Dynamic stories often employ narrative shifts, the point in the plot where the story or storytelling changes focus. Perhaps the story is told from a different perceptive or the action changes location. While it might seem like narrative shifts can cause confusion with their sudden movement, in the hands of skilled storytellers, they actually serve to bring clarity to the central themes of the narrative. They help draw out the nuances of the narrative that are otherwise obscured from a single perspective. In the narrative of Genesis, chapter 12 is a significant narrative shift. This isn’t to say the story changes, but simply that the story’s central motifs are brought into clearer view as they are unfolded in the narrowed focus on Abram and his offspring.
At the beginning of Abram’s story, God calls Abram out of the nations—the same nations that, in the narrative’s perspective, assembled in an act of defiance at Babylon against the divine decree to fill the earth—and makes him quite a nice promise. God will make him a great nation and his name great so that Abram will be a blessing to the world. Despite all that has happened in the first eleven chapters of Genesis, God still intends to fill the earth with his blessing. This is one of the major notes in the chorus of Genesis—even evil cannot thwart God’s good purposes. In addition to promising to make Abram great, God also promised to give him and his offspring land—specifically the land of Canaan.
That Genesis 12 and the call of Abram comes immediately after Genesis 11 and the judgement of the nations is immensely purposeful. The juxtaposition sets up a contrast between the “Let us make…” of arrogant Babylon and the “I will make…” of God’s gracious promise to Abram. Where the nations attempt to make a name for themselves, God promises to make a name for Abram. This contrast continues to clarify the way of faith versus the way of sin in God’s broken-but-still-good world. The way of faith does not seek to gain or earn for ourselves what God has already promised to provide. Consider Adam and Eve in the opening scene of Genesis. Where God had provided them the provision of Eden and invited them to receive it by eating freely of the fruit of all the garden’s trees except one, Adam and Eve instead took for themselves. This is the way of sin.
The way of sin versus the way of faith are diametrically opposed in the story of Genesis, but as the story of Abram makes increasingly clear, nothing—including sin—can stop the good Creator King from accomplishing his good purposes in his world. In other words, though opposed, God, in his gracious sovereignty, commandeers evil for good. Where God promised to make Abram great, Abram’s riches come from Pharaoh after Abram pimped out his wife and duped Pharaoh. Where God called Abram to be a blessing to the nations, Abram’s actions bring affliction upon Pharaoh’s house—affliction so severe that Pharaoh tells Abram to take his newly acquired riches and bounce. This is hardly the way of faith, yet it reveals the complicated economy in which God works in his broken-but-still-good world. It also continues the pattern in Genesis of God appointing a man—Adam, Noah, Abram—out of the nations (in Adam’s case, the ground), blessing them to fill the earth with blessing, and subsequent disobedience that brings affliction instead of blessing. The hope that Abram will be the one promised to crush the serpent and undo the curse crashes in disappointment as Abram, too, proves inescapably like Adam. Yet God has still been faithful to uphold his promise to make Abram great in order that he might serve as a conduit of God’s blessing to the world.
To be sure, this in no way excuses Abram’s sin and shortcomings. It does, however, highlight the scandalous perseverance of God’s promise to bring blessing to the broken world. Redemptive blessing will flow to every broken place in God’s world, even through evil. As Joseph will say later in the story, “What you meant for evil, God intended for good that many should be kept alive until this day.” That God is able to hijack even evil to accomplish his purpose of bringing blessing to the broken world is immensely good news. God’s purposes don’t hinge on our faithfulness but his. While such a reality may crush our selfish savior-complexes, it opens the way of utterly dependent faith on God—the sort of faith that God later credits to Abram as righteousness.
After the episode in Egypt, Abram returns to the place he built an altar at the first and there, calls upon the name of the Lord. It’s a poetic return—returning to the place of the faithful Lord’s promise after his own unfaithfulness. Abram’s building an altar is an act of faithful worship—an expression that his only hope, and the only hope of the world, is the good God who has promised to bring blessing to his now broken world. Abram’s act begins pattern how God’s people ought to respond to the faithful God in contrast to their own unfaithfulness.
With newfound riches in hand, the land to which Abram has returned proves unable to support the needs of Abram and his kinsman, Lot. With God’s promise of land in hand, Abram makes what seems to be a shortsighted decision to give Lot first choice of land as the two prepare to part ways. In continuing to contrast the way of sin and the way of faith, the author notes that “Lot chose for himself” what appears to the land of the Lord, an Eden of sorts. While choosing the better land—even land that appears full of echoes of Eden—seems to be the logical choice, the author quickly and deliberately relates Lot’s choosing for himself to the “wicked, great sinners against the Lord” who inhabit the land of Lot’s choosing. In other words, Lot’s choosing to (re)claim Eden for himself makes him like the inhabitants of Sodom. In contrast, Abram doesn’t choose for himself but receives another iteration of God’s promise. “All the land you see, I will give to you and to your offspring forever. I will make your offspring as the dust of the earth.” The land of promise cannot be chosen, only received. Such contrast reveals the sinful ambition of our hearts to (re)claim for ourselves what we can only receive from God. Whether we chose for ourselves religion or relationships, popularity or profit, underneath, they are all sinful attempts to reclaim a divinely-accepted righteousness we intrinsically know we have lost—a loss that haunts our human existence and compels our human quest. What we chase in vain to gain for ourselves, God offers freely to us, ultimately in Jesus, if only we receive his gift of grace in faith.
From there, Abram enters the land and builds an altar, an act the author has highlighted at the beginning, middle and end of this chapter in Abram’s story. At each point, God makes a promise, Abram acts—sometimes for good, sometimes for evil—but no matter what, God keeps his promise to bring blessing to the brokenness. The story of Abram invites us to learn for ourselves what he himself has learned—that even if we are willing, we are not able to bring the purposes of God to pass. We are not the menders of what is broken. The redemption of our neighbors and the nations does not hinge upon us but on God, for our faith is faulty and futile, and we are destined to fail—just like Adam, just like Noah, and just like Abram. God, however, is faithful constantly and without fail. What he has purposed and promised, he will bring to pass, even through evil—evil, Genesis declares, in which we are all complicit. We ourselves are evil, and yet the unexpected paradox of the biblical testimony is that God uses evil, even us, to bring about his purposes. In Christ, the Redeemer, we are conduits and carriers, jars of clay in which God has planted surpassing treasure he intends to offer to our neighbors for the sake of bringing his blessing to bear upon the brokenness of his world.