“The Promises of Genesis and the Modern Christian” – a sermon on Genesis 12:1-3
The following is a sermon I presented to the First Pentecostal Church of Crosby (Crosby, TX) on August 10, 2014.
As I understand it, during the last several weeks the recurring theme of Sunday morning messages here has been what is it that makes the Christian distinct, what does the Christian bring to his or her life and community that you wouldn’t tend to find otherwise. That is an interesting and complex question, and well worth our time to ponder. I am convinced that if you seek the answer to this question with honesty, humility, and self-criticism rather than with a self-justifying desire to marginalize those who are different from you, it will lead you to difficult truths, but liberating truths, nevertheless. So rather than taking a completely different approach today, I thought I would see what I might be able to do to try and contribute to this theme, albeit from an angle that you may not have considered, yet: what is there unique that a Christian can expect from God simply by virtue of being a member of God’s chosen people. It is clear that God takes care of all humanity in some way. It rains on the just and the unjust alike. All humanity are created in God’s image, whatever that might mean, not just Christians. Furthermore, according to the Apostle Paul in Romans 1 and to several of the Psalms, all humanity, not just Christians, do have some kind of basic access to knowledge of God, even if all this knowledge does is render us without excuse before his righteous judgment.
So what is it, then, that the people of God can and should expect as the benefit of being the people of God. There are lots of different ways to answer this question, and what I will talk about today is only a small part of the total biblical picture, but today we are going to look at a few texts from the book of Genesis.
Our primary text today comes from Genesis 12:1-3:
Now the LORD said to Abraham, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 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. I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse; and by you all of the families of the earth shall bless themselves.”
So why have I chosen to read from Genesis rather than from any number of passages from the New Testament or even other Old Testament passages? The choice of Genesis has a few reasons: first, Genesis is by a pretty fair margin my favorite book of the Bible, which is a big part of the reason why I spent four of the last five years writing a hundred-thousand words on a single passage from it and tens of thousands more words on other parts of it. The second reason for looking at what Genesis has to say about the question of what is the unique benefit of being a part of God’s people is inherent in Genesis itself. Whereas the rest of the Bible assumes the existence of a unique people of God, inasmuch as it begins, in the case of narrative, at point in time when Israel, as an identifiable people group, already exists, or, in the case of other kinds of biblical literature like Prophecy, poetry, or the Epistles, the intended addressee is someone within the people of God, Genesis, unlike all the rest of the Bible, begins at a point before one people group was singled out, a point when all of humanity are the direct targets of God’s blessing and judgment. Proceeding from there, Genesis relates the story of how God singled out a people from all of humanity for himself. It is inherently concerned with the unique identity and purpose of that people, as well as with the benefit of being a part of that people.
This singling-out theme which runs through all of Genesis reaches an important inflection point in the call of Abram in Genesis 12:1-3. Here God takes a single man and, through him, a single people group, and promises to them unique protection and provision. This promise has four discernible elements: land, descendants, protection, and reputation. Land and descendants are self-explanatory. What I mean by protection are phrases like, “I will be with you” and “I will bless those who bless you, and those who curse you I will curse” – God’s involvement in the safekeeping of an individual and his descendants that is unparalleled in his dealings with humanity in general. And by reputation what I mean are phrases like “you will be a blessing” and “by you all the families of the earth will bless themselves.” This last phrase is a little difficult and is translated in several different ways in English versions. We’ll talk about what it means a little later on.
The elements of this four-part promise can be traced throughout Genesis, but it is found in a concentrated form in handful of passages. Now, biblical scholarship has discerned two distinct patterns of Promise in Genesis. The pattern I want to focus on today is the one that shows up here in Genesis 12:1-3, at the beginning of the Isaac section of Genesis in 26:2-5, at the beginning of the so-called Jacob cycle in Genesis 28:13-15, and, in my opinion, near the end of Genesis in chapter 48, though we won’t really deal with that one today. I want to read these two other short passages just so you can hear the similarity they bear with Genesis 12:1-3.
At the beginning of the set of stories concerned with Isaac’s experiences, Genesis 26:2-5 says:
And the LORD appeared to him [that is Isaac], and said, “Do not go down to Egypt; dwell in the land of which I shall tell you. Sojourn in this land, and I will be with you, and will bless you; for to you and to your descendants I will give all these lands, and I will fulfil the oath which I swore to Abraham your father. I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven, and will give to your descendants all these lands; and by your descendants all the nations of the earth shall bless themselves.”
And when Jacob sets off on his own and has his visionary experience at Bethel, Genesis 28:13-15 says:
And behold, the LORD stood above it [that is, the ladder or staircase leading to heaven] and said, “I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your descendants; and your descendants shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and by you and your descendants shall all the families of the earth bless themselves. Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done that of which I have spoken to you.”
Can you hear the common phrases and ideas in these three passages: land, descendants, protection, and reputation? They are also to found, albeit in a less concentrated way, in Jacob’s blessing of Joseph and his sons in Genesis 48. But leaving aside Genesis 48, the way this Promise pattern is used at the beginning of the sections of Genesis dealing with each of the three main patriarchs – Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – shows that this Promise pattern was intended to be read or heard by its readers and hearers as thematic and centrally important to what Genesis is all about. So what’s so important about this promise, and what could it possible mean for us today? Let’s look at each of the four elements of this Promise in turn and consider first what it meant for the Israelite or Jewish reader for whom it was originally intended and then second how this part of the Promise could be appropriated for modern Christians in light of our cultural and temporal distance from the original readers, as well as in light of Jesus as fulfillment of the Old Testament and our self-identification in him.
First, the promise of land. The land of Canaan, often referred to in the Bible and in post-biblical Jewish literature simply as “the Land”, is a centrally important theme throughout most of the Old Testament. In the New Testament it remains important, but it is transformed into a slightly different kind of promise. Pre-Christian Israelites and Jews would have brought to the reading of Genesis a high theology of the land which would have made these promises resonate very strongly in their emotions. The Promised Land, and especially the Temple mount, sometimes had cosmic significance. There were some Jews who even felt that only those buried in the Land would be resurrected. But even those who did not share this quasi-magical ideology of the Land had a strong emotional connection to it. The Land, more than maybe anything else, was a sign of God’s favor. When they had possession of it, even only a sliver of it, they felt their identity as God’s unique people to be validated. Jewish nationalists of the time of Christ and of more recent times have tied their nationalism to the Land. How can one claim to be a nation without a home territory? In worldly terms, when you lose your land, you tend to lose your national identity.
But as Christians, we don’t have a home national territory. Instead, we make two claims about ourselves. First, we are a sojourning people, a people wandering in the wilderness, or a people in exile. We live all over the world, citizens of this or that country but truly belonging to none. Our first identity is not American or Canadian or Chinese or whatever, but it is Christian, and all other identities are subject to this one. If our identities as Christians come into conflict with our identities as Americans, our American-ness is what must be sacrificed. An example: there are some in political power who would manipulate us for the sake of their political power to fear and hate others, whether they be of a different nation or simply of a different political party within our own country. The law of Christ, however, is love. I can be suspicious of those governing Iran, for example, without hating Iranians, since I really ought to be suspicious of those governing the United States, too. The fact is that my home is not the United States or even Texas, as awesome as it is. My home is the Church. Wherever the Church is, there God is, and there I have a home territory.
If our first claim, though, is that we have no physical home territory, no land, our second claim is that the whole world is actually ours, and will be ours at the return of Jesus and the full realization of his Kingdom at end of the age. All other nations’ claims to land are inherently temporary, no matter how ancient they are, because no earthly nation will last eternally. Only one Kingdom will last: the Kingdom of God. When Jesus returns, all things will be made new. The biblical picture is not of escape from the earth, but of the renewal of all creation, a kind of cosmic resurrection, a passage through death for all that exists into a new kind of existence: heaven and earth become one. We don’t know what precisely it will be, but we do know that, as Jesus’ resurrected body was different but still recognizable as Jesus, so too will be our own resurrected bodies and the re-created earth. Then we, the people of God, will freely possess the land God promised to Abram all the way back in Genesis 12:1.
The second element in the promise is a multitude of descendants. In a day and age when more than 7 billion people walk the earth and where many parts of the earth suffer from severe over-crowding, the promise of descendants may not resonate with us today the same way it would have with Abram and the original audience of Genesis. Among the semi-nomads of the ancient Near East, however, wealth was measured in sons and daughters, and secondarily in livestock. What is it that Job lost in Job chapter 1? His children, his livestock, and his servants, not his 401k or his stock market investments.
For Abram, especially, this promise was meaningful, since his wife, Sarai, was barren and they were already old at the time of God’s call in Genesis 12. The hope of ever having a child together was remote, even impossible. But it is precisely the thing that holds the rest of the promise together. Land with descendants to occupy it makes no sense. The special relationship with God implied in the protection and reputation statements is directed at Abram personally, but more importantly it is directed at Abram’s descendants. Note, for example, how, in the promises made to Isaac and Jacob, the name by which “all the nations of the world will bless themselves” was not Isaac and Jacob themselves, but their descendants.
The original readers would have understood themselves first of all as the fulfillment of this promise, but I think they also would have understood in it a continued divine promise to themselves because of their descent from Abraham. Whatever difficulties came their way, they had confidence that they would continue to exist as a people. They could apply the promise to themselves and rest assured that they would have descendants to carry on their names, as well. God would not allow his own name to be shamed by allowing the people he essentially created from nothing disappear from the face of the earth.
How might we appropriate this promise for ourselves as Christians, seeing as we claim to be descendants of Abraham by faith? First, we are part of the fulfillment of God’s original promise to Abraham. Abraham’s, Isaac’s, and Jacob’s descendants are as numerous as the stars of the sky or the dust of the earth. We are a mighty and numerous nation. When we feel isolated and alone, we should remember that we have brothers and sisters in Christ all around the world struggling to live for Jesus. There is tremendous diversity in our family, so much diversity, in fact, that it can be a little unnerving when you come across someone else who proclaims Christ who looks and acts so completely different from yourself. But that diversity is part of Promise. We are numerous and strong.
A second conclusion we could draw from God’s promise in Genesis is the important realization that the survival of the Church is not primarily our responsibility but God’s. We do have a responsibility to God to bear witness to him and to be a part of bringing his love to the world, to live the best we know how, to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves, but we do not bear primary responsibility for our success or failure, for our numerical growth. The Church is God’s project. He created it, he sustains it, and he will bring it to fruition as he pleases. Paul, for example, writes in 1 Corinthians about how he planted seed, Apollos watered, but God was the one who gave the increase. I am more and more convinced that our obsession with numerical growth in the American Church does more harm than good.
Let’s look back at Abraham in this respect. As the years went on after the initial promise, Sarai proposed having a child through a surrogate pregnancy by her maid-servant Hagar. This proposal seems strange to us today, but it was actually very common in the ancient Near East, and there is quite a lot of evidence in surviving legal documents showing us the many different ways such a surrogate pregnancy was handled legally. What I’m saying is that Abram wasn’t doing something clearly immoral or sinful when he slept with Hagar, nor was Sarai suggesting anything unusual or perverted when she made the initial proposal. The whole situation was standard practice, but it was not God’s will to build a nation for himself from Abram’s descendants through Ishmael. And look at the strife and heartache that came along with Abram’s and Sarai’s attempt to fulfill God’s promise by their own power and ingenuity. Things became strained between the two women, and Abram found himself in a very painful situation. I think we overstate things if we say that Abram sinned in fathering a child through Hagar, but in retrospect it was neither wise nor entirely trusting in God.
In the same way, we should be cautious about trying to build the Church numerically using our own power and ingenuity. Whatever numerical growth we might see may, in fact, be overshadowed by the hurt we unintentionally inflict on a group of new believers we weren’t mature enough to nurture. So let’s focus on being the people of God, on loving and serving, on proving ourselves trustworthy stewards of the increase God might give, and let’s warmly welcome all those whom God leads into contact with us here at church and in our lives out in the world. We can sow seed, we can water, but let’s remember that the promise of a multitude of descendants is God’s promise to Abram and to us, not our promise to God, and God is the one who gives the increase.
The third element of God’s promise to Abram is protection. Most immediately, this is a promise of protection for Abram, who is leaving his home country and almost all of his family connections for the seemingly impossible hope of descendants and a promise of land that isn’t even specified beyond “I’ll show you”. For that kind of leap of faith, Abram needed some assurances, and God says essentially, “I’m going to be on your side before I’m on anybody else’s side.” God would reward those who were friendly to Abram, and those who threatened Abram were going to suffer. Immediately after the promise is given in the text we see the outworking of this promise. Abram and Sarai head down to Egypt because of a famine. Abram, in fear, tells Sarai to say that she is his sister rather than his wife. Pharaoh sees this hot 65 year old woman and decides that his harem is incomplete without her. Now, Abram pretty much brought this on himself, even if his fears were justified, and it isn’t clear that they were. But despite that fact, God proves himself to be on Abram’s side. God doesn’t say, “Well, Abram, if you had only trusted me everything would have been alright, but you didn’t, so tough luck.”
And you know, I feel like we as Christians sometimes have this kind of view of God. Maybe you all don’t, but I know that this is something I have struggled with. I have always known that the saying “God helps those who help themselves” is not only not biblical, it’s actually kind of anti-biblical. In reality, God helps those who cannot help themselves. God makes the first step towards us and often the second, third, fourth, and fifth steps and so on before we ever make our initial faltering step towards him. And God’s grace towards us doesn’t inexplicably diminish the longer we know him. You and I make mistakes. That’s part of being human. We even sin. But God doesn’t just abandon us the moment we stop being faithful. I think from time to time he lets us live with the consequences of our foolishness as a way of teaching us not to be foolish, just as he let Pharaoh take Sarai into his house, which probably gave Abram an ulcer. But you know what? There’s a lot of our own foolishness that God delivers us from and doesn’t make us live with. And that’s part of the promise. That’s one of the benefits of being connected to God’s people. God protects us, even (perhaps we should say especially) when we don’t deserve it.
More could said on this subject but I want to move on to the final element of the promise: reputation. In all three of the above-mentioned divine promise stories, there is some kind of statement to the effect that all the nations of the world would bless themselves by Abram or by his descendants. What does this mean?
Some translations, the KJV included, translate Genesis 12:3 as passive voice “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” This isn’t necessarily a bad translation. The verb here is nibreku, from the Hebrew word barak which means “to bless.” It is in what we call the Niphal stem, which most commonly makes the verb passive. So if barak means “he blessed”, nibrak, the Niphal, would mean “he was blessed.” But the Niphal isn’t always passive. Sometimes it is reflexive. In other words nibrak could mean “he blessed himself.” So how do we decide between the two possible meanings. Well, one thing we do is look at the other contexts in Genesis 26 and 28 to see what the language looks like there, and the other is simply to try and understand what would be intended either way.
In Genesis 26:4, when God is speaking to Isaac, the word he uses is hitbaraku. This is also from barak. You can hear it in there: hitbaraku. This form is in a stem called the Hitpael, which is very often reflexive, like the second meaning of the Niphal, so hitbarak would mean “he blessed himself.” As it turns out, the word used in Genesis 28 when God is speaking to Jacob is another Niphal. Now it could be that these three passages aren’t actually meaning the same thing, but if we assume that they are, and I think this is a reasonable assumption, then whereas the Niphal can be either passive or reflexive, the Hitpael can only be reflexive, and this would lead us to adopt a reflexive translation in all three passages.
But what does it mean for someone to bless themselves in or by someone, as these three passages seem to be saying? Well, it’s probably something like this: “may you be like Abraham and his descendants who are numerous and mighty, may God keep and protect you like he did Abraham and his descendants.” What this would mean is that the point of this “bless themselves” language is that Abraham and his descendants would be so blessed, so obviously favored by God, that their names would come to be invoked by other completely unrelated people groups as blessing on their own sons and daughters. This element in the promise is about having a good reputation of being blessed by God and bringing glory to God through that reputation.
As modern Christians, this sort of good repute often seems very far from us. We are more used to identifying with Jesus’ warning that his followers would be hated for his sake. Now, I don’t want to take anything away from Jesus’ warning. I do think that there is a hatred of his followers in the world that there is no reasoning with. This is the spirit of anti-Christ that is in the world and that will be there until the end of this present age.
But sometimes it seems to me that the popular antipathy towards Christians isn’t entirely ill-founded. The characterization of Christians as bigots and hypocrites is overstated, yes, but it is partially true. Are these attacks unfair in that they hold us to a higher standard that they do everyone else? Yes, they are unfair, but shouldn’t we be held to a higher standard, especially if we make such bold claims about ourselves as that we have the spirit of God living in us and shaping our character? We can’t be perfect, and I’m not suggesting that we should expect that of ourselves, but I do think that we bring some of the hatred that world feels towards us on ourselves. I really don’t want it to be true of me what Paul says in Romans 2:24 when he cites Isaiah 52:5: “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.” This is the opposite of the glory we should be bringing to God by virtue of how much he has blessed us.
But let me not be entirely negative here. The fact is that even when we are hated, there are people who continue to be drawn to Christianity from the world because of the love we show towards each other and towards those outside of our church community. Or they may be drawn to Christ by the strength we show in the face of adversity through the grace of God being active and energetic in our lives. This is the sort of church growth that comes not from our own effort but from the goodness of God radiating forth from our lives. And this sort of radiance of grace, kind of like the shining face of Moses when he came down from Sinai, is the way we Christians today realize the last element of the Genesis promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
So I’m all but finished now. Let me summarize what I have just said. A big part of the Christian distinctive is the set of benefits we receive from being God’s chosen people. Among those benefits are four things that we see in the promise statements of Genesis 12:1-3, 26:2-5, and 28:13-15: land, descendants, protection, and reputation. But for us Christians, these promises have been transformed, especially the promises of land and descendants. We have no home territory at the moment. We are sojourners and exiles. But we await the day when Jesus will return and bring about the fullness of the kingdom of God, because then the entire earth and its fullness will be our inheritance. The promise of descendants is partially fulfilled in us, but when we appropriate the promise as something directed to us, what we see is that while we are responsible to labor for Christ in what ways we can, the growth of the Church is God’s responsibility, not ours. The third promise, that of protection, means that God is for us, even when we are not perfect. And the last promise, of reputation, speaks today of God’s grace that radiates out from us and draws people to Christ. These four things are truly distinctive of God’s chosen people.