God’s Covenant with Abraham
Genesis 17:1–8, 15–22
After participating in this lesson, each student will be able to:
1. Retell the promises of God’s covenant with Abraham.
2. Compare and contrast with his or her own life both the faith and the doubt expressed by Abraham.
3. Suggest a specific area in his or her life where applying a faith like Abraham’s can make (or is making) a difference.
How to Say It
Daily Bible Readings
Monday, Sept. 4—God’s Promise Is Sure (Hebrews 6:13–20)
Tuesday, Sept. 5—Abraham Had Heroic Faith (Hebrews 11:8–16)
Wednesday, Sept. 6—God’s Promise to Abram (Genesis 15:1–6)
Thursday, Sept. 7—God Foretells Future Greatness (Genesis 15:12–21)
Friday, Sept. 8—God Blesses Hagar (Genesis 16:1–15)
Saturday, Sept. 9—God Covenants with Abraham (Genesis 17:1–8)
Sunday, Sept. 10—God Promises a Son (Genesis 17:15–22)
I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. —Genesis 17:7
Why Teach this Lesson?
A corporation will go to great lengths to make sure that its name and trademarks are not used improperly. The reputation of the firm is at stake! Yet this is nothing new. Thousands of years ago, God revealed something about himself to Abram: his name is God Almighty. No sooner did he reveal his name than he made Abram a promise that was impossible from a human standpoint. Why didn’t God promise Abram a son 50 years earlier? It seems that it was God’s purpose to show as well as tell Abram about his absolute might.
Then God gives both Abram and his wife new names. What an amazing way to assure of them of his promise and to forge an identity for his people! By renaming them, then fulfilling his promise to them, God shows how he transforms his faithful ones. Today’s lesson will remind your learners that God Almighty overcomes our doubts too. We who have had our names changed to Christian have experienced this time and again. The God who transformed Abraham and Sarah transforms us as well.
A. Singing, Exercise, and Doctrine
We used to call them action choruses. Young people of varying ages were encouraged to use their arms and hands to simulate motions for the fountain that flowed deep and wide, the little light that shined, or the rains that threatened the houses of the wise and foolish builders. The choruses taught spiritual truths, helped the youngsters expend pent-up energy, and enabled youth workers to fill prolonged periods of time.
In recent years another such chorus was very popular with young people. The opening phrase affirms that Abraham had many sons. That is biblically true, for Paul says the same thing—that Abraham is the father of all who believe (Romans 4:11, 16; compare Galatians 3:7). As the lyrics reach the refrain, the words prompt several physical exercises that require agility, balance, and much energy. Most youngsters love to sing this exhilarating chorus, but it is doubtful that they realize the doctrinal implications of the opening words. That initial affirmation is a part of the lesson today.
Abraham is the great example of faith for all who believe in Christ. Abraham is the first person in the Bible of whom it is said that his belief was reckoned for righteousness (Genesis 15:6). He has more verses about him in the Faith Chapter (Hebrews 11) than any other Old Testament saint. His name appears more than 200 times in the New Testament. So the next time you hear young people singing the chorus about Abraham having many sons, remember that that really is a profound truth (with or without the suggested athletic movements!).
B. Lesson Background
The lesson last week was about the covenant that God made with Noah. Using the Genesis chronology, there are hundreds of years between Noah and Abraham. The Bible is silent about any direct communication from God to humankind during that period of time.
After the flood the sons of Noah and their descendants did well in obeying the command to fill the earth (Genesis 9:1, 7). The “table of nations” in Genesis 10 gives the names of individuals who were the founders of nations or tribal groups. The incident at the tower of Babel (11:1–9) served to separate people by language, which God devised and assigned to the families of humankind. It is said that language, more than any other difference, serves to divide people yet today.
God’s first message to Abraham occurred while he was still in Ur of the Chaldeans. There are several sites named Ur, with the traditional site of Abraham being in southern Mesopotamia (Acts 7:2). It was a city with sanitary sewers, schools, and the worship of a moon god and goddess. This was a very modern city in the twenty-first century BC when Abraham left to become a sojourner.
Abraham’s obedient response to leave with his family is a positive example of faith, for he did not know where God was leading him (Hebrews 11:8). The family traveled toward northwestern Mesopotamia, finally stopping in Haran (Genesis 11:31).
It is interesting that both Ur and Haran are known as centers of worship for a moon god and goddess. Idolatry eventually was common after the flood, and it was even practiced by Abraham’s father and brother (Joshua 24:2). Some, however, did maintain a genuine faith. (It is often assumed that Job lived during this time, and his faith is highly exemplary.) When God selected Abraham, he chose a man without children, land, or reputation. To such a person God is ready to promise a son, a land, and greatness!
I. Promises to Abraham (Genesis 17:1–8, 15, 16)
Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, patriarchs in the book of Genesis, receive promises by God on different occasions. God gives messages to Abraham several times in Genesis (12:1–3, 7; 13:14–17; 15:4, 5, 13–18; 17:1–22; 18:17–33; 22:15–18). Acts 7:2 indicates an earlier contact before the family leaves Ur.
Similar promises are given twice to Isaac (Genesis 26:4, 24) and Jacob (Genesis 28:14, 15; 35:9–12). As we open our lesson, we remember that Abraham’s name originally was Abram (Genesis 17:5, below).
A. Name for God (vv. 1, 2)
1. When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, “I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless.
The factor of Abram’s age is of interest. He was 75 when he, Lot (his nephew), and others departed from Haran to go to the land of Canaan (Genesis 12:4, 5). When Abraham was 85, his wife suggested that perhaps she could have children through Hagar, her maidservant (16:2, 3). Abraham accepted the proposal, which was a contemporary practice for a wife who was barren. Ishmael was born when Abraham was 86 (16:16).
Such statistics interest some people, but the message underneath them is very important: God keeps his promises, but the time of waiting may be a testing of the patience and faith of those who are the recipients of the promises. In this case Abram and his wife Sarai were “running ahead” of God instead of waiting for his time.
The Lord identifies himself with his first words to Abram. He is not just God, but he is Almighty. This God is one who can accomplish things that are considered impossible. Over 1,400 years later Jeremiah will echo the same thought when he writes that nothing is too difficult for God (Jeremiah 32:17).
Two imperatives are used by the Lord to express his expectations. First, Abram is to walk before God. Second, his walk must be blameless; Abram is to do his best in meeting his obligations to God.
“What’s in a Name?”
In the early 1960s General Motors tried unsuccessfully to sell its new, economical compact model the Nova in Latin America. The problem, it seems, was that the name Nova means “no go” in Spanish. After GM changed the car’s name to Caribe, sales took off—at least so the story goes. Actually, this is one of those urban legends we hear from time to time. For one thing, sales weren’t really that bad, and the Caribe was sold by Volkswagen (www.snopes.com). However, this story has gained lots of “mileage” (pardon the pun) by being repeated many times in marketing textbooks and business seminars.
Let’s try another one. When Coca-Cola entered the Chinese market, it had to find Mandarin characters that sounded like “Coca-Cola.” The characters they chose could mean “to allow the mouth to be able to rejoice” but could also be translated “bite the wax tadpole.” Hmmm.
Whether or not either story is true, in the final analysis their very existence points to the fact that names are important. So it was with the name by which God revealed himself to Abram. Abram’s culture believed in many gods, but the God who spoke to Abram was the Almighty God! He was significantly different from the fictitious gods that people worshiped. He was—and is—the God who has power and who makes covenants with those who believe him. —C. R. B.
2. “I will confirm my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.”
This is the first of 13 uses of the word covenant in this chapter. It is used only once with Abram prior to this chapter, in Genesis 15:18. In that chapter God specifically promises that Abram will have a son and that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars (Genesis 15:5). The word will accompanies many of God’s blessings as given in this chapter. This construction shows that the fulfillments are in the future, but God will keep his promises.
B. Nations to Result (vv. 3, 4)
3, 4. Abram fell facedown, and God said to him, “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations.
Abram’s immediate response is to fall and assume a position of utmost respect. The implications of what the Lord has just said are racing through his mind, and he is overwhelmed! God’s next words reinforce the thought that Abram is to have many descendants.
An excellent commentary on Abram’s thoughts can be found in Romans 4:19, 20. In these verses Paul states that Abraham was not weak in faith, even as he considered his own body and his wife’s womb to be dead. The God who created life in the beginning could do the same again for this elderly couple!
In verse 4 God states that the covenant being made is with Abram, and one outcome is that many nations will result. The factor of nations (plural) is a new concept. The singular form of the word is used in Genesis 12:2, so this adds a dimension to the promises that God is making.
Of course, living in the twenty-first century AD means that we are aware of the historical fulfillment of this prophecy. But it must be a staggering thought for Abram in the twenty-first century BC! Some of the descendants of Abram who will produce many sons include Ishmael and the six sons that Abraham had by his second wife, Keturah (Genesis 25:1, 2).
C. New Name for Abram (v. 5a)
5a. “No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham,
A new name is given to Abram, and it is very meaningful as a part of this covenant. Whereas Abram means “exalted father,” the name Abraham means “father of a multitude.” This new name itself is a challenging part of this expanded covenant.
The exact nature of this exchange between God and Abraham is not given; it may have been a personal, private event. One can only wonder at the responses of others when Abraham tells them that his name is now “father of a multitude.” Abraham has a private army (Genesis 14:14); when those men think of Abraham as a childless, elderly man, how can they use his new name without a snicker?
D. Nations and the Kings (vv. 5b, 6)
5b, 6. “… for I have made you a father of many nations. I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you.
The thought that Abraham will be a father of many nations is repeated from verse 4. This time the concept is amplified: Abraham’s descendants will be very fruitful.
Abraham’s offspring will also include kings. This is a new factor, not mentioned previously. Moses (the author of Genesis) will later record the names of several kings who are descendants of Abraham’s grandson Esau (Genesis 36:31–39). Students of biblical history are aware of Saul, David, Solomon, and other kings who trace their lineage to Abraham (Matthew 1:2–11). God’s promises do come to pass!
E. People of the Covenant (v. 7)
7. “I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you.
This special covenant relationship will continue into the future for the children of Abraham, for it is an everlasting covenant. It must first be noted that the applications of these phrases are restricted: in this same chapter the descendants of Ishmael are excluded, in spite of Abraham’s expressed thought that the covenant could be fulfilled in him (vv. 18–21, below).
This verse also allows us to compare the use of the word descendants here in the New International Version with the word seed in the King James Version. The selection of the word seed seems to be better, for Paul uses the fact that it is singular to show that the ultimate fulfillment is a spiritual one in Christ, that he is the promised seed (Galatians 3:16; compare Acts 3:25). The beauty of the apostles’ argument is that all people now have access to the spiritual blessings that the redemptive work of the Messiah makes available (compare Genesis 12:3; 22:18).
F. Place Assigned (v. 8)
8. “The whole land of Canaan, where you are now an alien, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God.”
The land of Canaan had been promised to Abraham previously (Genesis 12:5, 7; 15:18). These words from God provide a further confirmation of that promise. There is a certain irony here: it has been 24 years since Abraham entered Canaan (compare Genesis 12:4, 5; 17:1), and so far Abraham does not possess any of it. God told Abraham previously that his descendants would be oppressed 400 years in another land, and in the fourth generation they would occupy Canaan when the sin of the inhabitants had “reached its full measure” (Genesis 15:13, 16).
G. Position for Sarai (vv. 15, 16)
15, 16. God also said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you are no longer to call her Sarai; her name will be Sarah. I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her.”
The intervening verses record the establishment of circumcision as a sign of the covenant for Abraham’s male descendants. Now the role of Sarai in the promises is expressed for the first time. God begins by changing her name for the role that she will have in redemptive history: to become the mother of nations and kings. This will have its beginning in her own son, Isaac.
The meanings of the names Sarai and Sarah seem to be the same, but there is the difference in spelling. Both names mean “princess.”
II. Perplexities of Abraham (Genesis 17:17–22)
Abraham finally has an opportunity to express his reactions. Those reactions concern two people: Sarah and Ishmael.
A. Problems Stated (vv. 17, 18)
17. Abraham fell facedown; he laughed and said to himself, “Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?”
Abraham’s emotional response is laughter. The fact that Sarah is to become a mother goes beyond what is humanly reasonable. If God is in it, however, then it becomes reasonable!
Abraham projects the promises a year into the future, the earliest time for a son to be born. Abraham will then be 100 and Sarah will be 90, and he inwardly wonders about what he has just heard. Could it possibly be true?
18. And Abraham said to God, “If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!”
At this time Ishmael is 13 years old (compare Abraham’s age in Genesis 16:16 and 17:1). Abraham loves this young teenager and states that he is willing to accept him as the child of promise. In his humility he does not demand that God go to any special trouble.
B. Problems Solved (vv. 19–22)
19. Then God said, “Yes, but your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will call him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him.
God assures Abraham that Sarah is the one who will bear the son who will fulfill the promise. In addition, God continues to provide names for the people involved: the son is to be called Isaac. The name Isaac means “laugh,” and it will ever serve as a reminder of Abraham’s reaction when he heard the prediction.
The I will statements of this section continue. God asserts that it is through Isaac that the everlasting covenant is to be established and that it will continue for generations after him.
Visual for Lessons 2 & 12
Keep this map posted throughout the quarter to help set the geographical context.
20. “And as for Ishmael, I have heard you: I will surely bless him; I will make him fruitful and will greatly increase his numbers. He will be the father of twelve rulers, and I will make him into a great nation.
God assures Abraham that his concerns for Ishmael have been heard and that blessings are included for him. They are similar in nature to the promises of the covenant. But limitations are set concerning the number of future leaders among his descendants (twelve rulers). The final promise is that Ishmael’s descendants will become a great nation.
21. “But my covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you by this time next year.”
The closing words of God in this account restate the factors that are to have imminent fulfillments: that the covenant is to be continued through Isaac, that Sarah is to be the mother, and that these things will occur the next year. One can only wonder concerning Abraham’s final reflections and actions: will they be outwardly exuberant and joyful, silent and profound contemplation, or overwhelming gratitude? It will take time for the reality of the promises to be grasped fully.
Alceo Dossena (1878–1937) was a stonemason from northern Italy. He became skilled at carving reproductions of sculptures from ancient times, and his work was so good that others began selling his carvings as genuine antiques. Despite Dossena’s best efforts to spread the truth of the matter, dealers in antiquities continued the fraud since they were reaping handsome profits. So many pieces of his work were in circulation as genuine that it became impossible to trace them all. It is said that some of Dossena’s copies are accepted as genuine antiquities yet today.
With the best of motives, Abraham and Sarah also perpetrated an unintentional fraud. They had received God’s promise of a son as a sign of God’s covenant with them. Time went by, and still there was no pregnancy. Their solution was for Abraham to have a son by Sarah’s servant girl, Hagar.
The consequences of their decision were far-reaching. We see the effects today in strife in the Middle East, as some elements of religious extremism claim covenantal blessings through Ishmael. Although the child Ishmael would be blessed by God, he was not the “genuine article”—the son of the covenantal promise. We always get into trouble when we try to push God’s timetable! —C. R. B.
22. When he had finished speaking with Abraham, God went up from him.
God departs from Abraham, and this brings to a conclusion this stage of Abraham’s developing role in the covenant. There are more interactions to follow, but the new factors are overwhelming.
If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is—unless God is in it. The covenant that God made with Abraham offered promises that another human could not deliver. It is comforting to know that God did not hold the negative reactions of Abraham and Sarah against them. Their reservations did not thwart God’s redemptive plan.
It is God’s plan to provide Heaven for all the redeemed. That’s something that sounds just too good to be true, but it is true. It sounds too good to be true that God forgives and forgets the sins of the redeemed, but God does that—even though we tend to burden ourselves with memories of our failures.
God offers Heaven to sinners who believe on his Son and follow his plan of salvation. That sounds too good to be true—but it is true!
New International Version Standard Lesson Commentary : 2006-2007 . Standard Publishing: Cincinnati