Some twenty-five years have now passed since God first promised Abram a son. In chapter 16, we saw how Abram and Sarai decided God needed a little help to make this promise happen, so they took things into their own hands. We all know the rest of the story… And so, with this context in mind, we come to Genesis 17: “And when Abram was ninety years old and nine, the LORD appeared to Abram, and said unto him, I am the Almighty God; walk before me, and be thou perfect‘” (vs. 1, KJV). Whoa! God is laying some pretty hefty demands on Abram, don’t you think? What are we to make of this seemingly-impossible command? First of all, let’s notice that God first says something about Himself before saying anything about Abram: “I am Almighty God.” This is our first encounter of the Hebrew name El Shaddai. This is a truly fascinating linguistic term and there are a couple of different things that could be going on here. El Shaddai could mean “God Who Is All-Sufficient” or “The Breasted One,” portraying the picture of the tender, nurturing love of a nursing mother. Either way, both ideas are actually inseparably linked. The God who is all-sufficient for us, after all, must also be the God who tenderly nurtures our growth with unfailing love.
So we see that before asking Abram to do anything, God first introduces Himself by making a statement about His identity and character. After all, we can only truly follow God’s commands when we really understand who God is! We then get to the command “be thou perfect.” Sounds pretty intimidating, doesn’t it? Can any of us ever claim to live totally “perfect” lives? But fascinatingly enough, the Hebrew word here for perfect, tamiym, literally means to be “whole” or “complete.” We actually find the same idea in the New Testament. The Greek word teleios is often translated “perfect,” as in the case of Matthew 5:48: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” However, the term can equally mean “mature” or “brought to its end goal or purpose.” To be teleios, therefore, is for us to reach forward and continue on the trajectory towards our ultimate goal and end purpose, even though we aren’t there yet! In other words, to embrace the identity that God has destined for us! As Ephesians 4:13 puts it, “till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God [understanding His true character and knowing who He really is], to a perfect [teleios] man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.”
Now, back to Abram… Do you see what’s going on in the big picture here? God isn’t telling Abram, “Be absolutely sinless or else!” Rather, God is saying: “I am the God Who Is All-Sufficient, the One who sustains, nurtures, and makes complete; therefore, walk before me and be complete – embrace the fullness of your identity in Me. Become who I made you to be!” And what does God do next? He gives Abram the new name of Abraham. God gives Abram a brand new identity! Abram’s old name “noble father” had smacked of painful irony for nearly the entire century of Abram’s life. With his new name of “father of many multitudes,” Abraham could know that God was about to make something new and wonderful happen!
In verses 9-14, God then tells Abraham to do something that may seem very strange. God instates the sign of circumcision. Why would God put in place such a radical and painful symbol of commitment to Him? Let’s think back for a moment on what has just transpired in Genesis 16. Abram and Sarai have just made a big mistake by taking things into their own hands. Abram believed that he could make God’s promises happen by the power of his own flesh, by his own reproductive capabilities. But God wanted to radically recalibrate Abram’s perspective. So God establishes circumcision as the “sign of the covenant.” Circumcision represents a cutting away of the works of the flesh which we put our confidence and trust in. Symbolically, it is cutting off that which gives a man potency. The sign of circumcision represented ripping away human strength and ability, leaving us 100%, completely, totally, absolutely dependent on God alone!
Can we now see how Genesis 17 all fits together for our lives today? God approaches us with a beautiful promise of a brand-new identity in Him, a new way to understand ourselves and live life in relationship our Father! But this idea of new identity cannot be fully embraced until we realize and accept our complete dependence on Him. We must fully commit ourselves to El Shaddai – the One who sustains, the One who nurtures, the One who completes.