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 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 the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” 4 So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. 5 Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran; and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan. When they had come to the land of Canaan, 6 Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. 7 Then the Lord appeared to Abram, and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him. 8 From there he moved on to the hill country on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and there he built an altar to the Lord and invoked the name of the Lord. 9 And Abram journeyed on by stages toward the Negeb.
Whenever I preach on this text, I confess, I prefer to focus on the first half of the pericope. I home in on the Lord saying, “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” (Gen 12:2). Specifically, I’m attracted to the concept of a nation being blessed to be a blessing.
Given all of the “God Bless America” patriotism in the United States, I am drawn to the biblical ideal that this text conveys—inasmuch as God does bless any nation, that nation is blessed in order that they be a blessing to other nations in return. There are some good sermons in that.
However, one of my respected mentors in biblical studies once reminded our class that the portions of the text that we would rather—or, in fact, do—forget are often the ones most fruitful for further study. And so, reluctantly, I turn my attention today to the latter half of the assigned pericope:
Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. Then the Lord appeared to Abram, and said, ‘To your offspring I will give this land.’ (Gen 12:6-7, emphasis added)
I want to read over that italicized line. I want to pretend that the “land flowing with milk and honey” (Ex 33:3) was in fact an unoccupied land—a specially preserved paradise, just waiting for the Israelite people to discover it. But, unfortunately, we all know the rest of the story. The Israelites “discovered” the land of Canaan in the same way that Columbus (or the Vikings, or whichever Western nation history favors arriving first) “discovered” the Americas—the land was occupied.
Even that is a sterile way of saying it. When Abram passed through the land and arrived at Shechem, he discovered that there were people living there. Men, women, and children—families—had built their homes and their livelihoods in that place. They were farming, gathering in cities, and doing all the typical things that people do. They were living in the land. Genesis leaves that word out—the action, what the Canaanites were doing, is assumed and, instead, we are told simply that they were there. But we cannot ignore the reality of what people—any people—do in the places where they are: they live, they survive, they build lives for themselves.
Of course, the Torah goes on to remind us that these people were sinful. They deserved God’s punishment, we might say. But what was that Jesus said about the speck in our neighbor’s eye (cf. Matthew 7:3-5)? In my faith tradition, we confess every Sunday that we are sinners worthy of God’s wrath. And so, as sympathetic as I am for the Israelites to whom God promises the land—and, to be clear, I personally identify with them—I can’t take my mind off the Canaanites already in the land.
At this point, the connections are really boundless. On the broader political level, both current and historic, my mind is naturally drawn to the struggles between Israel and Palestine, to the European conquest of the Americas from numerous native tribes to which I already alluded, and to so many other examples I cannot begin to count.
However, while the term “conquest” may primarily imply national or global politics, it is hardly limited to those spheres. In perhaps more mundane, but no less life-altering ways, I am acutely aware that I live in a home built in a well-manicured, planned, and developed subdivision, constructed on land purchased in a county that has legislated no longer to allow mobile home parks within its limits. This, of course, protects the property value of my home. But, if I were to have visited the same county fifty years ago, I would have seen both more open land and numerous mobile home parks in which people were living in the land.
No one conquered this county with battles or armies in order to build subdivisions on the land. Instead, it was the power of the “almighty dollar” that won my own personal plot of land flowing with milk and honey. And I suppose there are even preachers out there who would tell me that this is God’s way of blessing me—so that I might be a blessing. This is the rhetoric of success (or conquest), I think.
And so, I must be careful. First, to remember that Genesis is a book written by the Israelites after they had received the blessing of the land of Canaan. Second, to remember that the lives of the Israelites, even at the time of the writing of Genesis, were far from easy and serene—they had experienced more than their own share of struggle and dispossession. It was, in fact, in this context of mixed “curse” and “blessing” that the Israelites penned Genesis in order to begin to make sense of God’s place in their history. If the Canaanites had written the story, I imagine it would have ultimately taken a different variation on this same theme—blessing and curse, finding one’s place in a turbulent world.
Perhaps not surprisingly, this theme—of finding one’s place in a turbulent world—also resonates with me. In this context, I can trust in a God who both leads a group of faithful people to the place they need to be in the time they need to be there and reminds them that, inasmuch as they are blessed, they are also to be a blessing for everyone else. In this context, I can emulate a faithful Abram who, after arriving at the land which God had already promised him, and seeing people living there, both gives thanks to God and moves on, pitching his tent in an area not occupied by any other people (12:7-9). This, I believe, is trusting in God’s plan and God’s time.
While my political sensibilities cannot always understand or even reconcile the way that these plans and times are worked out as they are described by the authors of the ancient texts we call the Bible, with Abram, I can always rejoice and give thanks that the Lord is at the heart of them.
What is conquest? When is conquest okay or even to be celebrated? Is conquest ever okay or to be celebrated? These are questions I’ll leave to political theorists—at least for now. But what is God’s place in our lives in these turbulent times—these times when we (like both the Canaanites and Israelites) are constantly upturned in our daily lives, when we are both faithful and sinful, blessed and cursed, and cannot always tell the right of one side from the wrong of another? This, I believe, is a question worth asking, a question worth praying about, and perhaps even preaching on.
How, then, are we to be faithful? How are we to avoid cursing others and instead be a blessing? What is God’s timing and purpose, and what is our own?
To such questions, I don’t pretend to have an answer. And so, I return, to the ancient text of Genesis in the book we call the Bible and, conflicted yet faithful, I read again about God’s word of blessing, God’s command to be a blessing, Abram’s faithfulness in following, his patience in waiting, and the ultimate promise for both Abram and the Canaanites that “all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12:3).