After taking a break for a couple weeks for Easter, we picked back up in our Story of Scripture series, continuing in the events of God making a covenant with Abraham. Last time, we saw that the Lord called Abram to leave behind his family and go to the land which the Lord would show to him. Abram obeyed, going to the land of Canaan, and in the process, the Lord made a promise to him to give him that land, as well as descendants as numerous as the stars, and also incredible blessing which would be passed from Abram and his family to all nations. The Lord also formally established a covenant with Abram in a way that implied that the whole deal depended on the Lord alone, who would be faithful to these promises.
Today, we picked up in Genesis 16–17, and first we see that Abram and his wife Sarai, though largely faithful to the Lord, also sought to take things into their own hands at times. An important part of this story is that they are old in age and have no kids of their own, so this promise to make them into a great nation was a little hard for them to grasp at times. As such, in chapter 16, we see Sarai decide to give her servant Hagar to Abram as a second wife, since Hagar was much younger and likely not barren. Sure enough, she became pregnant, and great strife came between her and Sarai.
Hagar looks at Sarai with “contempt” (v. 4; possibly looking down on Sarai since she could not get pregnant?); Sarai gets angry and makes life difficult for Hagar, so Hagar flees into the desert (v. 6). While in the desert, an angel appears to Hagar, telling her to return to her mistress, but also making a great promise to her that she would have a son, and as this son is also Abram’s son, the promised blessing would in some ways pass down to him too. He is not the intended fulfillment of the Lord’s covenant, but the Lord would still turn him into a great nation, although there would be much strife between him and his promised brother.
This is a great promise for a couple reasons. First, although Abram and Sarai failed to trust in the Lord and wait on his timing, the Lord still remains faithful to his promises. Second, Hagar is in a pretty tough spot because of Abram and Sarai, a spot she never would have chosen herself. Even in that distress, it is said multiple times in this passage that the Lord heard her and saw her. Her son was to be named Ishmael, which means “God hears,” and Hagar named God “El-Roi,” which means “You are a God of seeing” (v. 13). I believe that just as God heard and saw Hagar in her distress, he will also hear and see us in ours!
As we keep reading in chapter 17, we see that the Lord repeats his promises to Abram that he would give him the Land of Canaan, give him descendants that would be a great nation, and use them to be a blessing to the world (vv. 1–8). We also see that the Lord renames Abram to Abraham, which sounds like “Father of a multitude” (later in the chapter, Sarai’s name is changed to Sarah, meaning “Princess” and implying that she too would be the mother of a nation). Even in trying to take things into their own hands, the Lord remains faithful to his promises and assures them that they will have their own child together through whom these great blessings will come.
Up to this point, Abraham really didn’t have much responsibility in the covenant other than to trust God to be faithful to his promises. Here, though, we see the Lord give Abraham a sign of the covenant that would require obedience on Abraham’s part but serve as a physical reminder of God’s faithfulness and promises. The sign God gives is that every male eight days or older needs to be circumcised. We don’t really know why this is the sign God chose, other than that it is a permanent physical reminder to the men of Israel about who God is, and that it is involved with reproduction which is at the core of God’s promises and covenant to Abraham. There should be no reason that the people of Israel would forget who God is and what it means to belong to him.
This image is one that, as strange as it is to think about, is actually very important to the whole story of Scripture. While this is a physical sign of God’s covenant, later parts of Scripture talk about how important it is for the heart to be (metaphorically) circumcised. Pure physical and outward obedience does not equal a heart that is tender and obedient toward God.
Throughout this story of Abraham, what we see is that the Lord is faithful to his promises, and he desires hearts that trust in him and love him. May we too live with this type of heart each day!