The human race had plunged itself into a terrible situation. God created humanity to live in perfect harmony with Himself. We were to live in a perfect Garden Temple called Eden, which means “pleasure.” But the first humans, the ancestors of us all, rebelled against the one limitation God had given them. They sided with God’s enemy, and in so doing, subjected the whole race to his bondage. Yet even as they rejected God’s way, He had a plan to draw them back, a design for human history that would provide a ransom for the souls of humanity. Abram and Sarai were at the center of God’s plan. He chose them to be the ones through whom He would bless the nations of the world. Their offspring would be His holy priesthood, and somehow, they would bring salvation.
Yet there was a problem. Abram and Sarai had no children. Sarai was barren. After many years of waiting on the Lord’s plan, they grew impatient, and sought to have a child through Hagar, Sarai’s servant. They lost faith in God’s plan and took matters into their own hands, violating the sacred covenant of marriage in the process. Abram and Hagar had a son named Ishmael.
Thirteen years passed after Ishmael was born. Many things must have happened in their lives over those years. Still Abram and Sarai were without a child. What ache did Sarai live with as she watched her maidservant raise a son before her eyes.
By the time of this story, Abram was ninety-nine years old. The LORD appeared to him again. He said:
“‘I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless. I will confirm my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.’”
When Abram heard this, he fell down with his face to the ground before the LORD. God continued to speak:
“‘As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations. I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. 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. The whole land of Canaan, where you are now an alien, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; I will be their God.’”
Abram was given a new name. It was a mark that the promises the LORD had given His servant before were growing. God was filling in the details and showing Abraham just how great and awesome His promises truly were. This covenant would bring whole nations and kings…it would be everlasting!
Then God gave Abraham a sign that would be the symbol of His covenant. Abraham and every man who descended from him was to be circumcised. Circumcision is a quick but painful operation. A small piece of extra skin is cut off of a male’s private parts. Every male in Abraham’s family or his servant’s family was to have this operation done as a sign that they belonged to the LORD. They were part of His covenant blessing. Most of them would have it done when they were infants, when they were eight days old. They would hardly know what was happening to them.
It was a high honor, marked out in their very flesh, that they were to remember at all times! Each descendant of Abraham had to chose to follow after God with the same faith as Abraham. Whoever did not keep the sign of the covenant by being circumcised would be cut off from the people. It was a breaking of the covenant itself.
Then God told Abraham that He was changing Sarai’s name. It would now be Sarah. God promised that He would bless her, and she would give birth to a son. This son would become the head of twelve tribes, or clans, and from them whole nations would come. Her role as the mother of the coming nation of God was high and honored. The Lord had watched her go through every trial of faith with her husband. She had carried the shame of her barren state as she waited on the Lord for His promises. She, too, had remained faithful.
But when Abraham heard this, he threw himself onto the ground and started laughing. Sarah was ninety years old! Abraham was almost a hundred! How could this be? When it came to childbearing, their bodies were as good as dead! It was impossible. So Abraham reminded the Lord about Ishmael. Perhaps God should use him.
Abraham did not yet fully understand that his Lord was the one who could call things into being that were not (see Romans 4). Abraham was limiting his imagination to the things that a human could do. God has no such limitations. If God made the stars and the earth from nothing, surely He could raise up a nation out of nothing! Surely He could make a child, even from the bodies of an aging couple! God was able to bring life from the death of old age.
The fact that it seemed impossible was part of God’s plan. Everyone would know that this was a miracle. It was clearly something only God could do. All of the surrounding tribes and villages, all of the towns where Abraham had visited and even saved in war, would know that something different was happening in the lives of God’s covenant family. This was a power and a provision there that would shake their understanding of the world. When the LORD began His holy nation through this child, the whole region would be gossiping and wondering how it happened. It was a testimony and an opportunity to follow the God of Abraham.
God knew how impossible it was for Abraham to have a child and said, “‘Nevertheless.’” Then He told Abraham that a son would be born to Abraham and Sarah the very next year. Abraham accepted the unique plans of his LORD and stepped out in immediate obedience. That very day, he circumcised himself and Ishmael and all the servants of the house.