17:15 The Promise to Sarah. Previously the covenant was solely with Abraham. Now Sarah is called upon as an equally essential factor in this covenant-promise. And just as Abraham’s significance was to be perpetuated by a change of name, so was Sarai’s importance to be perpetuated by changing her name. (Hirsch)
Abarbanel notes that throughout the prophecies up to this chapter, God manifested Himself in His Four Letter Name Hashem, signifying the Attribute of Mercy by which He graciously promised the Land, safety, future descendants, and so forth. In this chapter, however, concerning circumcision and the childbearing of Sarah, He reveals Himself as Elohim, signifying the Attribute of Justice, He would fulfill His promises and obligations within the terms of His covenant. It also reflected true Justice that the righteous and deserving Sarah be ‘remembered’ by God and granted a child.
Sarai designates ‘my princess’ while Sarah signifies ‘princess to all the nations of the world’. Prior to the covenant, Sarai’s personal majesty made her the princess of Abraham and of his people Aram. Now, however, no limitations were placed on her. She was princess to all mankind. (Berachos 13a)
17:16 “..and I will bless her..” – With all blessing that will most appropriately precipitate her imminent childbearing: I will restore her youthfulness.
“I will give you a son through her.” From this verse, the Sages (Rosh Hashanah 16b) inferred that a change of name brings about a change of man’s fate. For after Sarai’s name was changed, she was blessed with a child. (Ralbag)
“..kings of peoples will rise..” – The descendants of Jacob and Esau.
17:17 “..and laughed..” – He rejoiced. In the case of Sarah, however, (see 18:12) she laughed with mockery. Abraham had faith and rejoiced while Sarah sneered, hence God was angry with Sarah but not with Abraham. (Rashi)
“..born to a hundred year old man.” – It is obvious that the question does not imply that Abraham doubted the power of the Almighty God to give him a child of his own even at this advanced age. Rather it was a naturally jubilant outburst at the prospect of fulfillment of his life’s hope: ‘Could it really be true that this is finally happening to me? I am overjoyed!’
“And Sarah..’ – Since he did not have a child from Sarah when they were younger, he was astonished that he would do so now when he was a hundred years old and she was ninety, especially since he knew she was incapable of bearing. Therefore, Abraham did not express wonderment when he was told (in verse 6) that nations would descend from him, but only when he was told that these descendants would be born through Sarah.
Ramban concludes that it is certain that Abraham’s remark was motivated by faith and joy. The proof of this is that God commanded him to name his son Isaac (verse 19), a name commemorating his laughter.
17:18 Since Ishmael was born first, Abraham thought that he would be the heir promised him. Now that he was told that Sarah would bear him a son, he understood that her son would be the heir, and he feared that it might imply Ishmael’s death. ( Ramban)
Rashi’s interpretation of the verse is: ‘I will be satisfied if Ishmael lives and grows up to be God-fearing.’
Ramban disagrees with this interpretation because God responded to Abraham’s prayer by saying And as for Ishmael, I have heard you’ (verse 20).
Mizrachi defends Rashi’s interpretation by explaining that Abraham made two petitions here: that Ismael live; and that he be God-fearing. If, however, his prayer was for life alone, what need was there for the words before You? Because Sarah had just been promised a son, God assured Abraham that Ishmael would live. But Abraham’s second petition was not relevant to the promise just made regarding the birth and future survival of Isaac; therefore God did not respond at all. Or, the failure to respond may have been because God knew that Ishmael would go in the evil path and God did not wish to disclose this to Abraham to avoid causing him anguish.
17:19 “..and I will fulfill My covenant with him..” – From the general promise made in verse 7, it might be interpreted to embrace the descendants of Ishmael and Keturah, as well. God specifically declared, therefore, that the covenant will be perpetuated only through the descendants of Isaac, and no other.
17:20 Ramban interprets this verse as: ‘Although the covenant will be perpetuated by Isaac, nevertheless, since you prayed on behalf of Ishmael, I hereby accept your plea and he, too, will be successful.’
“..and I will make him into a great nation.” – We see from this prophecy (in the year of 2047 from Creation, when Abraham was 99) 2,337 years elapsed before the Arabs, Ishmael’s descendants, because a great nation. Throughout this period, Ishmael waited anxiously, hoping, until finally the promise was fulfilled and they dominated the world.
17:21 “I will maintain My covenant through Isaac.” – An explanation offered for this being repetitive of verse 19 is based on the Midrash: Rav Abba said: The Torah draws a conclusion which Isaac, the son of Sarah, could draw from Ishmael, the son of the handmaid. If God blessed Ishmael so in verse 20, surely it follows logically that He will bless Isaac so much more by maintaining His covenant through him!
The flow of verses 19-21 according to Rashi’s interpretation is: Isaac’s offspring will bear My covenant, but since you prayed on behalf of Ishmael I will make him great. Nevertheless, the blessing I will heap on Isaac will surely be much greater for through him will My covenant be maintained through the ages.
17:22 “..speaking with him..” – The expression ‘with him’ indicates a dialogue in contrast to ‘to him’, which implies that one spoke and the other listened. Whenever God makes a statement or gives a command that does not require clarification, ‘to him’ is used, because it is the function of the prophet merely to listen and nothing more. This verse, however, says ‘with him’ as the Torah says whenever explanation, clarification, or questioning is required. This is in the nature of the Oral Law, where the prophet must ask questions thus engaging a dialogue until the intricacies of the law are clear to him.
Note: The Midrash notes when the Holy One Blessed be He commanded Abraham to circumcise himself, he went and took counsel with his three friends, Aner, Eshkol and Mamre. (Either to test their beliefs so he could ascertain whether to continue his friendship with them, or because he was uncertain how to go about fulfilling God’s command – whether to sanctify God’s Name by doing it publicly during the day, or possibly to circumcise himself secretly, at night to avoid becoming a spectacle to scoffers, and to avoid possible assault by his enemies.)
Aner tried to dissuade Abraham entirely: ‘You are a man of a hundred years and you would inflict such pain upon yourself?’
Eshkol also was discouraging: ‘Why should you go and thereby make yourself distinguishable to your enemies?’
Only Mamre was vigorously encouraging and showed the firmest faith: ‘Was there ever a circumstance when God did not firmly stand by you – in the fiery furnace, in famine, in the war with the kings? Will you not obey him then in this matter?’ It was in reward for his good advice that God said He would appear to Abraham only in the fields of Mamre as written in 18:1.
17:23 Ishmael is here identified as Abraham’s son for although thirteen years old at the time and in a position to refuse, Ishmael acted as a true son of Abraham and eagerly consented to being the first to submit to circumcision. (Alshich)
He circumcised Ishmael, his only son, first, so he would serve as a model for the others to emulate. Then he circumcised all those servants born in his household who were most dependent on him, and would lovingly comply first with their master’s wish; then he circumcised those servants whom he had purchased for money, and finally all the members of his household, leaving not a single one uncircumcised. (Abarbanel)
Or HaChaim comments that although not specifically mentioned in the Torah, Abraham circumcised himself first in accordance with the halachah (a Jewish law from the Talmud) that only a circumcised Jew may act as a mohel (the person who performs the Jewish ritual), and in order to set an example for others. (See verse 26 where Abraham is mentioned first.)
Verses 24-27 The Torah now proceeds in its usual custom, to recapitulate the substance of the previous verses, but in more detail and with additional emphasis.
17:24 Although Abraham is credited with having fulfilled all the Laws of the Torah before they were given, he did not perform the mitzvah of circumcision until he was commanded to do so. Because he foresaw that this commandment would be implemented later in his lifetime, he therefore waited until he was specifically commanded to do so, in recognition of the proverb: ‘greater is he who is commanded and fulfills the command, than he who fulfills it without having been previously commanded.’ And by performing this after he was commanded, it became obvious to all that he was undertaking this at great risk in fulfillment of God’s wishes, and not for a therapeutic or cosmic reason; as mocking skeptics would have claimed had he undertaken it on his own initiative.
17:25 The ages of Abraham and Ishmael are specified to show that Abraham, despite his age, and Ishmael, despite his youth, went with vigor to perform the will of God. One might have expected them to fear the pain, or Ishmael’s mother to object, or that they would wait to see the effects of the circumcision on the other members of the household. In their righteousness, however, they performed the commandment on that very day.
17:26 The same expression ‘on that very day’ is used in connection with Yom Kippur (Leviticus 23:28). The Sages derive by analogy that Abraham performed these circumcisions on that day, and every year the Holy One, Blessed be He, sees the blood of our father, Abraham’s circumcision, and forgives all the sins of Israel as it say (Leviticus 16;30) ‘for on this day atonement shall be made for you, to cleanse you.’
In that place, Mount Moriah, where Abraham was circumcised and where his blood remained, the altar was subsequently built. Therefore, the sacrificial blood was required to be poured out at the base of the altar (Leviticus 4:30).
Gur Aryed adds that the Torah stressed the ages of Abraham and Ishmael. In those times, heavenly punishment was not inflicted until a sinner had become a hundred years old. God did not want Abraham to reach that stage uncircumcised. Ishmael, having become thirteen, would attain his majority and – no longer subject to Abraham’s domination – would have refused to circumcise himself. Therefore, the Torah stresses that he was barely thirteen and still obliging to his father’s guidance.
The reason the Torah stresses that it took place on that day was to point out Abraham’s dedication to God. Having already circumcised all members of his household, Abraham would have had no one to assist him during his recuperation for all his servants would have been ailing. Nevertheless he did not delay. (Abarbanel)
It is also written that he wanted to immediately rid his house of impurity for “whoever eats with an uncircumcised person is as though he were eating with a dog.’