Abram’s Blessing and the Subversion of Scapegoating (Genesis 12-13; 20)

Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you will I curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed. (Genesis 12:1-3)

What makes Abram (who later becomes Abraham) so special that God chooses him for a blessing?

Maybe it’s not about what makes him special. Maybe it’s that he’s ordinary. Maybe God is giving the same message to everyone, but for some reason, Abram hears and follows.

The first word Abram hears is “Go.”

“Get away from the crowd. Follow Me into a new space, where My voice can be discerned anew.”

It’s not that God loves Abram more than anyone else. God loves everyone. But it can be hard to discern God’s love over the roar of the crowd. God wants to speak to us apart from the voices around and within us that tell us to do more, be more, earn more… prove our worth.

God loves everyone. But it can be hard to discern God’s love over the roar of the crowd.

If we wonder what qualities Abram might have possessed to warrant blessing, we might start comparing ourselves to him. Then we’ll miss the point. We’ll be too busy listening to the voices of comparison and rivalry to hear God calling to us with the same message. God tells us to step away from comparisons and rivalry and recognize that we, too, are blessed to be a blessing.

In fact, the first part of God’s blessing is saving us out of rivalries with others, and Abram facilitates this lesson in a morally dubious way.

At least twice while traveling in foreign lands, Abram passes his wife off as his sister (and even explains that she is indeed his half-sister). The reason he does so is telling. He is afraid that first Pharaoh and then King Abimelech will lust after his wife Sarai (Sarah) and will kill him to obtain her. So Abram protects himself at Sarai’s expense.

What we actually see in Abram’s story, similar to what we see in Noah’s story, is a reversal of the scapegoating process. In the traditional scapegoating process, fights break out over rival claims to something that is desired, violence escalates, and the situation becomes so dire that it is depicted in terms of plagues and cataclysmic catastrophes. Then the crowds fix blame upon a scapegoat, violence converges on the scapegoat, the formerly warring parties reconcile over hatred of a mutual enemy, and the newfound peace in the wake of the scapegoat’s murder or expulsion is attributed to divine power.

Abram’s story has all of these elements, but they are out of the traditional order. Abram denies his relationship with Sarai, avoiding rivalry and saving his life. But, because Pharoah (and later Abimelech) trusts him and believes Sarai to be available, God punishes him and his household with the plagues that usually follow in the wake of a rivalry spinning out of control into violent destruction. Instead of a scapegoat being killed to restore peace, peace is restored only when these rulers renounce their “claims” on Sarai.

The scapegoating process has been subverted, but not yet eradicated. There is still fear of rivalry and violence, still punishment attributed to God. But a change is beginning to take place precisely because the one who would normally be scapegoated – the “foreigner” who brings plague in his wake – is protected, not cursed, by God.

The Olive

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A similar fear of mutual desires leading to rivalry and violence is at play when Abram and his nephew, Lot, go their separate ways. They each have large flocks and many possessions. Not only do they each need space for sustenance, but they also need distance to avoid rivalry for possessions and power.

Taken together, these stories of Abram show both the threat and the avoidance of rivalry and violence.

The blessing of Abram, then, is precisely God’s guidance out of rivalry and violence. Abram’s story is just the beginning of a new way of understanding God – not as the one who sanctions scapegoating, but as the one who stops it.

Again, at this point, those who told this story recognized a human problem of rivalry and violence. What they did not yet see was that God’s answer to violence is completely nonviolent… but it appears that they did recognize that God had to call people out of crowds in order to keep them from getting swept up in violence.

Abram must be called out from among others not because others won’t also be blessed, but because the blessing of a new relationship apart from rivalry, violence, and scapegoating requires stepping away from the contagions of desire and blame that spread like wildfire through a crowd.

Abram is not to keep his blessing for himself. He is blessed to be a blessing. Through the subversion of rivalry and scapegoating that starts with Abram, people will find a new way to relate to one another and to God. They will find that the “peace” that comes from scapegoating can also come, more securely and more abundantly, through cooperation and looking out for the wellbeing of one another.

“I will bless those who bless you.” By loving one another and fulfilling our vocations as living images of God, we become conduits of blessing for each other.

This is only the beginning of Abram/ Abraham’s story. He will continue to do some things that we would more readily expect of an anti-hero rather than a prophet, including raping a concubine and then sending her and their firstborn son away to fend for themselves in the desert. But he will also be a vehicle for illuminating God’s desire for mercy, not sacrifice. Both of these stories will be explored in upcoming editions of Healing Stories of the Bible.