What does Genesis chapter 17 mean?One of the most influential names in human history is that of Abraham—a man whom Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all claim as a patriarch. However, to this point in the Bible, that name has not been used. This important historical figure is still carrying his original name of Abram. Here, at last, God will change Abram's name to Abraham, while establishing a symbol of their covenant: circumcision.
Genesis 17 describes God's appearance to Abram, who is now 99 years old. Twenty-three years have passed since God first promised to make Abram a great nation and to give to him and to his descendants the land of Canaan. During that time, Abram and his large company have lived in different parts of the region. He has grown quite wealthy, and God has appeared to him several more times to restate and expand on the initial covenant promises.
Still, Abram has only one son. Ishmael, born to him by his wife's servant Hagar, is now 13. Abram and his wife Sarai, who has been barren for their entire marriage, seem to have resisted attempting to have children through other women before the events of Genesis chapter 16. At this point, they likely assumed that God's promises and blessing to Abram would pass through Ishmael. After all, at 99 and 89 respectively, they were well past the window for conceiving or bearing children. That's when God appears to Abram again. This meeting is different than those earlier encounters, however. This time, in addition to the familiar and seemingly impossible promises, God also has requirements for Abram.
God commands Abram to walk with Him and to be blameless. Abram would, indeed, be the father of nations. Kings would come from him. To confirm that fact, God changed Abram's name to Abraham. While Abram means "exalted father," the name Abraham sounds like the Hebrew phrase for "father of a multitude." The land of Canaan would belong to Abraham and his descendants forever.
As a sign of keeping this covenant, God had a new requirement for Abraham. He and every male of his household, born or bought, and every male in every generation to come, must be circumcised. This is the ritual removal of the foreskin. Those who were not circumcised would not be included in this covenant between God and Abraham's people.
That's already a lot of change for one meeting, but God is not done yet. He truly surprises Abraham, telling him that Sarai's name must also be changed. She will now be known as Sarah, and she and Abraham would have a son after all. In reverence, or gratitude, or pure surprise, or perhaps all three, Abraham falls facedown and laughs. He's shocked at the mere suggestion of Sarah conceiving and bearing a child.
Then Abraham has another thought: What about Ishmael? God has already given a promise of blessing on Ishmael, spoken to his mother Hagar (Genesis 16:10–12). Here, though God will again promise to bless Ishmael abundantly, the covenant promises between God and Abraham will not pass through Ishmael. Instead, they will pass to Isaac, Abraham's yet-to-be conceived son with Sarah. That son will have been born by this time the following year.
With that, God concludes His revelations and "leaves," at least symbolically giving Abraham an opportunity to make a decision. Abraham's head must have been spinning, but he did not hesitate to begin to obey God. That very day, he went home and circumcised himself, Ishmael, and the hundreds of other males in his large company. Abraham's immediate obedience is further evidence that he was choosing to trust the Lord and to take Him at His word.