Ninety-nine years is a long time to wait for a new name. Most men make a name for themselves well before. Through their work, they conquer their field and make their contribution. Through their family, they establish their progeny and expand their influence.
But for Abram, it was a different story. We meet him in Genesis 12, where God calls him to go to a land he will show him (Genesis 12:1). He was a foreigner in a strange land, unknown by the world, childless, landless. In a world that depended so much on one’s family line, he was as nameless as they come.
The irony is the name Abram carried meant “Exalted Father.” Would he ever live into his name? That question constantly nagged. In his seventy-fifth year he heard a word from God and followed him into a new land, chasing promises from a God previously unknown but one whom he deemed trustworthy, Abram put all his chips on God’s square. What had become of the gamble? So far nothing.
But the promised remained. Not only did it remain, but it was also constantly reinforced. God kept coming to Abram, bolstering his word with covenants and signs and everything else. In Genesis 17, God did something new in Abram’s life. He changed his name. Abram had 99 problems, but a name wasn’t one. Exalted father ain’t too shabby, unless, of course, God says it’s not enough.
God changed Abram’s name by shoving two extra letters before the “m.” Abram became Abraham. “Exalted Father” became “Father of Multitudes.” A century-old childless man. Is that a joke?
The author of Hebrews said no. In Hebrews 6:17, he spoke of the promise God made to Abraham. “When God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath.” God oathed himself to Abraham. “Exalted Father” becomes “Father of Multitudes,” and what made the difference was the God who made the change.
Leon Kass comments, “The change of Abram’s name, offered in conjunction with God’s abundant promise, is in fact deeply significant. ‘Abraham’s very identity is now inextricable from God’s promise of abundant offspring. His being depends on God’s speech. If God breaks his promise, Abraham ceases to be Abraham.’”1 Abraham cannot be Abraham unless God is faithful. It all depends on the promise.
And what of Abraham’s part in this? Kass goes on. “As for Abraham (and his seed), the obligation of the new covenant is remarkably simple: keeping the covenant simply means remembering it, that is, marking its token or sign in the flesh of every male throughout the generations, by the act of circumcision.”
You could argue circumcision isn’t nothing. That’s true, it’s not. But it isn’t something anyone earns. It is something that happens passively. It is a sign of the covenant, a reminder that God has made his claim on his people.
The only way Abram becomes Abraham is by the power of God through the never-failing word of God.
The only way we become who we must become is by the power of God through the never-failing word of God.
 Leon Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 312.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published at thingsofthesort.com.