March 16, 2014
This tiny section of the book of Genesis has an outsized significance for the ongoing story of YHWH. I have often called this pericope the "lynchpin of the Bible," and by that I do not mean merely the Hebrew Bible; I mean in fact the entire Bible, both testaments. The editors who constructed the Scriptures as we know them had apparently quite specific theological interests that drove them to order their material in the ways they did. Genesis 1-11 is nothing less than a history of the failures of the people of YHWH to do things that their God had called them to do. From fruit-eating to fratricide to divine-human inappropriate intermingling to the great flood to the family-destroying drunkenness of Noah to the ridiculous mud brick tower, designed clearly "to make a name for themselves" and to avoid scattering abroad on the face of the land, expressly rejecting YHWH's clear call to "be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth," Genesis 11 ends with uncommunicative people rushing away from the ruins of their attempts to reach up to YHWH. They have finally "scattered abroad," but hardly in the ways YHWH had in mind. Plainly, something else, something new, must be done.
And so YHWH acts in a new way. YHWH now calls a foreign man, Abram ("mighty father" or "father of many"), to enact the work of God. Rather than speak to the mass of humanity, expecting them all to do YHWH's will, YHWH now chooses one person through which YHWH will attempt once again to effect the divine work in the world.
First, Abram is given a very hard task. "Go from your country, your kin, and the house of your father to the land that I will show you" (Gen. 12:1). There are in fact four increasingly difficult tasks in this command. Anyone who has experienced the movement from one's native land to another land not her own knows well the wrenching feeling of leaving the loved and familiar for the unknown place with its different languages and cultures and money and customs. And if that were not difficult enough, leaving one's land also means leaving one's kin, the relatives left behind who are anxious for the one they love, along with the pain of the one leaving those they love. Then leaving the father's house means nothing less than severing one's roots from immediate family, parents, siblings, all those most intimate and trusted people who have nurtured and cared most deeply for the departing one. Lastly, and perhaps most dangerously, the chosen one is asked to go into the darkest wilderness "to the land I will show you." Where is this unknown place? How is one to find it? Is it a long journey? How perilous will it be, traveling to the mysterious land? These are monumentally difficult demands.
But YHWH does not send Abram out without some promises, though promises that could be vague to the receiver. "I will make of you a great nation" (Gen. 12:2). What might this "great" mean? Does it mean merely large or vast? Or does this "great" mean significant, important, powerful? How would a lone foreigner hear such a charge? "And I will bless you" (Gen. 12:2). Of what will this blessing consist? Is the blessing connected to the greatness, and if so, how? "And I will make your name great so that you will be a blessing" (Gen. 12:2). Here we are reminded of those foolish tower builders who thought their handiwork would " make a name for ourselves" (Gen. 11:4), but all it got them was multiple languages and a disconnected scattering over the whole earth. Now YHWH proposes to make Abram's name a blessing, yet he must surely think, "How does this blessing work itself out in greatness through my name?"
"I will bless those who bless you and anyone who curses you I will curse" (Gen. 12:3). Well, that sounds pretty good! YHWH promises protection for those who get in Abram's way and help for those who help him. That sounds at once practical and comforting. But the last promise is rather less than comforting. "Through you all the families of the ground will be blessed" (Gen. 12:3). The grammar of the sentence could also yield, "By you all the families of the ground will bless themselves." It is finally impossible to choose which one is intended. If it is the former, Abram is promised that through his very existence all peoples will be blessed. This implies that Abram will directly offer a blessing to everyone. That could surely mean that his life will be defined by the blessing of the world. Of course, how such an amazing thing might come about, the whole world's blessing as the result of the life of this one man, is not suggested at all. And if the latter meaning is intended, that Abram's life will result in all peoples blessing themselves, that could mean that Abram himself will see little or nothing of the results of his life of blessing, since it will only occur within the lives of all peoples as they bless themselves.
In short, YHWH's promises of greatness and blessing, however grand they sound, may be cold comfort to one who is leaving everything to go to a place he knows nothing of, to live among people he knows nothing of, to effect a blessing he can hardly understand. Yet, with all these doubts and questions sounding in his skull, Genesis 12:4 comes as a thunderclap: "So Abram went exactly as YHWH told him." Astonishingly, the 75-year-old man from Ur goes without question or pause to the place YHWH has determined. This decision to go is a prefiguring of a later scene in (now) Abraham's life when again YHWH will ask him to go to a place he has never seen and there offer his long-awaited son, Isaac, as a sacrifice to YHWH. And again without question or pause he goes to perform the terrible demand of his God (Gen. 22).