After Abram gets out of Egypt, we’ve got our next big thing, the Covenant. This is where God lays it out. Now a covenant is like a contract. Each side gets something. Abram is going to get prosperity and become “a father of nations.” That’s literally what his new name, Abraham, means. Sarai becomes Sarah, which means princess, a fitting meaning for her new identity.
The name changes are actually about a new identity. No longer are they Abram and Sarai. Now, they have new lives under God’s covenant, leaving their old behind. Like much in the Bible, there is a lot of symbolism at work in this. The change is such a slight one that most people wouldn’t blink at the difference.
“Yo, Abram, how you doing?”
“Actually, my name is Abraham.”
“That’s what I said, Abram.”
It’s not so much an outward change as it is an inward one. Abraham, with a new identity, must begin changing how he thinks of himself and then live that way, which brings us to the big question: What does God get out of this?
This is how contracts work, after all. Chapter 17 of Genesis deals with the exact terms of the covenant. Unfortunately, most of that time is spent talking about the circumcision. This is a sign of the covenant, but not what God really wants from Abraham. This is a point of recognition between people, and it serves a purpose, but God wants more than simple obedience to being circumcised.
If we look back at the beginning of the chapter, God actually gives his terms before he tells Abraham what he’ll get out of it. It’s slipped in under the radar where God says “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless” (Gen 17:1 NRSV).
Now the exact translation of blameless is up for grabs. Some editions talk about it as being without sin, others talk about as being obedient, or even perfect. I honestly think it doesn’t matter so much. I believe the important part is walking. Specifically, it says to walk before God, which puts them on the same exact path together, and provides a metaphor that shows God will always be with him. Moreover, this is a metaphor for free will as Abraham is the one walking and choosing his own path. If he strays off the path of God, it is by his choice, not God’s.
This also fits together with the whole blessing those who bless and cursing those who curse from chapter 12. God and Abraham are one, unified in purpose. God literally has Abraham’s back so long as they walk the same path, which, in a nutshell, does mean doing as God says. While it may be a lot to ask for, Abraham is certainly getting a lot out of the deal, too.