Genesis (Part 27) The Covenant of Circumcision – How to Face the Seemingly Impossible


Bible Text: Genesis 17: 1-27 |


Facing the Impossible.

What kind of person do you want to be? Do you want to be a person ho in a crisis friend and family members rely on? Who do you want to be when there's a crisis? Do you want to be the person who adds to the crisis, or the one that everyone can turn to for comfort, for strength and maybe even wise council?

Tonight we are going to look at Genesis chapter 17 Genesis  The first couple of verses stand as an introduction to what is a rather long chapter (Gen 17: 1-2) We have an encounter, and a conversation between Abram and God. Abram is 99 years old at this point and God addresses him with an interesting turn of phrase. “Walk before me” he says. In the book of Genesis, we have already been told that Adam walked with God. We were also told that Enoch walked with God and now we were told that Abraham is to walk before God. What is the difference in the meaning here?

“This phrase walking before God is not precisely [the same phrase as] walking with God which Noah and others did, rather it is an active life spent in continual consciousness of being opened before the eyes of him to whom we have to give account[1].”

How much trouble do you want in your life?

That maybe seems a strange question, but think about it for a minute, Maybe, we all need something to contend with in life so that we can live the kind of live where he can bring out the best in us. If all your problems were solved, we wouldn’t grow? Maybe there's really something valuable about overcoming problems and the growth that comes along with that. Getting married and having a family that certainly brings responsibility and challenges.

God made a covenant with Abram, He made a promise, but it wasn’t a promise of happiness or prosperity. The purpose of the covenant was linked to a call to is aim high and to walk before him meaning live your life being accountable to Him. To establish a relationship that would see him through all of life’s catastrophes and that's the mature way of looking at life as far as the bible is concerned. The fundamental reality of life is that it contains struggle and suffering along the way but that inescapable truth shouldn’t make life unbearable. Because now by walking “before the Lord” you are ready and have the means to contend with life and get through whatever it brings. It begins by being ready to walk before the lord and being ready to adopt responsibility for yourself, and for others. If you do that and do that properly then you should get some happiness along the way. In fact, you should get much, much more happiness than you would have had by living any other way. Then at the end of your day you can sit before the judgement seat of Christ and say that trusting in the Lord was the ruling principal in your life.

In the previous chapter we’re told (Gen 16:16) Now in Chapter 17, we are told (Gen 17:1-2) So, there’s a 13-year gap between the end of chapter 16 and the beginning chapter 17. The story continues; (Gen 17:3-5) Several things are going on here. First of all, God says I will make a covenant between them, but wait a minute hadn’t He already done that? He already made a covenant with Abram already in chapter 15. God is saying here, I'm now going to put a previously given covenant into force. The application of that covenant is now being signified by the change of his name. The word translated Abram means, exalted father, a generic term. Abraham means, “Father of the Nations”. So, the Lord is saying I am now going to fulfill the covenant I made with you back in the day when I told you were going to have multiple descendants.

He then says this (Gen 17:7). What God is saying will become clear in a moment when in a few verses he's going to give him a sign of this covenant. But at this point he simply emphasizing that this is not a temporary time restricted promise, it’s an everlasting covenant promise. (Gen 17:8) This is something new here. He had told them before about the land, but this is the first time it is recorded as being called Canaan. So, this part of the passages tells us that God is going to establish his covenant with Abraham and his descendants and give the land of Canaan to Abraham and his descendants forever.

Now look at what God says to Abraham. (Gen 17:9) The sign of the covenant will now be explained in the next few verses. (Gen 17:10-11) So, circumcision is not the actual covenant, it is a sign of the covenant. The promise was made back in chapter 15 and what he is adding to that is the sign of that promise embraced will be circumcision, the physical removal of the foreskin. This is the next part of the story deals with the whole idea of circumcision as a sacrifice. The idea of giving up something concrete signified by the sacrifice of a part of the body for the sake of a promise. How about circumcision men, might that be something you would remember? For an adult man of that time I could image that this idea was quite traumatising. The idea of undergoing it as an adult without anesthetic sound pretty traumatic to me. If someone came to me today and suggested I did this to mark a commitment I would be pretty shocked. If I did it, I think I would certainly remember the commitment I had made that day. We've seen in the biblical stories when you make a sacrifice it's often something dramatic or it means giving up something that you possess. To take the life of something and to spill its blood is also going to be something you remember, especially if you haven't done it before. This is the first time in recorded history that humanity established the idea that sacrificed was necessary to move ahead to a new place in life. These days it’s all too easy to think we are moving ahead in life without making a sacrifice that deals with the past. The idea that the idea that you have give up something in the present to move forward can't be overstated. The idea developed here is that sacrifice is necessary to ensure the future is safe and secure and productive and positive.

We saw previously with Cain and Abel that there could be a right type of sacrificed and a wrong type of sacrifice. So, there is something about a sacrifice that can be correct, and there's something about a sacrifice that can be incorrect. If you're going to sacrifice, then how can you do it in a way that is respectful and correct? A sacrifice meaningful enough to deal with the past and good enough that it acknowledges the future.

If Abrahams future can be better because of his sacrifice, and sacrifices can vary in quality, then how much better could the future be if your sacrifices was of the highest quality possible. How good could your life be if you really got your perspective right and sacrificed all those things that are impeding you in your movement forward. If only there was some way your sacrificed could marked and perfected by God himself. Christ's passion and death on the cross is what some called an archetypical sacrifice because it's sets a kind of limit, and it demonstrates perfection. Because it's the worst possible set of things that can happen to the best possible person who ever lived.

The Book of Hebrews tells us; (Heb 9:14) It's a story that lays before us the plumb line, the representation of Christ as the perfect sacrifice. That's the territory, the foundations that these Genesis stories lay and as we work through them, we can use these stories as anchor in life.

The Covenant of Circumcision…

The sign is nothing less than the cutting off and removal of flesh from an intimate place. More details is added (Gen 17:12-14) Apparently, this is a play on words in the original text. God says cut off the foreskin and if you don't you are going to be cut off. When you achieve that goal, or it runs to its natural end then that’s the point when you should regroup and reorient yourself before the Lord again. That's also a good time to mark that point with a sacrifice. As you move through your life you need to shed that which is no longer necessary because otherwise it holds you back or drags you down.

If you don't draw a line under things you never dispense with your excess baggage. If you don’t offer the past as a sacrifice before you move on, then the stress of all that undone business and all those unmade decisions turns into a kind of miry clay that bogs you down. I think it is necessary to regularly renew your commitment and to stay spiritually light on your feet in order to respond to his promptings. I believe that this is what the sacrificial pauses in the Abrahamic stories tells us to do.

Beginning in verse 15 the Lord then speaks about Sarai (Gen 17:15) Now God changes Sarai’s name. Sarai means little Princess, but Sarah has more the idea of nobility or royalty and fits the idea that future rulers are going to be the direct offspring of both of these people. (Gen 17:16) This is interesting because up until this point God has said you are going to have a son. God never specifically said it was coming from Sarah prior to this point. In theory based on what's been said so far, she could have died, and he could have got another wife and the child could come via the new wife. Probably because of that whole fiasco with Hagar we studied last month, God makes the position absolutely clear this time and says, no, this is going to be achieved via you and your wife Sarah. That seems an impossible situation because she is way past childbearing age and he's now 99, so how are they ever going to have children?

Abraham response to this statement by God is understandable. (Gen 17:17) Is this a laughter of doubt or is it a laughter of joy? This gets debated as you can imagine. I personally don't think it's a laughter of doubt for several reasons. Firstly, he falls on his face which is an act of adoration and worship. He's not laughing at God or doubting God, I believe he's worshiping God Another reason I don’t think this is a laughter of doubt or ridicule is because in Romans chapter 4 he clearly says when looking back at these chapters. (Rom 4:4)

Paul goes into great detail in the latter part of chapter 4 to explain how and what Abraham believed. (Rom 4: 9-12) He continues later in the chapter. (Rom 4: 18-22)  Finally, reminding us that this applies to us also (Rom 23-25) In verse 18 Abraham says to God: (Gen 17:18) So, although Abraham is promised a son by completely normal family descent, he requests that Ishmael his son although not part of that blessing might not suffer. (Gen 17:19) God is simply saying, “let me reiterate Sarah your wife shall give birth to your son called his name Isaac and It is with him I will establish an everlasting covenant”.

God then says, don’t worry, I don't want you to forget Ishmael. (Gen 17:20) Again, God is saying don’t worry about Ishmael, I will bless him in his own way, but I am renewing my covenant with you and your son Isaac. Here it is (Gen 17: 21-22) God says, I’m going to do something that is humanly impossible through you. You are going to have a son by Sarah and you're going to happen even though you're 100 this year, and by the way call him Isaac You can't get any more specific than that.


So, the passage says Abraham took all the men in the household and has them circumcised. (Gen 17:23)

In all nature, it is only humans that understand the seriousness of sacrifice. Even in the most intelligent animals have never been seen to demonstrate the ability to surrender something now for the hope of something greater later on. Monkeys and Apes are the closest of all animals to humans in their level of intelligence. Yet it was noticed by anthropologists that that they still fell foul of the simplest of traps. In many parts of the world the simplest of monkey traps are still utilized using the same principle. Large heavy jars are filled with treats and secured with chains metal posts. The jar are so heavy and secured that the monkeys can’t carry them away. The hunters would then scatter some treats around and inside the jar that would attract to monkeys to the jar. The monkey comes along and gathers up the treats and then put his hand in a jar and grabs the treats that are in there. But once the monkey puts his hand in there and grabs the goodies and he can't get his handout of the jar because the neck is too narrow. The hunters can then just come along and pick up the monkey, jar and all. If they just recognised that if they could just let go of what the had, then they could have escaped. But that is not what the monkey will do because he can't think to sacrifice what he has today for a better tomorrow.

There's something about the circumcision story that it's about the need to sacrificing something for a better future. Also implies that individual personal sacrifice can benefit the wider whole. There is nothing more important than sacrifice in enabling us to move forward in our Christian faith. So, don’t get stuck and especially don’t get stuck in doing something that is bringing you down or compromising you moral integrity. Leave it behind, find a new way forward and let the old one go. God calling some of us to stop, in order that you can move forward.

God spoke and gave Abraham the sign of the covenant which was circumcision. Meaning every male whether bought or born and acted on what God said and all who should have been were circumcised that day. All the males, all at once. Do you know that meant Abrahams household was left unprotected if somebody attacked them? There was nobody to defend them he was now vulnerable. Men are temporarily incapacitated when they get circumcised, so there's no protection which means this was a real act of faith. This tells me it can be very intimidating to be left vulnerable in the face of the sacrifice you make. However scripture says it is still really worthwhile because without it you cannot achieve what God wants you to spiritually strive for.


When we face impossible situations, we should just believe him and trust him. When the all-powerful God promised to do what was seemingly was impossible, he asked Abraham to acknowledge his commitment to the promise by marking it with a sacrifice. Abraham immediately and completely obeyed. Abraham just had to look to the Lord to do the impossible. He now just had to trust and obey him and wait for the fulfillment of the promise that God had given him. We need to walk before almighty God because he has promised to meet all our needs. We also need to understand that walking before God will mean leaving something behind. Walk before almighty God because He has the power to work in impossible situations. Abraham did it, He trusted the Lord; obeyed the Lord and we will see what happens to him as we continue the study of the book of Genesis.

In the meantime, God is powerful enough and do what he promised even if it seems impossible. That's the message I want you to put in your pocket and walk out of here with this evening. The almighty God has power to do what he promises to do. God has the power to perform any promise he has ever given and that's the lesson he gave Abraham on this occasion. Trust him, in spite of any sacrifice it might seem to take in the short term to receive what he wants to give you in the future. Trust him for he is trustworthy.

[1] Expositions of Holy Scripture: Genesis - A McClean  (c1895)

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