Lesson for December 4, 2011 — Genesis 12:1-9By Reta Halteman Finger
It seems appropriate to consider the call of Abram and Sarai during the season of Advent. As we look back on the Messiah’s arrival as a fulfillment of older promises, we remember the most ancient of all: The audacious revelation to Abram that “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:2-3).
Genesis 12 begins abruptly: “Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred … to the land that I will show you.’ ” Walter Bruggemann says the break between 11:32 and 12:1 may be “the most important structural break in the Old Testament” (Genesis: Interpretation Commentary). It marks the line between the history of humankind and the history of Israel, between God’s curses and God’s blessings.
We’re going to only God knows where
We often think of Abram and Sarai as pagans dramatically called to forsake their many idols in the land of Ur of the Chaldeans to follow the true God. No doubt they were polytheists in Ur. But the story itself points backward to Genesis 10 and 11, to their genealogical roots in Noah’s son Shem, father of the Semites. Something must have stirred in their DNA to draw them back to the God of Noah.
Abram’s father Terah got it into his head to move his family out of Ur and head northwest up the Euphrates River valley to Haran (Gen. 11:31), now on the borders of Turkey and Syria. It was not until Terah died in Haran that his 75-year-old son heard this strange God Yahweh speak directly to him in a confrontation he could not have imagined: “I will make of you a great nation.”
This promise of Gen. 12:1-3 must have both thrilled and puzzled Abram. The thrice-repeated blessing promises to reverse the three curses of the past — of the disastrous flood on humankind (Genesis 7 and 8), of the puzzling curse on Canaan, son of Ham (9:20-25), of the confusion of languages at the Tower of Babel (11:1-9).
But the father-of-a-great-nation idea made no sense. In spite of Abram’s impressive ancestry, one major problem stopped everything in its tracks. Gen. 11:30 ends the genealogy by concluding, “Now Sarai was barren; she had no child.” How could Abram think of nation-building without an heir? What good is land without a son?
The promise in retrospect
This juxtaposition of promise in Genesis 12 against a genealogy cut off by infertility in chapter 11 introduces us to a God of sheer grace. This is a God who, says Paul, “gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Rom. 4:17).
At the same time, we are left with questions. Yahweh did not immediately tell Abram which land to go to. Abram and his family may have tested Yahweh by packing up their tents and traveling south to Canaan. Only there did God identify the promised land as that around Shechem and Bethel (Gen. 12:6-8), now in Palestine’s West Bank. The dance between God’s unexpected grace and Abram’s family’s rather reckless faith begins playing out in this text — even though, in future chapters, their faith often gives way to human manipulation of events.
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