Background: Abram enters the Genesis narrative in chapter 12, with YHWH saying to Abram to leave Haran, and with a promise of descendants and land and blessing. Abram goes to Egypt to escape a famine, lies about Sarai being his sister, gets out of that without too much embarrassment and some augmented fortunes (Genesis 13). Splits up with Lot and gets another promise of offspring and land (Genesis 13:14-18). Rescues Lot from King Chedorlaomer et al., and is blessed by the King of Sodom and King Melchizedek of Salem (Genesis 14:17-24). God makes a covenant with Abram that involves animal sacrifice and a vision of a smoking fire pot, and a gift of land (Genesis 15). Sarai still has no children, so comes up with a plan to hook Abram up with her servant/slave Hagar (“the Foreigner”), resulting in domestic disaster #1 (Genesis 16); domestic disaster #2 will come up in chapter 21. So the articulation of a covenant in chapter 17 will be a repetition with variation on a theme already articulated in the story so far. The commentators suggest that this is P’s version, with J’s version having already appeared in chapter 15.
Text: The passage is a long speech by God (YHWH, who announces H’self as “El Shaddai”) to Abram, which includes changing Abram’s name to Abraham, and then another speech to Abraham. Abram receives God’s appearance, falls on his face, and has his name changed to Abraham. Later (vv 23-27) Abraham will execute the instructions related to the covenant by having all the males in his household including himself and his son Ishmael circumcised.
God’s speech to Abram (vv 1-8) involves names: God’s name (El Shaddai, translated into English as God Almighty), and Abram’s (“great father”) new name Abraham (“father of multitudes”), and promises of descendants (“nations”, including “kings”), and gift of land (“all the land of Canaan”), for “all generations” or “everlasting” or “perpetual.” So the promise is large, and lasting.
The speech to Abraham (vv 9-14) is about covenant (the term repeated 6 times in as many verses) and the sign thereof: circumcision (again, this term, or a variant, repeated 6 times in as many verses). Circumcision is a “sign” of the covenant (v 11). The rule that circumcision is to take place when a male descendant is eight days old, and that slaves are to be circumcised, too, regardless of their origin, and both stipulations. The covenant, again, is “throughout [your offspring’s] generations,” (vv 9, 11) and “everlasting” (v 13). Since a covenant is something literally “cut,” and since this covenant is going to be cut into the people involved in the covenant relationship, we could say that another theme of this speech is cutting. Moreover, individuals who remain uncircumcised will be “cut off” from the people for having “broken” the covenant – under the circumstances, seemingly more like breaking a chain letter than like breaking a piece of pottery.
[God’s final speech to Abraham (vv 15-27) involves Sarai, the change of Sarai’s name to Sarah, and the announcement that God will bless Sarah specifically with Isaac, and that the covenant will proceed through him, along with reassuring provisions for Ishmael.]
The covenant is not only or perhaps even primarily about land. It is about God’s relationship with the family: God promises “to be God to you and to your offspring” (v 7); “I will be their God” (v 8). Being a covenant, one party’s commitment isn’t contingent on the satisfactory performance of the covenant by the other party. “I will be their God” is a significant statement; whatever it means for God to be God for these people, then, is its ultimate significance.