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YHWH makes a covenant with Abram and first changes his name to Abraham, but how does this relate to the covenant? I’m interested because YHWH’s name is mentioned about 7,000 times in the tanach so there must be a significance to the importance of his name being changed. I'm not asking why there is a name change or what the relevance of the name is to YHWH.

What I’m not understanding is how the name change relates to the covenant.

“And God said to him, “Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.” (Genesis 17:4-8, KJV)

The passage continues on about circumcision and Sarai's name is changed to Sarah. Interesting to me is the "ha" added to him and the "ah" added to her. Is this connected to the covenant -it seems so. No vowels in Hebrew so YHWH is adding the same letter prevalent in YHWH's name -the "hey." The "hey" is breath.

How does this relate to the covenant?

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'Abram' means "exalted father". God tells him that he will be the father of many, and changes his name to 'Abraham' which means "father of a multitude". 'Sarai' means "princess", but since she will be the mother of nations, with kings of peoples coming from her, God changes her name to 'Sarah' which means "noblewoman."

From Adam Clarke's commentary:

Abram אברם literally signifies a high or exalted father. Ab -ra -ham אברהם differs from the preceding only in one letter; it has ה he before the last radical. [...] Clarius and others think that the ה he, which is one of the letters of the Tetragrammaton, (or word of four letters, יהוה YeHoVaH), was added for the sake of dignity, God associating the patriarch more nearly to himself, by thus imparting to him a portion of his own name.

[...]

The same...occurs...on the word Sarai, שרי which signifies my prince or princess, and Sarah, שרה where the whole change is made by the substitution of a ה he for a י yod . This latter might be translated princess in general; and while the former seems to point out her government in her own family alone, the latter appears to indicate her government over the nations of which her husband is termed the father or lord; and hence the promise states that she shall be a mother of nations, and that kings of people should spring from her.

Now as the only change in each name is made by the insertion of a single letter, and that letter the same in both names, I cannot help concluding that some mystery was designed by its insertion; and therefore the opinion of Clarius and some others is not to be disregarded, which supposes that God shows he had conferred a peculiar dignity on both, by adding to their names one of the letters of his own: a name by which his eternal power and Godhead are peculiarly pointed out.

God's covenant was to multiply Abram exceedingly (v2) and to make him exceedingly fruitful (v6). So much so that the name 'Abram' was no longer appropriate for him. Abram was 99 years old and so far had been exceedingly unfruitful. God changes his name to reflect his future fruitfulness and institutes the ordinance of circumcision--circumcision of the only part of the body that is able to take part in reproducing or multiplying descendants. Note that it is only after Abraham is circumcised that Isaac is conceived by Sarah, with Isaac being born just one year later when Abraham is 100 years old (Gen 21:1-5).

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  • Thanks, Brian ;o) "I cannot help but conclude that some mystery was designed by its insertion" --> I'm with you there. But how is it connected to the covenant? If you get the answer, you get a Million Dollars. $$$ – Daisy Apr 12 '16 at 2:26
  • @Daisy - I added a short summary of how Abram's name change is connected to the covenant. – user6503 Apr 12 '16 at 3:46
  • OK, I like that. You get $10,000 for the part about circumcision connected to the fatherhood. Why, though, did he have to circumcise? I don't get that since God didn't create circumcision. This is why I hate the comment section -there's no room. How is Abraham multiplied exceedingly? He has two sons, not multitudes of sons, and those sons begat and begat and begat... like everybody else. What is unique about this other than they're giving birth at old ages? -->THANK YOU <-- – Daisy Apr 12 '16 at 5:07
  • @Daisy - God didn't say He would multiply Abraham's 1st-generation sons, only his descendants (future generations), and that the covenant would most definitely not be through Ismael but through Isaac (Gen 17:18-21). I believe I remember seeing another question here about circumcision that has better answers, but in brief, it was the outward sign that distinguished those of the covenant/promise from those who were not. All of us know about the true God only because of Abraham and his descendants, whom God multiplied exceedingly and are still a people today. – user6503 Apr 12 '16 at 5:24
  • I get the part about it being an outward way of distinguishing. I'll look it up. But isn't fair to say that everyone alive today came from someone who came from someone who ... all the way to Adam and Eve? How is it different? – Daisy Apr 12 '16 at 5:37
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The act of naming was significant in the covenant making process. Adam gave the woman who was created from him, a new name, a tradition that exists today in the form of a wife changing her name when she gets married. There is an implicit covenant between Adam and the animals in the garden, whom he names as well (the covenant there being a microcosm of the implicit covenant between YHVH and creation as a whole). When Nebuchadnezzar enslaves Daniel and his three friends, a covenant is made between Nebuchadnezzar and them, as well as a name change.

Changing someone's name implies ownership. When Nebuchadnezzar changed Daniel-and-friends' names, it was a dismissal of their previous identities, and a giving of a new one. Adam named his wife, parents name there children (there's another implicit covenant: I created you, now it's your role to honor me. If you do not, you will be punished). You are bound together in a covenant relationship. Changing Abram's name to Abraham was YHVH's way of declaring his ownership of Abram, much like the declaration of ownership of the people of Israel at Zion (in fact, that is the first time they are referred to collectively as "Israel").

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    hi Travis, Thanks for your comment. Can you reference the verse(s) where the text says a name change means ownership? – Daisy Apr 13 '16 at 23:26
  • Welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange, thanks for contributing! Be sure to take our site tour to learn more about us. We're a little different from other sites. As Daisy has identified, your answer doesn't show its work, which is a requirement on this site. Don't just tell us what you know, tell us how you know it. – Steve Taylor Apr 14 '16 at 11:06
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A name exchange is always a part of cutting covenant. Each person takes on the name of the other family or tribe as a part of the process. Notice that Abram took on a letter in God’s name, and God started calling himself “The God of Abraham”, later the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. So each time the name is said they are saying “I am Abraham in covenant with God” and God is saying “I am God, in covenant with Abraham”

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    Interesting. Is this common for ANE covenants, do you have a reference for that? – user2672 Jan 16 '18 at 15:27
  • A very important point you make, regarding God calling himself, 'The God of Abraham'. Thank you, (+1). – Nigel J Jan 21 '18 at 21:36
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As an addition to previous comments on the covenantal exchange of names, I would like to comment on the significance of the particular LETTER that God gave to Abram and Sarai in changing their names to Abraham and Sarah. The Lord added to each of their names the “H” (corresponding to the Hebrew letter heh) in YHWH.

In John D. Garr’s book, Life from the Dead: The Dynamic Saga of the Chosen People, he explains the heh is associated with the Spirit, i.e., the breath/life of God—and with that, the ability to bring forth life (pp. 94-97). I have read similar comments from a number of Jewish sources (both Messianic and non-Messianic). Google Books does have Garr's book and these pages online, if you want to read them without purchasing/checking out the book.

In the scriptures, the name of a person is associated with his character. By giving Abram and Sarai the life-giving aspect of Himself, God exchanged Abram and Sarai’s barrenness for His fruitfulness, enabling the couple to reproduce. This action on God’s part made possible the future fulfillment of the promise He had made to Abram that he would become the father of a multitude of nations (Gen. 17:4-6).

Hopefully, this answers the OP’s question as to why the name change was significant to the covenant.

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  • Thank you very much indeed, your answer is really interesting. Can you please provide a link to Garr's book? We kind of expect this on this site, if there is an electronic source available. You can find out how to edit, markdown and add links to your answer here. Thank you – Constantin Jinga Oct 13 '18 at 8:49
  • Sorry this has taken so long to reply to your comment, Constantin! I just saw your post. Here's the URL: books.google.com/books?isbn=1940685206 The relevant section to this post is pp. 94-97. Be sure to read the footnotes, too. – Metamorphoo Feb 10 '19 at 0:27
  • For some reason the link you provided is not working. However, I have found an URL that is directing right to page 94 of the book. I have edited your answer and added the URL to the right place. Hope you don't mind. – Constantin Jinga Feb 10 '19 at 17:39
  • Constantin, no problem on the edit ... but I am not seeing anything. You are referring to the URL in the post I made on Feb 10, correct? – Metamorphoo Feb 10 '19 at 23:40
  • Editing is becoming valid only after peer review. It is working fine now. Just look at your phrase starting with " Google Books does have Garr's ..." You see it is blue and underlined. Just click/tap on it and you'll see it working. If you want to learn how to do this trick, see here: hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/editing-help Thanks a lot for this reference, Metamorphoo, it helped me with another paper I'm working on. – Constantin Jinga Feb 11 '19 at 12:59
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A marriage is another covenant and an example where names are exchanged, depending on the culture. The name exchange signifies that a covenant was made between two people or tribes when their names are spoken. Here is a pretty good resource I found detailing the process of a blood covenant and the steps. https://www.the-covenant-kingdom.com/blood-covenant-steps.html

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