Monday of Week 12 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 12:1-9

Today we return to the Book of Genesis. We have left behind the mythological pre-historical stories of Creation and the Fall, and the early developments of mankind with their own theological meanings. We now move into an area of what we can call dateable history, about 1,800 years before the Christian era.

Starting with chapter 12 we enter on the real beginnings of the history of Israel proper. The rest of Genesis deals with the so-called ‘Patriarchs’ – Abraham, his son Isaac, his son Jacob, and his 12 sons – with special attention to the second youngest, Joseph. These 12 sons will be the patriarchs from whom all the Israelites are descended. The book ends with the word ‘Egypt’. That introduces us to the next book, Exodus, which opens (at a much later date) with the Israelites living in slavery in Egypt where they have been since the time of Joseph.

The two opening chapters of this section of Genesis, chapters 12 and 13, come from the ‘Yahwist’ tradition, although there are some editorial additions from the ‘Priestly’ tradition. What we begin reading today represents the beginnings of the history of the Jewish people. The story begins with Abram (later to be called Abraham) the founder father of Israel.

Although we have now moved into the domain of history, it does not mean that everything described is a newspaperman’s eyewitness report. We are still very much in the area of legend and myth. These are stories which were told and retold to succeeding generations to give them a sense of pride in themselves as a people. Undoubtedly there are areas of fact which archaeology findings often confirm.

At the end of chapter 11 we are told that Terah brought his son Abram with his childless wife, Sarai, out of Ur in Chaldea, their ancestral home in what is now southern Iraq, with the intention of going to Canaan, but when they reached a place called Haran, they settled there. Haran was in northern Mesopotamia (now part of Iraq).

Our reading today begins with a call from God to Abram:

Go forth from the land of your kinsfolk and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you.

Abram is being told to leave the settled world of the post-Babel nations and begin a pilgrimage with God to a better world of God’s making.

Yahweh then makes his first great promise to Abram: He will make Abram the father of a great nation; he will make his name great. There is a promise of blessings on all who bless him and a curse on all those who curse him. And “all the communities of the earth shall find blessing in you”. The original Hebrew promise can be understood to read as: “All nations shall bless themselves through you” (i.e. in blessing someone they will say, “May you be blessed as Abraham was”) or “All nations shall be blessed in you”. The former understanding is the more likely. Altogether the word “bless” or “blessing” occurs five times in this promise of Yahweh.

The blessing has a seven-fold structure:

  1. I will make you into a great nation
  2. I will bless you
  3. I will make your name great
  4. You will be a blessing
  5. I will bless those who bless you
  6. Whoever curses you I will curse
  7. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you

God’s original blessing on all mankind would be restored and fulfilled through Abram and his offspring in various ways and degrees. These promises were re-affirmed to Abram, Isaac and Moses. The seventh promise is quoted in Acts 3:25 with reference to Peter’s Jewish listeners, Abram’s physical descendants, and in Galatians 3:8 to Paul’s Gentile listeners, Abram’s spiritual descendants – among whom we are also included.

Putting his trust in God’s word, Abram left Haran, set out for Canaan and brought his nephew Lot with him. Prompt obedience, grounded in faith, characterises Abraham all through. He cuts off all earthly ties and sets out for an unknown land. It will be the first of the great acts of faith and trust in God’s word which will make Abraham a model of faith for future generations. It will be renewed when the promise is repeated in chapter 15 and really put to the test when God asks for the surrender of his only legitimate son, Isaac, on whom the fulfilment of the promise depends.

To Abraham’s unquestioning act of faith, the chosen people will owe its very existence and destiny (Heb 11:8-19). Not only Abraham’s physical descendants, but all who, in virtue of this same faith, become his spiritual descendants will have their share in that destiny as Paul shows (Rom 4; Gal 3:7). We count ourselves among them.

So, in obedience to the Lord’s call, Abram leaves Haran and sets out for Canaan, bringing with him his wife Sarai, his brother’s son Lot, all the possessions they had accumulated between them (mainly flocks and herds), and the “persons” they had acquired in Haran. These “persons” would include slaves and retainers forming part of the extended household of Abram and Lot. One gets the impression that they were very prosperous.

When they reached Canaan, they went as far as “the sacred place at Shechem, by the terebinth of Moreh”. The terebinth or turpentine tree is native to the Mediterranean region. It yielded probably the earliest known form of turpentine, said to have been used as medicine by the ancient Greeks. A famous sanctuary was located at Schechem in central Canaan, and a large tree was often a conspicuous feature at such holy places.

The Canaanites were living there but God had promised the land would in the future go to Abram and his descendants.

To your descendants I will give this land.

It is worth noticing that at this stage Abram did not have a single son or daughter by his wife Sarai, so the issue of descendants was still only based on a promise.

But it is on the basis of this promise that Abram and his descendants claimed a sacred right to this land as their home. In the course of time, the original inhabitants, the Canaanites, would come to symbolise an idolatrous people who did not recognise the lordship of Yahweh and did not deserve to keep the land as theirs.

In acknowledgement of God’s promise, Abram built an altar:

…to the Lord who had appeared to him.

This was the first of several that Abram would erect at places where he had special spiritual experiences. From there, Abram moved to hill country to a place between Bethel on the east and Ai on the west. Bethel lay just north of Jerusalem and was an important town in the religious history of God’s people. Only Jerusalem is mentioned more often in the Old Testament.

Here, he built another altar and dedicated it to the Lord. Then he was on the move again and went by stages to the Negeb, the semi-desert area in southern Palestine.

The virtue for which Abram (Abraham) would become a model later on was his deep faith and trust in God’s promises, however unlikely they were of being fulfilled. Paul in his letters (especially Romans and the Letter to the Hebrews) put him forward as a model for all believers.

It begins with his answering God’s call to leave the familiarity of his homeland and settle down in an unknown territory with which his people had no former connection.

This faith in God’s providential care is something we too need to cultivate. God can call us too to strange places and situations. He sometimes asks us to leave the familiar and take risks with the unknown. Sometimes it takes the form of a ‘vocation’ or calling to a particular way of life – inside or outside the Church.

Many people, however, it would seem, decide on their life’s work first and only then ask God what he wants them to do.

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