God Chooses a People


Lesson Focus:  This lesson can help you decide whether you are willing to fully trust and obey God.

Follow God’s Plan:  Genesis 12:1-3.

[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.  [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.  [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."  [ESV]

[1-3]  The divine call of Abram [1-3] is central to the patriarchal narratives, for it entails the triad of divine promises that explain the thematic development of the remainder of the book and the whole of the Pentateuch. Recurring thematic forms and motifs in chapters 1-11 are bunched together in the promissory call: land/country, bless/curse, seed, nation/family, and name. All that had preceded in the panorama of creation and divine grace toward human life take their place as prelude to this first divine word announced to Abram. Although the promises are repeated elsewhere in the patriarchal narratives, they are only offered in whole at 12:1-3. The many promises of the passage cohere into three strands: land, seed, and blessing. The divine oath is like an avalanche of blessing cascading in wave after wave on the patriarch and his children yet to come. But the blessing so bountifully promised is preceded by a word of command, Go. His answer to the command is not by word but by deed: So Abram went. Emboldened by his faith in the sure word of the Lord, the patriarch embarked on the divine scheme. Abram’s obedience is described in verses 4-9 by the itinerary of his travels in Canaan. Through his vagabond journeys, traveling from north to south and leaving behind altars erected to the Lord, he symbolized what would become reality for his descendants – possession of the land and worship of Israel’s God. This promissory call is the first recorded speech since God’s word of judgment at the Tower of Babel, resulting in the creation of the nations [11:5-6,9]. This new word to Abram counters the old since it provides for the redemptive plan of all the families of the earth [3]. By making his descendants a great nation [2] who will be a blessing [2], the Lord will bring salvation to the scattered nations. As the two parts of an hourglass are joined by a slender neck, the role of this one man connects the universal setting of chapters 1-11 and the worldwide vista of the promissory call. Although the call is directed to the individual Abram, it is intended ultimately for the salvation of the world’s peoples. In addition the term bless and its derivatives, which are the thematic glue of the entire book, dominate the oath, occurring five times. The promissory call looks ahead to the travelogue of Abram’s faith that ends at Mount Moriah, where, upon hearing the Lord’s command again, he offers his son as sacrifice [22:1-19]. The command at 22:2, go to the land of Moriah recalls the beginning, go from your country [12:1]. These two commands are the bookends in the narration of the patriarch’s obedient walk. Abram is called upon to leave both his past and his future in placing his trust in God. No obligations are placed upon Abram to maintain the promises; he must only respond to the Lord’s command to go, an act of loyalty. The commitment rests with the Lord to show the patriarch the land that awaits him. In relating the promises of verses 2-3, God is the initiator and consummator. Abram is dependent on the Lord to achieve the promises; he only has the divine word to rely on. Abram is the passive recipient of the divine will. The language of the call in 12:1-3 possesses many poetic characteristics, such as parallelisms and rhyme. The most prominent feature is the repetition of the pronoun “you/your”, referring to Abram, and the first-person verbs, “I will”, referring to God. This interplay between second and first persons shows Abram as the recipient and the Lord as the Promisor. There are three phrases which identify the spheres of influence in his life that Abram must leave behind, from the broad to the specific: from your country, your relatives, your father’s house. The repetition of from reinforces the command of separation required of Abram by God. The solace of country and family must give way to a higher allegiance. This is the requirement of those who enter the kingdom, as Jesus taught in Matthew 10:37. All is placed in the Lord’s hands who will show him the land of destiny, Canaan. The land which I will show you is the only road map that Abram can follow. Abram can depart and cohabit with his wife, but it is the Lord who will make of this alien and childless couple a great nation. After the promise of a land, the second promise is a numerous population base, a great nation. A nation is generally characterized as a political unit with common land, language, and government. This is the most startling promise, for Abram at seventy-five years has no children, and Sarai is barren. Abram’s industry could have obtained for himself a land, wealth, and fame, but in the acquisition of children by Sarai he was helpless without God. The couple’s vain attempts at a substitute successor [15:2-3; 16:2] admit their impotence to achieve the promise. Following the promises of land and descendants, the Lord announces He will enrich Abram materially: I will bless you. Bless in Genesis describes primarily two benefits: progeny and material wealth. Here bless indicates material wealth for Abram, since the promise of a populous nation had already been made. The third promise, I will make your name great, pledges that Abram’s influence will be widespread, even across generations. Whereas chapters 1-11 depict the folly of human efforts to obtain wisdom and fame by unlawful means, the patriarch receives a name by divine grant. Although this promise speaks to Abram’s stature in his own time, it also anticipates the change in Abram’s name to Abraham which is conferred by God who will make him a father of future nations and kings [17:5-6]. Abraham will be revered as father by a host of peoples whom he will influence throughout the centuries. The telling reality of this promise is that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam look to Abraham as their spiritual progenitor. The fourth promise, so you shall be a blessing, transitions the focus of the promises from the individual Abram and his descendants to all families who are influenced by him. The statement is nonspecific, focusing attention at this point only on the mediator of the blessing, namely, Abram. The final triad of promises explains how Abram will achieve a blessing for others. Promises five and six are expressed explicitly as the actions of the Lord (I will). Although the precise meaning of the last promise is disputed, the verse in context indicates that the Lord, not Abram, is the dispenser of blessing for the nations. Abram has no exclusive claim on God’s blessing; rather, God has exclusive claim on Abram and on all those who submit to his God. The fifth and sixth promises are parallel expressions, two sides of the same coin. Bless and curse are integral terms in Genesis. In chapters 1-11 curse is the consequence of unlawful behavior; now curse is explained by how a people mistreats Abram, the appointed heir of the blessing. The purpose of calling Abram is to bless, for blessing dominates the call, but curse is also purposeful since the call assumes that opposition is the reality Abram faces. The final, seventh promise reveals the inclusive character of the promissory blessing, all the families of the earth will be blessed. How this blessing is received involves Abram, although the precise way this is achieved is ambiguous in the language. Probably the best understanding according to the context is that God is the source and Abram the channel of the blessing. This indicates that God has a plan to bless all families through Abram. Nothing is said in this passage to indicate how this blessing will take place. But as we trace the promise of this blessing throughout the Old Testament and into the New Testament we discover that the blessing is fulfilled in the gospel of Jesus Christ, especially as it applies to the Gentiles (see especially Galatians 3:13-14).

Worship in Obedience:  Genesis 12:4-7.

[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.  [5]  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,  [6]  Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in 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.  [ESV]

[4-7]  So Abram went, as the Lord had told him reports the first step of obedient faith. Two parenthetical statements reflect the chief obstacles to the patriarch’s faith that he must overcome. First, his age at seventy-five years establishes the timeline that measures his twenty-five year wait for the gift of an heir. Second, Canaanites inhabited the land Abram hoped to receive. He trusted, however, that the Lord by some unrevealed means would enable his descendants to dispossess Canaan’s inhabitants. Upon Abram’s entry into Canaan, the Lord confirms the promises and in doing so recognizes Abram’s act of obedience. First, He appears to Abram at Shechem, his first residence in the land. This theophany reassured Abram of the Lord’s presence; the patriarch responded by building an altar, the first of many. Second, the Lord reassured Abram by reiterating the two signal promises: children and land.

Respond in Faith:  Genesis 15:5-8,13-17.

[5]  And he brought him outside and said, "Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them." Then he said to him, "So shall your offspring be."  [6]  And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness.  [7]  And he said to him, "I am the LORD who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess."  [8]  But he said, "O Lord GOD, how am I to know that I shall possess it?" 

[13]  Then the LORD said to Abram, "Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years.  [14]  But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions.  [15]  As for yourself, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age.  [16]  And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete."  [17]  When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces.  [ESV]

[5-8]  The Lord answers Abram’s concern in verse 3 by telling him in effect to wait on the birth of his own child [4]. Such is the substance of faith, waiting on God to make good on His promises. Whatever dim expectation of Sarai’s pregnancy there may have been soon flickered and died. Therefore, since Sarai is not specifically named as the birth mother, the offer of Hagar the Egyptian servant after waiting some time [16:1-4] seemed to comply with the vision. Later the Lord appears again to inform Abram that the impossible, the pregnancy of the aging Sarai, will yet happen [17:19]. Not only will Abram father a child, but he will be the patriarch of multitudes, as numerous as the stars [5]. The Lord instructs Abram to view the night sky which the patriarch has already acknowledged as the domain of Yahweh [14:22]. Now Abram must leave the future to the God he has confessed. It is simply not feasible that a person can visually count the stars, but God can number and name them. This visual demonstration of the stars corresponds to the impossible challenge to count the dust of the land [13:16]. In verse 6 the narration describes Abram’s response as belief (trust) in the Lord. The Hebrew construction translated believed means to place trust in someone with confidence. The general idea is reliance, and the orientation of the person’s trust is the future. Here Abram’s trust is placed in the Lord, whom he believes will carry out His promise. The text emphasizes that Abram entrusted his future to what God would do for him as opposed to what he could do for himself to obtain the promises. Recognition of Abram’s faith at this point in the story, however, should not be taken as the initiation of his faith. Abram had already responded earlier to the call and promise of God’s word [12:1-3]. Just as the covenant ritual of chapter 15 does not initiate God’s commitment but formally ratifies it, so the narration’s affirmation of Abram’s faith in verse 6 declares the faith Abram had exercised from the outset. The verbal construction believed [6] and reference to a past event at Ur [7] substantiate that Abram already exhibited faith. The force of the construction conveys an ongoing faith repeated from the past. The point of the author is that Abram continued to believe in the Lord. As a consequence of Abram’s belief, the Lord counted it, that is, his faith, as righteousness. The term counted, also translated “reckoned” or “credited,” means “to assign value.” In this case the Lord assigns Abram’s faith the value of righteousness. Generally, righteousness is associated with behavior that conforms to a standard. But the righteousness that Abram receives is not due to conformity to a standard. Rather, this righteousness is extrinsic to Abram and is solely bequeathed by God’s gracious declaration. For the New Testament interpretation of this verse see Romans 4:3; Galatians 3:6, and James 2:23. Verses 7 and 8 consist of a divine speech followed by Abram’s response. Just as God had faithfully brought Abram to Canaan, He will also satisfy the promise of offspring. Abram then asks the Lord for confirmation of the land promise through tangible evidence of it. The Lord responds by the presentation of a formal treaty with the passing of the torch [17].

[13-17]  The divine word, Know for certain, recalls Abram’s earlier question, How am I to know that I shall possess it? By this prophecy, the Lord alleviates Abram’s anxiety about the land. It describes in detail the essential events in the life of his descendants Israel as depicted in the Pentateuch, anticipating the conquest of Canaan. Verse 13 prophesies the alien status of his descendants, who experience a four-hundred-year period of servitude in a foreign land. Although it is not explained in the prophecy how the Hebrews become enslaved, the term alien expects a migration, such as the descent of Jacob. The discouraging future projected for his family, however, results in a surprising turnaround [14]. The first action is God’s retribution (But I will bring judgment on the nation) against the nation for its mistreatment of Abram’s descendants. And afterward introduces the next stage: the slaves are freed and enriched with great possessions. Verse 15 shifts attention back to Abram himself. Unlike his posterity, he will experience a peaceful death in old age, presumably in the land of Canaan. After alleviating any concerns Abram may have had about his own safety, the Lord returns to the subject of Abram’s offspring [16]. They will return to the land after the period of servitude in the fourth generation. The Hebrew word for generation refers to a span of time, but not necessarily the same fixed number of years. The reference to four hundred years [13] suggests that generation here equates to a hundred years. The last clause of verse 16 explains why God was not giving them the land right away: the wickedness of the Amorites is not yet complete. The prophecy implies that the returning Hebrews will be instrumental in God dealing with the sin of the Amorites. The smoking fire pot and a flaming torch [17] symbolized the presence of God as it passed between the animal parts. Among the many different Hebrew words for oven/furnace is firepot, which was used for baking bread and roasting grain for sacrifice. A metaphorical use of “furnace” depicts divine judgment against Israel’s enemies. “Smoke” attends divine theophanies, functioning as a veil, and may also signify the Lord’s wrath. God’s appearance at Sinai [Ex. 19:18] brings together the four elements of 15:17: smoke, furnace, fire and lightning. There is an unmistakable association between the events. A torch appears in prophetic descriptions of the awesome and eerie presence of God, and it pictures destruction. The thunderclaps and lightning with the thickly veiled smoke at Sinai created fear in the Israelites, who begged Moses to meet with God in their behalf. The same contrasting effects of awe and fear, that is, attraction and retraction, are symbolized by the flaming fire in 15:7. The covenant promises hold forth both blessing and curse.

Questions for Discussion:

1.         List the seven promises God gives Abram in 12:1-3. Note that all of God’s promises to Abram in these verses center around land, seed, and blessing which carry forward to Abram’s descendants. What is the relationship between these seven promises and the command, Go, in 12:1?

2.         Note Abram’s response to God’s command, Goso Abram went. When Abram arrives in Canaan, God repeats the promises of land and children. What two chief obstacles to Abram’s faith confronted him concerning these two promises?

3.         Genesis 15 is a good example of the battle for faith in every believer’s life. Abram believed and trusted in God’s promises starting back in chapter 12 when he responded to God’s command to go. But we still see Abram struggling with understanding how and when God is going to fulfill His promises, especially concerning children. God consistently answers the concerns of Abram (and us) by telling Abram to wait for God’s perfect timing to make good on His promises. Each time Abram has doubts, God renews the promise and usually provides additional information [see 15:5] but still does not tell Abram exactly when or how the promise will be fulfilled. What can you learn from Abram concerning what you should do and what you should not do as you wait for God to fulfill His promises in your own life?


Genesis, James Boice, Baker.

Genesis, Kenneth Mathews, NAC, Broadman.

Genesis, John Sailhamer, EBC, Zondervan.

Genesis, Gordon Wenham, Nelson Reference.

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