I grew up in a little town in the Black Forest in southern Germany. It’s a region bordering France and Switzerland known for dense fir forests, low mountain ranges, picturesque villages, and meandering rivers.
The famous Danube River, Europe’s second-longest river, flowing from west to east and passing through or bordering at least nine countries, has its beginnings in the little town of Donaueschingen, Germany, in the Black Forest.1 The famed Donauquelle (“Danube source”) doesn’t look that impressive, with a flow of only 4 to 18 gallons (15 to 70 liters) per second—and yet it grows to become one of Europe’s most significant rivers, navigable by large boats and barges for 1,501 miles (2,415 kilometers) of its 1,700 miles (2,735 kilometers).2
Small beginnings do not mean insignificant beginnings. Like so many beginnings in Scripture, Abraham’s call began with a word from God.3 Stephen tells us in Acts 7:2 that this conversation between Abraham and the Lord had started already in Mesopotamia, before Abraham’s family had moved to Haran in Syria (Gen. 11:31). God’s specific message to Abraham found in Genesis 12:1-3 sounded like this:
“The Lord had said to Abram, ‘Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.
I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you;
I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.’ ”4
We hear the encouraging cadence of new beginnings in God’s call to Abraham. God reaches out to one family following the Flood—and yet His call is designed to affect the entire world. Abraham must leave familiar places, people with whom he shared kinship ties, and even close family relations, and begin a journey to an unknown country. But it’s not his obedience or even his faith that will make him great.
Along the way there are many ups and downs. God’s offer of a new beginning and His covenant renewal with humanity is a reminder of His sovereignty and grace. The promises included in Abraham’s call of becoming a great nation, obtaining a great name (or fame), and being a blessing to all the peoples of the “earth”—shortcut for the entire world—reach far beyond the all-too-familiar lore of successful families. Abraham’s call reminds us that new beginnings are God’s specialty and domain.
Israel’s election was not based on abilities, size, importance, or even faithfulness, but rather on God’s mission to bless all peoples of the earth.
Abraham’s response is immediate and to the point. He leaves the familiar and sets out to—well, he doesn’t really know (cf. Heb. 11:8). While the call is specific and unambiguous, the fulfillment of God’s covenant promises takes a long time to become tangible.
Abraham also doesn’t leave alone. He has a large family, comprising not only his wife, Sarah, and the family of his nephew, Lot, but also includes—at least—318 “trained men” born in his household (Gen. 14:14).5 Three hundred eighteen fighting men comprised a formidable military force in the second millennium B.C. We need to imagine a large encampment comprising many tents that make up Abraham’s camp. But there is no son or daughter—yet. How can Abraham become a great nation if there is not even one child? How will God’s promise of descendants as numerous as the stars, visible on a clear night unencumbered by city lights, ever become a reality (Gen. 15:5)? How will “all peoples” be blessed by Abraham’s descendants if Sarah hasn’t even borne one?
Both Abraham and Sarah must have asked themselves similar questions as they lived God’s call for the next 25 years until the much-prayed-for birth of Isaac (Gen. 21:1-5).
The arrival of Isaac turned tears into laughter, for nomen est omen.6 Later Jacob and Esau are born to Isaac and Rebekah, and their children and grandchildren find refuge in Egypt during a devastating famine affecting many regions of the ancient Near East. We can see the faint outline of the fulfillment of God’s promise of many descendants, but where is the blessing promised by God in His initial call to Abraham?
God uses Joseph to deliver a first blessing to Egypt and those affected by the famine (Gen. 41). His meteoric rise from imprisoned slave to second-in-command of Egypt is mind-boggling and anticipates God’s special blessing to His people, now called “the children of Israel.” When Joseph’s family finally reaches Egypt, they are given the royal treatment and get settled “in the best part of the land” (Gen. 47:11). They grow and thrive and flourish so much so that hundreds of years later another pharaoh and his people are afraid of their numbers and devise plans to oppress Israel (Ex. 1:6-14). Scripture states that the Egyptians “worked them ruthlessly. They made their lives bitter with harsh labor” (verses 13, 14).
Where are God’s blessings now? we wonder. And how can God use a people to bless the world if they are living in abject slavery?
Israel’s deliverance from bondage in Egypt becomes a backdrop for God’s deliverance of people throughout the ages. His promise of a “land flowing with milk and honey” is metaphor for a good and safe and plentiful land. The Promised Land is strategically placed to connect north and south and the powerful Mesopotamian empires to the Egyptian and northern African kingdoms. Israel’s location was chosen because of Israel’s mission.
Moses reminds his audience in Deuteronomy 7:6-11 that Israel’s call (as given to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) was not based on its numbers or even its goodness. No, writes Moses, “it was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath he swore to your ancestors” (verse 8). God’s love for Israel, His firstborn (Ex. 4:22), is foundational to His covenant and implies also His concern for all the other “sons” and “daughters” of the earth. The coinage of God’s election of Israel and His covenant with Abraham’s descendants was light—light that was to point directly back to the Creator and Redeemer (cf. Isa. 42:6; also 49:6).
Israel’s role as light and witness to God’s grace, righteousness, holiness, and compassion is deeply embedded in the prophetic witness of the Old Testament (cf. Isa. 43:10; 44:8). Moses had already anticipated this element in the blessings of the covenant: “God will set you high above all the nations on earth,” he had declared to his audience (Deut. 28:1). When the other people groups would observe Israel, they would recognize God’s special relationship with Israel (Jer. 16:20, 21) and would affirm “that they are a people the Lord has blessed” (Isa. 61:9). God’s blessings would be seen in Israel’s prosperity (Deut. 8:17, 18), their skills in animal husbandry and agriculture (Isa. 51:3), their superior craftsmanship (Ex. 31:2-6; 35:33, 35), their blessings of health (Ex. 15:26), their superior intellect, and, above all, their holiness of character reflecting God’s character (Lev. 19:2).7
God’s gifting of Israel was never meant for selfish reasons. Israel’s election was not based on abilities, size, importance, or even faithfulness, but rather on God’s mission to bless all peoples of the earth. Messiah’s coming was part of this blessing, but Israel’s mission was not just to produce a Messiah. They had been called to use all the gifts bestowed on them to bless the nations and draw in those seeking righteousness and grace.
Their frequent and consistent failure to live according to th
e principles of God’s covenant resulted in disappointment, death, and exile. When we lose sight of the content and become enamored with the trimmings, we will always miss the goal. The prophets’ repeated calls to authentic living versus ritualized traditions is well expressed in Micah 6:8: “He has showed you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
That’s the place where we come back to small beginnings. God’s call to Israel had always been a personal call. He is not primarily interested in structures and programs and organizations. God wants our heart—and He pursues us through blessings and curses right to the point where we finally hear His gentle voice whispering into our hearts: “You are My cherished daughter; you are My beloved son. Come and let Me save you so that you, too, may become a blessing for those surrounding you.”
Gerald A. Klingbeil serves as associate editor of Adventist Review.