There is a sense in which the whole of the Old Testament is simply the outworking of the promise in Genesis 3:15 — that the seed of the serpent will be at enmity with the seed of the woman and that the latter will be triumphant. Now, in Genesis 12, we reach another focal point of messianic expectation — the victorious “seed” will be from the loins of a man called Abraham. Like a ringing bell, the next few chapters will announce this messianic lineage with deafening tintinnabulation (ringing of bells). Over and over, a “seed” (the ESV renders it “offspring”) will emerge that will eventually find its focus in Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:16; see Gen. 12:7; 13:15–16; 15:3, 5, 13, 18; 17:7–10, 12, 19; 21:12; 22:17–18; 24:60; 26:3–4, 24; 28:14; 32:12; 35:12; 46:6–7; 48:4, 11, 19).
The call of Abraham, and its significance for the history of redemption, is all the more surprising given the immediate historical context. Following the fall, the flood, and the tragedy of Babel, the first eleven chapters of Genesis have thus resulted in the banishment of man from Paradise, the destruction of the entire human race, excluding God’s chosen, and the dispersion of the people over the face of the earth (11:9). A world cursed, destroyed, and scattered is ready for better news! Five times the word “bless” occurs in either noun or verbal forms in the opening verses of chapter 12.
The contrast could not be more stark. The blessing God promises transpires by a sovereign initiative. The contrast is structurally given within the text: “Let us…” (11:4); “I will…” (12:2–3); “let us build ourselves a city…” (11:4); Abram “pitched his tent” (12:8); “let us make a name for ourselves” (11:4); “I will …make your name great” (12:2); “tower” (11:4); “altar” (12:8).
Man proposes one way and God another. Sinful men sought a sinful allegiance to rid themselves of God; God sought for Abraham’s separation from the world to establish the boundaries of holiness. There is that which man proposes and there is that which God promises — and the two are diametrically opposite.
Several features of the promise emerge at this juncture worthy of special notice.
First of all, God promises a people. He promises to make Abram’s name great (12:2) in such a way that he will be the father of many nations (12:3). There is only one other such reference in the Old Testament, and it occurs in the covenant God makes with David: “And I will make for you a great name” (2 Sam. 7:9). Abram and David are thus tied together spanning vast tracts of Old Testament history and signaling a continuing line of divine purpose through the ages: a promise of world-wide dominion of gospel blessing and influence. This tiny, insignificant figure from Ur of the Chaldeans will have an impact on the world! It is interesting, for example, that Peter on the day of Pentecost seemed to catch this feature in his explanation for the pouring out of the Spirit as a consequence of the death-resurrection-ascension of Jesus Christ. The exaltation of Christ to the Father’s right hand has resulted in the Son receiving from the Father the promised Holy Spirit, who has now been poured out (Acts 2:33). What we see here is the way the Holy Spirit is given to Christ and how Christ in turn pours out the Holy Spirit in order to fulfill the greater promise given to Christ: “Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession” (Ps. 2:8). The Great Commission takes place in the messianic age by the power of the Holy Spirit so that in Abraham’s seed all the nations of the earth would now be blessed. As the apostle Paul wrote, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us…so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith” (Gal. 3:13–14; see Gen. 12:2). Pentecost, in which a reversal of the Babel curse is witnessed as various ethnic groups hear the Gospel in their own languages, thus signals the beginning of a restoration of a condition that existed before sin ravaged the world. The salvation of the Gentile nations is “the blessing of Abraham” (Gal. 3:14), and believers are children of Abraham (Gal. 3:29). From this moment onwards, redemptive history will concentrate on this line until the Messiah comes.
Second, God promises a place, the “land” (12:1; 15:7). In its fullest sense, that land could never have simply been the territory known as “Israel” — not least because Abraham himself saw it this way. His eye was on something greater, a heavenly country (Heb. 11:10−16), a city-kingdom of which Canaan was merely a foretaste anticipating something better.
Third, God promises His presence. In Genesis 12:3, it is the promise of a relational presence, the presence of God’s blessing enfolding His people. But this develops into something much more tangible in Abraham’s son, Isaac: “Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you” (28:15). It is a faint anticipation of the words of Jesus before His ascension to heaven, reassuring His beloved disciples: “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20).