Character Study—Abraham’s Covenant, part 2, Blessing or Curse?

Character Study—Abraham’s Covenant, part 2, Blessing or Curse?

Continuing my character study of Abraham, I’m picking up in Genesis, chapter 17. Back in Chapter 15, God made a covenant where God promised to give Abraham a son “of his own issue,” that he would be great, his name would be great, his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in heaven, and God would give all the land of Canaan to his descendants. God appears to Abraham again in chapter 17.

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.”

(Gen 17:1-2 NRS)
map of near east in time of patriarchs

The last time the LORD appeared to Abram, he was 75 years old. Now, he is 99. There has been an interesting development in between. He has had a son of his own issue, as God promised, but not by his wife. Ten years after that covenant and promise, Sarai still had borne no children. She told Abram to go in to her handmaid, Hagar, saying, “It may be that I shall obtain children by her” (16:2). He did, and she did.

Hagar had a son named Ishmael. The slave girl gave Abram a son, but his own wife could not. That led to the slave girl lording over her mistress. If you think this sounds like The Handmaid’s Tale, you’re right. Margaret Atwood got that story from stories like this in the Bible. Yes, I used the plural, “stories.” There are more. But right now, what concerns us is Abram and Sarai, because they still have not had a child together. And it looks like that ship has sailed, because they may have had an active sex life into their eighties, but it is over now (Gen 18:11-12). Sarah has passed menopause. So what is God doing, appearing to Abram again, after twenty-four years, and talking about making Abram exceedingly numerous?

Another thing. Why is God saying I will make my covenant between me and you? God already made a covenant, with the promise of numerous descendants, in chapter 15. This is one of those moments that make some scholars think there were two traditions about the origins of God’s covenant with Abraham. You can make an argument for it, but you can also make an argument that the rivalry between Sarai and Hagar required God to appear again and clarify exactly what God meant. He was supposed to have a child with Sarai. But if Abram is ninety-nine years old, that makes Sarai ninety. And God is going to talk now about them having a son together? Sounds like God should have clarified this sooner.

Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you.

“I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now an alien, all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding; and I will be their God.”

 (Gen 17:3-8 NRS)

Again, God promises Abram he will have many descendants, so many that he will be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. God promises again to give the land of Canaan to his descendants. And his descendants will inherit the promises of this covenant. Sounds very similar to what God promised in chapter 15, but there’s more this time.

I will make you exceedingly fruitful. This is going to be very important if he expects Abram to have a son at ninety-nine years of age.

No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. This is why we call him Abraham, not Abram. God either giving a name or changing a name is a motif we see a few times in the Bible. A person’s name had great significance in the ancient world. So for God to give someone a new name was almost like being born again.

When God gives someone a name, whether it’s a newborn baby, a man, or woman, the name has meaning. It says something significant about the essence of their identity. Abram meant “exalted father.” That could be a good name for a man who needed to bear sons. But that had not been good enough. People must have started thinking of it as an honorary name, not literally. With Abraham, God takes the promise of fatherhood up a notch, “Father of a multitude.”

Abram must have thought, “Abram can’t have children. Abram is ninety-nine. Abram’s body is as good as dead as far as being able to procreate.”

This was like God saying, “Forget about Abram. I have made you Abraham, “father of a multitude.” That is what you will be called from now on.”

“So you’re promising I will be the ‘Father of a Multitude’? How are you going to do that?”

“The same way I created the heavens and the earth. By speaking it.”

God is making the same promises to Abraham as in Chapter 15. But this time, God is doubling down on it. God gave him a new name, a name that says he will be exceedingly fruitful, the father of a multitude of nations. From now on, anytime someone says, “Father of a Multitude,” Abraham will say, “Yes?” So far, he does not seem to be weakening in faith (as Paul said, Rom 4:19).

What do you mean by circumcised?

I really wonder how Abraham reacted to what God said next. God tells him to put the mark of this covenant in his own body.

God said to Abraham, “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you.

“Throughout your generations every male among you shall be circumcised when he is eight days old, including the slave born in your house and the one bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring. Both the slave born in your house and the one bought with your money must be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant.

“Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”

(Gen 17:9-14 NRS)

“Are you serious, God? Can’t we split some animals in half like last time?” I doubt he was enthusiastic about this, but he obeyed. It’s interesting that the part of Abraham’s body that was “as good as dead” is exactly where God tells him to cut the mark of this covenant. But this might have given Abraham the psychological boost he needed to believe that what was dead could come back to life.

So God has made a promise to overcome Abraham’s physical limitations. But if God wants Abraham to have a child by his barren, ninety-year-old wife, he’d better address Sarai’s physical limitations as well.

God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.”

(Gen 17:15-16 NRS)

Just like with Abraham, God gives Sarai a new name. That is why we call her Sarah today. Sarai meant “Princess,” and so did Sarah, according to my study notes. It appears there was no difference in meaning, but I think there must have been a subtle difference that got lost in translation. And I think whatever the difference was, somehow it addressed her infertility.

Last time, God told him he would have a son by “his own issue” but did not say how or by who. He had a son, Ishmael, by his wife’s slave, Hagar. Until now, whatever hope he had for his descendants appeared to be tied to Ishmael. Abraham even says, “Oh that Ishmael might live in your sight” (v. 18). For whatever reason, Ishmael does not seem to be living up to the expectations of being the son of a man in covenant with God.

This time God gets specific. The heirs to Abraham’s covenant are not just Abraham’s issue. They are of Abraham’s issue and Sarah’s womb. Let’s see if Abraham is this paragon of indomitable belief as Paul’s told us.

Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, “Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?”

 (Gen 17:17 NRS)

Okay, that doesn’t sound like he “did not weaken in faith.” He reacted the same way we would have. “God, you have got to be kidding.” They were not only infertile. They weren’t even having sex anymore (Gen 18:12). How are they supposed to have a child? But God tells Abraham this is real.

God said, “No, but your wife Sarah shall bear you a son, and you shall name him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him.

(Gen 17:19 NRS)

I can never read this without thinking about my grandparents, so I’m going off on a personal tangent now.

Off on a tangent

My grandparents both died at 93. The last several years, my grandfather had dementia. When you walked in to see him, you never knew what you were walking into. He had about 10 different soap operas running in his head, and you didn’t which one you were in at the moment. One time, he said to my mother, “This woman told me she’s pregnant, and I’m the father.”

She’s like, Oh Lord, what am I supposed to do with this? “Well, you know, this is bad.”

“I know!”

“Rosa (my grandmother) is gonna be really mad.”

“I know!”

This is not real, of course. But you couldn’t tell him that. So my mother says, “Daddy, how old are you?”

“Eighty-nine.”

“Do you think this woman is pulling your leg?”

(Gasp!) “I never thought of that.”

He was eighty-nine, and the idea that he could have impregnated a woman was utterly ridiculous. The idea that he could have impregnated his eighty-nine year old wife was utterly ridiculous. The idea that she could have become pregnant at eighty-nine by any man was utterly ridiculous. And even if they could, that doesn’t mean they should. If he had got her pregnant, that would not have been a blessing. That would have been a curse.

Back to the Text

I really want to go in here now and tell God to stop. Just because you can make Abraham and Sarah parents at this insane age doesn’t mean you should. But Abraham and Sarah were okay with it. In this case, their opinions count more than mine. But I wouldn’t blame Abraham if he was thinking, “Ok, you keep making this promise of a son and many descendants. I have one son, but you still want me to have another? With Sarah? I’m ninety-nine now. She’s ninety. She’s been through menopause. If this was so important, why didn’t you make it happen sooner? It’s time to put up or shut up.”

God means for Abraham to have a son through his wife, Sarah. He won’t need a surrogate. And God waited until Abraham was ninety-nine and Sarah was ninety to make this absolutely clear. No wonder Abraham laughed. Just as God renamed Abraham and Sarah, God gives a name to their yet unborn son, Isaac. Isaac, by the way, means “he laughs.” This son will remind Abraham that he laughed at God’s promise.

Did he weaken in faith?

So was Paul correct when he said this in Romans?

He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. Therefore his faith “was reckoned to him as righteousness.”

 (Rom 4:19-22 NRS)

Paul actually conflated the two episodes of Genesis, chapters 15 and 17, as if they were one. It was in Genesis 15 when Abraham’s faith “was reckoned to him as righteousness” (Gen 15:6). His body was not “as good as dead” yet. We know because he had a child by Hagar. Genesis 17 is when he was “as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old).” In chapter 15, he “did not waver concerning the promise of God,” but he was seventy-five, not a hundred. When he was a hundred, he did waver concerning the promise of God (Gen 17:18).

No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. It’s not that he had no doubt. Clearly, he did when you read the accounts in Genesis. But he believed the promise of God, because “he was fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.” The author of Hebrews says it this way: “…he considered him faithful who had promised” (Heb 11:11).

He trusted that if God made a promise, God would keep it. That is how he was able to enact God’s promise. He did not believe in his body or his procreative ability. He trusted God would keep his promise. This is what it means when it says his faith was reckoned to him as righteousness. It wasn’t about what he believed. It was about who he trusted.

What about the other son?

There was a lot of bad blood between Abraham’s wife and his “Baby Momma.” His son so far has been a disappointment. This text doesn’t say exactly how Ishmael behaved, but he wasn’t walking before the Lord (17:18). I suppose it wasn’t easy on him knowing he was his father’s Plan B. Or having two women claiming to be his mother and fighting all the time. God lets Abraham know God won’t abandon his firstborn son.

“As for Ishmael, I have heard you; I will bless him and make him fruitful and exceedingly numerous; he shall be the father of twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation. But my covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this season next year.”

(Gen 17:20-21 NRS)

God did not punish Ishmael for the sins of his parents. God just had a different destiny for him, a destiny apart from Abraham and Sarah. And this time, God told him who should be the mother for his next son and a specific time for the son to be born, at this season next year

Why was it so important for Abraham and Sarah to have a child? They do not know it yet, but Isaac is going to be the channel through which God brings the messiah into the world, so they’d better get busy. Abraham wastes no time circumcising himself, Ishmael, and every male slave of his household, just as God commanded. I imagine after he healed, the flesh between his legs that was “as good as dead” came back to life.

But the situation between Sarah and Hagar deserves more attention. That will be the next character study. And don’t be surprised if you see similarities with June and Serena. “Blessed be the fruit.”

“May the LORD open.”

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