“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. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” (Genesis 12:2-3)
This was a common kind of covenant between a ruler and a pagan god in ancient times, accept maybe the last line, “all peoples of the earth will be blessed through you.” The god would covenant to make the leader and his nation great and powerful and would curse all his enemies. But when God speaks these words, they have a renewed meaning, which people begin to understand as they learn his character. This is a common form of communication in the Old Testament: God starts with where people are (their current understanding of things) and draws them to the renewal he offers to us in Christ.
God promised Abram he would make his nation great. Israel did become a great nation, especially in the days of Solomon, and so they could say God kept his word. But this wasn’t what God meant. He meant through Christ, the lowly ruler, who would reign over the world in grace, completely unlike Solomon. Christ’s reign would be much greater, both in extent and in character. God also promised he would bless Abram’s friends and curse his enemies. Everyone wants to hear this. But Abram didn’t misunderstand this. He knew he had to deal honourably and truthfully with all his neighbours. And God’s promise didn’t mean Abram or his seed wouldn’t suffer. It meant God would protect them and cause his purposes to be fulfilled in their nation, through Christ.
The blessing of all peoples on earth speaks of a new family throughout the world that would bring new creation. This is a continuation of God’s solution to the ancient destruction and the Flood that followed. A new family wouldn’t seek retribution and genocide, but instead forgiveness and restoration. Exploitation and empire would be replaced by an interethnic family of acceptance and care. This is how Paul explained Abraham’s promises in Romans and all his epistles: The Lord’s table of care between gentile and Jew, rich and poor, free and slave. And this is how Jesus also explained the new kingdom of God coming into the world through the gospel, in his teaching on neighbourliness. The record in Genesis shows it took Abraham a long time to begin to understand God’s project, but he trusted, or believed God.
“At that time the Canaanites were in the land. The Lord appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built an altar there to the Lord, who had appeared to him.” (Genesis 12:6-7)
So much of what we see in the Old Testament is God accommodating with the mindset of the people of the time. The land was promised to Abram but not given to Israel until about 400 years later, when “the sin of the Amorites (Canaanites) was full.” By then the land was being devastated by the worst crimes imaginable, in rampant child and human sacrifice, satanism, violence and all forms of human abuse. Even archaeology affirms this. When Israel finally took the land, it was mainly the fortresses they attacked. In accounts of war there is a lot of hyperbole and throughout the Old Testament there is a lot of human forms of atonement (bloodletting, which God even sometimes allowed), but his long-term goal was that the Torah point to Christ and his reign of Jubilee, love for foreigner, the marginalised and even the enemy, and peace. God even forbad Israel to build fortresses, use chariots in war, or build a standing army. They weren’t even to have a king (the leader of an army in those days.)
Genesis 12 concludes with an example of the favour of God being upon Abram. In Egypt God blesses Abram with livestock and servants, but curses Pharaoh with diseases for taking Sarai into his harem. God is speaking in the language they understand (in the theology of their own gods), to show them that he has a special purpose for Israel, to bring his love into the world for all people. I find that many who don’t understand this text, or texts about Israel later conquering the land, have not lived through terrorism and the evil that then filled the region, or understand the ways of peace God shows us to rescue ourselves and nations today. Their reflection on these texts is far too shallow.