Called by God
I'm excited to be back in Genesis! We took a break for a while but I must admit I have a preference for looking at narratives, and the ones we have been looking at are especially important as they are the foundation for the whole Bible. Topical approaches have their place and their benefits, but I love coming to the text and seeing what topics it is dealing with, as opposed to picking a topic and looking for texts related to it.
Without further delay, let's dive into Genesis 12!
The divine call of Abram (later will have his name changed to Abraham) is fundamental to all the stories that follow. The Patriarchs and their relationship to God are all based on this original call from God. In this call we find all the recurring themes from Genesis 1-11:
In the words of Kenneth A. Matthews “The divine oath is like an avalanche of blessing cascading in wave after wave on the patriarch and his children yet to come.” (Mathews, K. A. Genesis 11:27-50:26. Vol. 1B, Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2005. p105)
This call of Abram is the first recorded speech since God’s word of judgment at the tower of Babel, resulting in the creation of nations (11:5-6,9). This new word to Abram counters the old since it provides for the redemptive plan of “all peoples” v3. Through Abram salvation will come to all the nations. The language used in the call of Abram (family, land, country, nation) reminds the reader of the Table of Nations from Genesis 11.
God calls Abram to leave both his past and his future and to place his trust entirely in God. Interestingly, no obligations are placed on Abram to maintain the promises (as for Israel at Sinai); All Abram must do is respond to the LORD’s command to “leave,” a sign of faith and loyalty. Everything else is up to God.
“God is the initiator and the consummator.” (Ibid. 106)
As Abram faithfully heeds God's call, he is completely dependent on God. He is leaving behind his social security, his family, friends, and neighbors, who would be the ones to help him should anything ever happen to him (disease, attack from enemies, etc). Remember, there is no formal government as we have today, no police, your protection is provided by your community. Having family, and friends around was incredibly important, especially when facing difficulties. Abram was called to leave all that behind, there was no one besides God to protect him as he traveled to a land he did not know.
Abram had to leave behind, he had to separate himself from - his country, from his people, from his father’s household. This brings to mind the words of Jesus recorded in Matt 10:37
He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. (Matthew 10:37)
As you read Genesis 12 it can be confusing to organize the events in a chronological order. The call from God recorded on Genesis 12 happened before the events described in Genesis 11:31-32. I say this based on Genesis 15:7
Then He said to him, “I am the Lord, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to inherit it.” (Gen. 15:7)
and Acts 7:2-4
And he said, “Brethren and fathers, listen: The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he dwelt in Haran, 3 and said to him, ‘Get out of your country and from your relatives, and come to a land that I will show you.’ 4 Then he came out of the land of the Chaldeans and dwelt in Haran. And from there, when his father was dead, He moved him to this land in which you now dwell. (Acts 7:2-4)
These passages indicate that God called Abram while he was in Ur. In Genesis 12 we have the record of the call, but just because textually the call is recorded after the description of events found in Genesis 11, it does not mean it happened after all that is described in the previous chapter. Chapter 12 is emphasizing the call, while chapter 11 was describing the life of Terah, the father of Abram.
Depending on God
It is worth highlighting how all is in God’s hands. It is God who will show Abram the land of destiny, Canaan. It is God who will make this alien and childless couple a great nation.
It is possible that by hard work, wisdom, focus and dedication Abram could gain land, wealth, and fame. But in order for him to have children it would take a miracle from God!
Even the things that Abram will do, which according to verse 2 is "be a blessing" as we read on we find that God is the One who does the blessing verse 3.
I will make you a great nation;
I will bless you
And make your name great;
And you shall be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
And I will curse him who curses you;
And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:2-3, emphasis mine)
Blessed for Mission
God calls Abram because He wants to bless others through him. Abram will receive blessings as will others, as Abram faithfully follows God’s call.
God does not want to bless Abram only for the sake of making Abram happy. God wants to bless Abram, but He also wants Abram to be a blessing for others.
This made me wonder about our lives and our role in our world today. I say we Christians, we God's people, God's faithful followers. Should we expect blessings just because God loves us? Do we expect to be blessed if we are good and behave well? Or do we long for blessings in order to be a blessing for those around us? Do we want blessings to enjoy them selfishly or to use them to bless others? Abram was not meant just to be rich, powerful and happy; he was called to be a blessing. When Abram obeyed God, others benefited from it. Others were blessed and even saved by Abram's willingness to answer God's call.
Abram finds himself in a foreign land. Different people, language, and customs. As we will learn, many of the inhabitants of the land are cruel and dishonest, many perform human sacrifices. The modern reader has no idea of the violence that was commonplace in many of the ancient communities.
I imagine Abram would feel lonely and even concerned as he wondered and set up camp at different places. Notice how Abram always avoids cities. We read of him setting up camp by trees (Genesis 12:6) or by mountains (Genesis 12:8).
God appears to Abram (Genesis 12:7) and encourages him.
“To your descendants I will give this land.” - God (Genesis 12:7)
I believe Abram needed some encouragement, and God provided it. God was in control and God had a plan. Abram, as a response, built an altar to the LORD. The last time someone is recorded building an altar was Noah after coming out of the ark (Genesis 8:20). Abram is continuing along the same line, a member of God's remnant, a special group called by God, who have a special relationship with God through which others will be blessed.
As Abram wonders he sets up altars (Genesis 12:7-8). As Abram sets up altars he exposes others to a different God. The altar and worship that took place on it said a lot about the God that is being worshiped. By witnessing Abram others are learning about his God. After he leaves the altar remains as a testimony, as an option. The people of the land have an option, they can learn and worship a different God, the God of Abram.
I know Abram is not literally planting churches, but he is exposing others to His God and making His God available, in the sense of teaching others about Him, His ways and His will.
If you are like me, you should know better, but you still expect for the hero of the story to be faithful to God and always do the right thing. I should know better, but I have this tendency to expect Abram to be superhuman, immune to the cultural influences of his context. My default approach is to think of Abram as very different from me and not susceptible to struggles and weaknesses. Also since Abram was obedient to God's call I expect God to remove all obstacles and prevent any difficulties. We just noticed how God spoke to Abram and how Abram went around setting up altars and calling on the name of the LORD. Abram is being faithful! Things are going well. At least until the famine.
This is supposed to be the promised land! Abram is supposed to be the Father of Faith! How is there a famine in the land?
Well, Canaan, unlike Ur, is dependent on rain. Ur had the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to continually provide the land with water. You could stay in one place and farm and live and build a city. The land of Canaan lacks such rivers. They depend on rainfall.
As Jacques Doukhan puts it
This new risky environment, whose agriculture depended on rains from above, was in sharp contrast to the secure and stable Tigris Euphrates Valley. (Doukhan, Jacques. Genesis. Nampa, ID, Pacific Press Publishing Association, 2016. p204)
I believe what makes this portion of the story challenging also makes it relatable. When I say challenging I mean that it challenges my preconceived ideas and notions, it challenges my opinion and expectations of what should happen. I expect God to prevent the famine, yet it takes place. I expect God to tell Abram exactly what to do, instead I notice silence from God. There is a famine in the land, and we don't hear anything from God. Abram has people and animals who are depending on him. His decision will impact many lives.
What would you do?
Would you trust God and stay and see what God will do? Are you willing to put all those lives on the line? Would you look for a human solution, would you try your best to solve the situation since God did not give you any specific commands regarding this situation?
On the one hand, God did tell Abram to come to Canaan. But you could also argue that God allowed the famine to take place so this could be a sign that Abram should move.
On the other hand, God did not tell Abram to leave. God would show Abram where he should go and God brought Abram to the promised land, Canaan. If Abram was supposed to leave God would make it as clear as He made the call for Abram to go there in the first place. God could provide for Abram, even in the drought. Also, God could have prevented the drought.
The story never makes clear what the right action was. Maybe Abram did exactly what he was supposed to do, maybe he made a mistake. All we know is what the text tells us, and the text tells us there was a drought. There is silence from God. And Abram went down to Egypt.
Abram in Egypt
When Abram is about to enter Egypt, he turns to his wife and says:
“Indeed I know that you are a woman of beautiful countenance." (Genesis 12:11)
And he should have stopped talking right there and left his wife Sarai with a nice complement. But Abram kept talking,
Therefore it will happen, when the Egyptians see you, that they will say, ‘This is his wife’; and they will kill me, but they will let you live.
You know the feeling right? When your spouse is so beautiful that you fear for your life?
When I read this for the first time I was so shocked, so disappointed. They never include this in the children's version of this story. Imagine my shock as a teenager when I read this story for myself for the first time. I totally expected Abram to say something along the lines of,
Even Pharaoh and his whole army could not keep me away from you, my love!
Instead Abram asks his wife to lie, to become another man's wife if necessary, because they might want to kill him on account of her beauty. I was disappointed. But Abram was human after all. Perhaps Abram figured he needed to stay alive for all the world to be blessed (Genesis 12:3) but his wife perhaps not so much. And who would kill a man just to be with his wife? Well, there is a story in the Bible where this happens found in 2 Samuel 11.
Perhaps this type of thing happened more often than I would expect during that period and in that location. But maybe Abram was worried about nothing. Genesis 12:4 tells us that Abram was 75 years old when he departed from Haran. We find out in Genesis 17:17 that Sarai was about 10 years younger than Abram. This meant that Sarai was at least 65. Nothing against those who are around that age, it just seems less likely to have a powerful ruler have a husband killed in order to take for himself his wife, when the couple is in their late 60s and 70s.
So it was, when Abram came into Egypt, that the Egyptians saw the woman, that she was very beautiful. (Genesis 12:14)
Okay, I guess all that walking and fresh air and good diet did Sarai some good. People noticed her beauty. Maybe Abram was not exaggerating. But what are the odds that the ruler would notice right?
The princes of Pharaoh also saw her and commended her to Pharaoh. And the woman was taken to Pharaoh’s house.
Okay, so maybe Abram called it. Sarai was very beautiful, so beautiful that the Pharaoh was informed of her beauty. I try to imagine how this would have taken place. Men noticing Sarai and admiring he beauty and feeling the need to tell the Pharaoh about it! Can you imagine a scenario where someone immigrates to your country and the person is so beautiful you feel the desire to tell the president about her?
quick comment on this situation that is not related to theology. I just wish we had a culture where a mature woman could be admired for being beautiful. I just feel that our society makes young women sexual objects and that is so wrong in so many different levels. I find it so refreshing to read a story where the woman that is being noticed is more mature. I would also like to think that what set Sarai apart was not just her physical beauty but her character, but I would be reading that into the story. I believe it to be true, but I could not defend it with a specific and clear Bible text. I just believe that there is more to beauty than just the appearance. But that is the topic for another post.
Abram had just arrived in the Promised Land, and he left because he was hungry. Now Abram is in the wrong country, and he just lost his wife to the Pharaoh. The story has taken an unexpected turn. Where is God? What is going on here?
Well, on a positive note, Abram is getting rich because Pharaoh took an interest in his "sister."
He treated Abram well for her sake. He had sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male and female servants, female donkeys, and camels. (Genesis 12:16)
I don't know if you noticed by now but Sarai is noticeably silent. All these things happening because of her and we don't have a single word recorded giving us any insights from her perspective. Though some may wonder at her silence I personally believe she isn't speaking because of Abram's idea. I know if I made a similar suggestion to my wife she would not be speaking either.
Before you claim that the Bible is sexist and that women are not valued as much as men, notice how even though Abram, a flawed man of his times, failed to properly protect his wife, God steps in.
But the LORD
But the Lord plagued Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife. (Genesis 12:17)
"But the LORD" is one of my favorite phrases. When things are going downhill fast and there are no good options, I love reading "But the LORD."
Abram may have failed, but the LORD is watching. God was silent and it feels like He has lost interest, He seems absent, but He was watching all along. God comes through and protects Sarai. God defends her, when her own husband fails to do so. God has a plan for Sarai, she is as much an integral part of the plan as Abram, even though Abram does not realize this. God honors and protects Sarai. God saves Abram's marriage. Abram seems a but too eager for my taste to let his wife go, but God has other plans, God means for them to be together (Genesis 2:24, Mark 10:9).
Pharaoh and his house were plagued because of Sarai, not because of Abram. Abram used deceit to save himself when he should have trusted God. Sarai was abandoned by her husband. Yet in the midst of all these problems God acts.
God is present even within the darkness of human iniquity, even when He seems to be absent. (Ibid)
God is true to his promise to bless and curse in relation to Abram (Genesis 12:3). Inadvertently Pharaoh threatened God's plan to make Abram a great nation. Abram can't be the father of a great nation without Sarai, his wife. Even though Abram has not yet learned this lesson. Pharaoh is cursed because of Sarai, even though he was ignorant of what he had done.
The text does not give any details of what the plagues were. We are not even made aware of how Pharaoh discovers the truth, but we know he does find out.
And Pharaoh called Abram and said, “What is this you have done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife? (Genesis 12:18)
God did not kill Pharaoh, but He did enough to catch the Pharaoh's attention.
Pharaoh did not know what he did. As far as he was concerned Sarai was Abram's sister. Yet, God plagued him. This seems unfair to many modern readers. I don't think I am able to properly explain this either. But I do believe that the plagues served multiple purposes.
The main one and an obvious one was to restore Sarai to her husband Abram. But the plagues also exposed Pharaoh and the Egyptians to the power of Abram's God. This could have been Pharaoh's first encounter with the LORD. Pharaoh believed himself to be a god, as did the Egyptians and this encounter allowed him to experience the power of the true God. Pharaoh, had to admit that Abram's God was more powerful than he was. Pharaoh was now aware of the true God and his might! The Egyptians now were aware of God who was more powerful than all their gods.
Still another reason could be for the descendants of Abram to know that God is more powerful than Pharaoh, one of the most powerful men of the ancient world. In the future, this story could give Abram's descendants hope, if they ever found themselves oppressed by Pharaoh.
Who knows what kind of impression this encounter left in Egypt. Who knows the impact this even had in Pharaoh's heart, and the heart of the members of his household. Who knows how many merchants and travelers spread the news about the mighty acts of the God of Abram.
Mighty to Save
God is mighty to save. God saves Sarai. God unites Abram to his wife, even though Abram lied, even though Abram made a big mistake. God came through and saved him and his wife.
So what do we take away from this story?
God is able to bless and to provide and to save even when, especially when we need Him most and deserve it the least. We are saved because of who God is, not because of how good we are.
God blesses Abram with a mission, for Abram to be a blessing to others. God chooses Abram so He can use Abram to bless all the earth. Today, the remnant, God's faithful followers, are not just to receive special blessings from God, but to be a blessing. God's faithful followers are not supposed to just feel happy and accumulate blessings for themselves, but to be a blessing, a light shining, wherever they go, in everything they do. Being a member of the remnant is about a mission, blessing the world. We are called to go where God sends us, we are called to be faithful to Him and He will use us to bless those around us, and He promises to be with us.
... and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Amen. (Matthew 28:20b)
Resources I found especially helpful:
Mathews, K. A. Genesis 11:27-50:26. Vol. 1B, Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2005.
Doukhan, Jacques. Genesis. Nampa, ID, Pacific Press Publishing Association, 2016.