15 And God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. 16 I will bless her, and moreover, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall become nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.” 17 Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed and said to himself, “Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” 18 And Abraham said to God, “Oh that Ishmael might live before you!” 19 God said, “No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him. 20 As for Ishmael, I have heard you; behold, I have blessed him and will make him fruitful and multiply him greatly. He shall father twelve princes, and I will make him into a great nation. 21 But I will establish my covenant with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this time next year.”
22 When he had finished talking with him, God went up from Abraham. 23 Then Abraham took Ishmael his son and all those born in his house or bought with his money, every male among the men of Abraham’s house, and he circumcised the flesh of their foreskins that very day, as God had said to him. 24 Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. 25 And Ishmael his son was thirteen years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. 26 That very day Abraham and his son Ishmael were circumcised. 27 And all the men of his house, those born in the house and those bought with money from a foreigner, were circumcised with him. – Genesis 17:15-27 ESV
This has proven to be a momentous day for the 99-year-old Abram. His most recent encounter with God has resulted in him receiving a new name and the newly established rite of circumcision. No longer will Abraham be allowed to live his life as he sees fit, simply waiting for God to come through and fulfill His covenant commitments. This entire chapter reveals God’s determination that Abram and his descendants will be expected to live their lives in keeping with their status as His chosen people. God has assured Abraham time and time again that He will be faithful to fulfill His covenant promises. Now, God demands that Abraham conduct his life in a manner that displays his set-apart status. And as a not-so-subtle reminder, God commanded Abraham and his male descendants to seal their commitment with the costly and painful “sign” of circumcision. This “visible” sign would be hidden and unknown by everyone except the one who bore it and the all-seeing God who had ordered it. Only a man’s parents, his wife, and Yahweh would know whether he had been circumcised.
This hidden sign helps explain God’s earlier command to Abraham: “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless” (Genesis 17:1 ESV). God was giving Abraham and his male descendants a sign that would be virtually invisible to all. Yet, God would know. His all-seeing eyes would be able to tell if a man had chosen to live a blameless or upright life, wholly committed to God’s will and ways.
On that very same day, God informed Abraham that his wife Sarai would receive a new name as well. She would now be called Sarah. Both names mean “princess,” so it would appear that God altered the spelling of her name to signify a break with the past. Things were going to be different from this point forward. And God confirms this new future by assuring Abraham of Sarah’s role in His plan to bless the nations.
“I will bless her, and moreover, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall become nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.” – Genesis 17:16 ESV
God had always intended for Sarah to be the “princess” who would become the “queen mother” of a great nation. Despite her old age and barrenness, God was going to bless her and make her fruitful.
But this “good news” was difficult for Abraham to accept. While he seemed to believe that God could provide him with more descendants than there are stars in the sky, he couldn’t see how Sarah would play a role in making it happen. And, as he reverently bowed before the Lord, he silently scoffed, saying, “Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” (Genesis 17:17 ESV). For Abraham, God’s promise was believable, but it was His plan that was questionable. And this is when he reveals his stubborn belief that the son Hagar had born to him would be a more logical alternative.
“Oh that Ishmael might live before you!” – Genesis 17:18 ESV
Abraham was campaigning for Ishmael, and attempting to convince God that Sarah’s Plan B was not only workable but preferable. Abraham was asking God to alter His plan and bless the son Hagar had already delivered, rather than hopelessly waiting for the son Sarah seemed incapable of bearing. But God would have none of it, and He delivered His firm and unwavering ultimatum to Abraham.
“No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac.” – Genesis 17:19 ESV
Sarah’s old age was not going to be a problem for God. Her barrenness would not stand in the way of the all-powerful, sovereign God of the universe. The God who created the universe ex nihilo (out of nothing), would have no trouble producing a child from an elderly woman with a barren womb. This would be a miracle child who would be the key to God fulfilling His supernatural plan for mankind’s redemption.
God confirms that Ishmael will be fruitful and produce many nations. But he would not be the son of the covenant. That privilege was reserved for the child that had not yet been conceived or born. But that child already had a name: Isaac. And, throughout the rest of his life, every time Abraham heard that name, he would receive a painful reminder of that day when he scoffed at God’s promise of a son through Sarah. Isaac’s name means “he laughs,” and God would use the birth of this child to turn Abraham’s derisive laughter into heartfelt expressions of joy and delight.
God made it clear that Isaac, the son not yet born, would be the one through whom the covenant promise would be fulfilled.
“I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him.” – Genesis 17:19 ESV
And God assured Abraham that Sarah would miraculously deliver this son within a year’s time. God committed Himself by putting it on the calendar. And then He departed. So, for the next 12 months, Abraham was going to have to wait and see if God would do what He said He would do. And each day, Abraham would be faced with the unwavering reality that not only were he and Sarah growing older but that her barrenness remained. It seems logical to assume that, during that 12-month delay, Abraham and Sarah would have continued to try and produce a son. But month after month would pass without any change in their circumstance. And as time passed, their doubt and despair would have intensified. That year would have passed by with excruciating slowness, and all Abraham and Sarah could do was worry and wait.
But Moses reveals that Abraham obeyed God’s command to circumcise all the males in his household. And he points out that Abraham underwent the rite at the age of 99. Even Ishmael, the son of an Egyptian maidservant, was circumcised at the age of 13. The doubter was still diligent to do what God had commanded him to do.
“That very day Abraham and his son Ishmael were circumcised. And all the men of his house, those born in the house and those bought with money from a foreigner, were circumcised with him.” – Genesis 17:26-27 ESV
For the next year, Abraham, Sarah, and the members of their household would be expected to walk before God and be blameless. But as Thomas L. Constable makes clear, “Blameless does not mean sinless but with integrity, wholeness of relationship. God requires a sanctified life of those who anticipate His promised” (Thomas L. Constable, Notes on Genesis). Over the next 12 months, other sons would be born into Abraham’s household. His slaves and servants would bear sons, and each of them would need to be circumcised. And every time a child was born and underwent the rite of circumcision, Abraham and Sarah would receive a painful reminder that they remained barren and childless. Their integrity would be challenged. Their faith in God’s promise would be tested. And with each passing day, His call to walk in wholeness of relationship with Him, despite their doubts and despair, would become increasingly difficult to obey.
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.