Abraham gets a new name (Genesis 17:1 – 17:27)
Abraham’s new name
Still childless, Abram and Sarai were getting old when God reiterated his promise to Abram that he would be the father of many nations. God cemented the deal when he told Abram that he would no longer be called Abram but henceforth, would be called Abraham, a new name that was fitting. Abraham means “father of a multitude”. God also told Abraham that Sarai’s name would be changed to Sarah and foretold that he would bless Sarah and she would have a son.
Abraham laughed because he was 100 years old and Sarah was 90 years old. Feeling that he was too old to have children and that his servant, Ishmael, would therefore inherit everything he owned, Abraham told God, “why not just settle with Ishmael as my heir?” But God’s plan did not involve Ishmael.
God reiterated to Abraham that his promise was true. Sarah would have a son and they were to name him Isaac. He told Abraham that Isaac would be born within a year. God did not leave Abraham’s servant, Ishmael, out of the picture though. God told Abraham that Ishmael would be blessed too. He told Abraham that Ishmael would be the father of twelve great rulers and that God would make Ishmael’s heirs a great nation too.
God told Abraham that every male should be circumcised. Abraham followed God’s instructions. God then reminded Abraham that his promise to Abraham would carry over to his son Isaac and all of his heirs.
What the story means to us today
After God changed Abram’s name to Abraham, it must have been difficult for Abraham to tell everyone that his new name. At an old age, and childless, it took great faith to tell your friends and family that your new name meant “father of many”. Abraham had faith and did as God told him.
Additional thoughts and considerations
The significance of Abram’s name change
Abraham’s name change was quite significant. Abram meant “exalted father” or “high father”. Changing a few letters in his name, the new name takes on an entirely new significance. In Hebrew, Abraham sounds like “father of a multitude”. Abraham’s new name would forever be a reminder of God’s promise to Abraham.
When God told Abraham that he would soon have a son, Abraham laughed. In the next chapter, we will see that Sarah also laughs when God tells her she will have a son named Isaac. Ironically, Isaac means “he laughs”.
Nowhere in the Old Testament does it indicate that circumcision “saves” a man’s soul. Circumcision, which was already practice in ancient near eastern countries, was simply an outward symbol of the covenant between God and man.
The science behind the story
The practice of circumcision
The practice of circumcision was already common in ancient near eastern countries. It was not new or unusual and continued throughout biblical times except during the journey of Abrahams’ people through the wilderness (during which time they had fallen out of God’s favor).
In ancient times, names typically changed when there was a significant event in the person’s life. Typically only a few letters were changed in the name but the subtle letter changes would result in a new name that fully explained the change in the person’s status. In Abraham’s instance, rather than indicating a change in status, the name change foretold what was to come.
The significance of the letter “H”
Some scholars find more than coincidence in the letter “H” that was added to both Abram and Sarai’s names. In a day when subtle spelling and letter plays in words was common, it is significant that the letter “H” was added to both names. “H” was also found in the holy word “Jehovah”. Some believe it would have been considered an honor to have a letter from the holy name added to their own.
When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, “I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless. 2 I will confirm my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.”
3 Abram fell facedown, and God said to him, 4 “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. 5 No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham,c for I have made you a father of many nations. 6 I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. 7 I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. 8 The whole land of Canaan, where you are now an alien, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God.”
9 Then God said to Abraham, “As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. 10 This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. 12 For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner—those who are not your offspring. 13 Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. 14 Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”
15 God also said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you are no longer to call her Sarai; her name will be Sarah. 16 I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her.”
17 Abraham fell facedown; he laughed and said to himself, “Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?” 18 And Abraham said to God, “If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!”
19 Then God said, “Yes, but your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will call him Isaac.d I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him. 20 And as for Ishmael, I have heard you: I will surely bless him; I will make him fruitful and will greatly increase his numbers. He will be the father of twelve rulers, and I will make him into a great nation. 21 But my covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you by this time next year.” 22 When he had finished speaking with Abraham, God went up from him.
23 On that very day Abraham took his son Ishmael and all those born in his household or bought with his money, every male in his household, and circumcised them, as God told him. 24 Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he was circumcised, 25 and his son Ishmael was thirteen; 26 Abraham and his son Ishmael were both circumcised on that same day. 27 And every male in Abraham’s household, including those born in his household or bought from a foreigner, was circumcised with him.