Introduction to Genesis 12-50 and Work
Genesis chapters 12 through 50 tell about the life and work of Abraham, Sarah, and their descendants. God called Abraham, Sarah, and their family to leave their homeland for the new country that God would show them. Along the way, God promised to make them into a great nation: “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:3). As Abraham’s spiritual descendants, blessed by this great family and brought to faith through their descendant Jesus Christ, we are called to follow in the footsteps of the faith of the father and mother of all who truly believe (Rom. 4:11; Gal. 3:7, 29).
The story of Abraham and Sarah’s family is perfused with work. Their work encompasses nearly every facet of the work of seminomadic peoples in the ancient Near East. At every point, they face crucial questions about how to live and work in faithful observance of God’s covenant. They struggle to make a living, endure social upheaval, raise children in safety, and remain faithful to God in the midst of a broken world, much as we do today. They find that God is faithful to his promise to bless them in all circumstances, although they themselves prove faithless again and again.
But the purpose of God’s covenant is not merely to bless Abraham’s family in a hostile world. Instead, he intends to bless the whole world through these people. This task is beyond the abilities of Abraham’s family, who fall again and again into pride, self-centeredness, foolhardiness, anger, and every other malady to which fallen people are apt. We recognize ourselves in them in this aspect too. Yet by God’s grace, they retain a core of faithfulness to the covenant, and God works through the work of these people, beset with faults, to bring unimaginable blessings to the world. Like theirs, our work also brings blessings to those around us because in our work we participate in God’s work in the world.
When seen from beginning to end, it is clear that Genesis is a literary whole, yet it falls into two distinct parts. The first part (Gen. 1-11) deals with God’s creation of the universe, then traces the development of humanity from the original couple in the Garden of Eden to the three sons of Noah and their families who spread out into the world. This section closes on a low note when people from the whole world gather in unity to construct a city to make a name for themselves and instead experience defeat, confusion, and scattering as judgment from God. The second part (Gen. 12-50) opens with the Lord’s call to the particular man, Abraham. God called him to leave his homeland and family to set out for a new life and land, which he did. The rest of the book follows the life of this man and the next three generations who begin to experience the fulfillment of the divine promises made to their father Abraham.
God’s changing of Abram's name to Abraham (17:5) is important in the book of Genesis, but not particularly relevant to the topic of work. We will refer to him throughout by his familiar name, Abraham, and likewise, for Sarai/Sarah.