When Hashem changes Avram’s name to Avraham, He declares (BeReishit 17:5), “VeLo Yikarei Od Et Shimcha Avram VeHayah Shimcha Avraham Ki Av Hamon Goyim Netaticha,” “And your name shall no longer be called Avram, but your name shall be Avraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations.” How do we understand the significance and timing of Avraham’s change in name?
Regarding this Pasuk, Rashi (s.v. Ki Av Hamon Goyim) explains that the name “Avram” is a contraction of “Av Aram,” “Father of Aram,” which shows that he was recognized as a leader only by the people of Aram, his homeland. When He changed the name to Avraham, Hashem made him the leader of all of the nations, not just Aram. This seems difficult to understand because earlier in the Parashah, Rashi (14:17 s.v. Eimek HaMelech) refers to a Midrash that seems to contradict what he said regarding Av Hamon Goyim. After Avraham’s battle with the Four Kings, the Pasuk states (BeReishit ibid.), “And the king of Sedom went out to greet [Avram] upon his return from defeating Kedorla’omer and the kings that were with him, to the Valley of Shaveh, which is the king’s valley.” The Midrash states that this valley’s population was a mixture of many different nations and all of these nations were equal, Shaveh, in their mindset – they were all in agreement to coronate Avram as their sovereign, Nesi Elokim, Prince of Hashem, and a chieftain. From this Midrash, we see that a multitude of nations recognized Avram as their leader while he was still called Avram, as it explains, “SheHushvu Sham Kol HaGoyim,” “where all the nations became equal.”
The Chizkuni (17:5 s.v. VeHayah Shimcha Avraham) notes that a person’s name is changed only when he has an elevation in stature, to show that this “new” person has outgrown his old status. For example, when Yosef was made viceroy over Egypt, Par’oh changed his name to Tzofnat Panei’ach. Now that Avram had risen in stature, this would have been an appropriate time for Hashem to change his name. Yet we see through the progression of the Parashah that there is a significant amount of time in between the war and Hashem changing Avram’s name. There is both the Brit Bein HaBetarim and the thirteen years following Yishma’eil’s birth before Avram’s name is changed.
After the king of Sedom offered Avram all of the spoils of war, so long as he would leave the people, Avram says (14:23), “[I will not take] so much as a thread or a shoe strap, nor that I shall take from anything that is yours! So you shall not say, ‘It is I who made Avram rich.’” Ramban (14:20 s.v. VaYiten Lo Ma’aser MiKol) offers two possible explanations of this Pasuk: First, the kings who were allied with the king of Sedom did not die; therefore, they kept their possessions. Because the other kings retained their possessions, Avram returned the spoils only to the king of Sedom. Alternatively, the kings who were allied with the king of Sedom all died, and, therefore, the first part of the Pasuk, “if so much as a thread or a shoe strap,” refers to the spoils which once belonged to those kings, and the second part of the Pasuk, “if I shall take from anything that is yours,” refers to the spoils which once belonged to the king of Sedom. But according to Ramban’s first explanation, how do we explain the seeming redundancy of the two parts of the Pasuk, if Avram was giving back only the spoils which once belonged to the king of Sedom?
Perhaps the phrase “anything that is yours” refers to the spoils which once belonged to the king of Sedom, and “so much as a thread or a shoe strap” refers to the kingship that the people of the Valley of Shaveh thrust upon Avram. By turning down this leadership, Avram never became the leader of a multitude of nations until his name was changed.
It could be that once Yishma’eil was born, only then could Avram’s name be changed. After Hagar is sent away, a Mal’ach of Hashem tells her (16:10), “I will greatly increase your offspring, and they will not be able to be counted, for their abundance.” Through this abundance, Avram could now become Avraham, a leader of a multitude of nations. There is still, however, a thirteen year period in between Yishma’eil’s birth and Avram’s change in name. Why are these events not directly juxtaposed?
Once Avram asked Hashem for an heir, saying (15:2-3), “Hashem Elokim, what can You give, being that I go childless, and the steward of my house is the Damascene Eliezer? … See, to me You have given no offspring; and see my steward inherits me…,” only then did Hashem start the process of making Avram into Avraham, the father of a multitude of nations.
After Hashem’s reassurance that Avram’s children will be as numerous as the stars, Sarai gave her maidservant Hagar to Avram for marriage. They conceived, and Yishma’eil was born. But, Hashem didn’t change Avram’s name until the final step to becoming the father of a multitude of nations was ready to be complete.
Right after Avram becomes Avraham, Hashem gives him the Mitzvah of Brit Milah, changes Sarai’s name to Sarah, and tells him that he will have a son with her. Through Hashem’s promises, Avraham could truly be called Av Hamon Goyim. Av Hamon Goyim is taken literally; Avraham is now the father of Yishma’eil, “Goy Gadol;” Bnei Yisrael, from Ya’akov; and Edom, from Eisav. To further support this point, Hashem said to Rivkah in Parashat Toledot (25:23), “Shenei Goyim BeVitnech UShenei Le’umim MiMei’ayich Yipareidu,” “Two nations are in your womb, and two regimes from your insides shall be separated.”
If the promise of Yitzchak was the final step for Avram to become Av Hamon Goyim, why then didn’t Hashem put the name-change right before the promise instead of having Brit Milah in between the two?
The Midrash states that Avraham had to be circumcised at this age in order to not discourage elderly Geirim from doing this Mitzvah; the Milah also had to be done before Yitzchak’s conception so that he would be conceived from pure and holy seed. The Gemara (Nedarim 32b) explains that before he became Avraham, Avram was a master of 243 out of the 248 limbs of the body, as hinted to in the name ‘Avram’ having the Gematriaic value of 243. The five organs that Avram did not have full mastery over were the two eyes, the two ears, and the tip of the male organ, “Rosh HaGeviyah.” Once Hashem added the ‘Hey’, with a numerical value of five, to Avram, He gave Avraham (a numerical value of 248) complete mastery over all 248 organs. The Ran comments that upon achieving total control, Avraham was able to direct his whole body solely to do the will of Hashem. Because Avram wasn’t in complete control of his Rosh HaGeviyah, Hashem had to first change Avram’s name in order to afford him this mastery. As such, Hashem gave Avraham the Mitzvah of Brit Milah only after his name was changed.