Commentary on Genesis 12:1-4a
The promise to Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 12:1-4 marks one of the most dramatic transitions in the entire story of the Old Testament.
The Transition from Genesis 1-11 to Genesis 12: Deep Background
In Genesis 1-11, God struggled with a repeatedly rebellious, violent, and corrupt humanity as a whole (Eden, Cain and Abel, Noah and the flood, the tower of Babel). As a result, God resolves to try a new strategy by focusing on one particular family among all the families of the earth. However, as God often does, God decides to work through a most unlikely pair: old Abram and Sarai (later “Abraham” and “Sarah”–Genesis 17:5, 15).
God chooses them for a long term project of blessing the world even though Sarai is “barren” and unable to have children (Genesis 11:30). God’s project seems doomed to fail from the start. Yet God speaks a powerful and promising word into a barren family and a barren and conflicted world of humanity. The same powerful and divine word that created the world out of chaos at the beginning (Genesis 1:3) may well now create a new hope and possibility yet again.
A Command Fueled by a Lavish Set of Promises
God’s word to Abram begins with a command, “Go from your country and your kindred and our father’s house.” God commands Abram to sever his ties to his larger nation, his ties to his larger kinship group, and finally even his ties to his immediate family or father’s house (12:1). God calls Abram to a loyalty and commitment that transcends even his family ties, the most important of all relationships in the ancient world. But this command comes with a powerful promise.
First of all, God promises Abram a “land that I will show you.” Secondly, God promises to make of Abram’s offspring a great nation with the implication of a long line of descendants. The note about Sarai’s barrenness gives the reader pause at this point; how can this be? Thirdly, God promises to “bless” Abram. Blessing involves fertility, life, success, well being, and a good name.
Part of this blessing is that God promises Abram to “make your name great.” Interestingly, the tower builders in Genesis 11:1-9 had built their tower with the purpose of making a name for themselves (verse 4). Their self-centered and heaven-storming strategy led only to confusion and scattering. But God now promises to give Abram a great name as a gift with the purpose that “you will be a blessing” (verse 3). Abraham’s friends will be blessed, and his enemies will be cursed.
God’s Ultimate Purpose in Sending Abram and Sarai
Most importantly, God promises to Abram and Sarai that “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” We now realize that this selection of one particular family and people out of all the peoples of the earth does not entail God’s abandonment of concern for other nations. Rather, God’s election of Abram is a new strategy to address the evil and violence of all humanity.
God’s chosen people never exist in isolation. They are called to a wider mission than just self-preservation. They are never allowed to claim an exclusive hold on God’s concern. God remains committed to all creation and all humanity. Abraham embodies such blessing and help to other nations within his own lifetime through his assistance to his nephew Lot (the eponymous ancestor of the nations of Moab and Ammon-Genesis 13-14; 19:36-38) and his bold intercession on behalf of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:22-33) and his covenant with King Abimelech (Genesis 21:22-34).
Some of Abraham’s interactions with other peoples and nations are more complex and problematic (Genesis 12:10-20; 20:1-18). This is particularly true of Abraham and Sarah’s treatment of their Egyptain maid, Hagar, whose bears a son Ishmael to Abraham. On one hand, Sarah oppresses Hagar and they eventually send Hagar and her child off into the wilderness. But God reassures Abraham. God will extend virtually the same blessing on Ishmael as is given to Isaac: Ishmael will become the father of a great nation (see Genesis 21:12-13, 17-18).
In response to these promises and this command to “Go..,” Abram responds in obedience: “So Abram went, as the LORD had told him.” Thus, we have here at the very beginning of the Abraham-Sarah cycle an important theme for the Abraham-Sarah cycle, the interplay between human obedience and divine promise. A complex relationship between these two aspects, God’s promises and Abraham’s obedience, will weave its way throughout Genesis 12-23, the two most important texts being Genesis 15 and Genesis 22.
Theological Reflections on Genesis 12:1-4
1) God’s election of the family of Abraham and Sarah as a chosen and special vehicle of God’s blessing affirms God’s continuing commitment to humans and the world in spite of their rebellion, violence and evil. God will not let go of God’s creation.
2) God’s selection of a barren husband and wife to be a blessing to others emphasizes that it is first and foremost God’s power and initiative that will accomplish God’s purposes. Of course, human obedience is from the very beginning involved–God says, “Go…” and “Abram went.” But Abraham’s trust in God’s commitment to fulfill the promises made provide the energy and will to follow God’s commands.
3) God’s focus on one particular family was from the beginning designed to be the funnel for God’s blessing to all the families of the earth. God’s people may be tempted to turn inward, to worry only about their own survival, to consider themselves as God’s only concern, or to ignore the wider community in which they live. Both in its words concerning all the families of the earth as well as its literary setting at the end of Genesis 1-11 which deals with all humanity, Genesis 12 reminds us that
The earth is the LORD’s and all that is in it,
the world, and those who live in it (Psalm 24:1).
4) The text in Genesis 12 draws Abraham and Sarah into a journey that leaves behind an old life and looks forward to a future not yet seen. The season of Lent is a season that helps us to let go of old commitments and burdens and sets us free to journey into new territories, new promises, new hopes, and new lives.