The Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. (Gen. 12:1-2)
What does it mean that God would make Abram’s name great? It means three things that I’ll unpack. First, it means that God, not Abram, would make a new name for Abraham. Second, that through Jesus God would bring a great nation out of Abraham’s lineage, the Christian Church. Third, when God named Abraham, he spoke in divine language. Abraham then passed on the knowledge contained in God’s language to his offspring, you and me, but we need the Holy Spirit to understand it.
Abram’s name was changed to Abraham by God. This is in contrast to the people of Babel, in the previous chapter, who wanted to build a tower to heaven. “Let us make a name for ourselves,” they said, and this incites God against them so that he divides them into 70 different language families. If you look at the “table of nations” in chapter 10, you will see that the confusion of languages meant that children could no longer talk to their parents, and siblings to one another. The reversal of this state of affairs only comes in the New Testament with Pentecost, 50 days after the Resurrection of Christ. There the Holy Spirit once again brings together the separated families of humanity. Acts 2:2-6 reads:
And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.
Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language.
Unlike the Tower of Babel, the Church comprises of many languages held together by the language of love: “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels but have not love I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal” (1 Cor. 13:1). The New Testament also tells us that the Church is a New Temple, but one not made by human hands from the ground up like Babel. This Temple comes from heaven downward, just like Abraham’s new name: “I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.”
The greatness of Abraham’s name was tied to the offspring God would make for him. Jewish interpreters said that Yahweh added the h from his Name to Abram’s to give a share in his creative power. Why did Abram need this power? Because he and his wife, Sarai –– whose name God also changed to Sarah by adding an h –– were barren. But once they received the divine letter h, they regained procreative power.
And yet no gentiles are literal sons or daughters of Abraham, even though Christians claim to be his offspring. How can this be?
We should turn to the New Testament to see how Jesus made this happen. For one, like Abram, Jesus was barren, but he was given procreative power in the Resurrection. Early Jewish commentators subtly mocked Jesus for being celibate — something totally alien to Judaism, which takes the command to increase and multiply as the most important. The euphemistic way of talking about eunuchs was to say they had no feet (feet meaning genitals). So, for instance, God punished the serpent in the Garden of Eden for peeping on Eve by cutting off his feet. Therefore, Jews compared Jesus’ barrenness to the Serpent’s. And indeed Isaiah’s prophecy was that the Messiah would die childless: “And who can speak of his descendents? For he was cut off from the land of the living” (Isa. 53:8, NIV 1983). But then speaking of the Resurrection, it continues, “and though the Lord makes his life a guilt offering, he will see his offspring and prolong his days” (v. 10). And who are those offspring? All of us non-Jews for whom the Covenant was opened up.
But isn’t this just spiritualizing? How can Jesus, who never had sexual intercourse, have offspring? We can answer this question by understanding how procreation is in fact a shadow of something more real in Jesus’ case. While procreation brings children to life, Jesus’ Resurrection brings them back to life, eternally. Tomb fulfills womb; Resurrection fulfills procreation.
What is spiritual about this is that God first resurrects our souls –– that’s what it means to be born again –– and then resurrection spreads to our bodies. Evangelism is a supremely procreative act (Martin Luther said Christians conceive in the ear). If Jesus hadn’t initiated our interior resurrections, then gentiles would have no membership in Israel. Remember that Israel was the name God gave to Jacob, Abraham’s grandson. To be an Israelite you had to come from Abraham’s line, and there was no way the other 70 language groups could be a part of that. You were either a branch of Abraham’s tree or you branched off way back at Noah somewhere.
My brother is a decently known musician in Canada, and he often tours Europe and the United States. On one of his trips he had a certain superfan show up who said that he was our relative and that he had put together a family tree for the Boldts. What he gave us was a 32-page document of our Mennonite ancestors reaching back behind the Protestant Reformation to the 1480s in the Netherlands, moving through Prussia, Poland, Russia, and on to Canada after the Soviet persecutions. In this genealogy, we found out which cousins had married one another, who had the longest life on record my grandpa, as it turns out) and who the shortest (my great-grandmother, who died at 29).
How strange it was to see hundreds of years of names and dates and nothing else — well, not quite nothing else. What this family tree showed was more than 500 years of Christian names: fathers who had passed on their faith to their sons, and mothers to their daughters. This genealogy would have been completely impossible if not for Jesus, if not for Pentecost. On that day, all 70 language families conceived the Word of God in their ear and in their hearts.
When God spoke to Abraham, which one of these 70 languages was he speaking in? At first it seems obvious: Abraham was named in Hebrew, of course. But let’s think more deeply about this. He leaves his father’s home not long after the division of humanity into 70 language families at the Tower of Babel. Was one of these languages the original language that God spoke to Adam? The traditional answer is that Abraham spoke the original language Adam spoke; he spoke God’s language. Jews identified this with Hebrew. But Christians who come from Abraham’s fatherland think it must have been given to him in Aramaic. Muslims think the language God spoke to the prophet was the same as the language of the Quran: Arabic. This isn’t just an academic issue for these religions. If Abraham could understand God’s language, then he would have passed the knowledge of God down to his offspring just like 500 years of Mennonites passed their faith on to me. And of course we all know the true religion is Mennonite!
So how can we tell which one of these languages and religions is true and which one is just a faulty Tower built by human hands? Jesus’ answer is that “everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” He also says the world will believe because of our unity (John 13:35, 17:21).
But the Church isn’t one, and Christians do not love one another. Like Babel, the Church today lies in ruins divided between different families. Unable to communicate with one another, we are not a great nation. And that’s because Christians are no less tempted to “make a name for themselves,” like the Babylonians, rather than receive a name like Abraham. We hear a lot about constructing our identities, making our lives a work of art, becoming self-made men and women, but nothing at all about receiving our name from God, nothing about receiving God’s language from our ancestor Adam through Noah, Abraham, our parents, or others.
This is what perpetuates the Church. This is why Paul models the relationship of a pastor to his people from the parent-child relationship (1 Cor. 4:17; 1 Tim. 1:18; 2 Tim. 1:2; Titus 2:2). If this is the case –– if this is how God has historically used marriage, then the most divisive debate in the Church today, that of sexuality, must account for these facts. It also must proceed from a shared Pentecostal language, which we have lost. We have lost this language because members of the Church do not love one another. “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels but have not love I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal” (1 Cor 13:1). This is cause for repentance every year. We shouldn’t expect any of our missions to succeed when we don’t embody love; when our bodies are not painfully inscribed with the name of Christ crucified. According to the Jews, Abraham not only received the divine letter h in his new name, but he received the name of God inscribed on his body in circumcision. Has anyone been circumcised without painkillers recently? Becoming a real Christian is more painful than that.
The cause of Christian unity has come a long way in the last century, but it has stalled in the last couple of decades. Anglicans led the way; now we can’t interpret the babel of languages within our family. Our commitment to unity now is mostly posturing. What we need to recover is the gift of tongues. I’m not talking about becoming Pentecostals (I’m not not talking about this either). What I’m saying is that the Holy Spirit abandons those with anger and hate in their hearts, and we need to ask God to send back his Holy Spirit so that we can speak a common language.
The dialect of Greek in the New Testament is called koine, which just means common. The early Latin translation was called the Vulgate, which just means in the vulgar tongue of the common people. In Aramaic as well, the early Peshitta translation meant simple or plain. God’s language is simple, plain, and common; it’s the language your grandmother prayed in and her grandmother before her and so on. God doesn’t speak abstractly. He speaks personally. You can’t doubt that he is talking to you when he knows your name. And in the Bible he turns, looks you in the eye, calls you by name, and says “Follow me.” With Abram we leave our father’s house behind, the house of Babel, and we receive a heritage from God: a new name, a new language, a new family. Do you know the names –– God’s names –– of your church family? Or are they all Greek to you? That is the question for the Church after Babel.
 Brian P. Copenhaver, “Lefevre d’Etaples, Symphorien Champier, and the Secret Names of God,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institute 40 (1977), pp. 192-94.
 Batte Midrashot, 2:397-398 in Eliot R. Wolfson, “The Tree That Is All: Jewish-Christian Roots of a Kabbalistic Symbol in Sefer Ha-Bahir,” The Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy 3, no. 1 (1994), p. 58.
 Milka Rubin, “The Language of Creation or The Primordial Language: A Case Of Cultural Polemics In Antiquity,” The Journal of Jewish Studies 49 (1998), pp. 306–33.
 Elliot R. Wolfson, “Circumcision and the Divine Name: A Study in the Transmission of Esoteric Doctrine,” The Jewish Quarterly Review 78, no. 1/2 (1987), pp. 77–112.