by Ed Gallagher
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going.Hebrews 11:8
Read Genesis 12:1–3. What promises does God make to Abram (Abraham; 17:5) in this passage? (1) There seems to be implicit in 12:1 the promise of land (which becomes explicit in 12:7). (2) There is also the promise of descendants (note: great nation, 12:2). (3) Finally, there is a lot in here about blessing; the word comes up 5 times in 12:2–3. God will bless Abraham, Abraham will become a blessing, those who bless Abraham will be blessed, and all families on earth will be blessed in Abraham.
Before this passage, Genesis had exhibited the harmful effects of sin and the spread of the “curse” (3:14, 17; 4:11; 5:29; 9:25) brought by sin. The call of Abraham in Genesis 12 represents a change in the narrative, so that the text now focuses on one man and his family, rather than the whole world (as in Gen 1–11). Also, the blessing accompanying Abraham counteracts the curse that sin brings.
What does God require of Abraham in this passage? The demands are pretty high: leave everything that he has ever known to journey to an unfamiliar and undisclosed location. Most of us would hesitate to accept this offer, even though we live in a highly mobile age. We can imagine the difficulties this demand would entail in Abraham’s day (when travel was generally more difficult: no U-Hauls).
Why does God choose Abraham? Joshua 24:2–3 depicts Abraham’s family as idol-worshippers, so it does not seem that Abraham merited any special treatment. Rather, the call of Abraham was an act of God’s grace. Of course, we also know that God can see people’s hearts (1 Sam 16:7). As it turned out, Abraham did have remarkable faith. When he and his wife were “as good as dead” (Rom 4:19), he believed God’s promise that his descendants—”from your own body” (Gen 15:4)—would number like the stars (15:5). At that moment, “he did not waver in unbelief but grew strong in faith, giving glory to God” (Rom 4:20). As Genesis tells it, “Then he believed in the LORD, and He reckoned it to him as righteousness” (15:6).
How long did Abraham have to wait before seeing the fulfillment of any part of this promise? About 25 years, when he finally had the promised child (Gen 21). He had, of course, attempted to take matters into his own hands (Gen 16).
Which parts of the promise does he never see fulfilled? He never owned the land on which he lived. Within Canaan, he came to own only a single cave for burial purposes (Gen 23). He did not live to see his descendants become numerous or become a great nation. He did not see all the families of earth blessed through him. (See Hebrews 11:13.) It is hard to imagine the patience Abraham needed to maintain his faith in God’s faithfulness.
According to Paul, it is Abraham’s faith—and especially the record of it in Genesis 15:6—that provides the scriptural basis for claiming that ‘credit’ with God comes through faith and not through law-keeping or circumcision. That’s the main point of Galatians 3 (note 3:6, 17) and Romans 4 (note 4:3, 10). Faith preceded circumcision, which did not make an appearance until Genesis 17. The gospel was preached beforehand to Abraham (Gal 3:8).
The promise regarding Abraham’s family reappears several times in Genesis.
- After Abraham nearly sacrifices his son Isaac (an amazing and chilling story that again demonstrates Abraham’s trust in God; see Hebrews 11:17–19), he receives again the promise about the blessing (22:18). What are the differences between Genesis 12:3 and 22:18? At 22:18 the wording includes “all nations” rather than “all the families of the earth,” and the blessing is not “in you” (as in Gen 12:3) but “in your seed” (22:18).
- After Abraham dies (Gen 25:1–11), the promise is repeated to his son Isaac: “in your seed all the nations of the earth will be blessed” (26:4).
- While Jacob is fleeing from the wrath of his brother Esau, in his famous dream (Jacob’s ladder) he hears God tell him, “in your seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed” (28:14).
Did Abraham and his family become the source of blessing to other nations (within the text of Genesis)? At the beginning it seems rather the opposite. Just after Abraham received the promises, he deceives Pharaoh about his relationship to Sarah (Gen 12:10–20) and becomes the source of plague to him (v. 17). He does the same thing some years later in Gerar, whose king was named Abimelech (Gen 20), again bringing trouble and not blessing to this nation (vv. 3, 18). Abraham’s son Isaac later participates in the same deception (Gen 26:6–11). Moreover, various other stories in Genesis indicate that Abraham’s family did not always bring blessing to other nations (think about Jacob and Esau, or Jacob and Laban [Gen 27–31], or the slaughter of the Shechemites [Gen 34], or Judah’s behavior with Tamar [Gen 38]). The major bright spot here is Joseph, who seems to bring blessing everywhere he goes (Gen 37, 39–50).
Read Galatians 3:6–9
How does Paul interpret the blessing to the nations? How does Paul see its fulfillment?
According to Paul, it is Abraham’s example of faith—that is to say, his demonstration that credit with God comes through faith rather than law—that has become the source of blessing to all nations (v. 9). This has happened because of Jesus, who is the specific seed addressed in the promises (v. 16). And when we are ‘in Christ’, we also become Abraham’s seed (v. 29). If we who are ‘in Christ’ are the promised seed of Abraham, does that mean that we are supposed to bring blessing to the nations? How do we do that?
The call of Abraham in Genesis 12 is an enormous turning point in the biblical narrative. Whereas the first eleven chapters of Genesis amply demonstrated the problem of the spread of sin, death, and curse (and the uselessness of destroying sin with a flood, for instance; see 8:21), the call of Abraham is the beginning of the solution that would culminate in Jesus and the church. The story of Abraham’s family is our story, if we share Abraham’s faith (Gal 3:7).
Additional Questions for Discussion
Why do you think God chose Abraham? Read about Abraham’s background in Genesis 11:26–32; Joshua 24:2–3.
What does Paul mean when he says that the gospel was preached beforehand to Abraham? (Galatians 3:8)
How does the call of Abraham provide an answer to the problem presented by Genesis 1–11?
The promise to Abraham is repeated in Genesis 22:18, which says that blessing will come to all nations through Abraham’s seed. According to Paul, who is this seed? See Galatians 3:16, 29.
This video from The Bible Project traces the promises to Abraham all the way through the book of Genesis.