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.
The call of Abram is a pivotal moment in the Genesis account, marking the transition from the more general perspective of the first eleven chapters of the book to the focus upon Abraham and his offspring that characterizes the remaining chapters of Genesis and, with them, the rest of the Old Testament. A number of crucial scriptural themes that pervade the Old and New Testament are first introduced at this point.
The significance of the call of Abram is cast in a bolder relief on account of its juxtaposition with the events of Babel in the preceding chapter. Whereas the builders of the city of Babel and its tower sought to make a name for themselves in their project (11:4), YHWH promised Abram that he would make his name great (12:2). Whereas the builders of Babel sought to establish themselves firmly in a secure location, to avoid being dispersed around the world, YHWH uproots Abram and summons him to a life of wandering. Whereas the scattered nations arose from the curse of Babel, the great nation to be formed from Abram finds its nascence in an act of blessing.
Within Genesis divine creative acts frequently begin with a separation or division—light from darkness, the waters above from those below, the seas from the dry land, taking from the side of the man. New beginnings in human history occur likewise, through the establishment of a breach, by which new forms of union are made possible (e.g. Genesis 2:24). In the call of Abram, YHWH establishes a covenantal division in the human race, initiating a new creative work.
Abram’s call cuts him off from his land, his kin, and his heritage; he abandons all of these on the strength of a divine word that he will receive each of them anew. No longer are they held as a secure possession, as the givens of Abram’s existence: hereafter, they must be patiently awaited as promised gifts, their security that of YHWH’s trustworthiness, Abram’s only purchase on them his faith.
Abram’s call is an event of radical dispossession, rendering him an orphan, an alien, a stranger, and a wanderer in the world. Like a palimpsest, the marks of Abram’s past self, lines scribed with a curse-dipped pen, are washed away, leaving Abram a blank page. The quill of divine providence hovers over him, a sheet released from its old binding. The building tension of promise awaiting the resolution of fulfilment disrupts any natural immediacy of relationship between Abram and the land, seed, and nationhood promised to him, establishing them as realities electrified by grace.
YHWH’s word to Abram declares a multi-faceted blessing, although the precise meaning of it has been a matter of debate. It is not immediately clear whether ‘you will be a blessing’ and ‘in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed’ refer to the fact that Abram will be a cause of blessing to others, or whether they refer to Abram’s reputation rendering his name a common feature in blessing formulae—‘May God may you prosper as he prospered Abraham!’ (cf. Genesis 48:20).
Most famously, Genesis 12:3b is taken up by the Apostle Paul in Galatians 3:8-14, where he appeals to it as an advance declaration of his gospel, fulfilled as the blessing of Abraham comes upon the Gentiles in Jesus Christ. Such a reading of the text already had some precedent in the LXX: there it is rendered as a passive verb (‘they shall be blessed’), rather than a reflexive one (‘they shall bless themselves’).
Although the initial blessing on Abram is possibly ambivalent in its meaning, this ambivalence could in part be regarded as a charged latency of meaning; it is the first abbreviated statement of a theme that is filled out over the rest of the course of Genesis and Scripture, later texts exploring and unlocking its semantic promise.
As Genesis progresses, we see the escalation of the terms of the blessing: in 18:18, God declares that Abraham will become a ‘powerful’ nation, and that ‘nations’, not merely ‘families’, will be blessed/bless themselves by him. In 17:4-5, we are told that he will be father to a multitude of nations. Not only Abraham, but also his descendants will become the means of blessing (22:18).
Abraham’s descendants inherit the blessing of Abraham (28:4, 14) and carry his name (48:15-16). Even Ishmael, with whom the covenant isn’t established, receives an Abrahamic style blessing (17:20). Isaac is blessed on account of YHWH’s promise to Abraham and Abraham’s faithful response (26:3-5, 24).
Depending on their treatment of the covenant bearers, other peoples are either blessed or judged (26:28-29; 30:27, 30; 39:5). The book of Genesis culminates with the descendants of Abraham being a cause of blessing to the Egyptians, in whose blessing they themselves are saved. Joseph describes himself as ‘a father’ to Pharaoh in 45:8 and Jacob blesses Pharaoh in 47:7-10.
In the call of Abram and the outworking of the blessing upon him and covenant with him, we witness something of the logic of election. Although many argue that the call of Abram was for the purpose of the blessing of the world, election cannot be simply instrumentalized. The logic of election is the logic of love: YHWH’s choice and call of Abram was an end in itself.
The election and blessing of Abram is not expended in the blessing of the nations, but extended into it. When the nations are blessed, they are blessed in, with, and for the sake of believing Abraham. Abraham is not the vanishing mediator or disposable channel of the divine promise, but the father of believing Jews and Gentiles, in whom they both receive the blessing. The universal scope of the blessing’s international outpouring is not the erasure of the particularism of the love by which it is given, but its fullest expression.
As we already see in Genesis itself, the blessing of Abram is also the blessing of his offspring: the people with whom they interact are blessed or judged according to their dealings with them and the blessing they bring steadily spreads out into the wider world.
In Romans and Galatians, Paul declares that believing Jews and Gentiles alike are the chosen seed of Abraham in Christ. Like Abram in Genesis 12, believing Gentiles are unplugged from their past solidarities, wild branches grafted onto the olive tree of Israel, cleaned parchments inserted into a new Abrahamic history. As with Abram, the closed immediacy of old realities is replaced by a world charged with expectancy and the openness of the promise, a world received in the mode of a gift.
The logic of election also continues. We have been blessed with and on account of Abraham, and, as a chosen people, we can be bearers of blessing to our societies, others being blessed on our account. In the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25:31-46), people are judged according to their reception or rejection of Christ’s brethren: ‘I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse.’ In addition to this, like Abraham, the Church is also invited to intercede for the nations (1 Timothy 2:1-4) and bear good news to them (Luke 24:46-47), to be an active agent of divine blessing in the world.
Retracing the course of the blessing of Abraham back to that watershed moment of Genesis 12, we will better understand our place both as recipients and conduits of that blessing in the present time. Like our father Abraham, we are called to live as resident aliens and pilgrims in this present age, elect of God and the chosen bearers of his blessing to the nations in which we find ourselves.
Alastair Roberts is the contributing editor of the Politics of Scripture.