“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. And 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 him who dishonours you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’”
Many moments that change the world are self-evidently important because of their very scale, uniqueness, or impact: the moon landing; the 9/11 attacks; Nelson Mandela’s release; the dropping of atom bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Genesis 12 recounts for us a life-altering, world-changing, history-shaping moment, but if you were there at the time you’d be forgiven for missing it. Quietly, God made a promise to Abram. If you were with Abram at the time, near Ur of Mesopotamia, this promise might not have seemed like much, yet it underlies and shapes the plot of the whole Bible—the story of God’s people—from here on.
As God speaks to Abram (later, Abraham) he is speaking another creative word. Just as he brought everything into being by speaking (Genesis 1), he now creates hope and a future for humanity out of the darkness, depravity and rebellion that has characterized life since the fall. Instead of people creating a name for themselves (Gen 11:4) God promises Abram that he—the creator of the universe—will make Abram’s name great. God is speaking a word that will create a new sort of humanity: the people of God, a nation formed from this one couple from Ur.
It’s abundantly clear that this is all God’s action: “I will show you”, “I will make of you”, “I will bless you and make your name great”, “I will bless”, “I will curse”. Having just read of the consequences of humanity’s action in the tower of Babel episode, it’s a relief to hear God promising to act decisively in history (in a way that doesn’t turn out to be negative for humanity, that is).
God’s promise to Abram is threefold. He promises a land, which no doubt would have been comforting given the call on Abram to leave the land where he lived, his people, even his family. God promises to create from Abram and Sarai a people, an overabundant family tree. And he promises blessing, not only to Abram himself in making his name great, but through Abram to others, both directly (Abram being a blessing because of what he has been given) and indirectly (God blessing those who bless Abram, and cursing those who curse him).
It’s difficult to overstate how thoroughly this promise shapes the way Israel understood their relationship to God throughout the Old Testament. When Moses spoke to the assembled people as they were about to cross the Jordan River and enter the promised land, he reminded them again and again that this was the land promised to their forefathers, the ones from whom this great nation had come (e.g. Deut 1:8, 6:10, 9:5, 29:13, 30:20, 34:4). At the end of his life Joshua reminded the people that every one of the good promises the Lord made was fulfilled (Josh 23:14). At the height of Israel’s international influence during the reign of Solomon, the whole world was blessed by the wisdom God gave his chosen king, not to mention the abundant material blessings he showered on the nation. The promise of land, people, and blessing are the substructure of Israel’s trust in their God (and, it must be said, the reason why they were held accountable for their frequent distrust).
The promise to Abraham shapes the New Testament too. Paul declares that the promise of blessing through Abraham was an announcement of the gospel: the justification of Gentiles by faith in Jesus is the fulfilment of that divine promise (Gal 3:8-9). We who were outside the lineage of Abraham are blessed along with him by faith. We are redeemed by Jesus Christ’s death on our behalf, “so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith” (Gal 3:14).
The promise of Genesis 12, then, is one that speaks of God’s creative and redemptive work. God chose one man out of a sea of rebellious and self-destructive people, and made a world-altering promise to him. He then acted throughout history to create a people of his own and save them from their desperation and sin, a people whom he blesses and through whom he blesses the world. This promise (as Paul says) clearly centres on the person and work of Jesus Christ, the descendant of Abraham, one who was part of his lineage. God’s promise to bless the whole world includes us too, as we are blessed by believing in the one who raised up from the dead Jesus our Lord, just as Abraham believed God. We share in the faith of Abraham, trusting in the trustworthiness of God.