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God's Covenant with Abraham (plus circumcision vs. baptism?) - a study of Genesis 17

The God of the universe knows your name.

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Genesis 17

This week's passage about Abraham reveals the sign of the covenant God has made with him -- male circumcision. This is an excellent lesson to put together the pieces of this covenant and how it, combined with the future covenants in the Old Testament, points to the new covenant in Jesus' blood. And also how we should trust God's promises.

I will confirm my covenant with him as a permanent covenant for his future offspring. (17:19)

When We Studied This in 2015

I'm going to have to point you to several things in the last time we studied this passage.

There are several sections in that post that are updated below -- things I've learned over the last 8 years, you might say. But here are the things that I really don't go into this week that you might be interested in:

  • Name changes in the Bible,

  • Advanced age maternity,

  • Traditions about Ishmael.

Getting Started: Things to Think About

Promises between Parent and Child

There are a lot of implied promises made between parents and children (the parent promises to take care of the child, etc.; this is why things like child abuse and abandonment are so unimaginably devastating). What are those implied promises?

Some families spell out certain promises more clearly. I think of them as rules and obligations. Like "we will buy you your first car, but you have to pay for the insurance" or "we will pay your way through college for your first degree, but you have to make steady progress" or "we will give you social freedom, but you have to observe our curfew and also join us for one family night a week" or whatever.

What are the rules (and obligations) in your household?

Subset: The Family Name

In some families, due to their social place or business or wealth, those rules are a bit stricter, and they revolve around what I call "the family name". Books and movies often focus on the pressures of a child to "live up to" the expectations of being a member of the family.

Don't get into fictional examples. Rather -- did you feel any pressure to behave a certain way or go into a certain job due to a parent? I'm not suggesting that that would be bad or wrong! Just, was that pressure there?

My hope is that you would then realize the pressure and responsibility on Abraham as the "son" to represent the "father" (in this case, God Almighty) to the world. He had his missteps, but Christians believe that Abraham was a good model for us.

Names, or Changing Names

When we studied Hosea, I used the "baby names" topic. The Lifeway material suggests using that topic here -- what does your name mean? or why did you name your child what you did?

I like that topic very much, and here is the website I linked in that earlier post:

But here's our twist for this week: do you know anyone who has legally changed their name? Why did they do so?

(Don't overlook the obvious -- for example, my wife changed her last name to my last name to symbolize her becoming a part of my family.)

People change their names for important reasons (some good, some questionable). For example, who are Lew Alcindor and Cassius Clay? Do you know anyone who has made that kind of a name change?

In this week's passage, God renames Abraham and Sarah. I want you to be thinking about why God did that, and what kind of an impact that would have had on the couple.

[You could also do the variation -- what's the most embarrassing time you've called somebody by the wrong name? We've all done it. Then everyone can laugh and say thank You that God never forgets our name!]


Where We Are in Genesis

This week's passage directly follows last week's with an embedded time skip. God told Hagar to go back to Sarah, and He would bless her child and turn him into a father of many descendants. Ishmael is then born as Abraham's firstborn son (though God has made it clear that he is not the son of the promise), and thirteen years pass.

I think it is rather clear that Abraham loves Ishmael very much. And thirteen years is a long time.


This Week's Big Idea: The Covenants in the Bible

I have shared this video by the bible Project before (and I'll do it again):

God's covenants with people are a critical tool to understanding what the Bible is all about, and specifically what is God's plan for rescuing humanity from our repeated violations of His covenants.

Let me first point you to this excellent article on the Bible Project's website:

What I like the most about it is they compile all of their videos related to the biblical covenants (including a couple of videos I had not seen before):

  • "Royal Priests of Eden"

  • "How Abraham and Melchizedek Point forward to Jesus"

  • "Moses and Aaron"

  • "David the Priestly King"

  • "Jesus the Royal Priest"

  • "The Royal Priesthood"

That page is an excellent resource if you want a crash course on "covenants".

I really like this statement from the Holman Dictionary about why we study covenants:

All Christians agree covenant is fundamental to the Bible's story, yet it must be stated stronger than this: the progression of the biblical covenants is the primary way God has unfolded His redemptive plan, and as such, the covenants serve as the backbone to the Bible's entire storyline as we move from creation to new creation, from promise to fulfillment, and from type to antitype in Christ.

So, what does that mean?

Depending on who you ask, there are five or six primary covenants in the Bible.

  1. God's covenant with creation in Genesis 1-2, with Adam as the representative. This covenant finds its fulfillment in the new heaven and earth and our eternal rest in Christ (David will be preaching on this on Sunday). The word "covenant" isn't used here, so some scholars combine this with the next one. See below for dispute.

  2. God's covenant with Noah in Genesis 9. This is the formalization of the covenant God made with creation which emphasized God's promise never to flood the earth again. Here, God's covenant is with all of humanity as represented by Noah.

  3. God's covenant with Abraham in Genesis 12-22. This is what our passage focuses on this week. Genesis 12 is a major shift in the Bible -- the focus moves to a single man and his family through whom God's promises for humanity will be fulfilled. In this covenant, begin to see the necessary obedience on the part of humanity.

  4. God's covenant with Israel (through Moses) in Exodus and Deuteronomy. This gets most of the attention in the Old Testament. God takes Israel as His people/nation, and through them, He will reveal His plan for human relationships as well as His plan for salvation. A much larger emphasis is made of human responsibility -- if Israel will be obedient to this covenant, God will redeem what was lost in humanity.

  5. God's covenant with David in 2 Samuel. This is the high point of the old covenants. In it, God promises to establish a permanent kingship, and He promises to be the "Father" to the Davidic king. Here, an individual becomes the representative of Israel (and thus all of humanity) in the covenant; that individual will be God's "son".

  6. God's covenant with Jesus (and the church) -- see Jer 31:29-34 and Luke 22:20. (Side note: I'm writing this on Ash Wednesday; tonight, our church will talk at great length about this new covenant in Christs blood.) This is the culmination of everything revealed in the Old Testament. Christ fulfills every covenant and offers humanity a new way to be in right relationship with God.

I found this graphic that summarizes the covenants:

I like the Old Testament part of it, plus it gives me a chance to see how well you pay attention to the fine print. This chart was created from a Roman Catholic theological perspective (the website owner, Mike Landry, is a Catholic youth director) -- did you notice that the conditions of the New Covenant are faith and baptism and eucharist and obedience? What would the Protestant perspective be of those last three fields?

And that leads to one more side note. Some of you probably feel like I missed something in my summary. If so, that might mean you lean toward one of two Protestant subsets:

  • Covenant (or Federal) Theology

  • Dispensational Theology

Covenant theology is foundational to the Reformed (Calvinist) tradition. It says that there are three covenants described in the Bible -- (1) a Covenant of Works made with Adam that humanity failed to keep, (2) a Covenant of Redemption made between the Trinity to bring about salvation for humanity, and (3) a Covenant of Grace made between God and humanity which is expressed in the various covenants in the Bible (there is one covenant of grace; the OT covenants are expressions of that). A major outcome of this perspective is that just as God established salvation through families in the Old Testament (through the circumcision of infants), so He establishes salvation through families in the New Testament, hence "infant baptism" (more on this below).

Dispensational theology is most well-known for its well-developed Rapture sequence, which we talked about in our study of 1 Thessalonians 4 and our study of Daniel 7 (for example). But it also uses the covenants to divide history into discrete dispensations; we are currently in the dispensation of the kingdom (or the church, or the Spirit, depending on which dispensationalist you talk to). A major outcome of this perspective is the idea that God has two parallel tracks for humanity -- one with the physical nation of Israel (which still operates according to the old covenants) and one with the followers of Christ. This is why they focus a great deal of End Times discussion on the "revival among the Jews".

I do not think that covenant theology or dispensational theology are the best ways of making sense of the Bible. I believe they impose too much on the text (which to me is ironic considering how they both can espouse to being literalists). I also don't think that this would be a good rabbit trail to follow in your Bible study discussion (holders of those perspectives can be quite tenacious). Rather, I think you should focus on the facts of God's covenant with Abraham and how those facts point us to the rest of the Old Testament. In particular, how do you think Moses' Hebrew listeners would have reacted to this covenant?

Bonus Big Idea: Circumcision

I can't completely leave well enough alone, so let me dive into one aspect of covenant theology that really bugs me: the line they draw between circumcision and "infant baptism". (I put that in quotes because the baptism of infants is not biblical baptism.) (And y'all, if you Google this topic, you'll find that reformed churches really double down on the "baptism is a replacement for circumcision" thing. It's baffling, and it's a red flag against covenant theology.) So let's talk about circumcision.

Actually, let's not. If you want to know more, feel free to look up the WebMD article.

Doctors more or less agree that male circumcision is not medically or reproductively necessary. It is helpful for hygiene, but not necessary. Worldwide, the rate of male circumcision is 38% (in the US, it is 80%).

Instead, we look at the history of circumcision as an initiation rite and a mark of tribal distinction. The Jews were not the only peoples who practiced circumcision -- in fact, Jeremiah (ex. 4:4, 6:10, 9:25-26) distinguished between circumcised and uncircumcised people as a reflection of their sensitivity to God. Famously, the Philistines were uncircumcised. The Egyptians and Edomites were circumcised.

Why did God pick circumcision to be the mark of the covenant? After all, only males went through it, and it was not a public symbol. (Btw, aha! That's one very obvious reason why circumcision is not a precursor to baptism -- baptism is a public declaration for all Christians.) I consider three reasons:

  • it highlighted the spiritual responsibility of the husband (for survival purposes, pretty much everyone in that culture got married and had kids);

  • it was private -- God did not want His people to be about public (and empty) shows of devotion, but about faithfulness and obedience;

  • it uniquely pointed His people to what was truly required of them -- a "circumcised heart" (which reflects the private, interior nature of the rite).

Paul helps us understand that in Romans 2 and Romans 4:

2:25 Circumcision benefits you if you observe the law, but if you are a lawbreaker, your circumcision has become uncircumcision. 26 So if an uncircumcised man keeps the law’s requirements, will not his uncircumcision be counted as circumcision? 27 A man who is physically uncircumcised, but who keeps the law, will judge you who are a lawbreaker in spite of having the letter of the law and circumcision. 28 For a person is not a Jew who is one outwardly, and true circumcision is not something visible in the flesh. 29 On the contrary, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and circumcision is of the heart—by the Spirit, not the letter. That person’s praise is not from people but from God.
4:9 Is this blessing only for the circumcised, then? Or is it also for the uncircumcised? For we say, Faith was credited to Abraham for righteousness. 10 In what way, then, was it credited—while he was circumcised, or uncircumcised? It was not while he was circumcised, but uncircumcised. 11 And he received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while still uncircumcised. This was to make him the father of all who believe but are not circumcised, so that righteousness may be credited to them also. 12 And he became the father of the circumcised, who are not only circumcised but who also follow in the footsteps of the faith our father Abraham had while he was still uncircumcised.

This became a great controversy in the early church as the leaders debated whether or not circumcision was necessary to be admitted into the church. They agreed that it was not necessary for salvation (see Acts 12), but they did not forbid Gentiles from doing it who wanted to show their solidarity with their Jewish church-partners.

In other words, God chose the rite of circumcision in part because it pointed ahead to salvation -- "the circumcision of the heart".

Let me break up this very serious topic with this unbelievable commercial from the 90s that advertises a Jewish fish company:

Back to the topic. I wonder if you had a question pop up -- "Baptists believe that baptism (by immersion and on the confession of faith) is not necessary for salvation, but we require people to be baptized in order to become a church member. What gives?"

Two very big things:

  1. Circumcision points ahead to salvation, not to baptism, so remove any parallels between circumcision and baptism in your mind.

  2. Much more importantly, Jesus commands us to baptize disciples (the Great Commission), and Baptists take that command seriously.

We want to make it very clear that baptism is not necessary for salvation. But we also want to honor Christ's command to baptize, so we intersect that with our requirements for church membership. We try to be equally clear that church membership is not necessary for salvation. But if someone wants to be a church member, then we want that to be in accordance with Christ's design for His church -- He wants His church to be filled with His disciples. And according to the pattern and teaching of the New Testament, a disciple is a regenerate follower of Jesus (i.e., saved) who seeks to obey Jesus' commands. And a primary command (again, according to the pattern and teaching of the New Testament) is that new disciples get baptized.

So there you go. Maybe that will help you sort through this week's biblical covenant. And if you need to take a detour to help someone understand what biblical baptism is, that's always a worthwhile topic to pursue.


Part 1: God's Covenant with Abraham (Genesis 17:1-8)

1 When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him, saying, “I am God Almighty. Live in my presence and be blameless. 2 I will set up my covenant between me and you, and I will multiply you greatly.” 3 Then Abram fell facedown and God spoke with him: 4 “As for me, here is my covenant with you: You will become the father of many nations. 5 Your name will no longer be Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I will make you the father of many nations. 6 I will make you extremely fruitful and will make nations and kings come from you. 7 I will confirm my covenant that is between me and you and your future offspring throughout their generations. It is a permanent covenant to be your God and the God of your offspring after you. 8 And to you and your future offspring I will give the land where you are residing—all the land of Canaan—as a permanent possession, and I will be their God.”

You might feel like we have been hearing snippets of God's covenant with Abraham for several weeks now, and you would be right!

Go through the applicable passages (I've pasted them below to speed this process up) -- look for the similarities, and also look for how they build from chapter to chapter. What is a "complete" covenant between God and Abraham? Why might God have built this covenant little by little over time?

Gen 12:1-3 The Lord said to Abram: Go from your land, your relatives, and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2 I will make you into a great nation, I will bless you, I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, I will curse anyone who treats you with contempt, and all the peoples on earth will be blessed through you.
Gen 15:4-5 Now the word of the Lord came to him: “This one will not be your heir; instead, one who comes from your own body will be your heir.” 5 He took him outside and said, “Look at the sky and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “Your offspring will be that numerous.”
Gen 15:18-20 On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “I give this land to your offspring, from the Brook of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates River: 19 the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, 20 Hethites, Perizzites, Rephaim, 21 Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites, and Jebusites.”
[The Genesis 17 passage at the top of this section plus the following section which includes:] 10 This is my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you, which you are to keep: Every one of your males must be circumcised.
Gen 18:18-19 Then the Lord said, “Should I hide what I am about to do from Abraham? 18 Abraham is to become a great and powerful nation, and all the nations of the earth will be blessed through him. 19 For I have chosen him so that he will command his children and his house after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just. This is how the Lord will fulfill to Abraham what he promised him.”
Gen 22:16-18 Then the angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven 16 and said, “By myself I have sworn,” this is the Lord’s declaration: “Because you have done this thing and have not withheld your only son, 17 I will indeed bless you and make your offspring as numerous as the stars of the sky and the sand on the seashore. Your offspring will possess the city gates of their enemies. 18 And all the nations of the earth will be blessed by your offspring because you have obeyed my command.”

The language in this chapter is very formal. God "appearing" is called a theophany, and it is so rare in the Bible that it carries very special weight. Famous theophanies include the burning bush (Ex 3), the fire on Mount Sinai (Ex 19), and the still small voice (1 Ki 19). There is a rough pattern to these, as in Genesis 26:

24 and the Lord appeared to him that night and said, “I am the God of your father Abraham. Do not be afraid, for I am with you. I will bless you and multiply your offspring because of my servant Abraham.”

Some scholars believe the references to "the angel of the Lord" are also theophanies, and I am inclined to agree.

These appearances happen so rarely "for humans cannot see me and live” (Ex 33:20). The ultimate theophany is Jesus Christ.

The name El Shaddai ("God Almighty") is also a very big deal. This is a formal name for God that appears in key places in the Bible, particularly to the patriarchs and to Job. The exact meaning of the Hebrew word is unknown, but in context it consistently refers to God's role as the benevolent king who blesses his people. To the patriarchs, God uses this name of Himself when talking about their descendants. In Job, the name is used of God when talking about His power to bless and to punish. In the psalms and prophets, the name is used of God when talking about His power to protect and to judge. The simplest way translators have to express all of that is "God Almighty". I'm not so bold as to suggest that I can come up with a better option. Other versions of the Bible use "God of heaven" and "Sovereign God".

The more literal translation of the end of verse 1 is "walk before Me and be perfect". These are two separate commands. It seems that the best way to understand them is "live in My presence" and "serve Me faithfully or wholeheartedly". "Perfect" means "whole" -- fully committed. You really could spend a lot of time unpacking why both of these commands are equally important.

We've talked about the importance of name changes before (in particular this name change). This one is very meaningful.

  • "Abram" means "exalted father" and probably suggests that his father Terah was an important or maybe noble figure. It's a name that looks back.

  • "Abraham" means "father of a multitude" and is a permanent reminder of the promise made. It is a name that looks forward.

A key thing to point out is the emphasis on Abraham's descendants -- that God will take them to be His people and will give them the Promised Land. This covenant is their permanent agreement, and this land is their permanent possession. understand how important this would be to Moses' Hebrew audience.


Part 2: The Sign of the Covenant is Circumcision (Genesis 17:9-10)

9 God also said to Abraham, “As for you, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations are to keep my covenant. 10 This is my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you, which you are to keep: Every one of your males must be circumcised.

Note that the lesson skips the next few verses that go into greater detail about how/when/who with circumcision.

I had a section above arguing that circumcision does not point to baptism (it is a key part of the case in favor of infant baptism). (I have yet to find a website that honestly tries to explain the justification for baptizing infant females.)

Genesis 17:23 will go on to explain that Abraham (at 99 years old!) and Ishmael and all of the men in his household were circumcised that very day. (!!!)

We've talked about this covenant at length. At this point, I want to use this to explain discussions we had when studying the book of Acts. You might remember this exchange:

Acts 15:1 Some men came down from Judea and began to teach the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom prescribed by Moses, you cannot be saved.” 2 After Paul and Barnabas had engaged them in serious argument and debate, Paul and Barnabas and some others were appointed to go up to the apostles and elders in Jerusalem about this issue. 3 When they had been sent on their way by the church, they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and they brought great joy to all the brothers and sisters. 4 When they arrived at Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church, the apostles, and the elders, and they reported all that God had done with them. 5 But some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to command them to keep the law of Moses.”

This week's passage is why that was such a hot-button issue. Circumcision was to be a permanent sign of the covenant.

So, why don't Christians need to be circumcised?

I trust your group to be able to answer that question satisfactorily. I'm just going to point out one topic that has created a lot of confusion in the past few generations -- what is the relationship between "Israel" and "the church"? In covenant theology, the church "replaces" Israel. In dispensational theology, the church is completely disconnected from Israel. Those two perspectives result in some of the questionable interpretations those groups have of parts of the Bible. I think we can simply read the Bible at face value here -- Israel points the way to God's plan of salvation in Jesus which is made available to the whole world. Many of the early Christians were Jews by birth, and many of the rules given to the Jews had immense moral and practical value. But salvation only comes through faith in Jesus Christ.


Part 3: God's Promise Stands (Genesis 17:15-19)

15 God said to Abraham, “As for your wife Sarai, do not call her Sarai, for Sarah will be her name. 16 I will bless her; indeed, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she will produce nations; kings of peoples will come from her.” 17 Abraham fell facedown. Then he laughed and said to himself, “Can a child be born to a hundred-year-old man? Can Sarah, a ninety-year-old woman, give birth?” 18 So Abraham said to God, “If only Ishmael were acceptable to you!” 19 But God said, “No. Your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will name him Isaac. I will confirm my covenant with him as a permanent covenant for his future offspring.

Sarah's name change is a bit more "cosmetic" -- as far as scholars can agree, both variations of the name mean "princess". Perhaps it was dialectical, that God was equally giving Sarah a fresh start from her past culture.

I like how the Lifeway material emphasizes Abraham's response to God's declarations -- worship and laughter. It wasn't a silly laughter, it was more a "if this turns out to be true, that would be fantastic" laughter. In what way is that appropriate for us as Christians today? (You might have to start by going through all of God's promises He has made to us.)

Perhaps an illustration might be to share the promises you heard growing up that you had the hardest time believing, but they have to be promises that eventually came to be. Broken promises would completely miss the point of this passage. To the perspective of Abraham and Sarah, this is an impossible promise. But nothing is impossible with God. 😊

Abraham's confliction seems to have two parts: one, he is legitimately concerned about his age, but two, he loves Ishmael and would be happy to take Ishmael as his heir. (And I wonder if there is a "bird in the hand" logic at work in his mind.)

God insists that Ishmael is not the child of the promise. (Those statements are ignored in the Quran.) However, the following verses do explain Ishmael's future --

20 As for Ishmael, I have heard you. I will certainly bless him; I will make him fruitful and will multiply him greatly. He will father twelve tribal leaders, and I will make him into a great nation. 21 But I will confirm my covenant with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you at this time next year.”

In God's exchanges with Abraham (especially the one we will reference next week), we get an intimate glimpse of God's love for him. Abraham speaks a bit out of turn, you might say? Presumptuously? But God is patient with him, and God validates him. God indeed blesses Ishmael.

My favorite passage about Ishmael is just a hint.

25:7 This is the length of Abraham’s life: 175 years. 8 He took his last breath and died at a good old age, old and contented, and he was gathered to his people. 9 His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah near Mamre, in the field of Ephron son of Zohar the Hethite.

I think that's beautiful. Ishmael returns, and he buries his father in the same place that Sarah was buried. What did he and Isaac talk about? How long did he stay? God clearly did not intend for us to know. This "reunion" points us to the possible reconciliation between Jacob and Esau, between Joseph and his brothers. These families are dysfunctional, but they're not hopeless.

I would say that the key "knowledge" to walk away with is an understanding of how God used covenants to point us to Jesus. That chart above which shows the basic progression of the covenant with Abraham to Israel to David to Jesus is useful. And above all, we are now a part of the new covenant in Jesus' blood! (If we are a Christian, that is.)

(And only if your group has the stomach for it would I go into a theological discussion about circumcision beyond the basics of why the New Testament says that circumcision is not necessary to be in the new covenant.)


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