Friday, December 1, 2006

Jewish Commentary: Genesis 12:1-9

The Jewish orthodox sages and Rabbis understood the literalness of all of the Old Testament prophecies. Premillennialists and dispensationalists are in good company in seeing the Bible interpreted in a normal, literal hermeneutic. Someday, the eyes of the Jews will be open in seeing the Lord Jesus Christ as the promised Messiah. Meanwhile, their interpretative notes and commentaries on great prophetic passages continue to support the “rightness” of looking for future prophecy being fulfilled actually, and literally!

Genesis 12:1-9

The Foundation of Bible Prophecy and the Jewish People 

 12:1 Out of your country. “In this land of idol worship (Babylon) you [Abraham] are not worthy to rear sons to the service of God.” (Rashi) The evil surrounding them would contaminate them. The command was issued for those who would follow Abraham also, if any, when he left Babylon. (Midrash) 

   Your country … your kindred … your father’s house. These are the main influences which mold a person’s thoughts and actions. Abraham was to cut off completely all associations that could possibly hinder his mission. A similar call comes to all of Abraham’s seed in every generation and circumstance, to separate themselves from all associations and influences that are inimical to their trust in God and to their destiny.
   Your country. Babylon, which was then the most powerful empire in the world, with a highly developed city-civilization, commercial society, and literary culture, and the source of all paganism and polytheism, was Abraham’s point of origin. 

   Land that I will show you. At this moment, the destination of the journey is not specified. This was meant to build Abraham’s trust in the divine call of God. However, here he is only following a voice. He will not become a true believer and a righteous saint until 15:6, where God imputes to him righteousness for his faith.

   This promise of the land has remained with Israel from the time of Abraham. This promised has not been annulled or diminished. It looks for the Messiah to come at the End of Days, after the victory of Israel over the nations, by the Messiah, and the whole world coming to a belief in Him and God. This idea bore much fruit in the Middle Ages as the Jews suffered under the famous Muslim tenet “the religion of Muhammad by the sword.” The messianic vision remains for the orthodox – “The filling of the earth with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” (Patai) 

12:2 I will make your name great. However, at first, Abraham is an unknown in the land of Canaan. He will be a stranger but he will not threaten the order of the tribal peoples nor make them afraid of him militarily. He will be passive but in time, respected!

   Be a blessing. These words contain the idea that Abraham was to become a blessing to humanity be the influence of his godly life and by turning others to a knowledge of the true God. With the change of one vowel in Hebrew, the Midrash says, the word “blessing” means “spring of water.” “As a spring purifies the defiled, so will you, Abraham, attract those who are far from the knowledge of God and purify them for their Heavenly Father.” Such was the role indeed played out buy the children of Abraham on the stage of human history. Tolstoy said: “The Jew is that sacred being who has brought down from heaven the everlasting fire, and has illumined with it the entire world. He is the spiritual source, spring, and fountain out of which all of the rest of the peoples have drawn their beliefs and even their religions (which are now polluted and false).”

 12:3 I will bless. Those who follow Abraham’s example of trust, and teachings, will be like him, and enjoy God’s favor.

   He that curses you. “The story of European history during the past centuries teaches one great lesson. That the nations which have received and in any way dealt fairly and mercifully with the Jews have prospered—and that the nations that have killed and oppressed them have spelled out their judgment and curse.” (Schreiner)

   In your seed shall all the families be blessed. Israel shall be a light “of the nations” (Isa. 42:6). Through him, all men were to be taught the existence of the Most High God, and the love of righteousness, thereby opening for themselves the treasures of blessings. Here is the germ of a coming Messianic Age. This promise was given also to Isaac as well as to Abraham. It was a prophecy that would go far beyond the lifetime of both men. It looks for fuller realization in the future. (Singer)  

12:4 As the Lord had spoken. In obeying the voice from heaven, Abraham leaves the land of his birth (Babylon and Ur), and all the glamour and worldly prosperity of his home; he becomes a stranger, a pilgrim for life, enduring problems, famines, wanderings in Canaan as a sojourner, into Egypt as a refugee, and then returning to Canaan, all in faithfully following the voice of God. By his faithfulness he will be sharing his blessing of the knowledge of God and righteousness.

   Lot went with him. His nephew Lot was a mere tag-along and does not appear to be inspired with the same ideals as prompted Abraham’s departure from Babylon. In fact, it might be shown that Lot really had a longing for the lights of a big city, such as Ur! 
12:5 All their possessions. Their worldly goods, movable property.

   The (persons) souls. The Rabbis take the word “souls” to mean their slaves and dependents, or Gentile proselytes whom Abraham made while traveling. This is probably doubtful. But if it were true, these “converts” became subservient to God’s law and followed their master in his spiritual adventure. These people, whether proselytes or slaves, had been acquired in Haran before coming on down to Canaan.

   Had acquired. Literally made, for the Rabbis declare, he who wins over an idolater to the service of God is as thought he had created him anew!

 12:6 Shechem. This is the modern day Nablus that is about thirty miles north of Jerusalem. It is one of the oldest cities in Canaan.

   The terebinth of Moreh. Some translate this as “the directing terebinth”, the oracular tree held sacred by the tree-worshipping Canaanites. Some trees were attended by the Canaanite priests who interpreted the answers to their oracles to those who came seeking their services. The terebinth tree (or turpentine tree) grew to a height of from twenty to forty feet and may have also served as a landmark. This tree is not mentioned here because Abraham may worship at this site but because mentioning it, shows how far down into the land he had traveled at this time. 

   The Canaanite was then in the land. The Canaanites had already settled in the lowlands of the territory, in fact the word itself, Canaan, signified the Lowlands! (Sayce) The Canaanites would be some of the most ruthless people of the land and so it was appropriate to mentioned that they were already established there for some time.
12:7 To your descendents. In spite of the fact that the land was occupied by this pagan and warlike people, it would someday belong to Abraham and his children through Isaac and Jacob and his twelve sons who formed the twelve tribes (but with no inheritance going to Ishmael and Esau)! 

12:8 Beth-el. Means “house of God.” While this may have been a pagan site in Abraham’s day, he is not drawn here to offer to the Canaanite deities. He worshipped God! Beth-el is in the central part of Palestine, the site of modern Beitin, ten miles north of Jerusalem.
   Ai. Probably the modern Haiyan, about two miles east of Beth-el. Ai will be the place of the first defeat of the Israelites when they entered the land under Joshua.

   He called upon the name of the Lord. The Jewish Targum renders this: “He prayed in the name of the Lord.” He proclaimed the knowledge of the true God, says the Talmud. He had the courage to acknowledge the God of the universe here in this new pagan land! He did this in the very midst of the soul-degrading ideas of pagan worship held by the peoples then inhabiting Canaan. God was becoming more and more real to Abraham!

   12:9 Abram journeyed on. Here, his name is still Abram, meaning “high father,” but it will be changed to Abraham, meaning “father of many.” The Hebrew text indicates that he traveled by stages, moving, settling, then pulling up tent and moving on, after the manner of the Bedouin or nomads.

   The Negev (the South). The name used to describe the southern part of Judah, the desert mainly Jerusalem and south. The Midrash says that Abraham was being drawn towards Jerusalem which is at the southern end of the land. The Lord will someday make Jerusalem the center of the earth, the city of His King!



    The Pentateuch and Haftorahs.
    Society and Religion in the Second Temple Period, Michael Avi-Yonah and Zvi  Baras (Jerusalem: Massada Publishing, 1977).
    The Messiah Texts, Raphael Patai (Detroit: Wayne State University, 1979).
    Dictionary of Judaism in the Biblical Period, William Green, ed. (Peabody, MS: Hendrickson, 1999).