In Genesis 12, God tells Abram that he will make him in a great nation. He tells him that he will bless those who bless him and curse whoever curses him. God’s promise to Abram is that through him, all the people of the earth will be blessed.
He followed the instructions to go to the land that God had shown. Then he goes off course a little. He heard the promise, but he doesn’t really want to wait for it to be fulfilled God’s way in God’s time. Maybe he heard it wrong. Maybe he spaced out while God was giving the instructions. Or maybe he is just a little bit impatient.
After following his wife’s recommendations to sleep with her maidservant and causing enmity between them, God appears to Abram again in Genesis 17. God renews his covenant with Abram and changes his name. He goes from Abram, meaning exalted father, to Abraham, father of many. His name is representative of who he will become. No longer will he be known as he was, He has been changed and God has changed his name.
In Genesis 32, Jacob wrestles with an angel or some divine being. In the wrestling match, Jacob is touched in his hip and he walks with a limp thereafter. In the course of the exchange, the angel asks Jacob his name and then tells him that he will no longer be called Jacob but will now be called Israel which means he struggles with God. He has been changed and God has changed his name.
Saul was a Pharisee, educated in the Jewish laws. He is an up and coming leader who has it out for this new sect, the Way. He does all he can to persecute them, holding the cloaks of the men who stone and kill Stephen in Acts 7. As he continues his murderous ways, bringing letters giving him permission to imprison Christians in Damascus, he is met by a flash of light which blinds him on the road. Jesus speaks to Saul and he is changed and God changes his name.
In the Bible, names are significant, and so are name changes. When God did something significant in people, he sometimes changed their names. They were no longer who they were, so why should they still be referred to the same way? By putting their old names behind them, it signified that they were done with who they were and were ready for a new and fresh start.
There’s been a lot of talk about names of late, particularly, in my neck of the woods, names of schools that were named for Confederate figures. No matter how you slice it, regardless of whether we claim state’s rights, I would be hard pressed to be convinced that slavery wasn’t the driving and underlying factor for the war.
When I put myself in the shoes of my African American friends whose ancestors were enslaved, whose relatives felt the impacts of Jim Crow laws, whose grandparents may have fought for civil rights, I try to imagine what it would feel like to have not just reminders of that time, but reminders actually celebrating the figures who fought to maintain the separation between blacks and whites. What would it feel like to see those names over and over again? What would it feel like to have to go to a school named after someone who thought that you and everyone with the same skin color as you weren’t good enough, smart enough, significant enough to have the same rights that they did?
Not sure about you, but I think that would suck.
Now I’ve heard from friends who went to these schools and went to these schools with African Americans. They claim that those African American friends of theirs back in the day didn’t care about the name. But considering the state of race relations in this country, how loud would you be about your disagreement with those names if you were an African American?
What’s troubled me the most about the opposition to these name changes is when that opposition has come from people who claim to know the stories I wrote about at the beginning of this. For the people of God who are redeemed, restored, and constantly reforming, change should be part of our DNA. We should be constantly transformed.
Anyone who is in Christ is a new creature, the apostle Paul wrote, the old has passed away and the new has come. If God changes us, really changes us, he might change our name. Name change shouldn’t be something we fight, it should be something we embrace and welcome. Instead of resisting, maybe those of us who consider ourselves to be changed ourselves by the love and grace of Jesus Christ should be leading the charge to see change embraced.
If we are people of change, people who want to see hearts and minds changed, maybe we need to consider what that looks like for us. Maybe we need to talk about how God changes names when people are changed. Maybe in talking about the change that God made in some of the characters of the Bible, we might have an opportunity to talk about the change that God has made in us…….that is, if he’s really made a change in us.