Scriptures is the extreme case of the repentant thief upon the cross.


This does not mean we are to regard any special saving benefit in the act of water baptism.  The Scriptures do not support the idea of baptismal regeneration.  The baptism which saves is not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience (1 Peter 3:21).





            15 Then God said to Abraham, "As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. 16 And I will bless her, and indeed I will give you a son by her. Then I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of peoples shall come from her." (Genesis 17:15-16).


Sari’s name is changed to Sarah.  If there is any specific meaning behind this changed name, it has been lost to us.  Both renditions of her name seem to come from the Hebrew sar, meaning “prince.”  The feminine version could be alternately Sarai or Sarah which would refer to a princess.


She is given a new name because of the accompanying promise that she will bear a son.  This had not been previously revealed.  This was a new truth.  In the same way that Abraham would be a father of nations and of kings, so also Sarah would be a mother to those nations and kings.  She who had previously been barren and unable to conceive would give birth to a son from who would come a multitude.





            17 Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said in his heart, "Will a child be born to a man one hundred years old? And will Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?" 18 And Abraham said to God, "Oh that Ishmael might live before Thee!" (Genesis 17:17-18).


Up to this time, Abraham had though God was going to fulfill the promises of His covenant through Ishmael.  The Lord’s words regarding Sarah bearing a son came as a shock.  Abraham must have experienced a barrage of emotions running from shock to humor.  He begins to laugh.  The very idea of old Sarah becoming pregnant!


Abraham says two things.  The first he says to himself—we read that he said in his heart, "Will a child be born to a man one hundred years old? And will Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?"  He knew better than to say such things to God, but he could not help but to say them to himself.  However, God knows our hearts.


What Abraham says to God is quite different.  It is given in the form of a prayer:   "Oh that Ishmael might live before Thee!"  After all, Ishmael was Abraham’s son.  He was his only son.  He had watched the boy grow up into a young man and he had high expectations for his son.





            19 But God said, "No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac; and I will establish My covenant with him for an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him.

            20 "And as for Ishmael, I have heard you; behold, I will bless him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly. He shall become the father of twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation. 21 But My covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you at this season next year." (Genesis 17:19-21).


Abraham had laughed at hearing the prophecy of another son, but it will be God who gets the last laugh.  He instructed Abraham that this new son is to be named Isaac.  It is a name that means “laughter.”


Ishmael will not be without blessings.  He will also be fruitful and will multiply and become the father of twelve princess.  Notice the pattern.


           Ishmael will become the father of 12 princes.

           Jacob, the son of Isaac, will become the father of 12 tribes.


Ishmael will be blessed, but it will be Isaac who will enjoy the benefit of a covenant with the Lord.  That special covenant relationship is reserved for Isaac and for his descendants.


This will be an ongoing theme throughout the rest of the book of Genesis.  It is a theme in which the older son is bypassed in favor of the younger son.  This was completely contrary to the normal way things were done in the ancient world.  The firstborn had all of the rights; the second born had only the hand-me-downs.





            22 And when He finished talking with him, God went up from Abraham. 23 Then Abraham took Ishmael his son, and all the servants who were born in his house and all who were bought with his money, every male among the men of Abraham's household, and circumcised the flesh of their foreskin in the very same day, as God had said to him.

            24 Now Abraham was ninety‑nine years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. 25 And Ishmael his son was thirteen years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. 26 In the very same day Abraham was circumcised, and Ishmael his son. 27 And all the men of his household, who were born in the house or bought with money from a foreigner, were circumcised with him. (Genesis 17:22-27).


Abraham’s response to the Lord’s promises and the Lord’s covenant was obedience.  He had both himself and his son and all of his servants and relatives and hired hands circumcised.  This was the covenantal idea.  It was a covenant community.  All who were related to Abraham would benefit from their relationship to him.


That is not to say that you can be saved by having a Christian mother or a Christian father.  But you DO enjoy certain benefits from having Christian parents.  You are set apart for certain special blessings by being in a covenant community.  Paul makes reference to this when he speaks of the importance of remaining in a marriage.


            13 And a woman who has an unbelieving husband, and he consents to live with her, let her not send her husband away. 14 For the unbelieving husband is sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified through her believing husband; for otherwise your children are unclean, but now they are holy. (1 Corinthians 7:13-14).

The spouse and children of a believer are said to be sanctified by their relationship to that believer.  This reference to being sanctified means only that they are set apart for certain blessings.  They have the blessing of being able to experience the life of a Christian and to see the Holy Spirit at work in a life.


The same way that Abraham’s extended family enjoyed the benefits of the covenant blessing through their relationship to him, so your extended family can enjoy the benefits of your relationship to Christ.  You are called to share your blessing, to speak words of blessing, and to be a blessing to others.


About the Author

Return to Stevenson Bible Study Page

Return to Genesis Page


[1]  You shall be the father of a multitude (!Amh>; ba;l.) of nations. No longer shall you be called Abram; your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you a father of a multitude (!Amh]-ba;) of nations.