Abraham's Call and God's Covenant (Genesis 11:26-17:27)

Genesis 11:26—17:27

Introduction

A good many years ago, my good friend Bill McRae and I had just finished jogging. We were sitting on the steps outside our house catching our breath when another jogger paused to chat for a moment. He introduced himself as Ed Bloom. As usual, Bill was very warm and cordial and engaged “Ed” in conversation. In the midst of this conversation, Bill said something like this: “Tell me, Ed, is this your first year as a student at DTS?” I turned to Bill and said, “Bill, this is Dr. Ed Bloom, who is a professor here at the seminary.” Needless to say, Bill had not known that “Ed” had just joined the faculty, and he was very embarrassed.

Some people just don’t look like who they are. That is certainly the case with Abraham. When we first meet him in Genesis 12, he does not appear to be the hero of the faith we know from other passages in the Bible. Abraham is regarded as one of the giants of the faith, and one of the most prominent personalities in the Bible. A concordance search will indicate that the name “Abraham” occurs some 230 times in the Bible. Included in this number is the appearance of his name 67 times in the New Testament. “Abram” occurs in the Old Testament another 60 times. This man is a giant of the faith, but that is not necessarily evident in the early days of his life, as we shall attempt to show. Here was a man who came to trust in God, rather than in himself, but it took considerable time and trouble to reach that point in his life. We will devote two messages to Abraham, seeking to see what role he played in the “unfolding drama of redemption.”

God’s Covenant and Abraham’s Call

Genesis 11:26—12:9

From a reading of our text in Genesis, one would get the impression that Abraham received his “call” while he was living in Haran, but this is not the case when we look at the Scriptures more broadly. We are told that Abram was born in Ur (Genesis 11:28, 31). We are also told that God brought Abram from Ur of the Chaldeans to Canaan (Genesis 15:7; Nehemiah 9:7). It is the inspired words of Stephen, however, which indicate that Abram’s first call came to him while he was in Ur:

1 Then the high priest said, “Are these things true?” 2 So he replied, “Brothers and fathers, listen to me. The God of glory appeared to our forefather Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he settled in Haran, 3 and said to him, ‘Go out from your country and from your relatives, and come to the land I will show you.’ 4 Then he went out from the country of the Chaldeans and settled in Haran. After his father died, God made him move to this country where you now live” (Acts 7:1-4, emphasis mine).

Moses does not wish to emphasize this fact about Abram. He tells us only what he needs to do to develop his argument, and from that point on “love covers a multitude of sins.” We see, then, that Abram was first called to leave his family and his homeland while in Ur. From what Moses tells us in chapter 11, it was Terah, Abram’s father, who brought Abram (along with other members of the clan) out of Ur (11:31). Haran, Abram’s brother and Lot’s father, died while they were still in Ur (11:28). One other thing is clear from chapter 11: when Terah took his family to Haran, it was with the intent of going all the way to Canaan (11:31). Somehow, when they reached Haran, they settled there and never went on to Canaan in Terah’s lifetime.

Therefore we must say that the “call” of Abram in Genesis 12:1-3 is really his “second call,” something like Jonah’s second commission to go to Nineveh (Jonah 1:1-2; 3:1-2). The difference is that Jonah refused to go where God told him and went in the opposite direction. Abram was providentially brought part way to Canaan, though he seems passive in this, rather than acting out of obedience. One wonders if Abram was having some serious doubts as to what he should do after the death of Terah, his father. Should he return to Ur; should he remain in Haran; or, should he go on to Canaan, as God had commanded? God removed all doubt as to the proper course of action when He reiterated the call. Abram seems not to have left his family as much as they (Terah, at least) left him by death. Abram takes Lot with him, and one is left to wonder whether or not this was in full compliance with God’s command to leave his relatives. One thing we can say with confidence – Lot was more trouble to Abram than he was help.

The call of Abram was similar in its demands to that of marriage. Abram was, so to speak, to “leave and to cleave” – he was to leave his family and his homeland, and to cleave to God, by faith. You and I live in the Western world in a very mobile society, where family members live far apart. My brother lives 2200 miles away, in Washington State, as do our parents. One of my sisters lives in Singapore, and the other in Seoul, Korea. In Abram’s day, to leave one’s family and homeland was to leave one’s source of significance and security. You were known and dealt with in relationship to your parents and your family. The Canaanites had no regard for Abram’s ancestry or pedigree. To be among family was to have a “safety net” of protection. This is one reason why there is so little teenage rebellion in the third world. Children know that to be removed from their family would destine them to powerlessness and poverty. By commanding Abram to leave homeland and family, he was forcing him to depend solely upon Himself.

Genesis 12:1-3 is widely recognized as the Abrahamic Covenant, and so it is. But I would like to emphasize that the Bible demonstrates the principle of progressive revelation. Truth is seldom revealed all at one time and place (see Ephesians 2:8-10; 5:32). It is gradually unfolded, through time. For example, we are told that the seed of the woman would crush Satan’s head (Genesis 3:15). We expect that “seed” to be – or to come from – the line of Abel, but Abel is killed by his brother, Cain (Genesis 4). We are not surprised to see that the line of the seed passes down through Seth to Noah, and then from Noah to Abram. By the end of Genesis, we will be told that the “seed” will come through the line of Judah (Genesis 49:8-12). We will later learn that the “seed” will come from the line of David (2 Samuel 7:10-16). The identity of the line of the promised Savior continues to narrow, until the introduction of Jesus as the Messiah in the Gospels.

The principle of progressive revelation is very evident in the Book of Genesis, especially regarding the Abrahamic Covenant. This covenant is introduced in Genesis 12:1-3, but only in very general terms. There are personal promises made to Abram, as there are collective promises made concerning his offspring. In general terms, God promises Abram that He will give him many descendants, and that He will also give him the land of Canaan. Abraham will be the touchstone for the blessing or cursing of all mankind. Those who bless Abram will be blessed, and those who curse him (or esteem him lightly) will be cursed. Genesis is a very skeletal, introductory promise. The covenant will not be formally ratified until the sacrifice is offered in chapter 15, and Abraham does not receive the covenant sign of circumcision until chapter 17.

Abram is told that he will have many descendants in chapter 12, and we see in Genesis 15:2 that Abram assumes that his “seed” will have to be an adopted servant from his household. In Genesis 15:4, God assures Abram that the promised “seed” will come forth from his own body (15:4). It is not until after the birth of Ishmael that Abram is told he and Sarah will be the parents of the promised child (17:15-16). God progressively reveals His plans and purposes to Abram. Because of this, we should expect the details of the Abrahamic Covenant to be disclosed progressively, over some period of time. This is precisely what happens. And so it will suffice to say here that Abraham is the one whom God designates as the patriarch of the family from which the promised “seed” will come. As the story of Abraham unfolds, more and more details concerning the promised blessings of the Abrahamic Covenant will be disclosed.

Stretching the Faith of Abraham

I have previously indicated that in the beginning Abraham did not look much like “the father of the faith.” Nevertheless, this is what he will become. As we continue our study in Genesis, we see the process through which God led Abram, so that he became a man of faith. Let’s consider that process as we study chapters 12 through 17.

Once in Canaan, God assures Abram that this is the land He will give to him and to his descendants (Genesis 12:7). Abraham passed through the land of Canaan, from north to south, laying claim to it by building altars and worshipping God. When Abram reached the Negev, the southern part of Canaan, he encountered a severe famine (12:10). He concluded that he must leave the promised land, the place of blessing, and wait out the famine in Egypt. Given his attitude (fear) and his conduct (lying), it is hard to believe that going to Egypt was an act of faith. It would seem that he was to trust God and to remain in Canaan, where God had promised to prosper him. This seems even more certain when we look at Genesis 26:1-3:

1 There was a famine in the land, subsequent to the earlier famine that occurred in the days of Abraham. Isaac went to Abimelech king of the Philistines at Gerar. 2 The Lord appeared to Isaac and said, “Do not go down to Egypt; settle down in the land that I will point out you. 3 Stay in this land. Then I will be with you and will bless you, for I will give all these lands to you and to your descendants, and I will fulfill the solemn promise I made to your father Abraham.”

Moses is gracious in what he does (and does not) say about Abram at this point in his life. As I look at this text, it is God’s way of letting us know the starting point from which Abram’s spiritual growth began. This is Abram’s spiritual low ground, and from here on, he is being stretched to live on higher ground.

The Test of Truthfulness

Genesis 12:10-20

Abram knows full well how beautiful his wife Sarai is. He knows that a woman this beautiful would be highly desired, and that all that anyone who wanted her would have to do would be to kill him and take her. And so Abram and Sarai agree to a scheme that they will consistently practice for a number of years – they lie about her identity as his wife, and claim the half-truth that she was his sister. This plan had a very serious flaw; it gave interested men the idea that Sarai was available for marriage. Abram was trusting in his deception, rather than in God, for life and prosperity. Abram was seeking to survive at his wife’s expense. He put his wife at risk to save his own neck. In his mind, he had to go to Egypt to save his life, and he had to pass off Sarai as his sister for the same reason.

When they arrived in Egypt, it did not take long for Pharaoh to be informed about Abram’s sister and her great beauty. Innocently, Pharaoh took Sarai into his harem and was soon to make her his wife. I can only imagine the sleepless nights that were in store for Abram. He must have sat up wide-eyed every night, wondering what was going on between Pharaoh and Sarai. All the while, presents arrived from Pharaoh, part of the dowry he was paying for taking Sarai as his wife!

God had plans for Abram and Sarai. They were to have a child, through whom many descendants would be born. It was through the union of Abram and Sarai that the line of the promised “seed” was to come. There was no way that God’s promise of a seed could be fulfilled if Sarai were to become Mrs. Pharaoh. God intervened by means of plagues that came upon Pharaoh and his house. (From chapter 20, we learn that every woman in the kingdom of Abimelech was made barren, thus assuring that no child would be born to Abimelech and Sarai.) Pharaoh got the message. He discovered that Sarai was Abram’s wife, and so he rebuked him and sent him away, laden down with gifts.

It used to bother me a great deal that Abram came away from Egypt more prosperous than when he arrived. How could God bless Abram when he was acting in fear, and not in faith? How could God bless Abram’s deception? The first thing we must emphatically say is that we never really merit any of the blessings that God may shower upon us. But the second thing we should see here is that this story was deliberately used as a prototype of Israel’s exodus from Egypt many years later. Joseph was brought down to Egypt from Canaan because of the sin of his brothers. Abram came from Canaan to Egypt out of fear and lack of faith. God sent plagues upon Pharaoh and his household, so that Pharaoh would release Abram and his household and would send them away with many gifts. In the same way, God would later bring plagues upon Pharaoh and all Egypt, so that he would release the Israelites, and so that they would go out with many gifts. In order for this story to foreshadow the exodus of Israel from Egypt, Abram had to prosper at the expense of Pharaoh, just as the Israelites would later prosper at the hand of the Egyptians.60

The Test of Family and Fortune

Genesis 13:1—14:24

Clearly implied in the promise of Genesis 12:2 is that of prosperity. God promised to “bless” Abram, and to “make his name great.” This assures Abram of a large family, with many descendants, and it strongly implies material wealth. Chapters 13 and 14 put Abram’s faith to the test in the area of earthly prosperity. In chapter 13, Abram returns to Canaan from Egypt more prosperous than when he first arrived in Egypt. Lot prospered as well, and this led to conflict between his herdsmen and those of Abram (13:6-7).61 This would have been the perfect time for Abram to remind Lot who it was that God promised to give this land to, and who He promised to prosper in the land. Abram was instructed to leave his family and to come to Canaan. What Abram was not willing to do before – separate from Lot – he had the perfect excuse to do now. It would have been the perfect time for Abram to tell Lot it was time for him to move on and find a life for himself, somewhere else. Instead, Abram gives Lot the choice of which direction he will go, of which land he would prefer.

We know that Lot chose what seemed to be the best land. But before we get too critical of Lot, let’s remember that most all of us would have made the same choice. My wife and I have five daughters, and during the days they were living at home we found it necessary to divide their portions of food. No one agonized too much about who got the most potatoes, but when the apple pie was cut up, it was as though these girls worked for the Federal Bureau of Standards. They could instantly recognize a minute difference in size or quantity, and they always grabbed for the biggest piece. (Well, truthfully, it would have been the second biggest piece because Jeannette had already held out the biggest piece for me.)

Surely Lot walked away from that conversation with Abram with a broad smile on his face. But in so doing, he overlooked several important factors. First, he has chosen to go east (13:11). Second, he has chosen to dwell in the city of Sodom, a wicked place. Third, he has neglected to act consistently with the Abrahamic Covenant. God promised to bless all those who blessed Abram and to curse those who cursed him. To take advantage of Abram by choosing the best land was not blessing Abram. It was by Lot’s subordination to Abram that he would be blessed. Lot sought his own interests at Abram’s expense. What seemed to be a shrewd business decision will soon prove to be a great disaster for Lot and for his family.

Can you imagine the conversation that must have taken place between Abram and Sarai when Abram returned from his meeting with Lot? From what I read of Sarai in Genesis 16, this was a woman who could be really cranky. I can imagine that Abram came home and Sarai could not wait to ask how the dispute between their herdsmen was settled. When Abram told Sarai that he had given Lot the best land, I have no doubt that she exploded. How could he be so foolish? He could he let Lot take advantage of him? Did Abram not care about his family and their needs?

I know I’m reading between the lines, but it would help to explain verses 14-18 of 13. In these verses, God reaffirms His covenant with Abram and reassures him that he will be greatly blessed. Specifically, God assures Abram that this whole land – on which both he and Lot are dwelling as sojourners – will be his (not Lot’s). God tells Abram to look in all directions, and assures him that the land will all be his, as far as he can see. It will be given to Abram, and to his descendants, forever (verses 14-15). And since Abram is surely wondering about these “descendants,” God reassures him that his descendants will be without number (verse 16). Abram is told to walk throughout the land, to take a good look at all that will be his. As he travels to these places, he symbolically claims this land as his own. He will not possess it in his lifetime, but his descendants will. Abraham then moves his tents near to the oaks of Mamre, and there he builds yet another altar to the Lord (verse 18).

Lot found himself caught in the middle of a power struggle between the king of Sodom and his allies and an alliance of opposing kings. The king of Sodom suffered defeat, and the invading forces made off with many spoils of war, which included many of the people and possessions of Sodom, including Lot. When word reached Abram, he went after the victors with 318 of his servants (14:14) and his allies (14:24). They prevailed over the four kings and retrieved all the people and possessions that had been taken as spoils, including Lot. Abram seems to be viewed as the “commander” of these forces (see 14:15), and the king of Sodom is determined to honor him for his victory. He intends to meet Abram and the others in the king’s valley (verse 17), with what seems to be the counterpart of a tickertape parade. Before the king of Sodom reaches Abram, Melchizedek appears, as it were, out of nowhere. He is called a “priest of the Most High God” (verse 18). He arrives with bread and wine, and blesses Abram with these words,

“Blessed be Abram by the Most High God,
Creator of heaven and earth.
20 Worthy of praise is the Most High God,
who delivered your enemies into your hand” (Genesis 14:19b-20a).

Melchizedek is a most interesting fellow, whose only appearance is here but who is the topic of later revelation (Psalm 110:4, Hebrews 5:6, 10; 6:20; 7:1-17). He plays an important role in Abram’s life at this moment in time. He informs Abram that the victory he has won was not his victory at all, but God’s. It was He who delivered Abram’s enemies into his hand (verse 20). And He is “the Creator of heaven and earth.” The NASB renders, “Possessor of heaven and earth.” To be the Creator is to be the owner, the possessor. Abram then paid a tithe to Melchizedek, and this king and priest disappears as quickly as he appears.

It would seem as though it were only moments later that the king of Sodom arrived. How empty this king’s words must have seemed to Abram, after hearing a word from God. The king of Sodom was probably filled with words of praise and admiration. He offered to allow Abram to keep all the spoils of his victory and requested only the return of his people. Abram refused any gifts from the king of Sodom, repeating some of the same words that Melchizedek had just spoken to him:

“I raise my hand to the Lord, the Most High God, Creator of heaven and earth, and vow 23 that I will take nothing belonging to you, not even a thread or the strap of a sandal. That way you can never say, ‘It is I who made Abram rich.’ 24 I will take nothing except compensation for what the young men have eaten. As for the share of the men who went with me—Aner, Eshcol, and Mamre—let them take their share” (Genesis 14:22b-24, emphasis mine).

Since the God of Abram was “Creator of heaven and earth,” and since God had promised to prosper him, Abram would not allow this pagan king to prosper him. His blessing must come from God. Abram gave tithes to the king of Salem, but took no gifts from the king of Sodom. We should learn from this that the giving and receiving of money is a very significant matter in the Bible.

It would seem that from a purely business point of view, Abram had made two very serious mistakes in chapters 13 and 14. First, he had failed to claim the better land and had given it instead to Lot. Second, he refused to accept gifts from the hand of a grateful king. But in so doing Abraham reveals that he has put his trust in God, and that he truly believes the promises of God expressed in the Abrahamic Covenant. No earthly king was going to take the credit for prospering Abram, thereby taking glory that belonged to God.

Divine Affirmation and Clarification

Genesis 15:1-21

Chapter 15 begins with these words from God to Abram: “Fear not.” It may seem as though Abram was fearless, but God’s words indicate otherwise. What was it that Abram feared? For one thing, he may very well have feared retaliation from the kings he had defeated. In 1 Kings 20, we read how Israel defeated the armies of Ben Hadad, king of Syria. After their victory, God warned the king of Israel that Ben Hadad would return the next year to retaliate against him. Ben Hadad restaged the battle man for man, horse for horse, and chariot for chariot. He would not allow himself to think that he could be defeated. He wanted revenge. Abram may have expected the same retaliation from the kings he had defeated.

Abram’s fears seem to go beyond these heathen kings, however. He is painfully aware of the fact that he has not yet begotten a son, as God had promised. His only “heir” at that moment in time was the son of one of his servants, Eliezer of Damascus. God graciously and tenderly encourages Abram at this moment of fear. Had Abram confessed to the king of Sodom that his God was “Creator of heaven and earth” (verse 22)? That He was, and now the “Creator of heaven and earth,” Maker of the stars, tells Abram that his “heir” will come from his own body (verse 4), and that his descendants will be more numerous than the stars of the heavens. The One who could call stars without number into existence can surely call descendants for Abram into existence, without number.

Verse 6 describes Abram’s response – he believed God. He believed God’s promise of a son and of countless descendants through him. God reckoned his faith (not any works he had done) as righteousness. God did not stop here; He went on to reassure Abram concerning the land that He would give to him, for this too was a part of the Abrahamic Covenant. Abram wanted assurance from God that He would indeed give him this land. One would think that if Abram believed God for a son, he could also believe God for this land. God did not rebuke Abram; instead, God gave Him reassurance by formalizing his covenant. He had Abram kill a heifer, a goat, a ram, a turtledove and a young pigeon, dividing these in half, except for the birds (15:9-11). As I understand what took place here, this was not a sacrifice of worship; indeed, it was not a sacrifice at all. We do not even read of a fire, nor do we find the term “sacrifice” employed. Abram even had to shoo the birds away, because they wanted to eat on the carcasses. This was the ritual by which men entered into covenant with each other. The parties entering into the covenant would cut the animals in two, and then both would apparently pass between the parts, signifying that the covenant was conditional, that it was binding only if both parties kept their commitments. In this ritual, only God passed between the animal halves, signifying that this was an unconditional covenant, dependent only on His faithfulness.

As God passed between the halves of the animals, He put Abram into a deep sleep, and in this sleep, he had a vision of what the future held for his descendants. Abram had a deep sense of terror, not only due to his being in the presence of the Holy God, but perhaps also because of his vision of the suffering of his descendants. God assured Abram that his descendants would possess the land, but that this would not happen quickly. They would first endure slavery and oppression in an unnamed foreign land for 400 years, but afterward they would come out with many possessions. Abram was told that he would die before the promise of God was fulfilled, but his descendants would surely possess the land. The sins of the Amorites who presently occupied the land were not yet complete. God would give them time, but in this time, their sins would only increase. Then, when their sins had fully developed, God would bring about divine judgment through Abram’s descendants.

After the sun had set and it was dark, a smoking firepot and a flaming torch passed between the animal parts. It was by means of this official ceremony that God’s covenant with Abram was ratified. Other than the covenant God made with Noah, this is the next time the word covenant is used. Technically, I suppose, we might call Genesis 12:1-3 a promise, and this a formal covenant. God now informs Abram as to which peoples and which lands He will give him. These lands were described more generally in 13:14-18, but now the peoples who are to be replaced are named (Genesis 15:18-21).

In addition to the added clarification and confirmation God has given in the events of Genesis 15, there is a new disclosure, which bears directly on Abram’s concerns. God is in no rush to fulfill His promises. He has just informed Abram that while the land of Canaan will become the possession of his descendants, it will not be for another 400 years or so. Abram is uneasy because God has not yet given him a son; God is making it clear that the eternal God is never in a hurry. Why should He be? After all, He has all the time in the world.

The Testing of Abram Through Sarai

Genesis 16

God had now made it clear that Abram’s promised “seed” would be the product of his own body, and not that of another (15:4). Abram is now challenged to produce a son, but not by means of Sarai. Amazing as it may seem this was not Abram’s idea, but Sarai’s. She wanted a son so badly she was willing to employ a known and accepted remedy of her culture. She could give Abram her maid, Hagar, and by this means, Sarai could have a son. As soon as the child was born, it would be Sarai’s son, not Hagar’s.

Sarai’s reasoning is far from godly. She is painfully aware that she has not been able to conceive. More than this, she knows that it is God who has prevented her from bearing a son to her husband. Her proposition to Abram seems like a pretty blatant attempt to circumvent God’s will. If God has kept her from having a son through her own conception, then she will have a son another way – but not really God’s way. She had an Egyptian maid named Hagar, Moses tells us. The fact that she was an Egyptian does not seem incidental, because Moses repeats this in verse 3. Was this one of the consequences of Abram’s sojourn in Egypt? Was Hagar part of the dowry gift from Pharaoh? Perhaps.

Sarai urged Abram to take Hagar, and to produce a son through her. Then Moses tells us “Abram did what Sarai told him.” Literally the text reads, “Abram listened to the voice of Sarai” (16:2). These words sound all too familiar:62

But to Adam he said,
Because you obeyed your wife63  
and ate from the tree about which I commanded you,
‘You must not eat from it,’
cursed is the ground thanks to you;
in painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life” (Genesis 3:17, emphasis mine).

Verse 3 inclines me to think that Abram did not immediately do as Sarai asked. Moses tells us that after Abram and Sarai had lived in the land of Canaan ten years, Abram took Hagar as a wife. Does this mean that Sarai nagged Abram about this long enough that he finally “caved in” and did what she demanded? Perhaps so. It does seem quite clear that taking Hagar as a wife was not an act of faith. Abram did not listen to God, and wait patiently; he listened to Sarai, and took Hagar as a wife. It would seem that Abram finally convinced himself that God had not actually said that it was he and Sarai who would bear this promised son, but that the boy would come from Abram’s body.

Once Hagar knew that she was pregnant, her relationship with Sarai changed dramatically. Hagar now looked upon Sarai with disdain, and Sarai knew it. Sarai did not accept responsibility for insisting that Abram take Hagar; instead, she blamed him. Abram once again caves in to Sarai’s pressure, and tells his wife that she may deal with Hagar as she pleases (16:6). Sarai made Hagar’s life miserable, to the point that she finally ran away. The angel of the Lord sought her out, because it was not yet time for her to leave Abram and Sarai. The angel promised Hagar that her son would become great (and that he would live east of his brothers). He told Hagar that her son would be a constant thorn in the flesh of Abram’s other offspring, and this seemed to give her a measure of satisfaction. The angel also told Hagar that she must return home and submit to Sarai as her mistress. That was the hard part. Hagar came to see God in a different light, in a more personal way. He was the God who saw her sorrow, the God who cared.

The Sign of Abram’s Faith

Genesis 17

Abraham was 86 years old at the time Ishmael was born (16:16). Thirteen years pass between the events of chapter 16 and the beginning of chapter 17. Ishmael is now a teenager. I have little doubt that over those 13 years Abram has become convinced that Ishmael is the promised “seed,” that he is the one through whom he and Sarai will have countless descendants. I am also certain that Abram has become deeply attached to Ishmael and loves him very much.

Abram is now 99 years old, and any hope of having another son by Sarai seems vain. The Lord appeared to Abram, to reiterate His covenant promises to him:

1 When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, “I am the Sovereign God. Walk before me and be blameless. 2 Then I will confirm my covenant between me and you, and I will give you a multitude of descendants.” 3 Abram bowed down with his face to the ground, and God spoke to him, saying, 4 “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of a multitude of nations. 5 No longer will your name be Abram. Instead, your name will be Abraham, because I will make you the father of a multitude of nations. 6 I will make you extremely fruitful. I will make nations of you, and kings will descend from you. 7 I will confirm my covenant as a perpetual covenant between me and you. It will extend to your descendants after you throughout their generations. I will be your God and the God of your descendants after you. 8 I will give the whole land of Canaan—the land where you are residing—to you and your descendants after you as a permanent possession. I will be their God” (Genesis 17:1-8).

Though Abram doesn’t yet know it, the time for the birth of the promised child is drawing near. God once again reaffirms His covenant with Abram. He reveals Himself as El Shaddai. So far as I can tell, this is the first time this name for God is used in Genesis, though not the last (see Genesis 28:3; 35:11; 43:14; 48:3; 49:25; see also Exodus 6:3). He is the all-powerful, all sufficient, sovereign God. God commands Abram to “walk before me” and to be “blameless.” God promises to establish His covenant with Abram, and to multiply his descendants greatly. Abram fell on his face, and God talked with him. What a privilege Abram had to communicate directly with God in this manner, in a manner similar to the way God talked with Moses (see Exodus 33:11). Surely Moses could identify with Abram here.

To emphasize the fact that Abram would become the father of a multitude, God changed his name from Abram (exalted father) to Abraham (father of a multitude). The covenant that God had made with Abraham was an everlasting covenant, one that would be established with Abraham’s descendants. These descendants would possess the land as God had promised earlier in chapter 15. The sign of the covenant between God and Abraham was that of circumcision. This was to be observed by Abraham, and by his descendants. Hebrew boys were to be circumcised on their eighth day. The male organ of reproduction was to set the Israelites apart. As my former Hebrew professor, Dr. Bruce Waltke, used to say, “Every time an Israelite man had sex, he was reminded of his unique identity and calling.” Only those who were circumcised were regarded as being a part of the covenant community, and a participant in the covenant blessings.

God not only spoke concerning Abraham and his male descendants, He spoke also regarding Sarai. It was not just Abraham who would be the father of the promised child; Abraham and Sarah would be this child’s parents. And so God changed Sarai’s name to Sarah (princess). She and Abraham would become the parents of a kingly line. Abraham laughed because this promise of a child was so incredible. Surely God meant for Ishmael to be the promised seed … (verse 18). “No,” God said, “he and Sarah would have a son and his name would be Isaac” (verse 19). It is with Isaac that God would establish His covenant. Ishmael would be blessed, but he was not the son of promise. This promised child, Isaac, was to be born at the same time the following year (17:21). In obedience to God’s command, Abraham was circumcised at the age of 99, as was Ishmael and all Abraham’s household (17:22-27).

I have to smile to myself as I read the 17th chapter of Genesis. Moses must have been humbled by writing this account because it plainly requires every Israelite to be circumcised. Moses wrote that when God instructed Abraham to be circumcised, and to circumcise his sons and household, he did so immediately. It was not so with Moses, as he knew all to well:

24 Now on the way, at a place where they stopped for the night, the Lord met Moses and sought to kill him. 25 But Zipporah took a flint knife, cut off the foreskin of her son and touched it to Moses’ feet, and said, “Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me.” 26 So the Lord let him alone. (At that time she said, “A bridegroom of blood,” referring to the circumcision.) (Exodus 4:24-26)

Lessons for Israel and for Saints Today

Abraham had always been a hero to the Israelites. I think this account is intended to put Abraham’s life into perspective. Abraham was not a perfect man, and initially he is not a giant in matters of faith. He did not immediately obey God’s command to leave Ur, but was brought out of Ur by his father. It was not until after the death of his father in Haran that Abraham finally acted upon God’s call. His early years were not marked by flawless faith, but betrayed times of fear and doubt. This is not to say that he had no faith, but only to say that his faith had a lot of room for growth and development.

It was not Abraham’s great faith that explains all the good things that happened in Abraham’s life, but God’s faithfulness to His covenant with Abraham. I believe it helps Christians to realize that there are no super heroes in the Bible, except for One, our Lord Himself. The rest were, as James puts it, “men of like passions,” men like ourselves (James 5:17). It was only through time and troubles that Abraham grew in his faith to become the man of faith that we see late in his life, and that we would like to emulate. Sanctification is never instant; it takes time, and troubles (see James 1:2-4).

The Israelites of Moses’ day were informed by chapter 15 that the time of their suffering in Egypt was by divine design. God had purposed their slavery and suffering, for their good, and for His glory. It was a time when the Israelites were becoming great in number (yet without being racially contaminated by intermarriage with the Canaanites). It was a time when God was allowing the sins of the Canaanites to fully ripen, to the point where judgment was required. I think that Moses wrote these chapters in a way that the Israelites would see the connection between Abram’s sojourn in Egypt and Israel’s later sojourn. Our times of suffering are no accident, but a matter of divine design.

There is a lesson for us here regarding the way to blessing. From the Garden of Eden onward, man has always been tempted to seek his own good his own way. Blessing comes from trusting God and obeying His commands. Abram sought to find safety and security in the land of Egypt, and it was only due to the divine intervention of God that he did not lose his life. Abram listened to the voice of his wife, rather than to the voice of God, and he suffered the painful consequences of having a son by Hagar. Lot felt that he was seeking his own best interests when he chose the better land, and left the rest to Abram. Lot, too, suffered for his folly, when the invading kings kidnapped him. He is to suffer even more in the coming chapters of Genesis.

Our text underscores the fact that God is in no hurry to achieve His purposes. He did not immediately give the land to Abraham, but it would be the possession of his descendants, after 400 years of slavery. He did not immediately give Abraham the son that He promised. He waited until it was “too late,” humanly speaking, so that it would be apparent this son was a gift of God. He did not give Abraham instant, fully developed faith. God called him and led him through various trials and tribulations, so that his faith would grow over time.

The corollary to the fact that God is in no hurry is that men must learn to wait patiently for God to fulfill His promises. Abraham had to wait for God’s judgment upon the Canaanites. Abraham had to wait for a son, and for the land to be his possession, through his descendants. Israel, too, needed to learn patience and endurance. That is what adversity will do for us, if we endure it in faith (James 1:2-4).

Abraham can teach us a great deal about humility. He did not put his own interests above those of Lot. He gave Lot the choice of which land in which he would settle. He risked his life to save Lot’s. Abraham was a man who learned to get ahead God’s way – not by seeking his own best interests at the expense of others, but by putting the interests of others ahead of his own.

We learn from Abraham that men ought to be the leaders in their homes and not to abdicate their responsibilities as leaders. Like Adam, Abraham listened to the voice of his wife, following her into the painful path of disobedience by taking Hagar as his wife. (From this, the Israelites were given an illustration of the danger of marrying foreign wives – see Deuteronomy 7:1-6). Men are not to be autocrats, who ignore the wisdom of their wives, but neither are they are not to allow themselves to be pressured by their wives into doing what they know to be wrong.

Abraham is an example of both faith and fear. In faith, he left Haran and moved to Canaan. In faith, Abraham believed God’s promises. But when Abraham acted out of fear, difficult times followed. It was out of fear, not faith, that Abraham went to Egypt. It was out of fear that Abraham (a prophet – see Genesis 20:7) deceived the Egyptians, including Pharaoh, about the true identity of his wife. It is often out of fear that we lie, because it takes faith to tell the truth.

Abraham is one of the early examples of the truth that God chooses the weak and foolish things of this world to amaze the wise:

26 Think about the circumstances of your call, brothers and sisters. Not many were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were members of the upper class. 27 But God chose what the world thinks foolish to shame the wise, and God chose what the world thinks weak to shame the strong. 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, what is regarded as nothing, to set aside what is regarded as something, 29 so that no one can boast in his presence (1 Corinthians 1:26-29).

As I read the story of Abraham, I see that God did not choose him for his courage, or his intelligence, or his standing in the community. God sovereignly chose Abraham out of his weaknesses, rather than his strengths. Abraham was a God-made man. He was a man who faced the same trials and temptations that we experience. The good news is that this man came to be a giant in faith. As he grew in his faith, so can we, by God’s grace.

One of the most encouraging truths we find in this passage is that sin never thwarts the purposes of God. There are some who think that God is dependent upon our faithfulness, and that when we fail, God’s purposes will fail as well. This simply is not true. God is able to accomplish His purposes through man’s disobedience and failures, as well as through man’s obedience. Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden of Eden, but God had already purposed to bring about the redemption of fallen men. Because of man’s sin, God’s grace can now be seen in all its splendor. Abraham sought refuge in Egypt, where he and Sarah lied about their relationship. But God’s purposes were not frustrated. The nation Israel would fail many times in the wilderness, but God’s purposes and promises were fulfilled, in spite of their failures.

As I have thought about this comforting truth (that man’s sin cannot thwart God’s purposes), it occurred to me that it goes beyond this. God does not merely “fix” the things that men break; God makes them better than they were before. Think about the fall of man in the Garden of Eden, for example. Adam and Eve lived in a lovely garden, where sin was (as yet) unknown. They were created in God’s image. They were without sin in the beginning, but then fell into sin, with all its contamination and corruption. But when God finishes with man, he will live in a heavenly city, with a much better garden. There will be a new heaven and a new earth, and this will be a better one. The sins of the saints will be forgiven and forgotten, and they will possess the righteousness of Christ. God turns our tragedies into triumph, our bungling into blessings. This is not an excuse for sloppiness or for sin, because sin has painful earthly consequences. But in the end, our failures don’t frustrate God’s purposes and promises; they are the occasion for His power and grace to be magnified.

Finally, our text provides us with an excellent example of progressive revelation. God did not disclose the totality of the Abrahamic Covenant in one revelation. God spread out this revelation over a number of years, adding details and content to it little by little. Abram was first promised many descendants (12:2), then a son born of his own body (15:4), and finally a son born of he and Sarah (17:15-19). It was 24 years before Abraham was finally made aware that the promised child would be born of both he and his wife Sarah. Initially, Abram was told that God would give him the land of Canaan (12:2, 7), but it was only later that he learned that his descendants would not possess it until they had been enslaved in a foreign land for 400 years (15:12-21).

In the Bible, God discloses His plans and purposes to mankind a portion at a time. This process is known as progressive revelation. Now that God has spoken finally and fully in His Son (Hebrews 1:1-4), we have the sum total of divine revelation in our hands – the Bible. I believe that while we possess all of God’s Word, we do not comprehend it all at once. In this sense, revelation is still being disclosed to us progressively. The Holy Spirit is the One who enlightens our hearts and minds, so that we may grasp the revelation of God (see, for example, 1 Corinthians 2:6-16). He reveals certain truths to us as we have need for them. This is why we must constantly read and reread the Word of God. Almost every time we do so, we will see something new. It is not that this truth was not there before, but only that we did not see it before. We must come to the Word of God as the psalmist did in Psalm 119, with a prayer and the expectation that God will “open our eyes to behold wondrous things from His word” (see Psalm 119:18).

In our time of worship that will follow this message, we are going to celebrate our Lord’s death, as we do every week. Some people think that remembering our Lord in this way is needlessly repetitive and boring. It is our opportunity to reflect on the New Covenant of our Lord, brought about through the shedding of His precious blood, once for all. Just as it took Abraham a lifetime to begin to grasp the immensity of the Abrahamic Covenant, I believe that it takes us a lifetime (indeed, an eternity!) to grasp the magnitude of the New Covenant. Each time we do so, let us come to the Bible and to the Lord’s Table with a sense of expectation and wonder, seeking to see something more than we have seen before.


59 This is the edited manuscript of a message delivered by Robert L. Deffinbaugh, teacher and elder at Community Bible Chapel, on November 26, 2000.

60 It should be remembered that the wealth the Israelites took from the Egyptians was really only “back pay.”

61 The additional statement in verse 7 that the Canaanites and Perizzites were dwelling in the land has puzzled me. I think, however, that it makes a great deal of sense. Abram did not yet possess this land. When he arrived, the Canaanites were in the land (12:6). They were still there when Abram and Lot returned from Egypt (13:7). This means that Abram and Lot were living in Canaan at the generosity and favor of the Canaanites. The land not only needed to support the cattle of the Canaanites, but also of Abram and Lot. They were overcrowded, not just because the servants of Abram and Lot were competing for grazing lands for their livestock, but because the Canaanites who owned it were using it as well.

62 In Genesis 21:12, God told Abram to listen to Sarai regarding Ishmael. This implies that when Abram listened to Sarai earlier, it was not in obedience to God.

63 Literally, “Because you listened to the voice of your wife.”

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