In several places in the Bible, God changes a person’s name — Jacob to Israel, Simon to Peter, Saul to Paul. Sometimes the name change involves the person’s new identity or path. Sometimes it was because of a cultural situation. Sometimes it was as simple as a change in language, such as a name in Hebrew translating to a name in Greek.
The first name change we see in the Bible has a lesson that still applies today. When God changed Abram’s name to Abraham and Sarai’s name to Sarah, the purpose was to acknowledge that God would fulfill His promise to them.
No Longer Shall You be Named Abram
The changing of Abram’s name goes back to Genesis 17:5, “No longer shall you be named Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations.” By changing Abram’s name, the meaning of his name switched from meaning “exalted father” to Abraham meaning “father of a multitude.”
Genesis 17:15 says, “Then God said to Abraham, as for your wife Sarai, you shall not call her by the name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name.” Then in verse 16, God says, “I will bless her, and indeed I will give you a son by her.”
Abraham responds to God’s promise in verse 17, “Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said in his heart, ‘Will a child be born to a man a hundred years old? And will Sarah, who is ninety years old, give birth to a child?'” In verse 19, God responds to Abraham’s reaction, “But God said, ‘No, but your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you shall name him Isaac, and I will establish My covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him.'” Abraham laughs at God telling him he and his ninety-year-old wife will have a child together at one hundred years of age. Because of that response, God called this child Isaac, which means “laughter.”
Why Did God Change Abram’s Name to Abraham?
That’s the interaction between Abraham and God, but the question is, why did God change Abram’s name to Abraham? And why did God change Sarai to Sarah?
Here is where we can learn a lesson from God’s forty-one-hundred-year-old promise to Abraham. If you look closely, you’ll see the name change included adding a letter to each of their names — the same letter. God added an “H” to Abraham and Sarah. Adding a single letter may seem insignificant, but it’s anything but trivial.
Hei “God Breathes”
In the original Hebrew language, the letter H (hei) was equal to adding the sound of a breath. In that language, the word for breath and spirit was the same, meaning the concept of breath was associated with God’s spirit; hei means “God breathes.”
Let me give a modern-day example. If you are not feeling well and you go to the doctor and the doctor says you have pneumonia, you know that your issue concerns your lungs. How do you know this? If you look up any word that begins with the letters PNE, you see that it deals with the lungs or one’s ability to breathe. Pneumonia is a disease of the lungs. In the English language, PNE can’t mean anything else.
This Name Change Goes Deeper Than Just Adding a Simple Letter
With Abram’s and Sarai’s name changes, God’s promise to Abraham would be impossible unless God was the one causing it to happen. So when God added hei (H) to Abraham’s and Sarah’s names, God added much more than just a letter. He was explaining how He was going to fulfill His promise. This elderly couple, well beyond childbearing age, was going to parent a child, and this birth would only be a reality because they yielded to God’s promise.
Abraham’s and Sarah’s name change goes deeper than just adding a simple letter. In the physical, natural, and the flesh, Abram knew he and Sarai having a child at their age was impossible. Acknowledging this as being impossible is where the lesson still applies today. We must realize that if we live life in the flesh and try to do things with our own power and ability, we will fail. When we allow God to actively be the source for any accomplishment we may achieve, when we recognize it is God’s involvement, then that produces joy and gives life purpose and hope. We can choose living life in the flesh or yielding to the Holy Spirit. Man is limited in what he can accomplish, but nothing is impossible for God.
Scripture Supports This Truth
Jeremiah (17:9) warned: “The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it?” The prophet warned us not to be led by our wants and emotions. Jeremiah contrasts the person who experiences barrenness with the person who experiences blessings — the contrast between one who trusts in their own resources and one who relies on God’s strength. The difference is the one who trusts in man versus the one who trusts in the Lord.
“The heart is deceitful” or desperately sick. Sin is a sickness, and Jesus is the great physician. Sick people often adopt views of life they would not have if they were well.
The apostle Paul wrote about the deeds of the flesh in Galatians 5. In Paul’s writings, the flesh stands for the natural desires of a person operating apart from God. In Colossians 3:2, we are told to set our minds on things above, not on things on earth. This requires us to be dependent on the Holy Spirit because, in our flesh nature, we will set our minds on what we want and what we see here and now, not on the glorious future promised to us.
So, why did God change Abram’s name to Abraham? And why did God change Sarai to Sarah? The answer and the lesson are still valid today. Live each day doing your best to be led by the Holy Spirit and to resist allowing your flesh to dictate how you see and live life.
Maranatha, Lord Jesus!