Genesis 17


In the ninety-ninth year of Abram's life God again appears to

him, announces his name as GOD ALMIGHTY, and commands him to

walk perfectly before him, 1;

proposes to renew the covenant, 2.

Abram's prostration, 3.

The covenant specified, 4.

Abram's name changed to ABRAHAM, and the reason given, 5.

The privileges of the covenant enumerated, 6-8.

The conditions of the covenant to be observed, not only by

Abraham, but all his posterity, 9.

Circumcision appointed as a sign or token of the covenant, 10, 11.

The age at which and the persons on whom this was to be

performed, 12, 13.

The danger of neglecting this rite, 14.

Sarai's name changed to SARAH, and a particular promise made

to her, 15, 16.

Abraham's joy at the prospect of the performance of a matter

which, in the course of nature, was impossible, 17.

His request for the preservation and prosperity of Ishmael, 18.

The birth and blessedness of Isaac foretold, 19.

Great prosperity promised to Ishmael, 20.

But the covenant to be established not in his, but in Isaac's

posterity, 21.

Abraham, Ishmael and all the males in the family circumcised, 23-27


Verse 1. The Lord appeared to Abram]

See Clarke on Ge 15:1.

I am the Almighty God] ani El shaddai, I am God

all-sufficient; from shadah, to shed, to pour out. I

am that God who pours out blessings, who gives them richly,

abundantly, continually.

Walk before me] hithhallech lephanai, set thyself to

walk-be firmly purposed, thoroughly determined to obey, before me;

for my eye is ever on thee, therefore ever consider that God seeth

thee. Who can imagine a stronger incitement to conscientious,

persevering obedience?

Be thou perfect.] vehyeh thamim, and thou shalt be

perfections, i.e., a together perfect. Be just such as the holy

God would have thee to be, as the almighty God can make thee and

live as the all-sufficient God shall support thee; for he alone

who makes the soul holy can preserve it in holiness. Our blessed

Lord appears to have had these words pointedly in view, Mt 5:48:

εσεσθευμειςτελειοι, ωσπεροεντοιςουρανοιστελειοςεστι. Ye

SHALL BE perfect, as your Father who is in heaven is perfect. But

what does this imply? Why, to be saved from all the power, the

guilt, and the contamination of sin. This is only the negative

part of salvation, but it has also a positive part; to be made

perfect-to be perfect as our Father who is in heaven is perfect,

to be filled with the fulness of God, to have Christ dwelling

continually in the heart by faith, and to be rooted and grounded

in love. This is the state in which man was created, for he was

made in the image and likeness of God. This is the state from

which man fell, for he broke the command of God. And this is the

state into which every human soul must be raised, who would dwell

with God in glory; for Christ was incarnated and died to put away

sin by the sacrifice of himself. What a glorious privilege! And

who can doubt the possibility of its attainment, who believes in

the omnipotent love of God, the infinite merit of the blood of

atonement, and the all-pervading and all-purifying energy of the

Holy Ghost? How many miserable souls employ that time to dispute

and cavil against the possibility of being saved from their sins,

which they should devote to praying and believing that they might

be saved out of the hands of their enemies! But some may say,

"You overstrain the meaning of the term; it signifies only, be

sincere; for as perfect obedience is impossible, God accepts of

sincere obedience." If by sincerity the objection means good

desires, and generally good purposes, with an impure heart and

spotted life, then I assert that no such thing is implied in the

text, nor in the original word; but if the word sincerity be taken

in its proper and literal sense, I have no objection to it.

Sincere is compounded of sine cera, "without wax;" and, applied

to moral subjects, is a metaphor taken from clarified honey, from

which every atom of the comb or wax is separated. Then let it be

proclaimed from heaven, Walk before me, and be SINCERE! purge out

the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump unto God; and thus ye

shall be perfect, as your Father who is in heaven is perfect. This

is sincerity. Reader, remember that the blood of Christ cleanseth

from all sin. Ten thousand quibbles on insulated texts can never

lessen, much less destroy, the merit and efficacy of the great


Verse 3. And Abram fell on his face] The eastern method of

prostration was thus: the person first went down on his knees, and

then lowered his head to his knees, and touched the earth with his

forehead. A very painful posture, but significative of great

humiliation and reverence.

Verse 5. Thy name shall be Abraham] Abram literally

signifies a high or exalted father. Ab-ra-ham differs

from the preceding only in one letter; it has he before the last

radical. Though this may appear very simple and easy, yet the

true etymology and meaning of the word are very difficult to be

assigned. The reason given for the change made in the patriarch's

name is this: For a father of many nations have I made thee,

ab-hamon goyim, "a father of a multitude of nations."

This has led some to suppose that Abraham, is a contraction

for ab-rab-hamon, "the father of a great multitude."

Aben Ezra says the name is derived from abir-hamon,

"a powerful multitude."

Rabbi Solomon Jarchi defines the name cabalistically, and says

that its numeral letters amount to two hundred and forty-eight,

which, says he, is the exact number of the bones in the human

body. But before the he was added, which stands for five,

it was five short of this perfection.

Rabbi Lipman says the he being added as the fourth letter,

signifies that the Messiah should come in the fourth millenary of

the world.

Clarius and others think that the he, which is one of the

letters of the Tetragrammaton, (or word of four letters,

YeHoVaH,) was added for the sake of dignity, God

associating the patriarch more nearly to himself, by thus

imparting to him a portion of his own name.

Having enumerated so many opinions, that of William Alabaster,

in his Apparatus to the Revelation, should not be passed by. He

most wisely says that ab-ram or ab-rom signifies father of the

Romans, and consequently the pope; therefore Abraham was pope the

first! This is just as likely as some of the preceding


From all these learned as well as puerile conjectures we may see

the extreme difficulty of ascertaining the true meaning of the

word, though the concordance makers, and proper name explainers

find no difficulty at all in the case; and pronounce on it as

readily and authoritatively as if they had been in the Divine

council when it was first imposed.

Hottinger, in his Smegma Orientale, supposes the word to be

derived from the Arabic root [Arabic] rahama, which signifies to

be very numerous. Hence [Arabic] ab raham would signify a copious

father or father of a multitude. This makes a very good sense,

and agrees well with the context. Either this etymology or that

which supposes the inserted he to be an abbreviation of the word

hamon, multitude, is the most likely to be the true one. But

this last would require the word to be written, when full,


The same difficulty occurs, Ge 17:15, on the word

Sarai, which signifies my prince or princess, and

Sarah, where the whole change is made by the substitution of a

he for a yod. This latter might be translated princess

in general; and while the former seems to point out her government

in her own family alone, the latter appears to indicate her

government over the nations of which her husband is termed the

father or lord; and hence the promise states that she shall be a

mother of nations, and that kings of people should spring from

her. See Ge 17:15, 16.

Now as the only change in each name is made by the insertion of

a single letter, and that letter the same in both names, I cannot

help concluding that some mystery was designed by its insertion;

and therefore the opinion of Clarius and some others is not to be

disregarded, which supposes that God shows he had conferred a

peculiar dignity on both, by adding to their names one of the

letters of his own: a name by which his eternal power and Godhead

are peculiarly pointed out.

From the difficulty of settling the etymology of these two

names, on which so much stress seems to be laid in the text, the

reader will see with what caution he should receive the lists of

explanations of the proper names in the Old and New Testaments,

which he so frequently meets with, and which I can pronounce to be

in general false or absurd.

Verse 7. An everlasting covenant] berith olam.

See Clarke on Ge 13:15.

Here the word olam is taken in its own proper meaning, as the

words immediately following prove-to be a God unto thee, and thy

seed after thee; for as the soul is to endure for ever, so it

shall eternally stand in need of the supporting power and energy

of God; and as the reign of the Gospel dispensation shall be as

long as sun and moon endure, and its consequences eternal, so must

the covenant be on which these are founded.

Verse 8. Everlasting possession] Here olam appears to be

used in its accommodated meaning, and signifies the completion of

the Divine counsel in reference to a particular period or

dispensation. And it is literally true that the Israelites

possessed the land of Canaan till the Mosaic dispensation was

terminated in the complete introduction of that of the Gospel. But

as the spiritual and temporal covenants are both blended together,

and the former was pointed out and typified by the latter, hence

the word even here may be taken in its own proper meaning, that of

ever-during, or eternal; because the spiritual blessings pointed

out by the temporal covenant shall have no end. And hence it is

immediately added, I will be their God, not for a time, certainly,

but for ever and ever. See Clarke on Ge 21:33.

Verse 10. Every man-child-shall be circumcised.] Those who wish

to invalidate the evidence of the Divine origin of the Mosaic law,

roundly assert that the Israelites received the rite of

circumcision from the Egyptians. Their apostle in this business

is Herodotus, who, lib. ii., p. 116, Edit. Steph. 1592, says: "The

Colchians, Egyptians, and Ethiopians, are the only nations in the

world who have used circumcision απαρχης, from the remotest

period; and the Phoenicians and Syrians who inhabit Palestine

acknowledge they received this from the Egyptians." Herodotus

cannot mean Jews by Phoenicians and Syrians; if he does he is

incorrect, for no Jew ever did or ever could acknowledge this,

with the history of Abraham in his hand. If Herodotus had written

before the days of Abraham, or at least before the sojourning of

the children of Israel in Egypt, and informed us that circumcision

had been practised among them απαρχης, from the beginning, there

would then exist a possibility that the Israelites while

sojourning among them had learned and adopted this rite. But when

we know that Herodotus flourished only 484 years before the

Christian era, and that Jacob and his family sojourned in Egypt

more than 1800 years before Christ, and that all the descendants

of Abraham most conscientiously observed circumcision, and do so

to this day, then the presumption is that the Egyptians received

it from the Israelites, but that it was impossible the latter

could have received it from the former, as they had practised it

so long before their ancestors had sojourned in Egypt.

Verse 11. And it shall be a token] leoth, for a sign of

spiritual things; for the circumcision made in the flesh was

designed to signify the purification of the heart from all

unrighteousness, as God particularly showed in the law itself. See

De 10:16; see also Ro 2:25-29;Col 2:11. And it was

a seal of that righteousness or justification that comes by

faith, Ro 4:11. That some of the Jews had a just notion of its

spiritual intention, is plain from many passages in the Chaldee

paraphrases and in the Jewish writers. I borrow one passage from

the book Zohar, quoted by Ainsworth: "At what time a man is sealed

with this holy seal, (of circumcision,) thenceforth he seeth the

holy blessed God properly, and the holy soul is united to him. If

he be not worthy, and keepeth not this sign, what is written? By

the breath of God they perish, (Job 4:9,) because this seal of

the holy blessed God was not kept. But if he be worthy, and keep

it, the Holy Ghost is not separated from him."

Verse 12. He that is eight days old] Because previously to this

they were considered unclean, Le 12:2,3, and circumcision was

ever understood as a consecration of the person to God. Neither

calf, lamb, nor kid, was offered to God till it was eight days old

for the same reason, Le 22:27.

Verse 13. He that is born in thy house] The son of a servant;

he that is bought with thy money-a slave on his coming into the

family. According to the Jewish writers the father was to

circumcise his son; and the master, the servant born in his house,

or the slave bought with money. If the father or master neglected

to do this, then the magistrates were obliged to see it performed;

if the neglect of this ordinance was unknown to the magistrates,

then the person himself, when he came of age, was obliged to do


Verse 14. The uncircumcised-shall be cut off from his people] By

being cut off some have imagined that a sudden temporal death was

implied; but the simple meaning seems to be that such should have

no right to nor share in the blessings of the covenant, which we

have already seen were both of a temporal and spiritual kind; and

if so, then eternal death was implied, for it was impossible for a

person who had not received the spiritual purification to enter

into eternal glory. The spirit of this law extends to all ages,

dispensations, and people; he whose heart is not purified from sin

cannot enter into the kingdom of God. Reader, on what is thy hope

of heaven founded?

Verse 15. Thou shalt not call her name Sarai, but Sarah]

See Clarke on Ge 17:5.

Verse 16. I will bless her, &c.] Sarah certainly stands at the

head of all the women of the Old Testament, on account of her

extraordinary privileges. I am quite of Calmet's opinion that

Sarah was a type of the blessed Virgin. St. Paul considers her a

type of the New Testament and heavenly Jerusalem; and as all true

believers are considered as the children of Abraham, so all

faithful holy women are considered the daughters of Sarah,

Ga 4:22, 24, 26. See also 1Pe 3:6.

Verse 17. Then Abraham-laughed] I am astonished to find learned

and pious men considering this as a token of Abraham's weakness of

faith or unbelief, when they have the most positive assurance from

the Spirit of God himself that Abraham was not weak but strong in

the faith; that he staggered not at the promise through unbelief,

but gave glory to God, Ro 4:19, 20. It is true the same word is

used, Ge 18:12, concerning Sarah, in whom it was certainly a sign

of doubtfulness, though mixed with pleasure at the thought of the

possibility of her becoming a mother; but we know how possible it

is to express both faith and unbelief in the same way, and even

pleasure and disdain have been expressed by a smile or laugh. By

laughing Abraham undoubtedly expressed his joy at the prospect

of the fulfilment of so glorious a promise; and from this very

circumstance Isaac had his name. yitschak, which we change

into Isaac, signifies laughter; and it is the same word which is

used in the verse before us: Abraham fell on his face,

vaiyitschak, and he laughed; and to the joy which he felt on

this occasion our Lord evidently alludes, Joh 8:56:

Your father Abraham REJOICED to see my day; and he saw it, and

was GLAD. And to commemorate this joy he called his son's name

Isaac. See Clarke on Ge 21:6.

Verse 18. O that Ishmael might live before thee!] Abraham,

finding that the covenant was to be established in another branch

of his family, felt solicitous for his son Ishmael, whom he

considered as necessarily excluded; on which God delivers that

most remarkable prophecy which follows in Ge 17:20, and which

contains an answer to the prayer and wish of Abraham: And as for

Ishmael I have heard thee; so that the object of Abraham's prayer

was, that his son Ishmael might be the head of a prosperous and

potent people.

Verse 20. Twelve princes shall he beget, &c.] See the names of

these twelve princes, Ge 25:12-16. From Ishmael proceeded the

various tribes of the Arabs, called also Saracens by Christian

writers. They were anciently, and still continue to be, a very

numerous and powerful people. "It was somewhat wonderful, and not

to be foreseen by human sagacity," says Bishop Newton, "that a

man's whole posterity should so nearly resemble him, and retain

the same inclinations, the same habits, and the same customs,

throughout all ages! These are the only people besides the Jews

who have subsisted as a distinct people from the beginning, and in

some respects they very much resemble each other 1. The Arabs, as

well as the Jews, are descended from Abraham, and both boast of

their descent from the father of the faithful. 2. The Arabs, as

well as the Jews, are circumcised, and both profess to have

derived this ceremony from Abraham. 3. The Arabs, as well as the

Jews, had originally twelve patriarchs, who were their princes or

governors. 4. The Arabs, as well as the Jews, marry among

themselves, and in their own tribes. 5. The Arabs, as well as the

Jews, are singular in several of their customs, and are standing

monuments to all ages of the exactness of the Divine predictions,

and of the veracity of Scripture history. We may with more

confidence believe the particulars related of Abraham and Ishmael

when we see them verified in their posterity at this day. This is

having, as it were, ocular demonstration for our faith." See Bp.

Newton's Second Dissertation on the Prophecies, and

See Clarke on Ge 16:12.

Verse 21. My covenant will I establish with Isaac] All temporal

good things are promised to Ishmael and his posterity, but the

establishment of the Lord's covenant is to be with Isaac. Hence it

is fully evident that this covenant referred chiefly to spiritual

things-to the Messiah, and the salvation which should be brought

to both Jews and Gentiles by his incarnation, death, and


Verse 22. God went up from Abraham.] Ascended evidently before

him, so that he had the fullest proof that it was no human being,

no earthly angel or messenger, that talked with him; and the

promise of a son in the course of a single year, at this set time

in the next year, Ge 17:21, which had every human probability

against it, was to be the sure token of the truth of all that had

hitherto taken place, and the proof that all that was farther

promised should be fulfilled in its due time. Was it not in

nearly the same way in which the Lord went up from Abraham, that

Jesus Christ ascended to heaven in the presence of his disciples?

Lu 24:51.

Verse 23. And Abraham took Ishmael, &c.] Had not Abraham, his

son, (who was of age to judge for himself,) and all the family,

been fully convinced that this thing was of God, they could not

have submitted to it. A rite so painful, so repugnant to every

feeling of delicacy, and every way revolting to nature, could

never have sprung up in the imagination of man. To this day the

Jews practise it as a Divine ordinance; and all the Arabians do

the same. As a distinction between them and other people it never

could have been designed, because it was a sign that was never to

appear. The individual alone knew that he bore in his flesh

this sign of the covenant, and he bore it by the order of God, and

he knew it was a sign and seal of spiritual blessings, and not the

blessings themselves, though a proof that these blessings were

promised, and that he had a right to them. Those who did not

consider it in this spiritual reference are by the apostle

denominated the concision, Php 3:2, i.e., persons whose flesh was

cut, but whose hearts were not purified.

THE contents of this chapter may be summed up in a few


1. God, in renewing his covenant with Abram, makes an important

change in his and Sarai's name; a change which should ever act

as a help to their faith, that the promises by which God had bound

himself should be punctually fulfilled. However difficult it may

be for us to ascertain the precise import of the change then made,

we may rest assured that it was perfectly understood by both; and

that, as they had received this name from God, they considered it

as placing them in a new relation both to their Maker and to their

posterity. From what we have already seen, the change made in

Abram's name is inscrutable to us; there is something like this in

Re 2:17:

To him that overcometh will I give a white stone, and a NEW

NAME-which no man knoweth, saving he that receiveth it. The full

import of the change made in a soul that enters into covenant with

God through Christ, is only known to itself; a stranger

intermeddleth not with its joy. Hence, even men of learning and

the world at large have considered experimental religion as

enthusiasm, merely because they have not understood its nature,

and have permitted themselves to be carried away by prejudices

which they have imbibed perhaps at first through the means of

ignorant or hypocritical pretenders to deep piety; but while they

have the sacred writings before them, their prejudices and

opposition to that without which they cannot be saved are as

unprincipled as they are absurd.

2. God gives Abraham a precept, which should be observed, not

only by himself, but by all his posterity; for this was to be a

permanent sign of that covenant which was to endure for ever.

Though the sign is now changed from circumcision to baptism, each

of them equally significant, yet the covenant is not changed in

any part of its essential meaning. Faith in God through the great

sacrifice, remission of sins, and sanctification of the heart, are

required by the new covenant as well as by the old.

3. The rite of circumcision was painful and humiliating, to

denote that repentance, self-denial, &c., are absolutely necessary

to all who wish for redemption in the blood of the covenant; and

the putting away this filth of the flesh showed the necessity of

a pure heart and a holy life.

4. As eternal life is the free gift of God, he has a right to

give it in what way he pleases, and on what terms. He says to

Abraham and his seed, Ye shall circumcise the flesh of your

foreskin, and he that doth not so shall be cut off from his

people. He says also to sinners in general, Let the wicked

forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; Repent, and

believe the Gospel; and, Except ye repent, ye shall perish. These

are the terms on which he will bestow the blessings of the old and

new covenants. And let it be remembered that stretching out the

hand to receive an alms can never be considered as meriting the

bounty received, neither can repentance or faith merit

salvation, although they are the conditions on which it is


5. The precepts given under both covenants were accompanied with

a promise of the Messiah. God well knows that no religious rite

can be properly observed, and no precept obeyed, unless he impart

strength from on high; and he teaches us that that strength must

ever come through the promised seed. Hence, with the utmost

propriety, we ask every blessing through him, in whom God is well


6. The precept, the promise, and the rite, were prefaced with,

"I am God all-sufficient; walk before me, and be thou perfect."

God, who is the sole object of religious worship, has the sole

authority to prescribe that worship, and the rites and ceremonies

which shall be used in it; hence he prescribed circumcision and

sacrifices under the old law, and baptism and the eucharist

under the Gospel; and to render both effectual to the end of their

institution, faith in God was indispensably necessary.

7. Those who profess to believe in him must not live as they

list, but as he pleases. Though redeemed from the curse of the

law, and from the rites and ceremonies of the Jewish Church, they

are under the law to Christ, and must walk before him-be in all

things obedient to that moral law which is an emanation from the

righteousness of God, and of eternal obligation; and let it ever

be remembered that Christ is "the author of eternal salvation to

all that obey him." Without faith and obedience there can be no

holiness, and without holiness none can see the Lord. Be all that

God would have thee to be, and God will be to the"' all that thou

canst possibly require. He never gives a precept but he offers

sufficient grace to enable thee to perform it. Believe as he

would have thee, and act as he shall strengthen thee, and thou

wilt believe all things savingly, and do all things well.

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