In Genesis 17 God identified Himself as the God Almighty (El Shaddai) for the first time. The name appears thirty-one times in the book of Job and seventeen times in the rest of Scripture. Each time it appears, God’s children are going through very difficult times. They are in need of some special reassurance from God that His strength will support them.
The difficult time that Abram and Sarai were going through was that they had taken the matter of having a son into their own hands. As a result, Ishmael was born to Sarai’s maidservant, Hagar. Then for thirteen years God was silent. Abram was ninety-nine years old. Sarai was ninety years old. Evidently they had become reconciled to the idea that the Lord had fulfilled his promise with the birth of Ishmael. God was about to correct that mistaken idea.
God Almighty confronted Abram with these words: “Walk before me and be blameless.” God called upon His servant to live and move in His divine presence. He called upon Abram to be set apart; to be holy, even as He is holy. After demanding that Abram walk blameless before Him, God did three things: He confirmed His covenant with Abram, established the sign of the covenant, and changed the names of His partners in the covenant.
The Covenant Confirmed
The word “covenant” is not new to the reader of Genesis by the time he gets to Genesis 17. It has been used in Genesis 6, 9, and 15. In this chapter, however, it is used twelve times, and every time it is spoken by God. One must get the impression that it is extremely important.
We have already seen how the covenant is unilateral (one-sided), eternal (forever), and irrevocable (unchanging). We see in this chapter how it is also gracious. If the promises of God were to depend upon help from the human race it would be utterly worthless. We do not deserve it, nor are we capable of doing anything. It is the love and mercy of our great God that establishes covenant with His people.
It is one thing, however, to say that the covenant is unilateral—that is, that God initiated it and established the terms for it. It is another to say that He established it with His people. In one way or another, His people have to relate to that covenant. In Genesis 17, God gives instruction as to how His people are to relate to His covenant.
In verse 4, God said, “As for Me, this is my covenant with you . . .” For the next several verses, as Abram lay reverently upon the ground, God repeated and amplified His covenant. While the promises were the same, there were some items Abram had not heard before. He was to be the father of many nations; kings were to come from him; the covenant was to endure forever.
Then God said to Abram, “As for you, you must keep My covenant.” God was not implying that His will is dependent upon Abram’s actions nor that He would not keep His part of the covenant if Abram and his descendants were negligent in their duty. It is no less true, however, that Abram must respond to the covenant, as must the descendants of Abram.
The Sign of the Covenant
The covenant was not only to Abram, but to his children and to his children’s children—forever—to all generations. Not only were Abram and Sarai set apart by God and called to be holy, so were their children and all within their household. As a sign of the covenant (and the keeping thereof) Abram was commanded to circumcise every male in his household. That included Abram, his offspring, all within his household (including servants and herdsmen), and all those whom he bought with money. Those born into the extended household were to receive the mark of the covenant when they were eight days old. While the infant was a passive recipient, the sign would remain upon him for as long as his life lasted, as a constant reminder that he was a child of the covenant. One could ignore and rebel against the covenant, but he could never deny its effect or its promises.
God’s ordinary way of maintaining and growing those within His covenant is through His relationship with the descendants of believers. Not just Abram’s lineal descendants, but all in his household were to receive the sign of the covenant. All were to be instructed in the ways of the Lord. A responsibility was placed upon parents to teach their children the ways of God and upon children to learn.
This aspect of the covenant is largely ignored by many evangelical churches today. God’s “As for Me . . .”—that is, His unilateral, eternal, irrevocable, and gracious covenant promises—are for all within the household of Abram and Sarai. The promises are from above: God making promises to His covenant children, not from below: parents making promises to God about their children.
No symbolic significance was placed upon the sign of the covenant when Abram received these instructions. While God could have commanded the sign of the covenant to be cutting off of a finger, an ear, or some other needed body part, He commanded Abram to cut off from each male a useless piece of genital skin. Yet it is cut from the part of the body from which many actual sins occur and where the propagation of original sin begins. It becomes, then, an appropriate place to apply the seal of God’s gracious covenant for the forgiveness of past sins and the removal of unwanted future sins.
The physical rite was a formality that spoke of something deeper. Circumcision signified a separation from a life of sin and impurity and a dedication to God in a life of obedience and sanctification. Those in the covenant were called to circumcise their hearts (Deuteronomy 10:16, 30:6; Jeremiah 4:3; Romans 2:29). A person who refused to be circumcised showed that he despised the covenant and was cut off from the promises of God, considered as worthless as a useless piece of skin.
The Partners in the Covenant
How does one, however, keep the terms of the covenant? How can one who has been set apart by God be holy even as God is holy? To walk before God means that we are to relate all we do to God and strive to do His will. To be blameless may not mean moral perfection or sinlessness (of which we are incapable), but uprightness, single-mindedness, and wholeheartedness in serving the Lord. Even as much as we may like to obey, we cannot, for even our most righteous deeds are as filthy rags before a holy God.
Here again God came to the rescue. Before He laid out the responsibility of the covenant keeper, the great I AM THAT I AM changed the name of the patriarch—from Abram to Abraham. While Abram means “exalted father,” Abraham means “father of a multitude” referring to the number of offspring that would come from the father of all believers.
Even more significant than the meaning of the name is the actual syllable that was added. The breathy “HA” sound represented the very breath of God. When God created the heavens and the earth, the “HA” of God hovered over the waters (Genesis 1:2). When man was created, He breathed into his nostrils the “HA” of life (Genesis 2:7).
When God changed the name of the father of all believers, He was imparting to the patriarch some of His own Spirit. God was joining His name to Abram’s name. If Abram ever doubted that he could hold up his end of the covenant, he needed but remember that to his new name was added the name of God—not by his own power, but by the power of the great El Shaddai in him.
It is not difficult to carry this into the New Testament. We confess that God justifies the ungodly by grace alone and through no merit of our own. It is entirely the work of God done for us by Jesus Christ’s sacrifice and the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives. God, however, never justifies a person without also regenerating that person. When conversion truly takes place, the sinner recognizes his sin, repents thereof, and seeks forgiveness in Christ alone. God’s application of grace upon the sinner yields the automatic response of joyful obedience. Jesus said, “If you love Me, you will obey My commandments” (John 14:15).
Like Abraham, Christians are united to God through faith in Jesus Christ through the power of God’s “HA”—the Holy Spirit. The same God who joined His breath to Abram has also joined His Holy Spirit to all who believe in Jesus Christ. When we enter into the covenant that God has established with His people through baptism (which has replaced circumcision), it is God imparting Himself to us. We are able to keep covenant with God, not through our own ability, but through the ability of the God who has joined us to Himself. It is by drawing on the strength of the El Shaddai that we have the strength to live as children in God’s covenant.
Points to Ponder and Discuss
1. How does God as El Shaddai instill both fear and comfort in you?
2. As the Lord reaffirms the covenant with Abram, which promises have been mentioned before and which ones are new?
3. With whom did God establish the covenant? Who is included?
4. Describe the Abram’s responsibility for keeping the covenant.
5. How is circumcision an appropriate sign of the covenant?
6. Up to this point the covenant focused exclusively on Abraham and his offspring. Why do you suppose the Lord commanded that “even those who are not your offspring” be circumcised?
7. How does God’s command of circumcision anticipate His concern for those who were not physical descendants of Abraham—both then and today?
8. How does the Old Testament sign of circumcision relate to the New Testament sign of baptism?
9. What is significant about the change of the patriarch’s name? Has the name of all Christians been changed (cf. Lord’s Day 12, Q&A 32)?