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Genesis chapter 12

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What does Genesis chapter 12 mean?

Genesis chapter 12 declares a simple, powerful, and surprisingly deep truth: God chose Abram. God's plan was to make for Himself a great nation, a people that were His own, and He chose to begin it with Abram. Genesis 12 records this moment, which is vital in the history of the world, of God's people Israel, and of God's plan to offer salvation to the world through faith in Christ. Abram will later be renamed Abraham.

Whether God and Abram had spoken prior to Abram's official calling, the Bible does not say. Possibly without warning, the Lord speaks to Abram. He gives one command and an avalanche of promises. The command was for Abram to go away from his country, his people, and his father's house. The promises must have been well beyond anything Abram ever imagined for his life. At 75, Abram was firmly middle aged for his day, comfortably wealthy, and married to an exceptionally beautiful woman named Sarai, though they were childless.

The Lord, without explanation or condition, promises to make Abram a great nation, to bless and make Abram's name great so that Abram will be a blessing, to bless those who bless Abram and curse those who dishonor him. Finally, God promises that in Abram, all the families of the earth will be blessed. In response to this command, Abram, Sarai, Abram's nephew Lot, and their large company head into the land of Canaan. This territory will one day become the Promised Land (Genesis 12:7).

Abram's entourage first travels to Shechem, then to Bethel. Abram builds an altar to the Lord at each place, hearing another promise from the Lord at Schechem: "I will give this land to your offspring." This promise is more specific than prior statements and would have seemed even likely from a human perspective. At the time, Abram was a 75-year-old man with no children and a barren wife, standing in a land fully occupied by multiple people groups. He had no army or means to conquer anyone, and yet the Lord promised this land to his descendants.

Next, Abram journeys south, toward a sparsely populated desert area known as the Negeb (or Negev). Then he and his contingent journey still farther south, into Egypt. They were forced to do so by a famine in the land; they had to find a way to buy food from the people who lived in the well-watered lands along the Nile. This will be the first test of Abram's faith in the God who made big promises. Abram will fail the test, yet find God to be faithful, anyway.

In short, Abram was afraid he would be killed by the Egyptians when they saw how beautiful his wife was. As an immigrant in Egypt with no protection from any government, what would keep them from simply killing him and taking her for their own? Instead of asking for the Lord's help, Abram makes up a scheme: He and Sarai would say she was his sister. It was a half-truth; they did share the same father (a practice apparently common in the day). It was also a full lie, in that it was really meant to hide the fact they were married. Abram's hope, apparently, was that as Sarai's "brother" he would be able to refuse any marriage proposals. Or, at least, to remove motivation for rivals to kill him in order to have access to Sarai.

Upon entering Egypt, Abram's fear is quickly justified, partly due to his own deception. Pharaoh hears of Sarai's great beauty, and also hears that she is—apparently—unmarried. So, he takes her for his wife. Pharaoh rewards her "brother" Abram handsomely, but Abram apparently has no way to refuse the Pharaoh.

That's when the Lord steps in to ensure that His agenda for Abram's life will succeed. When we try to fulfill God's promises for Him, we typically just get in the way. So, to clean up Abram's mess, God afflicts Pharaoh's household with a plague of some kind. The resulting hubbub allows the truth of Abram's marriage to Sarai to come out. Pharaoh, understandably upset with Abram and fearful of the Lord, sends the whole company, including Sarai, right back to Canaan.
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