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Genesis 17:1-27: God's Covenant
Individuals: Take time to think back about your past week. Where have you seen God work in your life or answer prayer? Write down any prayer requests you have.
Group: Open the study by sharing life updates, reviewing highs and lows of your past week, or sharing prayer requests and praises.
Icebreaker: What types of covenants or contracts do you have in your life today? What individuals or parties are involved in the contract?
All: Begin the study with a word of prayer, asking God to open your heart for today’s study. You can also pray for any prayer requests now, or save that for the end.
Read today’s passage: Genesis 17:1-27.
1 When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, “I am God Almighty; walk before me faithfully and be blameless. 2 Then I will make my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.”
3 Abram fell facedown, and God said to him, 4 “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. 5 No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations. 6 I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. 7 I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. 8 The whole land of Canaan, where you now reside as a foreigner, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God.”
9 Then God said to Abraham, “As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. 10 This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. 12 For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner—those who are not your offspring. 13 Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. 14 Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”
15 God also said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you are no longer to call her Sarai; her name will be Sarah. 16 I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her.”
17 Abraham fell facedown; he laughed and said to himself, “Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?” 18 And Abraham said to God, “If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!”
19 Then God said, “Yes, but your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will call him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him. 20 And as for Ishmael, I have heard you: I will surely bless him; I will make him fruitful and will greatly increase his numbers. He will be the father of twelve rulers, and I will make him into a great nation. 21 But my covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you by this time next year.” 22 When he had finished speaking with Abraham, God went up from him.
23 On that very day Abraham took his son Ishmael and all those born in his household or bought with his money, every male in his household, and circumcised them, as God told him. 24 Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he was circumcised, 25 and his son Ishmael was thirteen; 26 Abraham and his son Ishmael were both circumcised on that very day. 27 And every male in Abraham’s household, including those born in his household or bought from a foreigner, was circumcised with him.
What is the context for this passage?
The story of Abram (later named Abraham) starts in Genesis 11. Noah’s flood has come and gone, the Tower of Babel caused God to scatter the people and confuse their languages, and now it’s time to establish God’s people, starting with Abram and Sarai (later named Sarah). In Genesis 12, God gives Abram his famous blessing: I will make you into a great nation, and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you. The only problem? Abram and Sarai had no children. How can you become a great nation if you have no children?
In Genesis 15, God again promises Abram that he will have an heir. Abram believes God, but he still doesn’t understand how this will happen. Abram and Sarai still have no children after many years of marriage. So Abram takes things into his own hands in Genesis 16 and has a child with one of Sarai’s servants named Hagar. Hagar’s son was named Ishmael.
This sets the stage for our passage in Genesis 17, where God once again comes to reassure Abram that he will fulfill his promise.
Read the passage again.
Explore a different version if you have one available. If you are online, here is Genesis 17 in NIV through Bible Gateway. You can change the version by using the dropdown menu at the top right of the page.
Try to summarize the passage in your own words.
Answer these three questions about the passage:
1. What does the passage say about God?
God still wants a relationship with people. Even after all the disappointment of humanity ignoring God and pursuing evil in the time of Noah (Genesis 6-9), God is still looking to have a relationship with people and bless those who are walking faithfully with him.
God identifies himself as God Almighty. The words translated “God Almighty” here come from the Hebrew words ēl sadday (El Shaddai). It suggests that God has power, and he will do what he purposes to do.
God establishes a covenant with Abram. A covenant is a promise that cannot be broken. When God makes a covenant, you can be assured that he will follow through to the end, no matter what it takes. (Humans, on the other hand, are not great at following through on their covenants.)
God can change the course of life for those who walk with him. When God establishes this covenant with Abram, it changes the course of Abram’s life. So much so that he even changes his name. Without the covenant, Abram and Sarai would just be another childless couple. With the covenant, they become Abraham and Sarah, and they establish a great nation, just as God promised.
God can bless people whom he chooses to bless. Out of all the people on earth, God chose Abram as the one who would carry his blessing to the world. Were there others who were walking faithfully with God on earth at this time? Probably (although it seems like not very many!). But God purposefully chose Abraham and Sarah to be the ones he would bless.
Even in the midst of blessing, God has requirements for people – obedience. The blessing that God gave Abraham was not without responsibility on Abraham’s side. God required obedience through circumcision for Abraham and all of the males in his household. God also required Abraham to walk with him faithfully and be blameless. If Abraham and all his descendants kept this covenant of obedience, God promised to bless them forever (God called it an “everlasting” covenant).
God establishes consequences for not being obedient. God knows humanity. He knows that they have a tendency to go their own way and forget about God. So God establishes consequences for breaking this covenant. Anyone who does not honor God’s covenant by undergoing circumcision will be cut off from God’s people.
God can do the seemingly impossible. Abraham laughed at the thought of Sarah having a child when she was already 90 years old. But God assured Abraham that he would have a son with Sarah. And a few chapters later, in Genesis 21, that promise was fulfilled. As God Almighty, God has the power to do whatever it takes to see his purposes come to pass.
God doesn’t forget the outcasts. Abraham was promised a son with Sarah, but he already had a son with Hagar – Ishmael. Even though Abraham would later cast Hagar and Ishmael out of his house (Genesis 21), God still promises to take care of Ishmael. Ishmael will also become a great nation. But God’s covenant nation will come through the son that Abraham has with Sarah.
2. What does the passage say about people?
People are called to be obedient to God. God calls Abraham to walk with him faithfully and be blameless. In addition, he calls all of Abraham’s descendants to be obedient to the covenant by being circumcised.
People who are disobedient will be cut off from God’s people. God takes covenants very seriously. So seriously, in fact, that the price for disobedience to the covenant was being cut off from God’s people. The assumption here is not only cut off from family but cut off from God’s blessing and protection.
People have a hard time believing what seems impossible. God promises a son to Abraham through Sarah, and Abraham laughs. It seems that Abraham has yet to fully realize the extent of God’s power. Nothing is impossible with God. As humans, we have that tendency too. Ever heard the phrase “too good to be true”? That’s how Abraham was feeling here. But he didn’t take God’s power into account. He wouldn’t fully believe God’s promise until Sarah actually became pregnant.
People have a tendency to think they have a better plan than God. After God reveals his plan for Sarah to become pregnant, Abraham gives God a “better” plan – a more realistic plan: Can’t you bless Ishmael instead? After all, he’s Abraham’s son too, and he’s already here. Abraham doesn’t have to have faith that God will give him that son. But God gently corrects Abraham – and he gently corrects us too when we try to suggest our own plans to God.
3. What does the passage say about God’s plan?
God’s plan was to make Abram into a great nation. This was God’s promise through the covenant he established with Abraham. God promised to make Abraham the father of many nations. The nation of covenant would come through Sarah.
God’s plan was to establish his covenant forever. Several times in this passage, God refers to his covenant as an “everlasting covenant.” God’s plan was to establish this covenant forever with Abraham’s descendants. Even today, the Jews (Israelite nation) are seen as God’s chosen people.
God’s plan was to use circumcision as a symbol of his covenant. God is clear that the symbol of the covenant was circumcision. This symbol of the covenant plays a role throughout the entire Bible to identify God’s chosen people.
How does the passage fit into the overarching story of the Bible?
Sometimes it’s easier to understand a passage if you have a little outside knowledge from other passages in the Bible. This section will help provide that outside perspective.
The covenant between God and Abraham sets up the rest of the Old Testament. Abraham and Sarah have a son, Isaac. Isaac then bears Jacob, and Jacob becomes the father of 12 sons. God changes Jacob’s name to Israel, and his 12 sons become the 12 tribes of Israel – the Israelites. The rest of the Old Testament is about God’s relationship with the Israelites. It is through the Israelites, specifically the tribe of Judah, that Jesus is eventually born.
Jesus is God’s only son, fully man and fully God. He came to fulfill God’s covenant with Abraham and establish a new covenant – a better covenant, a perfect covenant. Because Jesus is the only perfect human to ever walk this earth, he was the perfect sacrifice for the sin of all humankind. He was the only sacrifice that would be sufficient to satisfy God’s wrath over sin. We now live under this new covenant, a covenant in which we only need to believe in Jesus Christ as God’s only Son and as the ultimate sacrifice for our sins. This is all we need to receive eternal life. Out of our love for God and thankfulness for his mercy and redemption, we live in obedience to him. Just like Abram, we are called to be obedient to God and walk faithfully with him.
Individual: Answer the following questions thoughtfully for yourself.
Group: Pose these questions for discussion.
All: If you are willing to share, I’d love to hear your thoughts to these questions. Feel free to use the comment section to start a discussion about this passage.
What else strikes you about this passage?
How does the passage affect how you view God? How you view yourself?
How does this passage affect how you will live your life?
For Bible Essential studies, you can use my thoughts as your devotional, or you can download and use the journaling sheet to work through the passage on your own. If desired, you can then compare your thoughts to mine. Journal sheets can be downloaded and used now or later. They can be printed and filled in by hand or saved and filled out electronically. Journal sheets are available for individual or group use.
If you plan to lead a group study, a PowerPoint presentation is also available.
You can access these resources by clicking here: Genesis 17 Resources