“And when Abram was ninety-nine-years-old, God appeared to Abram
and said unto him: I am God Almighty. Walk before Me and be
wholehearted. And I will make My covenant between Me and you, and
will multiply you exceedingly…This is My covenant, which you shall keep
between Me and you and your seed after you. Every male among you
shall be circumcised.”
Bible studies with Don Isaac Abravanel’s commentary (also spelled Abarbanel) has withstood the test of
time. In Genesis chapter 17, God once again appears to Abram. However, this time was
different, notes Abravanel. The commentator asks: Of all the divine communications with the patriarch,
why does only this one peg the prophecy to Abram’s age? “And when Abram was ninety-nine-years-old,
God appeared to Abram.”
Further, Abravanel observes that if the point was to inform us that Abram was a nonagenarian, it would
not make sense. Why? That information will be conveyed at the end of our chapter: “And Abraham was
ninety-nine-years-old when he was circumcised…”
In chapter 15, the Bible recorded an earlier covenant between the Creator and the patriarch. It taught
Abram that his progeny would flourish. The patriarch accepted the joyous news wholeheartedly, a
reaction that God attributed to Abram’s piety: “And he believed in God, and He counted it to him for
righteousness.” Shortly afterward, Ishmael was born to Abram.
Abram believed that the divine promise was coming to fruition. Ishmael would carry the patriarch’s
legacy and take title to the Holy Land. At present, in our chapter, God appears to Abram. The message
would disabuse the patriarch of his misunderstanding.
Abravanel elaborates. God’s message came in the form of a divine commandment. The patriarch needed
to undergo circumcision. “Every male among you shall be circumcised.” This informed Abram that the
sacred act of circumcision was an integral component of the covenant. It paved the way to producing a
Holy Nation. Children born to a circumcised father started conception, and life, on the right foot.
The Creator clarified matters more when He announced to Abraham later in chapter 16: “But My
covenant will I establish with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear unto you at this set time in the next year.”
Note the progression in our chapter.
The first patriarch underwent a name change from Abram to Abraham, the matriarch Sarai became
Sarah. These were precursors to the commandment to undergo circumcision, an additional preparation
preceding the birth of Isaac – from holy and pure Abraham and Sarah.
An emerging picture took shape and the patriarch grasped its intent. That is, Abraham understood his
miscalculation. Not Ishmael but rather Isaac would be the patriarch’s exclusive progeny to enter into the
Abrahamic covenant and take possession of the Holy Land.
Why? It is because Ishmael had been born prior to his Abraham’s circumcision (and name change). In
spiritual jargon, these events were profoundly significant; they were game-changers. Both requisite
preparatory steps brought the patriarch to higher levels, facilitating his ability to better commune with
the Creator. In stark contrast was Isaac’s conception and birth, circumstances that carried mystique.
In sum, Isaac would solely carry his father’s mantle to civilization insofar as the miracle baby entered the
world with a halo, figuratively of course, that bespoke his hallowed spiritual readiness. As for Ishmael,
only the mundane marked his welcome into Abram’s and Hagar’s household.