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.

God’s Children… Are Everywhere

Photo credit: Riza Nugraha

Luke 1:5-7

Once upon a time, when Herod was the king of Judea, there lived a priest named Zack who belonged to the Order of God’s Children. He lived with his wife, Liz, who was descended from Aaron. Both of them lived godly lives, and had clean records so far as the religious rules and regulations were concerned. But they were childless. Liz had been unable to get pregnant, and by now they were both very old.

After setting the reader up to expect a well-documented history, the story opens with lines reminiscent of a fairy tale. In fact, the story of the virtuous aging childless couple has been told many times before. It’s in the Bible. It’s Abraham and Sarah’s story (Genesis 15:1-3). It’s Ramathaim and Hannah’s story (1 Samuel 1:1-2). But it goes beyond the Bible.

It is told as far away from the Bible’s ancient near east as the native Hawaiians in the story of Lau-Ka-Ieie, complete with the promised child delivered to transform sadness into joy. (A beautiful modern re-telling of it is here.)

Why? Because childlessness is a common human condition. And so is the universal human hope that a future is possible, even when all efforts at playing by the rules have failed and it’s getting near the end.

As such children born to childless couples are signs of that hope fulfilled. They come as gifts from God. They are cherished. Great things are expected of them.

But from there it’s only a small step to realize that really every child is a child of promise. Every child is born of a childless couple. Every child is, according to the name of Zack’s priestly order, God’s child.

So, when every child is cherished as the divine sign of a promise fulfilled, and when every child is expected to achieve great things, the promised future really is born into the world.

Even when all the other attempts have failed.
Even when it’s getting near the end.