Commentary on Genesis 12:1-9
Having made the world and seen it succumb to violence and sin in the first eleven chapters of Genesis, in Genesis 12 God suddenly zeroes in on one couple — Sarah and Abraham.
We are no longer looking at the huge canvas of the whole world, but at a tiny corner of it. Calling him to leave all that he knows for an unknown land, God makes three big promises to Abraham whom God has chosen: descendants, land, and blessing. This is the first of many times in the Bible that we hear of God’s election of Israel, God’s choosing Israel in a way unlike other nations.
God chooses one nation among all the others to have a distinct relationship — that is what election means. But wait a second: Isn’t that like parents preferring one child over the others? If you think about it, it is a bit chilling. How are we to understand God’s choice of Abraham, and so Israel? Is it really as exclusionary as it sounds? Christian tradition affirms that God’s election of Israel is for a purpose, that is, God chooses Israel in order to bring blessing to the whole world: “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
Part of that third promise of blessing is that Israel’s work of covenant obedience is not for its own sake alone, but so the whole world will be blessed. The prophets pick up on this: the nations will stream up to Zion to receive the life-giving blessing of life lived with God (Isaiah 2); Israel is a light to the nations (Isaiah 49:6; 60:3; Amos 3:2). Later, God will work through the one man Jesus, the incarnation of God on earth, for the blessing of the world. Particularity, working through one for the good of the many, is the modus operandi of God.
Christians have long understood ourselves to be grafted into this tradition of Israel’s election: in Christ we are blessed so that we might share that blessing with others. It is not something to be kept to ourselves; the good news of Jesus Christ is to be shared. This is the idea of the “missional church,” which is, according to missional theologian Darrell Guder, “not just a program of the church … It defines the church as God’s sent people … [O]ur challenge today is to move from church with mission to missional church” (Missional Church, 1998, 6). The church is not just about perpetuating itself, maintaining its own survival; it is about being a blessing to and for the world.
So that is one aspect of Israel’s, and our, election: blessing others. But God’s love for Israel, and for us, is not simply instrumental. It is not just about how we might be of use for a purpose, even such a noble one. Rather, God loves Abram, Israel, us, not because we are useful, and not even because we are lovable; indeed much of God’s love can be described as irrational, that is, there is no reason given for it (Deuteronomy 7:7-8).
The meaning of God’s encounter with Abram in Genesis 12 is greater than the three promises taken individually: God establishes a relationship with Abram, that will last through and beyond his “journey by stages” (verse 9), reaching down through his descendants to this very day.
God’s call to Abram is a call to serve, to be a blessing to others, but it is also a declaration of love: God loves Abram, and God loves the world and so sends Abram on a journey that will bless the whole world. R.W.L. Moberly says of Israel’s election: “Even if that love brings with it a call to serve, that service is a corollary to being loved, not the core of being loved. So too, the Israelites are loved for themselves, prior to any impact for good that they may have on others” (OT Theology, 2013, 48).
God recognizes the unique identity of Israel, and loves them without condition. In this lies the guarantee that God loves all others, including us, in our unique identity. So being a blessing to others comes second to our being loved, blessed, by God, for who we are, not what we do. The larger Old Testament story is that God remains faithful to Israel, even as Israel’s faithfulness to God waxes and wanes.
We do not always feel loved or blessed by God. We should, but we don’t. Sometimes it’s a fleeting feeling that is chased away by the grind of life. Or the screeching voices of our culture drown out any whisper from our faith that we matter because of who we are, not what we do. The increasingly loud shriek of our culture is that our outward wealth reveals our inner worth. This leads to a sense of inferiority on the part of the less wealthy, and a sense of superiority on the part of the wealthy. Both are not only false, but also debilitating to the soul and to community life.
We just never feel that we are good enough. But Abraham wasn’t really good enough either. Consider his record: true, he offered his son to God, as commanded, but he also gave his wife to another man out of fear — twice, and he exiled his son Ishmael, and Hagar, Ishmael’s mother, to a near certain death. God rescued them. Paul rightly stresses Abraham’s trust, not his deeds, in Romans 4. Blessing did not come from what Abraham did; he became a blessing to others because he was open to the on-going relationship God offered him. In accepting that blessing, he could become a blessing to others.