God’s Promise to Abram

In Genesis 12:2–3, God offers Abram a twofold promise: a land and a seed. These motifs dominate much of the rest of Genesis, as God ensures that his promises come to pass. The passage also includes some other blessings.

The promise of the land

Abram leaves his own familiar homeland to go to the land that God promised (12:1). The promise of the land is repeated to Abram in 12:7; 13:15; 15:7, 18; 17:8, and mentioned also in 24:7, 37. God also reaffirms the promise to Isaac (26:3) and Jacob (28:13; 35:12; cf. Isaac’s blessing of him in 28:4; Jacob’s recollection in 48:4). Like Abram, Jacob is called to leave Mesopotamia and go to Canaan, although in Jacob’s case, this is the land of his birth (31:3, 13). The promise is reiterated so often that one gets the impression that the patriarchs needed to be reminded, and so did Genesis’s first audience. This could be a great encouragement to them as they prepared to enter the land.

Ancient Israelites knew the names of the places where Abraham sojourned, and even some places that he bought, such as the field of Ephron (23:16; 25:9; 49:29–30; 50:13), a foretaste of his descendants owning the wider land. God preserved the right land for Abraham and his descendants, even through the choices of Lot and Esau (13:8–12; 33:16–17), who left the land of promise for Abraham’s chosen line (13:14–17).

Lot chose the land near Sodom because it was fertile, like Eden and like Egypt’s Nile Valley (13:10)—but ignored the immorality of the land (13:13). He was more concerned with material prosperity than with the moral character of his neighbours, an unhealthy influence on his family that he lived to regret (19:26, 31–38). This account also served as a warning to Israel, when, in the wilderness, they wanted to return to Egypt’s fertility (Numbers 11:5; 16:13), rather than pressing on to the promised land of milk and honey (Exodus 3:8, 17; 13:5; 33:3; Leviticus 20:24; Numbers 14:8; Deuteronomy 6:3; 11:9; 26:9, 15; 27:3; 31:20; Joshua 5:6; Jeremiah 11:5; 32:22; Ezekiel 20:6, 15).

Abram obeyed God in what he knew, and God promised blessings far beyond what Abram could have known. God’s desire to bless us is always greater than the finite acts of obedience he asks from us

The promise of descendants

God likewise promises the seed, or descendants, and reaffirms that promise repeatedly (Genesis 13:16; 15:5, 18; 17:7; 22:17). All the nations would be blessed in his descendants (18:18; 22:18). God reaffirms this promise also to Isaac (26:4, 24; cf. 17:19; 21:12), including the nations being blessed in his descendants (26:4). (Ishmael’s descendants would also be multiplied, though the promise is different than to Isaac; 16:10.) The promise of multiplied seed (46:3) and blessing in his seed is again reaffirmed to Jacob (28:14), who also recalls this promise in 32:12; 48:4.

Even during his lifetime, Abram became a blessing to other people, for example by liberating slave captives from their enslavers (to rescue his nephew Lot; 14:13–24). When Abram negotiated with Hittites for Sarah’s burial place they recognized him as a great man among them (23:6). Abram pursued peace with Lot (13:8–9), and his son Isaac, being a minority in the land, kept peace with others by backing down (26:15–22). (Proverbs 25:26 warns against the righteous giving way before the wicked on matters on important principle, but sometimes it’s better to just let things go!)

God ensured that the promise of the seed would be fulfilled. God causes the matriarchs Sarah, Rebekah and Rachel to conceive, even though all three had been unable to do so before (17:19; 18:10; 21:1–2; 25:21; 30:2, 22). God protects Sarah from other aggressors (12:17–20), including right before Isaac’s birth (20:3–8); he later also protects Rebekah (though from a less immediate danger, and apparently after she had born children; 26:7–11).

Other aspects of God’s blessing

God promised to make Abram’s “name” great (12:2). At the tower of Babel in the preceding chapter of Genesis, people tried to make a great name for themselves (11:4) and failed, but God himself would make a great name for Abram. It is better when another honours us rather than ourselves (Proverbs 27:2); but the ultimate exaltation comes from God alone (Ps 75:6–7).

God promises to bless those who bless Abram, and curse those who curse him (12:3). In previous times of rebellion curses had been pronounced on the serpent’s seed (3:14–15) and on Canaan (9:25); now it was on all who opposed Abram, which, for much of Genesis’s early audience, included Canaan.

Abram obeyed God in what he knew, and God promised blessings far beyond what Abram could have known (more descendants, for example, than he could count—15:5; 22:17; cf. 32:12). God’s desire to bless us is always greater than the finite acts of obedience he asks from us. Abraham did not live to see all these promises fulfilled. Indeed, he had just one child for the chosen line and two grandchildren in this line; he did not possess all the land in his lifetime. But he did see God’s faithfulness in the miracle of Isaac’s birth, and he could know that this faithful God would fulfil all his promises.

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