1 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. 2 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. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” – Genesis 12:1-3 ESV
With the opening verses of chapter 12, Moses provides his Hebrew readers with an important history lesson that solidifies their unique role in God’s redemptive plan for all mankind. For generations, the Jews had rightfully viewed themselves as God’s chosen people. They considered themselves to be a people who had been set apart by God and declared to be His “treasured possession.” Those were the very words that Moses had communicated to them not long after God delivered them out of captivity in Egypt.
“Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the people of Israel: ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’” – Exodus 19:3-6 ESV
Years later, when the people of Israel were standing on the border of Canaan, preparing to enter into the land that God had promised to give them, Moses reminded them of their privileged position as God’s set-apart people.
“For you are a holy people, who belong to the LORD your God. Of all the people on earth, the LORD your God has chosen you to be his own special treasure.” – Deuteronomy 7:6 NLT
When reading the story of Abram’s call, it is essential to keep this unique relationship between God and the nation of Israel in mind. The original audience to whom Moses wrote would have relished this retelling of their storied history, but it’s likely that they missed some of the key messages that God had intended for them to hear. They would have brightened at the mention of Abram’s name. This would have been the part of the story where they sat up and took notice. God’s call of Abram had been the impetus for their very existence.
And while that was true, there is something far more significant in the story of Abram’s call than the formation of a single, set-apart nation. For generations, the descendants of Abram had missed the divine purpose behind their existence. They had not earned their favored status with God. The Almighty had not looked down from heaven, noticed their righteous behavior, and decided to reward them with a promotion. In fact, Moses had fully dispelled any thought of their favored status being a reward.
“The LORD did not set his heart on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other nations, for you were the smallest of all nations! Rather, it was simply that the LORD loves you, and he was keeping the oath he had sworn to your ancestors.” – Deuteronomy 7:7-8 NLT
That last line is the key to understanding Genesis 12. The Hebrews, as descendants of Abram, had been created by God. Despite their long and storied history, they had not always existed. There had been a time when not a single Jew walked the face of the earth. Even Abram was not of Jewish descent. He was a Chaldean. But from this one man came a people whom God would set apart. Like the rest of the universe in Genesis 1, the Hebrew people would be created by God, ex nihilo (out of nothing). And the 12th chapter of Genesis begins the story of this “new creation” by God.
The apostle Peter picked up on this theme when writing his first letter. He was addressing Christians who were living in Asia Minor and suffering persecution because of their faith. At one point in his letter, he describes them as “aliens and strangers” (1 Peter 2:11), living in the midst of the spiritual darkness that surrounded them. And he used language that compared them to the people of Israel.
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. – 1 Peter 2:9-10 ESV
That last line is critical. At one time, these people had not been “a people.” Oh, they existed, but they lacked a relationship with God. The apostle Paul addressed the Gentile believers in Ephesus with a similar thought.
…remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. – Ephesians 2:12 BSB
And Paul went on to remind them of the dramatic transformation that God had brought about in their lives.
Therefore you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of God’s household… – Ephesians 2:19 BSB
So, back to Genesis 12. With the opening line of the chapter, Moses describes God as sovereignly inserting Himself into the affairs of humanity once again. After all the genealogical lists describing the various lines of Shem, Ham, and Japheth, God focuses His attention on one man: Abram. And to this one individual, God issues a call and provides a promise.
“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 dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” – Genesis 12:1-3 ESV
According to chapter 11, Abram had been born in Ur of the Chaldeans, located in the land of Shinar. But at one point, his father had made the decision to move his entire family to Canaan. The text provides is no explanation for this costly and difficult relocation. But it is not difficult to see the sovereign hand of God orchestrating this entire affair.
It would have taken a great deal of time and effort to make the long journey from Ur to Canaan. Because the arid and impassable Arabian Desert was located immediately east of Ur, Terah was forced to take a time-consuming detour that eventually led them to Haran. And, once in Haran, Terah had a change of heart and decided to settle down. but God had other plans for Abram. In time, Haran became home to Abram. He too settled down and began to put down roots. But at some point, God commanded him to leave everything behind.
“Leave your native country, your relatives, and your father’s family, and go to the land that I will show you.” – Genesis 12:1 NLT
This was a huge “ask” on God’s part. In those days, family ties were essential to survival. By this time in human history, the world had become a hostile place occupied by disparate people groups based on clans and tribal relationships. After God had scattered the nations across the face of the earth (Genesis 11:9), territorial boundaries and indigenous communities had become commonplace. Everyone had staked out their claims and was protecting their particular piece of the global pie. So, it would not have been easy for Abram to leave the safety and security of his clan behind.
But God’s command came with a promise. He was going to provide Abram with a new home in a new land. And it just happened to be the very same land that Terah had intended as his family’s destination. Perhaps Terah had given up on Canaan because he heard it was already occupied by other, more powerful clans. But this would prove to be no problem for God. For the first time since God had placed Adam in Eden, a man was going to be given a specific tract of land to occupy. And like Eden, Canaan was a beautiful and fruitful land, “a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:8 ESV).
According to God, this new land would become the sole possession of Abram’s descendants. In a sense, Canaan had Abram’s name on the deed. And it would be in this land that God would bless Abram and produce through him “a great nation.”
But there is a problem. It was mentioned in chapter 11 but only in passing. In the listing of Terah’s descendants, Abram is described as taking a wife for himself – a woman named Sarai. And then, almost as an aside, the test reveals, “Now Sarai was barren; she had no child” (Genesis 11:30 ESV). Abram would have been completely unaware of Sarai’s condition. But God knew. And yet, knowing that Sarai was incapable of bearing children, God declared that Abram would become the father of a great nation. God was going to bless Abram by giving him offspring. And those offspring would become a blessing to all the nations of the earth. An undeserving man and his barren wife would become the means by which God would pour out His blessings on all humanity.
And this is the point that the Hebrew people tended to miss. They considered themselves to be blessed by God because they were descendants of Abram. But they neglected to remember that their blessing came with a responsibility: They were to have been a blessing to the nations. God had set apart Abram and all his descendants so that they might serve as His representatives to the nations. God had promised to make them His “treasured possession among all peoples” (Exodus 19:5 ESV). But they had a job to do.
…you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation… – Exodus 19:6 ESV
Priests were intended to be the mediators between God and man. The Hebrew people had been set apart by God so that they might minister on His behalf to all the nations of the earth. But they had proved to be unfaithful priests and far from a holy nation. But God’s promise would still be fulfilled. Because it would be through the line of Abram that He would bring the offspring through whom all the nations of the earth would be blessed. Jesus would accomplish what the nation of Israel had failed to do.
“I am the Lord; I have called you in righteousness;
I will take you by the hand and keep you;
I will give you as a covenant for the people,
a light for the nations… ” – Isaiah 42:6 ESV
“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to bring back the preserved of Israel;
I will make you as a light for the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” – Isaiah 49:6 ESV
That is what sets this chapter apart. In it is contained the hope of all eternity. The coming of the Messiah is weaved into the fabric of Abram’s call and provides the underlying foundation for God’s promise of future blessing for all mankind.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.