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.”
God said to Abraham, “As for Sarah your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.” Gen. 17: 1-7, 15-16.
In today’s Lectionary reading, we continue with the notion of covenant from last week’s Old Testament reading about Noah. Here, we encounter Abram as an old man. Twenty-four years earlier, God had instructed Abram to move from his home in Haran. Abram left behind his home and his family; he left behind his past. Although Abram’s very name meant “father of the multitudes”, deep into their old age he and his wife Sarai had no children. Despite God’s promises that his descendants would number as many as the stars, Sarai remained barren.
When God re-named him Abraham (“the father of many nations”), it must’ve seemed like a bit of a cruel joke. And when God re-named his wife Sarah (which means “princess”), that must have made her wince a bit. And when God told him that wife would be the mother of nations and kings would spring from her, the whole thing must have seemed….well, just not very likely.
In the very next verse, we learn that Abraham laughed at the whole idea. Gen. 17:17. And when Sarah heard the news, she couldn’t help but laugh, too. Gen. 18:12. God has a funny sense of humor, and the whole idea struck them as a bit absurd. And yet, very late in their lives, laughter (which translates as “Yizhak” or “Isaac”) will spring from their marriage. Their laughter at the absurdity of God’s promise will become laughter of joy. But, I’m getting ahead of the story…
In those days, at that time, being childless meant a deep and fundamental kind of failure. (Some folks still perceive infertility that way today, or at least as deeply heartbreaking.) God’s repeated promises seemed to mock the reality of Abram and Sarai’s long struggle with infertility. So when God Almighty (“El Shaddai”) repeats his promise, Abram falls to the earth, and we can imagine him hoping desperately that somehow the Almighty can bring his dreams to fruition and bless him with an heir.
As happens so often in Scripture, the significance of this event is marked by a re-naming. We’ve seen it happen to Simon (“Peter), to Jacob (“Israel”), and now to Abram (“Abraham”) and Sarai (“Sarah”). In each instance, the assignment of a new name implies both a new understanding of mission and a re-making of God’s creation. It connotes a change so thoroughgoing that the old name simply would no longer suffice. In this passage, the Lord reveals also himself, using a new name (“El Shaddai”) for the first time. The name reflects this new covenantal relationship, implying limitless capacity.
This reading offers us several important insights during this Lenten season. God calls each of us into the covenant He established with Abraham and which was revealed most clearly in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. He wants to take the places in our lives which are broken and barren and create new life there. He wants to turn our laughter of incredulity into laughter of joy. Just like Abraham, God calls us to walk with Him, so that all our steps are taken with and toward God. And mostly, He wants us to become living icons of this covenant, to trust in His vision for all of creation and its redemption. And, I think, God wants us all to laugh, deeply and with great joy.
James R. Dennis, O.P.
© 2012 James R. Dennis