What Does Genesis 12:1–3 Mean, Why Does It Matter?
Earlier this year, we released another volume in the landmark The Story of God Bible Commentary series, written by none other than venerable Old Testament scholar Tremper Longman III.
In Genesis, Longman helps pastors and teachers help those they shepherd live and apply the Story to real life. It also offers them a sturdy resource for hearing the voice of God in the text and finding an accessible explanation of its passages.
Let's look at how Longman explains and applies Genesis 12:1–3—an important set of verses to be sure!
“One cannot overestimate the importance of these three verses not only for the Abraham story and the Pentateuch but for the entire Bible, both Old and New Testaments.” (159)
So what does Genesis 12:1–3 mean and why does it matter to creatively and faithfully live it today? Keep reading to find out.
The Importance of “I will bless”
Walter Brueggemann has described 12:1–3 as a second creation account, which clues us into the importance of God’s “I will bless” declaration.
In the chapters leading up to this narrative shift, we see that the world has “devolved into a pattern of sin, judgment, and token of grace.” (157) The fall, Cain and Abel, the flood, and the tower of Babel paint such a picture in vivid high-definition color. In Genesis 12, “God now seeks to address the sin problem and reconcile humanity to himself through the person of Abraham and promise he will give him.” (157)
And he does so through blessing.
In the introduction, Longman explains how “blessing” is an important word that holds Genesis together and binds it to the rest of the Old Testament. Humans are blessed at the beginning (Genesis 1:22, 28); they forfeit that blessing through their rebellion (Genesis 3); and then God blesses humans when he seeks reconciliation through Abraham and his descendants (Genesis 12:1–3). “Thus, the book of Genesis lays the foundation for all of the history of redemption…This story of God’s work of redemption continues throughout the rest of the Old Testament.” (16)
What Does It Mean to Be Blessed?
When we first encounter this passage, we are struck by the repetition of brk, the Hebrew root of blessed. “God will bless Abram and then he in turn will be a blessing to others, ultimately to ‘all peoples on earth.’” (159)
Longman reveals, however, that there is disagreement over the exact nature and force of the niphal verb in verse 3, which can have one of three possible renderings:
- A passive; the nations will be blessed through Abram and his descendants.
- A reflexive; the nations will “bless themselves.”
- A middle; the nations will “gain blessing.” (160)
Longman agrees with the NIV rendering: “A passive sense captures the fact that Yhwh directs this word of promise to Abraham, who will be the instrument bringing blessing to all.” (160)
What does this blessing entail? Longman directs our attention back to God’s original blessing of Adam and Eve in the garden: “Life in the garden defines what blessing looks like and it has spiritual, emotional, physical, psychological, as well as material aspects to it.” Deuteronomy 27–28 further refines our understanding, showing that those who obey God’s covenant will “have a relationship with God which leads to material and emotional wholeness.” (160)
And God chooses Abraham to be the vehicle through which this blessing will come to the world.
Blessing in Action: Joseph
This vehicular aspect of God’s election for the sake of blessing others is an important facet of God’s redemptive movement. We find first glimpses of God’s all-peoples-on-earth blessing in the story of Joseph.
First, from the moment Potiphar put Joseph in charge of his household, “The blessing of the Lord was on everything Potiphar had, both in the house and in the field.” (Genesis 39:5) Longman remarks, “Joseph’s presence blesses the household of the Egyptian Potiphar…As Potiphar promotes Joseph and entrusts him with more and more responsibility, so the prosperity of the house only grows.” (479)
Then, the nation of Egypt itself was blessed after Joseph was put in charge of Pharaoh’s storehouses leading up to the famine: “During the seven years of abundance the land produced plentifully.” (Genesis 41:47) Longman notes how this passage shows “that a descendant of Abraham would bring blessing on the nations (12:3).” (496)
Ultimately, Jesus would fulfill the Abrahamic promise, and also the Church through our relationship with Jesus, mirroring the blessing that came to the nations through Joseph. “The church is a spiritual entity, but metaphorically that ‘great nation’ who receives and dispenses God’s blessing to the world.” (165)
The book of Genesis is a book of beginnings: the beginning of the cosmos and creation; the beginning of sin and death; and the beginning of blessing and the history of God’s redemption.
Join Longman’s exploration of the prequel to the main story of the Pentateuch in Genesis to understand how this ancient text informs our present Christian life.
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