Bible Commentary: Genesis 17

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Genesis 17

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Once again, the promises to Abram are expanded, this time to include a multitude of nations and kings. As a token of His covenant with Abram’s descendants, God commanded circumcision. It is a visible sign in the flesh of every male Israelite that they are part of a family with whom God has a special relationship and for whom God has a special work. Every male is to be circumcised on the eighth day of life. It is interesting to note that in male babies vitamin K—the blood clotting factor—rises sharply from birth and peaks on the eighth day, before declining to the normal level. While this could not have been known by Abram and the Israelites, it was perfectly well-known to God.

New Names

Genesis 17 also records the renaming of Abram and Sarai. Up to Genesis 16 the Scriptures always use the birth names Abram, which means “Exalted Father,” and Sarai, meaning “Princess.” But, here in Genesis 17, God bestows new names on them. Abraham means “Father of a Multitude” and Sarah, while still retaining the sense of “Princess,” seems to mean one of an even higher station (e.g., it is derived from the same word translated “queen” in Isaiah 49:23 Isaiah 49:23And kings shall be your nursing fathers, and their queens your nursing mothers: they shall bow down to you with their face toward the earth, and lick up the dust of your feet; and you shall know that I am the LORD: for they shall not be ashamed that wait for me.
American King James Version×
). Interestingly, both new names differ from Abram and Sarai by the addition of one letter in the Hebrew—the letter He, pronounced, like the English H, as a breath of air, which is often a symbol of God’s Spirit. Though there may be no significance to this, becoming new persons and circumcision can both picture spiritual conversion. In any event, whether Abraham and Sarah received the indwelling of God’s Spirit at this particular time or not, we do know for certain that they did receive it at some point (compare 1 Peter 1:11 1 Peter 1:11Searching what, or what manner of time the Spirit of Christ which was in them did signify, when it testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ, and the glory that should follow.
American King James Version×
)—for they will be in the Kingdom of God, and only the converted have that honor (Romans 8:9 Romans 8:9But you are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you. Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his.
American King James Version×
, Romans 8:11 Romans 8:11But if the Spirit of him that raised up Jesus from the dead dwell in you, he that raised up Christ from the dead shall also quicken your mortal bodies by his Spirit that dwells in you.
American King James Version×

Future Greatness

Also of interest in this chapter is the hint at future national greatness we are afforded here. While the primary national blessings were to come through Isaac, God promised to make of Ishmael a great nation also (Genesis 17:19-21 Genesis 17:19-21 [19] And God said, Sarah your wife shall bear you a son indeed; and you shall call his name Isaac: and I will establish my covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, and with his seed after him. [20] And as for Ishmael, I have heard you: Behold, I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly; twelve princes shall he beget, and I will make him a great nation. [21] But my covenant will I establish with Isaac, which Sarah shall bear to you at this set time in the next year.
American King James Version×
; Genesis 21:18 Genesis 21:18Arise, lift up the lad, and hold him in your hand; for I will make him a great nation.
American King James Version×
). Ishmael became the father of many of the Arab peoples. And the world has certainly seen a period of Arab greatness. American author Louis L’Amour described this period in his bestselling novel The Walking Drum, set in 12th-century Europe and Asia: “In the space of one hundred years following the death of Mohammed in 632, the Arabs had carried the sword of Islam from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean, holding at one time most of Spain, part of southern France, the isle of Sicily, all of North Africa and Egypt, all of Arabia, the Holy Land, Armenia, Persia, Afghanistan, and almost a third of India. The empire of the Arabs was larger than that of Alexander the Great or of Rome…. Under the flush of greatness…for more than five hundred years the Arabs carried the torch of civilization” (1984, pp. 171-172).

Consider, then, what that must mean for the descendants of Isaac. If Ishmael becoming a “great nation” meant an empire more vast than Rome’s, which preserved civilization through the Dark Ages of Europe, then think what must have been in store for the descendants of Isaac—who were to become many nations and inherit far greater blessings! Have the Jewish people ever been the recipients of such greatness? No. Even today, Arab national territory is far greater than the land of the modern state of Israel by a ratio of 540 to 1. Yet God’s amazing prophecies have been fulfilled—surprising as it may sound, through the modern descendants of Joseph in the form of the British Empire and the United States of America. You’ll find the entire amazing story spelled out in greater detail in our free booklet The United States and Britain in Bible Prophecy.

Supplementary Reading:Promises to Abraham,” Fundamental Beliefs of the United Church of God, pp. 43-45; “God’s Commitment to Abraham and His Descendants,” The United States and Britain in Bible Prophecy, pp. 6-26.

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