In Genesis 17, God changes Abram’s name (meaning “exalted father”) to Abraham (meaning father of a multitude) and confirms His promise to Abraham with the covenant of circumcision. Abram had lived in Canaan for 10 years since God’s first promise to him of an heir through Sarai (Genesis 16:3) when they sinfully decided to try to conceive through Hagar instead. He was 86 years old when Ishmael was born (Genesis 16:16). So, assuming that it didn’t take long for Hagar to conceive, Abram was around 75-76 when he was first promised a child through Sarai. In Genesis 17:1, Abram is now 99. So, it has been almost 25 years since he was first promised a child through Sarai. You can see why Abram and Sarai gave up hope!
But God has not given up on Abram, Sarai, or their male heir:
When Abram was ninety-nine years old the LORD appeared to Abram and said to him, “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.” Then Abram fell on his face. And God said to him, “Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. 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. 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 to your offspring after you. And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.” (Genesis 17:1-8)
True to His word, the Lord is going to give Abram (now Abraham) a male heir through Sarai (to be renamed Sarah later in this chapter). And that heir, not Ishmael, will be the child of the covenant. This is now the 3rd time that God has made this same promise to Abraham. Notice the progression. In Genesis 12:1, it says that “the Lord said to Abram….” In Genesis 15:1, it says that “the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision.” In Genesis 17:1-3, it says, “When Abram was ninety-nine years old the LORD appeared to Abram and said to him, “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.” Then Abram fell on his face.” I may be reading into the text a bit here, but it seems clear to me that God is making His revelations clearer to Abram. First, God spoke to him. Then God spoke to him through a vision. And now God appears to him in such a clear way that Abram falls on his face in worship at the sight of whatever he saw.
And then the Lord appears to him again in Genesis 18:1-15:
And the LORD appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men were standing in front of him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them and bowed himself to the earth and said, “O Lord, if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree, while I bring a morsel of bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.” And Abraham went quickly into the tent to Sarah and said, “Quick! Three seahs of fine flour! Knead it, and make cakes.” And Abraham ran to the herd and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to a young man, who prepared it quickly. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them. And he stood by them under the tree while they ate.
They said to him, “Where is Sarah your wife?” And he said, “She is in the tent.” The LORD said, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent door behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in years. The way of women had ceased to be with Sarah. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I am worn out, and my lord is old, shall I have pleasure?” The LORD said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too hard for the LORD? At the appointed time I will return to you, about this time next year, and Sarah shall have a son.” But Sarah denied it, saying, “I did not laugh,” for she was afraid. He said, “No, but you did laugh.”
We don’t know the identity of the three men. Some believe that one of them may have been another pre-incarnate appearance of Christ (a Christophany). I try not to get caught up in that kind of speculation, because it doesn’t matter. The text plainly tells us that the Lord appeared to Abraham here, and it is obvious from his response that Abraham recognized that this was a divine visit.
While Abraham is serving the men, Sarah is listening in on the conversation. Abraham had laughed in response to the Lord’s promise in Genesis 17:17 that a male heir was still going to be born to Abraham and Sarah, and the Lord told him that the boy’s name would be Isaac (literally, “he laughs”) in Genesis 17:19. (God definitely has a sense of humor.) Now it is Sarah’s turn to laugh. By “the way of women had ceased to be with Sarah” in Genesis 18:11, most scholars believe that this means she had reached menopause and stopped having periods. This would mean that pregnancy was no longer (humanly) possible. But the Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too hard for the LORD? At the appointed time I will return to you, about this time next year, and Sarah shall have a son.” (Genesis 18:13-14)
“Is anything too hard for the Lord?”, the question that the Lord asked Abraham, reminds me of what the angel said to Mary in announcing the birth of Jesus: “For nothing will be impossible with God.” (Luke 1:37)
Virgin birth, birth of a baby to a post-menopausal woman…we’re talking about God here. That which is humanly impossible is surely no big deal for God.
We prefer a God we can understand. And, yet, a God that the human mind can fully wrap itself around is no God at all.