Did God have a strategic reason for asking Abraham to move?
Commentary on Genesis 12
Well over a hundred years ago, my home state of Oklahoma held two free "land runs." At the sound of a cannon shot on those two occasions, thousands of people poured onto land given by treaty to Native Americans but not considered to be privately owned. People could claim 160-acre homesteads if they agreed to farm them for at least five years.
The call and promise in Genesis 12 and 15 was not the proclamation of a one-man "land run." Abraham was not being offered the opportunity to "stake a claim" on land that someone thought needed developing. Nor was God trying to give him a nice "place in the country" in which to raise a family.
God had a strategic reason for asking Abraham to relocate to Canaan, although sometimes that reason may be misunderstood. For instance, I have heard people speculate that Abraham and Sarah needed to get away from life in the city because cities can be bad places where evil influences abound. That reasoning doesn't convince me. God was not simply giving Abraham and his family "a place in the country."
As Abraham's descendants multiplied, God commissioned them to be His message bearers. Because of Abraham's move to Canaan, his descendants lived on a main thoroughfare of biblical times. Doesn't that reflect God's passion that all people come to know that He alone is worthy to be worshiped? The area at the eastern end of the Mediterranean that was later parceled out to the twelve tribes of Israel was a land bridge for the ancient world. Travel to and from three continents -- Africa, Asia, and Europe -- went through that relatively narrow strip of land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.
As empires rose and fell, this area remained a key traffic artery of the world. Trading caravans, for example, going to Egypt from Persia or even India went through the area where God settled the people He would call at Sinai to be "a kingdom of priests" (Exodus 19:6). Through Isaiah, God said His people would be "a light to the Gentiles" (Isaiah 42:6; 49:6). Abraham's move positioned his descendants so they had the opportunity to serve as a light to members of many other people groups. The potential was there for them to blossom as a "kingdom of priests."
People involved in real estate say that the three most important things about property are: Location, location, and location. "Location" was a good reason for Abraham's family to put down roots in what we now call "the Holy Land." Moving Abraham and Sarah near a major transportation route of the ancient world fit well for God's announced desire that the Good News of salvation be known by the whole world (Isaiah 49:6; Acts 13:47).
Genesis 12:1-3 is often referred to as "the call of Abraham." Those three verses are, however, more than guidance for one man and his family. Furthermore, when the same message is repeated in Genesis 17, God says it is a "covenant." With this covenant -- which also appears in Genesis 18 and 22 -- God took a significant step forward to fulfilling a promise about a Redeemer that began unfolding as early as Genesis 3:15.
In selecting Abraham, God was choosing the family into which the Redeemer would be born. God was also asking that family to make a strategic move to the crossroads of the ancient world, and then He was challenging them to be missional people.
This covenant is foundational to understanding not only the Old Testament but also the writings of the New Testament. We encounter Abraham's name about 70 times in New Testament writings. That is not just because Abraham was the great-grandfather of the men whose families became the 12 tribes of Israel. It is because he and his descendants -- spiritual as well as biological -- were to be purveyors of God's blessing to the whole world.
When people reflect on the first verses of Genesis 12, they often see only promises of land, many descendants, and the greatness of Abraham's name. To be there, there are promises of those things in Genesis 12:1-3. However, this covenant is about far more than land, or multitudes of offspring, or a man's legacy. This covenant, called "everlasting" in Genesis 17, is about bearing the news of Messiah and His redeeming work to all peoples.
In Genesis 12:3, God lets us in on a big dream, a dream of blessing flowing to all the earth. That blessing was not in terms of wealth, health, or other things that often cause people to say, "God has blessed me." The blessing that God's people are to pass on to others, says Galatians 3:8 in its explanation of the Abrahamic covenant, is the Good News of the Gospel.
There are no if clauses in this covenant. So, in a sense, it is unconditional. On the other hand, it is clear that the people of God are blessed in order to be a blessing. As Bob Sjogren and other missiologists have noted, this covenant has a "top line" of blessing and a "bottom line" of responsibility. The message that should have come through unequivocally was that with privilege comes obligation.
That responsibility or obligation was re-stated by Jesus in His Great Commission of Matthew 28:19-20. The "go ye" of that Great Commission is a reaffirmation of what God had said two thousand years before to Abraham: "All peoples on earth will be blessed through you" (Genesis 12:3).
-- Howard Culbertson,
These two mini-essays on a world missions Bible passage are two of more than three dozen articles in the "Heart of God" series published in Engage, a monthly online magazine. That series explores what the Bible says about missions.
"The Church's commitment to world evangelism is commensurate with the degree of truly understanding the depth of blessing it has received and the understanding of the responsibility to share that blessing." -- Kevin Juliano, Northwest Nazarene University student