Genesis 17:1–10, 15–19
Some people never seem to establish roots. The Bible describes Abraham as a man without roots. Hebrews 11:8–10 details Abraham’s lack of established roots on his pilgrimage with God. Faith and obedience were the major characteristics of the patriarch. He obeyed God and set out for a place unknown. He lived as a foreigner in tents rather than what we may view as a house. He looked forward rather than backward toward a city whose builder was God.
The storyline of the Bible focuses upon the covenants between humans and God. The Abrahamic covenant marks the beginning of God’s design to initiate His redemptive plan and resulted in a name change for Abram and Sarai.
God reassured Abram by identifying Himself as “El Shaddai” or “God Almighty.” Verse 1 tells Abram’s responsibility in the covenant relationship with God. God then sets forth two promises — abundant descendants and eternal faithfulness.
When Abram was 99, God established His covenant with Abram. The sign of the Abrahamic covenant was circumcision of males. The covenant involved an understanding of the nature of God — the Almighty One. The covenant established high requirements — “Live in my presence and be blameless.” As well, the covenant set forth a divine promise — “I will multiply you greatly.” Abram responded with an act of worship; he prostrated himself face down before God. Normally covenants were two-sided; that is, each party of the covenant committed to agreed-upon requirements. In the Abrahamic covenant, however, God alone made covenant promises and commitments. Abraham’s numerous descendants would become nations, including some kings. God’s covenant with Abram was a permanent covenant. God promised to give the land of Canaan as a permanent possession of the descendants of Abram.
Abram and his descendants had covenant obligations. First, Abram and his offspring were to keep the requirement of the covenant, which was circumcision of males. Verse 11 notes that circumcision was the sign of the covenant. The sign of circumcision would remind Abram and his descendants of the covenant promises of God. However, more important than the physical act of circumcision was circumcision of the heart (Deut. 10:16; Jer. 4:4). “The Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the hearts of your descendants, and you will love Him with all your heart and all your soul so that you will live” (Deut. 30:6). “On the contrary, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and circumcision is of the heart — by the Spirit, not the letter” (Rom. 2:29).
With a new covenant relationship with God, God changed the names of Abram and Sarai. “Abram” means “father is exalted.” “Abraham” means “father of a multitude.” He also changed the name of Abraham’s wife from the archaic Sarai to Sarah. Both forms of her name mean “princess.” God promised to give the barren Sarah a son. The offspring of the childless couple would produce nations. Abraham laughed at the promises of God. Did Abraham laugh because of joy or skepticism?
By Mark Rathel
Professor at the Baptist College of Florida in Graceville, Florida