Genesis 17-21



The entire life of the patriarch Abraham centers around the birth of his son. God established His covenant with Abraham (chap. 15), yet this covenant meant nothing to Abraham except the Lord would also give him a son in whom his seed would be continued. Abraham was called to be a stranger and sojourner in the land of Canaan which was to him a strange land. And God had given him the promise of this land for an everlasting possession. But also this promise meant nothing unless Abraham received from the Lord a son. To Abraham this land of Canaan was a picture of the inheritance of heaven for he confessed that he was a stranger and a pilgrim in the earth; and therefore, “he looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God.” Hebrews 11:9-16. But this promise of a heavenly inheritance could never come to Abraham if he died childless.

In chapters 17-21 this fact stands out with clarity. These chapters may therefore be divided as follows:
I. Preparations for the birth of the son of promise. Chapter 17
II. A specific lesson in covenant instruction. Chapters 18, 19
III. A revelation of the mercy of God which alone can give that son. Chapter 20
IV. The wonder of the birth of Isaac. Chapter 21

I. Preparations for the birth of Isaac

One year before Isaac was born, God came to Abraham to renew His promise and make the necessary preparation for the birth of this wonder child.

In general, we may notice that God evidently appeared to Abraham in a visible form. Also, He made Himself known to Abraham by the name El-Shaddai. This name speaks particularly of God’s omnipotence and the idea was that Abraham must learn that God is able to do what is humanly impossible. Even if the birth of a child to Abraham and Sarah seemed to them beyond the realm of possibility (for Abraham was 99 and Sarah was 89), God nevertheless could do it.

God speaks once again of His covenant which He established with Abraham. He speaks of that covenant as being, as far as its essential character is concerned, a covenant in which God was and would forever be the God of Abraham and his seed. He speaks also of what our Baptism Form calls “our part of the covenant”—“walk before me and be thou perfect.” And finally, He renews His promise to Abraham, a promise that is infinitely rich in blessedness. It is a promise first of all of a seed that Abraham shall surely receive. It is secondly, a promise of the covenant to be established in the line of continued generations. It is thirdly, the promise of a covenant that shall be everlasting. And finally, it is the promise of the land of Canaan (the heavenly Canaan) for a perpetual inheritance.

But before that promise can be realized (all of which hinges on the birth of a son), various preparations must be made. In keeping with the part Abraham and Sarah will have in the realization of God’s promise, God changes both their names. Abraham’s name is changed from Abram to Abraham. That name means “father of nations.” This is a very beautiful name, for it refers to the fact that Abraham shall be the father of all believers—believers who shall be gathered from all the nations of the world; for Abraham’s seed which shall constitute the Church shall be truly Catholic. Inasmuch as this patriarch shall be the father of all nations, he shall also be the father of kings. The reference is, of course, to all the kings in David’s royal line.

Yet, in a very fundamental sense, Abraham is the father of Christ. For Abraham’s seed is centrally Christ. “Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ.” Gal. 3:16. Christ is the seed of Abraham only because God created Christ in Abraham’s loins. He is therefore also the King born from Abraham. All the believers are then the seed of Abraham only because they belong to Christ the true Seed. “And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” Gal. 3:29.

In keeping with this, Sarai’s name is also changed to Sarah. Now, Sarah means “princess”; and this name also is entirely adapted to her place in the realization of God’s promise, for as a princess, she was the mother of kings and nations. Cf. Rom. 4:11-22.

The wonder of all this was too much for Abraham to receive. No doubt, he believed that somehow God would indeed fulfill this promise, but that he himself should have a son with Sarah was too much for him. And so, with laughter in his heart, he suggests the possibility of Ishmael being this child of the promise. But God emphatically states that, while Ishmael will receive an abundance of purely earthly prosperity, Abraham and Sarah must themselves bear this seed of the promise. Furthermore, the child shall be named Isaac (which means “laughter”). There is a twofold significance to this name: 1) it is a sign of the laughter of weakness of faith found both in Abraham and Sarah; 2) it is a sign of the rejoicing (the holy laughter) that shall be theirs when Isaac is born. Cf. Chap. 21:6, 7.

The second preparation required for this wonderful birth of Isaac is the institution of the sign of circumcision as a sign of the covenant. Abraham was commanded to circumcise all the males in his house whether they were his own children or his servants and their children. All males had to bear this sign put into their flesh when they were eight days old.

This Old Testament sign of the covenant has been put aside by the New Testament sign—baptism. Cf. Col. 2:11, 12. But it was in keeping with the dispensation of types and shadows, for on the one hand it was a bloody sign pointing to the oceans of blood that ran throughout the Old Dispensation and that pictured the blood of Calvary that was shed for sin. On the other hand, it was a picture of the fact that man by his own natural strength and power could never produce the seed of the covenant. This lay forever outside his ability. He could only bring forth children that were born in his own image and therefore totally depraved. So circumcision was a sign of the circumcision of the heart—the wonder of regeneration which only God can perform.

(Note: this is not the place to enter into the controversy with the Baptists. The interested reader can consult Rev. H. Hoeksema’s pamphlet, “The Biblical Grounds for the Baptism of Infants.”)

In obedience to God’s command, Abraham circumcised all the males in his house that same day.

II. A lesson in covenant instruction

It must have been very shortly after all this that God appeared once again to Abraham in the plains of Mamre. This time God appeared in the form of three men. Nevertheless, it is striking to notice that this time God does not use the name of El-Shaddai, but Jehovah. For “Jehovah” is pre-eminently God’s covenant name by which He reveals that He is eternal and unchangeable, and therefore, faithful to His promise so that He will surely do all He has said.

Not recognizing his visitors immediately, Abraham offers them the hospitality of his home and table. Perhaps to this (and to what Lot also did) Hebrews refers in Chapter 13:2: “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” Although God sat down at Abraham’s table and ate, it soon becomes evident that God has come for quite another purpose. Once more God renewed His promise of a son to Abraham, only this time particularly for Sarah’s benefit. Sarah overheard the promise and laughed in the weakness of her faith; but was rebuked by the Lord with the significant words: “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” In these words is really to be found the crux of all these chapters. God’s promise is the humanly impossible, but the divinely possible. This Abraham and Sarah—and we all—must believe. Although Abraham and Sarah both showed a weakness of their faith, we must not forget that they did believe and laid hold on the promise of God by faith. This is evident from Rom. 4:18-21 and Hebrews 11:11.

Nevertheless, this visit of the Lord goes beyond the announcement of a son.

The three “men” leave the home of Abraham and go in the direction of Sodom and Abraham accompanied them. As they proceed on the way, the Lord brought up the matter of Sodom, evidently to lead Abraham to ask about it. It is striking to notice that this has an evident purpose. Abraham must be led to ask about Sodom because the truth of the destruction of Sodom is to form an important part of the covenant instruction which Abraham will have to give to his child when he received it from the Lord. This covenant instruction is to contain the fundamental point that Sodom is destroyed for its wickedness. It is of importance that the seed of the covenant be taught this truth. For in the way of the instruction of the covenant seed concerning this truth, that seed will be blessed so that it becomes a great and mighty nation. Yet, that covenant instruction is the revelation of God’s will and counsel which is the heritage the saints of all time must cherish and keep. God revealed the secrets of His will to Abraham and Abraham must commit them to the child he shall receive. But the Lord emphasizes that this is possible only because God “knows” him (vs. 19). The preservation of the covenant line in the way of instruction is based upon God’s foreknowledge—the foreknowledge of sovereign election.

There is a problem in connection with the destruction of Sodom—a problem to which Abraham now turns. This problem is not, in Abraham’s mind, the salvation of Lot. It is true that Lot’s presence in Sodom forms the occasion for this problem; but Abraham does not even mention Lot’s name in his prayer. The problem is broader than this. It is: When God destroys the wicked, will the righteous be destroyed with the wicked? The wicked shall surely be destroyed; of this there is no doubt. And the righteous live in the midst of the wicked. And they deserve to be destroyed as the wicked are, for they are no better. But God’s promise is that He will be the God of Abraham’s seed. How then will the righteous remain the people of God when the wrath of God is poured out upon the wicked? If they too are destroyed—as they deserve to be—there is no point to the whole covenant promise. There is then no sense in God’s covenant and in the promise of a son. How will this be? That is Abraham’s problem.

Lot is a type of the righteous of all ages, while Sodom is a type of the world that stands ripe for judgment. How will God accomplish His purpose in the final judgment of the world?

To this problem the Lord gives an answer when this prayer of Abraham—an intercessory prayer without parallel in all Scripture—is answered with the assurance that the righteous shall not be destroyed. God will not destroy the righteous with the wicked. As long as there are righteous upon the earth, the wicked shall not be fully punished. In His forbearance, God will preserve the wicked for the sake of the righteous. This does not mean that there shall not come a time when the wicked shall be destroyed, but the righteous are at last delivered out of the world and the full company of the elect are saved. Then judgment shall come. Cf. Rev. 11:11-13.

This was all actually done in Sodom.

Lot had moved to Sodom when he chose the valley of Sodom many years before. Although he had camped in the plain first of all, he had gradually moved closer to Sodom until he took up his residence in this wicked city. This was a sad sin on Lot’s part, for Sodom was very wicked. He had forgotten the call to come out from among them and be separate (II Cor. 6:14-18). This does not mean that Lot was not a righteous man—he was. Scripture tells us that he was just. “And delivered just Lot, vexed with the filthy conversation of the wicked: (For that righteous man dwelling among them, in seeing and hearing, vexed his righteous soul from day to day with their unlawful deeds) II Peter 2:7, 8. But in this he sinned; and the consequences of his sin were that: 1) he lost everything that he possessed. 2) In his generations he was excluded from the covenant. His children were lost and had no place in the covenant lines. This is always the case with those who depart from the ways of God—they are lost in their generations.

When the angels who accompanied God came to Sodom in the evening, they received the kind hospitality of Lot and were taken into his house for the night. Soon it became evident how terribly Sodom had sunken into the slime of sin. Man, when he gives himself over to sin, becomes worse than an animal. And Sodom manifested itself that night as ripe for judgment.

That angels should come on this mission ought not to surprise us inasmuch as they are the ministers of God both to minister to the needs of the elect and to be the agents by which God brings judgment upon the earth. Cf. Heb. 1:14, Ps. 91:11, Ps 78:49, Matt. 13:41, etc. It is even quite possible that one of these angels was the Angel of Jehovah—the Old Dispensational revelation of Christ; for we read in Gen. 19:24 the striking words: “Then the Lord rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven.”

Lot was saved by the angels from the wicked men that pressed upon his door when they were stricken with blindness. We are shown how dulled the moral sense of Lot had become by the wickedness of the city when he offered his daughters to these godless men. The angels begin to urge Lot immediately to make preparations to leave the city. These preparations must be particularly to warn his family to flee with him. But they would not. They were so drunken with the terrible excesses of the city that they could not leave it ever nor believe that God would destroy it. At last, in haste, the angels took Lot and his wife and two daughters by the arm to lead them from the city, for judgment was speedily coming. Lot requested that Zoar be spared, for it was only a little city and he wished to find refuge there. This request was granted, but from that city also Lot fled in fear when heaven burst open with the judgments of God. Suddenly God’s wrath streamed from heaven upon these cities that had filled the cup of iniquity. Fire and brimstone (some form of sulphur) destroyed the cities and their inhabitants and burned the very ground upon which they were built so that a cavity was created into which the Dead Sea poured. The site of Sodom remains today a scene of utter desolation—a constant reminder to the wicked of the judgment of God upon a world steeped in iniquity. Lot’s wife was changed into a pillar of salt, for she loved the city and could not bring herself to leave it. She sorrowed at its destruction and hated the thought of forsaking a life of sin which she had grown to love. The pillar of salt remains a horrible reminder of the judgment that comes upon those who love the world (Luke 17:32).

Sodom was a picture of this godless world, as its destruction was a picture of the end of the world. The deliverance of Lot was a type of the salvation of the righteous that shall surely be delivered out of the world. This must be committed by covenant parents to their children in order that they may look away from this evil world and towards their God Who shall deliver them and make them heirs of the heavenly Canaan.

One more incident is added to the narrative. Lot’s daughters, by incest, became the mothers of two nations. They too showed the sin of Sodom that remained in them. And these nations (Ammon and Moab) became the bitterest enemies of Israel in their later history. This is always true, for the greatest enemies of the Church are not the heathen, but those who are born in covenant generations and depart.

(Continued in next issue)