Abraham’s Migration and Name Change: A Story for the Babylonian Exiles
Abram’s Move to Canaan from Mesopotamia
The story of Abram begins when he, as part of Terah’s family, leaves home in Ur of the Chaldeans in Mesopotamia, headed for Canaan.
בראשית יא:לא וַיִּקַּח תֶּרַח אֶת אַבְרָם בְּנוֹ וְאֶת לוֹט בֶּן הָרָן בֶּן בְּנוֹ וְאֵת שָׂרַי כַּלָּתוֹ אֵשֶׁת אַבְרָם בְּנוֹ וַיֵּצְאוּ אִתָּם מֵאוּר כַּשְׂדִּים לָלֶכֶת אַרְצָה כְּנַעַן...
Gen 11:31 Terah took his son Abram, his grandson Lot the son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of his son Abram, and they set out together from Ur of the Chaldeans for the land of Canaan…
Later, YHWH frames this trip as having brought Abram out of Ur into the land:
בראשית טו:ז וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו אֲנִי יְ־הוָה אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִיךָ מֵאוּר כַּשְׂדִּים לָתֶת לְךָ אֶת הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת לְרִשְׁתָּהּ.
Gen 15:7 Then he said to him, “I am YHWH who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.”
Although the story of Abram depicts Israel’s ancient patriarch, many scholars see the final form of the saga as a Persian Period text presaging return migration of his postexilic descendants. The movement from Ur of the Chaldeans, a Mesopotamian city, to Canaan mirrors the return migration of these “Babylonized,” or Babylon-born generations, echoed in the call of the exilic prophet, Deutero-Isaiah:
ישעיה מח:כ צְאוּ מִבָּבֶל בִּרְחוּ מִכַּשְׂדִּים בְּקוֹל רִנָּה הַגִּידוּ הַשְׁמִיעוּ זֹאת הוֹצִיאוּהָ עַד קְצֵה הָאָרֶץ אִמְרוּ גָּאַל יְ־הוָה עַבְדּוֹ יַעֲקֹב.
Isa 48:20 Go out from Babylon; flee from Chaldea; declare this with a shout of joy; proclaim it; send it forth to the end of the earth; say, “YHWH has redeemed his servant Jacob!”
The name Jacob refers to the people of Israel/Judah, who are to return from Chaldea to Judah just as Abram once traveled from Ur of the Chaldeans to Canaan.
The Meaning of Abram
When we first meet the patriarch, his name is אַבְרָם Abram (Gen 11:26), a standard Hebrew compound name made up of words “father” אַב and רָם “exalted or lofty.” Yet the name could also have a negative connotation, “Arrogant (or Proud) Father.”
When Isaiah criticizes the “arrogant” people of Judah, he uses the root ר.ו.מ repeatedly:
ישעיה ב:יא עֵינֵי גַּבְהוּת אָדָם שָׁפֵל וְשַׁח רוּם אֲנָשִׁים וְנִשְׂגַּב יְ־הוָה לְבַדּוֹ בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא. ב:יב כִּי יוֹם לַי־הוָה צְבָאוֹת עַל כָּל גֵּאֶה וָרָם וְעַל כָּל נִשָּׂא וְשָׁפֵל. ב:יג וְעַל כָּל אַרְזֵי הַלְּבָנוֹן הָרָמִים וְהַנִּשָּׂאִים וְעַל כָּל אַלּוֹנֵי הַבָּשָׁן. ב:יד וְעַל כָּל הֶהָרִים הָרָמִים וְעַל כָּל הַגְּבָעוֹת הַנִּשָּׂאוֹת....
Isa 2:11 The haughty eyes of people shall be brought low, and the pride of everyone shall be humbled, and YHWH alone will be exalted on that day. 2:12 For YHWH of hosts has a day against all that is proud and lofty, against all that is lifted up and high; 2:13 against all the cedars of Lebanon, lofty and lifted up; and against all the oaks of Bashan. 2:14 against all the high mountains and against all the lofty hills…
The repetition of the root ר.ו.מ highlights loftiness as a sign of arrogance and rebellion. Thus, the passage culminates in a pointed contrast:
ישעיה ב:יז וְשַׁח גַּבְהוּת הָאָדָם וְשָׁפֵל רוּם אֲנָשִׁים וְנִשְׂגַּב יְ־הוָה לְבַדּוֹ בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא.
Isa 2:17 The haughtiness of people shall be humbled, and the pride of everyone shall be brought low, and YHWH alone will be exalted on that day.
In contrast, YHWH can legitimately be described as ר.ו.מ, as we see in a passage from the latter part of the book:
ישעיה נז:טו כִּי כֹה אָמַר רָם וְנִשָּׂא שֹׁכֵן עַד וְקָדוֹשׁ שְׁמוֹ מָרוֹם וְקָדוֹשׁ אֶשְׁכּוֹן וְאֶת דַּכָּא וּשְׁפַל רוּחַ לְהַחֲיוֹת רוּחַ שְׁפָלִים וּלְהַחֲיוֹת לֵב נִדְכָּאִים.
Isa 57:15 For thus says the high and lofty one who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: I dwell in the high and holy place and also with those who are contrite and humble in spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble and to revive the heart of the contrite.
Isaiah also uses the term ר.ו.מ to mock the Assyrian king (presumably Tiglath-pileser III):
ישעיה י:לג הִנֵּה הָאָדוֹן יְ־הוָה צְבָאוֹת מְסָעֵף פֻּארָה בְּמַעֲרָצָה וְרָמֵי הַקּוֹמָה גְּדוּעִים וְהַגְּבֹהִים יִשְׁפָּלוּ.
Isa 10:33 Look, the Sovereign, YHWH of hosts, will lop the boughs with terrifying power, the tallest trees will be cut down, and the lofty will be brought low.
The root highlights the hubris and pompous pride of imperial kings, who will be supplanted by YHWH’s sovereignty over the “proud” empire. While the oracles of Isaiah are about Assyrian kings, later Judean readers could see in this a criticism of later empires, such as Babylonia.
Reading Genesis intertextually with Isaiah, the name Ab-ram implies “Father from the prideful place/people,” and may introduce the specter of a colonized subject assimilating into the glory and fortunes of the dominant empire.
Change to Abraham
Abram comes from Mesopotamia, home of the proud empires, but in order to enter properly into the covenant with YHWH, he will have to shed this connection, which appears in his given name, and be disassociated with this prideful past. The first step, of course, was to leave his homeland:
בראשית יב:א וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הוָה אֶל אַבְרָם לֶךְ לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ.
Gen 12:1 Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.
Later, however, God goes a step further by changing his name from Abram to Abraham, shedding his association with improper pride:
בראשית יז:ד אֲנִי הִנֵּה בְרִיתִי אִתָּךְ וְהָיִיתָ לְאַב הֲמוֹן גּוֹיִם. יז:ה וְלֹא יִקָּרֵא עוֹד אֶת שִׁמְךָ אַבְרָם וְהָיָה שִׁמְךָ אַבְרָהָם כִּי אַב הֲמוֹן גּוֹיִם נְתַתִּיךָ. יז:ו וְהִפְרֵתִי אֹתְךָ בִּמְאֹד מְאֹד וּנְתַתִּיךָ לְגוֹיִם וּמְלָכִים מִמְּךָ יֵצֵאוּ.
Gen 17:4 “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. 17:5 No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude (hamon) of nations. 17:6 I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you.
On a linguistic level, the name “Father of Raham” has no meaning in Hebrew, since ר.ה.מ is not a Hebrew root. Whatever the original meaning, the author of this account wishes to offer a homiletical interpretation—a common approach in biblical naming accounts—by interpreting the heh mem as the word hamon, meaning multitude. Thus, his name is interpreted to mean “Father of Multitudes” and glossed as a promise that Abraham would be the father of multiple nations.
Indeed, Abraham fathers many sons: Ishmael from Hagar, Isaac from Sarah, and six sons from Keturah, all of whom become peoples. However, when we read this passage intertextually with Isaiah, where the theme of “multitude of nations” plays an important role, we can see a further meaning beyond biological progeny.
Isaiah prophesies that a multitude of nations will attack Jerusalem (called Ariel in this text) and be stopped:
ישעיה כט:ז וְהָיָה כַּחֲלוֹם חֲזוֹן לַיְלָה הֲמוֹן כָּל הַגּוֹיִם הַצֹּבְאִים עַל אֲרִיאֵל וְכָל צֹבֶיהָ וּמְצֹדָתָהּ וְהַמְּצִיקִים לָהּ. כט:ח וְהָיָה כַּאֲשֶׁר יַחֲלֹם הָרָעֵב וְהִנֵּה אוֹכֵל וְהֵקִיץ וְרֵיקָה נַפְשׁוֹ וְכַאֲשֶׁר יַחֲלֹם הַצָּמֵא וְהִנֵּה שֹׁתֶה וְהֵקִיץ וְהִנֵּה עָיֵף וְנַפְשׁוֹ שׁוֹקֵקָה כֵּן יִהְיֶה הֲמוֹן כָּל הַגּוֹיִם הַצֹּבְאִים עַל הַר צִיּוֹן.
Isa 29:7 And the multitude of all the nations that fight against Ariel, all that fight against her and her stronghold and who distress her, shall be like a dream, a vision of the night. 29:8 Just as when a hungry person dreams of eating and wakes up still hungry or a thirsty person dreams of drinking and wakes up faint, still thirsty, so shall the multitude of all the nations be that fight against Mount Zion.
This same prophetic work envisions a time when the many nations will come and worship at this same Temple, upon a mountain top raised higher than all others:
ישעיה ב:ב וְהָיָה בְּאַחֲרִית הַיָּמִים נָכוֹן יִהְיֶה הַר בֵּית יְ־הוָה בְּרֹאשׁ הֶהָרִים וְנִשָּׂא מִגְּבָעוֹת וְנָהֲרוּ אֵלָיו כָּל הַגּוֹיִם. ב:ג וְהָלְכוּ עַמִּים רַבִּים וְאָמְרוּ לְכוּ וְנַעֲלֶה אֶל הַר יְ־הוָה אֶל בֵּית אֱלֹהֵי יַעֲקֹב וְיֹרֵנוּ מִדְּרָכָיו וְנֵלְכָה בְּאֹרְחֹתָיו....
Isa 2:2 In days to come the mountain of the YHWH’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. 2:3 Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of YHWH, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths...
A key feature of this vision is YHWH’s universal reign with peace, bringing the nations of the world together:
ישעיה ב:ד וְשָׁפַט בֵּין הַגּוֹיִם וְהוֹכִיחַ לְעַמִּים רַבִּים וְכִתְּתוּ חַרְבוֹתָם לְאִתִּים וַחֲנִיתוֹתֵיהֶם לְמַזְמֵרוֹת לֹא יִשָּׂא גוֹי אֶל גּוֹי חֶרֶב וְלֹא יִלְמְדוּ עוֹד מִלְחָמָה.
Isa 2:4 He shall judge between the nations and shall arbitrate for many peoples. They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation; neither shall they learn war any more.
Against the backdrop of Isaiah’s prophecies, Abraham’s new identity as the father of a multitude of nations foretells the dominant position his descendants will have among the nations in the distant future. As a whole, Isaiah’s visions echo Abram’s first blessing:
בראשית יב:ג וַאֲבָרֲכָה מְבָרְכֶיךָ וּמְקַלֶּלְךָ אָאֹר וְנִבְרְכוּ בְךָ כֹּל מִשְׁפְּחֹת הָאֲדָמָה.
Gen 12:3 I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
In describing Israel’s future, Isaiah envisions that those who fight them will be destroyed, while the rest of humanity will make peace, both with Israel and with each other, and all will join in worship of Israel’s God at the Temple Mount.
Sarah, Mother of Nations
That father of nations implies leader of nations helps make sense of the corresponding blessing given to Abraham’s wife during the same covenant:
בראשית יז:טו וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים אֶל אַבְרָהָם שָׂרַי אִשְׁתְּךָ לֹא תִקְרָא אֶת שְׁמָהּ שָׂרָי כִּי שָׂרָה שְׁמָהּ. יז:טז וּבֵרַכְתִּי אֹתָהּ וְגַם נָתַתִּי מִמֶּנָּה לְךָ בֵּן וּבֵרַכְתִּיהָ וְהָיְתָה לְגוֹיִם מַלְכֵי עַמִּים מִמֶּנָּה יִהְיוּ.
Gen 17:15 And God said to Abraham, “As for your wife Sarai, you shall not call her Sarai, but her name shall be Sarah. 17:16 I will bless her; indeed, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she shall give rise to nations; rulers of peoples shall issue from her.”
The name change here is from Sarai “My Princess,” with the first person pronoun, “my,” to the more general Sarah, “Princess.” She is given the same extra heh, which, as in Abraham’s blessing, is meant to represent the word hamon (multitude), and God promises nations will come from her progeny. This blessing makes little sense when applied to Sarah, who is the mother of only Isaac, unless we understand in light of Isaiah, that she will be the mother of a nation that will lead all other nations. As Genesis Rabbah writes (47, Theodor-Albeck ed.):
אמר ר' מנא לשעבר היתה שרי לעמה, עכשיו היא שרה לכל באי העולם.
Rabbi Mana Said: “Sarai was just [a princess] for her nation, now she will be a princess for all the world.
By changing both their names with the same letter, Sarah becomes a channel of blessing alongside Abraham.
Abraham and Sarah in Deutero-Isaiah
The image of Abraham as the patriarch who triumphantly entered the land, presaging his descendants’ future re-entrance, appears in Deutero-Isaiah, who offers encouragement to the returnees by pointing to Abraham and Sarah’s success:
ישעיה נא:ב הַבִּיטוּ אֶל אַבְרָהָם אֲבִיכֶם וְאֶל שָׂרָה תְּחוֹלֶלְכֶם כִּי אֶחָד קְרָאתִיו וַאֲבָרְכֵהוּ וְאַרְבֵּהוּ.
Isa 51:2 Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah, who bore you, for he was but one when I called him, but I blessed him and made him many.
Indeed, even the name change is hinted at in the final section of Isaiah:
ישעיה סב:ב וְרָאוּ גוֹיִם צִדְקֵךְ וְכָל מְלָכִים כְּבוֹדֵךְ וְקֹרָא לָךְ שֵׁם חָדָשׁ אֲשֶׁר פִּי יְ־הוָה יִקֳּבֶנּוּ.
Isa 62:2 The nations shall see your vindication and all the kings your glory, and you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of YHWH will give.
As Joseph Blenkinsopp (1927–2022) noted, Isaiah 60–62 provides “only the more obvious indications that the Urvater Abraham and the Urmutter Sarah are somewhere in the background of these later sections of the book of Isaiah.”
Models for the Judean Returnees
As a tiny minority in a large empire, postexilic Judeans would have been forced to negotiate their cultural and sociopolitical identities, ethnically and religiously, whether in the Diaspora or even in Yehud. They would have had to grapple with whether they should assimilate or push back against the dominant imperial values and customs, a tension that is often reflected in names.
In the Joseph story, upon making him vizier, Pharaoh gives Joseph the Egyptian name Tzafenat-Paaneach (Gen 41:45), while in Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar renames Daniel and his three friends (Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah) with the Babylonian names Belteshazzar, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego (Dan 1:7). Esther has the Hebrew name, Hadassah (Esth 2:7), in addition to her Babylonian name (Esther=Ishtar).
Among the returnees from Babylon to Judea, the scion of the Davidic line, Sheshbatzar—the first to return to Judah with a group of followers following Cyrus’ accession to power—ironically, has a Babylonian name: Shamash-abu-utzur (“May Shamash protect the father”). The same is true for the next member of the ruling family to appear in Judah, Zerubabbel (“Seed of Babylon”), whose name specifically highlights his having been born outside the land.
With Abraham, the name change plays a dual role: it marks the change in Abraham’s fate and status upon receiving the covenant, and it offers a message for post-exilic returnees to what was now the Persian province of Yehud, about how they should relate to the dominant culture.
Whereas Ab-ram represents the acculturation of the Judahite exiles, Ab-raham represents Israel as a leading figure whose culture will come to dominate the nations, establishing peace and a united worship of Israel’s God, YHWH. Abram and Sarai’s coming to the land, and their covenant with YHWH solidified by their new names, is meant to represent the values with which the authors/editors of the Abraham saga wished to imbue the Judean returnees.
The Challenge of Returning Home
Return migration is most commonly voluntary, as was the case with the Judean return to the land in the Persian Period. While socio-economic growth is often a key reason for such return migration, Ancient Yehud did not experience an economic boon to attract returnees, and many Judeans chose not to return. Instead, the Bible describes the choice to return in nationalist and theological terms. This is the theme of Ezra-Nehemiah, as well as much of Deutero-Isaiah (Isaiah 40–66), which appeals to the exiled Judeans with the call to return.
In Genesis, Abraham and Sarah will enter the land and interact with various ethnic groups, reminiscent of the interactions in Ezra-Nehemiah upon the return of the Judeans from exile. These ancestral characters illustrate the divine mandate for Israel’s return to the land of Canaan, and the need to maintain their religious and cultural identity over and against the prevailing imperial norms.
Doing so will not only provide continuity for their people, but pave the way for the future ascendancy of their descendants over the many nations of the world, for whom they will establish peace and prosperity as foretold by YHWH in ancient times.
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Prof. Hyun Chul Paul Kim is Professor of Hebrew Bible in the Williams Chair of Biblical Studies at Methodist Theological School in Ohio. He holds a Th.M and M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. from Claremont Graduate University. He is the author of Ambiguity, Tension, and Multiplicity in Deutero-Isaiah (2003), You Are My People: An Introduction to Prophetic Literature (2010, with Louis Stulman); and Reading Isaiah: A Literary and Theological Commentary (2016). He is also the co-editor of several books: Literary Encounters with the Reign of God: Robert C. Tannehill Festschrift (2004); The Desert Will Bloom: Poetic Visions in Isaiah (2009); Formation and Intertextuality in Isaiah 24-27 (2013), Concerning the Nations: Essays on the Oracles against the Nations in Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel (2015), and Second Wave Intertextuality and the Hebrew Bible (2019).
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