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Bible Commentaries
Genesis 17

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes


7. The sign of circumcision ch. 17

The Lord confirmed His covenant with Abram, 13 years after Ishmael’s birth, by reiterating the promises of descendants and land and by commanding Abram to circumcise all the males in his household. Circumcision thereby became the physical demonstration (sign) of the obedient faith of Abram and his descendants. There are three types of signs in the Old Testament. Some signs were proofs that convinced observers of something (e.g., the Egyptian plagues). Others were certain acts that resembled an announced situation (e.g., acted prophecies). Still others were reminders of something (e.g., the rainbow, circumcision). God further encouraged the patriarch’s faith by changing Abram’s name to Abraham and Sarai’s to Sarah. This was an added confirmation that God would indeed give them innumerable seed as He had promised.

"This chapter is a watershed in the Abraham story. The promises to him have been unfolded bit by bit, gradually building up and becoming more detailed and precise, until here they are repeated and filled out in a glorious crescendo in a long and elaborate divine speech. From this point in Genesis, divine speeches become rarer and little new content is added to the promises, but the fulfillment of these promises becomes more visible." [Note: Wenham, Genesis 16-50, p. 16.]

Really there are five divine speeches: Genesis 17:1 b, Genesis 17:2, Genesis 17:4-8, Genesis 17:9-14, Genesis 17:15-16, and Genesis 17:19-2. The third speech is the center of the chiastic structure of this chapter, which may also be read as two parallel panels, namely, 1-14 and 15-27.

"The chapter is more of a theological treatise than the typical Abraham story . . ." [Note: Mathews, Genesis 11:27-50:26, p. 199.]

Abram undoubtedly assumed that Ishmael would be the promised heir until God told him that Sarai would bear his heir herself (Genesis 17:16). That revelation is the most important feature of this chapter. God gave the name changes and circumcision to confirm the covenant promise of an heir and to strengthen Abram’s faith.

Verses 1-8

Thirteen years after the birth of Ishmael (Genesis 16:16) God spoke to Abram again (the fifth revelation; Genesis 17:1). God called Himself by a new name: El Shaddai (the Almighty God). This was appropriate in view of the thing God proceeded to reveal to Abram that He would do. It would require supernatural power.

The references to the "covenant" in this chapter have caused some confusion. The Abrahamic Covenant (ch. 15) is in view (Genesis 17:4; Genesis 17:7; Genesis 17:11; Genesis 17:19; Genesis 17:21) but also the outward sign of that covenant that was the covenant of circumcision (Genesis 17:2; Genesis 17:9-10; Genesis 17:13-14; cf. Acts 7:8). Thus Moses used the word "covenant" with two different references here, though throughout, the Abrahamic Covenant is in view. Perhaps visualizing the covenant of circumcision as a smaller circle within the larger circle of the Abrahamic Covenant will help. Whereas the Abrahamic Covenant was unconditional, the covenant of circumcision depended on Abram’s obedience (Genesis 17:1-2). God would bless Abram as Abram obeyed God by circumcising his household. This blessing would be in the form of multiplying Abram’s descendants "exceedingly," even more than God had already promised. The rite of circumcision was to be a continuing sign of the Abrahamic Covenant to all of Abram’s descendants.

God also gave Abram and Sarai the added assurance that they would have a multitude of descendants by changing their names. [Note: See note on 1:4.] He changed the name "Abram" (high or exalted father) to "Abraham" (father of a multitude), and he changed the name "Sarai" (my princess [perhaps a reference to her noble descent]) to "Sarah" (royal princess [from whom kings would come, Genesis 17:16]). Abraham’s name emphasized the number of his seed. Sarah’s evidently stressed the royal nature of their line (Genesis 17:6; Genesis 17:16; Genesis 17:20; cf. Genesis 12:2).

"The choice of the word be fruitful in Genesis 17:6 and multiply in Genesis 17:2 seems intended to recall the blessing of all humankind in Genesis 1:29: ’Be fruitful and multiply and fill the land,’ and its reiteration in Genesis 9:1: ’Be fruitful and multiply and fill the land.’ Thus the covenant with Abraham was the means through which God’s original blessing would again be channeled to all humankind." [Note: Sailhamer, The Pentateuch . . ., p. 157.]

Circumcision was "an everlasting covenant" (Genesis 17:7) because it marked the eternal salvation of the person who believed God as Abraham did, not because God wanted people to practice it forever. [Note: Mathews, Genesis 11:27-50:26, p. 203.] God has not commanded circumcision of the flesh for Christians. Some Christians in the reformed traditions of Protestantism regard baptism as what God requires of us today in place of circumcision. They practice infant baptism believing that this rite brings the infant into the "covenant community" (i.e., the church) and under God’s care in a special sense. Some believe baptism saves the infant. Others believe it only makes the infant a recipient of special grace. The Bible is quite clear, however, that baptism is a rite that believers should practice after they trust Christ as their Savior as a testimony to their faith. There are parallels between circumcision and baptism, but God did not intend baptism to replace circumcision. God did command circumcision of the Israelites in the Mosaic Law, but He has not commanded it of Christians. We do not live under the Mosaic Law (Romans 4:10-13; Romans 6:14-15; Romans 7:1-4; Romans 10:4).

Verses 9-14

God wanted Abraham to circumcise his male servants as well as his children. The reason was that the Abrahamic Covenant would affect all who had a relationship with Abraham. Consequently they needed to bear the sign of that covenant. The person who refused circumcision was "cut off" from his people (Genesis 17:14) because by refusing it he was repudiating God’s promises to Abraham.

"This expression undoubtedly involves a wordplay on cut. He that is not himself cut (i.e., circumcised) will be cut off (i.e., ostracized). Here is the choice: be cut or be cut off." [Note: Hamilton, p. 473.]

There are two main views as to the meaning of being "cut off" from Israel. Some scholars hold that it means excommunication from the covenant community and its benefits. [Note: J. Morganstern, "The Book of the Covenant, Part III-The Huqqim," Hebrew Union College Annual 8-9 (1931-32):1-150; and Anthony Phillips, Ancient Israel’s Criminal Law, pp. 28-32.] However there is also evidence that points to execution, sometimes by the Israelites, but usually by God, and premature death. [Note: Keil and Delitzsch, 1:224; Hamilton, p. 474; M. Tsevat, "Studies in the Book of Samuel," Hebrew Union College Annual 32 (1961):195-201; M. Weinfeld, Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomic School, pp. 241-43; W. Horbury, "Extirpation and excommunication," Vetus Testamentum 35 (1985):16-18, 31-34; and Wenham, Genesis 16-50, p. 25.] The threat of being cut off hung over the Israelite offender as the threat of a terminal disease, that might end one’s life at any time, does today.

The person who refused to participate in circumcision demonstrated his lack of faith in God by his refusal. Thus he broke the covenant of circumcision (Genesis 17:14).

Only males underwent circumcision, of course. In the patriarchal society of the ancient Near East people considered that a girl or woman shared the condition of her father if she was single, or her husband if she was married.

Circumcision was a fitting symbol for several reasons.

1. It would have been a frequent reminder to every circumcised male of God’s promises involving seed.

2. It involved the cutting off of flesh. The circumcised male was one who repudiated "the flesh" (i.e., the simply physical and natural aspects of life) in favor of trust in Yahweh and His spiritual promises.

3. It resulted in greater cleanliness of life and freedom from the effects of sin (i.e., disease and death).

Circumcision was not a new rite. The priests in Egypt practiced it as did most of the Canaanites, the Arabs, and the Hurrians (Horites), but in Mesopotamia it was not customary. Later the Edomites, Moabites, and Ammonites practiced it, but the Philistines did not. [Note: See Davis, p. 192; Wenham, Genesis 16-50, pp. 23-24; and J. Sasson, "Circumcision in the Anceint Near East," Journal of Biblical Literature 85 (1966):473-76.] By commanding it of Abraham and his household God was giving further evidence that he would bless the patriarch. Circumcision has hygienic value. One evidence of this is that cancer of the penis has a much higher incidence in uncircumcised males. [Note: Jay D. Fawver and R. Larry Overstreet, "Moses and Preventive Medicine," Bibliotheca Sacra 147:587 (July-September 1990):276.] Circumcision was a rite of passage to adulthood in these cultures. [Note: Kidner, p. 174.] Normally it was practiced on young adults (cf. ch. 34). Circumcising infants was something new.

"Research indicates that other Middle Eastern cultures practiced circumcision . . . However, the Hebrews were unique in that they practiced infant circumcision, which, though medically risky if not properly performed, is less physically and psychologically traumatic than circumcisions performed at an older age." [Note: Fawver and Overstreet, p. 277.]

"Designating the eighth day after birth as the day of circumcision is one of the most amazing specifications in the Bible, from a medical standpoint. Why the eighth day?

"At birth, a baby has nutrients, antibodies, and other substances from his mother’s blood, including her blood-clotting factors, one of them being prothrombin. Prothrombin is dependent on vitamin K for its production. Vitamin K is produced by intestinal bacteria, which are not present in a newborn baby. After birth prothrombin decreases so that by the third day it is only 30 percent of normal. Circumcision on the third day could result in a devastating hemorrhage.

"The intestinal bacteria finally start their task of manufacturing vitamin K, and the prothrombin subsequently begins to climb. On day eight, it actually overshoots to 110 percent of normal, leveling off to 100 percent on day nine and remaining there for the rest of a person’s healthy life. Therefore the eighth day was the safest of all days for circumcision to be performed. On that one day, a person’s clotting factor is at 110 percent, the highest ever, and that is the day God prescribed for the surgical process of circumcision.

"Today vitamin K (Aqua Mephyton) is routinely administered to newborns shortly after their delivery, and this eliminates the clotting problem. However, before the days of vitamin K injections, a 1953 pediatrics textbook recommended that the best day to circumcise a newborn was the eighth day of life. [Note: L. Holt Jr. and R. McIntosh, Holt Pediatrics, pp. 125-26.]

Another writer saw the eighth day as symbolic of completing a cycle of time corresponding to the Creation. [Note: Waltke, Genesis, p. 261.]

Verses 15-21

Abraham’s laugh (Genesis 17:17) may have expressed his incredulity, but it could have been a joyful response to God’s promise. [Note: See Raymond L. Cox, "What Made Abraham Laugh?" Eternity (November 1975), pp. 19-20.] Sarah’s laugh (Genesis 18:15) seems to have arisen from a spirit of unbelief. God did not criticize Abraham for laughing, but He did Sarah when she laughed.

Verses 22-27

The writer’s use of the phrase "the very same day" (Genesis 17:26) points to a momentous day, one of the most important days in human history (cf. Noah’s entry into the ark, Genesis 7:13; and the Exodus, Exodus 12:17; Exodus 12:41; Exodus 12:51).

This fifth revelation from God advanced God’s promises in six particulars.

1. Part of God’s blessing would depend on Abraham’s maintaining the covenant of circumcision, though the Abrahamic Covenant as a whole did not depend on this (Genesis 17:1-2).

2. Many nations would come from Abraham (Genesis 17:4-6).

3. The Abrahamic Covenant would be eternal (Genesis 17:7-8).

4. God would be the God of Abraham’s descendants in a special relationship (Genesis 17:7-8).

5. Sarah herself would bear the promised heir (Genesis 17:16).

6. This is also the first time God identified the Promised Land as Canaan by name (Genesis 17:8).

"Abraham’s experiences should teach us that natural law [barrenness] is no barrier to the purposes and plans for [sic] God." [Note: Davis, p. 193.]

"Thus Abraham and Noah are presented as examples of those who have lived in obedience to the covenant and are thus ’blameless’ before God, because both obeyed God ’as he commanded them’ (Genesis 17:23; cf. Genesis 6:22; Genesis 7:5; Genesis 7:9; Genesis 7:16)." [Note: Sailhamer, The Pentateuch . . ., p. 160.]

Blameless does not mean sinless but with integrity, wholeness of relationship (cf. Genesis 6:9). God requires a sanctified life of those who anticipate His promised blessings.

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Genesis 17". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/genesis-17.html. 2012.
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