When Abraham is introduced in the book of Genesis, one of the first things we learn about him is that God has made him a promise. “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. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will become a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed’” (Genesis 12:1-3).
Abraham does not earn God’s blessing by traveling to Canaan as God commanded. The blessing is a gift, unearned, and Abraham’s journey is a result of the blessing, not a cause of the blessing. Over the years, God repeats his blessing to Abraham, also to Isaac, and to Jacob. He says it different ways on different occasions, but generally it comes in three parts: Abraham’s family will become a great nation, they will live on the land to which God sent Abraham, and from that nation on that land will come a blessing for the entire world.
Abraham had to wait twenty-five years for a beginning to the first part of the blessing. Isaac was not born until Abraham was one hundred years old. Isaac did not marry for another forty years, and then he had two sons. His son Jacob had twelve sons and a daughter. The family had grown to seventy members by the time they moved to Egypt. When they left Egypt several generations later, the Israelites included 603,550 men of fighting age, as well as children, women, and the elderly.
They returned to the land God had promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; and land became a very important part of God’s covenant with the Israelites. Each of the tribes of Israel was assigned a certain portion of land, carefully described in the book of Joshua—except the tribe of Levi was given no land. The Law of Moses ordered strict punishment upon anyone who tried to steal land by moving a boundary stone. Land could not be sold; families in debt could rent out use of their land for a time, but they would receive their land again at the next Jubilee Year, which came every fifty years.
Generally when the Romans conducted a census, they simply went door-to-door, counting the members of each household and collecting a tax. The Jews made this census more complicated than anyone else in the Empire. Joseph (and many others like him) was determined to be counted at his family’s land rather than at his current residence; so Joseph took Mary his espoused wife and traveled from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem in Judea, because Joseph was a descendant of King David. David had many other descendants who wanted to be counted in Bethlehem, so the inn (more of a guest room than a motel) was full, and Mary and Joseph had to take shelter in a cave, one that generally was used to shelter sheep. There Mary gave birth to her firstborn, the ultimate Son of David, who was swaddled and placed in a manger. According to the Law of Moses and the prophecy of Micah, the Son of David was required to be born in Bethlehem to inherit his kingdom.
Jesus is, of course, the blessing for the entire word who came from the family of Abraham on the land that had been promised to Abraham. He was born to inherit a kingdom and to win a victory. His victory was not over King Herod or the Romans. His victory was over all the forces of evil, including sin and death. His kingdom was for all people, not just for the Jews. John the Baptist and Jesus and the apostle Paul all insisted that the children of Abraham are all those who share the faith of Abraham in God’s promises, not necessarily those who can trace their family tree back to Abraham.
God affirmed his promise to Abraham several times. In Genesis 15 God commanded a ceremony involving several animals that were cut in half. I have read that this ceremony represented a form of covenant that was practiced in western Asia three thousand years ago. Generally two people making an agreement would walk between the halves of a slaughtered animal. In this case, Jesus walks alone (with a fire pot and a torch) between the halves, showing again that the fulfillment of the promise depended upon Jesus entirely and not upon Abraham in any way.
When Abraham was ninety-nine years old, God gave another ceremony to Abraham and to his family: the ceremony of circumcision. A small bit of skin was snipped away from the most vulnerable part of a man’s body. Some pain was felt, and a little blood was shed. For the rest of his life, that man had a private reminder of his relationship with God. Babies born into the family, if they were male, were circumcised on the eighth day (the same day of the week that he had been born). Jesus was circumcised in this way, shedding a little blood to foreshadow the blood he would shed more than thirty years later in the battle that won the victory.
Abraham never owned any of the land where he lived, except for a cemetery he bought when his wife died. His descendants claimed that land under Joshua when they battled the Canaanites with the help of God. When they were unfaithful to God, they lost control of the land to Midianites and Philistines and other enemies. This was God’s judgment upon his people for their sins. As their sins grew worse, God called the Assyrians and the Babylonians to remove the people from the land; but because of his promise of a blessing for the entire world, God called the Persians to send the Jews back to the Promised Land. God’s Promise is always bigger than his Judgment.
God always keeps his promises. The accounts of Abraham and his family cannot be understood apart from an understanding of the promises of God. J.