A Story that Does Something to Us

Abraham and Sarah eventually have a son and name him Isaac. It is the impossible work of a miraculous God. This reminds us that as much as we might like to, we cannot overlook that part of the Abraham story is on a mountain called Moriah. We cannot overlook this part of the story where God seems to put the promise in jeopardy. As much as I love to read about a climb up a mountain, I wish this climb belonged to someone else’s story. It would be easier to ignore this story and pretend it isn’t there. Another option might be to focus on Abraham’s obedience or God’s grace.

Or we can head up the mountain with Abraham and Isaac and admit this is an emotional story and not try to explain it away. We will still not enjoy the story – but the story will do something to us.

Since we struggle with violence and negative emotion and we love children we want this story to go differently. If we were writing the story, we would write it differently. But this story is the one we are given. We can argue and debate and wrestle it. And when we are finished we may not be able to sleep at night. We may not be able to approach God the same way ever again. But we will not be the same people we were before the story. This journey into the mountain country will change us.

Already, at this early stage in the bible, we are made aware that our text, these words are a dangerous sanctuary. The words that provide direction direct us into dangerous places. We find ourselves in places we cannot survive on our own. We find ourselves in places only God can rescue us. We know that a canonical adventure will be full of both danger and grace.

Abraham and Clan Religion

John Bright offers a helpful picture of what life might have been like for Abraham. In A History of Israel, he portrays the patriarchs as wanderers who journeyed with flocks through Palestine and surrounding borders in search of seasonal pasture. Sometimes they may have ventured as far as Egypt. They were not Bedouin. They did not roam the desert except into places where known water supply was available. They may have frequently camped near towns and enjoyed peaceful relationships with townspeople. Occasionally, they may have settled long enough to farm (Genesis 26.12) but primarily were breeders of livestock who wandered near lands where suitable pasture could be found. This background is supported by the early tradition recorded in Deuteronomy 26.5 “My father was a wandering Aramean.”

Their ancestors were undoubtedly pagan worshippers of the moon cult and other gods. Yet, the patriarchs renounced the cults of their fathers and listened to the voice of the God who called them to a strange land. God undoubtedly got their attention with land and heirs, but there is no doubt this relationship was based on divine promise and the trust of the worshipper. Bright considers the patriarchal migration “an act of faith.”

This was not a migration of lone individuals but of clans. Bright makes a good case that these clans were headed by real individuals like Abraham. Later, Isaac and Jacob would have become similar clan chiefs. While on the surface it may appear Abraham set out with wife, nephew, and a few servants (Genesis 12.5); behind the narrative lie great clan migrations. Soon (13.1-13) we discover both Abraham and Lot are heads of large clans. The fact Abraham was able to put 318 trained fighting men into the field (14.14) suggests his clan was significant.

Each patriarch claimed the God who spoke as his personal God and as patron of his clan. The Genesis picture of relationship between individual and God is expressed by a close personal connection between clan father and God, “The God of Abraham”, “The Fear of Isaac”, “The Mighty One of Jacob.” This suggests that God’s promise had immediate personal effects. It also strongly implies corporate effects. For example, multiple members of Abraham’s clan would have been influenced along with Abraham. This suggests patriarchal religion was a clan religion. The clan literally became the family of the patron God and God literally acted on behalf of the clan.

A New Hope

Genesis suggests that humans were created to be representatives of God. Humans are God’s image bearers. However, we do not get very far before we bump into disappointment. First, there was that incident in Eden. Then Cain murdered Abel. Then there was the corruption in the days of Noah. This was followed by the arrogance in Babel. Humans seem to disappoint at every turn. Certainly there is not a shortage of disappointment. Humanity was in need of a new hope.

In response, Genesis gives us a family tree. This is not so we can know who lived the longest or to determine how many years have passed. The family tree sets our story in history, but mostly it is taking us somewhere. It is taking us to Abram (11.26). To make sure we understand this, we get a more detailed version of the immediate family of Abram at 11.27-32.

Still, this comes with more disappointment. After so many generations, the family that had survived the flood is coming to an end. Abram is old. Abram’s wife Sarai is old. They are childless. She is barren. We are surrounded by disappointment.

But Genesis is not finished. In the midst of all this disappointment, God speaks. When humanity needs a new hope, God speaks. In fact, God does more than speak, God has a plan. And God is seriously invested in this plan. Just how vested is evident by His words to Abram. “I will make you into a great nation… I will bless you… I will make your name great… I will bless those who bless you… whoever curses you I will curse… all peoples on earth will be blessed through you…” What becomes evident is that God is a significant part of this plan. God is partnering with Abram to bless all people.

In the middle of a very disappointing story, God proposes a counter story. Skeptics may point out the unlikeliness or even impossibility of this taking place. After all, we cannot forget the age of Abram and the barrenness of his wife. Yet, from the stories we have been told – God seems to like those odds.

God has Assigned a Group Project

In Genesis chapter twelve God calls unlikely, aged, childless Abraham and promises future generations who would become a blessing for the world. We may wonder what is up with a God who dreams such impossible plans and makes such impossible promises. Yet Genesis insists that God is serious about such impossible promises.

God’s plan was to form a people to be an instrument to unite humanity with God and with one another. Those of us who have witnessed or experienced some relationships in the church may think it easier for a barren couple to have a baby. Obvious challenges come when walking with others. Brothers and sisters are not exempt from scandal, nor are they exempt from causing problems for us. Sometimes the whole thing can seem overwhelming yet God brings us together to be witnesses. In fact, it is through one another with all our gifts and limitations that God makes Himself known to us. God has assigned a group project.

This becomes important. God did not select Abraham to be a solo agent who would one day hand off to another solo agent. We sometimes act as if we are solo agents and even talk about alone time with God as if it is the goal. In our wiser moments we would be talking about the dangers of attempting to follow alone.

A Plan to Change the World

The early chapters of Genesis are clear about a world gone wrong. It becomes clear that humans have not done well as God’s representatives in God’s world. God’s plan for this world is nothing less than redemption. Everything that follows in the biblical story tells of the Creator’s plan to counter evil and to restore the world.

The closer we look at Genesis 12, the clearer it becomes that God’s plan is to change the world through a people. Genesis 12 sets this plan in motion. What God desires for the world, He desires to accomplish through this people. About the only thing I can say in response is wow.

A Cosmic Meeting

I sometimes wonder about the days when the sons of God, Satan among them, presented themselves before the Lord. I wonder if on one of those days the Lord asked Satan, “Where have you come from?” And Satan would reply “From roaming about on the earth and walking around on it.”

And then Satan would continue, “I know that you desire humans be your image bearers, your representatives on earth. But the human experiment has been a disaster. They disappoint at every turn. Do you remember what happened in Eden? Have you forgotten the corruption of the days of Noah? Must I remind you what they were doing at Babel? Perhaps it is time to acknowledge that humans will never become the representatives you had hoped for.”

And the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered the human Abraham? I have selected him to leave his home. His descendants will be many and his reputation will bring me glory. The whole earth will be influenced by this plan.”

Then Satan answered the Lord, “Have you considered his age? Have you considered he is childless and his wife is barren?” Then the Lord said to Satan, “Behold, watch this plan change the world.”


From the beginning, humans desired to be like God. It wasn’t long before this desire led to mutiny, humans against the Creator. The current regime has assumed they are in control ever since. In order to put an end to the mutiny, a people have been selected to rebel against the current regime. This idea of sabotage, the very notion of rebellion, carries some reckless implications. Yet this is not something new. It has already been in existence for many years, even centuries.

The origins of how this rebellion came to be goes back to when God selected a man to leave family, home, and country. This is a radical request. Yet it is reported in a way to suggest that this man, Abraham, did what he was told without argument, without any questions at all. It is not reported what happened when he told his wife Sarah. But from what we do know about her, I suspect she laughed.

We are told that God Himself blessed the participants and promised that their reputation would become great. We are told that God Himself promised that they would become catalysts for blessing and cursing. We are told that no one would escape their influence. If these things tell us nothing else, it certainly tells us that God is vested in this plan.

How We Live Matters

Genesis twelve eventually brings us to Egypt where Abraham seems to be wondering if God is able to keep His promises.  This brings us into more familiar territory.  When God said “Go” and Abraham just went, we may have felt that this is someone else’s story.  But this more suspicious Abraham, this is someone we can relate to.  We live in this land where we struggle with believing the promises of God.  We can relate with Abraham when he decides to secure his own survival instead of trusting God.  This Abraham is not yet ready to sing out that “many sons had father Abraham.”

Fearing death, Abraham lies to save himself (after all doesn’t he need to protect the promise).  In Egypt, Abraham may not live like one believing the promise.  Meanwhile God continues to keep the promise.  Abraham appears to be blessed by God.  And though it is not Pharaoh’s fault that Abraham lies, Pharaoh is cursed.  Something becomes very clear.  The way that God’s people believe the promise of God does affect the nations.  It is important that we live like we believe the promise.  Trusting God matters.  The Federal Treasury might remove it from our money but it must be printed on our hearts “In God We Trust.”

Here in Genesis we meet people of faith who demonstrate for us the human response to following a promise making God.  Like them, we struggle with wanting to know when and how these promises will become reality.  Like them, we are tempted to work things out by our own efforts.  Like them, we are called to follow by faith into the unknown.  Like them, we are to trust in the reality of this promise making God.  “Father Abraham had many sons…  I am one of them, and so are you…”

I once told my friend Dale that I wanted to write a book titled Witness is a Noun.  (I haven’t done that yet, but I have written the title).  The point is this.  Abraham was the witness.  His family was the witness.  You and I are witnesses.  How we live matters.  Living among those who do not believe the promises.  The way we live matters.  Others may be blessed or cursed by our presence.  It is important that we believe in the promise of God.

We take comfort that so many centuries have gone since God spoke the word “Go.”  We are glad because we like what we have, we like where we are, we have worked hard to get what we have and where we are.  So we like to think that “Go” was a word for Abraham.  A necessary word for Israel.

It would be easy to leave this passage with Abraham.  But God still says “Go.”  We are called to leave the comfort, the security, the familiarity of what we know.  We are asked to go out into an unknown adventure.  An adventure called by and led by God.  And then we get to the NT and we hear it again.  Jesus says “Go.”  We are called to be witnesses.

God Creates Witnesses with His Words

From the beginning, God has always taken a special interest in people.  This becomes even more evident in Genesis 12.  God speaks again and creates a people who will be witnesses for Him.  He calls a community of faith to bear witness of His name.  “A great nation… and in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.”  And as we have become used to, God appears to take the impossible route.  God picks one who is childless and barren to bear witness to His name with many descendants.  One thing we know about God is that He does not avoid situations that appear hopeless.  Instead He seems to look for them as opportunities to make things happen.

Childless and barren, Abraham and Sarah take the promise into a land that was already inhabited, “now the Canaanite was then in the land.”  And we are reminded that the promise of God is never easy to believe and practice.  Canaanite ways may be attractive to Abraham.  Their lifestyle may be tempting compared to the slow pace of God’s promise.  But here is Abraham living among the Canaanites.  Living the promise among those who do not believe the promise.  Trusting God among those who do not believe in God.  Believing the reality of the promise.  The text knows where we live – among those who do not believe the words of our God.

Our text falls right between a genealogy that takes us back to the flood and a journey to Egypt to avoid a famine.  These may be noteworthy.  We are caught between two texts.  On one side the flood.  Famine on the other.  In between, the promise that Abraham’s descendants and all nations will be blessed.  Abraham obeys right between flood and famine.   This is where we are called to be witnesses.  No matter what has come before.  No matter what is expected later.  We are witnesses to the promise of God.

In chapter eleven we find the people of the earth saying “let us build for ourselves a city, and a tower whose top will reach the heaven, and let us make for ourselves a name.”  This story reminds us that modern people are not the first to desire fame and greatness.

In contrast, God tells Abraham “I will make you a great nation… And make your name great.”  Here is a contrast between men who try to make a name for themselves and one that God promises to make great.  If Abraham is ever to have a great name it will not be because of any self-initiated effort.  The great name will be a gift, not an achievement.  God is the Name-Maker.  Interestingly, reading further we find that Abraham builds an altar “and called upon the name of the LORD.”  The one who God promises a great name calls upon the name of the LORD.

Instead of a tower to become famous, Abraham builds an altar that Yahweh may be known.  An altar right there in the land of the Canaanites .  This is a statement against every other god and every other loyalty that he had ever known before.

It is not a tower to the heavens that will bear witness of greatness.  Not even the works of creation.  Instead it will be people.  A family that believes the reality of a promise making God.  God wants to bless the earth with these people.  God wants to bless every family with these people, the family tree of chapter ten, and the family tree of chapter eleven.  All families are to be blessed by these people created to be witnesses of God’s greatness.

God Intervenes With a Promise

When Genesis chapter eleven ends, Abraham’s father is dead, he is childless, and his wife is barren.  Here we enter an arena where barrenness is reality.  When chapter twelve begins, God is speaking.  Here we enter an arena where promise is reality.  Genesis begins with God speaking.  In the beginning God creates with words.  Now we are twelve chapters in and God continues to speak.  The same God who created the heavens and the earth is still busy creating.

Let us imagine Abraham at the local diner for breakfast.  We might find him to be a big shot, part of the good ole boy network.  People might gather to hear him tell jokes or talk about goats.  People may think he is clever.  He might be asked for insider tips on camel races or a recipe for spiced goat.  People may offer to buy him breakfast.  But this may get interrupted by someone bursting in and handing out cigars.  This man and his wife are expecting a child.  While others  might start gushing about the baby, Abraham stares at the wall.  But there he might notice a photo.  One where the owner at the diner is posing with his father (who opened this diner years ago) and his oldest son (who will inherit the diner in the future).  A three generation picture.  Abraham might get up to leave at this point, having lost his appetite.  After all, his own father is dead, he himself has no children, and Sarah his wife is barren.

Chapter 11 leaves Abraham in an undesirable situation.  Barrenness is both reality and metaphor.  A metaphor for hopelessness.  There is no foreseeable future.  There is nowhere to go.  Time seems to have run out on Abraham and his family tree.  The family that survived the flood is about to disappear.  But then, God intervenes – with a promise.  Genesis wants us to know that barrenness is an arena that God enters.  God speaks into the most hopeless of situations.  “Now the Lord said to Abram”

God’s first words to Abraham begin with an imperative “Go.”  Where he is now is not where he is to remain.  He cannot be a blessing if he stays where he is.  When God speaks to him in chapter 12, he does as he is told.  In this passage, the narrator speaks, God speaks, but Abraham does not, he just goes.  He is presented simply as obedient.  Genesis eliminates all the questions and excuses and attachment to memories and reputation and relatives and just says, “So Abram went forth as the LORD had spoken to him.”

Abraham is not chasing God.  He has grown up thinking that he had a number of gods to choose from.  Instead, God seems to have chased Abraham.  And an amazing thing happens.  Abraham recognizes that the voice of this God is different.  This is a God to listen to.  And God says “Go.”

God is a God on the move.  Not stationary.  Not stagnant.  He is not interested in staying in any particular place.  Instead He is interested in being with His people.  If Abraham responds to God’s “Go” obediently, he will be blessed.  If he stays, he will not.  To stay is to refuse the offer of this God.

There is a text from Joshua that sheds some light on our Genesis text; Joshua 24.2, “Your fathers lived beyond the River, namely, Terah, the father of Abraham and the father of Nahor, and they served other gods.”  This is of interest to us for an obvious reason.  Abraham may have been introduced to multiple gods while growing up.

There is another text that influences our reading of this text.  Hebrews 11.8, “by faith Abraham when he was called, obeyed by going out to a place which he was to receive for an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was going.”

Our text is caught between these two texts.  One an OT text, tells us that Abraham was raised worshipping other gods.  The other, reminds us that Abraham obeyed one God above the others even when he did not know where he was going.  The Genesis text stands alone, but becomes tangled with these others.  This creates an interesting look at our text and the way we respond to it.  Abraham is raised on other gods yet follows Yahweh into the unknown.  In a land where pagans dwell and pagan gods rule God speaks.

If Abraham responds to God’s “Go”, the rest is up to God.  Yahweh has his back.  Just in case we doubt whether God has an interest here we look in 12.1-3 and find God saying “I will show you… I will make you… I will bless you… I will bless those who bless you… I will curse.”  I think we can safely say that God has his back.

Abraham does not argue with God in this text.  We want to ask why.  We get hung up on a point like that because we don’t understand it.  It doesn’t happen so easily for us.  We fight whenever we are asked to do something we hadn’t planned on.  We don’t like to be inconvenienced.  We like what we know.  We feel safe there.  We like the familiar.  We are suspicious of the unknown.  And we tell ourselves that we are glad that God is asking Abraham and not us.

What are we to do with this God who continues to have such an interest in humankind that He will not stop talking to us?  Doesn’t the creator of the universe have other things to do?  Perhaps we find comfort in the idea that God is still speaking.  Perhaps it has us on edge.  What will he say next?  What will He be telling us to do?