YEAR A: PENTECOST 4
June 8, 2008
This is the first in a series of five readings from the
story of Abraham, Lot, Sarah and Hagar. The story of Abraham actually began
back in Gen. 11:27 with reference to his family line and the beginnings
of the movement of the family west from their homeland. In Genesis 12 we
encounter them in the world of pastoral nomads dwelling on the edges of
urban life. This is an unlikely start for one who will emerge as an icon
of faith, a partner in covenant with God, the one in whom the promises
of a people reside.
We have already been introduced once to this story earlier this year in Lent 2. More information and other perspectives on the story can be seen there.
Verses 1-3 are the product of centuries of theological
reflection upon Israel’s journey with Yahweh. In hindsight, the writer
we know as the Yahwist (J) imagines Yahweh speaking to Abram and issuing
a challenge to take up a new and unknown future. It is important to note
that Yahweh is the subject of the active verbs in these verses. All that
follows derives from Yahweh’s calling of Abraham. Prior to this passage
in the Genesis story, Yahweh or God had spoke to various characters, Eve,
the serpent, Cain, Noah, as well as three times to himself. Now God, under
the name Yahweh, is seen not only as a god who, in contrast to many other
ancient Near Eastern gods, communicates with his/her people not out of
his/her own need but for that people’s good. This God who communicates
and calls Abram is, as we have seen, the creator and sovereign over all
(Gen. 1:1-2:4a; cf. Trinity Sunday) and the
one passionately drawn to root out all corruption in his world as he brings
about life (Genesis 6-9; cf. Pentecost 3).
The call to Abram is a call out of what is familiar into something entirely unknown. Yahweh’s challenge to him is about leaving things with which he is accustomed behind and going to a place he has never seen. The command from Yahweh in Hebrew is ‘lek leka’, an emphatic form which we could translate as ‘get going!’ Three things are mentioned which Abram is to leave. Yahweh tells him ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house …’. The pronoun ‘your’ is repeated with each item mentioned driving home Abram’s past connection with them. Each item intensifies the separation require. The nouns progress from the broadest and most distant (‘country’) to the most intimate and near (‘father’s house’). By contrast, his destination is mentioned just once: ‘to the land that I will show you.’ We extend back out to the most distant item with reference to ‘land’ (//‘country’) and the pronoun ‘your’ is no longer attached to the noun. I is now a land that ‘I will show you’. Abram does not have any choice in this land nor at this point does he seem to have any stake. Yet this is the calling he receives. This journey into the unknown, which moves between relinquishment and the new, is often still an essential aspect of a move of faith.
For the Yahwist, a dominant theme in Yahweh’s challenge to Abram is ‘blessing’. This blessing is presented in vv. 2-3 in language that borders on poetic. The divine promise is expressed in v. 2 in three parts. The emphasis is first upon Yahweh as the source of promise (‘I will … 3 times) and finally on the purpose of God, that Abram will be a blessing to others. The expression in v. 3 develops this further bringing in the matter of opposition. Yahweh will bless those who bless Abram but curse those who curse him. The verb used to speak of Yahweh’s cursing is the same as that used in Gen. 8:21 after the flood when Yahweh promises never to curse the ground again. This suggests that those who curse Abram may be those who wish to see him overwhelmed by disaster. But in Gen. 12:3 the blessing comes first and last in the verse, surrounding the curse, suggesting the predominance of blessing over all. The ones to be blessed through Abram are now more clearly defined. They are identified as ‘all the families of the earth’, those whom God blessed in creation in Genesis 1 and later in Genesis 10. Through this one least likely, most alienated, landless and barren family, the blessing of Yahweh will somehow flow to all peoples. Thus, Gen. 12:2-3 is one of the most profound texts in all of Scripture, for, in simple, grounded words it expresses the whole purpose of God in creation. It presents the relationship between God’s universal agenda and his particular agent or chosen one.
Another text about Abram’s departure from Haran appears in Josh. 24:2-3 and includes a fact not found in Genesis, namely that beyond the Euphrates, Abraham with his father Terah and brother Nahor ‘served other gods’. This fact gave rise to many extra-biblical Jewish traditions about the way Abraham rejected worship of the moon (and sun) once he discovered God as the creator behind the celestial bodies. In these stories we are reminded that Abram’s response to Yahweh (Gen. 12:4) was not simply an unquestioning decision but one that had a history all its own.
As the story in Genesis 12 moves on we find that Abram obeys the call of Yahweh (v. 4). Mixed signals are present in the narrative. First, we are told that Abram himself is 75 years old. While that makes him a worthy patriarch, it does not suggest one who is about to father a great nation. Moreover he takes along Sarai his wife, whom we have already been told is barren (Gen. 11:30). Again the circumstances of this family give no confidence that Yahweh’s promise will be fulfilled in any easy, natural way. Finally Lot, Abram’s nephew, appears as a free agent who chooses to go along. He already has his own inheritance from the late Haran and has the status of brother kinsman to Abram (cf. 13:8ff). He is potentially an heir to the childless Abram but in literary terms poses a challenge to the promise of Yahweh because he is not Abram’s descendant. All is set for a struggle toward the fulfillment of the divine promise of Gen. 12:1-3.
Reference to the land of Canaan (Gen. 12:5) as their destination is not surprising after 11.31 but that earlier journey, which was not a response to the divine call, had been interrupted at Haran. The earlier reference to Canaan gives us as readers a hint at the destination but does not make the call to Abram any clearer or his choice any easier.
The remaining verses describe Abram’s staged traverse of the land from north to south. It symbolizes both possession of the whole of the land of Canaan as well as anticipating Abram’s journey to Egypt in the next section, vv. 10-20. It also anticipates the later journey to be made by Jacob as Abram’s descendants go down into Egypt where they will become captives. On Abram’s journey it appears that Lot also went again by choice (13:1, 5). Abram’s journey will finally culminate in his return and settlement at Hebron (13:18). The unity of chapters 12 and 13 is evident in the way the closing paragraph (13:14-18) echoes 12:1-3 and incorporates both the progeny and land promises found separately in chapter 12. If Abram’s journey to Egypt prefigures the later journey of his descendants, his return to Canaan prefigures the even greater exodus to be made by his many descendants under the leadership of Moses and Joshua. We are already being assured of the fulfillment of Yahweh’s promise, but only after a deal of hardship and struggle and not without a great deal of wonderful works by Yahweh himself.
A variety of different words for journey are used in chapters 12 and 13, perhaps highlighting the transient, faith aspect of Abram’s life. Yet at successive stages, Abram looks to God and builds an altar (12:7, 12:8, 13:18), twice in response to a divine promise of land (12:7, 15). In this way the holiness of sites such as Shechem and Bethel is given the imprimatur of association with Abram. In another way it is underlining the fact that this is the land that Yahweh will show to Abram, the land where Yahweh is present with his people.
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