Genesis 17:1-17.
What's in a Name?

American Journal of Biblical Theology,
Copyright © 2015, Dr. John W. (Jack) Carter     Scripture quotes from KJV

As we study the life of Abram in the biblical narrative, we find that the theme that is woven through the fabric of his experience engages the covenant that God has made with him as a graceful and merciful response to Abram’s sincere faith.  The events of his life never wander far from the context of this covenant, and by so doing serves as an illustration of the same covenant that God has made with all people of faith.  Consequently, this theme continues through the entire biblical narrative and is both culminated and fulfilled in the work of YAHWEH, the Messiah, Jesus on the Cross of Calvary.  It was His sacrifice that atoned for the unrighteousness of all who, like Abram, place their faith and trust in the LORD God.

We are not strangers to the idea of a covenant.  Almost any activity that requires a commitment of time, services, or money, involves the establishment of a contract.  We enter into a variety of covenants or contracts as we live out our daily lives.  Some of the covenants we become engaged with include marriage, mortgages, credit cards, home maintenance and repair contracts, business contracts, automobile repair contracts, and many more.  As our modern culture becomes more and more distrustful of one another, the execution of contracts only increases.

Often contracts are established between people who are relatively equal in their authority over or under one another.  In this situation, both parties typically provide input to the content of the agreement, and bind it when they are both satisfied with its terms.  Other times, contracts are established between non-equals, such as between an individual and a large corporation or governmental agency.  In these cases it is the more powerful of the two sides that usually establishes the terms of the agreement.  The covenants that God makes with His people takes this idea out to the limit where God has all of the authority and determines every term of the covenant without any participation from those to whom He establishes it.  This form of covenant is often referred to as a suzerain covenant, similar to one that might be established by a conquering king.

Unlike any covenants of man, the covenants that the LORD makes with us are founded upon His mercy, His grace, and His love for us.  Whereby a suzerain covenant would be established to benefit the more powerful of the parties in the agreement, the LORD’s covenants bring no benefit to God, but are formed to provide all the benefit for God’s people.  For this reason, we can embrace the covenants of God, praising and thanking Him for His mercy, love, and grace.

God's Covenant Reaffirmed

Genesis 17:1-2.  And when Abram was ninety years old and nine, the LORD appeared to Abram, and said unto him, I am the Almighty God; walk before me, and be thou perfect. 2And I will make my covenant between me and thee, and will multiply thee exceedingly.

Though Abram trusted God with a sincerity that has few peers, he was still human, and still made poor choices.  One of these was to rationalize away the impossibility that Sarai would bear a son.  When Sarai was 77 years of age, she and her husband agreed to bear a child through her younger servant, Hagar.  As a result of that union, Ishmael was born.[1] 

This is the third time that God came to Abram with a comprehensive reminder of His promise.  Abram is now ninety-nine years old.  Sarai is eighty-nine years old.  Sarai is far past child-bearing years.  Since Abram, Sarai, and Hagar conspired to fulfill God’s promise with a son, they had little or no reason to return to God’s promise, thinking that Ishmael would be the son of God’s promise.

However, the wording of this presentation of the covenant is significantly different than that of the first two.

First, the LORD identified Himself as Almighty God, El Shaddai, reminding Abram of the infinite power that God holds in this universe.  Though the LORD seeks a relationship with Abram (and all who place their faith and trust in Him), Abram’s behavior has revealed that he needs a reminder that God is powerful enough to do anything that He purposes to do, something that Abram tended to deny in fathering Ishmael.

He then began to unfold the immediacy of His plan.  He has been “walking before” the LORD his whole life, so this is not a command for Abram to begin walking in obedience.  The word that is rendered “perfect” can appropriately be understood as “complete,” and to Abram the completion is entirely wrapped around God’s promise for a son. The word also refers to the idea of a flawless sacrifice, one that is brought to the LORD in a state of heart that He desires. The LORD is identifying the character of Abram’s life as that sacrifice.  It may have taken 99 years to bring Abram to this point, but he is now where the LORD wants him to be in his life.  There is no ambiguity to God’s promise, and the LORD is letting Abram know that the time for his receipt of the blessing is come.

Though this passage is focused upon the narrative of Abram’s life, God has promised blessing for all those who choose to live a life of obedience to the LORD.  This theme repeats frequently through the biblical text.

Deuteronomy 10:12.  And now, Israel, what doth the LORD thy God require of thee, but to fear the LORD thy God, to walk in all his ways, and to love him, and to serve the LORD thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul.

Micah 6:8.  He hath showed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?

Mark 12:30.  And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment.

Abram's Name Changed

Abram’s response to this third announcement by the LORD of His promise evoked a quite different response, reinforcing his understanding that God is going to do exactly as He had promised to do.  Abram is fully aware that the LORD is going to do a miracle in his life.

Genesis 17:3-6  And Abram fell on his face: and God talked with him, saying, 4As for me, behold, my covenant is with thee, and thou shalt be a father of many nations. 5Neither shall thy name any more be called Abram, but thy name shall be Abraham; for a father of many nations have I made thee. 6And I will make thee exceeding fruitful, and I will make nations of thee, and kings shall come out of thee.

The first thing Abram did was to prostrate himself, to fall to the ground in humility before the LORD.  He is well-aware that his choice to father Ishmael by Hagar was not a fulfilment of God’s promise, but rather was taking God’s plan into his own hands.  He may have felt that he no longer deserved to receive the promise of God, and at ninety-nine years old what he has gained in wisdom serves to give him an appreciation of what he had done.  Consequently, when God came to Him with the word that He is still going to fulfill the promise, in spite of Abram’s very significant dalliance, Abram is fully and sincerely humbled.

Partly, the “will make" used in verse 2, is just as it implies.  God is providing confirmation that He is going to fulfill the covenant His way, in His plan.  The promise is not yet fulfilled.  God reminded Abram of the promise that he would be the father of nations, and since his fruitfulness "will come" (verse 6), it is clear that the blessing is not through Ishmael, but through one yet to be born.

Also, at this point, God instructed that Abram's name would be changed to Abraham. The name Abram comes from the root word, Abba, which is the informal name for Father.  Abram probably means "exalted father".  In a time when the name fit the person, to have such a name was, a mockery if viewed outside of God’s covenant.  Abram spent about 67 adult years named "exalted father", yet was not a father.  His name served as a constant reminder to him and to others of what they considered to be a curse.  When he did father a child, the circumstances were far from exalting. 

Now at the age of 99, God adds yet another dimension to the name by changing it to Abraham, which translated means "Father of a great multitude."  Abram would understand this either as another mockery, or a prophesy from God that His covenant, His promise to Abram, was true.  It is obvious that Abram responded in faith.

The result of Abram's faith, fulfilling God’s promise, his fathering a multitude included that his descendants would be kings.  Abraham was a stranger in a foreign land, had no social status or state even after 25 years in the region of Canaan.  It would be another 400 years before the prophesy would be fulfilled that the nation formed by his great-grandsons would form on this land, and another 400 would pass before Israel would become a kingdom, but it must have been reassuring for Abraham.

God's Covenant Extended

Genesis 17:7-8.  And I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee. 8And I will give unto thee, and to thy seed after thee, the land wherein thou art a stranger, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.

Now that Abraham was ready to be used of the LORD, God added new dimensions to the original covenant.  First, He included the descendants of Abraham in the covenant.  Second, he identified the covenant as being everlasting.  He would watch over his descendants as He had watched over Abraham, not only blessing them, but blessing the world through them.  Abram was not as concerned for the promise of the land as he was for the promise of descendants.  As a stranger in the land Abraham had no rights, and could not own land.[2]  However, again God reminded Abram that He will fulfill this part of the promise that this land will, indeed, be theirs.  Also, the LORD inserted a significant theological concept by the word, “everlasting.”  Nothing that remains on this earth is everlasting, as even the earth itself will not last forever.  The idea of an everlasting covenant is one that transcends the limitations of time and includes eternity in the covenant.  The LORD will bring His faithful people to Himself in a place that He has prepared for them, and that place is eternal.

The last statement may be the most encouraging to Abraham:  “I will be their God.”  Abrahams faith was not shared by very many others at this time in human history.  He is surrounded by people who practice pagan religions that venerate imaginary gods, making up stories, mythical histories, and personalities that drive their behavior, doing so to their own destruction.  The LORD promises Abraham that the nation that he would father would be one who would recognize and honor the One True God.  His faith would be passed to the son of God’s promise, and through that son faith in God would be passed on down through the generations.  Though many of the descendants of Abraham rejected God (and still do) It will be through the Hebrew nation, and through the Christians who came out of it, that a mighty nation of faithful would be formed; a nation with a population that to the ancients would be impossible to either count or understand.

A Covenant Sign Commanded

Genesis 17:9-14.  And God said unto Abraham, Thou shalt keep my covenant therefore, thou, and thy seed after thee in their generations. 10This is my covenant, which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee; Every man child among you shall be circumcised. 11And ye shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of the covenant betwixt me and you. 12And he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every man child in your generations, he that is born in the house, or bought with money of any stranger, which is not of thy seed. 13He that is born in thy house, and he that is bought with thy money, must needs be circumcised: and my covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. 14And the uncircumcised man child whose flesh of his foreskin is not circumcised, that soul shall be cut off from his people; he hath broken my covenant.

God's covenant with Abraham was not entirely one-sided.  Though it was certainly a covenant of Grace, note that Abraham was still required to be obedient and respond in faith.  How do we seal covenants today?  In their culture, it was necessary to bind covenants with some sort of sign, often a sacrifice.  Usually there was some blood shedding involved somewhere in the process, either by one entering the covenant or of an animal that is vicariously sacrificed.

Circumcision was widely practiced in the ancient near-east, and is extremely ancient in its origin.  There were three purposes for the rite.  First, it was for medical or hygienic reasons, promoting cleanliness, warding off illness and facilitating fertility.  Second, it was used as a social rite, when done at puberty, initiating a male to manhood, or even as an initiation of marriage.  Third, it had various applications within the people's understanding of their relationship to their gods.

God instructed Abraham to establish this rite, which was already socially understood, within his household and all of his descendants.  Therefore, the circumcision was primarily intended to serve as a constant reminder to God's people of their commitment to Him and their need to live so that they continuously would be acceptable in His presence.  If any of Abraham's household refused to be circumcised, they were refusing to humble themselves before the LORD, so they would be cut off from the covenant.

Abraham spread the context of his faith in God throughout his family group through the rite of circumcision.  In this way, each man who submitted to the rite was recognized as obedient to God’s command.  Though circumcision is still practiced for many good reasons, this rite is no longer practiced as a testimony of faith.  A similar practice for the modern Christian church is the rite of baptism following a sincere profession of faith.  In order for someone to appropriately submit to believer’s baptism, they must first profess Christ.  There is little doubt that Abraham explained the meaning behind the circumcision that was accepted by the men in his family group.  Likewise, it is the task of all Christians to share their faith with others so that they can be saved, and many of these may follow their decision with believer’s baptism.

God promises that if we are faithful, we will receive His blessing.  There is no blessing as significant as the knowledge that through your witness, someone will spend an eternity with God rather than separated from Him.  If we never have had such an experience, we depend on faith to lead us to that level of concern.  After we have experienced that blessing, the fear of rejection all but disappears.

The Announcement of Isaac’s Birth

Genesis 17:15.  And God said unto Abraham, As for Sarai thy wife, thou shalt not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall her name be. 16And I will bless her, and give thee a son also of her: yea, I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of people shall be of her.

The task of changing a woman’s name was traditionally given to her husband.  Since ancient names were selected to be descriptive of the person named, changing these names was not uncommon.  The LORD changed Abram’s name when his character changed from a man with no hope of being a father, to becoming a father of a great nation of people.  The names Sarai, and Sarah both have the same meaning, “princess.”  However, in the Hebrew language, context means everything.  First, by changing Sarah’s name, the LORD demonstrated His sovereignty over both Abraham and Sarai.  This act also brought Sarai into a full partnership with Abraham in the blessing that God gave to him. 

The context of the name, “Princess” does apply itself in a different manner as the change is made from Sarai, to Sarah.  The princess, Sarai, would be a young girl, the daughter of a king.  There is no inference that she would someday be a queen.  However, the context of the princess, Sarah, is that she is not only the daughter of the king, but she would also be the mother of kings, an inference that she would become queen. 

Genesis 17:16.  And I will bless her, and give thee a son also of her: yea, I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of people shall be of her.

Having proclaimed her to be the mother of kings, the LORD makes it very clear to Abram that the kings who come from Sarah, the Mother of Nations, will come from her, not from Hagar.  His heir would not be Eliezer, as the LORD had already announced, and it would not be Ishmael, the step-son of Sarah.  The heir of the blessing would, indeed be a child of both Abraham and Sarah.

Genesis 17:17.  Then Abraham fell on his face, and laughed, and said in his heart, Shall a child be born unto him that is an hundred years old? and shall Sarah, that is ninety years old, bear?

It is quite evident that Abraham had no doubts that God would find a means to fulfill His promise.  Abraham tried to “assist” the LORD in the endeavor by fathering Ishmael by Hagar, Sarah’s servant.  This seemed to be a reasonable means for the promise to be fulfilled.  However, this was not the LORD’s plan, and learning this, Abraham had no concept of how the LORD’s promise would be fulfilled.  The last thing on his mind, and probably not on his mind at all would be that Sarah would bear a son in her old age.  Consequently, when the LORD finally, after several progressively revealing prophecies, convinced Abraham that He was clearly stating that Sarah would bear the Son of the Promise, he laughed. 

Genesis 17:18.  And Abraham said unto God, O that Ishmael might live before thee!

Abram still had difficulty believing that Sarah could bear a son in her old age.  Ishmael was at the age when he was beginning to change from childhood to manhood.  Abram could easily believe that the promise could come through Ishmael and literally offered him to the LORD for this service.[3]  Abraham fully believed that God would fulfill His promise, and as he looked around him, that promise would be easily fulfilled through Ishmael.  The grammar reveals that this is not so much a question of whether Ishmael would receive the blessing as much as it is a proclamation.  Abraham can fully envision how God would use Ishmael to father a great nation, and it was certainly his desire, as it would be for any father, that his only son would do so.

Genesis 17:19.  And God said, Sarah thy wife shall bear thee a son indeed; and thou shalt call his name Isaac: and I will establish my covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, and with his seed after him.

God certainly can communicate with us in many different ways, and up to this point, Abraham just was not quite getting the message.  God’s promise was simply beyond belief.  Abraham’s faith in God is beyond reproach, yet as sincere as his faith was, accepting what he deemed the impossible was reasonably difficult.  In each presentation of the promise, Abraham sought a reasonable solution.  Yet, by the given name change, it is clear that Abraham, deep in his heart, he was ready to accept the truth.  Following several repetitions of the promise, giving every opportunity for Abraham to accept what He was saying, the LORD met Abraham at his point of need.  Abraham needed to hear those words:  “thy wife shall bear thee a son, indeed.” 

Also, the LORD instructed Abraham in the naming of his son, an inference of His sovereignty both over Abraham and over this son of the blessing.  The name Isaac means “laughter,” or more literally, “he laughs,” serving as a continual reminder that when the LORD offered him the one miracle that meant more to him than anything else could, he laughed. 

Genesis 17:20.  And as for Ishmael, I have heard thee: Behold, I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly; twelve princes shall he beget, and I will make him a great nation.

Of course Abraham loved his son, Ishmael, and at thirteen years of age Ishmael was beginning to reveal the type of man he would become.  Abraham sincerely wanted his son to prosper.  Abraham’s sincere faith in the LORD and his desire for his son was rewarded with the same promise of fruitfulness that He would give to Isaac.  Like Israel, Ishmael would be the father of twelve sons, and each of these would become the leader of their tribal families.[4]  While Israel’s sons would populate a region of Egypt for 400 years before returning to Canaan, Ishmael’s sons would establish their families in Canaan.  However, there was a subtle difference between the blessing of Ishmael and the blessing of Isaac. 

Genesis 17:21.  But my covenant will I establish with Isaac, which Sarah shall bear unto thee at this set time in the next year.

Abraham’s faith was not passed down through Ishmael.  The sons of Ishmael spread throughout the land of Canaan and came to embrace the pagan religions of the region.[5]  However, Isaac shared his father’s faith in God and passed that faith down to his twelve sons.  It is through people of faith that God exercises His covenant to bring them to Himself.  Though the nation of Israel would, as a community, wander far away from God, immersing themselves in the pagan practices of the Canaanites, many of whom were sons of Ishmael, there was always a remnant of faithful people who continued to teach their families and their children.  As part of his covenant with Abraham, continuing through Isaac, the LORD would use Egypt as an incubator of this small, but growing nation.  Where they would have been distracted and misled by the Canaanite culture, they were not attracted to the pagan religious practices of the Egyptians, and were kept in an environment where faith could flourish, a faith that would be rewarded when they followed the LORD’s direction out of Egypt.

From this proclamation by the LORD, everything changed.  Abram the skeptic became Abraham the father.  Sarai the princess became Sarah the mother of nations.

Though we do not typically change our given names to reflect the character of our personality each person experiences a similar seminal moment when they come to the LORD in faith.  However, a name change still takes place.  The expression of sincere faith brings one under the authority of a new Father, the One True God who has revealed Himself through Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Once adopted into His family, people of faith take on His name.  The very character of one’s heart changes with the work of sincere faith.  We may appropriate the name, “Christian” when we come to faith, but a far more significant change is taking place.  Just as the name changes of Abram and Sarai were intended to demonstrate a change in their character, the appropriation of the name “Christian” does the same.  One’s character undergoes a radical change when the decision is made to turn from the wickedness of this doomed world, and turn to faith and obedience to a loving God who replaces the darkness of this world with His eternal light.

What’s in a name?  When applied in the context of faith, it means everything.


[1] Ishmael was indeed Abram’s first child, but this was not the child from his wife, nor was it the child of God’s promise.  Little, if any, good came from the birth of Ishmael, other than the fulfillment of God’s purposes when Ishmael and his descendants would serve to humble the children of Isaac.  The two lines have been locked in a blood-feud ever since.  This is the feud that is often referred to as the “Arab-Israeli Conflict.”

[2] Except for the death of his wife, where he could purchase a burial plot (cave of Machpelah and a surrounding field, Genesis, Chapter 23), Abram never did own any of the land of Canaan.

[3] At this point we could probably insert a meaningful sermon about the ways that we miss out on God’s blessings when we take the initiative to solve problems our own way rather than wait on the solution that the LORD intends.

[4] Genesis 25:14-15.  And these are the names of the sons of Ishmael, by their names, according to their generations: the firstborn of Ishmael, Nebajoth; and Kedar, and Adbeel, and Mibsam, 14 And Mishma, and Dumah, and Massa, 15Hadar, and Tema, Jetur, Naphish, and Kedemah:

[5] One of the primary intentions of Mohammad was to turn the nomadic peoples of the Arab region away from their pagan practices, uniting them in religion as well as uniting them as a people.