Genesis 12:1-9 - link to the NRSV text
In Genesis chapter 12, the biblical narrative undergoes a monumental shift. Genesis 1-11, what scholars term the primeval history, is the history of humankind as a whole, but now the story shifts towards a focus on one people and God’s dealings with them, starting with the figure of Abram who would come to be known as Abraham.
And in this text found at the beginning of chapter 12, we
see in microcosm three major themes that will under gird the rest of the Old
Testament witness to God’s activity in and through Israel
The story of Abraham (and thus, God’s people Israel
God calls Abram to go to this strange place, but side by
side with the call is the covenant, namely that from Abram would come a “great
nation,” that he and his name would be blessed (Gen 12:2). And from Abram’s point of view, this probably
sounds wonderful; his wife is barren, he himself is a nomad from Ur
But the promise is not restricted to Abram, but is the launching point of a much larger project. The covenant with Abram is a continuation of the previous covenant with Noah, which was for the entire creation, a promise that God would not destroy the entire creation but instead would work within the creation for renewal. As such, the covenant with Abram must be seen as part and parcel of God’s larger salvific activity, namely the reclamation of the creation that had gone so wrong and fallen under a curse in chapters 1-11. As God promises Abram, the entire world and all who live in it will “be blessed/shall bless themselves” through him (NOTE: the Hebrew verb form of brk ‘to bless’ could either be passive or reflexive. Compare the NRSV and the NJPS).
There is no triumphalism to be found in this promise of covenant, for the covenant is a means to an end, namely the blessing of all peoples. To offer hope and reconciliation to the people of the world, God has called into covenant a people, but a people who are just as much a part of the problem. This is evidenced through the rest of the Old Testament, as God’s people Israel go up and down, up and down in their dealings with this God of covenant. Alongside all the stories of faithfulness are the stories of failure; alongside the stories of trust are the stories of doubt. Exodus and exile; deliverance and judgment. Covenant made, covenant broken, covenant restored.
This brings us, in kind of a round about way, to the third theme of journey. The call comes, the covenant is made, but the promise is not yet fulfilled. There is a journey to be made; Abram undergoes the first leg of it, traveling from Haran where he had settled to Canaan, where God reveals to Abram that this is the land which will be given.
And the journey isn’t finished, even as Abram stands before
the altars at Shechem and Bethel
Today we stand as children of this call and covenant. Those promises made to Abram are promises we ourselves cling to in the midst of the world we live in. As we see devastation and destruction, as we witness pain and hurt and brokenness, as our world suffers from war and hatred and oppression, we hear the word of God calling again and reminding us of covenant. Yet the journey is still before us, a journey to try and make the covenant real in this world, to enact those covenant promises, that we might be blessings ourselves to all the families of the earth.
Call, covenant, journey. In these things we see revealed the activity of God, the One who calls us, who makes relationship with us, and who guides us wherever we go. And in these promises, we don’t know the entire picture, much like Abram didn’t know exactly where he was going when he obeyed God’s command to “Go.” But maybe like Abram, we’ll hear it when we get there. But first, we have to heed the call, trust the covenant, and begin the journey.