The call of Abram in Genesis 12:1–3 consists of two commands (“go” [12:1] and “be” a blessing [12:2]). Each command is followed by three promises. The first promise is “I will make you into a great nation,” and the last promise is “All the clans/families of the earth will be blessed in you” (12:1, 3). We need to pay attention to the terms used here to describe both the people of God and the other peoples of the world. God promises to make Abram into a great “nation”; this is the word gôy in Hebrew. The other people groups of the world are called “clans” or “families”; here the Hebrew term is mišpāḥâ.

First, consider the term gôy, or “nation.” It is highly unusual for this term to be applied to the people of God. There is in the language of the Old Testament a completely consistent usage: the word ʻam is almost always reserved for Israel. It is a kinship term that expresses effectively the closeness of the family/marriage relationship between God and Israel established by the covenant made at Sinai (Exodus 24). On the other hand, the word gôy is the standard term for the communities or other societies in the world, excluding Israel. So consistent is this use, that when we see something different, we need to ask why. For example, there are instances where the term gôy is ap plied to Israel in a pejorative sense. Sometimes Israel is called “nation” and not “people” because the author may wish to communicate that because of her wickedness, Israel is behaving as if she were not the people of God. Her actions and attitudes indicate that she is like those communities who have no special status as the chosen people of God (e.g., Judg. 2:20).

Why, then, in Genesis 12 does God speak of Abram becoming a great gôy, or nation? The basic meaning of gôy is an organized community of people having governmental, political, and social structure. This word contrasts with the derogatory term for the other nations, mišpāḥâ, in Genesis 12. This word refers to an amorphous kin group larger than an extended family and smaller than a tribe.

The background of Genesis 12 is chapters 10 and 11. There we have the history of Babel, where we see a complete confidence and naive optimism about human achievement and effort. Man is at the center of his world, and he can achieve anything. This philosophy comes under divine judgment in Genesis 11 and results in the nations being lost and scattered over the face of the earth (Gen. 10; 11:9). By contrast, Genesis 12 presents a political structure brought into being by the word of God, with God at the center and God as the governmental head and rule of that community. In other words, we have the kingdom of God brought into being by means of the covenant (i.e., the covenant between God and Abram). Hence, we have kingdom through covenant.

The promise in Genesis 12:3 is cited or quoted several times in later texts of the Old Testament. In Genesis 28:14, the nations of the world are also called mišpaḥôt, to form an inclusio with Genesis 12:3 and mark off a literary section. However, in Genesis 18:18; 22:18; 26:4; Jeremiah 4:2; and Psalm 72:17—the five other texts directly referring to Genesis 12:3—the nations of the world are called by the more common and normal term, gôyim. This shows that the author has a real purpose in Genesis 12:3 in using the term mišpaḥôt: he wants to indicate that the kingdoms of this world will never amount to anything; only the kingdom of God will last forever. The author’s choice of terms emphasizes that the family of Abram is a real kingdom with eternal power and significance, while the so-called kingdoms of this world are of no lasting power or significance.

This interpretation is backed up by the work of Eberhard Ruprecht, a German scholar who has detected in the promises that the Lord made to Abram a royal ideology. What Abram was promised in Genesis 12 was the hope of many oriental monarchs (cf. 2 Sam. 7:9; Ps. 72:17).

The word in Hellenistic Greek that best conveys this meaning is the term polis, or “city.” In our modern world we tend to think of cities as great centers of population in contrast to the rural areas, which by definition are sparsely populated. In contrast to the modern notion, the term “city” in the first century conveyed the idea of an organized community with governmental headship and appropriate political and social structure—what we normally convey by the English word state. Thus the promises of God to Abram really did entail the city of God, and the author to the Hebrews is accurately explaining for his readers the author’s intended meaning in Genesis 12. Abraham was to go to a country that God would indicate to him and reside there—even if as an alien and a stranger: he was awaiting “the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Heb. 11:10).

In Genesis 15 and 17, the great promises to Abram will be enshrined in a divine-human covenant between God and Abraham. For now, we note that although the context, expressions, idioms, and language are completely different from the creation narrative and the image of God in Genesis 1:26–28, the ideas are identical. Abram (and the nation that comes from him) constitutes an Adamic figure, indeed the last Adam, since there are no major new starts after this. God intends to establish his rule over all his creation through his relationship with Abram and his family: kingdom through covenant. Through blessing Abram and his descendants, the broken relationship between God and all the nations of the world will be reconciled and healed. As we will soon see, the covenant entails not only a relationship with God that can be described as sonship but also a relationship to the rest of creation that entails kingship in establishing the rule of God.


Content taken from Kingdom through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants (Second Edition) by Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum, ©2018. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, Il 60187,

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