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God's Impossible Promise to Abraham - from Genesis 17

Yes, God keeps His promises. In HIS timing.

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Genesis 17

Even though Abram felt like he needed to kick God’s plan into gear, God reiterated His promise, changed Abram’s name to make it clear, and gave a sure time limit to His promise. God WILL deliver on all of His promises.

Can a child be born to a hundred-year-old man? (17:17)

This weekly post started as a resource for Bible study leaders; I am slowing adding older posts for reference.

Getting Started: Things to Think About

Summary of the Lesson.

First, here’s a summary of the lesson as I read it. That might help you pick your icebreaker! It’s been 23 years since God confirmed His covenant with Abram and promised a child (and you remember that Abram was already frustrated and impatient). God appears to Abram to tell him he has to wait still another year, and His tone (due to Abram’s poor and impulsive actions during that interim) is a little more magisterial this time around. “I have a plan. Wait and trust.”

Here are a couple of icebreaker ideas I have related to this context:

The Unhelpful Store Help.

Have you ever asked a store employee a question and quickly decided that you know more about the answer than he/she does? Or you call a technical support hotline and decide that you need to help the person on the other end? Some of us (*cough* me) are really bad about jumping to our own conclusions and not actually listening to the help being offered. That’s exactly what Abram did here with God. He decided that he knew better how to fulfill God’s promise, and history is forever changed as a result.

Praying and Not Waiting for the Answer.

All of us tend to do this with God. We have a question, a decision, we ask for His help, and if we don’t get the clear, precise answer we want in the time we want it, we move forward with our own idea! That’s also what Abram did. You can certainly ask your group for times they moved ahead in life without waiting for God. If you’re brave, you’ll ask them the consequences! God wanted Abram to wait for 23 years; that should humble us . . .

The Context of Genesis

When we last left Abram, he had believed God’s promise that his heir would be a child from his own body. After 10 years, he and Sarai wondered if they had missed something, so they tapped into the rules for concubinage which said that a son by a concubine could be claimed by the wife. So Abram married Hagar and had Ishmael by her. Sarai then changed her mind about how great an idea it was and began to mistreat Hagar (incidentally, when it says that Hagar “despised” Sarai, that’s the same word God used back in 12:3; it begs the question if Hagar and Sarai are dually responsible for the animosity between Arabs and Jews). Hagar ran away only to be sent back by God who promised her that He would make Ishmael into a great nation. (It is very obvious that both Abraham and God loved Ishmael; nonetheless, Ishmael was not the son of the promise. I give you sidebars both on Ishmael and on Hagar.) When Ishmael is 13, about the time they would seriously be looking at inheritance issues, God returns to say that Sarai will bear a son (the lesson today). He verifies this through the visit of three strangers in the next chapter. Sarah literally laughs when she hears that, only to hear in response, “Is anything impossible for the Lord?”

This Week's Big Idea: Theophany—God Appears

One of the rarest occurrences in the Bible is a direct appearance of God. (In Ex 33:20, God told Moses that no one can see His face and live.) Yet here in Gen 17, God appeared to Abraham, and it doesn’t say anything about God using a dream. So that begs the question, how often did God appear to someone in the Old Testament? Well, He does it again in the very next chapter! He earlier appeared to Abraham in Gen 12. Then He appears to Isaac in almost the same way in Gen 26, and to Jacob in Gen 32 (the wrestling match). He appeared to Moses in a burning bush (Ex 3) and to the Israelites in thunder and smoke and cloud (as in Ex 19 and Deut 31). He then appeared during the covenant ceremony with the elders (Ex 24). There is the classic “cleft of the rock” appearance to Moses in Ex 33-34 that more has to do with “the glory of the Lord” (as in Lev 9:23, Num 14:10)

God much more regularly appeared to people in dreams (as in Gen 20:3, 31:24) and visions (as in Gen 15:1, 46:2). A special category of appearances has to do with “the Angel of the Lord,” which many people believe is a reference to Jesus (see particularly Judges 13, Ex 23, and Zech 1).

So to summarize, the idea of “God appearing” to someone without the use of a dream, a vision, an object, or an intermediary, but God Himself appearing to a person’s waking eyes, really only happens to 2 groups: the patriarchs, and the first leaders of Israel. But how do we explain that in light of the whole “see me and die” concern? Most scholars say that these were actually appearances of Jesus; most of the rest say it was an angel. I am fine with those ideas, except that the Bible specifically and uniquely says that “the Lord appeared” in these instances. How is that possible, based on what God said later to Moses? God can do anything He wants, and these are some sort of “veiled” appearance. Moses, on the other hand, seemed to want to see God as He is, which is impossible for human eyes (the hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy” attributes that to human sinfulness which is probably right).


Part 1: God’s Promise Renewed (Genesis 17:1-8)

When Abram was 99 years old, the Lord appeared to him, saying, “I am God Almighty. Live in My presence and be blameless. I will establish My covenant between Me and you, and I will multiply you greatly.” Then Abram fell facedown and God spoke with him: “As for Me, My covenant is with you: you will become the father of many nations. Your name will no longer be Abram, but your name will be Abraham, for I will make you the father of many nations. I will make you extremely fruitful and will make nations and kings come from you. I will keep My covenant between Me and you, and your future offspring throughout their generations, as an everlasting covenant to be your God and the God of your offspring after you. And to you and your future offspring I will give the land where you are residing—all the land of Canaan—as an eternal possession, and I will be their God.”.

Lots of important stuff in these verses, more than you probably have time to cover! First, note the timeline. Another 13 years has passed since Abram and Sarai took matters into their own hands. Notice that God is being a bit more direct with Abram; I think this is a consequence of them having spent so much time together, Abram is ready to submit a little more to this God who has been speaking to him.

God tells Abram to be blameless before Him. Before we say “that’s impossible!” know that God said of Noah (Gen 6:9), David (2 Sam 22:24), and Job (Job 9:21) that they were “blameless” before Him. I think it means that they strove to follow and trust Him, and when they failed to do so they confessed and repented. Abram will be that model for his children and people (which means we can do the same!). And so what did Abram do? He fell facedown. *Aside on worship* David has just finished his series on worship; this idea of prostrating one’s self before God is very common in Scripture. It is an act of abject humility, one that should characterize us all (the tension of imminent and transcendent).

And then God gives Abram a new name. “Abram” is “Ab/av” (father) + “ram” (exalted or departed). Scholars debate what the change really means; I agree with those who associate the word “raham” with “plentiful” (it is used in the context of rain). Thus, the “father who departed” is now the “plentiful father”. I give you information about name changes below.

Then look at the promises: fruitful, with nations and kings among his offspring. Abraham would have been overjoyed to hear about the number of offspring (but remember, God already promises him as much in the stars!), and honored to think of kings among them. And he probably would have been caught up in the fact that the covenant would be everlasting (but remember God already told him about a 400 year exile!). BUT today, we realize that this is all truly fulfilled in Jesus Christ, the everlasting King and covenant-keeper. Make this connection for your group!


Aside: El Shaddai—God Almighty—Sovereign God

It’s time to get technical. We really don’t know exactly what “Shaddai” means. The word is regularly associated with “mountain”, which is where we get the connotation of strength, stability, or firmness. The translation “Almighty” actually comes from Jerome’s Vulgate (the standard Latin translation), but Jerome didn’t actually know the translation either! This term appears 47 times in the Old Testament: 31 times in Job (which is often assumed to have taken place during the time of the patriarchs) and most of the rest in Genesis. The regular conclusion is that the patriarchs used this name for God because they met Him in the mountains or saw Him lofty. I’m not sold on that. The word Shaddai is also associated with “breast” and “womb”, which means there is another potential wordplay. You’ll notice that most of the time God uses this name/the name is used of God is in association with a promise of fertility, of long life, or of victory in battle. In other words, I don’t think there is a good translation into English of everything this title would have meant to the people of that day. “Almighty” is as good as anything. There is an important line in Ex 6:3 in which God says that He revealed Himself to the patriarchs as “El Shaddai” but not as “Yahweh.” That might not be the best translation because God did in fact use His name “Yahweh” in those early days. There are three ways to look at that verse: (1) it means that the patriarchs did not have a “burning bush” experience with God as Moses did, (2) the patriarchs called Him “El Shaddai” because they were more comfortable thinking of Him in that way, or (3) the double negative in the Hebrew actually means that the patriarchs knew Him both as El Shaddai and as Yahweh.

Bonus Aside: Name Changes in the Bible

Your leader guide rightfully makes a big deal out of Abraham’s new name. As with God, a name is a reputation; the ability to give a name is the power over a reputation. For good and ill, renaming is an important part of the Bible.

  • In Gen 32, 36, God changes Jacob’s name to Israel, which means “God fights” or “fights with God.”

  • In 2 Sam 12, God names Solomon Jedidiah, which means “loved by the Lord.” Solomon never goes by that name, so it was apparently private.

  • Famously, Jesus gives Simon the name Peter, which means a stone. This is nickname rather than a rename.

  • Don’t forget that Saul (which can mean “death”) came to be known as Paul (which can mean “little”). We don’t know if God gave the new name or if that was simply cultural.

God gives names to a number of babies. In Hosea 1, God commands his children be named to reflect the unfaithfulness of Israel (and He would change their names again). In Matthew, God commands His Son be named Jesus, which means “the Lord saves”.

Most name changes are by men for the purpose of demonstrating authority. Daniel and his friends all had their names changed by the Babylonians. The Pharaoh changed the puppet king Eliakim’s name to Jehioakim. Hadassah’s name was changed to Esther. Even Joseph got a new name when he was in Egypt. A positive man-made renaming is in Numbers 13:16, when Moses renames Hosea to Joshua, which was apparently customary to do when someone was promoted very highly.


Part 2: Abraham’s Alternative (Genesis 17:15-18)

God said to Abraham, “As for your wife Sarai, do not call her Sarai, for Sarah will be her name. 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.” 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?” So Abraham said to God, “If only Ishmael were acceptable to You!”

Sadly, the lesson plan skips over the covenant of circumcision, which applies to Abraham, but not to Sarah. Not that I like talking about circumcision! But I do believe the fact that God required this particular act and also that Abraham followed it really, really upped the stakes of their relationship. Progressive—a little at a time. And Abraham did it at the age of 99!

Anyway, God goes on to say that Sarah gets a new name as well. Both Sarai and Sarah mean “princess”, so this is more the symbol of the new name—Sarah is just as a part of the covenant as Abraham. Abraham falls back on his face, but this time there is a little incredulity in his heart. Remember that God earlier credited Abraham’s faith; this time there seems to be doubt. Why? Because of Ishmael. You see, during this 23 year delay in God’s promise, Abraham did have a son, a son he loved, by a woman much younger than Sarah. Here’s the difference in before and here: Abraham really couldn’t imagine Sarah having a child (and he was 10 years older, too). Why would God keep dragging that dead horse? It’s almost as if Abraham feels a bit embarrassed for God to be making such a crazy promise. He had a son. Everyone seemed to assume that Ishmael would be the heir of the covenant. But God insisted that Sarah would have a son herself (and of course she would). Abraham laughs here; Sarah laughs in the next chapter. It’s never a good thing to laugh at God. And realize that Abraham thought Ishmael was a perfectly acceptable fulfillment of God’s earlier promise!

This is where you want to talk about the difference between our plans and God’s plans. Abraham went to God and said, “This is how I took care of Your promise (meaning Ishmael). Isn’t Ishmael acceptable to You? Won’t You bless my plan?” We do the very same thing. We make and enact our plans then go to God for blessing. The questions are simple: why do we offer alternatives to God’s plans? Why do we prefer to “listen to our heart” rather than to God? For me, that answer is pride. I like to think that I am capable of making good decisions. And perhaps often I am. But I must always admit when I know I was following God, things turned out so much better. Not to pick on Ishmael (after all, none of this was his fault), but if you read below, you will know that we associate Ishmael with a great cause of unrest in our world today. The truth is that when we follow our own plans and not God’s, there are always consequences.


Aside: Advanced Age Maternity

While treated with levity in Father of the Bride 2, the truth is that having a child later in life can be extremely traumatic physically and emotionally for a woman. Those ages are increasing (in Europe, the average first-time mom is now older than 30), and medical technology is making it not uncommon for women in their 50s to have children. In the US, more than 100 women per year over the age of 55 give birth to children who survive infancy. All of them (cf. menopause) are due to some sort of fertility treatment. There are still significant health risks—diabetes, hypertension, and extremely low birth rate—but technology becoming more adept at treating these. The oldest mother on record was 70 years old; the oldest mother to conceive naturally was 59.

All of that said, we must remember that Sarah was *90* when she gave birth. I realize that lifespans were longer then, but still. Think about the rigors of pregnancy, and then think about the actual process of childbirth. Then think about going through it without any medical assistance, and doing it after you’ve turned 70. Exactly.

There is a widespread debate over the ethics of using IVF to have a child late in life (post-50s). Grandmothers who raise their grandchildren can attest far better than I the challenges of raising a child later in life—energy levels, cultural differences, difficulty in “keeping up,” increased possibility of debilitating illness or injury. I say all of that to say that we might need to give Sarah a little bit of a break when we (rightfully) observe her poor behavior; she went through something few women will ever experience.


Part 3: God’s Power Declared (Genesis 17:19-22)

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 an everlasting covenant for his future offspring. 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 tribal leaders, and I will make him into a great nation. But I will confirm My covenant with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you at this time next year." When He finished talking with him, God withdrew from Abraham.

I don’t want to say that God was getting “short” with Abraham, but I do want to acknowledge that God isn’t playing around. It was time for Abraham to learn the limits of their give-and-take relationship. God does not take suggestions. He alone knows the full scope of history, the full import of every decision made, the eternal consequences of every action. We can say things that make sense to us but in the grand scheme of things are nothing short of disasters; God has a better, wider, and truer perspective than we do. Here, God’s answer is an emphatic NO.

By the way, wouldn’t it be nice to get such direct answers? As we said in our Sunday School class, we can handle “no” when we know it’s a “no”. It’s those times we’re not sure what the answer is that we tend to get ourselves in trouble because we end up doing what we wanted to do all along. So here’s an application along David’s line of desiring to being a more committed, praying church. I dare say that we all want to do what God wants us to do. We want to be a church that follows God’s leading. Right? Well, how many things do we do around here that involved significant praying in the first place? I’m not talking about the “big” decisions—I’m talking about the everyday, mundane things. Preparing for Sunday School. Having a committee meeting. Showing up for church. Do we earnestly, intently pray for God’s leadership in everything we do, or do we kick parts of our lives on autopilot? I challenge us to pray in the mundane as well as the big.

Now, a couple of final observations: first, note that God cares about Ishmael. It’s not Ishmael’s fault that he represents human intervention into God’s promise. God does not blame Ishmael for Abraham’s failure. That’s a big deal to me. Also, take a look at how God approached the virgin Mary in the New Testament. Is it not very similar to what Sarah heard? And yet, the two women responded very differently. That begs the question: are we more like Mary or more like Sarah? What should we be?

Main application: don’t limit God. Abraham had made up his mind on what God could and could not do. He decided how long it should take God to act. He put God in a box. We all do that, and we should know better. In what ways have you been limiting God in your prayer life? What kinds of prayers have you given up on because you think God has taken too long? Stop! Go back and pray! I’ll ask you to pray for revival in your family, in our church, and in our community. Pray without ceasing! Pray without doubts! Kathy Hendrix told her class the story of Christians who prayed for 40 years for the Berlin wall to come down. I’m sure they had real doubts at times! Pray! Pray and don’t give up on praying!

Challenge to give to your class: identify a time in your life when God fixed your broken plans; share that with someone who needs to hear it. I can think of several times in my early adult life when I took matters related to jobs, relationships, and money into my own hands, knowing that I had not really prayed about it and hoping that I was getting it right. Even my worst decisions were redeemed by God, and as I spent more time with Him, I learned a little more about His plan for my life. People need to hear that God has a plan, and they need to hear that God can “fix” things when they get life wrong. Then at the end of class, challenge everyone to surrender their plans to the Lord. Let us trust and obey!


Closing Thoughts: Sarah vs. Hagar

According to Genesis 16, Sarah so mistreated Hagar that Hagar ran away. I believe very strongly that no one should be mistreated for any reason (even though I am aware that Hagar and Abraham also have to share the blame). That said, Paul still uses Sarah as an allegory of salvation by grace alone in Galatians 4:

For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave and the other by a free woman. But the one by the slave was born according to the impulse of the flesh, while the one by the free woman was born as the result of a promise. These things are illustrations, for the women represent the two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai and bears children into slavery—this is Hagar. Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother. . . Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. But just as then the child born according to the flesh persecuted the one born according to the Spirit, so also now. But what does the Scripture say? Drive out the slave and her son, for the son of the slave will never be a coheir with the son of the free woman.

Paul is not talking about either woman directly but using them as allegories for the difference between Judaism and Christianity. Isaac (for all of his issues) is the son of the promise, not Ishmael—a birth of human impulse. Sarah (for all of her issues) is the true wife, not the concubine Hagar—a marriage of human impulse.

Where people have gone wrong in interpreting this passage is by arrogance. By these words, Christians have acted superior to Jews (and now also Muslims). Yes, salvation is only through Jesus Christ, but Paul is very clear elsewhere that our salvation is no cause to boast or be haughty. We are not “better” than a Jew.

Bonus: Who Is Ishmael?

Just about all Muslims consider Ishmael the ancestor of Muhammad and the progenitor of all Arabs, so why doesn’t your lesson say anything about that? Well, because the Bible doesn’t actually say any of that. The Bible says that Ishmael was the father of 12 great tribes, and they were known as Ishmaelites. If they were Arabs (and maybe eventually Muslims; Muhammad didn’t come around for 2600 years!), they would have been the nomadic tribes of the Arabian peninsula. Some Jews believe that the Arabs actually descended from Abraham’s second wife, Keturah. (Ironically, some Jews and Muslims also believe that Keturah is actually Hagar, meaning they would all be related anyway.) We have records from both Assyria and Babylon that mention “Ishmaelites” dating back to 900 BC, and there seems to be a widespread consensus that the Nabatean empire was Ishmaelite. (The Nabateans were known for their famous capital of Petra and were eventually assimilated into the Roman Empire.)

Going back to our lessons on language, it should be no surprise that Muhammad taught that Ishmael was the first to speak Arabic. According to him, Ishmael taught (or better received) pure Arabic, and that was the source of the Arabic culture. Over time, some of the tribes died out because of their disobedience to God, and some, like Muhammad’s (the sons of Kedar/Qedar, although some Muslims argue that Muhammad descended from Nebaioth), were blessed by God due to their fidelity.

The truth is that we really don’t know, but the assumption is that Ishmael is the father of most Arabs including, according to Muhammad, all Muslims. We learn about Ishmael in Gen 21 and 25; he was hostile and wild and lived for 137 years.


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