This week’s question is: “Why does God in Genesis 17:5 change Abram’s name to Abraham?” To answer this question well, a little context is first needed.
As Moses recounts in Genesis 12, Abram is called by God to leave his family’s land in the land Ur and travel to the land of Canaan, a land that God promises he will give to him and his offspring forever. But there is a problem.
Abram is childless and very old. This means he cannot fulfill the promise of God. If he does not have a child, his descendants will not be from his family line, but from another family line. In this anxiety and worry, Abram is met by God with another promises, a promise that rings through the rest of Scripture as the beginning of the faith — the beginning of the people of God.
God promises that despite Abram’s advanced age, he will sire a son to be his rightful heir — a miracle in itself. After God revealed this to Abram, Moses records this: “[God] took [Abram] outside and said, ‘Now look toward the heavens, and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ And he said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’ Then he believed in the Lord; and he reckoned it to him as righteousness.” (Gen 15:5-6 NASB)
Now, fast forward two chapters. In chapter 17, God gives Abram the covenant of circumcision, to be an outward sign of this promise. But God does a strange thing here: he renames Abram to Abraham. Why? The answer is in the meaning of the name.
In the original Hebrew language of the Torah, which is the first five books of our Old Testament, the name Abram literally means “exalted father.” The name Abraham, however, contains another unused root word, which roughly means “multitude.” Abraham translated literally, then, means “father of a multitude.” Most modern Bibles that contain footnotes will annotate this literal meaning of the Hebrew in the margin.
Take note of this: the changing of Abraham’s name is a sign from God. By changing his name, the Lord not only confirmed that he would fully carry out the promise that he made to Abraham. He, as well, made Abraham the typological father of faith for all the saints (Jude 3). From the flesh of Abraham, a multitude did come, the Jewish people.
But Abraham is not only the father of a single ethnic nation, he is the spiritual “father of a multitude.” And this faithful multitude, comprised of both Jews and Gentiles, is too large to number (Rev 7:9). Through him, all the nations of the world are blessed (Gen 22:18).
But this blessing could not be possible if it were not for the one who came from Abraham’s line who would be the blessed one — the one who is called the Christ. And this chosen one has many names. The long prophesied one, the Lion of Judah and the spotless Lamb, who will crush the head of the serpent and will be a light to the nations. (Isa 42:6) He is the one who, though the builders rejected him, is called the Cornerstone. (Rom 9:30ff; Eph 2:20) He is the one who, though the Father has given him the name above all names, does not seek his own advantage but seeks and saves that which is lost. (Isa 9:6; Phil 2:6; Luke 19:10) His name is forever the Word of God. (John 1:1ff; Rev 19:13) And in the last, all will bend their knee and know him as the King of kings and Lord of lords. (Rev 19:16)
From Abraham’s line came this one. He is the true offspring of Abraham’s covenant. (Gal 3:16) He is the blessing that blesses the world. In Jesus, the land — paradise itself — is secured. And in Jesus, the multitude from every tribe, nation and tongue is made a family.
For all who will believe in their hearts and confess with their mouths that Christ Jesus is Lord and Savior will be forgiven and adopted into this eternal family of God. (John 1:12) And by this faith, they are made heirs according to the promise given to Abraham, the “father of a multitude,” to inherit the world, forever. (Gen 12:7; 13:4; Rom 4:13ff; Gal 3:26,29; Ps 37:11; Matt 5:5; Rev 21:7)
(Jeremy Breland is a farmer in Ruffin and a M.Div. student at Southern Seminary. He can be reached at email@example.com.)