Genesis 12: 1-20
But goodness, to be sure, is not greatness, and God continues to work. Just as humanity represented in synecdoche the relationship between God and creation in Genesis 1, so does Abram represent vocational humanity in Genesis 12. And God begins the work by separating, as God says to Abraham in Haran “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house.” Goodness separates from goodness for God’s appointed purposes, for God’s ordering of creation. Again there will be a place: as ‘Eden’ marked the created order, so now another location will mark the new nation that Abraham is about to become.
But much, of course, must happen first: Abram must go where he does not know. Abram must listen trustfully to God. And he does; Abram goes forth. The Sabbath-man is in Haran, not in rest as such but, rather, in Abram’s obedient trust that God will provide, which is what Sabbath means. From him will come ‘a great nation,’ and so not only Abram but also his offspring will be separated, set apart by God: “I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 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.”
On this point turns world history; never before has God appointed anyone to treat with humanity as humanity was once established to treat with the rest of creation, and God will choose no one in the same way that God chooses those of Abram’s line. Goodness is no longer solely inherent but now is also added unto: “you will be a blessing…and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” And it is God’s first promise since the re-creation following the flood story, God’s second step to the initial vow that God will not again destroy. God will now also bless. God will treat with those people that Abram treats. God will walk with Abram as Abram walks with God toward Canaan, the land that God has promised.
Yet Abram of course does not immediately know this promise, and God promises it only to Abram’s descendants, and not to Abram himself. Abram is not the summit of God’s promise; he is simply its foundation. He is its genesis, and all his progeny will depend on his trust in God. The drift of Abram’s line and of Abram himself will be from nomadic chaos into ordered fecundity and multiplicity. Abram, perhaps not knowing precisely this but certainly heeding the promises of God, appropriately builds an altar, a holy place in Canaan, the land that God finally shows him.
Shechem is marked and set aside by Abram for the day that his progeny will inherit the holy, promised land.
But if the goodness of the heavens and earth in the creation accounts presaged a fall of the male and female human, so too does the trustfulness and faith of Abram presage a fall of a second man and a second woman – namely, of course, Abram and his wife. Trust in God throughout the course of one’s own separation from other goods is difficult to maintain. Thus, a famine draws Abram out of the land and into Egypt, where God never tells Abram to go. There he accomplishes a deceit by convincing Pharaoh and Pharaoh’s that Sarai is his sister rather than his wife. It is a movement from trusting in God’s providence to consorting with Pharaoh’s power. It is the cease and desist letter Abram implicitly files concerning his continuing separation from that which all others rely upon: the good work of human hands. The text says of Pharaoh, Sarai, and Abram: “for her sake he dealt well with Abram; and he had sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male and female slaves, female donkeys, and camels.”
But Abram was given no dominion over animals; he was given dominion over nations, in his ability to bless them and to be a blessing through his promised people. Here Abram journeys far from his vocation; instead of holy partition he insists on unholy alliance with domineering power and accepts Pharaoh’s dominion over human slaves (which certainly was not promised) whom the text explicitly notes as “male and female,” and whom are counted right along with the livestock. If ever there was a despoiling of creation, this seems to be it.
Fortunately, however, God has not departed from God’s good word: “the Lord afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife.” Cursing Abram with ill-gotten goods, Pharaoh himself is cursed by God with ‘great plagues’, the promise is fulfilled, and with Pharaoh’s rebuke perhaps lingering in his ears, Abram is sent away. The separation begins anew. Though it will take many deviations, some of them as unholy and unfulfilling as Abram’s sojourn into Egypt, the becoming route of God’s promised people into holy Canaan has begun.
Much happens between Abram at Haran and Israel at Sinai, not the least of which, of course, is the long bondage of Abram’s promised offspring in Egypt. They too have been sent out, separated – if anything they have gone from Egypt with even greater curses, greater plagues, and greater desolation unto Pharaoh and his household, of which presumably nothing remains. Yet it is with their imposed dalliance that Abram’s people Israel, and now Moses, must continually contend.
The people of Israel have been ‘unholy’ because they have not been separate. They have for their entire lives relied upon the system of power Pharaoh subjected them to and have thus not listened, or had the opportunity to listen, to the promises of God. The effects have been witnessed in their frequent complaining to Moses concerning provisions and in their apprehension concerning their well-being and, often, their very lives. This naturally must be corrected. They must once again be set aside. Sinai marks another turn in world history as the people Israel become a priestly nation, a people of the Sabbath. Sinai marks their consecration, and Sinai begins their vocation – which is holiness itself.
The covenant which marks God’s promises to Abram has been iterated and reiterated many times, and decisively spoken to the Israelites in their liberation from slavery in Egypt; it is God’s remembrance of God’s promise and God’s people that initiates their deliverance and Moses’ call to start with. God rightly tells Israel “I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself” and rightly proclaims “if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples.” Sinai simply and sharply punctuates the ongoing work of God’s creative investment with Abram’s descendents; it does not begin or fulfill it. But it is precisely the covenanting at Sinai that separates God’s people for God’s purposes. They are in the wilderness, and can rely on no other. They are in the desert, and can turn to no one else. They can begin to be in the proper frame of mind to listen, to trust, and to be.
Their vocation is no small separation: “the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation,” says the Lord. But it is the appropriate response of God’s people to God’s holy work, and they affirm “Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do.” This begins their consecration. They are washed and set apart not only from other peoples but from God and God’s mountain, God’s holy place. God comes “in a dense cloud, in order that the people may hear,” and cautions Moses to “set limits for the people all around, saying, “Be careful not to go up the mountain or to touch the edge of it.’” This is not, to be clear, the separation of alienation but precisely the separation that allows relationship rather than that which instigates annihilation; breaking through the limitations is expressly linked with death. This caution, this prohibition, is that which will allow God’s people to listen, to trust, and to become a holy nation.
The contents of the covenant are of course well known. They are the Decalogue that details how the Israelites are to live, how they are to be holy both now and in the future, promised land. The fiery experience of God speaking directly and publicly is, also, to establish Moses’ authority as God’s representative, to consecrate him as a priest among the priests – a vocation that he will in this very text fulfill. But precisely as the theophany here indicates, the ten mandates are no less signal for their simplicity or familiarity; indeed it is precisely these traits that might ingrain the commandments into the heart and soul of any listener.
If framed positively, the ten words of God to the people in the Decalogue indicate a delineation of holiness, and continue the separation of good from good. God is holy and is to be separate from other gods; God is not to be worshipped through idols as other gods are; God’s name is holy and is not to be taken for an ordinary word or, worse, a curse; the Sabbath is holy and not to be a day of work for slave, beast, alien or Israelite; parents are holy by virtue of their progeny and their connection to the land; life itself is holy and not to be taken voluntarily; marriage is holy fecundity and not to be broken by adultery; property is evidence of holy God’s provision and not to be stolen or wrongly desired. Here, in sum, it is precisely as though an entire created order were being affirmed as good, set aside by God, and consecrated as Israel’s priestly vocation.
The effect of all this on the people of Israel is likely predictable and perhaps even good. It is too much for them. Their fear of God becomes such that they fear for their lives; they say to Moses “‘You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.’” They understand the distinction between a God who might have thus far seemed to serve them, and the God whom they now will serve as God’s own possession. They and they alone are the people that fear God and thus have begun the road that leads to holy wisdom. They understand Moses’ role as priest and thus have an allegory for their own vocation: they are to faithfully mediate God to the world. They are not the culmination of God’s covenant with creation. But they are its foundation and its demonstration. Through them will flow God’s relationship to other nations and to the broader world. Upon these priests God will build a kingdom.