By Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg and Rev. Jim Stowe
In Genesis 17, God describes the sign of the covenant He will make with Abraham and his offspring. He gives Abraham a new name to symbolize his destiny as the patriarch of God’s chosen people. In the wake of these amazing events, it’s easy to overlook the important fact that Abraham’s wife Sarah – one of Israel’s matriarchs also received a new name and a promise.
The name “Abram” אַבְרָם (Avram) is composed of two words, av and ram, and means something like “father is exalted.” Abraham אַבְרָהָם (Avraham), on the other hand, derives from the words אַב (av) and הֲמוֹן (hamon), as explained by the phrase “because [I give you as] a father of a multitude of nations” (Gen. 17:5). So a one letter change make the big difference.
Then God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. And I will bless her and also give you a son by her; then I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of peoples shall be from her.” – Genesis 17:15-16
Notice that Sarai parallels Abram’s renaming in meaning. Both are called by their new names, because of their future roles as father and mother of many nations. “Sarai” (שָׂרָי) and “Sarah” (שָׂרָה) are different forms of the same Hebrew word that basically means “princess/woman of strength”. It is likely that Sarai is simply the possessive form of Sarah (i.e. “My Sarah”). Sarah, therefore, signifies that her strength does not belong exclusively to her immediate family, but to the future nation of Israel and even the world-at-large. As in the case with Abraham, the changing of a single letter made all the difference.