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June 22, 2013

Father of many nations

As sectarian strife continues to rock the Middle East, it seems increasingly difficult to remind ourselves of the power of religion to bring diverse spiritual tribes together in worship. We cannot despair. We must remind ourselves over and over again that the dream of a world united in celebration and praise is repeated and emphasized countless times within our great classical religious texts. This dream is not a post-modern creation or a fantasy born of the ‘60s. It is rather a foundational premise of the Hebrew Bible.

Isaiah in one of the most famous passages (Isaiah 2:4) from the Bible tells us, “It will come to pass in the end of days that God’s house shall be established as the top of the mountains … and all the nations shall flow towards it. And many nations will go and say: ‘Come! Let us go up to the mountain of God … and we will walk in way of God … and they shall beat their swords into plowshares … and they shall not learn of war anymore.”

Tzephaniah, another of the great ancient prophets of Israel, writes, “I will transform the peoples to a more beautiful language that they all will call upon the name of God and serve Him with one purpose.”

But perhaps the most fascinating and nuanced passage comes from the Book of Genesis. God forges his covenant with Abraham, promising him that his descendants will become a great nation and never fade from the face of the earth. Yet, in the midst of this very “particularistic” moment — the moment in which God tells of the unique destiny of the People of Israel — God dramatically changes Abraham’s name and by extension universalizes the covenant of Israel. In Hebrew, Abraham’s name was for the first 99 years of his life Avram. In chapter 17 of the Book of Genesis, God suddenly changes his name to Avraham. Why? As the Bible explains, Avraham is an acronym for “av hamon goyim,” which means the “father of many nations.”

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