Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 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. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. (12:1-4)
There are many issues that we could pick up on and discuss in Genesis 11:27-12:9. The journey began with his father and brother when they left Ur of the Chaldean’s and traveled up to Haran or Harran. Both Tremper Longman III (Genesis in the Story of God Bible Commentary), and Bill Arnold (Genesis (New Cambridge Bible Commentary)) agree that the Ur refereed to in the text is the well known city of Babylon although “of the Chaldeans” is an anachronism added to allow the reader to identify the city. The Chaldeans were not in Ur until well after the time of Abraham and even the time of Moses. John Walton (The NIV Application Commentary Genesis), on the other hand, argues that Ur may be some other city up near Harran, otherwise he finds it hard to understand why they’d stop in Harran as it is off the direct route. Longman suggests that they may have stopped in Harran because this was their ancestral homeland. This seems a reasonable suggestion. The exact path, however, isn’t really the point of the story. (The image outlines an “as the crow flies” path on a NASA image of the area.)
Although it is important not to drive a wedge between Genesis 1-11 and Genesis 12 and following, it is also clear that the story takes a dramatic turn. Genesis 1-11 dealt with deep history. The authors and editors may well have told this deep history in a manner that revealed God’s mission in the world but used the stories current among the people. Whatever we think of the literary construction of Genesis 1-11, Chapter 12 takes us in a new direction. It is still an ancient book written in the conventions of the time to an original audience removed from us, but it is telling the history of the call of Israel. This is ancient history, but it isn’t deep history. There are connections with 1-11, but there is also a clear change in tone and focus.
There are two key points worth discussion in the call of Abram and his initial journey into Canaan.
First, God has a promise for Abram. YHWH will bless him and make him a great nation. Note that all that Abram must do is “go,” God will do all the rest. Bill Arnold comments:
The syntax of the six clauses in 12:2-3 may well express purpose following the imperative of 12:1: “Go … so that I may make of you a great nation, so that I may bless you and make your name great, and so that you may be a blessing.” (p. 131)
The final phrase “and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” has given rise to much comment. The NRSV translation here is traditional, but it is also possible to translate this “in you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves.” The latter reading would imply that Abram’s name becomes an invocation for blessing rather than Israel becoming a blessing for the world. Longman, Walton, and Arnold all prefer the traditional reading. Walter Moberly (The Theology of the Book of Genesis), on the other hand, argues for the latter reflexive reading with the blessings here limited to Abram. In this speech God is giving hope to Abram. Moberly argues that it seems out of place to throw in a promise to be a blessing to all the nations of the earth. How would this give Abram encouragement? However, the traditional translation has support in the Septuagint and in Jewish interpretation. It is a truly ancient reading. Moberly concludes:
Interestingly, however, a concern to read Abraham’s call by God as being for the sake of the nations is not simply a peculiarity of Christian Old Testament interpretation, courtesy of Paul, from which Jews simply disengage. A construal of Abraham as mediator of divine blessing to the nations is in fact also attested in Jewish interpretation down the ages, as is Abraham as a model.(pp. 159-160)
For even if Judaism has not characteristically understood itself in the kind of missionary terms that are intrinsic to Christianity, it has nonetheless regularly wanted to affirm that God’s call of Israel not only is an end in itself that needs no further justification than the love of a parent for a child, but also is of potential moral and spiritual benefit to other nations. (p. 161)
The story of the Old Testament is a story of the mission of God, and this mission involves the entire world, not only Israel. Given the broad scope of Genesis 1-11 and the call of Abram out of the nations of the earth scattered in Genesis 10-11, it seems quite reasonable that the intent of 12:3 is not limited to Abram alone. It is intentionally connected to all the nations of the earth, who will be blessed through Abram.
Second, Abram obeyed. He left his father and his brother Nahor in Harran and headed off to Canaan with his wife, his nephew, and his household (likely a significant group of people). Arnold comments:
“So Abram went” is one of the most remarkable statements of the Bible (12:4). We might expect any manner of dialogue or debate between verses 3 and 4, or hesitation on Abram’s part motivated by confusion, self-doubt, or stubbornness. But this text isn’t interested in such things. Rather the simplicity of “so Abram went” portrays a picture of bold and radical dependence on God’s word, the diametric opposite of Adam’s and Eve’s rationalization (3:1-7), which makes Abram’s obedience a model of faith for the rest of the Bible. “Went” (wayyēlek) is an unadorned, almost nonchalant response, corresponding to the imperative of the same word in 12:1, “go” (lek). It is as though everything in the text has been stripped away in order to reveal just how perfectly Abram’s obedience matches Yahweh’s command. (p. 133)
Abram goes to Shechem and then to a place between Bethel and Ai (not too far away). At Shechem the Lord appears and promises the land to Abram’s descendants. At both places Abram builds an altar to YHWH. Arnold notes that “The patriarchs never use existing cult sites, but rather build new altars or reuse ones they themselves built previously.” (p. 134) Between Bethel and Ai he stayed for a time and built an altar to YHWH and invoked the name of YHWH. “Using the same phraseology as in Gen 4:26 for the institution of Yahweh worship among humanity generally, this invoking or “calling upon” the name of Yahweh is most likely a reference to formal, public worship.” (p. 135)
In faith Abram went and began to publicly worship the Lord.
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