Commentary on Genesis 12:1-4a
We do not know why this story begins with Abraham (and his family).
But we do know from the context that God chose Abraham for a comprehensive creational purpose, namely, that the human (and nonhuman) creation might be restored and be able to live in harmony with God’s original intention for the world. God’s choice of Abraham is an initially exclusive move for the sake of the future of the entire world.
God’s promise stands at the beginning of Abraham’s story (Genesis 12:2-3): “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing … and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” God’s promises create Abraham’s faith and generate the basic shape of his future and that of his community. God’s promises are decisive for shaping the life and the future of Abraham and his family. What distinguishes Abraham from other characters is a calling to be a blessing to all peoples.
God’s promises are given a central place in this opening call of Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3) and these promises have an important role to play throughout the stories that follow. The promise of blessing to Abraham (Genesis 12:2) implies an ongoing and active presence of God for this family. We do not know why God chose Abraham rather than another person or family. But we do know that God chose Abraham so that the human and nonhuman creation might be reclaimed and live in harmony with God’s original intention.
Interpreters usually consider the promises of God in Genesis 12:1-3 as the key to the rest of the book, indeed key to the interpretation of the Old Testament as a whole. The divine promises are especially written to link the creation stories of Genesis 1-11 with the ancestral narratives that follow, and to point forward to the later history of Israel, “a great nation.”
These verses constitute a fulcrum text, thoroughly theological in their focus. The promises are centered on nationhood, renown, and blessing for Abraham’s family and for other families in and through them. These promises often have a key role to play in the narratives that follow.
Interestingly, God appears suddenly in the narrative and without introduction, calling Abram to leave (in this order) his country, his clan, and his home. And God calls Abram to begin a journey to a land that God will reveal to him. God calls Abram to “leave home,” his familiar surroundings.
God’s most basic word to Abraham in this context is that God will make Abraham a great nation, bless him and his family, and make his name great. God in essence promises Abraham that he will be established in a new community with a new name and a new standing in his world.
God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3, that God will “bless those who bless you,” brings Abraham into relationship with those outside the chosen community. Those outsiders who treat Israel in life-sustaining ways will receive a response of blessing from God. On the other hand, those who curse Israel (treat Israel in negative ways) will be cursed by God, that is, will be given a negatively-shaped future. God does not introduce this curse, but people reap the consequences of their own words and deeds. They will reap the effects of what they do and say. That is the way in which God has created the world to work. What people do and say have effects.
The final phrase presents the objective of all the previous clauses. God’s choice of Abraham will lead to blessings for all the families of the earth. In other words, God’s choice of Abraham serves as an initially exclusive move for the sake of a maximally inclusive end.
God makes promises and God keeps those promises throughout the generations. Again and again, faced with multiple and harsh realities, God keeps the promises God has made. Genesis 28:15 summarizes the central feature of God’s promises: “I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go … I will not leave you.”
A series of promises from God gives basic shape to the story that follows, promises of land and blessing, promises that shape Israel into a great nation with a great name. The focus of the divine blessing, however, is not solely for the benefit of Israel’s future, but for the sake of all the families of the earth. The concern expressed is not simply the shape of Israel’s future, but the future of all the families of the earth (Genesis 12:3). The promises move beyond Israel and bring the entire world into view.
The narrative centering on Abraham and his family does not entail a new divine objective for the world. What occurs is a clearer view of God’s strategy for moving toward the fulfilment of God’s purposes for the world. God will now use Abraham’s family as a vehicle in and through which the world will be restored.
The specific language of “blessing” centers this text and appears five times in this text and almost 100 times in the book of Genesis. Blessing stands as a gift of God to the world, mediated through human or nonhuman agents that issue in goodness and well-being in life. It is a metaphor of journey for the life of faith.
God appears in the text suddenly and without introduction. God is the repeated subject and Abraham is the repeated agent in and through whom God works. God’s action on behalf of the world centers the text. God will make Abraham a great nation, bless him, make his name great, and bless those who bless him. God in essence promises a new community with a new name.
The final phrase of the text presents the objective of all the previous clauses—God’s choice of Abraham will lead to blessings for all the families of the earth. The result is familial connections with all the families of the earth. The call of Abraham is God’s response to the dilemma created by sin and evil. God will work in and through this family on behalf of all families.
Finally, it is God’s promises that center this text. God’s promises stand at the beginning of the narrative (Genesis 12:1-3), at the climax (Genesis 22:16-18), and they are repeated at key junctures of the Genesis narrative throughout (Genesis 12:7; 13:14-17; 15:1-7, 18-21; 17:1-21; 18:10-14, 18; 24:7).