Genesis 17:1-8

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.” Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him,

 

“As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you.

 

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 where you are now an alien, all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding; and I will be their God.”  Genesis 17:1-8

 

We all probably find it hard to believe that at one time everyone in the world thought that the earth was flat.  Further, they believed that if you tried to sail to the edges of the earth, if you made it past the huge sea monsters waiting to gobble you up, you risked falling off the edge into the eternal abyss of…well, I’m not sure what they thought was out there, down there.

 

But now that we know that the earth is round (OK, slightly oblong), we can’t go back to that previous worldview and be taken seriously by anyone.  Yet there still is a marginally active group called “The Flat Earth Society” who firmly believe the earth is flat because the Bible says so.  They even, I believe, have a Facebook site and a Twitter account.  Personally, I think they’ve fallen off the deep end.

 

It isn’t easy to let go what we once not only strongly believed but what we also saw as an important brick in the wall of our faith.

 

I say all of that to say this:  At some point along the way, I was taught that, when God moved in a fresh new way in someone’s life in the Bible, that movement could result in the person being given a new name. I was taught that God when God gave someone a new mission, they also got a new identity, and thus a new name.

 

That was always attractive to me, still seething that my parents settled on “Kerry” and sentenced me to a lifetime of being very much a boy cursed with a girl’s name.

 

I was taught that was why Abram became Abraham, Sarai became Sarah, Jacob became Israel, Simon became Peter, and why Saul became Paul. 

 

I don’t believe that anymore. Much of what was so simple to me as a child became increasingly complex.  Just as it was inconceivable to me as a kid in North Dakota that some people lived all year long without seeing snow, I had absolutely no appreciation that people really did speak very different languages that rendered them unintelligible to one another.  I must have known that in theory but I never thought through its implications.  So when I came to more deeply study the Bible, I came to see that shifts from various lost dialects to Hebrew to Aramaic to Greek to Latin really made a difference.  Even in the Bible.  Its origins and its transmission through the centuries.

 

I came to see how strands of very different authors, with very different agendas, could retell the same stories for very different contemporary purposes.  Today’s text, for example, falls on the fault line where the Elohist narrative is interrupted by the Priestly narrative.  They don’t merely use different names for Abraham, they also use different names for God.  Even in our English translations, notice how God has been named “the Lord” through most of the story reaching back to Genesis 12, but now in this brief part, God is referred to as “God”.

 

Does that matter?  Of course it does.  It helps explain why the new covenant promise with Abraham from chapter 12 is being repeated here in chapter 17.  It helps explain why the Priestly strand of narrative is called the “Priestly” strand – because here in chapter 17, in the Priestly account, the practice of circumcision is explained.  That is how the Priestly school of thought worked, laying down the ritual laws, justifying its existence.

 

But here is what is amazing to me – at the end of the final editing process, whenever that was, maybe even as late as somewhere between 500-300 BCE, they kept ALL OF THE STRANDS and just sort of wove them together.  THAT I find amazing.  It tells me that people do have the capacity, even in matters of faith, to live with diversity of thought, opinion, and practice.  There is value in preserving even what challenges us rather than cutting out everything we disagree with, preserving only what justifies our contemporary, and fleeting, and ever-changing, ideas of what constitutes reality.

 

Because what really matters is what still lasts – Abraham trusted God.  Despite all evidence to the contrary, against the grain of everything that seemed practical, likely, even imaginable, Abraham trusted God.  He would be a blessing.

 

Let us pray:  Dear Lord, sometimes the gift of discernment seems to be what is so lacking in our lives today.  Information floods us, discernment cuts to what is important.  Gift us with the ability to hear your call in our lives today, to hear your promises, to hear our marching orders, to see you in surprising places, to follow as we’re led.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

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