Last week we noted how God was able to bring clarity out of the confusion that resulted when people chose to build a city for themselves with a tower reaching to the heavens in order that they might make a name for themselves.[1] Because these aspirations went against God’s original instructions to Noah and his sons to “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth,”[2] God ended up confusing their language in order that his instructions might be fulfilled. We read how subsequently, “the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.”[3] The account of the Tower of Babel provides an example of how God’s plans are always clear and human disobedience is no obstacle to his bringing his plans to fruition.

We also saw how God’s scattering his people occurred by way of the descendants of Noah’s three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Of these three, Shem was the son of promise for it was through him that the Messiah promised at the time of the serpent’s cursing would arise.[4] The ten generations listed in Genesis 11 culminate in Terah becoming the father of Abram, Nahor, and Haran.[5] Abram, of course, is Abraham. And of the three sons of Terah, the promise of the Messiah would come about through his line.

Now we should keep in mind that though Abram is the one who carries on the line from Adam—to Seth—to Noah—and Shem, at the time at which he is called by God, Abram is a pagan. Listen to what Joshua, living years after Abraham, said concerning him: “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘Long ago your ancestors, including Terah the father of Abraham and Nahor, lived beyond the Euphrates River and worshiped other gods.’”[6] Terah, the father of Abraham and Nahor—Haran, the third son, died while Terah was still alive[7]—“worshiped other gods.” This indicates that none of the descendants of Noah, who were scattered far and wide after God’s judgment at the Tower of Babel, had followed in the ways of God their Creator. But as we also noted last week, this should come as no surprise for God had noted after the Flood that “every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood.”[8] This was the case even among Shem’s descendants through whom the promised Messiah would one day come to deliver his people from those evil hearts and inclinations.

Yet even though all of the nations listed in the Table of Nations in Genesis 10 had turned away from God, God’s plan to save his image-bearers, his plan to save humanity, wasn’t thwarted. For what we find in Genesis 12 is the account of how God devised a plan to create a new nation for himself rather than choose one of the existing nations. Specifically, God devised a plan to create a new nation out of Abram. As stated in the opening verse of Genesis 12, “1 The Lord had said to Abram, ‘Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.’” With this we see that Abram is to take part in God’s earlier scattering of nations at the Tower of Babel in order to be fruitful, increase in number, and fill the earth for Abram is told to leave the place of Ur where his father Terah had lived.[9] We’re not told why God chose Abram. Again, at this time Abram no doubt worshiped the gods of his father, Terah. Neither are we told anything about Abram’s character. We’re simply told that the LORD appeared to and delivered instructions for him to leave his home.

These instructions are as remarkable as when the LORD appeared to Noah and told him to build an ark in order to deliver him from the flood he would send to cleanse the earth of the corrupt and violent humanity that existed in his day.[10] Yet in the case of Abram, the LORD offered no explanation for his instructions but merely told him to leave his country, his people, and the household of his father to an as yet to be revealed land. But God’s instructions are followed by a promise noted in verse 2: “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.” Again, whereas last week we saw how God thwarted those who were building a city and tower in Babel in order that they might make themselves great by making a name for themselves,[11] here we see greatness displayed on God’s terms. For it is by his grace and determination alone that he chose Abram as the one whom he would bless and bestow greatness. Abram’s sacrifice in leaving his country, people, and household would one day be rewarded. And notice that just as we’re not told the reason why God singled Abram out to sacrifice by leaving his country, people, and father’s household, neither are we told the reason why God chose him to be the recipient of such a wondrous blessing. For, again, God promised to make Abram “into a great nation,” that he would bless. Abram will be the recipient of God’s good favor. Not only that, but Abram’s greatness will be for the sake of blessing others. The greatness that God bestows upon Abram will be for the sake of serving others, not lording it over them.

What is more, blessing or cursing for others would be dependent upon how they treated Abram. As stated in verse 3, the LORD went on to say in the first half of this verse, “I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse;” This is how God ever chooses to work in the lives of those who are his. He loves those who belong to him so very much that if someone blesses them, he will bless that person; however, if someone curses them, he will, in turn, curse them. This shouldn’t surprise us when we consider that God has disclosed to us that he is our heavenly Father—and he is the best of Fathers at that. If earthly parents delight in those who treat their children well; and if earthly parents get upset about those who don’t treat their children well, how much more is this the case with our loving Father in heaven? This is why those who bless Abram will be blessed and those who curse Abram will be cursed.

Jesus later made the same point when he told the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25.[12] If you’ll recall, the King in that parable, representing Jesus our King, stated that those who fed him when he was hungry—and gave him drink when he was thirsty—and saw him a stranger and invited him in—and saw him in need of clothes and clothed him—and visited him when he was sick or in prison were those who demonstrated these caring acts of kindness not to the King directly but to those who belonged to him. As the King in the parable states, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”[13] Conversely those who did not extend these caring acts of kindness to him, that is, to one of the least of these of his brothers and sisters, were told, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”[14] As was the case with Abram, God’s blessing or curse is tied to how others treat those who belong to God. It’s evident throughout Scripture that God strongly identifies with those who are his.

Now in the case of Abraham, not only did God promise that he would bless those who blessed him and curse those who cursed him, but he went on to say at the end of verse 3, “and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”[15] All people on earth would be blessed through Abraham because it was through him that God would make a new nation, Israel, through which his eternal Son, his Messiah, Jesus Christ, would one day be born. All of this would occur by God’s grace and favor alone.

And notice starting in verse 4 that just as Noah had believed God and acted on his instructions to build an ark, taking his family with him, we similarly see Abram doing the same here. “So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he set out from Harran. He took his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, all the possessions they had accumulated and the people they had acquired in Harran, and they set out for the land of Canaan, and they arrived there.” There’s a lot to take in in these couple of verses:

First and foremost, and as already noted, “Abram went.” In verse 1 the LORD had told him to go from his country, people, and father’s household to a land the LORD would show him—and Abram did! This is how we demonstrate our belief in God: by doing what he says;

Second, among those he took with him was Lot, his nephew. This is probably because, as already noted, Lot’s father, Haran, had died[16] and so Abram took him under his wing;

Third, Abram was seventy-five years old when the LORD appeared to him and he obeyed him. We need to keep in mind that the LORD’s promise to make of Abram a great nation was given to an older man, not a man still in his prime;

Fourth, in addition to his nephew, Lot, Abram took his wife, Sarai, and all of their possessions.[17] Regarding Sarai, later Sarah, it’s important to note that at the end of Genesis 11 we’re told, “Now Sarai was childless because she was not able to conceive.”[18] This would appear to be a bit problematic for how will she become the mother of a great nation, if she’s unable to conceive? This is a matter that will come up again as this story unfolds;

Fifth, the place they set out for was Canaan. As we noted last week, as a result of the evil that his father, Ham, did towards his grandfather, Noah, Canaan was cursed to be a slave to the brothers of his father, Shem and Japheth. As a nation, Canaan and the Canaanites who descended from Ham’s line, would come to be enemies of the not-yet-established nation of Israel that would descend from Abraham.

So though the nation of Israel didn’t yet exist, that of Canaan did. As stated in verse 6, “Abram traveled through the land as far as the site of the great tree of Moreh at Shechem. At that time the Canaanites were in the land.” What is more, it was at Canaan, verse 7, that “The Lord appeared to Abram and said, ‘To your seed I will give this land.’” Here we have a further elaboration on the LORD’s promise: Canaan, currently occupied by the Canaanites, was the land that God had promised to show Abram, that God would give him. Important to notice, too, is that Abram was no longer a worshiper of other gods for now “he built an altar there to the Lord, who had appeared to him.” As one commentator notes, “By this act the father of the new nation consecrates the Promised Land to God.”[19] And since this was a period as yet prior to the construction of the tabernacle, another commentator notes, “These altars [were] places where God [could] be encountered in worship.”[20] Abram’s faith in God, as demonstrated by his obedience to God, continues to be evident. As we read in verse 8, “From there he went on toward the hills east of Bethel and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east.[21] There he built an altar to the Lord and called on the name of the Lord.” Abram not only built an altar, but he began to call on the name of the LORD who appeared to him before setting out, verse 9, to Negev.[22] The new nation that God would create out of one man, Abram, was off to a good start!

Now as we’ve been considering the Genesis account, we’ve noted the importance of the promised Messiah’s line being delivered through Adam, then Seth (as Abel’s replacement), then Noah, Shem, and now Abram. Yet of these, Abram is given pride of place. For as we heard read earlier from the New Testament, the apostle Paul explains that the LORD’s promise given to Abram in verse 7 of Genesis 12—“To your seed I will give this land”—is in fact the promise of Messiah, that is, of Jesus Christ. In speaking about the promises the LORD gave to Abram, Paul states in verse 16 of Galatians 3: “The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. Scripture does not say ‘and to seeds,’ meaning many people, but ‘and to your seed,’ meaning one person, who is Christ.”[23] Paul is making a profound theological point based upon the LORD’s use of the singular “seed” in Genesis, identifying this seed with Christ—and again, Christ is the Greek form of the Hebrew word for Messiah.

As Paul goes on to reflect upon the purpose of the law that was later given to Moses, he notes that this law by no means undid the promise that the LORD previously gave to Abraham. For as we’ve noted before, God is not only a promise Maker, but more importantly, he is a promise Keeper.[24] For what good is a promise if it’s not kept? As Paul states in verse 18, “For if the inheritance depends on the law, then it no longer depends on the promise; but God in his grace gave it to Abraham through a promise.” God’s promise is by grace. The law was important, however, for by it God taught humanity how they ought to behave. This was necessary since the sin—or transgression—that resulted after the Fall blinded them from seeing and following God in the way that he intended. So God had to give the law in order that they might know what love for God and love for others looked like in practice. In Paul’s words, verse 19, “Why, then, was the law given at all? It was added because of transgressions until the Seed”—that is, the Messiah, the Christ—“to whom the promise referred had come.” The law would help guide humanity to follow God until Messiah, God’s promised seed, could come to cleanse humanity’s evil heart, to cleanse humanity from the inside rather than imposing laws from the outside.

And so, Paul concludes, important though the law was, verse 21, it was incapable of imparting life. The only thing the law can do is to reveal our sin for none among us is able to meet all of its demands. Thereby the law shows us our need for God. As Paul states in his letter to Romans, “no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin.”[25] Righteousness cannot come by obedience to the law for fallen humanity is incapable of obeying the totality of that law. As Paul states in chapter 2 of Galatians, “if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!”[26] If we could save ourselves by our efforts and obedience, we would have no need for a Savior. But we can’t save ourselves by our efforts and obedience. Our only means of salvation, our only means of attaining the righteousness God intended for us, comes by Christ’s efforts and obedience on our behalf.

Again, in order for us to learn to desire what God desires, our cleansing needs to start from within. And Jesus, God’s chosen Messiah, is the only one who is able to cleanse us. As stated in verse 22 of Galatians 3, “But Scripture has locked up everything under the control of sin, so that what was promised, being given through faith in Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe (emphasis added).” Paul makes a similar point in his letter to the Romans: “It was not through the law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith (emphasis added).”[27] Righteousness comes only by faith in the Promise Maker; it comes only by faith in the Promise Keeper; righteousness comes only by faith in Jesus Christ who took our sin upon himself and, in so doing, took it away and in its place gave us his righteousness. This is ultimately how the LORD’s promise to Abraham that “all peoples on earth” would be blessed, is fulfilled. It’s fulfilled through God sending his Son, his Messiah, Christ Jesus our Savior and LORD to live, suffer, and die in our place. And, having died, he rose from death and thereby conquered death that he might offer eternal life to any and all who believe in him and so receive his Holy Spirit whom he so graciously gives to all who are his that all might know the goodness and greatness of our loving and heavenly Father. This is God’s blessing through Abraham.

Let us pray.

 

 

[1] Genesis 11:4: Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”

[2] Genesis 9:1.

[3] Genesis 9:7–9: “Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there

[4] Genesis 3:15: And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.

[5] Genesis 11:10a, 26: 10 This is the account of Shem’s family line….26 After Terah had lived 70 years, he became the father of Abram, Nahor and Haran.

[6] Joshua 24:2. Emphasis added.

[7] Genesis 11:28: While his father Terah was still alive, Haran died in Ur of the Chaldeans, in the land of his birth.

[8] Genesis 8:21–22: Never again will I curse the ground because of humans, even though every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done. 22 As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease.

[9] Genesis 11:31: “Terah took his son Abram, his grandson Lot son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of his son Abram, and together they set out from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to Canaan. But when they came to Harran, they settled there.” Ur was about 186 miles southeast of modern Baghdad on a bend of the Euphrates River in Mesopotamia.

[10] See Genesis 5:11–14, 17–18: 11 Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and was full of violence. 12 God saw how corrupt the earth had become, for all the people on earth had corrupted their ways. 13 So God said to Noah, “I am going to put an end to all people, for the earth is filled with violence because of them. I am surely going to destroy both them and the earth. 14 So make yourself an ark of cypress wood; make rooms in it and coat it with pitch inside and out…. 17 I am going to bring floodwaters on the earth to destroy all life under the heavens, every creature that has the breath of life in it. Everything on earth will perish. 18 But I will establish my covenant with you, and you will enter the ark—you and your sons and your wife and your sons’ wives with you.

[11] Genesis 11:4: Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”

[12] See sermons preached on this passage in Matthew on November 26, 2017, How Do We Care for Christ? And June 14, 2015, Sheep and Goats.

[13] Matthew 25:40. Emphasis added.

[14] Matthew 25:41. See also the account of the apostle Paul’s encounter with the risen Christ. Though Paul (Saul at that time) had been persecuting Christians, Jesus asked why he was persecuting him. See Acts 9:1–5: 1 Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied.

[15] This promise will be reaffirmed to not only to Abraham but also to his son, Isaac, and grandson, Jacob (later called Israel), respectively in Genesis 22:18: and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.; Genesis 26:4:  I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and will give them all these lands, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed,;  Genesis 28:14: Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring.

[16] Genesis 11:27–28: 27 This is the account of Terah’s family line.Terah became the father of Abram, Nahor and Haran. And Haran became the father of Lot. 28 While his father Terah was still alive, Haran died in Ur of the Chaldeans, in the land of his birth.

[17] Regarding the “people” he had accumulated, see Genesis 13:5–7a: Now Lot, who was moving about with Abram, also had flocks and herds and tents. But the land could not support them while they stayed together, for their possessions were so great that they were not able to stay together. And quarreling arose between Abram’s herders and Lot’s; Genesis 14:14: When Abram heard that his relative had been taken captive, he called out the 318 trained men born in his household and went in pursuit as far as Dan.; Genesis 17:12: For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner—those who are not your offspring.

[18] Genesis 11:30. Emphasis added.

[19] Reformation ESV Study Bible note on Genesis 12:7. It also provides the following passages: Exodus 20:(22–)24: 22 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Tell the Israelites this: ‘You have seen for yourselves that I have spoken to you from heaven: 23 Do not make any gods to be alongside me; do not make for yourselves gods of silver or gods of gold. 24 “‘Make an altar of earth for me and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and fellowship offerings, your sheep and goats and your cattle. Wherever I cause my name to be honored, I will come to you and bless you.; Joshua 22:19: If the land you possess is defiled, come over to the Lord’s land, where the Lord’s tabernacle stands, and share the land with us. But do not rebel against the Lord or against us by building an altar for yourselves, other than the altar of the Lord our God.

[20] Crossway ESV Study Bible note on Genesis 12:7. It cites Exodus 20:24 (later during the time of Moses, the LORD tells him): Make an altar of earth for me and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and fellowship offerings, your sheep and goats and your cattle. Wherever I cause my name to be honored, I will come to you and bless you.

[21] Bethel and Ai are both south of Shechem towards Egypt.

[22] Shechem is the southern region of Canaan (negeb means south). It is the desert region southwest of the Dead Sea covering an area of about 4,500 square miles.

[23] Emphasis added. In addition to Genesis 12:7, this promise is reiterated in Genesis 13:15 (“All the land that you see I will give to you and your seed forever.”) and Genesis 24:7 (“The Lord, the God of heaven, who brought me out of my father’s household and my native land and who spoke to me and promised me on oath, saying, ‘To your seed I will give this land’—he will send his angel before you so that you can get a wife for my son from there.”)

[24] See sermons preached on November 29, 2015, Israel’s Promise and Hope, on Jeremiah 33:14–16; and December 6, 2015, Zechariah’s Song, on Luke 1:68–79.

[25] Romans 3:20.

[26] Galatians 2:21.

[27] Romans 4:13.