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God Changed a Name: Abraham November 30, 2011

Posted by sandhandrews in Sermons.
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Genesis 17:1-16


November 30, 2011

Focus: God blesses His people through His covenant.

Function: That the hearers find the gospel in the Old Testament.

Structure: Working the text.


God Changed a Name: Abraham

            As most of you have already noticed, the church is decorated for Christmas.  And as Pastor talked about this weekend, we’ve begun a new church year.  The first season of the church year is Advent, the season in which we prepare for the coming Messiah.  And that’s why we’re here in worship today.  As we prepare for the coming of the Christ, we’ll look at the Old Testament just as the people would have done two thousand years ago.  And a little more specifically, we’ll be looking at names.

What makes a name?  Names are important in our culture, our world.  Everyone has a name; it’s the way others identify who you are.  Knowing someone’s name shows in some way that you have a relationship with them.  Your own name becomes a mark of identification for official documents and the government.  But how many of you actually know what your name means?  Don’t be afraid: raise your hand if you know.

My name, Steve, comes from the Greek name Stephanos, which means “crown.”  If you’re willing to do the research, you can find out what your name means.  In fact, if I were really curious, I could find out what all of my name means: Steven Paul Andrews Junior.  But I haven’t.  It’s not really important to us.  It’s just a neat, little factoid to know about yourself.  But names used to mean a whole lot more.  In Biblical days, you had just a first name, like Adam and Eve.  And in the case of Hebrew, names spelled out a whole sentence or phrase of meaning.

I figured it wouldn’t be a good use of my time for me to sit in the office this week and count how many names are in the Bible.  You probably wouldn’t like to know that that’s how I was spending our church’s resources.  But I would guess there are over a thousand names in Scripture, each with its own meaning.  That’s why it’s important for us to note the number of times names changed.  Nebuchadnezzar renamed Daniel and his men.  Naomi renames herself Mara.  Moses renamed Joshua.  You can track the changes in the meaning in a study Bible or on the internet.  But out of the less than twenty name changes, only eight of them come from God.  Abraham and Sarah, Jacob, a priest named Passhur, Hosea’s three children, and lastly Peter in the New Testament.  When God changed a name, He had good reason for doing it.

One mistake that we often make today is looking at the Old Testament as law and the New Testament as gospel.  There is plenty of gospel in the Old Testament.  Sometimes it’s pretty straightforward, and other times we have to dig a little.  But it’s really interesting that each time God changes a name, it tells us a little about who God is and what He’s done for us.  That is, it shows us the gospel.  We’ll look at some of these name changes and their meanings in the weeks ahead.  And we’ll start today by looking at Abraham and his wife Sarah.

1 When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to him and said, “I am God Almighty; walk before me faithfully and be blameless.


So we start with Abraham’s original name.  Abram breaks down into two words, ab and ram.  Ab means father.  And ram in this usage means exalted.  So Abram meant “exalted father.”  But we’ll get back to that.  Yahweh appears to Abraham when he’s already 99 and tells him to be righteous.

2 Then I will make my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.”

This isn’t the first time Abram had dealt with Yahweh.  Yahweh called him to go to Egypt, had promised him land and that he would become a great nation.  He promised him a son through his wife Sarai.  But here, Yahweh proceeds with these promises.  He makes them into a covenant, an unbreakable vow punishable by death.

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.


Whether Abram fell down out of fear that he would not be able to keep up his end of the covenant, or just out of respect we don’t know.  But it’s interesting how God turns this.  “As for Me, this is My covenant with you.”  So regardless of what Abram does, Yahweh is going to do His side of the deal.  Yahweh will make Abram the father of many nations.

5 No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham,for I have made you a father of many nations.

And here we get the name change.  Abram goes from “exalted father,” to something harder for us to figure out.  We know what God meant, as God even explains the new name “for I have made you a father of many nations.”  But it’s still tricky.  Ab, father, is still in the name.  But the new ending, raham, is not a Hebrew word that we know today.  Maybe it was then, so Abraham knew it.  But if not, we can see a lot of interesting pieces in the name.  The b and the r make up the word in Hebrew for a covenant.  They also make a verb that means to cut a covenant.  The other interesting piece is that the Hebrew explanation from God, father of many nations, pronounced ab hamon goyim, has most of the name.  Ab hamon.  The syllables that begin and end of Abraham’s new name are the first two syllables of the explanation.  Father of a multitude comes from those syllables.  And the very ending, am, is also a word that means “a people” or “nations.”  So we see, as God explained, the name to mean “father of many nations” and also with a little reminder of the covenant.  Abraham certainly saw the meaning.

So why go as far as to change Abram’s name?  It was to serve as a constant reminder to Abraham of who he is, and also of what Yahweh has promised to him.  It’s like God using water in baptism.  Water is such a common element we see it all the time.  Luther and others told us that whenever we see water, we should think of our baptism.  It’s that constant reminder in our life.  It was a constant reminder for Abraham of the covenant.

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 wholeland ofCanaan, where you now reside as a foreigner, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God.”


Here Yahweh spells out what the covenant is.  Abraham will become the father of many nations, his offspring too numerous to be counted.  That’s saying something for a man who had his first child in old age.  God promises the covenant will be for all of Abraham’s descendants.  This is also where the idea of the Promised Land comes from; the land that Moses leads the people of Israel to.  God gives them the land.

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.”


I’ve heard people try to attach hygiene to circumcision.  Sometimes we do this with things that don’t make sense in the Old Testament.  The command to not eat unclean animals is explained away because they didn’t have the proper preservation and cooking techniques then to eat something like a pig.  They would have gotten sick from it.  Okay, maybe.  But I don’t think proper hygiene is why males had to be circumcised.  Yahweh identifies circumcision as a sign for the people.  So, like Abraham’s name was a constant reminder for him, or water for our baptisms, it’s a reminder.  Every time a man used the restroom he’d remember; every time a husband and wife slept together or were intimate together, they’d remember the covenant; every time a mother took care of her young child, every time a new boy was born and the circumcision was done, they’d remember.  Circumcision was a sign of the covenant.  So while circumcision does mark the people’s pledge to the covenant, it will also constantly be a reminder.

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.”


And Yahweh goes ahead and gives Abraham’s wife the same blessing of a reminder.  I focus on the reminder aspect for her, because scholars today debate the change in meaning.  Yahweh changes her name from Sarai, meaning “my princess” to Sarah, but that’s the tough name.  Some see it as still meaning “princess,” but others say a “lady,” or “gentlewoman,” and others still try to connect it to an Arabic word that would make her name mean “mother of multitudes.”  Yahweh, Abraham, and Sarah all would know the significance, and which interpretation is correct.  But regardless of which way it went, it served the purpose of being a reminder for her of her role in the covenant.

The mentioning of kings is interesting as well.  It showed up for both Abraham and Sarah.  But it’s a blessing and a curse.  Any of you who have read much of the Old Testament may remember that kings were a bad thing.  It was a very dark day in Israel’s history when they replaced Yahweh with Saul, their first king, which we have in the book of Samuel.  Thankfully, it’s also a blessing because the coming Messiah will be referred to as a king.

So we see in our text today law and gospel.  God gives them things to do in order to be part of the covenant.  But it’s also gospel, because God says that the covenant is His, and He’ll take care of everything.  It doesn’t depend on us.  We see law with circumcision, and yet at that same time, it’s a blessed reminder of the covenant, which is God’s faithfulness to us, thus a gospel message.  And all the while, Yahweh gives Abraham and Sarah new ways to look at life and to live out the covenant.  He promises to make them great, with vastly abundant offspring.  And we know He kept that promise, just as He kept the promises of the whole covenant.  And we also know, the King comes indeed.





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