The Bible’s Hinge - Reflections on Genesis 12:1-9
by Dr. John Holbert on Monday, June 5, 2023
The Bible’s Hinge
Everyone who reads the Bible with any seriousness knows well that it grew over many centuries, beginning in the distant past—perhaps as long ago as the second millennium BCE—until as late as the 2nd century CE. I have long claimed, with many others, that the Bible covers over 1500 years of written work. That is an astonishingly long period of time to encompass, comprising ages when only rude dwellings in open fields constituted the living spaces of numerous peoples up until major cities—from Babylon to Jerusalem to Athens to Alexandria and finally Rome—made up the rapidly growing population centers of the Mediterranean basin. Any Bible reader must account for these shifting historical and cultural contexts in an attempt to understand what each successive author was trying to express.
Genesis’s 50 chapters, though it does not include all that historical time, still was written over centuries, from the creation story of chapter 1, clearly a priestly work of the 6th-5th century BCE, to the ancient tales of the patriarchs and matriarchs that we find beginning in today’s text that may have arisen late in the 10th century BCE. Let me suggest that Genesis in reality comprises 3 significant blocks of material, each one of which includes origins in several centuries. Gen.1-11, the so-called primeval history, presents to us two accounts of creation (Gen.1 and 2), composed by two separate authors many centuries apart, but now found together, placed there by an editor perhaps from the days of the exile of Israel to Babylon in the 6th century. This “history,” more a collection of myths and legends from several sources, begins with YHWH Elohim creating all that is, and calling it “very good,” to the terrible tale of the Tower of Babel where all humanity in an attempt to usurp the role of God, is instead doomed to complete separation from one another, unable to communicate across linguistic barriers as established by YHWH. The primeval history ends in chaos and confusion.
Gen.12 brings a new hope to a failed humanity and begins the second block of Genesis, which does not end until Gen.36. In effect, God’s initial attempt to create a unified and harmonious earth does not work, and God must go back to the divine drawing board to try again. This time, in a crucial and important decision, God decides to appoint one foreign family, headed by an unknown man named Abram (“great father” in Hebrew), to begin again the process of bringing God’s world back to its original place of unity and wholeness. In short, Gen.12:1-3 is the hinge of the book of Genesis, the literary place upon which the entire Genesis story hangs. And, I would add, because Genesis is in fact the origin story of the entire scripture, Gen.12 is also the hinge of the whole biblical tale.
Out of the chaos of the failure of the tower and its hapless builders, YHWH turns to Abram, a man who has played no role up to now in the story and is a complete unknown to us. Though later commentators attempted to add detail to his story (for example, later tales claim he was a faithful worshipper of the one God among a community of idolators, a pious story with no biblical foundation), we know nothing about this man, save one crucial detail that is buried deep in the genealogy of Gen.11. Gen.11:30 states baldly: “Now Sarai (Abram’s wife) was barren; she had no child.” Just like this mysterious God to choose one couple out of many fruitful ones who could have no children, a couple from whom God proposes to found a “great nation!”
“Take yourself (a very odd grammatical structure, matched later in Gen.22:2 in the fateful story of the near-sacrifice of Isaac) from your land, from your kin, from your father’s household and go to the land that I will show you” (Gen.12:1). YHWH asks increasingly painful decisions on Abram’s part: first leave your country, then your familiar people, and finally your closest family, and go to an unnamed land. “I will make you a great nation, I will bless you and make your name great so that you will be a blessing.” Do not forget that Abram’s wife is barren; how in the world can he and she become a great nation?
“I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse. By you all the tribes of the soil shall be blessed (or also grammatically possible is “shall bless themselves”—Gen.12:3). In ways still unknown and unseen, this Abram and his barren wife, Sarai, are promised by YHWH to be a blessing to all the nations, that is more literally to all the soil’s tribes, a colorful way of saying everyone. And, it could be said, the remainder of the book of Genesis is an attempt to show—or not—just how Abram (Abraham) and Sarai (Sarah) may become a blessing. It is not likely to happen in any of the ways we might normally imagine that the divine blessing will be worked through them. After all, the very first tale about Abram is his easy lie about his wife and his complete willingness to give her to the pharaoh for the price of a few choice Egyptian camels (Gen.12:10-20)!
Still, Gen.12 represents YHWH’s further desire to bless and unite the recalcitrant creatures that YHWH has made. This God is one who never gives up, never wavers, and is finally characterized most fully as the giver of chesed, that fierce love that will not let us go. Indeed, this YHWH will once again act on the couple’s behalf in the text for next Sunday, Gen.18, but that is a tale that will unfold next week. For today, the hinge of the Bible has swung the story open, and the God of all people is active once again, albeit in some fresh and unusual ways.