You Shall Be a Blessing: A Commentary on Genesis 12:1-3

The LORD said to Abram, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and curse him that curses you; and all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you.” (Genesis 12:1-3, New Jewish Version.)

From your native land

The verses shown above form part of the Parashat Lech Lecha, the third weekly reading portion of the Torah according to the Jewish rabbinical tradition. Normally this is read some time in September or early October each year. The Torah, or the Pentateuch, is the foundational document of the Israelite faith. It introduces the early history of Israel from the creation to Moses, to whom God of Israel has given the Torah. The Book of Genesis (Bereishit in Hebrew) mainly serves as the preamble of the Mosaic covenant; it contains the beginning of the world and how the nation of Israel was founded by God’s divine plan and choice.

In the two preceding parashat or readings describe the beginning of the human civilization up to the time of Noah. Since Noah and his family were traditionally the only survivors of the famous worldwide flood, he is seen as the father of all nations. Orthodox Judaism calls non-Jews who worship God of Israel B’nai Noach, or children of Noah, by the virtue of the Noachide Covenant derived from the Book of Genesis.

If Noah was the “founder” of the Gentiles, Abraham was the “first Jew” by the traditional rabbinical theology. The Hebrew Scriptures mainly deal with the Nation of Israel, which is his descendants; the Bible can be divided into two sections at Abraham. The pre-Abrahamic portions of the Tanach (the preferred Hebrew term for the Old Testament) addresses the foundation of the humanity, while the other parts mainly discuss the history of Israel. For this reason, Genesis 12:1-3 is perhaps the beginning of the Israelite religion.

In order to understand the verses better, it is necessary to start by defining the narrative unit, and to follow it to establish a proper context. After the flood, the human civilization and culture have reestablished themselves. In Chapter 11, the entire population of the planet would speak one unified language. The inhabitants of Babel have attempted to build a skyscraper to show their strength against God.

Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top shall reach the sky. Let us make ourselves a name, so that we will not be scattered all over the face of the earth. (Genesis 11:4, Kaplan.)

God has therefore scattered the languages so that they will not attain their goals. From this time on, Genesis traces a lineage that leads to the birth of Abraham. It is worthy to mention that many important figures of the Bible (including the New Testament) are introduced with this pattern which uses a genealogy as a focalizer into a narrative unit. The most well-known example is the first chapter of Matthew. This pattern seems to indicate that the ancient Middle Eastern culture identifies persons by their patrilineal lineage. In other words, everyone is seen as a product of his or her ancestors (especially his or her father, grandfather and great-grandfather). To this day, traditional Hebrew names take the format of given name and father’s name. For instance, a Jewish person named Rachel H. Epstein may have a Hebrew name such as Racheil Hadassah bat Mosheh (Rachel Hadassah, daughter of Moses). Even in the European cultures, it was common to connect a person’s name with his paternal names — just take some of the familiar last names: e.g., O’Leary, McGregor, Fitzgerald and Peterson.

Now, after having Abram’s ancestors mentioned, readers encounter a rather strange passage. The 12th chapter of Genesis starts with a word of God saying, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house.” Why does God here call Abram to abandon his father and his ancestral homeland?

The culture in which Abram was raised was not necessarily immigrant-friendly. It was very different from our modern North American culture, where one can easily move from one place to the other with very few restrictions or troubles. (For instance, one may have been born in Texas and spent her childhood in New Jersey, went to college in Québec and spent most of her life in California then moved to Florida after her retirement.) If he leaves his country and his parents, he also leaves his “gods” (i.e. perceived divine protection by the guardian deities of the land), his legacy and all the legal protections he had enjoyed. Foreigners had no safety abroad. They could have been killed or sold as slaves.

The city of Ur, in the modern-day Iraq, was a centre of idolatrous religions. This implies two things:

  1. The culture of Ur was deeply rooted in the religion. Arts, languages, education, politics and all other aspects of the city’s civil life were influenced by the local idol cults.
  2. The commerce and economy of Ur was backed by the religion as well. Production of idols and tourist revenues from pilgrims may have been one of the city’s major income sources.

From this viewpoint, leaving one’s country, parents and religion seem to be inherently risky. Of course, Abraham did not leave Ur and Haran as a poor lone nomad; he took all his possessions and servants as well as his family, including Lot and Sarah. (cf. Genesis 12:5.) Nevertheless, there was no one else whom Abraham’s family could rely on: there was no embassy or consulate that could help Abraham in a foreign land; in verse 12, Abraham shows his concern that he might be killed because of his beautiful wife; his portable assets and his own family were the only protections he could rely on.

What did make Abraham embark on such a big transition of life? Interestingly, the Scriptures only show three verses of God’s revelation to Abraham, verses 1 through 3. In a culture where idols are their gods, everyone knows that idols do not talk directly to human beings. Here Abraham hears words of an invisible God, from nowhere. Unlike Moses (Exodus 3:2), there is no indication that Abraham has actually seen any manifestation of God in this narrative unit. Who was this God? Why did Abraham obey the voice of this God without questioning?

Gott Fun Avrohom

In the Eastern European Jewish tradition, an inspirational verse titled “Gott Fun Avrohom” (Yiddish for “God of Abraham”) is recited at the conclusion of Shabbat. 1 The God of the Bible is called Elohei Avraham, God of Abraham (cf. Exodus 3:6); however, a profound question still remains. Exodus 6:3 reads that God “appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as God Almighty, but by My name, LORD, I did not make Myself known to them.” (New American Standard Bible). On the other hand, Genesis 12:8 records that Abraham actually called (or “preacheth,” Young’s Literal Translation) the name of God. In the Hebrew text, it is “Vayikra b’shem Adonai,” which is literally “And he called in [the] name of Adonai [Y-H-V-H].”

How could Abraham called God by his proper name if God did indeed keep the patriarchs from knowing God’s name (as in Exodus 6:3)? Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan comments on Exodus 6:3 as follows:

Did not allow them… Actually, God did use the Tetragrammaton (YHVH) in speaking to Abraham (Genesis 15:7) and Jacob (Genesis 28:13). The name was also used by angels (Genesis 16:11, 19:13,14, 18:14), by the Patriarchs themselves (Genesis 14:22, 15:2, 15:8, 16:2, 16:5, 22:14, 24:27, 24:31, 24:40, 24:44, 24:48, 26:22, 27:7, 27:27, 28:31, 29:32, 33:35, 30:24, 30:30, 32:10, 49:18), and even by gentiles (Genesis 24:3, 24:31, 26:28,29, 30:27, 31:49). It is true, however, that the Tetragrammaton was never used in speech before the time of the Patriarchs. Among the Patriarchs, the Tetragrammaton was known, but not its inner significance (Ramban; Ibn Ezra). This was because the Patriarchs received their prophecy from the level ass ociated with the name El Shaddai, while only Moses received it from the level associated with the Tetragrammaton (Moreh Nevukhim 2:35; Ralbag; Milchamoth HaShem 6). Knowing God’s name in the true sense is something great, as we see in Isaiah 52:6, Jeremiah 31:33, Psalms 83:19.2

Furthermore, the original Hebrew verse indicates that the word “to know” is “yada,” which means an intimate knowledge. Thus Abraham might not know Y-H-V-H in an intimate manner, yet still had a knowledge of who God was. In this light, Abraham had an incredibly strong faith. Not only that he was willing to take risks, but also he had a faith in this invisible God. What did enable Abraham to trust completely in this God, who uttered only 27 words in Hebrew? Unlike in the accounts of Moses at the burning bush, God did not have to prove himself with miracles; neither did Abraham question the invisible God. The chapter 12 does not even show that God made any introductory statement; it begins with a simple statement, “And Adonai said to Abram.” (Genesis 12:1.)

The Midrash Rabbah, the oldest Torah commentary in existence (which was codified nearly 2,000 years ago) makes some speculations. According to the traditional rabbinical understanding, Abraham was born in the family of idol manufacturers, thus he knew as a child that idols were powerless and worthless. (cf. Midrash Bereishit Rabbah 38.) 3 The Quran uses Philo’s assumption that Abraham left his country as a resistance against the local astrologers (cf. Quran Sura 21:53). 4

While it might be possible that Abraham had already possessed a knowledge that idolatry does not work, an idea of an invisible, universal God who calls someone out of his country and parents for the sake of blessings is rather revolutionary.

Abraham’s life is built around his faith. He was no secular man. In the beginning of chapter 12, he receives a promise (or a vision) that kept him strong in foreign lands. He builds altars to his new God (12:7, 8), then later returns to the altar to invoke the name of God, Y-H-V-H (13:4).

The challenge

Back to the verses 1 through 3, the promise that “[God] will make [him] a great nation, and … will bless [him], and make [his] name great; And so [he] shall be a blessing” was enough motivation for Abraham to take all the potential risks. The question here is, what is the “blessing” and why was Abraham attracted to these promises.

First, Abraham already knew that his wife Sarah was unable to have children (11:30). Yet it is not necessarily a threat for him (even if it may be for Sarah) since he was able to have children with Hagar. Nevertheless, a promise that God would “make of” (as rendered by New Jewish Version) Abraham a great nation is a good news for him.

The vision and a visionary

The promise of blessings given by God to Abraham was not only for his benefits. Y-H-V-H promises that through Abraham all the earth would be also blessed (12:3). The word “bless” in Hebrew is same for Abraham and the “rest of the world.” Perhaps this promise was the greatest motivation for Abraham to risk his own security, comfort, land ownership and life.

In the time when each country and city had their own guardian deities, and wars are seen as conflicts of two gods who represent the nations, this universalism of Abraham’s faith is highly unusual. Here is a God who promises blessings not only to Abraham and his future nation, but also to the other nations.

Abraham followed God’s high calling because he knew that his obedience brings a great blessing to the entire world. He must have seen as an abnormal person with no faith in the venerated idols of Ur and Haran; he might even be seen as a sacreligious man who regards the “gods” worthless. The religious community of the Mesopotamia would not be in favour of Abraham’s faith in Y-H-V-H. Yet he had a courage. He saw a vision of universal blessings beyond all the potential risks and persecutions. Does a modern-day believer in Gott Fun Avrohom have the same courage? Just as in the ancient Middle East of Abraham’s birth, status quo often replaces God as a chosen idol of churches and synagogues. Religions are usually seen as a “defender of traditions” rather than risk-takers. The author’s wish is that we are endowed with the spirit of Abraham, with faith, vision and courage that pursue blessings — to make a positive difference in the world. We might often be labelled by the “religious” communities as “abnormal.” They may not accept us sometimes. But the most important thing is to follow God, not the social norms constructed around the religious systems and traditions. I have visions and dreams. I would like to see more godly, committed people of God in the midst of the GLBT communities around the world. I want them to be the blessing for the others. Finally, I would like to give this word of the Ancient Wisdom to my fellow transsexual women who feel discouraged: Many daughters have done nobly, but you excel them all. (Proverbs 31:29, New American Standard Bible.)

Copyright © 1998 Tiffany S. Lavender-Nakashima