The Obedience of Abram, 1-9

The second part of Genesis – chapters 12-50 – record the history of just four generations of one family. This family, however, has proved pivotal in the subsequent development of world history.

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Glancing in the rear-view mirror, we observe with Wiersbe the human failures that have littered the text of Genesis so far: ‘The first man and woman disobeyed God and were cast out of the Garden (chap. 3). Cain murdered his brother Abel and lied about it (chap. 4). Humanity became so corrupt that God cleansed the earth with a flood (chaps. 6–8). Noah got drunk and exposed himself to his son Ham (chap. 9). In their defiance of God, men built a city and a tower; and God had to send confusion to end the rebellion (chap. 10).’  What would we have done about all this, if we were God?  Destroy them?  But no: sets on course his plan of redemption; a plan that will bring blessing for one man and his wife, for a nation, and for the world.

Much of the action in Genesis 12-50 centers on five great journeys: (1) Abram’s journey from Ur to Canaan (Gen 11:27-12:9); (2) Abram’s brief excursion into Egypt (Gen 12:10-20); (3) the journeys of Abram, Isaac and Jacob around the land of Canaan (chs. 13-28, 32-38); (4) Jacob’s journey to Paddan Aram (chs. 28-31); and (5) Israel’s journey into Egypt (chs. 42-46).

‘With the call of Abram there begins a new history of blessing, which is passed on in each instance to the chosen successor (Gen 18:18; 22:15–18; 26:2–4; 28:14).’  In the more distant future, the promises would be inherited by David, ‘to whom Yahweh gives a great name, a land, and an heir (2 Sam. 7:9–12).’ (Harper’s Bible Commentary)

12:1 Now the LORD said to Abram,
“Go out from your country, your relatives, and your father’s household
to the land that I will show you.

Waltke and Fredricks remark that the narrator draws an almost complete veil over the first 75 years of Abram’s life.

‘Here God makes four promises to Abraham: that he will be given a ‘land’ (1); that he will become a ‘great nation’ (2); that he will enjoy a special (covenant) relationship with God (3); and that through him all the nations will be blessed (4). Whenever God addresses the patriarchs in Genesis he refers to these promises, very often amplifying or making them more specific. For example, a ‘land’ (Gen 12:1) becomes ‘this land’ (Gen 12:7), ‘all the land you see …  for ever’ (Gen 13:15) and ‘the whole land of Canaan  …  as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you’ (Gen 17:8).’ (NBC)

According to Gal 3:8, the gospel was here being announced to Abraham ‘in advance’.

Abraham came from Ur, but moved with his father Terah to Haran, and then on to Palestine. He lived a nomadic existence, moving from place to place in search of pasture for his flocks and food for his family.

The central theme in the story of Abraham is the oft-repeated covenant promise. The principal elements of the covenant were, (a) God would give Abraham many descendents; (b) his descendents would possess the promised land; (c) God would be their God; (d) Through them all the peoples of the world would be blessed.

The promise, however, seemed constantly to be under threat. Abraham and his wife were growing older; Abraham almost lost Sarah to the king of Egypt; when Abraham and Lot divide the land, Abraham ends up with the inferior territory. For twenty-five years after the original giving of the promise, Abraham and Sarah remained childless.

In Gen 17:1-14, we read of the change of name from ‘Abram’ (Exalted Father) to ‘Abraham’ (Father of a multitude), bringing prominence to one aspect of the covenant. At the same time, the sign of circumcision was introduced.

A number of key biblical themes are bound up with the story of Abraham and the covenant: (a) grace: there was nothing particularly deserving about Abraham; he was a mixture of the heroic and the ordinary; (b) election: we cannot tell why God chose Abraham; it is down to sovereign grace; (c) faith: which in Abraham’s case was sorely tested, and sometimes bordered on unbelief, Gen 15:2-3; yet ultimately he took God at his word and believed the promise.

Wenham (WBC) writes:

‘These verses are of fundamental importance for the theology of Genesis, for they serve to bind together the primeval history and the later patriarchal history and look beyond it to the subsequent history of the nation.’

In the story of Abraham,

‘we are viewing the beginning of the scriptural account of God’s dealings with Israel. As we trace through the stories of Abraham, we see that these are pattern experiences for the believer today. What literally and physically occurred to Abraham occurs spiritually in the Christian’s life today. That is what makes these stories of such eternal fascination and benefit to us. This is why the early Christians, with nothing more than the Old Testament in their hands, could test and prove the doctrine which came from the mouths of the apostles and other leaders as to whether it was from God, for it was only repeating on a higher level of life the pattern written out on the pages of the Old Testament.’ (Ray Stedman)

The Lord said – according to some translations (including NIV) , ‘The Lord had said’, which would reconcile this passage Gen 15:7 and with the account given by Stephen in Acts 7:2-4.  According to Matthews, this translation is possible, but not necessary.

‘God spoke—and Abram went. Just as in the very beginning of all things, in those first days of creation, when God simply spoke the word and it happened, so also here, in this new beginning for mankind, God spoke the word and it came to pass.’ (Duguid, The Gospel According to Abraham)

“To the land that I will show you” – As Heb 11:8 emphasises, Abram did not know where he was being sent to.  Nor would he ever settle in the land.  All he would own would be one field with a cave in it (which he used as a burial site for his wife Sarah), Gen 23.

‘The Old Testament’s use of the term land with reference to Canaan is resignified to encompass the whole earth in Matt. 5:5 and Rom. 4:13. Neither Christ nor his apostles ever teach that dispersed ethnic Israel will again return to Canaan. Rather, for them Canaan seems to function as a type of the Christian’s life in Christ, both from a historical or chronological perspective and from a conceptual perspective. As Wright explains, “According to Hebrews [Heb 13:14], the only thing which we do not have is an earthly, territorial city.”’ (Waltke and Fredricks)

Waltke and Fredricks draw out a number of parallels between the two ‘lands’:-

  1. ‘both are a divine gift (Gen. 15:7, 18; Deut. 1:8; Rom. 6:23);
  2. both are entered by faith alone (Num. 14:26–45; Josh. 7; John 3:16);
  3. both are an inheritance (Deut. 4:20; Acts 20:32; Eph. 1:14);
  4. both uniquely offer blessed rest and security (Ex. 23:20–31; Deut. 11:12; 12:9–10; 28:1–14; Matt. 11:28; John 1:51; 14:9; Heb. 4:2–3);
  5. both offer God’s unique presence;
  6. both demand persevering faith (Deut. 28:15–19; Heb. 6; 10);
  7. both have an already-but-not-yet quality (see Heb. 11:39–40; Rev 21:1–22:6).’
Curse reversed

‘Yahweh’s promised gifts of land, progeny, and earthly prosperity in 12:1–3 are a reversal of the curses in Eden (3:16–19) of a hostile earth, pain in human generativity, and endless human toil.’ (Harper’s Bible Commentary)

12:2 Then I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you,
and I will make your name great,
so that you will exemplify divine blessing.

There are some texts of Scripture that carry relatively light theological freight.  Gen 12:1-3, however, is one of the busiest motorways.

Notice how this passage heaps up the “I wills.”  These are in sharp contrast to the “Let us” of Babel, Gen 11:1-9.  ‘At Babel, men wanted to make a name for themselves; but it was God who made Abraham’s name great. At Babel, the workers tried to unite men, only to divide them; but through Abraham, a whole world has been blessed, and all believers are united in Jesus Christ. Of course, Pentecost (Acts 2) is the “reversal” of Babel; but Pentecost could not have occurred apart from God’s covenant with Abraham (Gal. 3:14).’ (Wiersbe)

‘What the builders of the Tower of Babel sought to do in their own behalf and failed to accomplish—to establish a lasting city and thus make a name for themselves—God will do for Abram.’ (Duguid)

Waltke and Fredricks note that God’s call contains seven elements:-

  1. “I will make you into a great nation”
  2. “I will bless you”
  3. “I will make your name great”
  4. “you will be a blessing”
  5. “I will bless those who bless you”
  6. “whoever curses you I will curse”
  7. climactically, in the favored seventh position, “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”


Horizon 1

The same authors note the expanding horizons of this passage: (a) Abram is called to leave his family, v1; (b) the Lord promises to make Abram into a great and blessed nation; (c) Abram’s blessings will extend to the whole earth for all time.  In other words, the promise expands from individual, to national, to universal salvation.

‘At the same time their futurity emphasises the bare faith that was required: Abram must exchange the known for the unknown, (Heb 11:8) and find his reward in what he could not live to see (a great nation), in what was intangible (thy name) and in what he would impart (blessing).’ (Kidner)

Verses 2-3 sum up the theology of Genesis and provide the key to its interpretation.

“I will make you into a great nation” – See Gen 18:18; 17:20; 21:18; 46:3; Exod 32:10).

Lorimer (The Revival of Religion) points to the universality of this promise:

‘To Abraham, standing at the head of the Jewish economy, essentially local in its nature, it was promised that in his Seed, namely, Christ, all nations – all the families of the earth – should be blessed. A similar promise was repeated to succeeding patriarchs. And does it not distinctly point to universality? What can be more comprehensive than all nations, all families of the earth?’

Horizon 2

To become ‘a great nation’ implies dwelling in a land they can call their own.  This is made explicit in Gen 15, where it is idealised as  Rev. 7:9 envisions “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, and people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb,” praising God.

A summary of Tom Wright’s teaching about the centrality of God’s promise to Abraham in the biblical narrative:-

‘Central to the story of the Old Testament and the whole driver for biblical theology is God’s calling of Abraham to undo the sin of Adam and its effect on the world. The ‘covenant’ that God made with Abraham, therefore, and his election of Israel, was made precisely in order to carry forward his plan for undoing the effect of evil and restoring his creation. The promise to Abraham of a land was the start of God’s plan for reclaiming and renewing the entire world. The promise to Abraham of a family was likewise the start of God’s plan for populating this restored world with a worldwide family. It is from this concrete basis that the rest of the Bible’s holistic approach to salvation proceeds, and also the continuity between the Old and New Testament. Rather than God’s people living in God’s land being an inadequate earthly prototype for a later ‘more spiritual’ understanding of salvation, the covenant with Israel indicates the start of God’s plan for a renewed earth ruled over by his renewed people.’

(Kurt, Tom Wright for Everyone, ch 3)

‘Jesus essentially severs the link between the people of God and Abraham’s physical offspring. At the end of Matthew our Lord asserts his authority over all nations and commissions his disciples, not old Israel, to make disciples of the nations, teaching them to obey everything he had commanded them (Matt. 28:18–20). Similarly, Mark records a scene where Jesus’ physical mother and brothers symbolically stand outside the house where he is teaching. To those seated in the circle around him he asks, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” Looking at this same group of people he declares, “Here are my mother and brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:33–35). In Luke, Jesus forecasts through the parable of the tenants that God will take the vineyard (i.e., the right to be the people chosen to mediate his moral rule) away from Israel and give it to the Gentiles (Luke 20:9–19). In John Jesus speaks of having other sheep (i.e., the Gentiles) who “are not of this sheep pen” (i.e., physical Israel, [John 10:16]).’ (Waltke and Fredricks)

‘Abraham’s physical offspring had the first opportunity to represent God’s rule and mediate the blessing (Acts 3:25), but when the Jews, for the most part, reject the gospel, Paul turns away from them to the Gentiles (Acts 13:46; 18:6). By the second century the church was composed almost entirely of Gentiles. In Galatians, Paul refers to the seed God covenanted to give Abraham as finding fulfillment both uniquely in Jesus Christ and collectively in all, Jew and Gentile alike, baptized into Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:15–29). In Romans, Paul interprets God’s promise to make Abraham a father of many nations in the sense that they reproduce his faith. The church at Rome undoubtedly had representatives from many nations at that center of the Roman Empire. To them the apostle writes, “the promise … [is] guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring—not only to those who are of the law but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all. As it is written: ‘I have made you a father of many nations’ ” (Rom. 4:16–17).’ (Waltke and Fredricks)

‘in that letter Paul also teaches that God is not yet finished with Abraham’s physical progeny. God always retains a remnant among them who also reproduce Abraham’s faith.’ (Waltke and Fredricks)

Rev. 7:9 echoes this promise to Abram, when it ‘envisions “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, and people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb,” praising God.’

“I will bless you” – The idea of God’s ‘blessing’ is central to the present passage and, indeed to Genesis as a whole.  Wenham comments that to be ‘blessed’ is equivalent to be ‘successful’, but with the vital difference that the former is recognised as bestowed by God.  ‘God’s blessing is manifested most obviously in human prosperity and well-being; long life, wealth, peace, good harvests, and children are the items that figure most frequently in lists of blessing such as 24:35–36; Lev 26:4–13; Deut 28:3–15. What modern secular man calls “luck” or “success” the OT calls “blessing,” for it insists that God alone is the source of all good fortune. Indeed, the presence of God walking among his people is the highest of his blessings (Lev 26:11–12). Material blessings are in themselves tangible expressions of divine benevolence. Blessing not only connects the patriarchal narratives with each other (cf. 24:1; 26:3; 35:9; 39:5), it also links them with the primeval history (cf. 1:28; 5:2; 9:1). The promises of blessing to the patriarchs are thus a reassertion of God’s original intentions for man.’

‘A “nation” is a political unit with a common land, language, and government, whereas “people” primarily draws attention to the consanguinity of the group. A large population, a large territory, and a spiritual character make a nation great (cf. 12:7; 13:14–17, etc.; Deut 4:7–8). Thus this very first word to Abram encapsulates the full range of divine promises subsequently made to him.’ (Wenham, Hebrew and references omitted)

12:3 I will bless those who bless you,
but the one who treats you lightly I must curse,
and all the families of the earth will bless one another by your name.”

Calvin stresses the covenant nature of these promises: Abraham’s friends will be God’s friends, and Abraham’s enemies will be enemies will be Abraham’s enemies.  Matthews (NAC) suggests that we see this working out in the later events of the patriarchs: ‘Pharaoh and Abimelech suffer because of Abram and Sarai (Gen 12:17; 20:17–18); Laban learns to temper his anger against son-in-law Jacob (Gen 31:29); and both Potiphar and Pharaoh benefit from the Lord’s blessing on Joseph (Gen 39:2–6; 47:5–15).’

“Those…whoever” – The move from plural to singular has been taken by some (e.g. Trapp) to suggest a difference in number; that those who curses Abraham would be the exception.  But Matthews says that the variation is for poetic effect only: the two expressions are equivalent.

“I will bless those who bless you” – ‘The promise does not pertain today to unbelieving, ethnic “Israel” (see Rom. 9:6–8; Gal. 6:15) but to Jesus Christ and his church (see Gen 12:7; 13:16 and notes; Gal. 3:16, 26–29; 6:16).’ (Waltke and Fredricks)

‘See here (as in a mirror) the wonderful love of God to his children: so dear they are unto him, that he cannot but love all that love them, and bless those that bless them. They have a powerful speech in Spain, – He that wipes the child’s nose kisseth the mother’s cheek. Surely, as natural parents take the kindnesses and unkindnesses showed to their children as done to themselves, so doth God.’ (Trapp)

'I will bless those who bless you'

Genesis 12:3 records a great promise made by the Lord to Abraham – “I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse”.

Some interpreters argue that this promise to Abraham can be applied to modern Gentile attitudes towards the secular state of Israel.

C.I. Scofield says of this promise: ‘Wonderfully fulfilled in the history of the dispersion. It has invariably fared ill with the people who have persecuted the Jew – well with those who have protected him. The future will still more remarkably prove this principle.’

The New Scofield Study Bible puts it even more strongly: This was literally fulfilled in the history of Israel’s persecutions.  It has invariably fared ill with the people who have persecuted the Jew – well with those who have protected him.  For a nation to commit the sin of anti-Semitism brings inevitable judgment.  The future will still more remarkably prove this principle.’

The International Christian Embassy Jerusalem declared in 1996: ‘The Lord in his zealous love for Israel and the Jewish People blesses and curses peoples and judges nations based upon their treatment of the Chosen People of Israel.’  Referring to Gen 12:3, ICEJ says: This promise was given to the Hebrew Patriarchs Abraham and Jacob – or Israel.  So whoever blesses Israel will be blessed.  But how can you bless Israel?  The answer is eary: prayer; finances; come to Israel as a volunteer.’

Allan MacRae says: ‘The fate of the nations that have injured Israel is a terrible warning that God never goes back on his promises. From Haman to Hitler, history shows how dangerous it is to hate his chosen people.’

Hagee says: ‘The man or nation that lifts a voice or hand against Israel invites the wrath of God.’  And again: ‘History has proven beyond reasonable doubt that the nations that have blessed the Jewish people have had the blessing of G-d; the nations that have cursed the Jewish people have experienced the curse of G-d.’

Basilea Schlink says: Anyone who disputes Israel’s right to the land of Canaan is actually opposing God and his holy covenant with the Patriarchs. He is striving against sacred, inviolable words and promises of God, which he has sworn to keep.’

Sizer disputes this (mainly dispensationalist) interpretation. He says that the context does not suggest that this promise applies to future generations, nor that it applies to entire nations ‘blessing’ the Hebrew nation.

It seems to me that the promise does look beyond Abraham, as is made clear in what immediately follows (“all peoples on earth will be blessed through you”).  But I think Sizer is correct when he says that the promise cannot be applied indisciminately the contemporary secular state of Israel. In Gal 3:14-16,24-25, Christ is said to be ‘the seed of Abraham’, and the promise of blessing is offered to Gentiles not on the basis of how well they treat the Jews but on their response to Jesus Christ.

I think we may turn to Mt 25:40,45 for a close NT parallel. Here, the same idea is applied to Christ and his disciples. The Lord so identifies with his chosen ones, that any attitude or action taken for them or against them he takes as taken for or against himself.

(See Sizer, Christian Zionism: Road-map to Armageddon? p147f.)

“All peoples on earth will be blessed through you” – Quoted in Acts 3:25 and Gal 3:8.

Horizon 3

‘What did God mean when he said, “… in you all the families of the earth will be blessed”? Well, Abram couldn’t have understood this fully. But as the rest of the Old Testament unfolds we begin to understand that, through the Jews—Abram’s family—God was going to send a Savior, whose atoning blood would “sprinkle many nations” (Isa. 52:15). And when we turn over to the New Testament, we find that it is through Jesus—the descendant of Abram—that people from “every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues” (Rev. 7:9) will be redeemed and made God’s very own.’ (Strassner, Opening Up Genesis)

‘The LORD’s plan of redemption goes far beyond the land of Canaan. The LORD is still interested in blessing “all the families of the earth.” The LORD’s design is to spread his kingdom to all nations. Canaan is but a first step. Like the allied invasion of Normandy in 1944 was but a first step in liberating all of Europe (D-day to V-day), so Israel’s theocracy in Canaan was but a first step in liberating the entire world by reclaiming all nations for the kingdom of God.’ (Greidanus)

‘God’s promise to Abraham that in him all the families of the earth would be blessed … must be seen in the proper context. It is preceded by the words: “I will bless them that bless you and curse them that curse you.” [In the book of Joshua], Canaan, by its frantic preparations for war against Israel, is clearly shown to belong to those who “cursed” Abraham and his offspring … Both lines, Israel as a blessing for all the nations and the enemy relationship between Israel and the nations, ought to be recognised as equally valid. The one cannot be subordinated to the other without doing justice to the full message of the Bible.’ (Woudstra, The Book of Joshua, 38)

The purpose of the covenant, in the Hebrew Bible and some subsequent writings, was never simply that the creator wanted to have Israel as a special people, irrespective of the fate of the rest of the world. The purpose of the covenant was that, through this means, the creator would address and save his entire world. The call of Abraham was designed to undo the sin of Adam. (N. T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said)

Matthews (NAC) shows how this promises, presented in seed-form at first, grows and develops throughout the scriptural revelation: ‘The revelation at Sinai to Moses repeats the promises and applies them to Israel (Exod 3:6–9, 14–17; 6:2–8) as a priestly “nation” (Exod 19:6). For the psalmists, blessing upon restored Israel brings salvation to the nations (Pss 67; 98). In particular the Davidic offspring is the means whereby the Lord will enrich the nations (e.g., Ps 72:17; Isa 11:10–12; 55:3–5; Amos 9:11–12). The apostles also take up the promises and identify Jesus Christ as the Savior who obtains the blessing for those who believe. Peter appropriates the promise of universal blessing as found in Gen 22:18 and Gen 26:4 (alluding to 12:3), which read “through your offspring,” referring to Abraham’s descendants as the resource of blessing. Peter urges his fellow Jews to repent so that they will receive the fulfillment of the ancient promise (Acts 3:25–26). Paul also views the promise of blessing fulfilled in Jesus Christ, but he applies it to the Gentiles (Gal 3:28). He conflates the Greek of 12:3 and Gen 26:4, where in the latter verse the LXX reads “all the nations” (panta ta ethnē), suiting the apostle’s application to the Gentiles. Peter too moderated Gen 22:18, LXX (26:4, LXX) for his Jewish audience by translating “all [the] peoples” (pasai ai patriai; Acts 3:25). The apostles considered the church to be the recipients of the promises made to Abram, the Jew first and then the Gentile (Rom 1:16; 2:9–10); the Lord announced by Gal 12:3 the “gospel” to the awaiting world of peoples (Gal 3:28).’

As Wenham remarks, this passage not only looks forward to the establishing of a nation, but also backward, ‘announcing the divine intervention that will bring blessing to all the families of the world, whose history hitherto has been overshadowed by divine judgments from Eden to the flood to Babel.’

God's mission...and ours?
Some see in this promise to Abraham a version of the Great Commission.  God’s mission, they claim, is our mission.

Wiersbe understands this text to mean that:

‘God blesses us that we might be a blessing to others, and his great concern is that the whole world might be blessed. The missionary mandate of the church does not begin with John 3:16 or Matthew 28:18–20. It begins with God’s covenant with Abraham. We are blessed that we might be a blessing.’ (Wiersbe)

According to Christopher Wright:

‘it would be entirely appropriate, and no bad thing, if we took this text as “the Great Commission”. . . .There could be worse ways of summing up what mission is supposed to be all about than “Go . . . and be a blessing…The Abrahamic covenant is a moral agenda for God’s people as well as a mission statement by God.’ (Quoted by DeYoung and Gilbert. What Is the Mission of the Church?)

DeYoung and Gilbert agree that, on first sight, the text seems to support such a reading.  There are two imperative verbs – ‘go’ in v1 and ‘be a blessing’ in v2.  But, as even Wright agrees,

‘it is a feature of Hebrew (as indeed it is in English) that when two imperatives occur together the second imperative may sometimes express either the expected result or the intended purpose of carrying out the first imperative.’ (Quoted by DeYoung and Gilbert)

The second imperative may be understood, not as a command, then, but as a result clause.  English translations uniformly represent this grammatical principle by rendering the end of v2, ‘…so that you may be a blessing’ or similar.  (For another example of the same grammatical construction, see Gen 42:18).

Even if this grammatical argument does not persuade, it is clear enough from the patriarchal narrative that God, rather than Abraham, who is the key figure in blessing the nations.  And there is no evidence that Abraham ever understood his call as serving the foreign nations by teaching them to read and to grow crops.

So, then (write DeYoung and Gilbert):

‘This doesn’t in any way mean it’s wrong for Christians to bless others, but it does mean we should not take Genesis 12: 1–3 as a moral agenda or as another Great Commission. The call of Abram is not about a community blessing program. It’s about God’s unilateral promise to bless fumbling Abraham and bless the nations through faith in the promised Seed that will come from his family tree. Even when the blessing is connected to obedience, it is not the obedience of missional engagement but Abraham’s obedience in leaving his land, in circumcising his offspring (Gen. 17:10–14), and in being willing to sacrifice his son (Gen. 22: 16– 18). The emphasis in Genesis is on the chosen family as recipients of God’s blessing, not as the immediate purveyors of it.’

This understanding is clinched by the teaching of the New Testament.  There, the call of Abraham is not understood as a missional charge.  Rather,

‘The Abrahamic blessing comes to those who trust in Abraham’s Offspring. This is Paul’s understanding in Galatians 3:9 when, after quoting Genesis 12:3 (“ In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed”), he concludes, “So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.” If there are missiological implications from Genesis, their emphasis is not “go and bless everyone” but rather “go and call the nations to put their faith in Christ.”’

12:4 So Abram left, just as the LORD had told him to do, and Lot went with him. (Now Abram was 75 years old when he departed from Haran.) 12:5 And Abram took his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, and all the possessions they had accumulated and the people they had acquired in Haran, and they left for the land of Canaan. They entered the land of Canaan.

So Abram left, just as the Lord had told him to do – Even though (a) he only had the bare promise to go on; (b) he, and his descendants, would experience many setbacks; (c) they would fail in many ways; (d) they could not have imagined how long it would take for the promise to be fulfilled.

75 years old – We are told virtually nothing about Abraham’s life during those first 75 years.

All the possession they had accumulated and the people they had acquired in Haran – We gather from this that Abram had spent some considerable time in Haran, and this places a question mark over the thoroughness of his obedience to God’s call.

They entered the land of Canaan – Having travelled, along with sheep and goats, some 400 miles.

‘Ten years beyond modern retirement, Abraham begins his new venture. The text blanks the reason for the decreasing life span after the Flood, declining from Arphaxad (438 years, Gen 11:13) to Abraham (175 years, Gen 25:7) to Jacob (147 years, Gen 47:28) to Joseph (110 years, Gen 50:22). By the time of Moses seventy or eighty years is normal (Ps. 90:10).’ (Waltke and Fredricks)

A central text

According to John Stott ‘it is no exaggeration to say that Gen 12:1-4 is the most unifying text of the whole Bible.  for God’s saving purpose is encapsulated in it, namely to bless the whole world through Christ, who was Abraham’s seed.  The rest of the Bible is an unfolding of it, and subsequent history has been a fulfilment of it.  For God first prepared Israel for Christ’s coming, and then through his coming has been blessing the world ever since.  We ourselves would not be followers of Jesus today if it were not for this text: we are beneficiaries of the promise God made to Abraham about four thousand years ago, Gal 3:8,29; Rom 4:16f.’ (The Contemporary Christian, 326f)

The life of faith

‘The life of Abraham is an example for all Christians who want to walk by faith. Abraham was saved by faith (Gen. 15:6; Rom. 4:1–5; Gal. 3:6–14) and lived by faith (Heb. 11:8–19), and his obedience was the evidence of his faith (James 2:14–26). Abraham obeyed when he did not know where (Heb. 11:8–10), how (vv. 11–12), when (vv. 13–16), or why (vv. 17–19); and so should we.’ (Wiersbe)

12:6 Abram traveled through the land as far as the oak tree of Moreh at Shechem. (At that time the Canaanites were in the land.) 12:7 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.

Abram travelled through the land – He travels through the land from north to south, in total about 75 miles.

The oak tree – ‘This is probably an oak tree whose greater height makes it a preferred place of worship (see Gen 13:18; 14:13; 18:1; 21:33). Pagans worshiped fertility deities under such trees. With its lofty top in the heavens, it could be considered an axis between heaven and earth and a place for revelation. Abraham’s altar at this location may indicate his hope in God’s promise of offspring and his hope that God will again speak to him. Although Abraham still worships according to the religious customs of his time, the content of his worship differs significantly. Abraham’s faithful worship, longing for a heavenly city (Heb. 11:10), is dedicated to the one true God and will yet endure through long years of infertility.’ (Waltke and Fredricks)

(At that time the Canaanites were in the land) – ‘A generic term for the pre-Israelite inhabitants.’  A comment by a later editor.  Later, indeed, than Moses, because the Canaanites were still in the land in his day. (Waltke and Fredricks)

Enns, eager to emphasize the human (rather than the divine) aspects of Scripture, comments sarcastically: ‘In other words, “For now, but one day won’t be.” A small reminder of what is in store for the original occupants of Canaan.’ (The Bible Tells Me So)

It is true, of course, that the presence of the Canaanites in the land would prevent Abraham from settling there.  And, of course, Sarah’s barrenness would also prove an apparently huge obstacle.

The Lord appeared to Abram – Presumably, a theophany.  According to Waltke and Fredricks, the Lord appears ‘three times to Abraham (Gen 17:1; 18:1), twice to Isaac (Gen 26:2, 24), and once to Jacob (Gen 35:9).’

‘The pattern of Yahweh appearing visibly begins with Adam and continues with Enoch and Noah (see 6:9). Others to whom God appears, or who enter the divine presence as validation of their divinely ordained commission, include Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Joshua, Samuel, Solomon, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Paul, and the apostles.’ (Faithlife Study Bible)

“To your descendants I will give this land” – Cf. Gen 13:14–15, 17; 15:7, 13, 16, 18; 17:8; 26:2–3.  Note again that Sarah was barren.  See Rom 4:18-21.

“I will give” indicates that although God-given ownership has already been achieved, actual possession lies in the future.

12:8 Then he moved from there to the hill country east of Bethel and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east. There he built an altar to the LORD and worshiped the LORD. 12:9 Abram continually journeyed by stages down to the Negev.

Pitched his tent – Since Abram would have pitched his tent wherever he went, presumably this indicates a more protracted settled near Bethel.

Worshiped the Lord – Not merely offered prayer, but established a more formal and regular worship (so Wenham).

He built an altar – not using a pre-existing Canaanite one.  In addition to being an expression of gratitude, this (along with the building of other altars) is an act of consecration of the land to the Lord.

‘Abram is planting the LORD’s flag at strategic locations in the Promised Land, thereby proclaiming that this is a land where the LORD will be worshiped. Abram is reclaiming the land for the kingdom of God.’ (Greidanus)

‘The brief itinerary of Abram described in vv 5–9 takes him from the northern to the southern border of the land. He not only sees what has been promised to him; he walks through it, and he lives and worships in it. Symbolically he has taken possession of it.’ (Wenham)

‘The call of God to Abraham is the sneak preview for the rest of the Bible. It is a story of God bringing salvation to all tribes and nations through this holy nation, administered at first by the Mosaic covenant and then by the Lord Jesus Christ through the new covenant. The elements of Abraham’s call are reaffirmed to Abraham (12:7; 15:5–21; 17:4–8; 18:18–19; 22:17–18), to Isaac (26:24), to Jacob (28:13–15; 35:11–12; 46:3), to Judah (49:8–12), to Moses (Ex. 3:6–8; Deut. 34:4), and to the ten tribes of Israel (Deut. 33). They are reaffirmed by Joseph (Gen. 50:24), by Peter to the Jews (Acts 3:25), and by Paul to the Gentiles (Gal. 3:8).’ (Waltke and Fredricks)

‘The life of faith entails prompt obedience to God’s word in a pilgrimage based on a revealed and perceived vision (Deut. 26:5; Ps. 105:12–15). Faith demands a ruthless abandonment of the past. Abraham has to leave the consolation of familiarity and tradition far behind. He has to jettison his family, his homeland, and the old ways of worship. But this abandonment leads to his fulfillment. Brueggemann asserts that “departure from securities is the only way out of barrenness.”28 The pilgrim’s citizenship is in heaven, and he or she looks for a city whose architect and builder is God (Phil. 3:20; Heb. 11:9–10, 13–16).’ (Waltke and Fredricks)

‘The modern Christian’s experience is not unlike Abraham’s. Abraham hears God speak a call and promise. The believer today opens Scripture and hears God’s word. Christians are people of the ear, not of the eye. God does not appear to be seen but speaks to be heard. God is always present in words that bind. The community of faith is built around these speech acts.’ (Waltke and Fredricks)

‘The promise of offspring finds singular and collective fulfillment. The singular Offspring through whom the world is blessed is Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:16). The collective offspring finds partial fulfillment in old Israel (see Num. 23:10; 1 Kings 4:20; 2 Chron. 1:9; Acts 3:25) and consummation in the New Israel, composed of Jews and Gentiles (see Gen. 12:3 and note; Rom. 4:16–18; Gal. 3:29; Rev. 7:9). The one people of God consists of two choirs: Old Testament saints sang in anticipation of Christ’s sufferings and glory (Luke 24:45–46; John 5:46; 8:56; 1 Cor. 15:4; 1 Peter 1:10–12; 2 Peter 1:21), and New Testament saints sing in remembrance of his life, death, resurrection, and ascension, and in celebration of his anticipated second coming in glory. This promise regarding the covenant people of God must not be confused with Abraham’s offspring outside of faith in Jesus Christ (see Gen. 16:10).’ (Waltke and Fredricks)

The tent and the altar

‘Wherever Abraham went in the land of Canaan, he was marked by his tent and his altar (Gen. 12:7–8; 13:3–4, 18). The tent marked him as a “stranger and pilgrim” who did not belong to this world (Heb. 11:9–16; 1 Peter 2:11), and the altar marked him as a citizen of heaven who worshiped the true and living God. He gave witness to all that he was separated from this world (the tent) and devoted to the Lord (the altar). Whenever Abraham abandoned his tent and his altar, he got into trouble.’

Avoid mere character-imitation

Greidanus warns against superficial ‘character-imitation’ preaching from such texts as this.  ‘In their justified concern to preach a relevant message, preachers can easily turn this biblical narrative into a moral tale: God’s call to Abram becomes God’s call to everyone, and they, like Abram, must respond with unquestioning obedience. In such sermons preachers tend to apply God’s unique call of Abram directly to everyone in the congregation, thus committing the error of generalizing/universalizing. But since they realize that people cannot literally imitate Abram by actually leaving their country and moving to Canaan, they spiritualize the text: people must leave their “country,” that is, their old way of life, and go to the new life God will show them. This message is not unbiblical, but it is not the message of this particular text. It fails to ask first what was the message the narrator intended to convey to Israel.’

Ways to preach Christ from Genesis 12:1-9

Greidanus suggests that the preacher can preach either from vv1-3, or from the vv1-9.  In the former case, the theme is: “The LORD promises to bless Abram so richly that in him all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”  If preaching from the whole narrative, the theme is “The LORD gives Abram/Israel the land of the Canaanites in order to reclaim it for the kingdom of God.”  Taking this latter focus, Greidanus suggests the following approaches:-

Redemptive-historical.  God had created the earth as his kingdom where he would be served and worshiped.  But human rebellion led to expulsion from the garden.  Further rebellion led to still greater scattering (geographical, moral, and spiritual).  God called Abram to leave his own home and to settle in a land that would become the ‘first instalment’ in the reclaiming of the world for God’s kingdom.  When Abraham’s descendants failed in their vocation to manifest God’s kingdom, they were banished from the land.  God made a new start by sending his Son, Jesus Christ, who announced that the kingdom of God was near (Mk 1:15).  After his death and resurrection, he commissioned his disciples to go and make disciples of all nations (Mt 28:19), and the kingdom began to spread throughout the world.  When Jesus returns, the kingdom will be perfected on earth; Paradise will be restored (Rev 2:7; 21:3).

Promise-fulfilment.  The promise of the land was fulfilled, first with the purchase of a burial-plot for Sarah (Gen 23:18-20), then with the conquest of the land under Joshua (Josh 21:43-45), and finally with the established of the ‘new heavens and the new earth’ (2 Pet 3:13).

The Lord’s promise to make of Abram ‘a great nation’ finds its fulfilment, first in the birth of Isaac, then Jacob, then the sons and seventy Israelites going down into Egypt, next the further expansion and settling of the nation in the Promised Land, reaching its height under the reigns of David and Solomon.  In the NT, the promise receives further fulfilment as the gospel is taken to all nations, and the unity of all believers – Jews and Gentiles – in Christ (Gal 3:26-29).  Finally, people will bring into the new Jerusalem ‘the glory and honour of the nations’ (Rev 21:24-26).

Then there is the promise that in Abram ‘all the families of the earth will be blessed.’  People came to Joseph from many countries in order to obtain food (Gen 41:57).  The Lord desired that Israel be a witness to the nations (e.g. Jonah).  Then Jesus sends his disciples to ‘all nations’ with the gospel (Mt 28:19).  So pregnant is this promise to Abram that Paul can refer to it as the ‘gospel’ declared beforehand (Gal 3:8, 14).

Typology.  ‘As seed of the woman reclaiming the land for the LORD, Abram foreshadows Jesus Christ, the Seed of the woman, who restores true worship of God and who sends out his disciples to make disciples of all nations, thus reclaiming the whole world for the LORD. Moreover, as God made Abram’s name great (12:2), so God “highly exalted” Jesus “and gave him the name that is above every name” (Phil 2:9).’

Analogy.  Just as the Lord called Abram to reclaim Canaan for his kingdom, so Christ calls his followers to reclaim all nations for the gospel, Mt 28:19; Acts 1:8.

Longitudinal themes.  God is worshiped first in the garden of Eden (Gen 2), and then in the reclaimed land of Canaan (Gen 12).  Jesus spoke of the time when God would be worshiped not in any particular place, but ‘in spirit and in truth’ (Jn 4:21-23; cf. Rev 21:26).

New Testament References.  In addition to those already cited, see Mt 1:1; 24:14; Rom 4:13.

Contrast.  We can contrast the limited reach of the promise of the land to Abram and Israel with the worldwide scope of the gospel (Mt 28:18; Acts 1:8).

The Promised Blessing Jeopardized, 10-20

12:10 There was a famine in the land, so Abram went down to Egypt to stay for a while because the famine was severe. 12:11 As he approached Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, “Look, I know that you are a beautiful woman. 12:12 When the Egyptians see you they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me but will keep you alive. 12:13 So tell them you are my sister so that it may go well for me because of you and my life will be spared on account of you.”
12:14 When Abram entered Egypt, the Egyptians saw that the woman was very beautiful. 12:15 When Pharaoh’s officials saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh. So Abram’s wife was taken into the household of Pharaoh, 12:16 and he did treat Abram well on account of her. Abram received sheep and cattle, male donkeys, male servants, female servants, female donkeys, and camels.

Camels – This is the first of 28 mentions of camels in the Pentateuch.  Critics have suggested that this is anachronistic, on the ground that camels were not domesticated in Palestine until the end of the 2nd millenium BC (nearly 1,000 years after the date of the call of Abraham).  But there is evidence for the domestication of both the dromedary and the Bactrian camels in the wider geographical region by 2,500 BC, and in Palestine not much later than that.  It is likely that the domestication of the camel had a direct influence of the development of the nomadic lifestyle, which is just such a lifestyle as is described for Abraham.  ‘The Genesis story of Abraham leaving the urban center of Ur and becoming a gēr (“stranger, traveler, man without an established residence,” Gen 15:13; 23:4) living in a tent does coincide with this function.’ (Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch, art. ‘Historical Criticism).  See also this short piece by Professor Alan Millard.

12:17 But the LORD struck Pharaoh and his household with severe diseases because of Sarai, Abram’s wife. 12:18 So Pharaoh summoned Abram and said, “What is this you have done to me? Why didn’t you tell me that she was your wife? 12:19 Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her to be my wife? Here is your wife! Take her and go!” 12:20 Pharaoh gave his men orders about Abram, and so they expelled him, along with his wife and all his possessions.

‘A noteworthy subtheme in the narrative is the contrast of Abram’s plan with Yahweh’s plan, a motif found prominently in the Joseph story (Gen 45:5–8; 50:20) and in wisdom literature (Prov. 16:9; 19:21).’ (Harper’s Bible Commentary)