A Covenant of Blessing—Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 2A (Proper 5) (Genesis 12)

Genesis 12:1-9 New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition

12 Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 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 shall be blessed.”

So Abram went, as the Lord had told him, and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot and all the possessions that they had gathered and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran, and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan. When they had come to the land of Canaan, Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. Then the Lord appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him. From there he moved on to the hill country on the east of Bethel and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east, and there he built an altar to the Lord and invoked the name of the Lord. And Abram journeyed on by stages toward the Negeb.


                The Gospel of Matthew begins with a genealogy. That genealogy connects Jesus with his primordial ancestor, the one with whom God made a covenant of blessing. Matthew begins his account of Jesus’ life and ministry with the words: “An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Mt. 1:1). On this, the Second Sunday after Pentecost, the first reading from scripture, according to the Revised Common Lectionary, takes us back to the call of Abram (later Abraham). This is, in my mind, the starting point for the Christian story. As Paul shares in his Galatian letter, if we “belong to Christ then [we] are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise” (Gal. 3:29) [On our connection to Abraham, see chapter 1 of my book Called to Bless: Finding Hope by Reclaiming Our Spiritual Roots].

                The story of Abram and Sarah begins in Genesis 11, where we’re introduced to Terah, Abraham’s father, and his descendants, which includes Abram and his wife Sarai. The stage for what is to come is set there in Genesis 11, as Terah moves his family from Ur of the Chaldees to Haran, which is where our story begins. It’s at Haran that God appears to Abram and gives him a commission: “Go from your country . . . to the land that I will show you” (Gen. 12:1). It’s important to note here that God doesn’t give Abram a destination. God just says, gather up your family and get on the road. I’ll let you know when you get there!  I don’t know about you, but that’s not how I plan my moves. I want to know where I’m going and how I’m going to get there. That’s not the case here. To be honest, history shows that when it comes to migration, people tend to move without knowing where they will end up. Moving is risky, but at times there is no other choice. Circumstances including drought or violence at home have forced folks to move since it’s no longer possible to stay put. Perhaps a passage like this can help us reflect on the migration patterns of our day. Immigration is a major political issue in my country (the United States of America) as well as others. So, perhaps thinking about this family’s epic journey can help us better understand why others would take risky journeys, hoping to find safety and security. While this account of a family’s migration doesn’t suggest that dire circumstances led to their journey, if we step back to the move made by Abraham’s father, Terah, one might ask why he felt the need to move from the big city out into the hinterland.

                We pick up the story of Abraham after the family’s move to Haran, which most likely lies within modern Turkey.  God appears to Abraham and asks him to pack up the family and move. The question is, why would God ask Abram to do this? At least, that question had to be on Abram’s mind, especially since God doesn’t provide a destination, just a call to get on the road. According to our reading, God tells Abram that if he embraces God’s call, then God would make him a great nation, bless him, and make his name great. Who doesn’t want to be great? In fact, if he accepts this mission, he will become the father of a great nation. So, there appears to be a benefit to this move. But that’s really not the point. It’s not just about blessing Abram. As Walter Brueggemann notes, this passage “links the traditions of God’s providential care for the world and God’s electing call of Israel” [Genesis: Interpretation, p. 114]. In other words, the call of Abram is bigger than Abram and his family. That is because, again quoting Brueggemann,

The well-being of Israel carried potential for the well-being of other nations. Israel is never permitted to live in a vacuum. It must live with, for, and among the others. The barren ones are now mandated for the needs of the others. This text hints at what subsequently became the mission of the church in the world. [Genesis, p. 119].

With Brueggemann’s words in mind, we can gain a broader view of the promises God makes to Abram and together with him, his partner, Sarai. They may not have descendants, but God must have something in mind, even if Abram and Sarai might not be able to fully understand at the moment. Whatever God is going to do with Abram and Sarai, it will involve a partnership between God and Abram and Sarai. Yes, God will build a nation from this childless couple.

                To summarize the point: Not only will God make Abram a great nation and give him a great name, but this blessing that God will pour out on Abram will lead to the blessings of others. In the immediate situation, those who bless Abram will be blessed and those who curse him will be cursed (I prefer to ignore this part of the equation—the word about curses—but the point is you should not harm Abram or you will suffer the consequences, as Pharaoh discovered). Because Abram was willing to follow God’s lead, ultimately all the families of the earth will be blessed. This appears to be a win-win situation. Abram gets blessed and the nations get blessed. Abram just has to agree to pack up the family and move.  That’s what he did. He took off on a journey without knowing where it would lead, with only a promise of blessing on the part of Yahweh.

                The author of this portion of the Genesis story tells us that when Abram gathered his wife Sarai and his nephew Lot and the rest of the crew and headed out on the journey, Abram was a spry seventy-five years old. Off they went in the direction of the land of Canaan. When they arrived in Canaan, at a place called Shechem, at the Oak of Moreh, Abram stopped. God again appeared to Abram and promised to give this land they were standing on to Abam and his offspring. Abram responded to God’s promise by building an altar to Yahweh.    

                While a marker had been set in Canaan, which was an inhabited space, Abram’s wanderings weren’t complete. They continued into the hill country east of Bethel, where he pitched his tent. His stopping point lay between Bethel in the west and Ai in the east. There, once again, Abram built an altar to Yahweh, invoking the name of the Lord. But, of course, Abram’s journey had not come to completion, as he continued on toward the Negeb. From there, in verse 10 and following, Abram and Sarai go to Egypt. However, that’s a story for a different time. Nevertheless, we could read the Abrahamic story in terms of soul-building or faith-building. The twists and turns help Abraham build trust in God’s promises. The references to Abraham being an exemplar of faith in Hebrews may seem a bit too facile (Heb. 11:8-12). Yes, Abraham is a model of faithfulness, but it involved a long period of maturation and growth.

                If we continue on through the story of Abraham, his journey will involve plenty of twists and turns. Interestingly, Abraham always seems to come out smelling like a rose—even if at times we may feel a bit unsettled by his methodology. Although, it’s not yet been mentioned, even though God had promised several times to bless Abram’s descendants, Abram and Sarai still don’t have any children and the couple isn’t getting any younger. After all, we’ve already been told that Abram is seventy-five (We’ve not yet been told how old Sarai is). So, time is running out, or so it would seem. Again, that’s a different story, or is it?

                The passage we have before us speaks of call, mission, and pilgrimage/journey. The journey begins with the call and includes a mission (blessing of the nations). Along the way, God reveals a destination (Canaan) but Abram never gets to settle down. He builds altars to mark the journey, but he still lives in a tent. Again, turning to Brueggemann, “The life of faith is one which keeps Israel in pursuit of the promise of land. But Abraham is not one who finally arrives at his destination. He trusts the promise. But his life falls short of grasping fulfillment. He is in the land. But he does not yet possess it” [Genesis, p. 122]. Is this not true for us as well? Is not the life of faith a pilgrimage/journey in which we put down markers (altars) but never settle down? There is much more to learn and experience, even to the end of our days on Earth.  However, like Abram, we can “call on the name of the Lord.” In doing so, we proclaim our loyalty to the one who has called us on this journey of faith that involves a promise of blessing. In the words of the Psalmist:

O give thanks to the Lord; call on his name;
    make known his deeds among the peoples.
Sing to him, sing praises to him;
    tell of all his wonderful works.
Glory in his holy name;
    let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice.
Seek the Lord and his strength;
    seek his presence continually.
Remember the wonderful works he has done,
    his miracles and the judgments he has uttered,
O offspring of his servant Abraham,
    children of Jacob, his chosen ones.
(Ps. 105:1-6)