As we read Genesis 17, it is easy to “tune out” because it sounds like simple repetition of things we have read before. However, as with much of Scripture, we need to take a moment to consider this chapter in the scope of the larger story. The first verse of the chapter actually shows us that almost 25 years have passed since the promises were first given! Seen in that light, this chapter stands as a clear reminder that nothing will thwart the plans and purposes of God. He does not grow forgetful or change His mind. Even the weaknesses and shortcomings of His people cannot thwart Him. Genesis 17:1-18:15 reminds us of these things.
In Genesis 17, God once again repeats His promises to Abram – promises to make him a great nation and bless him and give him the promised land. He even goes so far as to “up the ante” by actually changing Abram’s and Sarai’s names to Abraham and Sarah (17:1-8). The significance of this event, though, is two-fold. First, it comes many years later. Thirteen years pass between the end of chapter 16 and the beginning of chapter 17. Do those thirteen years change the plan or cause God to reconsider and scrap the whole thing? No. God does not change His mind and repeats the promises. He always does what He says He will do, and He had made clear that His purpose was to bless Abraham and bring blessing through him. The passing of time did not change that, and God wanted Abraham to know it.
Second, this chapter is important because – in terms of the story – it comes right after the debacle of chapter 16. Does the sin of Abraham and Sarah drive God away? Have they forfeited their place in His plan because of their lack of faith. No. God makes clear that His promises rest not on the perfection of His people but on His own perfect faithfulness. In fact, this section itself gives us another glimpse of Abraham and Sarah failing to believe. When God again promises Abraham a son, Abraham laughs and assumes God must be referring to Isaac (17:15-18). Sarah also responds with disbelieving laughter – wondering how in the world God can make an old woman have a child (18:1-15). And yet, despite this lack of faith, God reiterates the promise. It is an astounding reminder that God is gracious even to the undeserving. Ultimately – and thankfully – God’s mighty works of grace rest on the strong foundation of His own holiness and love rather than on the shifting sand of our feelings.
That said, our response to the Lord is important – not, as we have seen, because our obedience makes His plans come to pass but because it is the right and proper response to the gracious God who comes to us first. Even as God reiterated the covenant – and its promises – He called Abraham to “walk before” Him and “be blameless” (17:1). And He called Abraham to circumcise all the males in his house – both then and in the future – as a sign of their covenant relationship with God (17:9-14). Did this act of obedience bring about God’s blessing and Abraham’s status of “righteous” in God’s sight. No – Paul makes clear that the blessing of God preceded Abraham’s obedience (Rom. 4:1-12). Nevertheless, the obedience was important – so much so that later on, God would try to put Moses to death because He had not carried it out (Ex. 4:24-26). Ultimately, God’s promises do not rest on our obedience, but God’s grace should always produce in us willing hearts that walk in obedience.
So this episode – though it may seem uninteresting and repetitive actually serves an important purpose. It reminds us that even though the years grow long, God’s plans do not grow tired or fade away. Even now, His plan to unite all things in Christ – which was the ultimate end even of His covenant with Abraham – is still being carried out. Though years and decades and centuries may pass, and it may seem as if God has forgotten, He has not. He is faithful.
The episode also reminds us of the rightful place of our works and obedience. Ultimately, the promises of God are sure and certain. Even when we lack faith, He is faithful (2 Tim. 2:13). If God’s blessing rested on us, we would be lost, because we are by nature fickle people with deceitful hearts who stumble often (James 3:2). Thankfully, though, our blessing and righteousness rest on the perfect merit of another – Jesus Christ, the righteous One (1 Cor. 1:30; 2 Cor. 5:21). Does that mean our actions mean nothing, then? No, because true faith will demonstrate itself in good works – even as it did in Abraham’s life (James 2:14-26). Good works do not merit God’s blessing – they demonstrate that such a blessing has truly been received.