Thursday of Week 5 of Lent – First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 17:3-9

At the beginning of chapter 17 of Genesis, we are told that Yahweh appeared to Abram, now 99 years old, and identified himself as: “I am El Shaddai” (Gen 17:1). In Hebrew, El Shaddai was an ancient divine name of the patriarchal period, preserved mainly in the ‘Priestly’ tradition, and rarely used outside the Pentateuch (except in Job). The usual translation of El Shaddai as ‘Almighty God’ is inaccurate, as ‘Mountain God’ is the more probable meaning. Yahweh (El Shaddai) now promises to make a covenant with Abram, and to pledge him a long line of descendants. Abram bows down in deep adoration.

Abram is to become the father of many nations, and because of that, his name is to be changed from Abram to Abraham. We need to remember that, for the ancients, a name did not merely indicate a person or thing, rather it made a thing what it was, and a change of name meant a change of destiny. Abram and Abraham are in fact just two dialectical forms of the same name whose meaning is ‘he is great by reason of his father, he is of noble descent’. Another variant is Abiram (Num 16:1; 1 Kings 16:34). The additional ‘-ha-‘ in the form Abraham is explained by folk etymology as coming from ab-hamon goyim, i.e. “father of a host of nations”.

On his side, God makes a solemn commitment to Abraham, and to all his descendants in perpetuity, to be their God.

I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you.

There will indeed be a long line of kings – and a very mixed bunch they are. But, no matter how corrupt the kings could be, the promises made to Abraham continued to be fulfilled. Paul, writing to the Romans, will speak of Abraham’s faith in God’s promise which, by that time, had been so clearly fulfilled.

It is a pledge made forever:

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.

Yahweh further promises to give them the whole land of Canaan to own in perpetuity. This is a pledge which Christians, unlike some Jews, would now read in a less than literal way.

Finally, Abraham and his descendants are to ratify this covenant, and on their part, are to keep the covenant by their total allegiance to their one and only God.

Abraham, as the Gospel indicates, is regarded as the father of all God’s people. As Matthew’s genealogy indicates, he is the ancestor of Jesus, and in Jesus we find the complete fulfilment of the promises made long ago. We read in today’s Gospel:

Your ancestor Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day; he saw it and was glad. (John 8:56)

The covenant made between Abraham and God is both sealed and renewed in Jesus Christ. And through Jesus, people everywhere become, in a special way, children of God. Let us rejoice in having God as our Father and Jesus as our Brother. We do so by the way we live our lives.

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