We’ve been using the image of a panoramic picture to help us in thinking about the coherence of the larger story of what God is doing in the world. But it may also be helpful to think of the biblical story the way one thinks of a movie. A movie has heroes and villains, themes and characters and plot, and the biblical story about God has all these things as well.
Another similarity: both movies and the biblical narrative have key scenes – scenes that are so important that if you miss one of them, it is hard to understand what is happening in the rest of the story. In the movies, those key scenes may be long and rich and layered with meaning. But not always: Sometimes the key scene takes less than a minute and contains very little dialogue, and yet provides the hinge on which the whole movie turns. Every word of the dialogue during that one minute is significant. The way the scene is framed is crucial. When the director wins awards for his movie, and is asked which scenes he likes best, he does not mention the big chase scene or the masterful special effects. He thinks of the one-minute scene that made the movie. And he knows it was a masterpiece.
We have such a scene in Genesis 12. It is short, but it is critical. Miss this, and it is hard to understand the rest of the story. We are looking at the call of Abraham, which happens in a few verses, but impacts the rest of the biblical story, from Genesis to Revelation. The Old Testament scholar Gerhard Von Rad called this passage “One of the most important places in the entire Old Testament.” Someone has said that this passage is the hinge upon which the door swings opens to God’s future blessings on all humanity.
How a passage is framed is as critical to understanding the Scriptures as it is to appraising a film. To see how this passage is framed, we need to look at three other passages, one in the New Testament, and two in the Old. In the New Testament, the apostle Paul writes, “. . . just as sin entered the world through one man [Adam], and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned – for before the law was given, sin was in the world. But sin is not taken into account when there is no law. Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses. . .”1
Paul is telling us that the sin of the original man had spread all through humanity. There are many symptoms that demonstrate the presence of the disease – fear, selfishness, shame, hatred, blaming, lying – but the telltale symptom of sin is death, and death spread to everyone on the earth. Paul says that the later method for diagnosing sin – the law – had not yet been developed, but the evidence of sin’s presence was nonetheless irrefutable: everyone died.
God made man in such a way that, if he sinned, he would die. We think of that as a punishment, but don’t miss the fact that it was also a safety protocol. Because sin, by its nature, multiplies – sort of like compound interest – God in his mercy imposed death on his creatures. Without death, evil would accrue indefinitely, it would multiply geometrically; life would be unbearable, and the earth would soon be uninhabitable.
Between Adam in chapter 3 and Abram in chapter 12, the disease of sin spread, and its symptoms intensified. We see that in the second of those passages that helps frame our text, Genesis 6:5-6. There we read “The LORD saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time. The LORD was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain.” God’s creation had become bad. Death was – and is – everywhere. As Paul put it, death reigned.
1 Romans 5:12-13