What could God possibly do to counter the spread of sin that dominated the story in Genesis 3 through 11?
Last week we saw how ineffective punishment/curse was. Even after the destruction of the flood, the people responded to their second chance by falling into the same old sinful patterns . . . except, in the last story (11:1-9) where there is no concluding act of mercy. The previous stories had ended with a description of God's dealing with the fear of the protagonists. Adam and Eve were ashamed, not because they had disobeyed, but because they were naked (3:7), so God clothed them (3:21). Cain feared he would be killed, not because he had murdered his brother, but by others (4:14), so God promised to protect him (4:15). But, at the end of the Tower of Babel, the people, who feared being scattered . . . are scattered by God (11:4, 9)!
In Genesis 12:1-3 we find the answer to that question. God decided that if punishing all the earth was an ineffective means of dealing with sin, perhaps establishing a relationship with one individual would work. That is exactly what God does by choosing Abram in Genesis 12:1-3. Where the people had sought to make a name for themselves (11:4), God chooses Abram and promises to make his name great (12:2), thereby dealing with the people's fear but redirecting the action so that the emphasis falls upon God's gift rather than human accomplishment.
Readers may be troubled by God's "choice" of Abram. Is Abram somehow "special," or "better," or "more religious" than other people? While Israel, at times, did understand God's choice in this way, the prophets regularly oppose this understanding. God reminds Israel that they are not the only recipients of divine grace:
Are you not like the Ethiopians to me, O people of Israel? says the LORD. Did I not bring Israel up from the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir? (Amos 9:7)
In discussing the exodus, Moses attributes God's choice of Israel solely to God's love, not Israel's worthiness:
It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the LORD set his heart on you and chose you -- for you were the fewest of all peoples. It was because the LORD loved you and kept the oath that he swore to your ancestors, that the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt (Deut 7:7-8).
God chose Abram, and thus, Israel, to be the way God would bring all people back into relationship, all those who had been so rebellious in Genesis 3 through 11, as God says in 12:3: "in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed." This quest for relationship is the purpose that drives God's choice, God has called Abram into service, and he will become the means by which God's ultimate purpose for the salvation of all will be realized.
God begins by calling Abram. But this is not yet a covenant. Covenants are sometimes said to be like agreements, or treaties, or contracts. When two parties enter a relationship they agree to do certain things. In marriage, husband and wife promise to be faithful to each other. If you take out a loan, the bank gives you money and you promise to repay them. When you buy a house, the mortgage becomes your responsibility. In Genesis 12:1-3, God began a relationship with Abram, promising him that he would become a great nation, that he would be blessed, and that all nations would be blessed through him and his descendants; but the relationship is not a contract, treaty, agreement, or covenant. The unusual part of this relationship is that God doesn't require anything of Abram in return! No obligations are placed upon Abram because this relationship emphasizes God's commitment and promise to Abram, not Abram's promise or commitment to God. The pattern presented here (command, promise, and response) will govern the rest of Genesis:
A Command: "Go!" (v. 1)
B Promises: to Abram ("you," v. 2)
I will make you a great nation
I will bless you
I will make your name great
Purpose: so that you will be a blessing
B' Promises: about ("others," v. 3)
I will bless those who bless you
I will curse those who curse you
Purpose: in Abram all the families of the earth shall be blessed
A' Response: Abram went forth (v. 4)
God's promise will be repeated in fuller detail throughout Genesis, to Abraham (15:4, 7, 18-21; 17:4-8; 22:17-18), to Isaac (26:2-5, 24), and to Jacob (28:13-15; 35:11-12), but they are already present in Genesis 12:1-3.
It is important to notice the ordering of the material, here. The whole intent would be altered if the response came before the promise. Then the promise would be a reward, something Abram earned for something Abram did. But here we see how the promise is something God will do for Abram. The major theme of Genesis 12-50 is how God overcomes obstacles (usually Abraham!) in order to keep these promises. Abram doesn't make promises to God, God makes promises to Abram... and keeps them!
This emphasis on God's promise, however, does not eliminate Abram's response. In the second half of our text (12:4-9) we read that Abram "went, as the LORD had told him... and journeyed on by stages toward the Negeb." In undertaking this journey, Abram demonstrated his trust in the God who had made such wonderful promises to him, without a shred of assurance, other than God's word alone. In the midst of his journey, Abram receives yet one more promise from God: "To your offspring I will give this land" (12:7). God's original purpose for all is now focused in this one individual who willingly trusts himself to the uncharted waters of God's future.