1 When Abram was ninety-nine years old the Lord appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless, 2 that I may make my covenant between me and you, and may multiply you greatly.” 3 Then Abram fell on his face. And God said to him, 4 “Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. 5 No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. 6 I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. 7 And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. 8 And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.” – Genesis 17:1-8 ESV
Hagar eventually obeyed God, leaving the wilderness behind and returning to the household of Abram. In due time, God fulfilled His promise to the slave girl and she gave birth to a son, whom she name Ishmael, in keeping with God’s command.
“Behold, you are pregnant
and shall bear a son.
You shall call his name Ishmael,
because the Lord has listened to your affliction.” – Genesis 16:11 ESV
Yet, just a few verses later, Moses seems to indicate that it was Abram who named the boy.
So Hagar gave Abram a son, and Abram named him Ishmael. Abram was eighty-six years old when Ishmael was born. – Genesis 16:15-16 NLT
Rather than considering this as some sort of biblical contradiction, it makes more sense to view it as an example of God’s sovereign, behind-the-scenes activity. It was He who had decreed that the boy would be born, and it was he had selected his name. And whether God used Hagar as the instrument through which He communicated His divine wishes to Abram, or He visited Abram in a dream, He ensured that His decree would be followed. The boy’s name would be Ishmael (God hears).
The birth and naming of Ishmael were meant to send a message to Abram. That God had heard the cries of the abandoned Hagar in the wilderness should restore Abram’s confidence in God’s ability to hear his cries of fear and doubt. Abram and his wife Sarai were God’s chosen couple, and He had clearly indicated His intentions to use them as the vessels through whom He would make a great nation and shower blessings on the rest of the world. But the whole reason Ishmael existed was that Sarai had doubted God’s ability to pull off His promise through her. She was old and beyond child-bearing age. And to make matters worse, she was barren. So, she had decided that the only way the promise could be fulfilled was if Abram fathered a child with her Egyptian maidservant.
Sarai’s plan had accomplished her goal but had failed to fulfill God’s promise. Abram had a son but, according to God, he was still lacking a divinely approved heir. Ishmael would end up siring a multitude of descendants (Genesis 15:10), but they would not be the ones through whom God would bless the nations. In fact, according to God’s message to Hagar, Ishmael’s descendants would “live in open hostility against all his relatives” (Genesis 16:12 NLT).
So, Abram had a son, but he was still waiting for the fulfillment of God’s promise. And, as Abram watched Ishmael grow from infancy to adolescence, he would continue to wait – 13 long years. At the ripe old age of 99, Abram received a message from God.
“I am El-Shaddai—‘God Almighty.’ Serve me faithfully and live a blameless life. I will make a covenant with you, by which I will guarantee to give you countless descendants.” – Genesis 17:1-2 NLT
This encounter with God would prove to be a watershed moment in the life of Abram. While this was not the first time he had heard from God, it would be the one occasion that left the deepest impression on his life. For 13 years, he had most likely been assuming that Ishmael would be his heir. From his perspective, Hagar’s return from the wilderness was a sign from God that Ishmael was to be the long-awaited offspring through whom God would work. Abram had received no divine message to the contrary.
So, after what appears to be 13 years of divine silence, Abram receives a visit from God. For the first time in their lengthy relationship, God introduces Himself to Abram as ʾel shadday, (El Shaddai), a name that is most often translated as “God Almighty.” In using this divine appellation, God was letting Abram know that He was fully capable of accomplishing His will and fulfilling His promises without human assistance. He was the almighty, all-powerful God of the universe. He had created the heavens and the earth. He held all things together. And God wanted Abram to know that old age and barrenness would prove to be no problem for Him.
At 13 years of age, Ishmael was on the cusp of becoming a man. And in His omniscience, God knew exactly what Abram was thinking. This 99-year-old father of a teenager had made the assumption that Ishmael would be his heir. But he was about to discover just how wrong he was and just how great God is.
Back in chapter 15, God had made a covenant with Abram. It had been a unilateral and unconditional covenant. In other words, God had declared His intentions but had placed no requirements on Abram. On this particular occasion, Abram had expressed his disappointment with God’s plan.
“You have given me no descendants of my own, so one of my servants will be my heir.” – Genesis 15:3 NLT
He had already decided that he was going to have to make Eliezer, his manservant, his adopted son, and heir. But God had rejected that option and reiterated His plan.
“No, your servant will not be your heir, for you will have a son of your own who will be your heir.” – Genesis 15:4 NLT
God had reconfirmed His commitment to give Abram a son but He would do it on His terms. That son would not be adopted. He would be the biological offspring of Abram. And God had let Abram know that, from that one son, He would provide Abram with more descendants than there are stars in the sky (Genesis 15:5).
God had sealed His covenant commitment to Abram by walking through the divided carcasses of the animals that Abram had sacrificed. He had made a blood commitment to fulfill the promise He had made. But He had demanded nothing of Abram. Now, years later, God once again confirmed His commitment to multiply Abram greatly. But this time, He includes an interesting addendum to the agreement.
“I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless, that I may make my covenant between me and you, and may multiply you greatly.” – Genesis 17:1-2 ESV
This statement from God must have left the 99-year-old Abram stunned and shaking in his sandals. The almighty God seemed to be placing a condition on the covenant He had made with Abram. And this condition was anything but easy. God was demanding that Abram live a blameless life. And the impossible nature of this command did not escape Abram. As soon as he heard them, he fell on his face. He knew he was completely incapable of pulling off this divine demand. But he failed to grasp what God was really saying to him.
God was not demanding sinless perfection from His fallen and flawed servant. He was not placing a condition on the covenant that required Abram to live in unwavering obedience and moral purity. But, based on Abram’s reaction, that’s likely how he interpreted it. And sadly, that’s how many Christians view this passage today. We hear in God’s words a requirement that we live without sin and in perfect obedience to all His commands. And we wrongly assume that, if we don’t, we will miss out on His blessings for us. We make His promises to us and love for us conditional.
That’s why it is essential that we understand what God was saying to Abram. The Hebrew word for “walk” is הָלַךְ (hālaḵ) and it means to “to walk back and forth; to walk about; to live out one’s life.” Abram is being encouraged to conduct his life with the constant awareness that Almighty God is watching. Nothing escapes His notice. He is the all-seeing, all-knowing God. Abram was to have a constant awareness of God’s presence that would influence every area of his life.
But what about God’s demand that Abram “be blameless?” Was He requiring sinless perfection? Once again, the Hebrew language sheds some light on these questions. God demanded that Abram be תָּמִים (tāmîm), a word that is rich in meaning. It conveys the idea of completeness, wholeness, and integrity. God is not requiring Abram to live a life free from all sin. He is demanding that Abram recognize the wholeness of his calling. God wanted all of Abram. He had not chosen him simply as a biological vessel through whom He would create a mighty nation. No, God wanted every area of Abram’s life: body, mind, soul, and spirit. There was to be no compartmentalization. Abram was not free to hold back any area of his life from God’s control or use. In other words, Abram was being told to live the entirety of his life before God’s all-seeing eyes. There was nothing that God could not see. There was no area of Abram’s life that he was to consider as off-limits to God’s control.
And as Abram lay prostrate on the ground, God reiterated His covenant and His promise.
“This is my covenant with you: I will make you the father of a multitude of nations! What’s more, I am changing your name. It will no longer be Abram. Instead, you will be called Abraham, for you will be the father of many nations. I will make you extremely fruitful. Your descendants will become many nations, and kings will be among them!” – Genesis 17:4-6 NLT
Abram received a confirmation of the original covenant, as well as a new name. And that new name carried powerful significance.
“…its significance is in the wordplay with אַב־הֲמוֹן (ʾav hamon, “the father of a multitude,” which sounds like אַבְרָהָם, ʾavraham, “Abraham”). The new name would be a reminder of God’s intention to make Abraham the father of a multitude.” – NET Bible Study Notes
God was letting Abram know that the promise still stood firm but it would not be fulfilled through Ishmael. Sarai’s plan had not accomplished God’s will. There would be another son, and through him, God would fulfill every aspect of the covenant He had made with Abram. As proof of His commitment, God promised to give Abram a sign to go along with his new name. And that sign would be perpetual and permanent, passed down from generation to generation, long after Abram was gone. And once again, God reassures His doubting and sometimes disobedient servant of the incredible nature of the covenant and the promise attached to it.
“This is the everlasting covenant: I will always be your God and the God of your descendants after you. And I will give the entire land of Canaan, where you now live as a foreigner, to you and your descendants. It will be their possession forever, and I will be their God.” – Genesis 17:7-8 NLT
God wasn’t requiring Abram to live a sinless life in order to receive the covenant promises. Abram was being invited to conduct every aspect of his life under the watchful, loving, and covenant-keeping eyes of God Almighty.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.