The sovereign God continues speaking, saying “As for Me, this is My covenant with you” (17:4a). He does not follow this with “you will be circumcised, observe Sabbaths, and maintain these dietary restrictions.” Rather, He says “You will be the father of a multitude of nations” (17:4b). This covenant into which one enters, and therefore enters into a covenantal relationship with the Creator God, and does so in the manner of Abraham (belief), involves a “multitude of nations.” This is God’s intention from the outset. God speaks about a multitude of nations, then says words that should be taken to make reference to a multitude of nations rather than a single nation. Of course, if we are paying close attention to the telling of this story, and if the story is being told as it is supposed to be told (in a single setting, spoken aloud to a group of people that form an oral/aural community), then it has not been too long since the telling of the scattering of the peoples across the face of the entire earth (11:9), which is what, if we remove the genealogy of Shem and the record of Terah, is what immediately precedes the call of Abraham. One could reach the conclusion that the call of Abraham partially occurs so as to remedy the scattering of peoples across the face of the earth, and that this provides greater import to talk of the blessings and promises made to Abraham reaching a “multitude of nations.”
Because of what we are attempting to observe with Paul in Romans, specifically in chapter four, which demands a thorough working knowledge of the Abraham story, we must notice the progression of the promise. It begins with Abraham being made into a great nation (12:2), and this includes the promise that “all of the families of the earth will bless one another by your name” (12:3b). Though this clearly, at the outset, removes the promise from any type of isolation to Abraham alone, it can also be easily construed as a promise in which the families of the earth become subservient to Abraham.
In the fifteenth chapter, there is talk of Abraham’s descendants as a specific group of people that will be oppressed and enslaved by a specific nation that will receive specific judgment, with this specific group of formerly oppressed and enslaved descendants coming out from that situation and receiving a specific piece of land as proof of God’s faithfulness to His covenant with Abraham.
On to chapter seventeen, the re-confirmation of the covenant and its recurring talk of multitudinous descendants now includes talk of a “multitude of nations.” With this talk of Abraham now being the father of a multitude of nations, any notion that the blessings to be experienced by the families of the earth will stem from their subservience to Abraham’s descendants, who may be looked upon as a family separated from and set against other groups of people, falls away. Not only will Abraham be made into a great nation, but he will be a father of nations, which means that, as the head of the household of nations, all nations will share equally in the blessings. All nations will participate equally in the covenant and its promises. At this point, all of this is still predicated on Abraham’s belief, his response of faith, and the genuine loyalty entailed thereby.
Just in case the reader or the listener missed it the first time that talk of nations is directed to Abraham, to the words of verse four is added “No longer will your name be Abram. Instead, your name will be Abraham because I will make you the father of a multitude of nations” (17:5). Also, just in case one is tempted to think that “multitude of nations” includes only a portion of the nations of the world rather than implying that God intends to extend His covenant to all the nations and peoples of the world via the descendant(s) of Abraham, the sixth verse disabuses us of any such notion, as we read “I will make you extremely fruitful” (17:6a). This is an unmistakable reference to God’s words to the first of humankind, which were “Be fruitful and multiply” (1:28b). Of course, these words are also spoken to Noah in the ninth chapter, following the flood, where we hear “Be fruitful and multiply” (9:1b). This directive is attended by “fill the earth,” which could certainly be appended to the words spoken to Abraham, with the nations now standing in for the filling of the earth.
God speaks to the first family (Adam and Eve, though it is not explicit in the text) following the creation and says “Be fruitful and multiply.” God speaks to the second family (Noah and his sons) following what could be termed the second creation and says “Be fruitful and multiply.” God speaks to the third family (Abraham and his descendants) at something like a third creation and says, essentially, “Be fruitful and multiply.” This, of course, is basically what Jesus says to His disciples following His Resurrection that marked the renewal of creation and the beginning of the new creation (at the time of the letter to the Romans there would be no Gospel of Matthew and no written version of “the great commission,” so this would fall under the heading, at that point, of “oral Jesus tradition”). This is the charge that is taken up by Paul, who will incorporate talk of creation and new creation in his letters, with this understanding concerning nations and multiplication essential to his comprehension of the Gospel and its presentation in the letter to the congregation in Rome.