I often wondered what the big deal was in changing Abram’s name to Abraham, but if any of what I’m about to say is true, it is a big deal indeed. Genesis 17 begins with telling us that Abram was ninety years old when God visited him again. This means there was about 13 years of silence, or at least the text doesn’t mention other visits by God. Therefore, if 13 years is accurate, the silence was probably for the purpose of maturing Abram’s faith. Then suddenly God speaks: “I am the Almighty God; walk before me, and be perfect.”
“Walk before me and be perfect!” What does that mean? Some might say the text means that God expects perfect behavior, but does it? Considering the covenant of circumcision which comes out of this meeting, I don’t believe God intends men’s behavior to be perfect. If he does, I suppose that would be only wishful thinking on his part. Rather I suspect God expects obedience, our devotion or consecration to him, which are all heart issues. Robotical perfection was never an issue with God; our hearts have always been the issue. Not once in Abram’s relationship with God is he ever supplied with a checklist of things to do (or not) in order to be blameless. Works were never the basis of Abram’s relationship with God, but faith or trust—believing God—was always at its heart.
Understanding this, why would God deem it important to change Abram’s name? What is the significance of changing Abram to Abraham? One important issue might be the sovereignty of God being an issue. The greater figure is the one in authority and that authority is exercised over those who are inferior or over whom he has dominion. Parents are in authority over their children and so name them. Adam was given authority over all animal life, and so named them. Therefore, since God is the ultimate authority, it is his right to rename Abram and Sarai.
Abraham means father of a multitude which points to God’s promise to him, but Abram means exalted father. What should we make of the latter? To what or to whom does the name Abram point? It probably had more to do with Terah’s (Abram’s father) position at the time of Abram’s birth than as a prophetic announcement that Abram would be an exalted father. In other words, Terah was the exalted father to whom the name Abram pointed.
Consider Genesis 11:27-31. What information might be drawn from the text, and the meaning of the names given there? Terah was 70 years old when he began to have children (v.26). He was 205 years old when he died (v.31). Abram was 75 years old when he left Haran for Canaan (Genesis 12:4). Therefore, Terah was 130 when Abram was born; meaning Abram was probably Terah’s youngest son. What could the text be implying when it claims Haran died before his father (v.28)? Haran definitely died before his father died, but the text may be telling us that he died at the hand of or in the presence of his father. Consider the names of his children. Haran’s daughters (Genesis 11:29) were Milcah, meaning counsel or queen, and Iscah, meaning spy out, watch, observant. Haran’s son, Lot (Geneis 11:31), means veil or covering. If we consider these names with the names of Abram, meaning exalted father, and Sarai, meaning princess or strife, it might be understood that there was something going on behind the scenes about which the text is not explicit. In other words, there may have been some strife between Haran and Terah for some reason.
If the name Abram points to Terah becoming an exalted father who may have married into the royal family, implied in the name Sarai, perhaps to form an alliance between two great cities, then the names of Haran’s children may point to some sort of conflict between father and son that resulted in Haran’s death.
If any of this is close to being true, we can see why God wanted Abraham’s and Sarah’s names to point to their relationship with him and not to past relationships and the strife that could have occurred there. Rather, Abraham was to be the father of a multitude—pointing to Israel—and even a multitude of nations, all playing a part in God’s overall plan for the future.