Abraham 07: A Change of Name and a Sign of the Covenant

Twickenham URC 28 May 2000

A change of name and a sign of the covenant (Genesis 17 + Col 2:1-17)

A couple of weeks ago I took my niece to see Rodgers & Hammerstein’s musical Carousel at Wimbledon Theatre; it was so good that we went back to see it again the following evening. Her immediate comment, though, after we came out from seeing for the first time was that it was very good but the first half was rather slow going.

Today’s instalment marks the end of the first half of our study series on the life of Abraham, and the girls are waiting at the back ready to sell you choc ices. Perhaps you too feel that it is a bit slow going. You were promised a drama about a man and a woman who leave home to start a dynasty and now, at the half-way point not a lot has happened, though there have been some quite exciting sideshows along the way.

A while back I pointed out the way in which these chapters in Genesis are structured: alternately we read about events that involve Abraham, Sarah, Lot and a few other players separated by accounts of Abraham’s meetings with God.

Today we come to one of the latter. God appears to Abram who is now 99 years old. 13 years have elapsed since the events we recounted last time, which culiminated in the birth of Ishmael. It’s a long time. Where were you thirteen years ago? What has happened since. Just over 13 years ago I got on a plane bound for Australia. At that stage in my life I had flown about 400 miles. Now I have flown about 400,000 miles. A lot can happen in 13 years.

Ishmael was born because Abram and Sarai thought, wrongly, that God needed a helping hand and they were not prepared to wait. They had to learn, as we have to learn, that our idea of time is not always God’s; as Isaac Watts put it: ‘a thousand ages in Thy sight are like an evening gone’. But now, when Abraham is looking forward to getting his telegram from the Queen, and now believes that the only way in which God’s promise will be fulfilled through Ishmael, he gets another visit.

The visitor identifies himself as the Lord God Almighty, El-Shaddai in the Hebrew. This is the first time that this name is used for God, but it recurs again and again in the Old Testament to draw attention to the contrast between the power of God and the helplessness of man. In recognition of this Abraham falls on his face.

God tells him “Walk before me and be blameless“. In various places in the Bible we read of people walking with God, as one might with a friend, to walk after God, as a servant would follow his master, walking in God, signifying a unity, and here walking before God. When we take the Beaver Scouts out on the Green or on an outing we tell them, not always successfully, not to go running off, but to stay where we can see them. This is the sense being implied here.Don’t go off doing your own thing, as you did with Hagar. Stay within my sight, my oversight, my protection, where you can hear my voice.

What I have told you will come to pass, and as a sign of it you are to change your name, from Abram, father, to Abraham, father of many nations. Perhaps Abram received this instruction with some misgivings: at 99, with just one son by a servant girl he was to go home and tell everyone that he was changing his name to ‘Father of many’. It would be a bit like me announcing that from now on I wished to be called Mr Neat or Mr Tidy! We’ve already talked about the meaning of names. Names are often of great significance in the Bible: Jacob, the heel grabber, the surplanter, is given the name of Israel, a Prince of God; Simon is given the name of Peter, the rock, one who can be depended on; Saul becomes Paul. We are given the name of ‘children of God’.

But there is more. Before now, you, Abraham, and I have had this private understanding of what is to happen. But this covenant is not just something between you and me; it is between me and all your household and all you descendants. As a sign of this covenant all the men, both those who are part of your original household and those you have acquired, are to be circumcised, and from now on, new male infants when they are eight days old. Note the inclusiveness of the instruction.

Circumcision was already a known practice in those parts, but it was associated with puberty, a sign of manhood, an initiation rite. The custom is taken and given a new meaning: henceforth it will declare that the child is part of the covenant even though they have no idea about what is going on. And so this understanding continues today in churches like ours which practice infant baptism. When we baptise an infant as we did a few weeks ago, we declare that Christ died for them and recognise them as part of our Christian family even though they are unaware of the significance of what is happening around them.

The danger of doing something, be it circumcision or infant baptism, as a sign of something else is that the real meaning of it gets lost. The act, rather than its meaning, becomes the important thing. Fifty or so years ago parents with no church connections or religious belief would want to have their baby ‘done’ sometimes for reasons that went no further than wanting an excuse for a party or from something that was much closer to superstition than religious belief. This was the sort of problem that Paul was addressed in several of his letters. Those who clung firmly to the traditional Jewish beliefs held the view that those men who converted to Christianity must be circumcised. Paul has to challenge this argument repeatedly. Circumcision was the sign of a covenant already made, not the admission ticket to God’s promises, and for Christians it is baptism that declares what God has done.

Then the subject of the discussion turns to Sarai. She too is to change her name to Sarah. As with Abram/Abraham, different commentators put different understandings on these changes of name. One suggests that we read the change as from princess, with a small ‘p’, as a man might refer to his wife as token of affection, to Princess with a capital ‘P’, someone of status and worthy of general respect.

She will bear Abraham’s son. He is overcome by the very absurdity of the idea and laughs aloud. Given their ages how can such a thing happen. Believe me, God tells him, by this time next year, Sarah will bear you a son and you are to call him Isaac – the one who laughs. As I have with you, I will establish a covenant with him and his descendants.

This puts Abraham in a bit of a tiz. What about Ishmael, the son he has cared for for the last 13 years, the one who he has seen as his heir. Do not worry, says God. He remains in my care.

The presence of God goes from Abraham, as we must now call him. He goes off to join his household and faithfully obeys the instructions he has been given. So must we.

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Hymns: R&S 740: Tell out, my soul, the greatness of the Lord!; To walk the way of Abraham (Christopher Idle); 326: Loving Spirit, loving Spirit … you have set your sign on me; O Master, let me walk with Thee (Washington Gladden); Faith, while trees are still in blossom (Anders Frostenson; English translation 1976 by Fred Kaan)

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Some thoughts from Rabbi Jonathan Romain:

In the important personal moments of our lives – birthdays, weddings and anniversaries – why do we make special celebratory arrangements, often giving a gift? Whether or not we are able to say how we feel in words, our rituals become a physical way to express our feelings to those who we care about most. This applies even more to our relationship with God, which transcends the limits of ordinary language.

For Abraham and his descendants, circumcision was an expression of belief. It was a mark of the covenant – the enduring relationship between them and God. As it was enacted by each new generation, it became a mighty vehicle for retelling the tales of God’s visitation and blessing. When we reenact the rituals of our religious beliefs, we, too, can celebrate our relationship with God.

‘Abraham and his sons’, James Harpur