Commentary on Genesis 12:1-4a
Genesis 12 is a chapter of new beginnings.
Following the introductory chapters of Israel’s Urgeschichte in Genesis 1-11, we meet Abraham in Genesis 12 who will become in subsequent chapters the father of a large nation. But in this chapter, one only sees the uncertain beginnings of a family who find themselves at the threshold of a new tomorrow.
This short pericope begins with God’s command to Abraham to go from his country, from his family, from his father’s house, to the land that God will show him. This divine command implies leaving all that is familiar behind to face an uncertain future.
The call to Abraham though does not come alone. It is important to note that God’s command is accompanied with a fivefold promise presented in five 1st person statements in verses 2-3a: God says: “I will make of you a great nation, I will bless you, I will magnify your name, I will bless those who bless you and I will curse those who curse you.” God says in no unclear terms that there is a future waiting for Abraham and Sarah. And God is making some big promises: land to a landless people, offspring to a barren couple.
God promises Abraham that he would be the father of a large nation — a promise that as we will see in subsequent chapters is rather preposterous given the fact that both Abraham and Sarah are far beyond the years of having a child. Moreover, God will protect them wherever they go, by blessing those that are good to them and cursing those that are not. In verse 3, one finds the additional promise that has ramifications far beyond the little family of Abraham and Sarah. Through Abraham and Sarah all the families of the earth shall be blessed. They will have an impact on people everywhere.
So how does Abraham respond? We read in verse 4 that Abraham (and we could add Sarah) went. Abraham and Sarah believed God’s promise, so Abraham and Sarah went. As Romans 4:18-21 describes this unwavering faith of Abraham (and Sarah): “Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become ‘the father of many nations,’ according to what was said, ‘So numerous shall your descendants be.’
He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.”
We that know the rest of the story will realize that many things still would need to happen before this promise will come true. And some of these events in Abraham and Sarah’s future are less than pleasant. Before this story is over, Abraham will almost lose his wife in Egypt (cf. the stories of the endangered matriarch in Genesis 12, 17 and 20 in which the patriarch passes his wife off three times as his sister to the foreign ruler); there will be much pain with Hagar and Ishmael (Genesis 16, 21); the barren couple will finally experience the joy of an own son (Genesis 18, 21); they will come close to losing him (Genesis 22), and that is only in their own life time.
We are not even mentioning all the trials and travails that will happen in their children and grandchildren and great grandchildren’s lives, for instance ending up as slaves in Egypt (Exodus 1). A key theme to explore in the book of Genesis and beyond is thus how the promise divulged to Abraham in Genesis 12 is threatened but ultimately realized.
Three further perspectives regarding this text are worth exploring: First, at the heart of Genesis 12 is the theme of journey which will form a central part of Israel’s identity as a people on the move. Samuel Terrien argues that “the figure of Abraham is introduced as the embodiment of a new form of society which deliberately severs its bonds with a static past in order to experiment in time. The nomadic motif of movement through space emerges as a symbol of openness to the future” (The Elusive Presence, p 73). Genesis 12 thus employs the excitement of departing on a journey as being representative of the new possibilities that the future may bring.
Second, God’s promise of presence and protection would prove vital in the early years of Israel’s journey out of Egypt, through the wilderness en route to the Promised Land. In terms of the Pentateuch receiving its final form during the Exile, one could argue that these promises also received new significance during the traumatic years Israel spent in exile. This account addresses the profound questions regarding God’s presence and power that were raised during the exile by reminding Israel of God’s promises to Abraham.
Third, in the blessing to Abraham we already see some poignant reflection on Israel’s often complex relationship with its neighbours. The promise in verse 3 that Abraham and Sarah’s descendants will be a blessing to the nations is picked up again in Isaiah 42:6 when the servant (which may either be understood as an individual or as the people of Israel as a whole) is said to be a light unto the nations. Throughout the biblical traditions, one sees though how the fulfilment of this blessing is more often than not threatened and delayed. However, this promise is responsible for the biblical witness not letting go of the ideal that Israel had a responsibility to its neighbours.
Finally, Genesis 12:1-4 speaks a powerful word today in those instances when we are called to leave all that is known behind; to relinquish all our comforts and securities; to follow God with closed eyes; to depart on a journey without a map. The journey may be long, sometimes much longer than one may have thought. It is a journey with many ups and downs, many joys and sorrows. But it is journey filled with many, many promises — the most important being the promise of God’s presence to show us the way.