1. As mentioned last week, chapter 12 brings a change in focus in the book of Genesis. The balance of the book will recount God's call and cultivation of Israel's patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and his sons. They are the ancestors of God's people, meant to shed God's light on the nations, ultimately through the One the New Testament describes as "the light of the world," Jesus Christ.
2. In verse 2, God not only promises that Abram and Sarai, an elderly couple who are childless, that He will make a great nation of their descendants. God also promises that Abram, who will soon be renamed Abraham, will be blessed, primarily meaning, again, that he will be a father of many. In verse 3, God shows the meaning of this by saying that He will bless those who bless Abram and curse those who curse him. This is a promise that, often in spite of Abram's faults, God will keep.
The Old Testament narratives rarely take the time to explain concepts like grace, for example. The Hebrew language is visual and its thought world is too. It tends to be narrative and picturesque rather than conceptual. The Old Testament usually lets you see something like grace exemplified.
In the biography of Abraham, this sinful, imperfect man, we learn about how God's grace works in our own lives. God favors us and we may respond with trust or faith. When we do so, we are blessed, as Abram was. This is the most unique tenet of the Judeo-Christian faith, the faith of the Bible, and it is utterly different from every other faith on the planet. We humans are incapable of acting with perfect conformity to God's will for human beings. But when we trust God and His promises, He counts it as righteousness.
3. In verse 2, God also tells Abram, "I will...make your name great." Ironically, just a few verses earlier, God thwarts the actions of the people of Babel, preventing them from building a tower, the motive for which is to "make a name for themselves." What gives?
The people of Babel sought to attain by their own scheming and effort what God grants as a gift to those who trustingly put Him first in their lives.
4. "So Abram went..." Genesis 12:4 says. No fanfare. No grand pronouncements. Just simple obedience. Abram and wife Sarai had no idea what they were getting into. Aged, wealthy, deeply rooted in their community in modern-day Iraq, they went. It's easy to imagine those who are poor and without food or work becoming refugees, as Abram and Sarai later will be owing to a famine in their adopted place of residence. But Abram and Sarai trust. This is why in the New Testament book of James, for example, we're told that faith without works is dead. That doesn't mean that we can earn our way into God's favor or into heaven. It means that when we have faith, when we trust God, it will be made visible in our lives. We see this in Abram's and Sarai's obedience.
5. Abram's and Sarai's journey in Genesis 12:4-9 presages the journey of their descendants, the Hebrews. They even end up living for a time in what would become their people's homeland, an area then occupied by the Canaanites.
6. One of the things I love about the Bible is its honesty about those who believe in and follow God. They are imperfect, indicating that their place in God's kingdom doesn't depend on them, their works, or their virtues. It depends solely on the goodness of God and God's willingness to accept those who turn in trust to Him even after they have sinned.
In Genesis 12:10-16, Abram deceives the Pharaoh, telling a "white lie" (a lie is a lie though) about the identity of his wife. He does this out of fear, in spite of being on a journey of trust that God has sent him.
Ironically, at the end of the incident, the superstitious Egyptians, fearful that Abram's God will punish them, send Abram away wealthier than he was before the incident. It's the opposite of what one might expect and another example of the gracious manner in which God deals with those who trust Him. This isn't to say that people who believe in the God of the Bible should take God's grace and forgiveness for granted. As Paul, in the New Testament, will say of this presumption centuries later, "God forbid!" But it does mean that we should know two things: God will look out for us and when we sin, we can turn to God to seek forgiveness and be confident that He grants it.
7. In Genesis 13:1-13, a conflict arises between the herdsmen of Abram and those of his nephew, Lot. Coming on the heels of his rather treacherous act toward the Pharaoh, Abram does something surprisingly wonderful. He points to the land before them and tells Lot that he can pick the best places for him to live and keep his herds. Abram takes the leavings.
This is exactly how grace works. Most religions and belief systems demand that we earn redemption or forgiveness. In other words, other religions demand good behavior before a begruding deity will bless. But here, we see that after sensing God's favor in spite of his sin against the Pharaoh, Abraham exhibits in good behavior. God's grace incites goodness because long before we even thought of doing the right thing, God acted decisively for us--first in His setting aside of the people Israel and then decisively, in the Person of Jesus Christ!
8. God reiterates His improbable promise that the aged Abram and Sarai are to become the parents of a great nation (Genesis 13:14-18). As a Christian, heir of their faith in God, I count myself as being among their children.
9. Genesis 14:1-16 recounts one of the wars that was always going on among the minor potentates in that region. Abram and Lot are both noncombatants. But in the course of battle, Lot is taken a prisoner of war and Abram, so powerful that he virtually acts as a king, takes his nephew back. Unlike other warriors, Abram refuses to take the bounties of war.
10. Genesis 14:17-24 tells one of the most mysterious and wonderful stories of the Old Testament. Only one other passage in the Old Testament, in the Psalms, mentions King Melchizedek. It has great significance for several reasons:
a. Melchizedek is "priest of the Most High God" in Salem. Salem is the Canaanite town on which in later days, Jerusalem, the holy city where Israel's temple will be located.11. God never tires of telling Abram his promises and He reiterates them in Genesis 15:1-6. It ends with a ringing declaration which Paul underscores in Romans 4: Righteousness--rightness with God--is not our achievement; it's a gift from God to all who believe...today through Jesus, the Messiah, the fulfillment of God's promises to the human race!
b. In the days when the Canaanites occupied the land God would later give to Israel, Salem was the center of worship for a number of deities, the greatest of which was the "maker of heaven and earth" which the Jews would see as their own Deity.
c. Salem means peace. Here, we find recognition of the fact that Abram, who had gone on a mission of mercy and rescue, was no warrior but had emerged victorious over those who were warriors. This passage may be read as heavenly affirmation of Abram's course. (Notice that he accomplished his mission with 318 men and he even split those forces for the attack.)
d. Melcizedek brought bread and wine and the blessings of God. This presages both the Passover feast of the Jews and the Sacrament of Holy Communion for we Christians. King Melchizedek has often been seen by Christians as prefiguring Christ.
e. In response to these blessings from God, Abram tithes: He gives 10% of his income to this mysterious king.