The Father and Mother of Many Nations
And no longer is your name called Avram, but your name shall be Avraham, because I shall make you a father of many nations. And I shall make you exceedingly fruitful, and make nations of you, and sovereigns shall come from you. (Gen 17:5-6)
Avram in Hebrew, אַבְרָם, is an acronym of av ram, and is a contracted form of another Hebrew name, אֲבִירָם aviram: אָב av, father and the verb רוּם room, to be high, to rise or raise, to bring up, exalt (self), to lift up. The literal meaning of רוּם room, can be seen in the verse from the Flood story below, where it couples with another word with a similar meaning נָשָׂא nasa,
And the flood was forty days upon the earth; and the waters increased, and bore up (nasa) the ark, and it was lifted up (room) above the earth. (Gen 7:17)
Combined both words give the real impression of “lifting up” which is the literal meaning of our word. Therefore, we translate the name of our forefather Avram as “exalted father” or “elevated father,” or we may also translated as “honored father.”
As a pledge of His promise YHVH changed his name אַבְרָם, honored father, into אַבְרָהָם, avraham. According to the explanation in the narrative, Avraham stands for גֹּויִ֖ם אַב־הֲמֹון av hamon goyim: a father of many nations. But according to this meaning, the patriarch’s name should have been changed to Avham from av-hamon, אַב־הֲמֹ֥ון, a father of many. But he was called Avraham, a father of the multitude, from אב and רָהָם. What is the difference between these two names? The letter resh.
Why was the letter resh, which stood in אַבְרָם for the ram (exalted) left in? There is no resh in the phrase “a father of multitudes of nations.”
Perhaps, because the pictograph of resh is a picture of a human head in order to give the fullness of meaning of the name Avraham: a head of many nations.
In the new name of Avram YHVH gave him a tangible pledge of the fulfillment of His Covenant, since a name which He gives cannot be a mere empty sound identifier, but must be the expression of something real: as real as being a father of many nations.
And I give My covenant between Me and you, and shall greatly increase you. … As for Me, look, My covenant is with you, and you shall become a father of many nations. (Gen 17:2-4)
Few have noticed that the Covenant and the pledge of the fulfillment of this Covenant were extended to Avraham’s wife as well, so that they would become the progenitors of many nations, as we read further,
As for Sarai your wife, do not call her name Sarai, for Sarah is her name. And I shall bless her and also give you a son by her. And I shall bless her, and she shall become nations – kings of peoples are to be from her. (Gen 17:15-16)
Her name was changed from Sarai to Sarah. שָׂרַי sarai comes from the noun שַׂר sar, which means a head person of any rank or class, governor, ruler, steward. The noun comes from the verb שָׂרַר sarar, with the meaning of to have dominion, to rule. Hence, the name שָׂרַי sarai means “my ruler” or “my lord” where the suffix yud gives the possessive form of sar, or one who belongs to a ruler, master. Her name was also changed as a pledge of the Covenant to שָׂרָה Sarah. Sarah is a feminine form of sar and thus it is commonly rendered as a mistress, female noble; also: lady, princess, queen. But since these Gentile titles do not reflect faithfully on the Hebrew culture, it will proper to render sarah as a female ruler.
In the context of chapter 17 we find that the appointment of the sign of the Covenant, namely the circumcision of the flesh of Avraham’s all male descendants, was followed by the further revelation as to the promised seed, which Avraham would receive through his wife Sarai. It is not accidental that after Avraham’s status was elevated to “a father of many nations” as a pledge of the Covenant, and circumcision, as a sign of the Covenant, was given immediately after it, Sarai was also elevated to become a mother of kings of many nations in confirmation of her exalted destiny.
We should notice that Sarai (my lord) while in her status of belonging to her lord Avram, had another name יִסְכָּה Iscah, as we read in Gen 11:29.
And Avram and Nahor took them wives: the name of Avram’s wife was Sarai; and the name of Nahor’s wife, Milcah, the daughter of Haran, the father of Milcah, and the father of Iscah. (Gen 11:29)
The name Iscah means to watch, to observe. The Sages in Meg. 14a say this: Iscah: this is Sarah [called Iscah] because she would see (סוֹכָה) through Divine inspiration, and because all gazed (סוֹכִין) at her beauty. Alternatively, יִסְכָּה is an expression denoting princedom, (נְסִיכוּת), just as Sarah is an expression of dominion (שְׂרָרָה).
By now we learned that our parents Avraham and Sarah were promised to become father and mother of many nations or as some translations render it: multitudes. What does that mean to us? In order to understand how to interpret this, we need to return to the day YHVH made a covenant with Avraham. After his faithfulness was counted to him as righteousness, on the same day Yehovah made a covenant with Avram, saying,
I have given this land to your seed, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the River Euphrates,” (Gen 15:18)
And He brought him outside and said, “Look now toward the heavens, and count the stars if you are able to count them.” And He said to him, “So are your seed.” (Gen 15:5)
This promise of YHVH to Avraham has been commonly understood to mean that the children of Avraham through Israel would become a great nation, innumerous people. Others say that literally many nations would come out from Avraham’s loins.
The Sages, however, say that this verse comparing the children of Israel to the “stars in the heavens” is not meant to be taken literally, for Israel is far from the largest people in the world. Israel is not the most ancient people either. There are nations that are more numerous and more ancient than Israel. Yet the promise to Avraham says that as far as Avraham could count the stars in the heavens, so should his seed be. The Sages explain that the comparison to the stars refers to the permanence of the heavenly bodies. As the stars never cease, so too Israel and the connection to the Land never cease.
And indeed, the comparison of Israel to the stars does refer to the Land Israel is commanded to live in which no one can take from them. But will all Israel return to fulfill their heavenly given mandate? We read,
You multiplied their children like the stars of the heavens, and You brought them to the Land which You had said to their fathers to go in and possess. (Neh 9:23)