Studying Genesis 12 1-7 and 15 1-7

We are turning back from Revelation – the end of the Christian Bible – to Genesis – the beginning of the story – this week. We’re starting a new set of texts, arranged to give us a sense of the narrative arc that goes from Abraham to David. One way to think of that is as the early family history of the Messiah. This week we’re studying Genesis 12:1-7 and Genesis 15:1-7, sometimes identified as “the call of Abraham,” and the first mention of the covenant with Abraham. Who isn’t Abraham yet, but rather Abram. Here are a few notes on this text:

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BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: We are back in the book of Genesis, first volume of the Torah. We might usefully think of it as a compilation of the earliest narrative materials of the Israelites. I say “narrative materials” because we can’t say with any precision when these stories first came to be written, rather than oral, texts. Maybe, very early on. The text we have seems to have stabilized in the 5th century BCE, in the early aftermath of the Babylonian exile. So another way to think about it is as ancient textualized memory. Which might encourage us to keep asking ourselves: why is it important to remember this?

We are picking up the story with the tightening of focus on Abram, after the first eleven chapters of Genesis that start with the genealogy of the heavens and the earth, move to the first stories of human beings, progress through several catastrophic disruptions of the humans’ relationship to God and God’s efforts to set things right, and finally end up with human beings dispersed across the face of the earth, and the text taking a special interest in the descendents of Shem.

At the end of Genesis 11, we get a compressed family story about Terah and his three sons, Abram, Nahor, and Haran. There is untimely death, and marriage, and the disappointment of childlessness. Then Terah moves with Abram and his family, and his grandson Lot, to Haran. The text doesn’t tell us why. This is the immediate background for the focus on God’s exchanges with Abram over the next few chapters.

Between Genesis 12, God’s saying to Abram to move to a land yet-to-be-identified, and Genesis 15, God’s further elaboration of promises to Abram, there is romance-thriller movie material involving Abram’s sister-wife Sarai and action-adventure movie material involving Abram’s nephew Lot. The story of Sarai in the court of Pharaoh comes in Genesis 12:10-20. The story of Lot and Abram separating, with Lot choosing the area around Sodom and Gomorrah, and then getting caught up (literally) in a local war, being rescued by Abram, and Abram being blessed by Melchizedek, king of Salem and priest of God Most High, is told in Genesis 13-14.

Following the exchange at the beginning of chapter 15, Abram and God make a more formal covenant involving animal sacrifice and dark visions. The stories about Abram/Abraham continue with the story of Hagar, Sarai, Abram, and Ishmael; another cutting of a covenant, this time involving circumcision and changed names; another announcement of progeny, involving mysterious visitors, who are also on their way to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, which will catch Lot and his family up into the story again for a while; the birth of Isaac, with its initial joy and its ensuing trauma all around; Sarah’s death; and the conclusion of the story with the passing of the narrative to Isaac and, more dramatically, Rebekah, and with the epilogue about Abraham’s third wife, Keturah, and Abraham’s death and burial in Genesis 25.

The travel involved is considerable. A nice map of Abram’s route is at the BibleMapper here. There’s a conveniently timely discussion of “The Geographical Context of Ancient Israel” by Cynthia Shafer-Elliott here.

The lectionary includes both these texts completely, with Genesis 12:1-9 appearing in the semi-continuous series for the 10th Sunday in Ordinary time (A), and with one of the episodes in the “call of / covenant with Abraham” being the Old Testament option for the Second Sunday of Lent EVERY YEAR. The Church thinks this is a story churchgoers need to know.

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CLOSER READING (Genesis 12:1-7): Verse 1 opens with direct speech by God (YHWH), the structure of which seems to be important.

  • Go (which can literally mean “walk”, which may literally be what the humans do)
  • from “your land” and from “your kin” and from “the house of your father”
  • to “the land that I will show you.”

Vv2-3 continue God’s direct speech, with the promise to make Abram a nation – which feels interesting, since usually the term “nations” refers to outsiders, but here it clearly is desirable – and to bless. Blessing in one form or another occurs five times in these two verses. If we count the cursing of those who curse Abraham as another form of blessing – its opposite – we could make that seven times. The blessing is the main point. It is not explicitly contingent on Abraham’s “going,” but we probably understand it that way.

Vv4-6 are mostly about movement. Abram walks and leaves; as does Lot. Abram takes Sarai, Lot, possessions, and “souls” they had made in Haran – Rashi says these are people Abram and Sarai have converted in Haran. They go up to go/walk and they come to the land of Canaan. Abram crosses the land.

The location is specific: Shechem, by the oak or terebinth at Moreh. Shechem will appear in the text again, several times, not usually positively. It is the location of the rape of Dinah followed by Simeon and Levi’s massacre of the Shechemites in revenge; it’s also where Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery. It’s also where Joshua makes a covenant between “the people” and God as they enter the land from the Jordan side. Shechem might not have been the most auspicious site for that after all, as the book of Judges might bear out.

V7 is an epiphany. YHWH appears, for the first time, and speaks again. The content of the speech is that YHWH will give this land to Abram’s seed. Abram builds – not a house, but an altar, to commemorate YHWH, whose appearance appears in the text a second time, as the memory built in to the altar. In a sense, the altar seems to make visible Abram’s seed’s claim on the land, although Rashi suggests Abram builds the altar to pray for Jacob, in advance, because of the violence associated with the place.

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(Genesis 15:1-7): The “things” that precede these verses are the separation with Lot, and then the military engagement to rescue Lot after he’s been abducted, and the blessing by Melchizedek. The threat of death that hovers over the military engagement might help explain why God’s first words to Abram are about fear – don’t do it – and protection – I am your shield.

The word of YHWH takes place or “is” or “happens” to Abram in a vision and speaks. Abram returns the speaking. The word of YHWH speaks more, three more times. The two parties exchange words, including behold.

Abram’s speech is about giving: what will God give him, since God has obviously not given him  seed and he is childless – the word in v2 is unusual, and sounds like a cry; Rashi suggests it has the connotation of being uprooted.

God gets Abram moving again, this time bringing him outside to look (like, behold) and count the stars if he is able to count them (like seed? That God has made? So many of, in a dark vault that is even, kind of, like a womb). So, in a vision, God gives Abram a vision of something to come.

Abram believes – literally, more like “trusts” or “feels certain” – God. [!! This verb is very arguably related to the description of Wisdom in Proverbs 8:30 – that is, if we read Wisdom as Adonai’s “little child,” rather than Adonai’s “master worker” there.] God reckons it to him as righteousness [famously].

Then, however, God confirms that the speaker is the very God who has been moving Abram around for a reason since Ur (the place he left with his father, Terah, we might recall). God is playing a long game. And Abram needs some more clarity and convincing, which is the rest of the weirdly visionary chapter.

In English, it looks like there is a lot of counting going on in vv5-6. In Hebrew, though, God’s reckoning or accounting in v6 doesn’t look or sound anything like the counting Abram is doing in v5. It sounds more like the covenanting they will be doing together a few verses on. So that God’s inward “reckoning” (about offspring and trust and righteousness) hints at, maybe, the more outward, covenanted promise to come (about possessing land).

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a view of contemporary Nablus (Shechem)
A view of contemporary Nablus (Shechem)

Images: “Torah scrolls in the Reconstructionist Synagogue of Montreal,” Genevieve2, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons; “Nablus 002,” أمين, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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