Genesis 12: Promises and Commands (1-5)

By Mary Jane Chaignot

When Abraham was 75 years old, God called to him, suddenly, saying, "GO, from your country, your kindred, your father's house, to a land that I will show you!" 4000 years ago these words were especially harsh demands. Yet, they were absolutely crucial and marked the beginning of Abraham's story.

The first word is, "GO!" In Hebrew, this is two short words — lech lecha. Literally, they mean, "Go you!" It is a direct command. "Go you" doesn't sound right in English, so the "you" is usually omitted, thereby rendering it as "go, leave." It sounds very different; it's almost like a casual suggestion, something rather commonplace. In fact, there was nothing commonplace about these words. They were severe. They also have an ascending order — country, kindred, and father's house. Each one becomes more difficult, more personal. Leaving your country wasn't the smartest thing to do. It was a lot like taking your life in your own hands. There was no protection for travelers or strangers in foreign lands. Aliens could be kidnapped or killed, and no one would be prosecuted. In those days, it was the sole role of kindred to take care of their own, to avenge any wrongful deaths, and to provide protection in numbers. He was to leave them, too. But, leaving his father was the worst of all. Many scholars find this so abhorrent that they insist Terah had already died at that time. And in fact, the notation of his death immediately precedes these verses. But the date is hard to reconcile, so most scholars agree that Terah lived in Haran another sixty years after Abraham left.

Rabbinical studies suggest that lech lecha could be translated as "Go to yourself." Perhaps, Abraham was being ordered to cut himself off from his past — to be alone with God and to depend on Him completely. He was being asked to leave behind everything that represented security or safety. From now on, God will provide these things. Abraham doesn't even know where he is supposed to be going. He is simply told to go "to the land that I will show you," and to leave his secure life for one completely unknown. The demands are heavy, indeed. But these were not the final word. Alongside the demands are a series of blessings, of promises.

God also says, "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 curses you I will curse; and by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves" (RSV 12:1-3). These are the promises, the blessings, and the new beginnings. From now on, everything that happens and all that Abraham does will in some way be related to these promises. They will cause tensions in the story, and there will be resolutions. They will provide the key for interpreting this story.

For example, God says, "I will make of you a great nation." It's a tremendous promise, but in the family history of Terah that just preceded these promises, the narrator states that Abraham's wife, Sarai, is barren; she has no children. Now there is tension in the story. Abraham is 75 years old, and he still has no heir. In the story of Babel, which occurs just before that family history, the people want to make a name for themselves, and everything thereafter goes amuck. Now in the first pronouncement, God has freely given that promise to Abraham. "I will make your name great."

There are seven elements in these promises. All in all, a form of the word "blessing" occurs five times. The first is "I will make of you a great nation." "Great" can include both the concept of importance and simple numbers. Imagine how this must have sounded to someone Abraham's age who is childless. God continues, "I will bless you." That means he will be prosperous, and he will accomplish what he sets out to do. This is promised in spite of the fact that he was just told to leave everything he had ever known — his country, his kindred and his father.

Then comes, "I will make your name great." Names in antiquity are very significant. They are descriptive; they express the very essence of one's being. Abram means father; Sarai means princess. The fourth element in God's promises is, "Be a blessing." This again has the force of an imperative. God is saying that His blessings are like leaven. One is blessed in order to bless others. There is a sense of responsibility here.

Next, "I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you." In its simplest sense, this is a protection for Abraham. The attitude of people towards Abraham will determine God's attitude towards them. This is very important for Abraham because he will be an alien in a foreign land, without protection from his kindred. God is promising to bless those who treat him well and severely punish those who don't. He continues, "By you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves." Now, the blessing includes all the families of the earth — because of Abraham. Notice how this flows. The first blessing is for Abraham, personally. Then the people interacting with him are included. Now everyone is included. The blessing is going from the particular to the universal. Through these blessings, we begin to get a glimpse of the larger picture, of what's at stake. These blessings, then, will continually undergird the development of our story.

And what does Abraham do once he hears all this? In 12:4, it states, "so Abraham went, as the Lord had told him." There is no hint as to how he feels about it whether it is an easy or hard thing to do. He just went. However, the text is quite clear that he doesn't just go off by himself. He takes a lot along, including his wife, his possessions, the people he had acquired in Haran, and his nephew, Lot. Did not God tell him to leave his kindred behind? Is Lot not his kindred? Does this mean that Abraham is being less than totally obedient to God's command? Some scholars say this may have been done simply to keep Lot in the story because there are stories involving him later on. On the other hand, maybe it's a bit more intricate than that. Consider this: Abraham is a father who has no son; Lot is a son who has no father. Abraham has just been promised that he would be the father of a great nation. Lot is the closest thing to an heir that he has. Perhaps, he is considering Lot as the vehicle for his becoming a great nation. It remains to be seen how this unfolds.