Commentary on Genesis 12:1-4a
The call of Abram is a watershed moment in the book of Genesis and celebrated in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. However, reading its literary context can suggest some surprising theological insights and challenges.
In Genesis 11:26, the narrator introduces Abram as part of a genealogy—that rote genre we so often ignore. Breaking from a fifteen-verse pattern of formulaic descriptions and anonymous siblings, the narrator names Abram’s two brothers (Nahor and Haran) and even nieces (Milcah and Iscah) and a nephew (Lot). Sadly, we also find that the father of those nieces and nephew, Haran, dies while they are still residing in their homeland (11:28). How will the family cope?
The living brother marries Milcah, daughter of the deceased brother. Is this a kosher relationship1 intended to insure her well-being or a frightening example of incestuous dominance in the absence of her father?
The narrator gives us nothing on the fate of Iscah, the other daughter of Haran. Haran’s partner (wife/widow?) is never mentioned.
As for Abram, he marries Sarai whom the narrator swiftly marks as barren (verses 29–30). After twenty generations of fathers reproducing with unnamed mothers, infertility arises as a palpable issue—and the woman, Sarai, is singled out. For Abram and Sarai, their homeland is haunted by the pale specters of death and childlessness. So they leave.
More accurately, Abram’s father (Terah) takes them (and Lot, the son of the deceased) on a journey to settle in Canaan. But they don’t make it to Canaan. Ironically, they settle in Haran, a city whose name echoes the name of the dead brother (Genesis 11:31).2
This is where Yhwh steps in.
Against this background, one can see that God’s call of Abram is not just an imposition of divine blessings and imperatives on Abram’s life. Instead, God inaugurates a reciprocal relationship that calls Abram to blossom in the journey he is already on and makes room for God’s purposes to be fulfilled.
God’s call for Abram to leave his “country” and “kindred” is a continuation of the exodus that Abram already began, not a wholly new idea. But their initial departure came because Abram’s father “took them” (Genesis 11:31).3 Now God is calling on Abram to take agency in migrating and even to leave his father’s house (12:1).
The physical destination also comes from Abram’s side of things. Canaan—the place the family was headed to but never arrived at—turns out to be “the land that I [God] will show you” (Genesis 12:1, 5). God is calling on Abram to recommit to a journey he delayed completing, but now in partnership with God.
From God’s side of the relationship, Abram will be a beacon for God’s big plans. Since the earliest chapters of Genesis, God desires a thriving and diverse creation (1:27–30; 2:18; 8:17; 9:1, 7), but divine intentions are repeatedly corrupted (4:8, 22–23; 6:11; 9:25; 11:4) because human hearts remain perpetually wicked (6:5; 8:21). Instead of quitting, God decides a different strategy such that “all the families of the earth shall be blessed” through Abram (12:3).
Of course, Abram benefits immensely. With God, Abram’s journey will flourish: God will make him a great nation and make his name great (Genesis 12:2), God will bless and curse people according to how they treat Abram (12:3), and Abram’s descendants will possess the very land where Abram sojourns (12:7).
It is inspiring to think that God wants to partner with Abram (or us)—that God desires to draw optimal fulfillment from a life journey. But reading this passage in context also leads us to ask, “Why is Abram singled out by God?” What about Sarai, who is not consulted or chosen? Or Lot? Or Terah? Or the enslaved people Abram acquired in Haran? Or any person or people group we will encounter in Genesis?
Genesis does not show Abram as having earned or immediately deserving to be the medium for God to bless all the families of the earth. In fact, the first foreign group Abram interacts with suffers divine plagues because of Abram’s selfish androcentrism, lies, and xenophobic prejudice (12:10–20).
What if we sympathize with the “others” in this text and honor the attendant discomfort?
How do we speak to anyone who identifies with Haran, whom God does not promise long life? Nahor whom God does not call out of his depressing circumstance? Milcah whom God does not save from incest? Iscah whose story everyone ignores? Terah who is cut off from family? Sarai who is perpetually “second fiddle”? the enslaved/underclass who are counted as objects?
Preaching beyond Abram requires relativizing Abram’s uniqueness. Of course, those who trace their ancestry to “Father Abraham” center the patriarch. But even the scriptures written by these Israelites include Melchizedek, a Canaanite priest of the true God (Genesis 14:18–20); Hagar, an enslaved Egyptian who has her own theophany, names God, and mothers a people (Genesis 16:7–14); Balaam, a Mesopotamian prophet who knows and proclaims God’s blessings (Numbers 22–24). None of these are descendants of Abram, but they each have a unique relationship with God. All of this is to say that the Bible presents a people’s story of being loved and chosen by God (Deuteronomy 7:7–9); but that same Bible hints that God’s story is bigger and particularly tied to others (Amos 9:7). There is more room for telling God’s story.
What will it take to help us center the story differently? And how will preaching with the “others” bring about God’s blessing for all the families of the earth?
- Leviticus 18 forbids many sexual relationships between close relatives. The closeness of an uncle and niece is not prohibited. Although sexual relations between an aunt and nephew is prohibited (Leviticus 18:12-14), that is the relationship between Amram and Jochebed, the parents of Moses, Miriam, and Aaron. So, it is possible that different biblical authors have different ideas of which relations are taboo.
- Although they look identical in an English transliteration, the person Haran and the place Haran begin with different consonants in Hebrew.
- In the Hebrew, the first verb in 11:31 says Terah “took” Abram, Lot, and Sarai, but the second verb says “they went out together.” Some ancient versions (the Septuagint, Samaritan Pentateuch, and Vulgate) attest to a slightly different pronunciation of the vowels in the second verb so that the translation would be the more uniform pairing of “took” with “he brought them.”