CYBERJOURNAL FOR PENTECOSTAL-CHARISMATIC RESEARCH #28
All Nations Shall Be Blessed: An Historical and Exegetical Analysis of Genesis 12:3
By Geoffrey Butler
In contemporary popular level Christian writing, one will scarcely see God’s promise to Abraham, Genesis 12:3, cited outside of a narrow argument that the verse promises a particular piece of land to the physical nation of Israel, or that it is a foreshadowing of the gospel of Jesus Christ by which a descendant of Abraham blesses all of humanity. While not neglecting interpretations that focus on these two matters, those who restrict the meaning of the text simply to them fail to take into account the various different ways the text has been interpreted throughout both Christian and Jewish history. This paper will demonstrate and discuss the approaches of patristic authors, Reformation figures, Jewish scholars, and other diverse voices who have commented on this text, making the case that contemporary Christians approaching it would do well to consider their insights to ensure they grasp the full significance of the promise.
Perhaps one of the most controversial yet oft-cited texts in all of sacred Scripture is God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:3. The divine blessing pronounced over this man—“I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Gen. 12:3, NIV) —has commanded no shortage of attention throughout the history of the Christian church and the Nation of Israel. While in recent years the verse has frequently been cited to promote a foreign policy favourable toward the modern State of Israel—particularly in the American context[i]—the interpretation and application of the text in question long predates the establishment of the modern Jewish State in 1948. And as significant as the text may be in foreshadowing the blessings that would come through Jesus the Messiah, the meaning may well extend even beyond them. Indeed, one may uncover a long and varied history of the text’s interpretation ranging from the Old Testament era, the patristic period, the Reformation, and through the contemporary age. It is through listening to and considering the insight of this diverse group of voices available to the modern reader that one might become better equipped to understand and apply the text for oneself.
The approach taken by many contemporary evangelicals and Pentecostals, nevertheless, has largely adopted the formerly mentioned position of applying this promise to the Israeli state. Charismatic megachurch pastor John Hagee, in his 2011 title, In Defense of Israel, asserts that:
The Bible states quite clearly, “I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you” (Genesis 12:3). Entire books could be written on how that blessing and cursing have dramatically impacted human history. It is an undeniable fact that the man or nation that has blessed Israel has been blessed of God, and to the man or nation that has cursed Israel the judgement of God came in spades.[ii]
Hagee is not alone in his understanding of this passage; evangelical authors Tim LaHaye and Ed Hindson, in their 2015 work, Target Israel, express their view that:
As God said in Genesis 12:3, “I will bless those who bless you and curse him who curses
you.” We believe that the spiritual, moral, and economic decline of Great Britain is largely
due the influence of secularists who exert a lot of control over the educational system, state
church, and media. And the government has failed to stand up for Israel when there were
opportunities to do so – thereby rejecting God’s blessing upon their nation. We pray that the
United States will not follow in these footsteps. If it does, then in light of God’s promise in
Genesis 12:3, we can expect to see a drastic decline in the quality of life in America.[iii]
Indeed, it is not difficult to see where such an interpretation put forth by pastors and scholars has impacted lay level believers. A 2018 article in The Washington Post, published on the date the American embassy to Israel was moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, documented that when American evangelicals were asked their motive for supporting Israel, “More than 6 in 10 cited God’s pledge to Abraham”. The article engages a poll conducted by LifeWay research on this topic, and “Among the questions was one about the biblical promise of the Holy Land to Abraham and his descendants. Two-thirds of respondents strongly agreed that the promise was an eternal one from God.”[iv]
Is there any possible way to interpret Genesis 12:3 appropriately and still maintain it bears relevance to a modern geopolitical entity? Perhaps; yet, by doing so without surveying the alternative ways in which believers have approached the text, evangelical Christians broadly and Pentecostals in particular may well be missing out on its full theological significance. This paper will seek to demonstrate that, though the text is often treated as a straightforward promise of blessing to a modern state on a specific piece of land, both the history of Jewish and Christian biblical interpretation and careful exegesis itself show this to be an overly simplistic approach. Indeed, it may even be overly simplistic to interpret it solely as a foreshadowing of Jesus Christ, who, as a descendant of Abraham, is indeed a blessing to all of humanity. This is not to say that the text does not speak to these two issues, and certainly not to say that such interpretations should be disregarded. However, a survey of the text’s history demonstrates that the text has frequently been taken to speak to many other issues than these two alone. Thus, in order to gain as full an understanding as possible, careful to understand the full significance of the passage, contemporary Christians must acquaint themselves with the perspectives of those who have approached and learned from the texts over the past several thousand years.
The Literal Sense: Surveying the Surface
Any in depth study of a particular text and the history of its meaning first
warrants a substantial discussion concerning its literal sense. Donald McKim
defines the Sensus Literalis, or literal sense of Scripture, as “The
straightforward, nonsymbolic, grammatical meaning of a biblical text. Also
called ‘plain,’ ‘natural,’ or ‘historical’ sense. It is one of the classic
senses of Scripture, along with the allegorical, anagogical, and tropological”.[v]
In other words, the Sensus Literalis
represents the text’s plain meaning; this does not refer to wooden literalism
where every text is taken at face value even when the author is clearly speaking
in metaphorical or analogical terms, but to the clear intention of the passage.
In the academic arena, perhaps the most obvious resources to consult in search
of the Sensus Literalis of a text would be those biblical commentaries
written by experts within the field—five of which have been consulted with their
respective positions outlined below.
Hamilton begins his commentary on Genesis 12:3 first by highlighting how God’s relationship to others, according to this promise, will be inextricably tied to their relationship with Abraham. One does not have to venture too far into Genesis 12, he notes, to see how God does indeed make good on his promise; when the Pharaoh of Egypt takes Abraham’s wife Sarah for himself, he and his people are decimated with various plagues—even despite his ignorance about Sarah’s marital status.[vi] Thus, clearly for Hamilton the literal sense of this text involves a promise specific to the man Abraham. Those who bless him will receive blessing from God; those who curse him can expect divine retribution in return. Yet, the meaning of the text is also much broader; God intends to bless Abraham and those who bless him in order that he might in turn bless the entire world. The fact that the author of Genesis uses the phrase “all the earth’s clans” is significant in Hamilton’s view, because it highlights the fact that even those “sinister” nations discussed between chapters 3-11 are in view.[vii] The promise to Abraham, then, is not just a promise to one man, nor even his physical descendants, but holds implications for all of humanity. Hamilton further argues this point by highlighting the passage’s use of the Hebrew Niphal stem—which is often used in a passive sense—to argue that verse 3 points toward God’s ultimate plan of salvation, which will be accomplished through God’s initial blessing of Abraham. For Hamilton, he is the “divinely chosen instrument in the implementation of that plan”—and thus, though on the surface this promise of God may be an earthly blessing given to Abraham, in a broader sense it points far beyond that toward the salvation of all nations.[viii]
Mathews’ take on the text begins with his assertion that the blessing described in this text, while bestowed on humanity through Abraham, is not ultimately from him nor merely to him—rather, it is from the God of Abraham, intended for all who would call on the name.[ix] The fact that the “blessing” and “curse” apply not only to Abraham but also his offspring is made plan by the remainder of Genesis, according to Mathews; not only does Pharaoh suffer as a result of his mistreatment of Abraham and Sarah, but Jacob is blessed despite the stubborn opposition of his Father in Law Laban and the Egyptians prosper on account of the blessing of God on Joseph, who rose to prominence in the Kingdom years after being sold into slavery by his brothers.[x] Yet, Mathews concurs with Hamilton in his assertion that the broader application of Genesis 12:3 even goes beyond Abraham’s physical descendants, evidenced by the fact God promises to bless all nations through him. The two scholars also agree that, while the Hebrew verb used to describe the blessing—nibrekû—could possibly be taken in the middle or reflexive voice (i.e. “bless oneself), likely the best way to understand it is in the passive sense.[xi] In other words, those who receive the blessing do so in the passive sense; it is not an accomplishment but a gift of God, the result of his initiative. While Mathews claims that this text in and of itself does not make clear how God will accomplish this, the plain reading of it indicates that Abraham was never the sole intended recipient of the blessing described. That subsequent Old Testament writers apply this promise to the Nation of Israel while New Testament writers apply it to Christ and the church demonstrate, in Mathews’ view, make this all the more clear.[xii]
Bruce Waltke/Cathi Fredricks
Waltke and Fredricks commence their discussion of Genesis 12:3 by discussing how the blessings and curses involved in this text foreshadow the blessings and curses promised to Israel depending on their faithfulness—or lack thereof—to the Mosaic Law.[xiii] Further demonstrating they believe the verse to have much deeper implications than just God’s favour upon Abraham himself, they note how this sovereign choice of one man to “mediate his blessing” establishes a scriptural pattern of God choosing to bless some and not others. His election of Jacob rather than Esau, Isaac rather than Ishmael, and Judah rather than his brothers as objects of divine favour are all anticipated, according to Waltke and Fredricks, by this blessing pronounced on Abraham.[xiv] Regarding the form of the Hebrew verb nibrekû used to describe God’s blessing, Waltke and Fredricks differ from Hamilton and Mathews by not taking a definite stance; they maintain that, whether the recipients of the promise are blessed in a passive sense or bless themselves by showing favour to Abraham and his God, the end result is the same. The blessing, while intended for the nations, is “mediated” through this one man to whom the promise was originally made.[xv] Waltke and Fredricks, like the previous commentators consulted, see God’s soteriological purposes foreshadowed in this passage; in their own words, regarding the promise to Abraham, “one individual will bring universal blessing and salvation”. [xvi]
Wenham’s interpretation of Genesis 12:3 begins with his observation that the blessings and curses formula employed here not only bears striking resemblance to various extrabiblical sources, but also to other passages in the Old Testament—some of which are applied to the nation of Israel corporately.[xvii] Wenham finds a noteworthy difference in the structure of this verse in that, while the passage refers to “those” who bless Abraham, it merely makes reference to “he”—in the singular—who curses him. In his view, this seems to indicate that those who recognize the promise of God to Abraham and thus are blessed will vastly outnumber those who fail to recognize it and are, consequently, cursed.[xviii] He goes on, toward the end of his analysis to assert that while the text does not claim every single individual will be blessed through God’s promise to Abraham, the promise does foresee that “every major group in the world will be blessed”.[xix]
A prolific Old Testament scholar and professor at Wheaton College in Illinois, Walton claims that while God’s covenant made with Abraham “should not be seen as directly redemptive” in and of itself, through its revelatory nature one may conclude that it points in this direction.[xx] Presented in the format of an ancient Near Eastern treaty, the promise both offers a solution to the problem of Babel—the division of the nations—and foreshadows the cross of Christ, where he will provide a means of salvation for all those nations to be reconciled.[xxi] According to Walton, the term “blessing” used in this context is a reference to favour and/or protection; when God promises to bless all nations through Abraham, his intent it to say the nations will receive the protection of God through their association with the patriarch.[xxii] Walton, similarly to the first two commentators, makes much of the niphal stem employed in this verse, citing it as evidence that the blessing will not come to the recipients through “domination” or attempts to graft oneself into Abraham’s physical family.
Personally, out of the commentators represented above, I find myself most sympathetic to Hamilton’s outline as he carefully outlines how the promise has multiple referents; Abraham himself, his physical descendants, and the nations of the earth who inherit salvation through his lineage which eventually brought forth the Messiah. The fact that several of the commentators, including himself, note the passive voice when describing the blessing also seems quite significant to me, as it highlights the gracious initiative on God’s part. FThat said, it is well worth noting that all of the commentaries concur that the verse in some way foreshadows God’s plan of salvation and how Abraham will act as a channel of sorts for that blessing.
Reception of the Text
As a text with far reaching implications for the physical descendants of Abraham—the Jewish Nation—Genesis 12:3 received a great deal of attention throughout the time period between Abraham’s life and the emergence of the Christian church. As Israel’s patriarch, the promises made to him, including that the nations of the earth would be blessed as a result of God’s favour upon the man, appear as a recurring theme not only of the Hebrew Bible, but of the New Testament writings and those of the intertestamental period as well.
The Old Testament
In order to understand how the promise to Abraham involving blessing and curses would have been understood by his own people, the Jewish nation, we first must define “blessing” as they would have understood it. To the ancient Hebrew, such a blessing would have entailed “life, longevity, progeny, wealth, success, power, security, peace, honor, favor, and so on”.[xxiii] Thus, the Genesis 12:3 blessing would not necessarily be received as salvific or spiritual, but material and earthly. In Genesis 22:18, for example, the Lord’s blessing upon Abraham is repeated in connection with military conquest.[xxiv] The promise is also repeated to Isaac and Jacob with promises of earthly protection and wealth.[xxv] Likewise, some biblical commentators draw a parallel between the promise of blessing in Genesis 12:3 and 48:20, where Jacob blesses his sons. A number of the Psalms, too—such as 67 and 72—allude to the promise that all nations would be blessed through Abraham, implying that it is via his physical offspring, the Nation of Israel, that God will bring this to pass.[xxvi] Although verse 3 is not explicitly cited elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, one could make the case that Israel’s conquest and possession of the Land rests in part upon the promise to bless the patriarch; however, it should be noted that the promise of land is more the focus of verse 1, not 3.
The Intertestamental Period
One of the most notable Intertestamental references to the Genesis 12:3 text comes in the apocryphal book of Jubilees, penned around the 2nd century B.C.[xxvii] In 11:22, immediately following his “Night Vigil” in which he observes the stars in order to forecast the amount of rain his homeland would receive in the year to come, he receives the call of God to leave his homeland—paralleling the promise of Genesis 12.[xxviii] The promise that “whoever blesses you I shall bless and whoever curses you I shall curse” in verse 23 is immediately followed by a declaration that the Lord would be the God of his son and all his offspring—indicating that the author understood the Genesis 12:3 promise to apply specifically to Abraham’s physical descendants.[xxix] Yet, verse 24 goes on to declare that the blessing will extend “for all the generations of the earth”, thought it is unclear whether this is a reference to the nations of earth being blessed through him or simply the people of Israel.
The New Testament
The Genesis 12:3 promise to Abraham features prominently in Acts, referenced by the disciples of Christ in three speeches; Peter in chapter 3, Stephen in 7, and Paul in 13.[xxx] In Peter’s address, he applies the verse to God’s covenant of salvation which includes both Jews and Gentiles, claiming that God’s promise to bless all the nations of the earth through Abraham was being fulfilled through the work of Jesus the Messiah. This, Peter claims, had been foretold by all the Old Testament prophets, “beginning with Samuel”.[xxxi] Moreover, likely the most noteworthy reference to Genesis 12:3 comes in Galatians 3, where the apostle Paul draws on the promise made to Abraham in his discussion of justification by faith.[xxxii] In his commentary on Galatians, Douglas Moo notes the significance of verse 9, where he concludes, speaking of believers, that those who have faith in Jesus Christ share in Abraham’s blessing, a clear reference to both 12:3 as well as 15:6.[xxxiii] Like Peter in Acts, his purpose here is to show that the children of Abraham are those who accept the gospel—both Jews and Gentiles—and are grafted into the body of Christ. The “blessing”, in other words, that Genesis 12:3 speaks about is justification through faith in Christ, who is a physical descendant of Abraham. S.D. Snyman, concluding his analysis of Paul’s use of Genesis 12:3, asserts “To live by faith is to reverse the curse upon the nations”.[xxxiv] Indeed, Paul’s understanding that the promise made to Abraham in Genesis 12 held serious implications not only for the Jewish people, but all the nations of the earth would prove pivotal for biblical exegetes of the patristic era, to whom we now turn our attention.[xxxv]
With the emergence of the Christian church shortly after the ascension of Christ came varied new interpretations of the Hebrew Bible, typically known to Christians as the Old Testament. While it would be impossible to probe the extent of patristic writing on the subject here, a brief overview of some of the more notable writings on the text deserve a brief discussion - beginning with one of the most controversial figures of his time, John Chrysostom.
Chrysostom preached through the entire book of Genesis verse by verse in the year 389 A.D. during his time as Bishop of Antioch,[xxxvi] beginning his series of messages at the outset of Lent.[xxxvii] Chrysostom, in his initial comments on the passage, notes the dual nature of the blessing; while some commentators emphasize almost exclusively the benefits brought by the promise to Abraham himself or, alternatively, to his offspring or the nations, he highlights how the promise clearly entails both. Part of the blessing upon Abraham, Chrysostom claims, is that others will recognize the favour of God upon him and, consequently, wish to be in his company. Yet, citing John the Baptist, Chrysostom is keen to note that the “great nation” God promises to make out of Abraham is not a reference to his physical progeny but those who come to Christ is repentance.[xxxviii]
Didymus the Blind
A 4th century Egyptian theologian and monk, Didymus notes that God not only blesses Abraham but further promises that he “will be blessed” as a result of the promise made to him.[xxxix] Noting that this divine favour is “not simply offered but conferred”, Didymus postulates that God’s favour upon him will actually make him worthy of further blessing in the future. This helps explain why those who bless him would be blessed and those who curse him would be cursed, a fact that is borne out in Abraham’s earthly life if one traces it through Genesis. In a unique twist, Didymus speculates whether those who bless and curse Abraham refer to angels and demons, with the former aligning themselves with the purposes of God by blessing him while fallen angels opposing him and inviting the curse on themselves.[xl] Referencing the “tribes of the earth” receiving blessing through Abraham, he proposes that once they are united as one through their union with Christ they will no longer think of themselves in “earthly” terms, as distinct tribes.[xli]
Bede the Venerable
An English monk who spent the entirety of his life within his monastery in the north of the country, some may be tempted to place his life and work more in the Medieval era than the Patristic; after all, his life, between 673-735 A.D., dates several centuries after Didymus or Chrysostom.[xlii] Nevertheless, his comments on Genesis 12:3 make him a worthwhile inclusion here. He begins with a distinction between the promise made to Abraham in the first 2 verses of the chapter and that made in verse 3; the first 2, he asserts, speak to earthly matters, while this promise concerning blessing, curses, and the nations of the world pertain to spiritual things.[xliii] In the same vein, he makes the claim that while verses 1-2 applied to the physical nation of Israel, the Jewish race, verse 3 is a promise to “spiritual Israel”, that is, “the nation saved in Christ from all the families of the earth”.[xliv] While Bede’s analysis of the passage is thorough in considering the implications both for Abraham’s descendants according to the flesh as well as his spiritual children, Bede offers little justification for this distinction between verse 2 and 3; why he thinks that the first 2 verses must apply to the Jewish people and the 3rd verse to the church is never actually outlined. Nevertheless, he does demonstrate from the New Testament how the church fulfills the vision of verse 3, by bringing together every nation as one in Christ.
While Martyr’s comments pertaining to the verse in question are not as explicit or detailed and some other patristic authors as—they do not come in the form of a sermon or commentary—his dialogue with Trypho, a Jewish opponent of his, sheds significant insight into how he understood the divine promises made to Abraham.[xlv] He charges that the reason all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in Abraham is that the church, made up of individuals from all nations and tribes, is in fact the great nation promised to Abraham in the preceding verse; when God promises to make Abraham the patriarch of a great nation, he is not referring to the physical Jewish nation. Thus, Martyr charges, individuals such as his opponent Trypho who reject the Messiah Jesus are not to be considered recipients of the promise.
One final voice worth consulting in this discussion is Jerome, a 4th century Church Father whose commentary on Galatians makes reference to Gen. 12:3, which the apostle Paul himself quotes in 3:8-9 in his discussion of justification by faith.[xlvi] He notes that the promise must refer to blessing in Christ, as all the nations of the earth were certainly not blessed through Abraham’s physical offspring. This is why, according to Jerome, the apostle notes the distinction between “seeds” and “seed” in reference to the nations being blessed through Abraham’s line.[xlvii] Galatians 3:8-9 essentially interprets Gen.12:3 and makes it clear that the ultimate blessing to come through Abraham is the Christ, in whom believers from all nations will be included.
Within the world of biblical interpretation, it can all too often be easy for Christians to forget that what they call the Old Testament also serves as the sacred text of another faith which far predates it in not only age, but scriptural exegesis as well. The Hebrew Bible, foundational to the Jewish religion, has for millennia been the subject of meticulous rabbinical interpretation, Genesis 12:3 being no exception. In his 1885 commentary, for example, Paul Isaac Hershon argues that the promise to Abraham not only guarantees the favour of God upon all who will bless him directly, but also annuls any curse another might place upon him.[xlviii] In this understanding, the promise essentially acts as a shield; Hershon’s argument essentially presents God as having veto power, so to speak, over whatever another individual might wish upon Abraham. If it is a blessing, he will permit it and bless that individual in turn. If it is a curse, God will curse that individual in the sense that their curse upon Abraham will have no effect. Hershon goes on to cite the Toldoth Yitzkhac in order to support the claim that the promise to Abraham was both material and spiritual in nature. He asserts that to bless Abraham and make his name great, as God promises, necessarily entails making him rich; no one would listen to Abraham or serve his God if he were poor—and, consequently, had “no name”.[xlix] Some, he notes, may be tempted to conclude that Abraham served God only for financial gain. But, Hershon writes, the Scriptures indicate that the material blessing was only intended as a means to an end on God’s part. He knew that Abraham would indeed instruct the inhabitants of this new land to which he was being sent to worship the one true God; the money and good name were simply the means by which Abraham would have a platform to perform such a task. Thus, it seems that Abraham’s willingness to serve God was the cause of the blessing—of which financial gain was a necessary part—and not the result of it. Hershon goes on to address why the text refers to those who will bless Abraham in plural while referring to those who will curse him in singular form, much the way that contemporary commentator Gordon Wenham take up the matter. In Hershon’s view, the plural “them” refers to the many individuals who blessed Abraham, who in turn “brought them to the World to Come”, while the “him” who was cursed refers to Nimrod who “cursed Abraham, because he proved that Nimrod was no God”.[l] Thus, it seems Hershon understands the blessings and curses to refer to Abraham alone, both fulfilled during his earthly life.
Nahum Sarna, on the other hand, sees a broader purpose in the Genesis 12:3 promise than Hershon appears to, contending that the promise made to Abraham has three stages: a blessing on the man himself, then to those who bless him, and finally to the nations of the earth.[li] Sarna notes that the blessing on Abraham himself was necessary not only to demonstrate God’s favour on him to the surrounding pagans, but also for protection; in going to the land God sent him into, he would be a foreigner and thus vulnerable to mistreatment by its inhabitants. God’s vow to curse any who would harm him demonstrates his commitment to Abraham’s well being. Furthermore, like Hershon as well as many Christian interpreters, Sarna notes the singular “he” in reference to those who curse Abraham to argue his “detractors will be few”.[lii] Likewise, he too argues that the phrase all nations “shall be blessed”—a passive form in Hebrew—indicates that the nations will receive divine favour, not actively acquire it, through the patriarch.
Finally, a third rabbinical voice that speaks to Gen. 12:3 is Benno Jacob, whose
work on Genesis was nearly destroyed following the Nazi party’s rise to power in
pre-World War 2 Germany.[liii]
In his view, for others to “bless” Abraham as this passage describes is to
recognize God’s favour on him; those who do will subsequently be blessed by
imitating Abraham, viewing him as an example of how to live in relation to God.[liv]
Thus, the blessing or curse one receives comes as a direct result of how one
lives in comparison with Abraham; to live like him is to invite the blessing of
God, and to live in opposition—to curse him—is to invite God’s wrath. As far as
the debate of whether the Hebrew phrase should be translated “be blessed” or
“bless oneself”, Jacob essentially takes a neutral position. The only
difference, in his view, is that in the latter case those who receive the
blessing of God must recognize Abraham as the object of divine favour, whereas
in the former instance one could be ignorant of this and still receive the
blessing through their relationship with Abraham.[lv]
While notable diversity does exist among rabbinic sources on the text, one obvious commonality they have that none of them share with their Christian counterparts is the connection to a future Messiah or reference to the church. Rather, they tend to see God’s promise to Abraham as just that: a covenant made with the patriarch of Israel that guarantees his well being and appoints him as the father of the Jewish nation. Just how other nations will be blessed through this promise, however, appears to be somewhat of an open question.
Reformation Understandings: Luther and Calvin
With the dawn of the Protestant Reformation came a striking revolution in biblical hermeneutics[lvi] Thus, in continuing our study of Genesis 12:3 throughout Christian history, it would be inappropriate to bypass the contributions of likely the two most influential figures in early Protestantism: Martin Luther and John Calvin.
Regarding Luther’s approach to Scripture, there remains little consensus as to whether his hermeneutic constituted an entirely new method of interpretation or whether he simply recaptured what had long been neglected in Medieval exegesis.[lvii] He begins his discussion of Gen. 12:3 with an immediate reference to the persecution of the true people of God, referring to Abraham and the faithful of his generation as the “true church”.[lviii] It is for this reason, Luther asserts, that God pronounced a blessing upon Abraham’s allies as well as a curse upon his enemies, going on to cite numerous examples from the Old Testament where the enemies of the “church” (i.e., the Nation of Israel) were decimated as a result of their mistreatment of God’s people.[lix] Interestingly, according to Luther’s understanding of the text, Abraham understood that the phrase “all the nations of the earth shall be blessed” did not refer to he himself blessing the entire world, but one who would come through his lineage. Remarkably, Luther even asserts that Abraham understood this one to come—namely, the Christ—would have both a divine and human nature, citing as evidence Jesus’ statement in John 8:56 that “Your Father Abraham rejoiced to see my day; and he saw it, and was glad”.[lx] The promise made to Abraham in Genesis 12:3, according to Luther, reached its fulfillment in the Great Commission when Jesus commanded his disciples to go into all the world, baptizing the nations and preaching the gospel to them. The “curse” of sin is destroyed through this blessing, and all the peoples of the earth receive divine favour as a result. It is noteworthy that through the promise, in its literal sense, seems to have immediate relevance to Abraham’s physical descendants—the Jewish people—Luther insists that they have “lost all the blessings which were promised to Abraham in this passage”, and accuses them of ignorance and blasphemy;[lxi] for him, the meaning of this passage has nothing to do with them as a people, as they are not Abraham’s spiritual children.[lxii] No, the focus of the text is on Christ and his church. The blessing of God upon his church, salvation in Christ, is promised through Abraham, as God calls him to be the patriarch of a people spanning every tribe, tongue, and nation.
For Calvin, a crucial factor in the interpretation of Scripture was the original intent of the author; as the very word of God, written under the inspiration of the Spirit, what was meant within the text at the time of writing was absolutely crucial to his hermeneutic.[lxiii] Out of his many biblical commentaries which remain a critical resource for contemporary pastors and scholars, particularly in the evangelical tradition, Calvin’s work on Genesis remains, according to John Evans, one of his most outstanding volumes.[lxiv] He begins his commentary on Genesis 12:3 by highlighting the “extraordinary kindness” of God in making a covenant with Abraham, just as one would do with a friend or partner.[lxv] Drawing a parallel between earthly rulers who enter into a treaty whereby they share common friends and oppose common enemies, Calvin asserts that the type of favour God shows to Abraham here is representative of the disposition he takes towards his people as a whole. This, he concludes, implies that he will bless those who show favour toward believers and take vengeance on their enemies as well, just as he promised to do with Abraham.[lxvi] In true Reformation fashion, demonstrating serious respect for the original languages of Scripture, Calvin appeals to the structure of the passage in its original Hebrew to make the case that Abraham serves as both an example of those who find favour with God as well as a channel for divine blessing to others. Yet, in his view, Abraham is not really the focal point of the passage at all; the reason, according to Calvin, that all nations shall be blessed in Abraham is “because Christ was included in his body”.[lxvii] Appealing to the Apostle Paul’s reference to the passage in Galatians 3, Calvin asserts that while the promise to Abraham is indeed salvific in nature, it is so only insofar as it is grounded in the work of Christ. Abraham, his physical offspring, and all the nations of the earth that will be blessed through him are granted divine favour only in Christ, Abraham’s physical descendant, and in this way Abraham serves a means of accomplishing this promise. Calvin says little about how this relates specifically to the Jewish Nation and their role as the covenant people of God, perhaps as a result of his position that the church and Israel are one, with the former fulfilling the Old Testament promises of blessing concerning the latter.[lxviii] His central concern appears to be drawing attention to the Christocentric nature of the passage—again, in a very similar fashion to his Reformation era contemporary Martin Luther—emphasizing that God’s blessing upon Abraham ultimately points to the salvation of the nations through the Messiah.
While Luther and Calvin do indeed bear a striking number of similarities, their take on the passage is emphatically not identical. Luther seems much more willing to speculate on exactly how Abraham understood the promise in his own day, while Calvin demonstrates little interest in speculating on such a detail. However, both agree that the ultimate meaning of the promise is found in Christ and the church, and neither seem to devote much attention to what it meant for the Jewish nation, either in the Old Testament or their own era—with the exception of Luther’s rank condemnation of those in the latter category.
As with the Protestant Reformation, the emergence of critical scholarship in the
19th and 20th centuries brought with it new hermeneutical
methods and, as a result, fresh interpretations of the Genesis text. In the
words of Krzysztof Sonek, himself a proponent of critical scholarship:
Most pre-eighteenth century readers simply assumed that what Scripture said was what
really happened. It was not so because they had arrived at such a conclusion, but because the
question of the historical veracity of Scriptures was not on the agenda. [lxix]
Thus, with the arrival of critical scholarship came the undermining of such assumptions, leading adherents of this method not only to question historically held interpretations of the passage, but the veracity of the described events as well.
An early 20th century biblical scholar, Driver’s opening comments on the text relate immediately to Abraham himself. Those who show a friendly disposition towards the man can expect to enjoy good fortune, while those who oppose him can expect disaster.[lxx] Common ground may be found between himself and pre-critical Christian interpreters of the text in that he recognizes the text looks forward to the inclusion of Gentiles within the covenant. On the other hand, many conservatives may take issue as he endorses the notion that God’s voice ought not be understood as something Abraham heard audibly, but as something felt “within (his) inmost soul”.[lxxi]
One of the most influential biblical scholars of the late 19th and early 20th century, Julius Wellhausen, also serves as an example of critical scholarship on the Genesis text, although he did not author a commentary on the book nor directly address the Genesis 12:3 passage. A proponent of what is known as the documentary hypothesis, Wellhausen asserts that in the mind of the “Jehovist”—the author of one version of the patriarchal stories— the individual lives of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are meant to represent how a “true Israelite” ought to conduct themselves.[lxxii] He argued for a much later date of writing than traditionally believed, not just for Genesis, but the entire Pentateuch. Unlike the Church Fathers, Reformers, or modern evangelical commentators, the Genesis narrative concerning Abraham and his offspring are not to be taken as actual, historical events. Rather, he flatly states, in reference to the biblical text, “we attain no historical knowledge of patriarchs, but only of the time when the stories about them arose in the Israelite people”.[lxxiii] Thus, it would seem that on his view, the nation of Israel is not so much the outcome of God’s blessing upon Abraham, but Abraham is himself a later invention of the Israelite people—a position unacceptable to virtually all voices consulted in this paper thus far.
More recent studies relating to the interpretation of Genesis 12:3 continue to contribute to an ever changing and fascinating discussion that has only grown more heated over the past century. As noted at the outset, the text has been repeatedly used in the post-War era by many to defend the modern State of Israel by applying the Genesis 12:3 promise of “blessing” and “curses” to how other modern states relate to the Israeli government—an assertion that has attracted vehement opposition by some within the Christian church.[lxxiv] Ulrike Bechmann argues that despite the fact Israel’s 1948 Declaration of Independence appeals to the Torah in laying Jewish claim to the land, the early Zionist movement was, on the whole, quite secular.[lxxv] Noting that Genesis 12:1-3 has been frequently cited in order to justify the Israeli government’s control over areas in biblical Judea and Samaria, Bechmann not only criticizes the interpretation that sees the text as concerned with concrete land borders, but even calls into question the historical veracity of the account itself. The stories of Abraham, in his view, “are by no means “historical” in the modern sense of telling what (more or less) really happened at the time of narration”.[lxxvi]
Likewise, Knud Jeppesen argues in a 2013 article that the author of Genesis 12 was in fact never overly concerned with the promise of land, but was rather written to emphasize the blessing and promise that would come through Abraham to others—the latter part of his argument, at least, echoing a very popular interpretation of the passage throughout Christian history.[lxxvii] Other contemporary voices, however, insist on the validity of citing Genesis 12:3 in order to support the modern Jewish State. In a 2018 work of essays compiled of premillennial—many of whom are also Dispensational—theologians and biblical scholars, Richard Averbeck contends that Genesis 12:3 and the surrounding context contain both “national and universal promises to Abraham”.[lxxviii] Nevertheless, given that the blessing of land is repeated both in chapters 15 and 17, he asserts that those who overlook this national promise made to the Jewish people are guilty of trying to “muffle the text”, and that such an approach does not “do justice to the explicit emphasis” of the writing. It seems that, in short, contemporary debates over the Genesis 12:3 promise do not centre so much on whether the blessing has universal implications. That conclusion does not seem too controversial. What continues to prove contentious, however, is whether the text contains enduring national promises, including land, to Israel.
The diversity of scholarly opinions on this text clearly reveal that what might look like a fairly straightforward verse on the surface yields a variety of interpretations so wide-ranging one might find it had to believe all parties involved are looking at the same text. When one compares the exegesis of Martin Luther, for example, to that of the Rabbinical sources, trying to find common ground can be quite a task. This raises one final point that deserves further scholarly dialogue; the lack of attention given specifically to how the church should view the Jewish people, not just the land specifically, today in light of the Genesis 12:3 promise. It seems that much of the conversation around the matter is either in the vein of Luther and Chrysostom, by those content to cast them aside as irrelevant to the ongoing salvific purposes of God, or by individuals who wish to adopt Genesis 12:3 into a guide for modern foreign policy toward a secular state. Neither of these approaches is particularly helpful or thoughtful; thus, the question provides an opportunity for more detailed research and discussion.
[i] Lawrence Davidson, “Christian Zionism and the Formulation of Foreign Policy,” Diplomatic History 34, no. 3 (2010): 606, https://tyndale.on.worldcat.org/oclc/7787875782.
[ii] John Hagee, In Defense of Israel. Revised ed. (Lake Mary, Fla.: Frontline, 2011), 115.
[iii] See Ed Hindson and Tim LaHaye, Target Israel (Eugene, Oregon: Harvest House, 2015), 107. Note that while Hindson and LaHaye are not themselves Pentecostals, they are dispensationalists, and thus share both a similar eschatology and understanding of Israel in relation the church to many classical Pentecostals.
[iv] Philip Bump, “Analysis | Half of Evangelicals Support Israel Because They Believe It Is Important for Fulfilling End-Times Prophecy,” May 14, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/politics/wp/2018/05/14/half-of-evangelicals-support-israel-because-they-believe-it-is-important-for-fulfilling-end-times-prophecy/.
[v] Donald K. McKim, The Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms. Second edition revised and expanded (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 162.
[vii] Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, 374.
[viii] Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, 374-75.
[x] Mathews, Genesis, 111.
[xi] Mathews, Genesis, 112.
[xii] Mathews, Genesis, 113.
[xiii] Bruce K. Waltke and Cathi J. Fredricks. Genesis: A Commentary (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2001), 206.
[xiv] Waltke and Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary, 203.
[xv] Waltke and Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary, 206.
[xvi] Waltke and Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary, 203.
[xviii] Wenham, Genesis, 277.
[xix] Wenham, Genesis, 279
[xx] John H. Walton, Genesis: From Biblical Text to Contemporary Life (The NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 2001), 404.
[xxi] Walton, Genesis: From Biblical Text, 404.
[xxii] Walton, Genesis: From Biblical Text, 393.
[xxiv] Paul Rotenberry, “Blessing in the Old Testament: A Study of Genesis 12:3,” Restoration Quarterly 2 (1), (1958): 32—36, http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lsdar&AN=ATLA0001597414&site=ehost-live&scope=site), 32.
[xxv] Jim R. Sibley, “Israel and the Gospel of Peter, Paul, and Abraham,” Bibliotheca Sacra 173 (2016), 25, http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lsdar&AN=ATLAn3851047&site=ehost-live&scope=site
[xxvi] Sibley, “Israel and the Gospel,” 26.
[xxvii] James H. Charlesworth, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1983), 35.
[xxviii] Charlesworth, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, 81.
[xxix] Charlesworth, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, 81.
[xxx] Dale C. Allison Jr., Abraham, 150-162-39 in Hans-Josef Klauck, Encyclopedia of the Bible and Its Reception (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2009), 158.
[xxxi] Allison, 158.
[xxxii] Knut Backhaus, Covenant, 910 in Hans-Josef Klauck, Encyclopedia of the Bible and Its Reception (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2009), 898-933.
[xxxiii] Douglas J. Moo, Galatians. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013), 200.
[xxxiv] S.D. Snyman, “Abraham in Galatians and in Genesis,” Acta Theologica 33, no. 2 (2013): 148—63, https://doi.org/10.4314/actat.v33i2.9.
[xxxvi] Oden and Sheridan, Ancient Christian Commentary, xxiii.
[xxxvii] John Chrysostom and Robert C Hill. Homilies on Genesis (The Fathers of the Church, V. 74, 82, 87. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1986), 20.
[xxxviii] Oden and Sheridan, Ancient Christian Commentary, 4.
[xxxix] Didymus, Commentary on Genesis, trans. Robert C Hill. The Fathers of the Church, a New Translation, Volume 132 (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2016), 184-85.
[xl] Didymus, Commentary on Genesis, 185.
[xli] Didymus, Commentary on Genesis, 185.
[xlii] Oden and Sheridan, Ancient Christian Commentary, xxiv.
[xliii] Bede, On Genesis, trans Calvin B Kendall. Translated Texts for Historians, V. 48. (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2008), 245.
[xliv] Oden and Sheridan, Ancient Christian Commentary, 4.
[xlv] Justin Martyr, Michael Slusser, and Thomas B Falls. Dialogue with Trypho. Selections from the Fathers of the Church, V. 3 (Catholic University of America Press, 1900), 332.
[xlvi] Jerome. Commentary on Galatians, trans Andrew Cain. The Fathers of the Church, a New Translation, V. 121 (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2010), 127.
[xlvii] Jerome, Commentary on Galatians, 128.
[xlix] Hershon, A Rabbinical Commentary, 67.
[l] Hershon, A Rabbinical Commentary, 68.
[li] Nahum M. Sarna, Genesis: Be-Reshit: The Traditional Hebrew Text with New Jps Translation. 1st ed. The Jps Torah Commentary (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989), 89.
[lii] Sarna, Genesis: Be-Reshit, 89.
[liii] Benno Jacob, The First Book of the Bible: Genesis. Edited by Ernst Jacob and Walter Jacob (New York: Ktav Pub. House, 1974), vii.
[liv] Jacob, The First Book, 86.
[lv] Jacob, The First Book, 86.
[lvi] V.E. D'Assonville, “Calvin as an Exegete of Scripture: A Few Remarks with Reference to Calvin Research in General,” In Die Skriflig 44, no. Sup-3 (2010): 129, https://tyndale.on.worldcat.org/oclc/854288580.
[lvii] Inseo Song, “Martin Luther’s Hermeneutics of the Old Testament Prophecy: The Case of Isaiah 1,” Canon & Culture 11, no. 1 (2017): 9, https://doi.org/10.31280/CC.2017.04.11.1.5.
[lix] Luther, Commentary on Genesis, 212-13.
[lx] Luther, Commentary on Genesis, 213.
[lxi] For a detailed analysis of Luther’s interaction with the Jewish people in his exegesis of Scripture, including both Old Testament figures as well as his Jewish contemporaries, see Martin Luther, Brooks Schramm, and Kirsi Irmeli Stjerna. Martin Luther, the Bible, and the Jewish People: A Reader (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012).
[lxii] Luther, Commentary on Genesis, 214.
[lxiii] D’Assonville, “Calvin as,”129.
[lxiv] John F. Evans, A Guide to Biblical Commentaries and Reference Works. 10th edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016), 69.
[lxv] Jean Calvin, Genesis (Crossway Classic Commentaries. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2001), 89.
[lxvi] Calvin, Genesis, 89
[lxvii] Calvin, Genesis, 91.
[lxviii] For an in-depth discussion on Calvin’s understanding of the relationship between the Jewish Nation and the Christian Church, including his comprehension of the nature of the covenants, see Randall C. Zachman, Reconsidering John Calvin, Current Issues in Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 62-91.
[lxxi] Driver, The Book of Genesis, 144.
[lxxii] Aly Elrefaei, Wellhausen and Kaufmann : Ancient Israel and Its Religious History in the Works of Julius Wellhausen and Yehezkel Kaufmann (Beihefte Zur Zeitschrift Für Die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft, V. 490. Boston: De Gruyter, 2016), 78.
[lxxiii] Julius Wellhausen, J. Sutherland Black, and Allan R Menzies. Prolegomena to the History of Ancient Israel (Charleston, SC: BiblioBazaar, 2008), 318-19.
[lxxiv] Ulrike Bechmann, “Genesis 12 and the Abraham-Paradigm Concerning the Promised Land,” The Ecumenical Review 68, no. 1 (2016): 62—80, https://doi.org/10.1111/erev.12199.
[lxxv] Bechmann, “Genesis 12,” 63-64.
[lxxvi] Bechmann, “Genesis 12,” 67.
[lxxvii] Knud Jeppesen, “Promise and Blessing: Gen 12:1-3.” Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament 27, no. 1 (2013), 32.
[lxxviii] “Israel, the Jewish People, and God’s Covenants,” Richard E. Averbeck, Ch. 1 in Darrell L. Bock and Mitch Glaser, eds. Israel, the Church, and the Middle East: A Biblical Response to the Current Conflict. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2018. Kindle Edition.