Parashat Lech Lecha: A Covenant of Names

[This is part three in a series of analyses on appearances of the Hebrew word for name, shem, in the weekly Torah portion. Start here.]

We saw various uses of a ‘name,’ shem, last week in parashat Noah and previously in parashat Bereishit. Its uses in the Torah text, or lack thereof, convey extra meaning. A name includes more than one’s own personal name, rather it carries with it one’s reputation among peers and even one’s legacy after death.

In the beginning, in parashat Bereishit, people corrupted shem against both God and fellow humans. 10 generations past until a hero emerged, Noah, but humanity’s failures continued and in parashat Noah the world was nearly destroyed — or created anew — in the Flood. Still after, humanity used shem inappropriately at the Tower of Babel. 10 more generations would be born until a new hero emerged: Abraham.

The Torah forms a trilogy of sorts revolving around shem and this is the third installment.

We are given precious few details about Abraham before God speaks to him in the opening words of parashat Lech Lecha. Why was he worthy of God’s mission? As we pointed out in parashat Noah, Abraham (and his brother) married the orphaned daughter of his dead brother Haran. In doing so, Abraham supported the legacies, the ‘name,’ of others: Haran, their father Terah, and the orphan herself.

So, Abraham demonstrated using shem for selfless reasons, seeking to make a name for others instead of himself. This stood in contrast to what we had seen from humanity prior. So Abraham gets the call:

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יי אֶל־אַבְרָ֔ם לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ׃ וְאֶֽעֶשְׂךָ֙ לְג֣וֹי גָּד֔וֹל וַאֲבָ֣רֶכְךָ֔ וַאֲגַדְּלָ֖ה שְׁמֶ֑ךָ וֶהְיֵ֖ה בְּרָכָֽה׃ וַאֲבָֽרְכָה֙ מְבָ֣רְכֶ֔יךָ וּמְקַלֶּלְךָ֖ אָאֹ֑ר וְנִבְרְכ֣וּ בְךָ֔ כֹּ֖ל מִשְׁפְּחֹ֥ת הָאֲדָמָֽה׃

The LORD said to Abram, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and curse him that curses you; and all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you.” (Genesis 12:1–3)

In God’s very first words to Abraham in the Torah, He promises to ‘make a name’ for him, to magnify Abraham’s shem. From this we can plainly see the prominence of shem in the Torah and in people’s minds.

As we mentioned in parashat Noah, Abraham demonstrated how to make a name for others but there still remained the corruption of shem against God. Now, following God’s promise to make his name great, Abraham demonstrates making a name for God:

וַיַּעְתֵּ֨ק מִשָּׁ֜ם הָהָ֗רָה מִקֶּ֛דֶם לְבֵֽית־אֵ֖ל וַיֵּ֣ט אׇהֳלֹ֑ה בֵּֽית־אֵ֤ל מִיָּם֙ וְהָעַ֣י מִקֶּ֔דֶם וַיִּֽבֶן־שָׁ֤ם מִזְבֵּ֙חַ֙ לַ-יי וַיִּקְרָ֖א בְּשֵׁ֥ם יי׃

From there he moved on to the hill country east of Bethel and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and he built there an altar to the LORD and invoked the LORD by name / called in the name of the LORD. (Genesis 12:8)

Earlier, humanity had also ‘called in God’s name’ (Gen. 6:4) but it was of the opposite sort, closer to blasphemy or even idolatry. The exact sin isn’t quite clear from that text in parashat Bereishit, but here Abraham’s intentions are unequivocal: first he builds an alter to God (not included in above text), then a second one, then he calls in God’s Name.

What is Abraham doing here, invoking God’s Name? We don’t see a command from God to do that. Didn’t God actually just tell Abraham that He would make his name great. So why is Abraham turning it around and focusing on God’s Name here? Evidently he had faith in God’s promise and saw fit to focus on God’s Name rather than his own.

Next is the story of the famine. At first glance it seems like a tough break: God tells Abraham to journey to Canaan, he goes, and then a famine forces him to leave that land for Egypt? Sounds little like making Abraham’s name great — the opposite in fact. We the reader, however, know from some verses later that Abraham eventually emerges from Egypt with great wealth. So God does indeed begin completing His promise, and Abraham’s ‘name’ is becoming great.

Then the verses following the news of Abraham’s new wealth:

וַיֵּ֙לֶךְ֙ לְמַסָּעָ֔יו מִנֶּ֖גֶב וְעַד־בֵּֽית־אֵ֑ל עַד־הַמָּק֗וֹם אֲשֶׁר־הָ֨יָה שָׁ֤ם אׇֽהֳלֹה֙ בַּתְּחִלָּ֔ה בֵּ֥ין בֵּֽית־אֵ֖ל וּבֵ֥ין הָעָֽי׃ אֶל־מְקוֹם֙ הַמִּזְבֵּ֔חַ אֲשֶׁר־עָ֥שָׂה שָׁ֖ם בָּרִאשֹׁנָ֑ה וַיִּקְרָ֥א שָׁ֛ם אַבְרָ֖ם בְּשֵׁ֥ם יי׃

And he proceeded by stages from the Negeb as far as Bethel, to the place where his tent had been formerly, between Bethel and Ai, the site of the altar that he had built there at first; and there Abram invoked the LORD by name. (Genesis 13:3–4)

Immediately after Abraham gets this new wealth, this magnified ‘name,’ he realizes God is already starting to complete His promise to him. Abraham seeks to show gratitude and ‘return the favor.’ His wealth doesn’t change him, rather he returns by the same route to the same place, returning to who he was before his newfound riches, and acts to magnify God’s name.

shem doesn’t appear again until chapter 16. During that time God and Abraham continue to speak about legacy, but in the absence of any actual children born to Abraham.

Then, shem’s next few appearances do speak to Abraham’s — and Sarah’s — legacy, but not his main one:

וְשָׂרַי֙ אֵ֣שֶׁת אַבְרָ֔ם לֹ֥א יָלְדָ֖ה ל֑וֹ וְלָ֛הּ שִׁפְחָ֥ה מִצְרִ֖ית וּשְׁמָ֥הּ הָגָֽר׃וְשָׂרַי֙ אֵ֣שֶׁת אַבְרָ֔ם לֹ֥א יָלְדָ֖ה ל֑וֹ וְלָ֛הּ שִׁפְחָ֥ה מִצְרִ֖ית וּשְׁמָ֥הּ הָגָֽר׃
Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. She had an Egyptian maidservant whose name was Hagar. (Genesis 16:1)

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר לָהּ֙ מַלְאַ֣ךְ יְי הִנָּ֥ךְ הָרָ֖ה וְיֹלַ֣דְתְּ בֵּ֑ן וְקָרָ֤את שְׁמוֹ֙ יִשְׁמָעֵ֔אל כִּֽי־שָׁמַ֥ע יי אֶל־עׇנְיֵֽךְ׃
The angel of the LORD said to her further, “Behold, you are with child and shall bear a son; You shall call his name Ishmael, for the LORD has paid heed to your suffering.”(Genesis 16:11)

וַתִּקְרָ֤א שֵׁם־יי הַדֹּבֵ֣ר אֵלֶ֔יהָ אַתָּ֖ה אֵ֣ל רֳאִ֑י כִּ֣י אָֽמְרָ֗ה הֲגַ֥ם הֲלֹ֛ם רָאִ֖יתִי אַחֲרֵ֥י רֹאִֽי׃
And she called the name of the LORD who spoke to her, “You Are El-roi,” by which she meant, “Have I not gone on seeing after He saw me!”(Genesis 16:13)

וַתֵּ֧לֶד הָגָ֛ר לְאַבְרָ֖ם בֵּ֑ן וַיִּקְרָ֨א אַבְרָ֧ם שֶׁם־בְּנ֛וֹ אֲשֶׁר־יָלְדָ֥ה הָגָ֖ר יִשְׁמָעֵֽאל׃
Hagar bore a son to Abram, and Abram called the name of his son that Hagar bore him Ishmael. (Genesis 16:15)

It seems Hagar and Ishmael merited shem in their own rights in addition to being part of Abraham’s story and associated with his name. As we see from the text here, Hagar is visited by an angel. She then successfully uses shem in conjunction with God, the first human after Abraham to do that.

Next, God gives Abraham his new name as we know it today:

אֲנִ֕י הִנֵּ֥ה בְרִיתִ֖י אִתָּ֑ךְ וְהָיִ֕יתָ לְאַ֖ב הֲמ֥וֹן גּוֹיִֽם׃ וְלֹא־יִקָּרֵ֥א ע֛וֹד אֶת־שִׁמְךָ֖ אַבְרָ֑ם וְהָיָ֤ה שִׁמְךָ֙ אַבְרָהָ֔ם כִּ֛י אַב־הֲמ֥וֹן גּוֹיִ֖ם נְתַתִּֽיךָ׃

As for Me, this is My covenant with you: You shall be the father of a multitude of nations. And your name shall no longer be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham for I make you the father of a multitude of nations. (Genesis 17:4–8)

God changes Abraham’s name, with multiple uses of shem in the text, and repeats the lofty promises of legacy.

The changed name indicates a further evolution in the notion of a human name. First, names were given as labels for individuals. Then, names were earned as part of reputation and legacy. Here, Abraham’s given and earned names converge.

In these verses God speaks to Abraham of a ‘covenant’ for the first time. Earlier, we read that ‘God made a covenant’ (Genesis 15:18) with Abraham but only now, following his changed name — a great magnification of his name — do we see God speaking about it explicitly.

Unlike previous examples, Abraham does not immediately return the favor by calling out in God’s Name. Rather, Abraham engages in fulfilling the commandment of circumcision, the human side of the covenant. In following God’s will, Abraham does indeed magnify His Name.

Next, Sarah’s name is changed as well:

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר אֱלֹקים֙ אֶל־אַבְרָהָ֔ם שָׂרַ֣י אִשְׁתְּךָ֔ לֹא־תִקְרָ֥א אֶת־שְׁמָ֖הּ שָׂרָ֑י כִּ֥י שָׂרָ֖ה שְׁמָֽהּ׃
And God said to Abraham, “As for your wife Sarai, you shall not call her name Sarai, but her name shall be Sarah. (Genesis 17:15)

Sarah is confirmed as Abraham’s partner in God’s mission and the matriarch of the Jewish people, both spiritually and biologically:

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֱלֹקים אֲבָל֙ שָׂרָ֣ה אִשְׁתְּךָ֗ יֹלֶ֤דֶת לְךָ֙ בֵּ֔ן וְקָרָ֥אתָ אֶת־שְׁמ֖וֹ יִצְחָ֑ק וַהֲקִמֹתִ֨י אֶת־בְּרִיתִ֥י אִתּ֛וֹ לִבְרִ֥ית עוֹלָ֖ם לְזַרְע֥וֹ אַחֲרָֽיו׃
God said, “Nevertheless, Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall name him Isaac; and I will maintain My covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring to come. (Genesis 17:19)

God then clarifies that Abraham’s other son, Ishmael, does have a great legacy in store for him (which we will see later), but it will be Isaac who serves as the generational link.

Unlike people in the previous 20 generations, Abraham demonstrates making a name for others and for God. In return he is chosen as the torchbearer of God’s mission and the father of nations.

He is promised, and then soon granted, fame and the magnification of his name. Abraham returns the favor and seeks to magnify God’s name but conspicuously remains childless, a requisite to lasting legacy. God then makes a covenant with him and Abraham’s own name, and that of his wife Sarah, get changed in recognition of their new exalted status.

Following 20 generations of human shortcomings, shem has found a home.

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