Commentary on Genesis 12:1-9
It is hard to overestimate the importance of this week’s story. Genesis 12 is a key text for understanding not only the whole book of Genesis, but also the whole Old Testament.
It is also a turning point in the book of Genesis. Before this chapter, of course, we have all the familiar stories that make up what scholars call the “primeval history” — Creation, the Fall, Cain and Abel, Noah and the Flood. Beginning with this chapter, the focus narrows; instead of stories about cosmic beginnings, we read stories about one particular couple, Abram/Abraham and Sarai/Sarah, and their family.
It’s as if we were at the opening scene of the classic movie, “The Sound of Music.” (Apologies to those who aren’t familiar with this sentimental cultural reference.) The movie opens with a wide-angle view of the majestic mountains of the Austrian Alps. Then we glimpse a small figure on one of those mountains, and we quickly begin to zoom in on the person until suddenly she fills the frame, arms uplifted, walking and singing.
In a similar way, the view from 30,000 feet — the stories about cosmic creation and universal humankind in Genesis 1-11 — suddenly becomes in Genesis 12 a much more focused, close-up view of a single man: “Now the LORD said to Abram…” And from then on, the story of this man and his descendants fills the frame.
Now, we have met Abram before, but only as one person in a genealogy at the end of Genesis 11, the genealogy of Shem, one of Noah’s sons. What we know about Abram is that his wife’s name was Sarai, that he moved from Ur (in latter-day Babylonia) to Haran (in latter-day Assyria) with his father, and that Sarai was barren (Genesis 11:27-32).
Judging just from this brief genealogy, there is no particular reason to single out Abram as anyone worthy of note. Who is this particular Mesopotamian that God should call him specifically and make astounding promises to him?
The scandal of election — God’s choosing of a particular person or a particular nation — was not lost on the early Jewish interpreters of this story. Why Abram, of all people? According to the biblical text, he had done nothing noteworthy.
Well, the rabbis said, it was because he was the first monotheist. Rabbinic literature tells a story not in the Bible itself: Abram’s father, Terah, was a maker of idols (compare to Joshua 24:2). Abram, while still in his father’s household, discerned that the idols were false gods and that there was only one true God. So one night he went into his father’s workshop and smashed and burned all his father’s idols. Therefore, the rabbis concluded, he was worthy of God’s choosing.
There is no such explanation in the biblical text itself. True, after the near-sacrifice of Isaac, God reiterates the promise, “because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you” (Genesis 22:16-17). But in this initial calling in Genesis 12, in this initial encounter between God and Abram, the promise is pure grace, given for no apparent reason whatsoever.
And what is this promise? It is three-fold:
- Descendants (“I will make of you a great nation” — Genesis 12:2)
- Land (“To your offspring I will give this land” — Genesis 12:7)
- Blessing (“I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing” – Genesis 12:2).
This promise is pure grace, but it may offend many modern readers. We who want everything to be fair are affronted by the idea of election. Why would the God of the whole cosmos, the Creator God, choose one particular human being, one particular family, one particular nation, above all the other families/nations on earth? Does God play favorites?
Here’s where it is crucial to read the text closely. God promises blessing to Abram, but it is not because Abram has done anything to deserve it (contrary to the later explanations of the rabbis). And neither is it for the sake of Abram himself: “I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:2-3).
Abram, as many others have noted, is blessed to be a blessing. The blessing is not for his sake, nor for the sake of his family; the blessing is for the sake of the whole world. Abraham (as he is later called) and his descendants are to be the conduits of blessing for all the families of the earth.
Later texts affirm the same thing. In the immediate context of Genesis, Joseph — Abraham and Sarah’s great-grandson — will save Egypt and the nations surrounding it from famine (Genesis 45:5). (Joseph’s story is the text for next Sunday.) Later, Israel is called into covenant at Sinai to be among all the nations of the world a “priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). As a priestly kingdom, they are to be witnesses to God in the world. Nations will come to their light (Isaiah 60:3) and will worship on God’s holy mountain (Isaiah 2:2-4). And for Christians, of course, the blessing that is promised through Abraham and Sarah is fulfilled most fully in Jesus.
The three-fold promise to Abraham in Genesis 12 continues to reverberate throughout Scripture. There is tension in the promise. Abraham and Sarah wait many long years for a son. And in spite of God’s promise, the only piece of the Promised Land that Abraham ever actually possesses is the burial plot he buys for Sarah, the place where he himself is later buried.
And yet, Abraham believes in God’s promises. He stakes his life on them. He leaves his father’s household and his homeland and goes to the place that God shows him. He believes in God’s promise of a son even when he and Sarah have already devised another way to fulfill that promise through Hagar and Ishmael. He stands ready to sacrifice his son Isaac, the child of the promise. The writer of Hebrews describes this kind of faith well, speaking of Abraham and Sarah and those that preceded them: “All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them” (Hebrews 11:13).
The three-fold promise to Abram is reiterated by God to his son Isaac (Genesis 26:3-5) and his grandson Jacob (Genesis 28:10-15). That promise sustains them and the nation descended from them during terrible times.
But note one more thing: that promise also binds God. The promise binds God inextricably to this family, this nation. When Moses argues with God not to destroy the Israelites for worshiping the golden calf, the crux of his argument, the thing that convinces God, is this: “Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever’” (Exodus 32:13).
God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 12 sustains Abraham and Sarah and their descendants in faith even when they don’t see its fulfillment. The promise to Abraham establishes him and his descendants as conduits of God’s blessing for the whole world. And through this promise, God binds Godself to this people forever. For these reasons and more, Genesis 12 is a key text on which to dwell this week.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
God of covenant, you promised Abraham land, descendants, and blessing
so that he might be a blessing for all. Show us how to honor the covenant,
so that we might be a blessing to others. We pray these things in the name
of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.
The God of Abraham praise ELW 831
A lamb goes uncomplaining forth ELW340
I give you my hands, Lord, Christopher Tambling