Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages.
As we move to the second Sunday of Lent we have for our OT reading the second of God’s covenants, this time with Abraham. Last week we considered the covenant with Noah, but as time has moved on there are some significant developments here. We noted last week that the covenant with Noah was entirely one-sided: nothing was required of him. It seems that that is the case here too, but actually there are two conditions, and two responsibilities on Abraham’s part. He must walk before God faithfully and be blameless (v 1), and he is to undergo, and ensure the continuance of, circumcision (v11) (although this section has been cut off by the lectionary compliers. See what I did there?)
Faithfulness and blamelessness take us back to the description of Noah in Gen 6:9, and they are not so much moral terms as terms of relationship. It isn’t that Abraham is never to do anything wrong, or that will blow the relationship for good. It is more about continuing faithfully in a relationship which already exists; not going off the rails or losing the plot.
Circumcision can be seen as equivalent to the rainbow in the Noah story. God puts a mark on the created world to remind him of the special relationship he has with its inhabitants now that the reality of human sin has been acknowledged. Now he puts a mark in human bodies as the ‘sign of the covenant’. Like the rainbow this is to be an eternal sign, although of course Paul has to explain later that it is not physical circumcision which means anything under Christ, but the covenant relationship with Christ through the cross.
But perhaps even more significant in this passage is the changing of three names. Abram becomes Abraham, which means that he is no longer merely an ‘exalted father’ but is now the ‘father of many’, and Sarai (the argumentative one) becomes Sarah (the princess, the mother of kings). These names stick: who ever thinks of them as Abram and Sarai today? The change is permanent, in line with their new covenantal relationship with God. But it is not just the human figures in this story who get new names. God himself is named for the first time here as El Shaddai, a name which bristles with translational difficulties, and which may mean God of the mountains, God the destroyer, God of breasts (ie fertility – quite probable in this context) but almost certainly doesn’t mean God Almighty.
So what? I hear you cry. I think the key verses, and the key character here, are v 15-17 and Sarah. Thirteen years earlier, in response to God’s promise that Abram would have a son and heir, he had slept with Sarai’s servant who produced Ishmael. Almost certainly they had assumed that because of Sarai’s infertility Ishmael was the fulfilment of God’s promise. But here El Shaddai specifically names and renames Sarai, and spells it out to Abraham that he will give him a son by her. Amazing though that seems, the story speaks of a God for whom nothing is impossible, and of humans who happily settle for less than a downright miracle. Thirteen years is a long wait, indeed it is twenty five years since the promise of a son was first made. But God is faithful, and to hold on to his promises, and to remain faithful and blameless before him, will eventually bring its rewards. And to be renamed by God is a deeply symbolic reminder of our remaking in Christ. One of my favourite songs is loosely based on words from Isaiah 62:
I will change your name
You shall no longer be called
Wounded, outcast, lonely or afraid
I will change your name
Your new name shall be
Confidence, joyfulness, overcoming one
Faithfulness, friend of God
One who seeks my face