Feb 20, 2012

The Promise to Abraham

6 Min Read

Key to Genesis and a Pivotal Point in Redemptive History

The call of Abram in Genesis 12:1–9 is a pivotal point in redemptive history. According to Gordon Wenham, no section of Genesis is more significant than 11:27–12:9.1 It is, as Bruce Waltke observes, "the thematic center of the Pentateuch."2 While the first eleven chapters of Genesis focus primarily on the terrible consequences of sin, God's promises to Abram in Genesis 12 focus on the hope of redemption, of restored blessing and reconciliation with God. God is going to deal with the problem of sin and evil, and he is going to establish his kingdom on earth. How he is going to do this begins to be revealed in his promises to Abram.3 The remaining chapters of Genesis follow the initial stages in the fulfillment of these promises. Thus Genesis 12:1–9 sets the stage for the remainder of Genesis and the remainder of the Bible.4

The key section of Genesis 12:1–9 is the explicit call of God to Abram found in verses 1–3.

Now Yahweh said to Abram, "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 dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed."

The theme of God's call to Abram is evident in the fivefold repetition of the key terms "bless" or "blessing." Also important is the repetition of the word "you" and "your." Man's sin has resulted in God's curse (Gen. 3:14, 17; 4:11; 5:29; 9:25), but here God promises to form a people for himself and to restore his original purposes of blessing for mankind (cf. Gen. 1:28).5 Abram is somehow going to be the mediator of this restored blessing.

Four Promises

Within God's call of Abram there are four basic promises: (1) offspring, (2) land, (3) the blessing of Abram himself, and (4) the blessing of the nations through Abram.6 In verse 1, God commands Abram to leave his home and go to the land that he will show Abram. The promise of land is not explicit in this initial command. It is only made explicit when Abram reaches the land of Canaan. At that point, God promises Abram, "To your offspring I will give this land" (12:7). This promise of land becomes a key theme throughout the remainder of the Old Testament.7 It is especially prominent in the remainder of the Pentateuch and in the books referred to in the Hebrew canon as the "Former Prophets" (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings). In terms of God's kingdom purposes, the land promise indicates that God has not abandoned his plan to establish his kingdom on earth. The land promise would have certainly been important to Israel at the time the Pentateuch was originally composed. As Israel stood on the plains of Moab, they were assured that the land they were about to enter had been promised to Abraham and to his offspring by God himself.

In Genesis 12:2, God promises that he will make of Abram "a great nation." This promise will be fulfilled initially in the birth of the nation of Israel.8 This promise necessarily implies that Abram will have offspring, but like the promise of land, the promise of offspring is only made explicit when Abram reaches Canaan (cf. 12:7). The promise of offspring is also related to God's ultimate kingdom purposes. Just as the land promise provides a realm for God's kingdom in the midst of his creation, the promise of offspring anticipates a people for his kingdom. God then promises to bless Abram and make his name great so that he will be a blessing.9 The fourth element of God's promise is that in Abram "all the families of the earth shall be blessed" (12:3). Abraham will be the head of the "one family by whom all of the other families of the earth will be blessed."10 In fact, the blessing of all the families of the earth is the primary purpose behind God's calling of Abram. His calling and the promises he is given are not ends in themselves. Abram is promised offspring, a land, and personal blessing in order that he might be the mediator of God's blessing to all the families of the earth.11 As we proceed, the eschatological significance of God's promises to Abram and his determination to bless all the families of the earth will become clearer. As we will see, this blessing will come through the establishment of God's kingdom. From this point forward in Genesis, "the writer's primary concern is to trace the development of God's resolution to bless."12

This article is part of the The Unfolding of Biblical Eschatology collection.

  1. Gordon Wenham, Genesis 1–15 (Waco: Word Books, 1987), 281.
  2. Bruce Waltke, Genesis: A Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 208.
  3. Paul R. Williamson, Sealed With An Oath: Covenant in God’s Unfolding Purpose, NSBT 23 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2007), 77; William J. Dumbrell, Covenant and Creation: A Theology of Old Testament Covenants (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1984), 47.
  4. Bruce Waltke (Genesis, 209) elaborates on this important point, “The call of God to Abraham is the sneak preview for the rest of the Bible. It is a story of God bringing salvation to all tribes and nations through this holy nation, administered at first by the Mosaic covenant and then by the Lord Jesus Christ through the new covenant. The elements of Abraham’s call are reaffirmed to Abraham (12:7; 15:5–21; 17:4–8; 18:18–19; 22:17–18), to Isaac (26:24), to Jacob (28:13–15; 35:11–12; 46:3), to Judah (49:8–12), to Moses (Exod. 3:6–8; Deut. 34:4), and to the ten tribes of Israel (Deut 33). They are reaffirmed by Joseph (Gen. 50:24), by Peter to the Jews (Acts 3:25), and by Paul to the Gentiles (Gal. 3:8).”
  5. See Thomas E. McComiskey, The Covenants of Promise: A Theology of the Old Testament Covenants (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1985), 15–58.
  6. As Willem VanGemeren observes, Abraham (22:17–18), Isaac (26:3–4), and Jacob (28:13–15) each received God’s fourfold promise. See The Progress of Redemption (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988), 108.
  7. See Philip Johnston and Peter Walker, eds. The Land of Promise (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2000).
  8. Dumbrell, Covenant and Creation 66–67.
  9. Williamson (Sealed With An Oath, 78–79) argues that the words weheyeh berakah at the end of verse 2 should be translated as a second command, “Be a blessing,” rather than as a certain consequence “so that you will be a blessing” because of the imperative form of the verb. This is a possible translation, and the ASV does translate the words in this way, but it is not required. In this type of sentence, the imperative verb can express a consequence (See GKC, § 110i; cf. also Joüon, § 116h).
  10. NIDOTTE, 4:665.
  11. T. D. Alexander, From Paradise to the Promised Land: An Introduction to the Pentateuch, 2d ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 85–86. Allusions to this promise are found in prophetic texts such as Isaiah 19:24 and Jeremiah 4:2.
  12. Allen P. Ross, Creation and Blessing (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1988), 253.