What’s In a Name?

old man
Photo credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/sukanto_debnath/536924967/in/photostream/">Sukanto Debnath</a>

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16

When the Exalted Ancestor was ninety-nine years old, God visited him and told him, “I’m God of the mountain. Stick with me and be true to me, and I will make a deal with you: I will guarantee you a multitude of descendents.”

The Exalted Ancestor threw himself to the ground, and God continued, “Here’s the deal I’ll make with you: your family will be so big, it’ll be nations – lots of nations. No longer will you be called Exalted Ancestor. From now on, you’ll be called, “Father of the Nations,” because that’s what I’ve made you. I’ll make you fertile, so fertile that you’ll give rise to nations. You’ll be the father of kings! I’ll make this deal with you, and it’ll be the same deal for your descendents through the ages. This deal is forever. I’ll be your God, and your children’s God.”

God told the Father of the Nations, “As for Sarai, you will now call her Princess. That will be her new name. I will favor her, and she will have your child. I will favor her and she will be the progenitor of nations and kings. She will be the mother of kings and nations.”

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”
Romeo and Juliet, II,ii,1-2

Genesis tells the story of God’s covenant with Abraham several times. The broad outline of God’s deal common to them all is that God will make this old childless man into a father of multitudes. Abraham, for his part, must rely on God to do what God promises and try to stay out of the way of providence – a task, both parts of which are harder than one might think.

In this version, what stands out is the changing of names. Abram (Exalted Ancestor) becomes Abraham (Father of Nations). Sarai, which has no distinct meaning of its own, becomes Sarah (Princess).

While many peoples and traditions look back to an exalted ancestor, or even to many exalted ancestors, the change is to distinguish this one ancestor as a single common originator of a whole branch of the human family. The focus of this tradition is not about venerating ancestors, but about insuring the well-being of future generations. It’s not about past, but future.

It also explicitly acknowledges that the same benefits of divine blessing are available to the whole multitude of nations that will become a part of this heritage. So, even though the promise is made to a single individual, it takes on a universal scope. It’s not meant to be restrictive, but expansive.