Commentary on Genesis 12:1-4a
Something that all the cultures of the world share is ancestor stories.
Some within the United States can trace their ancestry back to those who came originally from England. For others, including me, family ties go back to ancestry with roots in parts of the world such as Asia, Africa, or Latin America. Stories of how our ancestors struggled, survived, and overcame make up the core of our personal and communal histories. In the biblical text, the traditions of the ancestors depict how the mothers and fathers of Israel formed what would eventually emerge as the tribes of Israel. Throughout these stories, the biblical narrators recount how God blesses these family lines and in the process extends that blessing to the peoples of the earth.
The calling of Abram/Abraham is a fulcrum text, serving as a transitional point between what comes before it with what follows. Genesis 1–11, also known as the Primeval History, recounts the beginnings of the world. Two dominant themes emerge in these stories: 1) the tendency for human beings to rebel against their Creator and the consequences of judgment that follow; and 2) the continued blessing of God that seeks to address humanity in spite of divine judgment. The first theme finds expression in stories such as the eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge (Genesis 3), Cain’s killing of his brother Abel (Genesis 4), violence filling the earth prior to the flood (Genesis 6:1–7), and the erecting of a tower to the heavens in the story of Babel (Genesis 11). In each of these texts, God’s judgment follows. Divine punishment, however, does not have the final word. The Lord continually finds a way to bless humanity, addressing them in their cursed condition through the covering of their nakedness (Genesis 3:21), the marking of Cain to protect him from further retribution (Genesis 4:15), and the establishing of a covenant with Noah after the flood (9:1–17). The conclusion to the Tower of Babel story, however, does not have an immediate blessing that balances the divine judgment. The people are left scattered over the face of the earth at the end of Genesis 11. The calling of Abram seeks to bring blessing to all the people of the earth, and hence addresses the effects of judgment after Babel. The Lord accomplishes this through the promises made to Abram and his descendents, through whom “all the families of the earth will be blessed” (Genesis 12:3b).
In Genesis 12:1–4, the narrator’s focus moves from the broad landscape of world history in Genesis 1–11 to the particularities of one family’s story. Genesis 12–50 recounts the stories of Israel’s mothers and fathers: Abraham/Sarah, Isaac/Rebekah, and Jacob/Leah and Rachel. The divine blessing given to Abram is comprised of at least three features: 1) land (v. 1b); 2) making Abram a great nation and making his name great (v. 2); and 3) through Abram all the families of the earth shall be blessed (v. 3). This blessing takes the form of a divine charter or land grant. In the ancient Near East, this type of treaty was a gift that a god would bestow on a favored subject or king. They were unilateral, meaning that the blessing flowed in one direction from the giver to the recipient. They were also unconditional. That is, such grants were based primarily in the benevolence of the deity and were not dependent on the previous actions of the subject. Other forms of divine charter in the Hebrew Bible can be seen in the Lord’s promises to David (cf. 2 Samuel 7:8–16).
In Genesis 12:1, the Lord commands Abram to leave his country, kindred, and his father’s house, to the land that the Lord will show him. Thus, v. 1 emphasizes in great detail what Abram must leave behind in order to obtain the promises that God intends for him and his family. The promise of place, at least in this initial encounter, is vague, pointing to a land that the Lord will show Abram at some future point. The promise of land becomes more detailed in later chapters. In Genesis 12, however, the inexact nature of the Abram’s destination is set in contrast to the specific details of what he must leave behind.
The second aspect of the blessing–the promise of becoming a great nation (v. 2)–highlights a prominent plot element in the Abraham cycle. In Genesis 11:30, the reader hears that Sarai is barren. This seemingly small detail in the genealogy of Chapter Eleven becomes a point of narrative tension in Genesis 12, when the Lord promises that Abram and his descendents will become a great nation. In order for Abram to become a great nation, he and Sarai will first have to have a child. Most of the drama that develops from this point forward in the plot focuses on how the characters–Abraham/Abram, Sarai/Sarah, God, and others–seek to bring this aspect of the promise to fulfillment.
The final part of the Lord’s promise states that the families of the earth will be blessed through Abram (12:3b). This suggests that God seeks to bless the many peoples of the world through a single family. God’s benevolence is not only intended solely for the advantage of one chosen family. God makes promises to Abram and his descendents with the result that all of the peoples of the earth will benefit.
In Lent, a season usually marked by repentance and humility, we are reminded this week of God’s unconditional promises that are directed to us not through our own merit. God blesses us with the remarkable gift of life, even when our present circumstances point to states of barrenness. God’s blessing is specific enough to address our particular conditions and universal enough to extend to all peoples of the earth. Like Abraham, all that is required of us is to “go” (Genesis 1:4a) as the Lord asks.