The Bible is neither an encyclopedia of facts nor is it a compendium of spiritual propositions. It is not a "spiritual" book in the sense that many moderns judge such things. No, the Bible is a storybook. It faithfully recounts, in all its guts and glory, the story of God's redemptive work through Israel and the Church. More often than not, God's chosen people are petty, disobedient, and downright nasty. Few offer consistent models for us to imitate. And yet, somehow, God uses these broken and flawed people to mediate God's grace to the world.
Clearly, the story of the Bible is not about the great men and women of God, but about the great God of men and women. It is a story of sin and grace, violence and compassion. It contains moments of triumph and of failure. It presents humanity in all its glory and in all its shame. There is no sugarcoating of the truth in the sacred canon.
The Bible's accurate portrayal of a good-but-flawed humanity clearly demonstrates that redemption comes not through human initiative or human ingenuity but through divine faithfulness. The story of the Bible is the story of a God who is active in human history, bringing blessing in the midst of a fallen world. It is God's covenant, God's promise, God's faithfulness that brings redemption.
God's salvation brings redemption from human sin. The four main stories of the earliest chapters of Genesis reveal the depth and extent of humankind's sorry state. It is in this fallen context, that God's gracious salvation is revealed, culminating in the coming of Christ and the gift of the Spirit. In order to understand Christ's redemptive mission and the Spirit's transforming work, we must view them in light of these stories of the Fall.
The Turning Point
Genesis 12:1-3 is a pivotal moment in the unfolding of the biblical story. This passage connects the story of Israel to the story of the world. The same God who forms the world is the same God who creates Israel - a people that arise out of the scattering of the nations through God's divine initiative. Old Testament scholar, Terence Fretheim, writes,
Interpreters universally consider vv. 1-3 to provide the key for the rest of Genesis, indeed the Pentateuch. They constitute a fulcrum text, thoroughly theological in focus, especially written to link chaps. 1-11 ("all the families of the earth") with the ancestral narratives, and to project forward to the later history of Israel ("a great nation").
It is the fallen world described in Genesis 1-11 that stands in need of divine redemption. Genesis 1-2 reveals the inherent goodness of God's creation. Genesis 3-11 reveals the extent of human sin and its devastating consequences. The fallen world stands in need of God's redemptive grace. And Abram is the instrument through which God will mediate this grace to the world.
Patterns in Genesis 3-11
There is a pattern in the stories of the Fall found in Genesis 3-11. Four stories in Genesis 3-11 reveal the extent of human sin and its corrupt consequences for humankind and creation. But they do more than this. They also reveal God's righteous judgment on sin. God's grace is revealed in that God restrains sin while continuing to perpetuate the original blessing. But restraint and preservation do not exhaust God's work. God also provides hope for the future through divine promises rooted in God's covenant.
We see this pattern in the four stories of the Fall.
In the Garden:
- Sin and its Consequences: Sin is manifested in the faithless disobedience of the first parents exposing an inner curvature of selfishness, pride, and evil desire. Adam and Eve foolishly attempt to be "like God" without God. Labor pains (in childbirth for the woman and in tilling the soil for the man) and the ensuing battle of the sexes expose sin's destructive and alienating power.
- Restraint and Preservation: To restrain sin's effect, God banishes the couple from eating of the tree of life, so that eternal life does not consist in a life of sin and corruption. God preserves the couple by providing garments of skin and allowing for life to continue outside the Garden.
- Promise for the Future: In the Protoevangelium (Genesis 3:15), God promises a future redeemer from the seed of the woman. Though life will be characterized by violent spiritual conflict, ultimate victory will come from the woman's seed.
Cain and Abel:
- Sin and its Consequences: Sin is socially manifested in envy and murder. It is not just an inner curvature but an outward hostility toward others. Because of his actions, Cain experiences the life of a vagrant and wanderer.
- Restraint and Preservation: Cain is sent away but not without God's mark of protection.
- Promise for the Future: Hope for the future is manifest in the cultivation of civilization that furthers human life. The birth of Seth marks out a "people who call upon the name of the Lord" (Genesis 4:26).
- Sin and its Consequences: Sin is publicly manifest in human wickedness that pervades the earth in evil intentions and violence.
- Restraint and Preservation: God both restrains sin and preserves creation through the flood. However, it is revealed that judgment does not bring redemption; it does not change the human heart. The human heart remains inclined toward evil.
- Promise for the Future: God establishes a covenant with all humanity and creation. This covenant guarantees that humankind will continue to flourish in spite of sin, not because of human faithfulness, but because of God's faithfulness.
The Tower of Babel:
- Sin and its Consequences: Systemic sin pervades civilization's social structures.
- Restraint and Preservation: The untold potential of unified evil is curbed as the nations are scattered and divided through differences in language. God preserves human flourishing by checking the progress of sin.
- Promise for the Future? But where is the hope for the future in the Babel account?
The story of Babel breaks the pattern in order to emphasize a new source of God's promise for the future. Each of the previous stories concludes with hope, but with Babel we are left with only scattering, separation, and confusion. We are left asking, "What now, Lord? Will you leave the people scattered, confused, separated from you and each other?" When we ask this question we are ready for the answer found in chapter 12!
The hope for the future resides in one man, his family, and the nation that arises from his covenant with God. Abram stands as the hope of the nations, indeed, of the world.
With the conclusion of Genesis 11, the primeval story has ended. The account of the people of God now begins. Through Abram the covenant story of sacred history begins. God's plan for redemption is linked to one man and one people. Because of God's blessing, Israel will arise as a nation chosen by God to be a blessing to the world. Israel is elected not only to blessing, but also to mission. Israel will exist not simply for its own sake, but for the sake of the world.
The Call of Abram (Genesis 12:1-3)
God takes the initiative in the redemption of the world by calling Abram. God's call of Abram begins with a command: "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you" (Genesis 12:1). With this command, God calls Abram to begin a journey of faith that is marked by complete dependence upon God and God's promise. This is not an easy thing for Abram. The things he must leave are mentioned in order of increasing level of intimacy: "Go forth from your country, your relatives, and your closest family." Abram must leave all he holds dear and trust God to guide him in a new land.
But this command does not come without a promise: "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 the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed" (Genesis 12:2-3).
The promise arises from God's grace and repeatedly emphasizes God's blessing and initiative. Five times in two verses, God speaks of "blessing." God's blessing stands for God's favorable presence in a fallen world. Fretheim writes, "Blessing stands as a gift of God (mediated through a human or nonhuman agent) that issues in goodness and well-being in life." God's blessing also brings God's protective presence and guidance.
God's blessing is a gift of grace arising solely from God's initiative expressed in the repeated phrase, "I will..." God makes it clear that it is God's sovereignty, and not human initiative, that will bring the people of God into existence. Israel exists as a product of God's gracious actions. It is interesting to note that Israel receives from God what the builders of Babel sought to achieve apart from God. They sought to make a name for themselves (Genesis 11:4). Now, God says to Abram, "I will make your name great."
But the blessing of God does not end with Abram. The blessing of God overflows through Abram to others. God blesses Abram and makes him a blessing to others. Abram becomes a mediator of the presence and blessing of God. He is a means of God's grace to a fallen world. Through Abram, God's blessing extends to those outside the chosen family - to the nations of the world.
The exact nature of God's blessing to the nations is never explicitly defined. However, it is clear that whatever God intends for the nations will not come about apart from God's relationship with Israel.
God's promise is made more explicit in later chapters: "Through your seed the nations will be blessed" (Genesis 22:18). The "seed" is the aspect of God's blessing that is mentioned most in God's repeated pronouncement of blessing to Abram and the Patriarchs.
A universal blessing to all nations will come through Abram. God's promise is for all people. Throughout the biblical story, individuals and nations will benefit from God's blessing. This is partially fulfilled in how God uses Joseph to deliver Egypt and the world in a time of famine. Rahab, Ruth, and Hiram of Tyre (1 Kings 5:1) are a few examples of individual Gentiles who are blessed through identification with Israel.
All the world will benefit from God's blessing of Abram. For this reason, Jesus said, "salvation is from the Jews" (John 4:22). According to Old Testament scholar Walter Kaiser, this text "easily could be classified as one of the first great world-wide missionary texts of Scripture."
The Journey of Faith Begins
Abram obeys God's call and his journey of faith begins. Abram believes in God's promise "to create a new future sharply discontinuous with the past and the present." Abram's faithful response to God's promise was not easy. Many obstacles stood in the way of its fulfillment. Consider the following: (1) a promise of a great nation is offered to one individual; (2) a promise of land is offered to a landless people (an "outlandish" promise if ever there was one!), and; (3) the promise of an heir is offered to a barren couple (Genesis 11:30). Yet, in spite of the obstacles, Abram believed God's promise, and through his act of obedience, became the father of the faithful.
Abram believed that God can bring something new out of the old - God can make the impossible possible. Though Abram will not live to see the fulfillment of God's promises, he believes God (see Hebrews 11:8-16; Acts 7:2-5). In faith, he sets out on his journey with God.
Abram experiences a new level of blessing that arises from faith in God's promise and obedience to God's call:
While blessing appears central in Genesis, it is inadequate and incomplete without promise... The blessing that God promises to Abram has deep levels of continuity with the blessing he has experienced in his life to this point. But his new promise is something more, something beyond what the creation in and of itself can provide. Within creation, blessing is powerful, life-enabling, and life-sustaining, but finally insufficient for the fullest possible life. The promises bring blessing into the sphere of redemption.
It is not surprising that the New Testament views God's promise to Abram as nothing less than the gospel. Paul writes, "And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, declared the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, 'All the Gentiles shall be blessed in you'" (Galatians 3:8). This comes about through faith in the "seed of Abraham," Jesus Christ (Galatians 3:16). Through faith, we share in Abram's blessing. Even more, we become agents of blessing to a fallen world.
Jesus is the seed of blessing through which God's blessing comes to the nations. In his Great Commission, Jesus calls the church to become a mediator of God's blessing to the nations: "Go into all the world and make disciples of all nations" (Matthew 28:18-20). We bless the world because "God so loved the world" (John 3:16). In the heavenly vision, John the Seer speaks of "people from every tribe and tongue and people and language" (Revelation 5:9).
God blesses us and makes us a blessing to others. It is God's promise, fulfilled in Christ, that brings blessing. We are chosen by God to mediate God's presence and blessing to the world. Through us, God's blessings overflow to others.
And the most beautiful thing about the story of Abraham is that it reminds us that God's chosen instruments of blessing are not without their faults - and yet God blesses anyway. If there is one thing that the story of Abraham reveals - and every other story in the Bible, for that matter - it is that God uses ordinary people for extraordinary purposes.
"The Bible does not show us models for our morality but mirrors for our identity,"... The Bible's human figures are not the people we should be but the people we are. Genesis is not telling us to be like Abraham; it is telling us that Abraham is like us: very faithful and devout at times and very insecure and self-centered at other times. That, the Bible understands, is who God has to work with.
 Terence E. Fretheim, Genesis in The New Interpreters Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 422.
 With this in mind, it is not surprising that the fulfillment of God's blessing of Abram begins at Pentecost. With the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost, God begins to reverse the judgment of Babel. And this blessing comes through God's promise embedded in God's covenant with Abraham.
 Fretheim, Genesis, 425.
 Walter Brueggemann, Genesis (Atlanta, Georgia: John Knox Press, 1982), 106.
 Fretheim, Genesis, 425.
 James O. Chatham, Creation to Revelation: A Brief Account of the Biblical Story (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2006), 36.
© Richard J. Vincent, 2008