Commentary on Genesis 12:1-9

Last updated: June 8, 2009

English Translation (ESV)

1Now 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. 2And 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. 3I 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.”

4So Abram went, as the LORD had told him, and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. 5And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother’s son, and all their possessions that they had gathered, and the people that they had acquired in Haran, and they set out to go to the land of Canaan. When they came to the land of Canaan, 6Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. 7Then 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. 8From there he moved 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 called upon the name of the LORD. 9And Abram journeyed on, still going toward the Negeb.

Notes

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.

In context, Abram’s country must be Haran (11:27). Abram’s birthplace need not be in view1. “The enormity of God’s demand and the agonizing nature of the decision to be made are effectively conveyed through the cluster of terms arranged in ascending order according to the severity of the sacrifice involved: country, extended family, nuclear family”2. Most commentators view God’s command as a test of Abram’s faith.

He must decide whether to abandon his land in favor of the land Yahweh offers. He must decide whether to abandon what family he still has in favor of the family Yahweh promises (against all logic, given Sarai’s infertility). He must decide whether to set aside his blessing, his inheritance, for the inheritance Yahweh describes. The initiative offers much, but its cost is significant. Abram must trust Yahweh to deliver what he has offered in order to give up so much that Abram already has to gain.3

It is noteworthy that the command (12:1) and promises (12:2-3) of God precede the implementation of the covenant (Genesis 15).

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.

The promise that Abram will become a great nation is repeated in 18:18. Ishmael (17:20; 21:18) and Jacob (46:3) are also promised that they will each become a great nation. This promise is fulfilled by time of the exodus4.

Every mention of the root “to bless” is a paronomastic allusion to Abram’s name5. The patriarchs are materially blessed throughout Genesis. Whereas the Babelites attempted to make a name for themselves through their own initiative (11:4), Abram’s name will be made great through his relatively passive obedience to God. Language similar to verse 2 is used to describe King David (2 Samuel 7:9) and the king (Psalm 72:17). This is the first suggestion that Abram is a regal figure. Later, Abram is promised that kings will come from him (17:6, 16) and he is called a prince by the Hittites (23:6).

The meaning of “be a blessing” is debated. The main point is that Abram will be the mediator of the blessing. Verse 3 clarifies this phrase.

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.”

The Hebrew word translated “dishonors” generally covers verbal assaults on God or one’s superiors6. The blessings and curses mentioned in verse 3 can be seen later in Genesis7.

The Hebrew word translated “families” refers to a group between a tribe and an extended family8. There is disagreement about whether the last phrase of the verse should be translated “shall be blessed” (passive voice) or “shall bless themselves” (reflexive voice). This is an important distinction for “shall be blessed” would clearly articulate a divine goal for universal salvation.

The passive translation probably suits the context of the passage best, since God is the source (“I will” [6x]) and Abram in our analysis is the channel (“you will be a blessing,” v. 2d). It also is consistent with the idea of a divine plan, which the tenor of the entire book conveys by the motif of an exclusive family (chosen). As for the example of Ps 72:17b above, it can be contextually understood in the passive (e.g., AV, NIV, NRSV) and therefore cannot be determinative for Genesis.

Also significant is how the construction of this last verbal clause (“will be blessed,” v. 3c) differs from the previous promises, which are first-person verbs (cohortatives); this final promise is introduced by the perfective form. The construction indicates a purpose clause, as the previous promises, but its different expression distinguishes the final clause as the ultimate goal of the command, “Leave . . . so that all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (author’s translation). The passage transitions from Abram the man to Abram the means for blessing. Verse 3 explains the blessing promised for others, and the promises move to the chief end, worldwide blessing.

The revelation at Sinai to Moses repeats the promises and applies them to Israel (Exod 3:6-9, 14-17; 6:2-8) as a priestly “nation” (Exod 19:6). For the psalmists, blessing upon restored Israel brings salvation to the nations (Pss 67; 98). In particular the Davidic offspring is the means whereby the Lord will enrich the nations (e.g., Ps 72:17; Isa 11:10-12; 55:3-5; Amos 9:11-12). The apostles also take up the promises and identify Jesus Christ as the Savior who obtains the blessing for those who believe. Peter appropriates the promise of universal blessing as found in 22:18 and 26:4 (alluding to 12:3), which read “through your offspring,” referring to Abraham’s descendants as the resource of blessing. Peter urges his fellow Jews to repent so that they will receive the fulfillment of the ancient promise (Acts 3:25-26). Paul also views the promise of blessing fulfilled in Jesus Christ, but he applies it to the Gentiles (Gal 3:8). He conflates the Greek of 12:3 and 26:4, where in the latter verse the LXX reads “all the nations” (panta ta ethne), suiting the apostle’s application to the Gentiles. Peter too moderated 22:18, LXX (26:4, LXX) for his Jewish audience by translating “all [the] peoples” (pasai ai patriai, Acts 3:25). The apostles considered the church to be the recipients of the promises made to Abram, the Jew first and then the Gentile (Rom 1:16; 2:9-10); the Lord announced by 12:3 the “gospel” to the awaiting world of peoples (Gal 3:8).9

Verses 2-3 describe a progressive buildup in the good that will result in obeying God’s command: (1) Abram alone is blessed, (2) Abram’s blessers are blessed, and (3) all families find blessing in Abram10.

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.

Abram’s obedience is emphasized. He leaves Haran despite not knowing where he is going (12:1). Lot is mentioned since he will play a role in subsequent narratives. At this point in the narrative, Lot is the only male heir of Terah and so the first-time reader of Genesis, made aware of Abram’s age and Sarai’s barrenness (11:30), may think Lot is the presumed heir to the promises made to Abram.

5-6 And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother’s son, and all their possessions that they had gathered, and the people that they had acquired in Haran, and they set out to go to the land of Canaan. When they came to the land of Canaan, Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land.

The mention of “possessions” and “people” indicates that Abram was already wealthy. Unlike Terah (11:31), Abram actually reached Canaan. Shechem can be identified with Tell Balata, east of modern Nablus11. The species of the tree of Moreh is disputed (terebinth or oak?). “Moreh” literally means “teacher, oracle giver” and suggests a place where divine oracles could be obtained12. Not surprisingly, God appears to Abram in the next verse. Abram could not immediately possess the land because the Canaanites were in it. The last sentence implies the author lived after the Canaanites had been expelled from 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.

This is the first divine revelation to a patriarch and the first explicit promise of land and descendants. Lot is quickly eliminated as the presumptive heir. The building of the altar was an expression of faith on Abram’s part.

8 From there he moved 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 called upon the name of the LORD.

Bethel is usually identified with Beitin, ten miles north of Jerusalem, and Ai is usually identified with Et-Tell, one and a half miles east of Beitin13. Presumably Abram “pitched his tent” wherever he traveled so here the phrase probably means that he settled near Bethel for some time14.

9 And Abram journeyed on, still going toward the Negeb.

The grammatical construction of this verse suggests a series of encampments15. The Negeb is a dry land between the hills of Judah and Kadesh-Barnea, roughly marking the southern border of the promised land16. In verses 5-9 Abram has walked through the land promised to him. These actions foreshadow the day when Israel will take possession of the land and worship God there.

Bibliography

Hamilton, Victor P. The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1-17. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament Volume 1A. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990.

Mathews, Kenneth A. Genesis 11:27-50:26. The New American Commentary Volume 1B. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2005.

Sarna, Nahum M. JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis. 1st ed. Jewish Publication Society of America, 1989.

Walton, John H. Genesis. The NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001.

Wenham, Gordon J. Genesis 1-15. Word Biblical Commentary Volume 1. Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1987.

1Mathews, Genesis 11:27-50:26, 110; Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1-17, 371.

2Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, 88.

3Walton, Genesis, 392.

4Exodus 19:5-6; Deuteronomy 26:5

5Wenham, Genesis 1-15, 276.

6Exodus 21:17; Leviticus 24:11; 2 Samuel 16:5-13

7Genesis 12:17; 20:17-18; 31:29; 39:2-6; 47:5-15

8Ibid., 278.

9Mathews, Genesis 11:27-50:26, 117-118.

10Wenham, Genesis 1-15, 278.

11Ibid., 279.

12Wenham, Genesis 1-15, 279; Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, 91.

13Wenham, Genesis 1-15, 280.

14Genesis 26:25; 33:19; 35:21; Judges 4:11

15Wenham, Genesis 1-15, 281; Mathews, Genesis 11:27-50:26, 120.

16Wenham, Genesis 1-15, 281.

Advertisements

One Reply to “Commentary on Genesis 12:1-9”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s