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Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New Testament

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GENESIS 17

This chapter is a confirmation, elaboration, and further explanation of the covenant already in existence, the covenant God made with Abram in Gen. 12:1ff. Here, there began to appear some of the duties and obligations incumbent upon Israel and deriving from the covenant. Up until this point, it might have seemed that all of the wonderful things that God would do for the posterity of Abraham would be done regardless of any compliance on their part with any of the divine regulations pertaining to the covenant. All such notions were dramatically dispelled in the events of this chapter. The covenant that God had already made with Abraham was "reaffirmed in this chapter,"F1 and the rite of circumcision was initiated as the sign of the existing covenant. "The purpose of God's appearance in this chapter was to renew the covenant."F2 The simple truth thus attested and observable by any thoughtful scholar was beautifully summed up by Whitelaw:

"Therefore, this is not an additional covenant to that described in Gen. 15, nor a different traditional account of the transaction contained in Gen. 15, nor the original Elohistic narrative of which Gen. 15 was a later imitation; but it was an intimation that the covenant already concluded was about to be carried into execution, and the promise of a son was more specifically determined as the offspring of Sarai."F3

If one desires to examine the "source" (singular) of the teachings in this chapter, let him read it. This is the original document (singular) authored by the great O.T. lawgiver, Moses, and it stands unique and unassailable above the vain speculations of unbelievers. If the splitters and perverters of the Bible would attain to any status of credibility, then let them produce any one of the document sources which are the "stock in trade" of their unreasonable guesses. Believers of the Bible are foolish indeed to be swept off their feet by that fantastic and fanciful fabric of prior sources imposed upon the sacred narrative by men without authority, without evidence, and without the faintest possibility of the truth of any of their theories. The Genesis record is all there is; let them confront that!


 
Verses 1, 2
And when Abram was ninety years old and nine, Jehovah appeared to Abram, and said unto him, I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be thou perfect. And I will make my covenant between me and thee, and will multiply thee exceedingly.

Ninety years old and nine…
Abram's reference to himself as being a hundred years old (Genesis 17:17) allowed for the passage of time before the child was born.

Jehovah said, I am God Almighty…
No redactor said this, God said it; and the denial of this passage on the basis that it was inserted by a revision or an interpolation is merely arrogant unbelief.

Simpson identified "God Almighty, here ([~'El] [~Shadday]), as probably the name of a Canaanite deity"!F4 Notice the use in such denials of words such as probably, possibly, evidently, etc. This is an unintentional confession that no proof whatever sustains the allegation.

God Almighty…
Scholars agree that the exact meaning of [~'El] [~Shadday], from which these words are derived, is uncertain;F5 but The Almighty is the best translation available. The same name for God is used six times in Genesis, and thirty-one times in Job.F6 Keil has an excellent explanation of the meaning:

"It belonged to the sphere of salvation, forming one element in the manifestation of Jehovah, the covenant God, as possessing the power to realize His promises, even when the order of nature presented no prospect of their fulfillment, and the powers of nature were insufficient to secure it."F7

Here we have another indication, there being literally scores of others in the Bible, that the various names used for God in Scripture have definite and specific theological implications, and that the various names are no adequate means whatever of identifying alleged previous sources of Genesis. In this passage, God uses two names for Himself.

Walk before me, and be thou perfect…
We find it very difficult to accept the reiteration by so many scholars that perfect as used in the Bible refers to maturity, completeness, or wholeness, rather than actual perfection, the great impediment to such acceptance being the Saviour's use of the expression in Matt. 5:48; Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect. That usage certainly rules out any subordinate or secondary meaning. Only absolute and unalloyed perfection shall enter heaven, and that has been evident from this passage here to the end of the N.T. To be sure, man, unaided, is unable to achieve any such thing, but he must TRY, and, for those who love and serve God, he has made available that perfection in Christ Jesus our Lord. The saints of the O.T. as well as those of the N.T. shall at last enjoy and receive the benefits of that perfection in Him (Colossians 1:28,29).

"These are the conditions required by God in connection with the covenant."F8 Two things are demanded here: "A God-conscience life of the best type, and the other is faithful observance of all duties."F9 Any notion that the Abrahamic covenant was unconditional is forbidden by this. It was precisely for the purpose of informing Abram and his descendants of their part of the covenant, and of the absolute necessity of their abiding by the terms of it that this recapitulation and elaboration of the covenant (Gen. 15) was given.


 
Verses 3-5
And Abram fell on his face: and God talked with him, saying, As for me, behold, my covenant is with thee, and thou shalt be the father of a multitude of nations. Neither shall thy name any more be called Abram, but thy name shall be Abraham; for the father of a multitude of nations have I made thee.

And Abram fell on his face…
Man on his face, God on his throne, only in this posture can God really talk to us.F10

As for me…
The antithesis of this is in Gen. 17:9, where we have, And as for thee ... Thus, God related His part of the covenant first, and then proceeded to give Israel's obligations (Genesis 17:9).

Thy name shall be Abraham…
This is usually interpreted to mean father of the faithful, or something similar, but, actually, the exact meaning is unknown. This is a change whose significance is not clear. A moment later, the same scholar affirmed concerning the change from Sarai to Sarah that, Once more, we have to confess that the difference between the two names is not clear.F11 Perhaps, this was the forerunner of that promise in which God promised that each of the redeemed would receive a new name, which no one knoweth but he that receiveth it (Revelation 2:17).

"Thus kings and popes take on new names when they ascend to the throne."F12 The occasion here for Abraham was fully as important, and even more so, than the accession of an earthly monarch to his throne.

Father of a multitude of nations…
The fulfillment of this might not lie merely in the nations and kings that descended lineally from Abraham, for if we should view the one nation of secular Israel as the one primarily descended from Abraham, then the multitude of nations, enlarged in the spiritual sense, would include all the hosts of Christianity throughout the ages. Keil advocated this view and thought that Paul had this in mind when he declared, that Abraham received the promise that, he should be heir to the world (Romans 4:13).F13


 
Verses 6, 7
And I will make thee exceeding fruitful, and I will make nations of thee, and kings shall come out of thee. And I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee and to thy seed after thee.

For an everlasting covenant…
The great purpose of this covenant was the delivery of the Messiah to redeem all mankind, and that aspect of it was indeed eternal. However, the land promise, mentioned a little later, was contingent, absolutely, upon Israel's keeping the terms of the covenant and continuing to walk before God and submitting to His government. (See comments under Gen. 17:8, below.)


 
Verse 8
And I will give unto thee, and to thy seed after thee, the land of thy sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.

Here is the famous land promise by which modern-day Israelites claim divine right to the land of Canaan, and it is inexplicable that many Christian commentators uphold and admit such a thing. Morris, for example, affirmed that the commandments mentioned in Gen. 17:1, "were not stated as conditions, but simply as commands! ... It is clear that no action on the part of Abraham's descendants can ever permanently sever the land from them!"F14 Two gross errors attend such a view: (1) The notion that commandments of God may be ignored with impunity, and (2) that "everlasting" here means "eternally."

All of God's commands are conditions, and failure to obey is forfeiture of every blessing mentioned in connection with the commands. The great error of Protestantism today is simply that of supposing that God's commandments are mere commandments. There is no such thing as a mere commandment of God. Willis pointed out that "Everlasting here does not mean endless time, but a relatively long period of time."F15 Whatever the meaning of everlasting, Israel forfeited the promise in its entirety by rebelling against God and becoming "worse than Sodom and Gomorrah" (Ezekiel 16:48). Israel followed in the way of the pre-Israelite paganism of Canaan and became, in fact, just as wicked as the old Canaanites whom God had expelled in order to bring them into the land. And, when Israel themselves became merely another generation of Canaanites, God threw them out of the land and moved the whole nation into captivity. That marked the end of "the land promise" as far as it concerned the fleshly descendants of Abraham. Israel today has no more right to the land of Palestine than the Arabs or the French or the Germans. "When Abraham's descendants broke their relationship to God by their disobedience, they thereby forfeited the temporal blessings."F16


 
Verses 9, 10
And God said unto Abraham, And as for thee, thou shalt keep my covenant, thou, and thy seed after thee throughout their generations. This is my covenant, which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee: every male among you shall be circumcised.

And as for thee…
This reaches back to Gen. 17:4, where God stated his part of the covenant. Here he began to recount the obligations that pertained to Abraham and his posterity.

Every male among you. shall be circumcised ..…
This is by no means the totality of the covenant, but the first item mentioned.


 
Verses 11-14
And ye shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of a covenant betwixt me and you. And he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every male throughout your generations, he that is born in the house, or bought with money of any foreigner that is not of thy seed. He that is born in thy house, and he that is bought with thy money, must needs be circumcised: and my covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. And the uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that soul shall be cut off from his people; he hath broken my covenant.

It shall be a token of the covenant…
Circumcision was not the covenant, but a token of the covenant already existing. After the Jewish manner of thinking, circumcision was elevated to a status in which it actually took the place of the covenant. Charles Hodge stresses this in the remarkable paragraph below:

"The Jews regarded circumcision as in some way securing their salvation. That they did so regard it may be proved, not only from such passages in the N.T. where the sentiment is implied, but also by the direct assertion of their own writers. Such assertions have been gathered in abundance from their own works by Eisenmenger, Shoettgen, and others. For example, Rabbi Menachem, in his commentary on the Book of Moses (folio 43, column 3), says, "Our Rabbis have said, No circumcised person will see hell."F17

Such views, of course, were totally mistaken. The token was intended as a visible sign in one's flesh of his obligations under God's covenant; and the mere exhibition of the sign was never intended to take the place of the duties that the sign indicated. "The rite was essential as the ritualistic confirmation of the determination to walk maturely before God (Genesis 17:11). It was no substitute for it."F18

CIRCUMCISION

Whitelaw's list of purposes of circumcision included the idea that it was intended to "foreshadow Christian baptism."F19 However, the resemblances between baptism and circumcision are far less extensive than many suppose.

The similarities:

  1. It was mandatory for all (the males) who belonged to Abram's posterity, and baptism is mandatory for all who WISH to become Christians, men and women alike, there being neither male nor female in Christ Jesus.
  2. One who refused to comply with the requirement was rejected and cut off forever from God's people; and the same may be said of baptism.
  3. It did not take the place of obedience to God's commandments, despite the fact of the rite itself being a required response to God; baptism also cannot relieve the Christian of his duties as a member of the community of faith, despite the ceremony itself being a required response to God.
  4. It stood at the gateway of entrance by birth into the Abrahamic covenant; baptism is the initiation of the Christian into the family of God. He is baptized "into Christ."
  5. Another similarity, derived not from the Word of God but from the actions of men, is seen in the Jewish custom of naming their sons on the occasion of their circumcision, and the christening of babies when they are "baptized"(?) in infancy. This of course is contrary to the Word of God.
  6. The "cutting off" in the rite of circumcision is similar in implication to the burial of the old man in baptism. In both, the purity and morality of the life that should follow were indicated.

The differences:

  1. Circumcision was for males only; Christian baptism is for ALL Christians.
  2. Circumcision was performed on infants that were eight days old; Christian baptism, in the Scriptural sense, cannot be administered upon any persons whomsoever, except those of accountable age who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, who have repented of their sins, and have confessed Christ before a group of people.
  3. Circumcision had absolutely no connection whatever with the forgiveness of sins; Christian baptism is for the purpose of receiving the remission of sins.
  4. In circumcision, the initiative for the performance of the rite of necessity existed apart from the one circumcised; whereas, in Christian baptism, the Lord said, "Repent and have yourselves baptized (Acts 2:38), showing that in Christianity, the initiative must derive from the person being baptized.
  5. Circumcision had nothing at all to do with Abraham being justified, because that took place BEFORE the rite was even given; however, baptism is a factor in the Christian's justification, in the sense that he cannot be justified while refusing to submit to it. Note: God had not commanded Abraham to be circumcised PRIOR TO his justification, but God has commanded all people of this dispensation to be baptized, nor can their justification occur if they refuse, neglect, or ignore that commandment. In view of these differences and others that might be cited, one may only deplore the error of the affirmation that, "All that Paul had to say about circumcision he would say equally about baptism!"F20 Paul indeed compared circumcision and baptism, but in that comparison, the necessity of putting off the old man with his sinful deeds was the point under consideration.
  6. Circumcision was merely a "token" of the covenant, whereas baptism into Christ is a most essential element of the Christian covenant itself. Circumcision was only a token, but baptism is more than that, and it is never referred to as "a sign" or "a token" in the Bible, despite the frequency with which human writers use such expressions.

 
Verses 15, 16
And God said unto Abraham, As for Sarai thy wife, thou shalt not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall her name be. And I will bless her, and moreover I will give thee a son of her: yea, I will bless her, and she shall be [a mother of] nations; kings of peoples shall be of her.

See under Gen. 17:5 regarding the uncertainty of the meaning of the change from Abram and Sarai to Abraham and Sarah. That it was significant and that God attached great importance to it is seen in the stress these new names received in this passage. As a matter of fact, God named all of the characters featured in this chapter except Hagar.


 
Verses 17-19
Then Abraham fell upon his face, and laughed, and said in his heart, Shall a child be born unto him that is a hundred years old? and shall Sarah, that is ninety years old, bear? And Abraham said unto God, Oh that Ishmael might live before thee! And God said, Nay, but Sarah thy wife shall bear thee a son; and thou shalt call his name Isaac: and I will establish my covenant with him for an everlasting covenant for his seed after him.

There is a sharp difference of opinion among scholars as to how Abraham's laughter should be understood. Morris thought that, "He laughed with joy and surprise, and not a laugh of doubt."F21 Speiser rendered it, "He smiled";F22 but there would seem to be no way to be sure. As Willis said, "It is impossible for modern man to comprehend what kind of laugh that was."F23 The uncertainty stems from the inability of translators to agree on the rendition for the words given here as, "And God said, Nay ..." If this stands, Abraham's laughter was that of incredulity and unbelief, for what he asked God was that Ishmael, and not the promised son, would be the heir; and God denied it. If that was not what Abraham meant, then God would have nothing to deny.

However, Leupold insisted that the words "And God said, Nay ..." should be read simply as "And God said to Abraham ..." thus leaving out the "Nay."F24 This corresponds with the Douay and KJV; and, if this should be followed, it would indicate that Abraham's mention of Ishmael (Genesis 17:18) was not the proposal of a substitute, but rather concern for Ishmael due to his being replaced as heir by the promised son. As long as the "Nay" stands in our version, we are almost compelled to view Abraham's laughter as in some manner reprehensible. There is, of course, a problem in that God did not at once rebuke him for it as he did Sarah's laughter in the very next chapter.

I will establish my covenant with him (Isaac) for an everlasting covenant…
It should never be forgotten that there were two separate elements in the Abrahamic covenant, that pertaining to the Messiah and the redemption of all mankind, and that concerning the fleshly seed of Abraham and their possession of the land of Canaan. The Messianic phase of that covenant was, of course, everlasting, for it is still in effect through the gospel of Christ. As Unger put it, In the Messianic seed through Sarah, the kingdom would stand forever.F25


 
Verses 20, 21
And as for Ishmael, I have heard thee: 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. But my covenant will I establish with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear unto thee at this set time in the next year.

Princes shall he beget…
Note that the superiority of Isaac over Ishmael is doubly apparent, not only in his being born of the free woman, but also in the higher rank of those who would come after him. Whereas Isaac would beget kings, Ishmael would beget princes.

For the first time, God set the time when the son would be born. We may wonder why God made Abraham wait such a long time for the fulfillment of the glorious promise; but it was absolutely imperative that the father of the Chosen People should truly believe God and know of a certainty that God's promises would be fulfilled, no matter how impossible and unreasonable they might have seemed from the human standpoint. "God fulfills his promises, not because they are reasonable by human standards, but because God is God, and His Word is true and absolutely reliable."F26


 
Verses 22, 23
And he left off talking with him, and God went up from Abraham. And Abraham took Ishmael his son, and all that were born in his house, and all that were bought with his money, every male among the men of Abraham's house, and circumcised the flesh of their foreskin in the selfsame day, as God had said unto him.

The significant thing revealed here is that Abraham obeyed God immediately and completely. There were no shortcuts or exemptions; he did it all exactly as God commanded him.

Circumcision…
This rite is a fleshly operation in which the foreskin of the male reproductive organ is cut off. In the days of Abraham, it was performed with a flint knife, showing how close that era was to what is called the Stone Age.


 
Verses 24-27
And Abraham was ninety years old and nine, when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. And Ishmael his son was thirteen years old, when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. In the selfsame day was Abraham circumcised, and Ishmael his son. And all the men of his house, those born in the house, and those bought with money of a foreigner, were circumcised with him.

The full and prompt obedience of Abraham was here recorded in detail, the purpose of the repetition being that of providing emphasis upon the patriarch's prompt, complete, and unquestioning obedience.

Ishmael was thirteen years old…
This is an important detail, because it provides unexpected confirmation of the historicity of this whole chapter. The Arabs to this day claim descent from Abraham through Hagar. And they also observe the rite of circumcision, but not on the eighth day of life (as among the Jews), but when the males are thirteen years old as Ishmael was here!


Footnotes for Genesis 17
1: Norman Giesler, A Popular Survey of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1977), p. 46.
2: Marcus Dods, The Book of Genesis (New York: Eaton and Mains), p. 162.
3: Thomas Whitelaw, The Pulpit Commentary, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1950), p. 232.
4: Cuthbert A. Simpson, The Interpreter's Bible, Vol. 1 (New York: Abingdon Press, 1953), p. 608.
5: G. Ch. Aalders, Bible Students Commentary, Genesis, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1981), p. 304.
6: Thomas Whitelaw, op. cit., p. 232.
7: C. F. Keil, Commentary on the Old Testament, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1978), p. 223.
8: J. R. Dummelow, Commentary on the Holy Bible (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1937), p. 26.
9: H. C. Leupold, Genesis (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1942), p. 514.
10: Merrill F. Unger, Commentary on the Old Testament (Chicago: Moody Press, 1981), p. 63.
11: Theodore H. Robinson, Abingdon Bible Commentary (New York: Abingdon Press, 1929), p. 231.
12: W. Gunther Plaut, The Torah, Genesis (New York: Union of Amercian Hebrew Congregations, 1974), p. 162.
13: C. F. Keil, op. cit., p. 226.
14: Henry M. Morris, The Genesis Record (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1976), p. 332.
15: John T. Willis, Genesis (Austin: Sweet Publishing, 1979), p. 247.
16: G. Ch. Aalders, op. cit., p. 307.
17: Charles Hodge, Epistles to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1968), p. 64.
18: Clyde T. Francisco, The Teachers' Bible Commentary (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1972), p. 28.
19: Thomas Whitelaw, The Pulpit Commentary, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1950), p. 233.
20: William M. Greathouse, Beacon Bible Commentary, Romans (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press, 1968), p. 103.
21: Henry M. Morris, The Genesis Record (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1976), p. 334.
22: E. A. Speiser, The Anchor Bible, Genesis (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday and Company, 1964), p. 125.
23: John T. Willis, op. cit, p. 250.
24: H. C. Leupold, op. cit., p. 528.
25: Merrill F. Unger, op. cit., p. 64.
26: G. Ch. Aalders, Bible Students Commentary, Genesis, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1981), p. 310.

Copyright Statement
James Burton Coffman Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.

Bibliography Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Genesis 17". "Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New Testament". <http://classic.studylight.org/com/bcc/view.cgi?book=ge&chapter=017>. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.  

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