Opening The Old Testament
The Lynchpin of the Bible: Reflections on Genesis 12:1-4a
Instead of choosing representative humans to effect the work of shalom, God now heads off to one particular land and points to one special person to make the earth whole again. "Now YHWH said to Abram ("great father"), 'Go from your country, your kindred, and your father's house to the land that I will show you" (Gen. 12:1). Note the cascading difficulty of what Abram is asked to do. He must leave country (difficult), and kindred (literally "those born with him," a harder task), and the house of his own father (hardest of all) to go to a land he has never seen. No reason is given for Abram's choice, just like Noah, though many a fanciful tale has grown up around the event. The reason for the choice has nothing to do with Abram and everything to do with God's special concerns for the world.
"I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you; and I will make your name great, so that you will be a blessing" (Gen. 12:2). Huge implications are locked into that sentence. "Great" can mean large, but it can also mean important, significant, essential. God's blessing is crucial if this man is to perform his appointed task. Unless the blessing of God falls, no one may work the thing God has in mind. Abram's very name, his existence, his person, will become great. But that greatness will not consist of power or fame or wealth or status. True greatness results in blessing, in passing on to others what God has so freely given you.
"I will bless those who bless you, but those who curse you, I will curse; and in (by, through) you all the tribes of the ground (or "families of the earth") will be blessed (or "will bless themselves," Gen. 12:3). God has given Abram the task of reconstituting the broken world of Babel and Noah and Lamech and Cain and Adam and Eve. Somehow, in the very life of this one man, the world has hope once again.
"So Abram went, as the Lord had told him" (Gen. 12:4a). Such a simple yet profound phrase! Leaving everything he knew and loved, Abram went to the land that this new God would show him, tasked with the extraordinary job of saving the world for God. All the world's hopes rest on his shoulders as he moves westward from Haran and travels from north (Shechem) to south (the Negeb) in the land of Canaan, later to be known as the land of promise. Immediately, when a famine hits this new land, the chosen one of God lies about his wife to the Egyptians and offers her up in order to save his own skin (Gen. 12:10-20)! Some savior! Such a promised one! Will God go back again to the divine drawing board?
This passage is the Bible's lynchpin, because the remainder of the Bible's story will be one attempt after the other to reconstitute a broken world; God will be persistent and creative with divine ideas that God hopes will lead at last to shalom. For us Christians, God's best attempt was the gift of Jesus, a gift that began in a garden defiled and ended in another garden just before a cruel death and an astonishing new life. But it all begins with Abram, the blessed and hoped-for blessing one.
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.