In Genesis 12, a new chapter in the Biblical story of holiness, mission, and community opens. Roughly four thousand years ago, God called Abraham to serve as the progenitor of a new missional community through whom the world would be blessed:
NIV Genesis 12:1 The LORD had said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you. 2 “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”
This is one of the most important passages in all of Scripture. It marks the election of Abraham and the nation of Israel which will emerge from his descendents as God’s new community in the world. In response to the rampant and pervasive infestation of sin (Gen 3-11) into God’s “very good” creation (Gen 1-2), God calls one man who lived during the Middle Bronze age (2000/1800 - 1550 B.C.) as the initial member of God’s covenant people.
In these initial verses of chapter Twelve, God calls Abram away from his country, his people, and his family to live in a new land. There God promises to build Abram into a great nation and to use Abram as an instrument by which to bless “all peoples on earth.”
The stories that follow in the remainder of Genesis tell of how these great promises to Abraham pass from generation to generation. The key is to focus on their overall intent. God is not cutting off Abraham from the world in an exclusive move of privilege. Rather Abraham is being called to form a new community for the rest of the world. In other words in context, Abraham’s family will be the agency by which God will bring blessing to the world as described in Genesis 3-11. This is important. Abram is called to separate so that he can learn to embody a new ethos by which the surrounding cultures can be reached for God.
God’s Universal Intent and God’s Particular Election of Abram
Let me emphasize as least two key aspects here: God’s universal intent and God’s particular election.
First, verse 3 “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” is the interpretive key. This clause brings mission to the forefront. God’s purposes here are much wider than merely calling Abraham to a new life and offering promises to him and his descendants. Rather Genesis 12:1-3 demonstrates that the Bible is ultimately the story of God’s working to bring salvation and wholeness to all creation. Abraham’s family will serve as God’s agency to bring blessing to all peoples on earth. Just as humanity was crafted for participation in God’s mission at the time of Creation (see Gen 1:26-31), God’s recreated people are born anew to work toward the fulfillment of God’s creational purposes.
Second, God has chosen to work through a called people. This raises the issue of particularity. Why didn’t God call multiple persons from all over the planet? The answer is that God’s plan called for the sending of his own Son. The call of Abraham established a beachhead into which God would send his Son. The point here is that Abram and his descendents were not called to a life of privilege as God’s people. Rather they were called to mission. They were called to be the conduits of God’s blessing to the nations.
Third, the call of Abraham is about the creation of a new community. Abraham is called to separation. As noted above, this is a separation not for privilege but for service/mission. It is also a means of God creating a new community. In Genesis 1, God created humanity last in order of created things (living and non-living). Humanity was crafted to serve as a missional community to reflect God’s character to and for the Creation. In an analogous way, God calls Abraham and his family to live and serve as a new humanity. This communal aspect is vital. It is easy for us to view Abraham’s call as a solitary one, but from the beginning, Abraham is not alone. He is accompanied by his wife Sarah, his nephew Lot, and his servants. At the beginning God created humanity for authentic relationships. This continues in the new humanity that God creates. The stories in Genesis 12-50 are typically marked by the leading man–Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph, but at their core, these are family stories.
The Ethics of God’s New Missional Community
You may be wondering how holiness fits into this story. Does it not appear that the promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are unconditional and that their character matters little? After all, none of Israel’s ancestors stand as paragons of virtue - how many times did they pass off their wives as their sisters? (chuckle - chuckle)
These stories are fundamentally about God’s faithfulness in the progress of his mission to bring blessing to the world through Abraham, but there are clear hints that conduct and lifestyle truly matters for this mission to be successful (Christopher J. H. Wright, “Covenant: God’s Mission Through God’s People” in The God of Covenant: Biblical, theological and contemporary perspectives [eds. Jamie A. Grant and Alistair I. Wilson; Leicester: Appolos, 2005], 61-63). We will now briefly consider three texts:
1) NIV Genesis 17:1 When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to him and said, “I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless. 2 I will confirm my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.”
This text occurs in the wider context of the institution of the rite of circumcision and Abram’s name changes to Abraham to indicate the change in status with the official sealing of the Covenant (see also Genesis 15).
The highlighted passages emphasize God’s expectation for character transformation as a part of the new relationship forged between Creator and the recipients of the new covenant.
The combination of “walk” (Heb: hlk) and “blameless” (Heb: tmym) occurs elsewhere in the Pentateuch to describe Noah:
NIV Genesis 6:9 This is the account of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked with God.
Several Psalms also use similar phraseology to describe the ethical norm for God’s people:
NIV Psalm 15:2 He whose walk is blameless and who does what is righteous, who speaks the truth from his heart
NIV Psalm 101:6 My eyes will be on the faithful in the land, that they may dwell with me; he whose walk is blameless will minister to me.
What precisely this would have entailed for Abraham is not explicitly stated in Genesis. Again, the emphasis is more on God’s faithfulness. The next passage however serves to establish further the force of God’s exhortation:
NIV Genesis 18:17 Then the LORD said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do? 18 Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him. 19 For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing what is right and just, so that the LORD will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.”
These verses occur in the segment in which Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed and in which Abraham intercedes on behalf of his nephew Lot. With the negative example of the wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah in the immediate context, verse 19 clearly presents a contrast between God’s expectations for Abraham and the lifestyle/ethos of Sodom and Gomorrah. In fact, this verse establishes an expectation that part of Abraham’s vocation was to “direct” (NIV) his children in the way of the Lord. Implicit here is that Abraham was to instill an ethic of faithful obedience into his household. Note here the links between holiness, mission, and community. Abraham’s family (the new community) was to embody a distinct ethos (holiness) as part of receiving the promises from God (mission - remember: God’s promises are ultimately for all nations).
NIV Genesis 26:2 The LORD appeared to Isaac and said, “Do not go down to Egypt; live in the land where I tell you to live. 3 Stay in this land for a while, and I will be with you and will bless you. For to you and your descendants I will give all these lands and will confirm the oath I swore to your father Abraham. 4 I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and will give them all these lands, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, 5 because Abraham obeyed me and kept my requirements, my commands, my decrees and my laws.”
We don’t want to over-interpret these three passages, but the implications are clear: holiness matters. Too much is at stake in God’s mission to disregard this aspect. Too often we make too much of the debate over the nature of the Abrahamic covenant: Is it conditional or unconditional? This is an important question, but it is not the whole story. God’s call of Abraham is certainly an unconditional offer of promise and blessing. It is the unmerited and unexpected grace of God to Abram. Yet, this unconditional offer nonetheless requires Abram’s human response to enact it. These opening chapters of the story of Israel’s mission to the world are more about establishing God’s faithfulness, but the necessity of a holy community is clearly implicit and anticipates a more thorough treatment later in Scripture.
1) The call of Abraham cannot be overemphasized. It is a key moment in God’s salvation history. It establishes the thread that would ultimate reach its climax in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ (the son of Abraham - Matt 1:1). The call of Abraham links the Creation - Fall sequence of Genesis 1-11 with the story of Israel (Genesis 12 and following). How does Israel fit into world history? It was the nation through whom God chose to bring salvation and blessing to all Creation. Israel’s purpose was to serve as God’s missional community to the world. Abraham marks the beginning of this legacy.
2) Paul offers Abraham as the Forerunner of the Gospel
For Paul, Abraham is the OT example of the good news received by faith and lived out (Romans 4). Paul also clearly saw in Jesus Christ the end time fulfillment of Genesis 12:3.
NIV Galatians 3:6 Consider Abraham: “He believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” 7 Understand, then, that those who believe are children of Abraham. 8 The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you.” 9 So those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.
3) Linkage between God’s grace and human response.
Abraham also offers a portrait of the tension between God’s promises and the need for human response. As noted above, Abraham was called to embody a new ethos in which God’s character was reflected in his life. Modern believers often struggle with the tension between salvation by faith and the demands of obedience. How many of us are not taken aback for example by James’ appropriation of the Abraham story (especially in contrast with Paul - see above):
NIV James 2:20 You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? 21 Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. 23 And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. 24 You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.
James is merely making explicit the necessity of holiness is fulfilling God’s missional purposes. As we discussed above, this is mainly implicit in Genesis in comparison to the theme of God’s faithfulness, but it becomes explicit in the Sinai covenant. The key though is to not make the mistake of making obedience the grounds for salvation. Holiness is created in followers of Jesus following their reception of salvation. Faithful obedience is the human response to God’s grace.
4) Model for living as a sojourner in a foreign land.
Abraham died before seeing the fulfillment of God’s promise of the Land of Canaan. Ironically, it was only with the passing of his wife Sarah that Abraham even tasted partial fulfillment of God’s promises. At the death of Sarah, Abraham purchased Ephron’s field in Machpelah near Mamre– both the field and the cave in it for use as a burial plot (Gen 23:1-20). It was for later generations to experience the gift of the land. Abraham spent his days moving around the land of Canaan living as a stranger in a strange land. This is the calling of the modern believer as well. Following the resurrection of Jesus, Jesus sends his disciples into world (Matthew 28; Luke 24; Acts 1). Paul reminds the proud citizens of Philippi that their true citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20). In other words, followers of Christ today find themselves in a position similar to Abraham. We live in a land that is not truly ours. Instead, our focus is to live as tangible embodiments of God in our world. Like Abraham and through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, we become Jesus’ ambassadors (2 Cor 5) and conduits of God’s grace to the world around.
What do you think?
Â© 2007 Brian D. Russell.
This essay is a revised version of one posted in January 2006. I want to thank those who commented on the earlier post. In particular, Claude Mariottini a professor of OT at Northern Baptist Seminary offered some helpful commentary on it. Check it out.