Well here we are, just about halfway through this Abram study on expectations and most of our focus has been on expectations not being met. We dream and imagine how we think God’s plans might play out in our lives and then when they don’t, we’re disappointed. But right here is when the story starts to get really good…not that it hasn’t been good already. It just gets even better!
Digging in like we’ve been doing has brought this story to life for me in more ways than I could have imagined. These people are real and so are their expectations; and the way God interacts with Abram and Sarai and Hagar, that’s real too. He cares, He knows, and He does far more abundantly than we could ever ask for or imagine; and He does it in ways we will probably never understand. So, with that, let’s catch back up with Abram and Sarai. We’ll pick up in Genesis 17.
“When Abram was ninety-nine years old the Lord appeared to Abram and said…” (Gen 17:1).
Now, let’s stop there. Chapter 16 ended with the statement that Abram was eighty-six years old when Ishmael was born. That’s eleven years after God called Abram out of Ur. And between the last verse of chapter 16 and the first verse of chapter 17, thirteen years have passed.
I wonder what happened in those thirteen years. Was God silent? We’ve seen the big encounters God had with Abram–the calling, the promises, the covenant. But what about the daily encounters? Did God and Abram speak daily with each other? Did Abram even think that God had more to bless him with, that the birth of Ishmael wasn’t the end of the waiting, but just another leg in the journey?
And what about Sarai and Hagar? Are they getting along? Is Hagar still hurting? Is Sarai still mean and bitter? Has she settled back into the familiar routine of a barren woman who can’t have what she wants? Is she still fighting jealousy toward her maidservant?
Whatever happened in those thirteen years, Genesis 17 tells us that God has come to speak to Abram again:
“I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless, that I may make my covenant between me and you, and may multiply you greatly,” declares the Lord. In response, Abram falls on his face. And God continues, “Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations.”
With his face in the dust, Abram’s heart is probably responding to the familiar words. He’s heard this before. Many times in fact. But like so many things in life, this whole promise thing is a process; and here God is about to take His commitment to Abram a step further.
“No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations” (Gen 17:1-5).
While I was reading this, I wondered what Abram meant. I knew that Abraham meant father of nations. But what did his name mean before God changed it? A footnote at the bottom of the page answered that question for me. Abram means exalted father. Hmmm…kind of ironic isn’t it? Abram–exalted father–the name of a man who didn’t even have a child until he was nearly ninety! And now God’s changing his name. Now he isn’t “exalted father,” but “father of many nations.”
“I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and your offspring after you. And I will give to you and your offspring the land of your sojourning, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God” (17:6-8).
It’s always coming back to the promise of His presence. Even with God’s promise to give Abraham a family and to bless him and prosper him and give him land, all of that pales in comparison to God’s constant reminder and promise to be with Abraham and to keep him and his descendants.
Then God gives him a physical sign of His commitment. A reminder in the flesh of Abraham and in all of his males born into his household that God has committed himself to them and that they are to be committed to Him.
I know it’s not the same, but as I read this, it makes me think of the purpose of wedding bands. When a couple makes the covenant before God to love each other, they exchange rings. As the groom says his vows, he slides the band onto his bride’s finger–a physical reminder and symbol of his covenant with her. And she does the same for him. Circumcision served a similar purpose–to be a physical reminder to Abraham and his descendants that they were set apart for God, and He was committed to them.
Now to Abraham, this might have seemed like the end of the conversation. God spoke, reminded Abraham of His promise, and has now issued a physical reminder. Good! It’s been great talking with you, Lord. But that wasn’t the end. Oh, no. God’s ways are higher than ours, and He had more to say.
“As for Sarai, your wife…” Sarai? Wait, she fits into this too? “As for Sarai, your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name.”
Again, I’ve heard about the meaning of Sarah before. It means princess. But what about Sarai? No footnote help on this one so I hoped on good ‘ole Google. And guess what? The Hebrew name Sarai means argumentative. My mouth dropped open! Seriously?! It fits this woman perfectly in a sad sort of way. She is argumentative. She argued with Hagar. She argued with Abraham about the whole Hagar situation. And in our next leg of this study we’ll see how she argues with God’s promise.
It’s things like this that make me stop in humbled awe because I see God doing a work. “Abraham–father of many nations–don’t call your wife argumentative anymore. Call her my lady, princess. She is special and loved and I have a beautiful plan in mind to bless her.”
Once again I am so humbled by God’s ways…
“…Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her and moreover, I will give you a son by her.”
Wait a second. Did God just say a son? By Sarah? Indeed He did.
“I will bless her, and she shall become nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.”
For the first time in fifteen years we see God including Sarah in His plans and promises–a plan I believe He had in mind all along.
But apparently it didn’t seem all that grand of an idea for Abraham, for Abraham fell on his face and laughed (17:16). “Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?”
Certainly God must have flunked His biology class if this is His plan. People just don’t have children at their ages. The idea of Abraham, who is ready to tip over the edge to one hundred, and Sarah following not far behind, is hysterical to Abraham. No, God’s crazy. That’s too big. That’s too much. It’s too impossible. So of course, Abraham shares his own idea: “Oh that Ishmael might live before you!”
I wonder if this wasn’t only said out of humor. Perhaps his heart just didn’t want to hope anymore for fear of being disappointed.
God, just let Ishmael be enough.
“No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac.” Isaac, meaning laughter. “I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him.” Isaac, this child who is to be born to elderly parents is the chosen child. But God assures Abraham that Ishmael won’t be overlooked. He will be blessed and God will multiply him greatly. “But I will establish my covenant with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this time next year” (17:15-21).
And that was the end of it. “God went up from Abraham” and Abraham went about the process of circumcising his household. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb by saying that Abraham believed God. Sure, he laughed and he probably questioned how in the world it would work out, but I think that he believed. Paul confirms this in Romans when he writes:
“In hope he [Abraham] believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he has been told…He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the bareness of Sara’s womb. No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promise” (Romans 4:18-21).
Abraham believed. But I wonder if he had the chance to tell Sarah about this most recent conversation with God before what happened next…
Live in His love!
Photo by Debbie Riley