YEAR A: LENT 2
March 20, 2010
This text is a turning point in the biblical story in general and the Genesis story in particular. It encompasses both the universal purpose of God that all peoples on earth may be blessed (Genesis 1-11), and the particular purpose of God in calling Abram and his descendants into a special relationship. From this point on the tension between the inclusive and the exclusive will be present in the text.
In the context of Genesis, this text begins the second of four major sections. The primeval history is followed by the story of Abram (Genesis 12-25), the story of Jacob (Genesis 27-36) and that of Joseph (Genesis 37-50), three of the great patriarchal figures in Israel. The story of Isaac (Genesis 24-27) is brief and bridges the larger taels of Abram and Jacob. The stories of this extended family constitute part of ‘the answer’ to the problems evident in the larger story of all humankind in Genesis 1-11.
We should bear in mind that the development of the traditions in Genesis was not a simple matter of writing up the events and passing them on unchanged. In fact it seems that much of the present shape of the story did not come into being until around the time of the Babylonian exile in the sixth century or even later. That is to say, that the Genesis story embodies theological understandings and reflection from times a thousand years or more after the events that it describes, just as the Gospels embody Christian conceptions developed after the death of Jesus.
As we begin to read Genesis 12 there are some details of the story in Genesis 1-11 that we should not forget. First, the families of the earth have been progressively moving eastward (Gen. 3:24; 4:16; 11:2). Now from Gen. 11:31 the main characters start to move back west, toward the land of Canaan, which will become the promised land. Secondly, we have been told in Gen.11:30 that ‘Sarai was barren and did not have a son.’ The import of this piece of information only comes clear when the promise of descendants is given to Abram. The blessing which was pronounced by God to all creatures in Gen. 1:22 and 28 is denied to this family. This family, or at least Abram’s line in the family, is one with least hope among all families in ancient thought, they are childless and so have no future prospect of the family name continuing. Here is a family whose own bodies deny them a future, and threaten further alienation in an alienated world.
It is in this context that Yahweh, Abram’s god, speaks – starkly, and directly. Yahweh does not speak to anyone but to this family without a future. At the point of human hopelessness, where humanity is stripped of its own power to create a new beginning and participate in God’s blessing, the word of Yahweh which brings the promise of life and a future, in spite of a barren situation, comes into focus. The God who calls Abram in this passage is one who communicates with him.
In Yahweh’s speech (vv. 1-3) three things are promised Abram.
i) Abram will become a great nation or people. This promise directly cuts across the point of human hopelessness for this family. This promise picks up the yearnings of this family – security, prosperity, and power. But these things will not be the result of human achievement. Rather they are the stuff of divine promise.A fourth promise is made a little later in the chapter, beyond today’s reading. When Abram reaches the land of Canaan and passes through it (Gen. 12:6) Yahweh makes another promise, that of a land for this people. This promise is particularly significant. It will never be fulfilled in Genesis (indeed not until the books of Joshua and Judges). It will for the characters of Genesis always be a promise that will go beyond the lives of many of them. They will dwell in the land but will always be aliens or itinerant dwellers. They will own only one small plot by the end of the book, the field of Machpelah, where they will bury their dead (see Genesis 23).
ii) Abram will be blessed and become a source of blessing for all the families of the earth. This is not quite the same as the blessing in Genesis 1-11 where it was clearly a matter of fertility and procreation. For most of the Abram story the blessing granted Abram and Sarai is in terms of well-being, success and prosperity. Just how the nations will either ‘be blessed’ or ‘consider themselves blessed’, depending on the translation of the verb in v.3b, is not clear and, apart from the account of the well-being of Egypt under Joseph’s care (Gen. 41:53-57), remains so. Nevertheless, it should be noted that in general relations between the family line of Abram and other nations and peoples around about is positive throughout Genesis.
iii) Abram will have a great name. This recalls Gen. 11:4 where the people of Babel say, ‘Let us make for ourselves a name ...’. The promise to Abram concerns what the people tried to do for themselves in that recent story. This promise to Abram does not deny human hopes but again sets the effective working out of hopes in a certain context. It is Yahweh's activity and word which embodies hope for humanity. Their hope is not found in self achievement. The promise of a great name also comes immediately after chapters in which all the nations of the world are named (Gen. 10:1-32). This seemingly hopeless family will take its place among the peoples of the world (cf. the genealogy developed in 11:10-26).
These promises will, however, come at a cost. In order for them to become a reality Abram must go from his land, his kindred and his father’s house. The parallelism in Gen. 12:1 details step by step the cost of these promises – land, kindred and family. (A similar pattern appears in Gen. 22:2 where Abram is called to relinquish his only son, Isaac.) Moreover, Abram is directed to a ‘land (Yahweh) will show you’. There is little security in this promise, only unknowns. There is no certainty on Abram’s part. He is called to trust the one who calls him through his word from security to insecurity, from the familiar to the foreign. There is a sharp contrast with the story of Babel (Gen. 11:1-9) at this point. The people of Babel sought security through unity. Dispersion for them was insecurity. In the end Yahweh dispersed them, not so much as punishment as in achieving what Yahweh sought to achieve. Now Abram is called forth from his home, is ‘dispersed’ if you like, and his only security is the divine word. Abram, Sarai and their entourage are called in Gen.12:1-3 to be the true inheritors of Yahweh’s will for creation – people of faith, depending only on the one who created them and calls them.
Once Abram reaches Canaan he continues on his journey southward and in the following story (Gen. 12:10-20) he ends up in Egypt. Abram’s journey is one that Israel as a whole will follow as we move into the book of Exodus. Abram’s journey is the story of Israel, his descendants, the ones promised. In Christian faith Abram’s journey also becomes a model of faith (see Heb. 11:8-12), picking up on the imperative to go, the uncertainty of the journey, and the fact that Yahweh is only encountered as the journey proceeds into the unknown. There are also several negative aspects to Abram’s story that relate to faith and its journey. The fact that the Canaanites are already settled in the very land promised by Yahweh to Abram (Gen. 12:7) suggests two things. First, that Yahweh’s promise to Abram will not be fulfilled in some simplistic way. Others already live in the land, what then will be the implication of that for Abram? What compromise, adjustment, negotiation or even threat will need to be faced in the fulfilling of Yahweh’s promise? As opposed to the outlook of Deuteronomy (Deut. 7:1-2) Genesis tells a story of cohabitation, compromise and negotiation with others regarding the land (e.g. Gen. 21:25-34). Secondly, the fulfilment of Yahweh’s promise will not be quick. By the end of Genesis, as mentioned already, Abram only owns one small plot of land, and his descendants, although growing in number are not yet ‘like the stars in the sky’ (cf. Gen. 15:5). The journey of faith, being a ‘pilgrim people’ as the Uniting Church’s Basis of Union puts it, is one in which, while the outcomes are clear, the means to them or when they will be realised are certainly not.
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