Before we move into today’s reading, I’d like to transition us from last week’s story to today’s text in Genesis 12. While the move from chapter 8 in Genesis to chapter 12, today, doesn't seem like a big jump, there’s a lot that goes on in the chapters in-between.
After the story of the flood and of God’s covenant promise to Noah and his descendants, humankind didn’t really improve. In fact, in the verses immediately after God’s promise of the rainbow as an aid to God’s remembering, we have the story of Noah getting drunk. And naked. Probably not the image of the patriarch we want to keep, right?
Things don’t get better from there. There is a human inclination - a human desire - for power and control, especially to serve oneself. In the chapter that precedes today’s text, we read the story of the Tower of Babel. And of the attempt by humans to seek more and more power - to be like God. So, God mixes up their language so they can no longer easily communicate with one another. Then, God disperses them over all the earth so they can no longer together seek greater and greater power. It’s like the ultimate anti-trust action by God to ensure that humankind doesn’t become too big for its britches.
The story continues down the generations from Shem, Noah’s son, to Terah, father of Abram, who we know better as Abraham. At the end of chapter 11, we learn two things. First, that Terah lives in Ur. (Refer to the map.)
Ur is in the same location as Babel (or Babylon). Terah decides to move from Ur to Canaan. This means traveling an ancient trade route along what is called the Fertile Crescent (Remember your western civilization history?) to get there. But, Terah never reaches Canaan. Instead he, his family, and his household settle at the top of the Fertile Crescent in Haran. Then, the second thing we learn is that Sarai is unable to have children.
So, it is here where we find Abram and Sarai - where today’s story opens in Genesis 12. In Haran. With no children.
The Lord said to Abram, “Leave your land, your family, and your father’s household for the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation and will bless you. I will make your name respected, and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
those who curse you I will curse;
all the families of the earth
will be blessed because of you.”
Abram left just as the Lord told him, and Lot went with him. Now Abram was 75 years old when he left Haran. Abram took his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, all of their possessions, and those who became members of their household in Haran; and they set out for the land of Canaan. When they arrived in Canaan, Abram traveled through the land as far as the sacred place at Shechem, at the oak of Moreh. The Canaanites lived in the land at that time. The Lord appeared to Abram and said, “I give this land to your descendants,” so Abram built an altar there to the Lord who appeared to him. From there he traveled toward the mountains east of Bethel, and pitched his tent with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east. There he built an altar to the Lord and worshipped in the Lord’s name. Then Abram set out toward the arid southern plain, making and breaking camp as he went.
When a famine struck the land, Abram went down toward Egypt to live as an immigrant since the famine was so severe in the land. Just before he arrived in Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, “I know you are a good-looking woman. When the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife,’ and they will kill me but let you live. So tell them you are my sister so that they will treat me well for your sake, and I will survive because of you.”
When Abram entered Egypt, the Egyptians saw how beautiful his wife was. When Pharaoh’s princes saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh; and the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s household. Things went well for Abram because of her: he acquired flocks, cattle, male donkeys, men servants, women servants, female donkeys, and camels. Then the Lord struck Pharaoh and his household with severe plagues because of Abram’s wife Sarai. --Gen. 12:1-17 (CEB)
It’s interesting to me that, as with Noah in last week’s story, God once more is moving from the distant - from a broader dealing with humanity - to the personal. To Abram and Sarai.
God calls this couple through whom God promises to bless the whole earth. Abram and Sarai have one function in God’s plan. That is to be a blessing to all families of the “ground.” In most translations this phrase is translated as “families of the earth” or “people of the earth”. But this obscures a crucial aspect of this story of Abram and Sarai. The better translation is "families of the 'ground.'" The Hebrew word here, adamah, is the word first used in Genesis 2 to describe the creation of human beings from the “dust of the ground.” It’s the ground referenced in Genesis 3 to which all life will return in death. It’s the ground that literally opened its mouth to receive the blood of Abel after he was murdered by his brother, Cain, in Genesis 4 - and the ground from which Cain is cursed. In the Noah story, we read in Genesis 5, the hope that he will bring rest from this curse of the ground. But, then, in Genesis 9 it is from the ground that Noah receives wine that leads to his drunken nakedness and the breakup of his family. So, when we hear the call of Abram and Sarai to be a blessing to all families of the “ground” we understand what this is - a new attempt on the part of God to reconstitute the harmony of creation. This is a missionary call for Abram that will be echoed throughout the entire biblical narrative - including to you and to me. That, having been blessed by God in our many and unique ways, we then become a blessing to others.
So, Abram and Sarai go to the land they are promised, stopping at various points along the way to offer sacrifices of gratitude to the God who has called them. But, it is not long before a crisis comes. And the promise of God through Abram and Sarai is soon in trouble.
A famine strikes Canaan. They go south to Egypt - the bread basket of the ancient Near East. On the way, Abram does some thinking - about himself and his future. He devises a scheme to ensure his own safety by trafficking - let’s be honest here that’s what he’s doing, right? - trafficking his own wife to ensure his self-serving plan.
Now, we first need to recognize that we live in a time and culture that is very, very distant from Abram’s. Women were viewed as property. Polygamy was common. Cousins married cousins. Spouses were not true partners - a husband was the lord and master of the wife and exercised complete control over her body. Over her responsibilities. Over her life.
The other thing we need to know is that, further on in Genesis, we learn that Sarai really is Abram’s sister. His half-sister. So, in many respects, Abram is telling the truth here. But, remember God’s call for Abram and Sarai? To be a blessing to all the families of the ground. Abram’s actions here end up harming an innocent man - whether the man is powerful or not. Abram is not a blessing to the Pharoah. Either Abram has misheard God or simply forgotten God’s promise to preserve and protect him. His fear has gotten in the way of his trust in this promise - a promise from God of blessing.
I wonder how many of us forget the promises of God in the midst of our own fears and worries. Wondering about our lives. Or about our loved ones’ lives. Fearing the worst. And, as a result of that fear, acting out of self-preservation, even if it harms innocent people.
Friends, God wants us to be free of fear. God wants us to truly trust that God will do what God says. The core of the relationship between God and Abram was to be blessed and to be a blessing. God remembered and honored that promise for him.
Abram was given that promise. It has been given to us, as well. We may forget it. But, as with Abram, God did not forget him. And God has not forgotten us. Amen.
Preached Sunday, September 18, 2022, at Grace & Glory, Prospect, with Third, Louisville.
15th Sunday after Pentecost
Reading: Genesis 12:1-17