Circumcision; New Names; Future Greatness (Genesis 17)
Once again, the promises to Abram are expanded, this time to include a multitude of nations and kings. As a token of His covenant with Abram's descendants, God commanded circumcision. It is a visible sign in the flesh of every male Israelite that they are part of a family with whom God has a special relationship and for whom God has a special work. Every male is to be circumcised on the eighth day of life. It is interesting to note that in male babies vitamin Kthe blood clotting factorrises sharply from birth and peaks on the eighth day, before declining to the normal level. While this could not have been known by Abram and the Israelites, it was perfectly well-known to God.
Genesis 17 also records the renaming of Abram and Sarai. Up to Genesis 16 the Scriptures always use the birth names Abram, which means "Exalted Father," and Sarai, meaning "Princess." But, here in Genesis 17, God bestows new names on them. Abraham means "Father of a Multitude" and Sarah, while still retaining the sense of "Princess," seems to mean one of an even higher station (e.g., it is derived from the same word translated "queen" in Isaiah 49:23). Interestingly, both new names differ from Abram and Sarai by the addition of one letter in the Hebrewthe letter He, pronounced, like the English H, as a breath of air, which is often a symbol of God's Spirit. Though there may be no significance to this, becoming new persons and circumcision can both picture spiritual conversion. In any event, whether Abraham and Sarah received the indwelling of God's Spirit at this particular time or not, we do know for certain that they did receive it at some point (compare 1 Peter 1:11)for they will be in the Kingdom of God, and only the converted have that honor (Romans 8:9, 11).
Also of interest in this chapter is the hint at future national greatness we are afforded here. While the primary national blessings were to come through Isaac, God promised to make of Ishmael a great nation also (Genesis 17:19-21; 21:18). Ishmael became the father of many of the Arab peoples. And the world has certainly seen a period of Arab greatness. American author Louis L'Amour described this period in his bestselling novel The Walking Drum, set in 12th-century Europe and Asia: "In the space of one hundred years following the death of Mohammed in 632, the Arabs had carried the sword of Islam from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean, holding at one time most of Spain, part of southern France, the isle of Sicily, all of North Africa and Egypt, all of Arabia, the Holy Land, Armenia, Persia, Afghanistan, and almost a third of India. The empire of the Arabs was larger than that of Alexander the Great or of Rome. Under the flush of greatness for more than five hundred years the Arabs carried the torch of civilization" (1984, pp. 171-172).
Consider, then, what that must mean for the descendants of Isaac. If Ishmael becoming a "great nation" meant an empire more vast than Rome's, which preserved civilization through the Dark Ages of Europe, then think what must have been in store for the descendants of Isaacwho were to become many nations and inherit far greater blessings! Have the Jewish people ever been the recipients of such greatness? No. Even today, Arab national territory is far greater than the land of the modern state of Israel by a ratio of 540 to 1. Yet God's amazing prophecies have been fulfilledsurprising as it may sound, through the modern descendants of Joseph in the form of the British Empire and the United States of America. You'll find the entire amazing story spelled out in greater detail in our free booklet The United States and Britain in Bible Prophecy.
Supplementary Reading: "Promises to Abraham," Fundamental Beliefs of the United Church of God, pp. 35-37; "Chapter 1: God's Commitment to Abraham and His Descendants," The United States and Britain in Bible Prophecy, pp. 3-11.