{5}         Covenant sign of circumcision (Gen 17)


Part I. Abraham under the Covenant (17:1—21:34)

I1.    Sign of circumcision (17:1–27)

·         God appeared to Abram 13 years after Ismael’s birth. He again reiterated the promises of descendants and land (as there was only one covenant) and instructed him in the sign and seal of covenant circumcision as a confirmation or reaffirmation of the initial covenant.

·         For his heir, Abram had proposed the substitute Eliezer (Gen 15:3). Sarai had provided Hagar to give birth to Ishmael whom Abram hoped would be accepted (Gen 17:18). But God would accomplish His better plan through Isaac, the heir to be born to Abram’s wife.

·         The covenant promises in this chapter were the same as before but with new emphasis on the covenant’s perpetuity (v.7,8,13,19) and the new feature of the “sign” of circumcision. God also provided new assurances to Abram by conferring the names Abraham and Sarah, confirming the couple’s status as progenitors of new “nations”. Even Ishmael, the nonelect son, would father “a great nation” by divine promise. Although he was circumcised, he did not inherit the covenant. While he received blessing, it was not in perpetuity.

·         Unlike the covenant in ch.15 which had no requirements, ch.17 includes 2 demands: (1) to live uprightly before the Lord (v.2), and (2) to practice circumcision faithfully (v.9–11). These obligations, however, did not constitute a covenant relationship but presupposed one already in place. Circumcision involves the idea of consecration to God but not as its essence. That the covenant is a spiritual relationship, founded and maintained by God’s elective grace, is apparent by the continuation of the covenant despite the repeated failures of Abraham and his successors to observe a blameless life.

·         Ch.12 and ch.22 form the introduction and conclusion to the giving of the covenant, requiring Abraham to act upon God’s commands. This demonstrates the progressive character of covenant giving.

·         For Paul, circumcision was only a “sign” of faith, that is, a confirmation or seal, confirming the righteousness Abraham already received because of his faith while he was still uncircumcised (Ro 4:11–25).

·         The covenant of circumcision shares important features with Noahic covenant (Gen 6:18; 9:8–17). The covenants are patterned after a royal land grant; covenant “sign” is established; the covenant is “everlasting”. Circumcision functions as a “sign” like the rainbow for the Noahic covenant and the Sabbath for the Mosaic covenant, all reminders of God’s gracious promises. The rainbow is a reminder to God, whereas circumcision and Sabbath are reminders to both God and Israel, indicating that Israel belongs to God. Also these involve community obligations which when practiced distinguish the community as members of the covenant.

·         Circumcision by itself had no probative value (Gal 5:6; 1Co 7:19) since it could be exercised by the unrighteous. Its practice upon infants on the 8th day reflected the covenant’s attention to the whole household who inherited the promises by virtue of relationship to Abraham. This relationship, although initiated by divine call and promise, demanded moral accountability (Gen 17:1,9).



17:1     God Almighty: (Heb. El Shaddai) conveying the majesty and power of God (Ex 6:3; Nu 24:4,16; Job 11:7). Shaddai is associated in Genesis with the divine promise of children and nations (Gen 28:3; 35:11; 43:14; 48:3; 49:25).

walk before me and be blameless: 2 obligations commanded by God.

17:2     I will confirm my covenant: 2 demands by God were followed by 2 outcomes: confirmation of the covenant and promise of descendants.

17:3     Abram fell facedown: the demeanor of respect toward a superior, also the action in profound pleading before God.

·         The covenant has 4 features:

17:4     father of many nations: (1) God will make Abram father of many nations.

17:5     your name will be Abraham: The giving of a new name marks a special event.

I have made you: a future promise as though already realized.

17:6     make you very fruitful: (2) There will be many physical descendants, including kings of nations.

17:7     an everlasting covenant: (3) The covenant is for many generations and will last forever. For Christians, circumcision was a “sign” but not the essence of the covenant. The covenant depended ultimately on the spiritual allegiance of the parties. Spiritual circumcision was the test required of all those who would enjoy the favour of God.

17:8     whole land of Canaan: (4) The whole Canaan will be given to Abraham’s descendant forever. The Christian church expanded the land grant to include the whole earth and interpreted it as the inheritance of eternal life (Heb 11:8; 1Pe 1:4).

17:9     you and your descendants: The covenant was extended to Abraham’s descendants.

17:10   shall be circumcised: Circumcision involved the removal of the loose foreskin, which permanently exposed the gland of the penis. It is a permanent mark.

17:12   eight days old must be circumcised: The rite was based on the counting of 7 days of uncleanness for the new mother, followed by the infant’s circumcision on the 8th day, and then 33 days of purification of the mother (Lev 12:2–4). The 8th held special meaning as the day of atonement or dedication to God (Ex 22:30; Lev 9:1; 14:10,23; 15:14,29; 22:27; 23:39; Nu 6:10; Eze 43:27).

Scientists discovered that Vitamin K, coupled with prothrombin, causes blood clotting. On the 8th day of a newborn baby, the amount of prothrombin present actually is elevated to 110% of normal—and is the only day in the male’s whole life in which this occurs under normal conditions. If surgery is to be performed, day 8 is the perfect day to do it. It shows the divine plan that goes beyond human understanding at that time.

17:13   in your flesh: The permanency of the mark pointed to the perpetuity of the covenant.

17:14   cut off from his people: The person who refused to undergo the custom will be excommunicated. It will symbolically mean the person’s death in the eye of the community (Ex 12:15,19; Lev 7:20–21,27; Nu 15:30; 19:13,20).

17:15   her name will be Sarah: “Sarah” is an alternate form of the older “Sarai”, meaning “princess”. She as the lawful wife would become the mother of all Israel.

17:17   Abraham fell facedown: Abraham reacted with a mixture of emotions: collapse in reverential awe, laughter, reasoning, self-talk, plea.

17:18   live under your blessing: Abraham pleaded for Ishmael and God answered positively in v.19–20.

17:19   will bear you a son: The Hebrew word has the imminent sense, “about to bear you a son”.

17:20   I will surely bless him: God’s blessing would be on Ishmael too. He would become the father of a great people, but he and his descendants would be outsiders, whereas Isaac would assume his father’s inheritance.

17:21   Isaac, whom Sarah will bear: The name of the son was given. God also assured that Sarah would be the mother and the birth would be in one year.

17:22   God went up: indicating a visible ascension.

17:23   On that very day: Abraham’s obedience was immediate and also complete, exactly as God commanded. This phrase is repeated in v.27 in Hebrew but sometimes not translated.



·         Circumcision signified that members of God’s elect community were fit for God’s purposes (Gen 17:7–11; Jos 5:2–9). While this is not a requirement for Christians, we are exhorted to receive the rite in a metaphorical sense. It is called the “circumcision of the heart”, referring to the death and burial of one’s sinful nature—as symbolized by baptism (Col 2:11). In OT, it indicates spiritual readiness (Dt 10:16; 30:6; Jer 4:4).

·         The apostle Paul argued that circumcision was permissible for the Gentiles, even expedient at times (Ac 16:3), but was not a requirement (Ac 15:2,28–29; 21:21; 1Co 7:18; Col 3:11).