What does Genesis 12 mean?
Chapter Commentary:
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.
Verse Context:
Genesis 12:1–9 is a landmark passage in the Bible. God calls Abram to leave his people and land behind. He also promises to bless Abram and to make his descendants into a great nation who will one day occupy the land of Canaan. Though childless, and with no obvious path to becoming a father of an entire culture, Abram begins to worship the Lord in the land of Canaan, journeying through the land and building altars to God.
Genesis 12:10–20 tells a story of Abram's fearfulness and God's faithful intervention to keep His promises. A famine forces Abram's large company to enter the land of Egypt in search of food. Pharaoh's sons quickly notice Sarai's great beauty, and Pharaoh takes her for one of his wives. This occurs because Abram, fearful for his life, has claimed that Sarai is his sister. In spite of Abram's lie and failure to trust Him, God afflicts Pharaoh's household for this dishonor, bringing the truth to light. Pharaoh, angry and fearful, sends Abram, Sarai, and the company back to the land of Canaan.
Chapter Summary:
Genesis 12 contains one of the key moments in the history of the world. God chooses Abram as the first step in building His people Israel. Abram obeys God's call, and heads into the land of Canaan, territory which God promises to Abram's offspring. Quickly, though, Abram fails a test of faith in the land of Egypt while seeking food in a famine. God does not fail, however, to step in to save Abram's family and protect His agenda for Abram's life.
Chapter Context:
The end of Genesis 11 tells the story of Terah, Abram's father, and the family's journey to a new home in Haran. Genesis 12 shifts the story to Abram and his journey on into the land of Canaan. God promises to make Abram the father of a great nation, and to give Abram's descendants that very land. Abram begins to worship the Lord, but quickly fails a test of his faith in Egypt. God shows Himself faithful in a miraculous way, preparing Abram for what's to come in chapter 13.
Book Summary:
The book of Genesis establishes fundamental truths about God. Among these are His role as the Creator, His holiness, His hatred of sin, His love for mankind, and His willingness to provide for our redemption. We learn not only where mankind has come from, but why the world is in its present form. The book also presents the establishment of Israel, God's chosen people. Many of the principles given in other parts of Scripture depend on the basic ideas presented here in the book of Genesis. Within the framework of the Bible, Genesis explains the bare-bones history of the universe leading up to the captivity of Israel in Egypt, setting the stage for the book of Exodus.
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