The first eleven chapters of the book of Genesis are an almost unrelieved chronicle of human evil, corruption, and malice. The first human beings, Adam and Eve, are given a single commandment by God, not to eat of the tree of knowledge; but they listen to the serpent, transgress God’s order, and are expelled from Eden. In the next generation, Cain murders his brother Abel and is sent to wander the earth. By chapter six, “the Lord saw how great was man’s wickedness on earth, and how every plan devised by his mind was nothing but evil all the time.” Regretting that man was ever made, God sends the Flood to wipe out his creation, sparing only Noah and his family.
But no sooner do the waters recede than Noah gets drunk and falls asleep naked, whereupon his son Ham “saw his father’s nakedness”—a profound violation that earns Ham a perpetual curse. This is followed by the story of the Tower of Babel, in which human beings try to build a heaven-storming tower, only to be scattered and divided by God. By the time we reach the twelfth chapter of Genesis, it is hard to see how human beings could be any worse, or any more incorrigible. Divine threats and punishments seem to have no effect on mankind; God has bound himself not to send a second Flood, but if He did, no one could say He wasn’t provoked. It seems as if the human story has reached a dead end in wickedness.
And then comes Abraham—or, as he is still known at this point in the story, Abram. His name appears first in a long genealogy, along with a dozen other names—Arpachshad, Peleg, Serug—that now mean nothing to us. There is no reason to expect that Abram will be singled out in the story to come. Yet chapter 12 begins with God plucking Abram from obscurity and making him, spontaneously and for no clear reason, a tremendous promise:
Go forth from your native land and from 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;
I will make your name great,
And you shall be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you
And curse him that curses you;
And all the families of the earth
Shall bless themselves by you.
As Jon D. Levenson writes in Inheriting Abraham, the “call and commission” of Abraham represents “a new beginning” for the human story. So far in Genesis, we have read of exile, destruction, scattering; now, for the first time, we hear of homecoming, flourishing, covenant.
It is, in fact, several new beginnings. In the near term, it begins the story that will take up the…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.