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Genesis 12:19; 13:518 comment (0)

April 3, 2008

By James R. Strange

Related Scripture: Genesis 12:19; 13:518

Bible Studies for Life
Assistant Professor of Religion, Department of Religion, Samford University

Pioneers in the Covenant

Genesis 12:1–9; 13:5–18
Called to Change (12:1–3)

“Go,” God said. Thus begins the story of Abram and Sarai and so the story of Israel, too. And they go. By agreeing to God’s terms, Abram and Sarai surrender the known for the unknown, but they go with the assurance of great reward framed in the values of the ancient Near East: honor through progeny and memory (“I will make of you a great nation ... and make your name great.”). 

Readers should note three lessons, two implied and one stated clearly in the text. First, we are never told why God chooses Abram and Sarai for this job. Surely there were hundreds of thousands of other Mesopotamians whom God could have called (Who knows? Maybe God did and maybe they all said no.). Later the author makes no bones about it: neither Abram nor Sarai is particularly righteous or moral. Second, what is important, therefore, is their willingness to obey (This, in fact, is true of nearly every biblical “hero.”). That is the author implies that they could have said no but chose to say yes instead. Third, biblical authors tend to place the most important thing last, as is the case here: God blesses the couple “so that” they in turn may bless. God makes two promises to Abram and Sarai (really one stated twice), and both end in a similar way: God pours divine grace through this family and its descendents onto “all the families of the earth.” The author of Psalm 23 says it this way: “My cup overflows.”

Clarity Follows Obedience (12:4–9)
The author assumes that his readers know the geography of the region, so look at the maps at the back of your Bible. Abram’s father had been headed from Ur to Canaan when he settled in Haran, in the northern apex of the Fertile Crescent (Gen. 11:31). After Terah’s death, Abram and Sarai journey south and enter the land of Canaan from the north, and by verse 10, they have passed through the entire length of the land and entered Egypt, a total journey of around 800 miles (about the distance from Montgomery to Miami). The original readers, and we as well, know that Canaan is the land that God is talking about in verse 1, but the author says nothing about it here. Abram and Sarai pass through Canaan apparently unawares, journeying “by stages” (v. 9), waiting to be told when they have reached their destination and carrying on as best they can (which, quite frankly, often is not very well; see Gen. 12:10–20 for one example) until God’s plan is clarified. To “go” is all they know to do for now so they go.

Conflict Comes (13:5–13)

The theme from the previous section continues. Abram and Sarai have kept moving, surviving a fiasco of their own making in Egypt — one that very nearly undoes the divine plan — and coming back into Canaan, where Abram and Lot have to negotiate a settlement to resolve strife between their herders. By the end of the passage, and after a seemingly unconnected series of events, Abram and Sarai are finally “settled in the land of Canaan” where God wants them to be but still without confirmation that this is “the land that I will show you” and any sign of the promise. 

Yet life goes on. Saying yes to God does not alter that fact. Conflicts arise, as they will continually in the patriarchal cycle, and God’s intentions are not at all transparent, as will always be the case. Here Abram chooses to act selflessly (something he did not do in Egypt), allowing Lot the choice land.

Count on God’s Promises (13:14–18)
At last, a word from God. By aiming for God’s promise but knowing no more than that, Abram and Sarai end up where they are supposed to be, and God affirms what He said 1,200 miles ago: their offspring will be more than a great nation; they will be innumerable. The other part of the promise is unstated here, but many biblical authors present it as the final goal behind every divine action: to bring God’s blessing to the entire world. Note, however, that Abram and Sarai still live in the meantime, between God’s promise and its fulfillment. Until that time, as before, life goes on.

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