33. Genesis 12:1-3

III. A.  1. continued

b) Abram’s Call (Genesis 12:1-3)

Abram is one of the three most important people in the Hebrew Bible, along with Moses and David. What these three have in common is that God chose each of them as the beginning points for new covenants. The introduction of a new covenant means the introduction of a new level of relationship between God and His people, so naturally those people are important. New covenants are therefore naturally always accompanied by a period of intense revelation. The pattern of God’s self-revelation is episodic: a fairly brief period in which a lot of information is introduced at once, followed by a much longer period in which the people “do their homework” – that is, they get used to the new information and begin to absorb it into their lives. This is the way people normally learn: we discover a new concept in a flash, but then spend a long time mulling it over, internalizing it, fitting it in with what we already know, learning how to look at the world in a new way. So with Abram, God began lesson two (Noah should be considered lesson one) about Himself and us.

This lesson naturally sets the tone for future lessons. It will be worthwhile to spend some time reflecting on what the nature of the revelation must be. What kind of information do we get? The Protestant branch of Christianity traditionally emphasizes propositional truth. This means they emphasize that the revelation was primarily intended to convey statements, facts about God and spiritual things. I personally have enormous respect for the value of propositional truth, but I am no longer convinced that it is the primary content of the revelation. Propositional truth should never be swept aside or neglected, but if we make it the exclusive focus of our attention then we will end up with a distorted understanding of what the Bible does.

Getting to know a person is not entirely like getting to know organic chemistry. In the sciences, propositional truth is virtually everything, but with people it is secondary. Getting to know my wife certainly does involve propositional truth: her birthday, important invents from her childhood and how they have affected her, her favorite colors and foods, her style of clothing, the things that I might do that would drive her crazy. But this kind of knowledge only goes so far. It doesn’t make a marriage; it doesn’t even suffice for a friendship. An intimate relationship with a person requires time, lots of it, a long period in which the two live together, enjoy each other, argue and reconcile, plan together, suffer and celebrate, cooperate, discuss, and basically care for each other. Revelation in marriage includes sex but it also includes much more, and covenants are more like marriage than anything else.

So when God called Abram, this is the general sort of revelation He had in mind. He chose a family for Himself. They would be His family and He would be, by and bye, their Son. He was choosing a family, a people, to have an extended conversation with, to share with, to argue with, to rejoice and suffer with, to care for and be cared for. It had to involve time, and lots of it. This was no “one night stand”; God is not like the stereotypical pathetic American male, afraid of being tied down. When He chose Abram and Sarai, He was making a lifetime commitment, His lifetime, generation to generation. Terah had received the oral tradition from his father, and his father before him, all the way back to Noah and beyond, and Terah passed on that oral tradition to his sons. But this time something weird happened. The Most High God of their tradition spoke to Abram, perhaps in Ur, but certainly in Haran. It was the first time He had spoken in thousands of years, so far as we know, since before the Flood.

So how exactly did He speak to Abram? A voice from the sky? In a vision or a dream? It hardly matters. Everytime God spoke to people, He did it differently. What is important is what He said. As the first verbal communication in a long time, we should pay attention to the wording of God’s call to Abram in some detail. In Genesis 12:1-3 we read, “Go forth from your country, and from your relatives and from your father’s house, to the land which I will show you; and I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great; and so you shall be a blessing; and I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.” We will consider the call to Abram in reverse order.

The last phrase was the most important one. It was the central promise that is behind all of the other promises God would make to Abram in the ensuing years. He promised that in Abram all the families of the earth would be blessed. Abram could hardly have understood it, but God’s purpose in calling him was cosmic in scope: the blessing of the whole world. This could only mean that Abram was to bring forth the Messiah, the One who had been promised to deliver the world from the power of the serpent, but this is hindsight speaking. Abram would not have thought it obvious to associate this promise to him with the promise given to the serpent in the traditions he had inherited. One of the difficulties of a progressive revelation is that it doesn’t completely make sense for the people in the middle of it. There are always loose ends that are hanging. We still have a few loose ends we haven’t got sorted out even today.

Working our way backward through the call, God said He would use Abram as a vehicle of judgment on the nations: they would be blessed or cursed according to how they responded to Abram. Those who blessed Abram and his descendants would in turn find God’s favor and those who cursed Abram or his descendants would in turn find themselves the objects of God’s disfavor. But ultimately the curses on those who cursed him would be only temporary. There would be no one who cursed him in the end, not one single nation, because God promised that all of the families of the world would be blessed. Therefore all the families will eventually bless him. The threat of God’s curse on the nations that curse Abram will never be fully or permanently realized. It is partially realized on a temporary basis, but in the end there is to be only blessing. This is a pattern with God that should be carefully noted as you read through the Scripture: the threat of God’s curse is always subordinate to His promise of blessing. Every family on earth will be blessed through Abram; some of them may have to go through a curse to get there, but ultimately the blessing wins out. There is no hint of how such a promise could ever be accomplished. It had to be enough, it has to be enough, that God makes absurd promises and leaves us to believe them or not.

But more remarkable than the promise of blessing to all nations is the intimate identification God made with Abram. Essentially He said that He would take personally any attitudes directed at Abram, that He and Abram would be so closely associated as to be inseparable, nearly indistinguishable. Henceforth, no one could be God’s friend without also being Abram’s friend; and vice versa: to become Abram’s friend was to become God’s friend. To encounter Abram inevitably led to encountering God. But the most remarkable thing about this promise is how vulnerable God allowed Himself to become. God was to be so closely associated with Abram that God’s reputation was at stake along with Abram’s reputation. God virtually invited the world to judge Him through Abram. This is what it means that God has revealed Himself in history: we see God as an actor among Abram’s family, and by this family we know and judge Him. It is impossible to describe what a remarkable commitment this was on God’s part, to connect Himself so closely with an individual and his descendants. He took Abram’s name as His own; henceforth the world would know Him as “the God of Abram”.

Continuing to work backward through the call, the next preceding statement was the promise to bless Abram himself, to make him a great nation, and to give him a great name. Now to “make his name great” does not mean what we think of as fame and celebrity, except perhaps indirectly. For the ancients, the name expressed the relationship between the person and God and the world. “To make Abram’s name great” meant that the relationship between Abram and God would be great, that it would be made central to God’s relationship to the whole world. To have a great name from God is to be great in God’s affection, to be great in God’s sight, to be great in God’s thoughts, regardless of whether the world hears of it or not, regardless of whether there is fame among men. Abram was to become the pattern for how God related to the whole world, then and forever.

We Christians sometimes talk about our “personal relationship” to God as if it were a completely new thing, as if such a relationship had never existed before. On the contrary, our relationship with God is a fulfillment of God’s promise to Abram, it is a continuation of God’s relationship with Abraham. It is true that we have more understanding of how it all works than Abram did, we have several millennia of additional revelation to stand on, there is a deeper level of intimacy now than then, but fundamentally we stand before God just as Abram did. His name is as great among us now as it ever was, and the coming of the Messiah only made it greater. In fact, it was the Messiah that made Abram’s name great, just as God had promised.

Along with having a great name God promised Abram that he would become a great nation. The two promises are not the same. One can become a great nation without having a great name, and one can have a great name without becoming a great nation. The promise to make him a great nation squarely placed this call as a covenantal call. The promise was not merely to Abram but to his descendants after him. It was not a personal relationship in the way we understand the word “personal”. God was not connecting Himself to an individual, but to a people that did not even exist yet. For two thousand years the Most High God had not chosen any nation, any city, to be His own. He had spurned them and their gods. Now he chose a man who lived in a tent, with no city, no land, no status, no glory of his own, no children, to be His nation. What a perfectly odd and typical thing for Him to do. He chose a nation in just such a way that it was simultaneously a rejection of nations.

Finally the call began with an order to leave all that was familiar and go into the unknown. Apparently the destination turned out to be the one that Terah had planned originally, but at this point God did not let on to Abram where he might be going. Abram was to give up everything he knew and, in trust of God’s call, simply cast off into the unknown. In fact, Abram took all of his living relatives who were close to him. Doubtless he was living among relatives in Haran, but they were relatives he had not grown up with, that he hardly knew. What he was really sacrificing when he left was status, from the high status he enjoyed as Terah’s son to no status at all among a people he did not know.

Here Abram’s life itself was being used as an example of the way He calls each of us. It is the nature of God’s call, whether it be to Abram or to you or to me, to be a journey to an unknown land. To be called by God is to be called to leave all that gives us our identity and place in this world and to cast off into … something, whether we actually move geographically or not. To answer God’s call is always an emotional and psychological – and sometimes even a geographical – adventure to a new world even when it happens to coincide initially with plans we had already. To answer God’s call means to travel toward a land that He cannot describe to us ahead of time. It leads to a place we can only recognize by arriving.

Most basically, God’s call changed Abram’s life down to its roots. He seems to have lived in a manner that was civilized, in the mainstream of the culture of the Middle East, settled into that life,  but also the heir of the tradition of revelation, a spiritual nomad in the world’s wilderness of religion. When God called him the two dimensions of his life traded places: he became a nomad in his lifestyle but he settled into devotion to the Most High God. Once God had spoken to Him, all other gods became secondary. The One that actually spoke to him was the obvious choice to be his God. Indeed, the sort of devotion the other gods wanted did not require anything from the gods. They didn’t have to talk and they didn’t give directions. But the sort of devotion the Most High God wants cannot come without His calling, without His speaking, without further directions along the way. For us to know the Most High God the way He wants to be known requires that He speak.

It is crucial to note that the call to Abram arose entirely from grace, as all covenantal events do. It was begun by grace, it proceeded by grace, and it ended with grace. There was no reason given for God’s call. It was not that Abram was a better man than the others in his generation. It was not that Abram had known God more intimately and thus was a natural person for God to call. It was not that Abram was less caught up in idolatry than others – he and his children do not seem to have imagined that idolatry might be offensive to God. The whole Mesopotamian religious mindset imagined a community of gods that shared mankind’s devotion like a family shares food at dinner, and a God who demanded undivided allegiance was outside their framework. The call came out of the blue, with no preparation or reason given.

Further, God did not make any conditions on His promises. He did not require Abram to be obedient to some set of laws or rules. He did not threaten to go back on any of the promises should Abram fail to deliver a specified amount of righteousness or worship. He did not leave any doubt as to the certainty that the promises would be fulfilled regardless of Abram’s deserving them or not. The promises were absolute, without justification, and without condition.

So what would have happened if Abram had refused to leave Haran? We are not told, of course, so we don’t know. The legalists among us must imagine that God would then reject Abram and find someone more obedient. This seems to me an absurd and ultimately unbelieving interpretation. The idea that God would fail to carry out what He promises for any reason ought to be unthinkable. If my choices and stupidity and stubbornness can gum up God’s promises then they were not really promises to begin with. God does not make promises unless the fulfillment of those promises depends on God’s own power alone. Clearly, refusal to leave Haran would have had some serious consequences for Abram of some nature. But whatever Abram did or did not do, he would still have become the blessing to all the nations, and his name would have been great because God had promised it. As Paul would say in the Romans 11:29, “…the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.” It is not the one who is called who makes the call irrevocable; only the Caller has the right or the power to do that.

2 Comments on “33. Genesis 12:1-3”

  1. npellar Says:

    This post is incredibly insightful. I am writing my own (quite inferior) blog going through Scripture, but reading your blog is always a helpful guide. Thanks for your post.

    • Thanks for your comment and encouragement. Your blog is going well too. Keep taking your time and persevere and who knows where it will lead. I have been working on these little essays for ten years or more and the blog for about three years and I don’t know where it may lead either.

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