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144 Genesis 17a Changing of Names

This is the first of two episodes on this chapter. Abram is now 99 years old and invites him to be faithful and live a blameless life. The word blameless is not the same as what we understand as perfect. It is to be understood in relational terms rather than transactional terms. God declares a covenant or promise with him that he will be the father of a great nation with countless descendants. As a result he changes his name from Abram to Abraham meaning father of many. God assures him that He will be his God and the God of his descendants.

144 Genesis 17 The Changing of Names
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Genesis 17 The Changing of Names

17 When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to him and said, “I am El-Shaddai— ‘The LORD Almighty.’ Serve me faithfully and live a blameless life.”

El-Shaddai is connected with “I AM” or ego eime in Greek. Shaddai is indicative of sufficiency. The LORD is Almighty because he is about to make the impossible happen. He can do anything. He is announcing that he can create an impossible pregnancy in a 90-year-old woman. It is prophetic, as so many Old Testament stories are, of creating a pregnancy in a virgin woman 2000 years in the future.

Here are some blameless (Hb. taman) people according to the scriptures. Job (1:1), Noah (Genesis 6:9), king David (2 Samuel 22:24), the church (Ephesians 5:27; Colossians 1:22), and the 144,000 (Revelation 14:5). It is common for readers to jump to the conclusion that because Abram was blameless, he was also perfect and this is why the LORD blessed him. In Matthew 5:48 perfect is better translated blameless. Compare Luke 6:36 where compassionate is used.

This is because we think in transactional terms rather than relational terms. Good parents love obedient and rebellious children. They bless all their children with care and affection. Some children respond to parental care by caring for their parents other children neglect their parents but good parents continue to love them all. Verse one records the LORD’s initiative towards Abram and the consequence in Abram’s life. The covenant is not dependent on Abram’s conduct or performance but on the LORD’s affection and his relationship with Abram—not withstanding his lapses of faith.

2 I will make a covenant with you, by which I will guarantee to give you countless descendants.”

A better word for ”covenant” in western culture is “promise.” There is an irony in this statement by the LORD as the name Abram means father and this “Father” is childless in his marriage with Sarai. At this time children were a guarantee that one’s name would remain on the earth and that one’s wealth would be cared for. To be childless was a tragedy for any couple. God is responding to the greatest need Abram and Sarai had. This response of God is indicating the kind of God Abram’s God is. He is the faithful God of

compassion and affection.

3 At this, Abram fell face down on the ground.

Abraham’s response includes unfamiliar, physical actions which are remarkable for a 99-year-old man. His response is culturally determined. When we lived in Uganda in the sixties it was common to see people prostrating themselves when the traditional ruler passed by. Western culture allows for energetic physical responses at sporting events but not at the opera or symphony concerts or church. Here a polite, restrained applause is expected from so called gentle people.

Then God said to him, 4 “This is my covenant with you: I will make you the father of a multitude of nations!

Notice the change from LORD to God. This appellation continues for the rest of the chapter.God is going to unilaterally make many descendants appear in his family line. This at a time when he has one child who does not qualify as the child of the LORD’s promise and Abraham is 99 years old. This situation really strains Abram’s credulity as the subsequent dialogue demonstrates.

5 What’s more, I am changing your name. It will no longer be Abram (exalted father). Instead, you will be called Abraham (father of many), for you will be the father of many nations.

In the bible a name and character or personality are linked. When there is a name change this indicates a character change. There are many examples if this claim. Jacob to Israel (Genesis 35:10), Jesus of Nazareth to Jesus Christ, Saul to Paul, “a new name” (Revelation 2:17)—“name” indicates belonging.

We write our names on what we own. A child takes the parents family name. “Name” in the Bible also indicates character (Revelation 14:1) and thus the 144,000 have a character which reflects the LORD’s character. This is what it means to be sealed with the seal of The LORD (7:3). This seal is in contrast with the mark of the beast (13:17). Abram (aleph, beit, num) father of native country changed to Abraham or father of the whole world.

6 I will make you extremely fruitful. Your descendants will become many nations, and kings will be among them!

Judaism, Christianity and Islam all claim Abraham as their spiritual origin. This means that there are almost 4 billion people who claim allegiance to Abraham and the LORD who called him to a special relationship. Abraham was ignorant of this future when he died. How surprised he will be on the resurrection morning!

7 “I will confirm my covenant with you and your descendants after you, from generation to generation.

This is the everlasting covenant: I will always be your God and the God of your descendants after you.

8 And I will give the entire land of Canaan, where you now live as a foreigner, to you and your descendants. It will be their possession forever, and I will be their God.”

Jews claim this promise as the reason for the existence of the state of Israel. It is a tenuous claim as it could end at any time as it has in the past. Syria (700 BC) and Babylon (600) took the Jews away and dispersed them. A few came back with the blessing of Cyrus (500 BC) and rebuilt the city and the temple. The Romans destroyed the city and dispersed the Jews (70 AD) and no Jewish state existed until 1947 AD. There are about 15 million Jews and this population seems to remain constant. Overtly, at this point

in time, one can question the veracity of this promise. However, after the second coming Abraham will discover that he owns the whole planet because of Jesus Christ who is one of his descendants.

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