Bible Studies on the Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace
"Pilgrimage onto already-settled land" (Genesis 12:1-9)
By Jione Havea
12 Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2 I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” 4 So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. 5 Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran; and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan. When they had come to the land of Canaan, 6 Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. 7 Then the Lord appeared to Abram, and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him. 8 From there he moved on to the hill country on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and there he built an altar to the Lord and invoked the name of the Lord. 9 And Abram journeyed on by stages toward the Negeb.
“Go!” God commissioned Abram to go and establish something like a welfare system in a land that God did not name.* God comes across as an aunt or uncle who holds a lollipop behind her or his back as incentive—or a bribe—so that a child would first do a task. “If you go … I shall enable these things for you.…”
God did not commission Abram to be a tourist or a colonizer. Rather, God had blessings to give, and Abram was commissioned to spread those blessings. I therefore invite readers to consider this text as the commission of Abram on a pilgrimage of blessings. The destination of his pilgrimage was not named, but it was assumed to be peopled already.
Pilgrimage of blessings
In Gen. 12:1–5, God presents several incentives for Abram to go, in order to (1) arrive unto a land (which God did not name), (2) become a great nation, (3) receive God’s blessing, (4) become a great name, (5) become a blessing, (6) mete out God’s blessing (to those who bless him), (7) receive God’s protection (against his curser) and (8) become a source of blessing for all the families of the earth. It is easy to fuse these incentives, so that becoming a great nation (#2) and becoming a great name (#4) are taken to be the upshots of the same processes by which Abram receives (##3, 5, 7) and hands on (##6, 8) God’s blessings. Name (honour) and nationhood (control) are, however, two procedures that do not necessarily intersect.
In this initial reading, God commissioned Abram to enable blessings for others, and also for himself. The site of his mission was not named, and Abram’s move could be read as a pilgrimage in faith (in God) and want (for blessings). Abram is meant to be a blessing to the people into whose land he will enter, as well as a blessing beyond there to all the families of the earth.
The actual blessing for Abram is not identified. Because his wife Sarai was barren (Gen. 11:30), it is tempting to expect his blessing to include having children. As the narrative unfolds, this was one of Abram’s expectations (see Gen 15). So it is helpful to watch out for places in the narrative where Abram shifts the things God offered him. In referring to “land,” “great name” and “great nation,” God leaves room for Abram to shift God’s intention and will.
The unnamed land to be his destination was not meant to be his possession, and it is expected to be peopled. God commissioned Abram to move and live among peoples who, as expected, will not all welcome him. Many will bless him but a few would curse him, and this is how life is for all migrants and refugees: their welcome does not last, and hospitality toward them is often superficial. In this second reading, God did not call Abram to own his unnamed destination, but to establish a mission of blessing. The land of blessings was not terra nullius (empty land or nobody’s land), the doctrine that justified the occupation of many native lands. The desire to possess and own the land came later in the Abraham cycle.
Any reading that claims that the narrative awards sovereignty over the land to Abram misreads Gen. 12:1 and changes the blessing of becoming a great nation and a great name into an ideology of nationalism. The problem with this ideology is the assumption that sovereignty (over lands and waters) belongs exclusively to one body (like a monarchy) instead of being shared among collectives (inter-nationalism). Reading Gen. 12:1–5 as a call to a mission of blessing allows for the latter, because Abram was not told to rob native families of their wealth and blessings but to be a medium through whom all families of the world could find blessings for themselves.
Abram is commissioned to be a platform, or a bed, upon which blessings arrive. In this reading, the greatness of the name and of the nation of Abram will be in his becoming a platform or bed among other peoples and nations, rather than in the exercise of power and control over those peoples and their lands.
Blessing is tricky
Blessing, however, is tricky business. The blessing of one person could be felt as a curse by others, especially when the blessing involves taking or withholding privileges or goods from those others. I have heard several complaints in Australia and New Zealand, for instance, that the opportunities which the Pasifika communities receive reduce the opportunities for indigenous and other minority communities. Affirmative actions on behalf of a targeted group are felt as disfavor for others. Similarly, the blessing of Jacob endorsed the cheating of Esau (Gen. 27:33–35), the blessing of Ephraim robbed Manasseh of his rightful blessing (Gen. 48:17–20), and the homecoming for the prodigal son was painful for his brother, from whom “even a young goat” was withheld (Luke 15:11–32). Whether a blessing enriches or impoverishes depends on who assesses the situation, and I wish to simply register here that a blessing may not be delightful for others.
A blessing could also be a burden upon the blessed ones. No blessing is free of obligation, and it is not surprising that some biblical characters (like Moses, Jeremiah, and Isaiah) were not eager to accept, or even flee (like Jonah) from, their commissioning. The Hebrew root word translated as “bless(ing)” in Gen 12 is barak (ברך), which could also be translated as “curse(ing).” In deciding to render it only as blessing and not as cursing as well, translators reduce the richness of barak. In this reading, the overlap and interflow of blessing and cursing are important to uphold. Accordingly, the mission to which God called Abram could both be a blessing and a curse for himself, for his family, for the land, and for the people to among whom he was commissioned.
Without uttering a word, Abram went (Gen. 12:3a). The text is open for speculation. Abram could have been a man of faith, who trusted in God. He could have been a man of righteous character, who believed in the mission of blessing. He went because God was trustworthy and because blessing was worth disseminating.
With him went Lot and Sarai, taking with them the lives (servants, slaves) and wealth that they accrued at Haran (Gen. 12:5). This was not a poor family. They had a home that they were not forced to abandon, and they owned things and even lives to serve their needs and their biddings. They were not desperate. They were not refugees. They would have known what it means to be blessed. So when Abram quietly and quickly led his household out in Gen. 12:4, I suspect that he was going in order to collect more blessings.
Upon arrival, Abram and his party found that Canaanites (people of the land) were already there (Gen. 12:6). Canaan was already peopled. Nonetheless, God declared the land of Canaan for Abram’s seed or descendants, and Abram built an altar in order to mark his consent (Gen. 12:7). This later action of Abram raises questions about his silent departure from Haran. Did Abram accept God’s call? Did he move in order to carry out the mission of blessing? Was his silent departure evidence of accession or of flight?
Shortly after his arrival, Abram moved and built another altar, between Bethel and Ai (Gen. 12:8). Then he moved again, like an inspired explorer seeking more lands to claim for the crown. This time he ended up in the desert-like-South (Gen 12:9). There is no mention whether his name became great or whether his movements opened the gates of blessing, but in reporting his movements in quick succession the narrative portrays him as restless. He did not stay long enough in a place to become a platform/bed for blessing. The mission of blessing which was in the interests of others was not Abram’s commitment.
The foregoing reading invites us (1) to shift the premise for reading Gen. 12:1–5 from promise to blessing, (2) to challenge claims of sovereignty over the land for Abram on the basis of Gen. 12:1–9, (3) to problematize what one expects a blessing to be and taste like, and (4) to query Abram’s silent and quick acceptance of his commission. These shifts invite rethinking the Abram narrative, and Abram’s execution of his mission.
Questions for discussion
Ideas for action
Brueggemann, Walter. Genesis: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Interpretation series. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 1986.
“Free Palestine Movement” -- http://freepalestinemovement.org/
“Free West Papua” -- https://www.freewestpapua.org/
Rivera-Pagán, Luis N. “Reading the Hebrew Bible in Solidarity with the Palestinian People.” The Ecumenical Review 68 (2016): 36–61.
Westermann, Claus. Genesis 12 - 36. Continental Commentaries series. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995.
 Jione Havea, is a native Methodist pastor from Tonga, a researcher with the Public and Contextual Theology Research Centre (Charles Sturt University, Australia), and a visiting scholar with the Trinity Methodist Theological College, Auckland. Jione's current projects include Pacific Hermeneutics \ ataMai Pasifika and Bible and Climate Change.
 This bible study is drawn from a reading offered in the article “Matangi teka (wind shift): Reading the Commission of Abram from Pasifika,” International Review of Mission 105.2 (November 2016), 257-67..