Promises, Promises: Father of a Nation
Some of you know that I recently moved. On one of the many days of cleaning out things I’d stored for later but hadn’t looked at in years, I came across a well-worn piece of paper that was a list of all the possible names under consideration for my first child.
When I started the list almost twenty years ago, I knew that I was going to become a parent, but I didn’t know who the little person coming to grace my life would be. As a result I made a long and extensive list of names—all kinds of names—that might be possibilities. Nine months later, we were down to two or three—I could tell from all of those that had been crossed out, eliminated as possibilities altogether.
Of course Hayden was meant to be Hayden…or he became Hayden…either way, I had to laugh at the painstaking effort I had clearly put in to trying to choose a name for that child. And it occurred to me that giving something or someone a name is a very holy and powerful act. When you give or take a name you are, in effect, entering into covenant relationship…a relationship in which you move beyond the purely contractual and into something deeper and more profound…something closely related to a very core of identity. A name is a powerful thing.
You might remember that very recently we dedicated our newest baby around here, little Fransisco. Marcela and Fransisco (Daddy) had to come up to the front and I asked them a series of questions. One of those questions was, “What have you named this child?”
When we dedicate a child in this community we do not ask parents that question just to see how sleep deprived they are. No, the bestowing of a name is serious and sacred, and as we, the community, bless and welcome a child, it’s important for us to be part of giving him his name.
It’s interesting to note, then, that everybody in today’s covenant passage gets a new name. It’s a curious turn of events, and it must say something about the kind of relationship God is setting up with Abram and his descendants, what kind of promise God is making and what kind of promise God is expecting in return.
Remember, we’re in week two of Lent today, thinking about promises. Lent is traditionally a time when we contemplate repentance, when we think about turning around and changing things in our lives. Very often that act involves making and keeping promises. It’s interesting to note, then, that the lectionary texts in the Hebrew scripture this year take us through passages in which God is entering into these kinds of promises, of covenantal relationships, with people.
Last week we remembered the story of Noah and theArk, when God made a promise never to destroy the earth with a flood again, a change of personal conviction on the part of God. And today we read part of an interaction between God and Abram and Sarai, a lavish making of generous promises in which God enters into covenantal relationship, a relationship that demands some kind of shift on the part of Abram and his family. And it all starts with a change of name.
In the covenant passage we read today, God comes to Abram when he’s 99 years old—with a significant number of years behind him, a place from which he certainly looked back and assessed his life. He’d had a covenant conversation with God before, when God promised a legacy. But in the intervening years Abram and Sarai had not had a child. Hope was running out, if it wasn’t already gone.
99 years is nothing to God, though, who has in mind the ushering in of something completely new. In this theophany, appearance by God, things radically change; God again makes the promise to care for Abram and his descendants, including the provision of land and offspring. And in return, Abram and Sarai are asked to keep the covenant, to live lives of integrity that reflect more than a contractual relationship between God and God’s people, but an intimate, familial relationship.
Here, God takes a step beyond promising there will be no more destruction. Here, God holds out a hand and invites Abram and his family into covenantal, reciprocal relationship. And here both God and Abram take on a whole new identities to mark their new relationship.
This covenantal relationship—the offering of a hand to another to set out on a life together—is symbolized by the changing of one’s very identity: the changing of a name.
We have some friends whose dog is like a child to them. Not you, Julie. Recently, given what a positive experience they had had when their dogNewtonjoined their family, they decided it was time to get another dog. They did all their research and finally decided to adopt a sweet little dog whose owner had moved into assisted living and could not keep her anymore.
Everything about this dog seemed to fit their family; she was just the right size; she had a sweet and affable personality; she got along great withNewton; she was already housetrained; everything seemed like it would work well. Except her name.
The dog was named Daphne. It wasn’t, perhaps, their first choice, but they thought maybe it would work. On the first day Daphne was in their house, she escaped out the front door and set out to explore the neighborhood. Busy roads were dangerous, so my friend ran after her. Unfortunately, Daphne thought my friend chasing her was a spirited game, and the end result was the dog scrambling under fences and hiding in neighbors’ yards as part of the game, all the while my friend was tearing through her neighborhood yelling at the top her lungs, “Daphne! Daphne! Where are you, Daphne???!?”
After that experience, my friend decided a change of name was in order. To mark the start of a new family relationship, one in which the dog was dependent on them for shelter and sustenance, and they were dependent on her for affection, it would only do to have a name that reflected their family style a little more, or at the very least that would not sound ridiculous when they found themselves tearing through the neighborhood yelling for the dog at the top of their lungs. And so they renamed her.
In the covenant passage we read today Abram gets a new name—Abraham. And Sarai gets a new name, too: Sarah. Both these names can be said to reflect the shift in relationship between the two and God, the marking of a promise for their lives, a promise of offspring and future, of a great nation emerging from the unlikely barrenness they were living. But God changes a name in this covenant story.
For the first time in the Hebrew text, God is referred to not as Elohim or Yahweh, but with the Hebrew name El Shaddai. This name for God, El Shaddai, though popularized of late by Amy Grant for those of you who grew up listening to contemporary Christian music, is not commonly used in the Hebrew text. Most of its use is found in the book of Job, but it first appears here, when God is entering into covenantal relationship with Abram and Sarai, promising them the one thing that has eluded them all the years of their lives on earth: descendants, a legacy, a future built on the promise of a great nation.
While translators have commonly translated El Shaddai, God’s name, as “Almighty God” or “All Powerful One,” God’s name change to El Shaddai has more to do with fertility. The words in God’s new name most clearly relate to the Hebrew word Shaddaim, the plural form of the word for the female breast. It makes sense, doesn’t it, that when God is entering into a new covenant, a promise of offspring and future, God’s name changes, too, to reflect the substance of that promise. In taking that name, it’s as if God is saying: “We’re in relationship. I will be your God—your fertility God who gives you what you desperately need. And you, Abram and Sarai…you will be parents of a whole new nation.” It was a covenant promise.
It’s interesting, this renaming. It seems God has been doing it since the beginning of relationship with humanity. We do it when we marry or give birth or even take on the responsibility of caring for another living thing. We assign new names; we change old ones; we declare in covenant promises our deepest hopes and dreams for life together. It’s what God does here with Abram and Sarai. And it’s what God does with us.
Our world has a tendency to assign us names, names that we take to heart and live into, even subconsciously. How do you think of yourself: Accountant? Youngest child? Immigrant? Minority? Transplant? Have you ever thought of yourself as “underachiever” or “unworthy”…”not good enough” or “unclean”…”failure” or “insignificant”? It’s easy to take on names like these, even in our subconscious, because we hear over and over messages that we are not good enough…because we see what seems to be evidence of failure all around us…because things in our lives don’t always mirror the expectations of success that our society places upon us. And we take these labels on as names—as identity. Like Abram and Sarai, what we see all around us becomes our very identity.
But God has made us promises. God has entered into covenantal relationship with us, and in so doing has changed our names. Remember? When all of this started and God created humankind, God looked at God’s creation and called it good, created in the very image of God. God named us…good.
Instead of failure or unworthy, despite the messages we hear all around us, even when we can’t see any evidence to support it, God’s promise for us is like God’s promise to Abram and Sarai. “I am a life-giving God who anticipates good and wonderful things for your life, no matter how unlikely that looks from your vantage point. I created you good and I call you blessed, and with those names you will know for sure my love and faithfulness to you, no matter what.”
What’s your name for God?
On this day of making and hearing promises, it might be more important to remember what God’s name is for you. For Abram and Sarai it was “Parents of a Nation”. For you—for me—it’s something just as hope-filled and wonderful. Why?
Because God promised.