Transfiguration (upper portion), Raphael, 1516-1520, Pinacoteca Vaticana, Vatican.
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Genesis 12: 1–4a
March 8, 2020
The book of Genesis is divided into two major sections. Genesis chapters 1–11 are legendary or mythic. They may use individual people, but their stories speak to the human condition e.g. Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and Noah. Genesis chapters 12–50 chronicle the very specific rise of the clan of Abraham and the consequences for the Jewish people and indeed human history. Today’s reading is the very beginning of this section but before examining it we must first look at the transitional passage that precedes it.
After Noah and his family left the ark, they multiplied over the generations and feeling themselves powerful said:
“Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the sky,
and so make a name for ourselves;
otherwise, we shall be scattered all over the earth.”
This is of course the city of Babel. For their presumption to “make a name for themselves,” the tribes were scattered. One of those tribes was that of Shem. We are given a very lengthy genealogy of the family which begins with Ge. 11:11 and ends with “Terah became the father of Abram, Nahor, and Haran, and Haran became the father of Lot. (Ge. 11:27).
We are also told in this chapter that Abram took Sarai as his wife and that she was barren (Ge. 11:30). They were shepherds who lived a nomadic life and we are told that Terah intended to lead his family to Canaan but stopped at Haran where is stayed for many years. (Ge. 11:31)
This is where we begin today’s reading:
The LORD said to Abram: “Go forth from the land of your kinsfolk
and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you.
First it was the Lord who spoke with Abram. No background is given nor an explanation of why him. It was a simple command and a very difficult one. All we know about Abram was his lineage, his heritage. A person’s identity, his very sense of self, was in and through “his father’s house.” The Lord is telling Abram that he must change the focus of life from his family and tribe to the will of God and his promises. These promises indeed are very vague “a land I will show you.” It is difficult for us to understand the sacrifice that God expected of Abram. Yet is was a necessary one. As his journey with the Lord continues, he will discover that the LORD demands that He alone be worshipped. It would be impossible to do that in a previously established community. Something new was needed:
I will make of you a great nation,
and I will bless you;
To be a great nation, a land and descendants are required. He has no land and the only thing we have been told about Sarai is that she is barren so he needs to be “blessed.” The natural world has not given Abram what he would need to be a great nation so God must provide it. When we look at what is considered a blessing in the Old Testament we find that “it encompasses the well-being of a person or a people: good health, long life, numerous offspring, fertile fields and flocks, harmony within the clan, and freedom from oppression.” (J. E. Hartley). It is not assumed that a blessing takes effect immediately but that this would take time. The Lord’s relationship with Abram was not to be with just him but with his posterity. God was thinking and planning well into the future. Future children are assumed here but will only be stated after the land is given.
I will make your name great,
so that you will be a blessing.
The people of Babel sought to make themselves great: “and so make a name for ourselves,” and they were scattered. God will make Abram and his descendants great and bring them together. Through Abram, he will reach the entire world. The benefits of God’s blessing that we have seen above from good health to harmony within one’s clan are to come to the world through Abram and his people.
I will bless those who bless you
and curse those who curse you.
God will be actively involved with Abram and his people. How the great nations of the world treat Abram will determine how God will treat them. This section of Genesis was written by the same people as last week’s and let us remember that the LORD carefully fashioned Adam and Eve by hand as a potter. (Ge. 2) He then gave them a garden in which he would walk with them in the cool of the evening. As he was involved in the lives of Adam and Eve, he will be involved in the lives of Abram and his decedents:
All the communities of the earth
shall find blessing in you.”
God will only deal with the world through Abram and his people. Those who wish to find true blessing will need to go through Abraham and his descendants. Although this passage was most likely first written down in some form around 1000 BC, it would have obtained its final state after the exile around 450 BC in the same thought world as Zechariah and Third Isaiah. To repeat a favorite quote from Zechariah:
Thus says the LORD of hosts: In those days ten men of every nationality, speaking different tongues, shall take hold,
yes, take hold of every Jew by the edge of his garment and say,
“Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.”
Abram went as the LORD directed him, and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he left Haran.
The point is implicitly stated that they left. It is not until later that Abram passed through the land as far as the sacred place at Shechem:
“By the terebinth of Moreh. (The Canaanites were then in the land.)
The LORD appeared to Abram and said,
“To your descendants I will give this land.”
So Abram built an altar there to the LORD who had appeared to him.”
To use a New Testament image, Abram was like leaven. Islam as well as Judaism and Christianity share Abram as a common ancestor. This comprises a substantial part of the world’s population. He has, in this sense, been the Father of a great movement if not a nation in either his or our sense of the word. Yet how blessed is the world through his spiritual sons and daughters? There is great injustice and we are destroying the planet. All the progeny of Abraham needs to join together and make the depth of the blessing become as great as the width of its numbers.