Chapter 17

YHWH, apparently his representative angel, appeared to 99-year-old Abram, encouraging him to “walk” or to conduct himself blamelessly before him. Abram was given the assurance that YHWH’s covenant or agreement with him would for a certainty lead to his having many descendants. Abram dropped to his knees and prostrated himself before the angel, with his face touching the ground. (17:1-3)

Evidently as the direct representative of YHWH, the angel spoke for him, telling Abram that, on the basis of the covenant, he would become the “father of a multitude of nations.” Therefore, his name would be changed from Abram (“exalted father”) to Abraham (“father of a multitude”). YHWH, through the descendants of Abraham, would make him fruitful, resulting in his having nations and kings come forth from him as their ancestor. God’s covenant with Abraham would include his “seed” or his descendants in all future generations. This covenant would continue in effect for limitless time to come. Another part of the covenant was the provision that Abraham and his “seed” or descendants would be given the entire land of Canaan as a lasting possession. YHWH would be the God of Abraham’s descendants, assuring that all the promises associated with the covenant would be fulfilled. (17:3-8)

Abraham and his descendants throughout coming generations were to keep the covenant that YHWH had concluded with them. Every male should have his foreskin removed. Unlike circumcision that is a rite of passage in numerous cultures, circumcision in the case of Abraham’s descendants constituted the sign of the covenant between them and YHWH. Every male of the household, including those purchased from foreigners, were to be circumcised, and all baby boys were to be circumcised on the eighth day after birth. It is noteworthy that, on the eighth day after a normal birth, the baby’s blood-clotting substances (Vitamin K and prothrombin) reach their highest level. For a male not to be circumcised constituted a breach of the covenant with God, and the judgment for failure to be circumcised would mean being “cut off” from the people whom he had chosen as his own. Targum Jonathan includes as an exception the complete unavailability of one who could perform the circumcision. The nature of the “cutting off” is not specified. It may denote severance from God’s people and exclusion from the benefits associated with the covenant between YHWH and his people. (17:9-14)

Abraham’s wife also was to have her name changed. Instead of Sarai, she was to be called Sarah (“princess”). YHWH would bless her, and Abraham would have a son by her. Through Sarah, nations and kings would come into existence. In the fulfillment, there was the nation of Edom and the nation of Israel, and both nations came to have kings. Abraham dropped to his knees and prostrated himself, with his face touching the ground. He laughed “in his heart” or within himself, likely out of astonishment. The prospect was far beyond the ordinary, for Abraham was 100 years old and his wife Sarah was 90. (17:15-17)

In view of the promise of a son by Sarah, Abraham appears to have been concerned about what this would mean for Ishmael, the son whom he must have greatly loved. He then made his prayerful appeal, “O that Ishmael might live before you [literally, before your face].” Again Abraham was told that Sarah would bear him a son whom he was to call Isaac (“laughter”). Not with Ishmael, but with this son to be born would YHWH establish his covenant and also with the “seed” or descendants of this son. YHWH had “heard” or given attention to Abraham’s appeal respecting Ishmael. He would be blessed and his descendants would become numerous and form a great nation. Ishmael would become the father of twelve princes or chieftains. According to Genesis 25:13-15 and 1 Chronicles 1:29-31, the twelve sons were Nebaioth, Kedar, Adbeel, Mibsam, Mishma, Dumah, Massa, Hadad, Tema, Jetur, Naphish, and Kedemah. (17:18-20)

With Isaac, the son to whom Sarah would give birth in the following year, YHWH would establish his covenant, the covenant that had originally been concluded with Abraham. After he had completed speaking to Abraham by means of his representative angel, God is said to have “gone up.” This indicated that the angel, the direct representative of God, ascended and disappeared from Abraham’s sight. (17:21, 22)

Ninety-nine-year-old Abraham did not delay in circumcising all the males of his household, including the purchased male servants and the male offspring of his servants. On the same day as he circumcised his thirteen-year-old son Ishmael, Abraham also was circumcised, likely by one of his servants. (17:23-27)