What’s in a Name? - Reflections on Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16

by Dr. John Holbert on Monday, February 19, 2024

What’s in a Name

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16 

The Peripatetic Hebrew Bible Preacher

          “When Abram was 99 years old,” is a most unpropitious way to begin a story of a promised baby! Nonetheless, that is exactly how the so-called Priestly author begins his tale of the coming birth of Isaac to the aged couple, Abram and Sarai. The older narrative, written by the J/E compiler, several centuries prior to P’s account, may be found in the chapters that follow. Such an absurd story is certainly worthy of more than one telling!

          The P writer is rarely known for his humor, being concerned usually with the right ritual, correct eating, and proper daily behaviors, but here he allows his wry sense to peek through. Still, blink and you might miss it.

          The famous change of the names of the patriarch of Israel contains its own sly commentary. YHWH appears to the aging Abram (Hebrew: “exalted father” or perhaps “notable ancestor” in a more inclusive translation), and announces the divine presence with an unusual name: “I am El Shaddai,” then adds “walk before me, and you will be blameless” (Gen.17:1). The NRSV reads the verb, which is spelled rather peculiarly, as an imperative, “be blameless,” which is certainly possible, but I suggest that “walking before YHWH” leads inevitably to a blameless life, hence, my reading. Confronted with the divine presence, “Abram fell on his face,” a common Middle Eastern reaction when one god or another shows up, as multiple pieces of iconography over several millenia make plain. Keep that action in mind as we read further.

          YHWH then promises to create a covenant with Abram, this aging notable ancestor, the result of which will be that Abram will be the “ancestor of a multitude of nations” (Gen.17:4,5), repeating the promise to make the point. But as such, the name Abram will no longer suffice; he now will be called Abraham, which is taken here to mean “father of (or “ancestor of”) a multitude,” as the covenant promised. In grammatical reality, there may be little difference between the two names, but P is making his point that Abram, that “notable ancestor” has now become, under the aegis of YHWH, far more than a singular and famous ancient worthy, but will now become the ancestor of the chosen people of YHWH who will soon enough be as numerous as the stars and the sand as J/E claims in Gen.15 and elsewhere. The lectionary reading adds a name change for the matriarch, too, from Sarai to Sarah; however, there really is no discernible difference between the meaning of the two names, both designating “princess.” 

          But, of course, there is a big problem with all this promising of offspring, this claim of numerous progeny, of “quivers full of children,” or babies as many as the stars. P knows well the issue because he is writing his narrative, as J/E did before him, with Gen.11:30 ringing in his ears: “Now Sarai was barren; she had no child.” Oops! Just like YHWH to choose one of the barren couples in the area who could not have children to begin the great experiment of an Israelite nation! In response to all that name-changing and covenant making, Abraham again “fell on his face” (Gen17:17)! But this time his face-planting before YHWH is not out of awe and wonder but out of incredulity and absurdity. From his place on the ground this time, he “laughs and says to himself, ‘Can a child be born to a man who is 100 years old (the age he would be if such a ridiculous thing might happen)? Can Sarah, who is 90, bear a child’” (Gen.17:17). After that private and chuckling rumination ends, Abraham speaks openly and reasonably to Elohim, “Let Ishmael be before you” (Gen.17:18)! There is a living child, God, and though he was born not from Sarah’s womb, he is our only child, and he will just have to do in any nation-building reality. 

          P delightfully and subtly repeats the famous pun on the name of the promised child, Isaac, made much clearer by J/E in Gen.18. The boy will be named Isaac, because he is the child of laughter; that is precisely what his name means! Isaac means “laughter,” a laughter of unbelief, a laughter of incredulity, but finally, a laughter of deep and divine pleasure, as Isaac is indeed born to the venerable couple. 

          The text plays with names, and aged Abram becomes Abraham, the promised ancestor, along with his venerable wife, of God’s chosen ones. And the very first result of their union is the child of laughter, Isaac, born impossibly at their unimaginable ages. “Is anything too astonishing for YHWH?” YHWH chides Sarah at Gen.18:14. Plainly, no, this text says, and P joins in the fun of J/E to make that fact certain. What better theological claim can be made in this rich season of Lent? After last week’s promise from YHWH never again to turn against us, as in the great flood, so now we hear again that nothing at all is too much for this fabulous God we worship. This 2024 Lent is off to a very promising and hopeful theological start!


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