Commentary on Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
A name is a powerful thing.
A name identifies, describes, and presents us. One’s name may be the most intimate feature of one’s identity — of all identifiers, our names come the closest to naming who we really are. To a large extent, we are our names.
The significance of a name was far from lost on the communities, storytellers, and writers of the Bible. From the very beginning, names have meaning. The first creation narrative has God naming each thing as it is made, as if it’s not complete until it has a name. In the second creation narrative, the name God gives to the “earth creature” (adam) signifies humanity’s having come “from the earth” (adamah). Over and over in Scripture, God is said to know the names of God’s people (Isaiah 43:1 and 49:1; John 10:14-15; Philippians 4:3). God often changes people’s names, signifying a radical change in or emphasis on a person’s identity. So Jacob becomes Israel, and Saul becomes Paul.
And so Abram and Sarai become Abraham and Sarah. These are the names by which these two, the mother and father of nations and kings, will be known for all time. These names redefine their identities, give them a calling, and reorient their lives. These names stick; they will never be lost. It is their names that identify Abraham and Sarah as righteous before God, their true identities that God has given them. As God did for Abraham and Sarah, God names each of us for who we truly are.
The narrative in chapter 17 is not the first time that God speaks words of promise to Abram. In chapter 12, God calls Abram to leave his country and go to the land that God will show him. God promises to make of Abram a great nation, so that he and those who are descended from his name will be known as a blessing to all nations. In chapter 15, God repeats these promises and makes a covenant with Abram, emphasizing that it will be Abram’s son, and not the son of some slave in Abram’s house, who will be his heir.
Now in chapter 17, after Sarai sees to it that Abram fathers a child with her slave Hagar, the emphasis is on both Abram and Sarai as the parents of the heir to God’s promises. Both Abram and Sarai are essential to the generation of descendants; both of them are integral to the fulfillment of the promises.
Four times in chapter 17 emphases falls on the great numbers of Abram and Sarai’s descendants. Thus God gives to Abram a name that means “ancestor of multitudes.” Like the covenant with Noah, God’s covenant with Abraham is an everlasting covenant — for all time, all who are born to Abraham’s name will be God’s own. The “exceedingly numerous” nations that will come from Abraham’s line will belong to God, and God will be theirs. Sarai’s name is changed to Sarah, “princess,” a name indicating perhaps the line of kings that will be descended from her and Abraham. God also names their promised child Isaac, “laughter,” for the laughter that erupts from both Abraham and Sarah at the news.
Also like the covenant with Noah, God’s covenant with Abraham in chapter 17 is an unconditional covenant. This may seem a questionable claim, given that in verses 9-14 God requires circumcision of all males and their offspring; any male who is not circumcised will be cut off from the covenant. But note that the covenant itself is not broken by the failure to circumcise; the covenant that God makes remains eternally, and it is up to Abraham and each of his descendants whether they will remain within it. God will never revoke this covenant.
Circumcision also acts as a kind of “naming” in this text. Males are circumcised as “a sign of the covenant” (verse 11), a bodily mark that identifies each male as belonging to God. Indeed, the text says that “the covenant is in [their] flesh” (verse 13). God’s very words of promise are carved into their flesh, so that their deepest and truest identity is as God’s own people. This is a mark, a name that is hidden from sight, a sign visible only to the one who is marked, yet it is at the same time a proclamation of identity in God.
Christians are also marked, named in our flesh, as God’s own. Baptism is a physical sign, invisible apart from the moment that it takes place, of our true identities. Our names are stated at our baptism, and are written in the book of eternity. And how does God name us, all of us, each of us, who stand in the line of Abraham? According to some biblical passages in which God is said to know our names, God names us as creatures in whom God delights (62:4), as precious (Isaiah 43:4), as utterly known and loved (Isaiah 49:1; John 10:14-15).
Whoever we may think we are (dirty, shameful, broken), God knows who we really are, and frees and calls us to live into the name that God has given us. To know our true name is, as it was for Abraham and Sarah, to turn, to reorient ourselves according to that name, and to live it. Just as God’s naming of Abraham and Sarah was also a calling, in naming us God is calling us to discipleship, casting off the old names by which we’ve been known, and living into (and maybe “up to”) the name that God bestows.