Genesis 12:1-4 Common English Bible (CEB)
Abram’s family moves to Canaan
12 The Lord said to Abram, “Leave your land, your family, and your father’s household for the land that I will show you.2 I will make of you a great nation and will bless you. I will make your name respected, and you will be a blessing.
3 I will bless those who bless you,
those who curse you I will curse;
all the families of the earth
will be blessed because of you.”
4 Abram left just as the Lord told him, and Lot went with him. Now Abram was 75 years old when he left Haran.
This short passage is one of the most foundational texts in scripture (at least that’s my view). God calls Abram (name not yet changed to Abraham) to leave his home and extended family, and travel to a foreign land. If he does this then God promises that he will become a “a great nation” blessed by God. Not only will Abram be blessed, but in addition “all the families of the earth will be blessed because of you.” The lectionary selection is brief and yet powerful. God asks a lot of Abram, telling him to leave behind everything he has known. In a world in which tribe was central, it was risky to go to go to a land in which one was a stranger. While the promise itself was wonderful, the question was how would it work out?
The outworking of this call would have many twists and turns, and as the writer of Hebrews notes, Abraham set out “not knowing where he was going.” Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, all lived in tents and Sarah was barren, but the promise revealed itself over time, but “all of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them” (Hebrews 11:8-13). There would be times when Abraham took matters into his hands, such as when in pursuit of an heir he took Sarah’s slave, Hagar, and had child with her. Despite the twists and turns, the journey to blessing starts here, and continuing through the Covenant of Sinai to that of Calvary and the embrace of the Gentiles into God’s realm.
As a Christian, I interpret the call of Abraham through the lens of Jesus. He is, as Paul suggests, the seed of Abraham, through whom the blessings of God would be revealed to the nations (Gal.3:15-18). With this in mind, it’s appropriate to remember that Matthew’s genealogy traces Jesus’ lineage back to Abraham (Matthew 1:1-17). For Matthew Jesus, the Messiah, is the son of David and the son of Abraham. But connecting Jesus’ mission to Abraham, he envisions Jesus as the one through whom all the nations will be blessed. That is, he will save the people from their sins (Mt.1:21). From this perspective, the coming of Jesus is not a course correction on the part of God, but a natural extension of the call of Abram. That means the church doesn’t replace Israel, but as Paul notes, the Gentiles are grafted into the olive tree that is Israel, so that the nations might share in the blessing that God first promised to Abraham and to Israel (Rom. 11). As we ponder the call and the end result, it is wise to remember the promise of Second Isaiah, that Israel would be a light to the nations so that God’s salvation would reach the ends of the earth (Is. 49:6).
Theologian Clark Williamson has devoted much attention to the question of the church’s relationship to Israel, especially in a post-Shoah world. He writes:
Israel was to be a priestly people, serving others, not itself. God’s covenant was not merely for Israel’s good but for the good of all human beings, Gentiles and Jews. God chose Israel as an instrument so that all peoples may come to know God and God’s purposes for them. [A Guest in the House of Israel, p. 125].
So, for Christians reading this call, which will be formalized more fully in Genesis 15 when the promise a child and heir is given (and sealed through sacrifice), and then again in Genesis 17, when God explicitly makes a covenant with Abram and in the process changes his name to Abraham (and that of Sarai to Sarah).
According to the reading from Genesis 12, Abram accepted the call and headed out from Haran to Canaan. He did so, accompanied by Lot and those closest to him, with only the promise of a blessing. The promise is this—the families of the earth will be blessed through him. As we contemplate this call it’s good to note that while God seems narrow the focus to one family, the earliest readers of this promise, as descendants of Abraham and Sarah, would have understood themselves to be that nation through which God would bless the families of the earth. They had a special calling from God. They had a message to share with the nations. While it would be easy to forget this calling, and focus inward rather than outward, time and again messengers would remind the people of their calling. It wasn’t just Israel that was to be blessed, it was the entire creation. Having attended a stewardship workshop recently, I’m reminded that this is a stewardship issue. That would mean that the promise ultimately is rooted in the creation of humanity, who are blessed by God and charged with having dominion (management) of God’s creation (Gen.1:26-31).
The call on Abram and his descendants was to be a blessing to the nations. It would be through this people that God would bless creation. For Christians, this means recognizing that we have been, as noted earlier, grafted into the olive tree that is Israel. We have been adopted into the family through the one who is the seed of Abraham. But as the Gentiles are drawn into the family, and blessed by God, that doesn’t nullify the previous covenant (Gal. 3:15-18). There is a tendency for Christians to read Paul in a supersessionist manner, so that Jesus replaces Israel. That would be inappropriate. For our purposes, let us simply understand Paul’s reference to seed to be a sign that God always intended to bring all of creation into the fold, and that Israel plays an important role in this, as does Jesus.
While there will always be interpretive questions to wrestle with, since three religious traditions claim descent from Abraham, and that these three traditions have often been at odds with each other, it would be wise to affirm the common ancestry, and move to the question of the nature of this blessing. After all, the words bless and blessing figure prominently in this passage and in Genesis. Lest anyone think too highly of one’s self, it is also good to remember that the blessing spoken of here is a gift of God, though it is a gift that must be received. Remember that Abram is told that those who bless him will be blessed and that those who curse him will be cursed. As James McTyre notes, “Abram is called by God to serve as a mirror. Instead of images, Abram will reflect blessings and curses on the land where he will sojourn” [Feasting on the Word, Year A, 2:51].
From a Christian point of view, the church, as the body of Christ, reflects God’s blessings to the world. But what does this mean? What is a blessing? It’s a good question since the words bless or blessing figure prominently in this passage and in the rest of the story. For modern readers the word blessing may seem quaint but not all that meaningful. However, in Hebrew the word connotes a sense of well-being or flourishing. That is what God wants to see happen for creation. He wants it to once again flourish. As to what this means, Miroslav Volf suggests that flourishing means that one does not live by bread alone. The material world is important, for we are material beings, but in his argument as to why a globalized world needs religion, Volf notes that “when we live by bread alone, there is enough bread, not enough even when we make so much of it that some of it rots away; when we live by bread alone, someone always goes hungry; when we live by bread alone, every bite we take leaves a bitter aftertaste; . . . living by ‘mundane realities’ and for them alone, we remain restless and that restlessness in turn contributes to competitiveness, social injustice, and the destruction of the environment as well as constitutes a major obstacle to more just, generous, and caring personal practices and social relationships.” We need bread, but we need more than bread. We need the bread of life. [Volf, Flourishing, p. 22].
There is a thread that runs from creation (Genesis 1) to new creation (Revelation 22). It runs through Abram and on to Jesus, through whom we are grafted into the tree, so that we might be reconciled and share in the blessings of God as was promised to Abram as he left Haran for a new land.
Picture attribution: St. Savin – Calling of Abraham, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=33460 [retrieved March 7, 2017]. Original source: Images donated by Anne Richardson Womack, Vanderbilt University, and James T. Womack, Montgomery Bell Academy, Nashville, TN.
Robert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan and is the author of a number of books including Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016) and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015).