Genesis 17
Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
Ch. 17. The Institution of the Rite of Circumcision. (P.)

1–8.  The Covenant with Abram.

9–14.  Circumcision the Token of the Covenant.

15–22.  The Promise to Sarai.

23–27.  Abraham circumcises his household.

The whole of this chapter is from P.

And when Abram was ninety years old and nine, the LORD appeared to Abram, and said unto him, I am the Almighty God; walk before me, and be thou perfect.
1. ninety years old and nine] There has been an interval of 13 years since the birth of Ishmael in Genesis 16:16.

the Lord] “Jehovah,” used here in P, probably, for the special purpose of connecting the covenant of Abram with Him whose full name was revealed to Moses, Exodus 6:3. Or, as not infrequently must have happened, one sacred name has been substituted for another by editor or copyist.

Elsewhere in this chapter (Genesis 17:3; Genesis 17:7-9; Genesis 17:18-19; Genesis 17:22-23) Elohim occurs, as usual in P’s narrative.

I am God Almighty] Heb. Êl Shaddai. Notice the opening formula, “I am,” used in this manifestation. Cf. Genesis 35:11.

The name Êl Shaddai is that by which, according to Exodus 6:3 (P), God “appeared” in the patriarchal age, and before the revelation to Moses of the name Jehovah (JHVH=Jahveh). This title Êl Shaddai occurs in Genesis 28:3, Genesis 35:11, Genesis 43:14, Genesis 48:3 (cf. Genesis 49:25; Numbers 24:4; Numbers 24:16). Shaddai alone occurs frequently (31 times) in the Book of Job; in prose it is usually found with Êl = “God Almighty.”

The derivation of the word Shaddai has hitherto baffled enquiry. (1) The old Rabbinic explanation, that it consisted of two combined words (sh-, and dai) meaning “one who is All-sufficient,” is quite impossible; but it accounts for the rendering of Aquila and Symmachus ὁ ἱκανός. (2) It has been derived from a root (shdd) meaning “to destroy,” which may be illustrated from Isaiah 13:6, Joel 1:15. (3) Another suggestion connects it with shêdim = “demons”; see note on Genesis 14:3. (4) Others conjecture a derivation giving it the meaning of “the storm God.” (5) LXX renders, in Pent., by ὁ θεός μου, Vulg. “omnipotens.” The word is an ancient epithet of unknown origin, whose general meaning is that of irresistible power.

For Êl with Shaddai, see note on Genesis 14:18.

English readers will recollect the use of the name “Shaddai” in John Bunyan’s Holy War.

The word appears in the compound proper names “Zurishaddai” (Numbers 1:6; Numbers 2:12), “Ammishaddai” (Numbers 2:25).

walk before me] For this word “walk,” see Genesis 5:22; Genesis 5:24; Genesis 6:9. Here it is the “walk,” not “with,” but “in the presence of.” The idea is that of the progress in personal life and conduct in the continual realization of God’s presence. In P there is no supposition of any code of law before the time of Moses. The rite of circumcision, whose observance is commanded in this chapter, the prohibition against eating blood given in chap. Genesis 9:4, and the implied recognition of the Sabbath (Genesis 2:1), are the only external observances of the patriarchal age recognized in P. Here the command, “walk before me,” is simply that of living a good life in the sight of God. This is “to be well pleasing in his sight”: hence LXX renders εὐαρέστει.

The substance of the command is expressed in Genesis 18:19, “keep the way of the Lord, to do justice and judgement”; Deuteronomy 10:12, “to fear the Lord thy God, to walk in all his ways, and to love him, and to serve the Lord thy God”; Micah 6:8, “to do justly and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.”

be thou perfect] See note on Genesis 6:9. Cf. Job 1:1; Job 1:8; Luke 1:6.

And I will make my covenant between me and thee, and will multiply thee exceedingly.
2. And I will make my covenant] See note on Genesis 15:9; Genesis 15:18. The words of this verse imply no knowledge of the covenant described in chap. 15. The covenant has yet to be made. P’s account of the covenant is different from that of J; and, the two traditions being distinct, there is no allusion here to the previous narrative.

fell on his face] The prostration of humility and reverence, as in Genesis 17:17. Cf. Numbers 14:5.

And Abram fell on his face: and God talked with him, saying,
As for me, behold, my covenant is with thee, and thou shalt be a father of many nations.
4. father of a multitude of nations] “Multitude,” hamôn = “tumult.” LXX πολλῶν ἐθνῶν.

Neither shall thy name any more be called Abram, but thy name shall be Abraham; for a father of many nations have I made thee.
5. Abram] The shorter form is here used for the last time. Except in Genesis, it only occurs in 1 Chronicles 1:27, Nehemiah 9:7.

thy name shall be Abraham] The change from “Abram” to “Abraham” is associated with the covenant promise that the patriarch shall be “the father of a multitude of nations” (’ab hamôn gôyyîm). As in many other instances, we have here a resemblance through assonance, and not a real derivation of a proper name. There is no such word as raham meaning “a multitude.” “Abraham” and “Abram” have, until recently, been regarded as forms of the same name, “Abiram,” which meant “exalted father,” or “the father is Ram,” i.e. “the exalted one.” But the longer name has been found in several Babylonian monuments belonging to the reign of Ammi-zaduga, who was tenth in the dynasty founded by Hammurabi. According to the distinguished Assyriologist, Ungnad, the Babylonian pronunciation was Abaram, and the meaning “He loves the father.”

a multitude of nations] The promise of the covenant in P contemplates not only the nation of Israel (as J, Genesis 12:2, Genesis 18:18, and E, Genesis 46:3), but also the kindred nations of Edom and Ishmael.

And I will make thee exceeding fruitful, and I will make nations of thee, and kings shall come out of thee.
6. kings shall come out of thee] Cf. Genesis 17:16 and Genesis 35:11 (P). The promise contains a reference to the Israelite monarchy. This is recognized as overruled by God (cf. 1 Samuel 11, 12) to be the means of the people’s blessing and expansion. Cf. Numbers 24:14; Numbers 24:17-19.

With the “kings” of Israel, compare the “princes” of “Ishmael” (Genesis 17:20) and “the dukes of Edom” (Genesis 36:40).

And I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee.
7. for an everlasting covenant] Cf. 13, 19. LXX εἰς διαθήκην αἰώνιον. The relationship is to be one transcending the limits of time. The covenant is to be “established,” cf. Genesis 6:18, Genesis 9:9. The idea is slightly different from that of the covenant being “made,” Genesis 15:18. There the phrase refers back to the solemnity of ancient binding institutions; here it points forward to the permanence of a new and enduring relationship. God undertakes to be the God of Abraham and of his descendants. He will take care of them as His own, and they on their side will obey and serve Him as His people. Cf. Exodus 6:7; Deuteronomy 26:17.

And I will give unto thee, and to thy seed after thee, the land wherein thou art a stranger, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.
8. the land of thy sojournings] This is explained to be “all the land of Canaan.” The word “sojournings” denotes “residences of a stranger” (cf. Genesis 15:13). The stranger (gêr) has no fixed possession in a land. The land where he has been a stranger is now promised to become his settled possession. The promise, therefore, reverses Abraham’s present position. The land will be no longer one of “sojourning” (megûrîm), but a “possession” (aḥuzzah). Cf. Genesis 28:4, Genesis 36:7, Genesis 37:1, Genesis 47:9; Exodus 6:4 (all in the P narrative). For “everlasting possession,” see Genesis 48:4 (P).

And God said unto Abraham, Thou shalt keep my covenant therefore, thou, and thy seed after thee in their generations.
9–14. Circumcision the Token of the Covenant

9. thou shalt keep] “Keep” in the sense of “observe”: the reverse is to “break” (Genesis 17:14) the covenant. Notice the sing, “thou,” and the plur. “ye shall keep” in Genesis 17:10; cf. the interchange of plur. and sing. in Genesis 17:11-13.

This is my covenant, which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee; Every man child among you shall be circumcised.
10. shall be circumcised] The rite of circumcision, which is here given as the symbol of the covenant with Abraham and his seed, was no new institution. In Abraham’s time it was already a well-known practice. It is adopted as the sign of the covenant, and consecrated to be the abiding pledge and witness of the relationship between the God who revealed Himself to Abraham and the people of which Abraham was the founder.

Circumcision is found to have been practised among the peoples of Africa at a very early time. In Egypt records of the practice are said to go back to an age many centuries previous to the time of Abraham. From Egypt it is said to have been transmitted into Phoenicia and Syria (see Herodotus, ii. 114). From the present account it is clear that the Israelites believed the institution to have had its origin in the patriarchal era. We learn from Jeremiah 9:25-26 that it was practised by Edomites, Ammonites, and Moabites, as well as by Egyptians and Israelites.

The custom is prevalent in very different parts of the world. For instance, it is found in S. Africa and in Madagascar.

It very possibly has some connexion with the cuttings and tattooings by which the savage avowed his relationship to the Deity of his tribe, and hoped to secure his favour by wearing his sign. Hence it took rank with the distinctive badges of a tribe or people.

Recent investigation has not tended to support the theory that circumcision has any connexion with primitive child sacrifice; nor, again, that it took its origin from hygienic motives. Apparently, it represents the dedication of the manhood of the people to God. In the history of Israel, it has survived as the symbol of the people belonging to Jehovah through His special election. Its significance in Israel is something quite distinct from that in other circumcised peoples. This corporeal sacrament remained to the Israelite, when every other tie of religion or race had been severed.

For its renewal (a) in the time of Moses, (b) in the time of Joshua, see Exodus 4:25; Joshua 5:2. In both of these passages the use of a stone, or flint, instrument possibly represents the survival of the rite from an age of remotest antiquity, before the introduction of metal.

For circumcision as an honourable badge, the absence of which would be regarded as a reproach in Egypt, see Joshua 5:7-9. The alleged omission of the Philistines to practise this rite (Jdg 14:3; 1 Samuel 31:4; 2 Samuel 1:20) may possibly be due to their foreign origin.

And ye shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of the covenant betwixt me and you.
11. a token] i.e. an outward sign. Cf. the rainbow which was the token of the covenant of Noah, Genesis 9:12-13.

And he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every man child in your generations, he that is born in the house, or bought with money of any stranger, which is not of thy seed.
12. he that is eight days old] The performance of the rite at this early age is distinctive of the Israelite usage. Cf. Genesis 21:4; Leviticus 12:3; Luke 1:59; Luke 2:21; Php 3:5. The operation at this exceedingly early age (see note on Genesis 17:25) is probably for the purpose (1) of including all males, (2) of coinciding with the first period of the mother’s uncleanness, Leviticus 12:2-3, (3) of inflicting the smallest degree of suffering.

every male] The important principle is here laid down that the rite is to be required of every male member of the household. All slaves are to be circumcised, both those “born in the house” (cf. Genesis 14:14), and those “bought with money” (cf. Exodus 12:44). It was thus that the first principles of charity were interwoven with the foundation of the Chosen People. The privileges of the covenant relation are at once extended beyond the literal seed of Abraham.

He that is born in thy house, and he that is bought with thy money, must needs be circumcised: and my covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant.
And the uncircumcised man child whose flesh of his foreskin is not circumcised, that soul shall be cut off from his people; he hath broken my covenant.
14. shall be cut off] The penalty of being “cut off” is frequently mentioned in P. It does not appear certain, (1) whether the penalty is to be inflicted by God or by man; (2) whether, if it be the infliction of a judicial punishment by man, it denotes capital punishment, or expulsion from the ranks of the community. The formula has probably been transmitted from a very early period; and the lapse of time led to change in practice. Thus, in Exodus 31:13-14, the penalty of death is inflicted by the people: see Numbers 15:32-36. But, in Leviticus 17:10; Leviticus 20:3, the sentence is pronounced by God, “I will cut him off.”

from his people] Lit. “from his peoples,” a phrase used by P, which seems to denote “father’s kin,” and evidently possessed a special technical meaning of clanship. See note on Genesis 25:8.

And God said unto Abraham, As for Sarai thy wife, thou shalt not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall her name be.
15–22. The Promise to Sarai

15. Sarah shall her name be] That is, Princess. The name “Sarai” (LXX Σάρα) is altered to “Sarah” (LXX Σάῤῥα). The name “Sarah” is the feminine form of the Heb. Sar, “a prince.” Other explanations which give the meaning “the contentious one,” or “the merry one,” are improbable. “Sarai” may possibly have been an older form of “Sarah.” It cannot mean, as used to be asserted, “my princess.”

And I will bless her, and give thee a son also of her: yea, I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of people shall be of her.
16. nations … kings of peoples] See note on Genesis 17:6.

Then Abraham fell upon his face, and laughed, and said in his heart, Shall a child be born unto him that is an hundred years old? and shall Sarah, that is ninety years old, bear?
17. fell upon his face] See Genesis 17:3.

laughed] The incredulous laughter of Abraham here, according to P, should be compared with that of Sarah, in Genesis 18:12, according to J, as a play upon the name “Isaac” and its meaning of “laughter.”

Along with the incredulity must be reckoned the joy of the assurance that the promise of a son should be fulfilled. The joy of that hope, and of its significance to the whole world, is the subject of the allusion in, John 8:56, “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day, and he saw it and was glad.”

ninety years old] The age of Sarah, nine years younger (cf. Genesis 17:24) than Abraham.

And Abraham said unto God, O that Ishmael might live before thee!
18. said unto God] The previous verse contained what Abraham “said in his heart.” Aloud he expresses his incredulity in a more reverent manner, shewing that his hope of descendants rested upon Ishmael.

might live before thee] i.e. that his life might be blessed by God’s special protection.

And God said, Sarah thy wife shall bear thee a son indeed; and thou shalt call his name Isaac: and I will establish my covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, and with his seed after him.
19. Sarah thy wife] God’s answer in this verse is made to the utterance of Abraham’s heart (Genesis 17:17), and not of his lips (Genesis 17:18).

thou shalt call his name Isaac] R.V. marg. “From the Heb. word meaning to laugh.” See Genesis 21:3. The name Isaac is here, and in 18 and 21, associated with “laughter.” The word “he laughed,” used in Genesis 17:17, has the same root letters (ṣḥq) as the name “Isaac.” The name “laughter” will thus commemorate the involuntary doubt of Abraham (Genesis 17:17) to which St Paul refers (Romans 4:19), “without being weakened in faith he considered his own body now as good as dead (he being about a hundred years old) and the deadness of Sarah’s womb.”

Note that the father is commanded to give the name; see note on Genesis 5:3 (P).

And as for Ishmael, I have heard thee: Behold, I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly; twelve princes shall he beget, and I will make him a great nation.
20. as for Ishmael, I have heard thee] This verse contains the reply to Abraham’s spoken words in Genesis 17:18. “I have heard thee” contains a reference to the meaning of the name “Ishmael” = “God hears.” See note on Genesis 16:11.

twelve princes] Recorded in Genesis 25:13-16. As in the family of Israel, so also in that of Ishmael, the number “twelve” symbolizes the distribution and organization of a people under responsible leaders, and represents ancient usage.

But my covenant will I establish with Isaac, which Sarah shall bear unto thee at this set time in the next year.
And he left off talking with him, and God went up from Abraham.
22. God went up] This expression, which occurs also in Genesis 35:13 (P), means that God returned to His dwelling-place, which the Israelite believed to be above the Heavens.

And Abraham took Ishmael his son, and all that were born in his house, and all that were bought with his money, every male among the men of Abraham's house; and circumcised the flesh of their foreskin in the selfsame day, as God had said unto him.
23–27. Abraham circumcises his Household

23. And Abraham took, &c.] This verse repeats the directions contained in Genesis 17:11-13.

in the selfsame day] As in Genesis 17:26 : see note on Genesis 7:13. The expression is characteristic of P. The performance of this rite upon all the males of Abraham’s household, consisting of several hundred (cf. Genesis 14:14), in one day is hardly to be understood literally. The narrative is more concerned with the thought of the symbolism of a ritual precept, than with its literal practicability. The operation for full-grown males is a serious one, and not unattended with risk, cf. 34.

And Abraham was ninety years old and nine, when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin.
And Ishmael his son was thirteen years old, when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin.
25. Ishmael … thirteen years old] The mention of Ishmael and of his age, is of interest; for it implies (1) the fact that the Ishmaelite people practised circumcision; (2) the possible reminiscence of a variant custom by which it was performed at the age of thirteen years, instead of eight days; as in Israel, cf. Genesis 17:12. The modern Arabian use is said to be much later in life than that of the Jews, and in some cases corresponds with the age of Ishmael. A boy at 13 was regarded as on the threshold of manhood. Origen (Euseb. Praep. Evang. vi. 11) and Ambrose (de Abrah. ii. 348) mention fourteen as the age for the practice of the rite among the Egyptians.

In the selfsame day was Abraham circumcised, and Ishmael his son.
And all the men of his house, born in the house, and bought with money of the stranger, were circumcised with him.
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