Wrapped in mystery and divine promise, the initial encounter between God and Abram sets the foundation for a mission that transcends generations. Abram, a figure destined for greatness, receives a divine message filled with promises of prosperity and prominence. “I will make you a great nation, I will bless you, I will make your name great, and you shall be a blessing” (Genesis 12:2). At first glance, the message seems clear-cut, but a closer look reveals layers of depth and meaning. As we unravel the divine threads woven into Abram’s story, we uncover not just a historical decree, but a timeless command and a universal calling that beckons to each of us, inviting us to step into our sacred role as bearers of blessing.
After commanding Abram to leave his homeland and his family, God began to describe the mission that Abram would pass on to his descendants:
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. (Genesis 12:2)
There are four statements in this verse:
- I will make you a great nation
- I will bless you
- I will make your name great
- you shall be a blessing
The first three statements are quite simple to understand. God promised Abram that He will make him into a great nation, that He will bless him, and that He will make Abram’s greatness – his “name” – known in the world. The fourth statement is somewhat unclear. When God said, you shall be a blessing, what exactly was he telling Abram?
What does “blessing” mean?
The Hebrew word berachah – “blessing”– in the Bible refers to abundance. For example, the very first time the word “blessing” appears in all of Scripture is in reference to the fish during the story of creation:
If that’s the case, when God told Abram, “you shall be a blessing”, what exactly was God telling him? Was He saying that Abraham would bring abundance to others? If so, an abundance of what?
The simple answer may be found in the next verse:
I will bless those who bless you, and he who curses you I will curse; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed through you. – Genesis 12:3
Perhaps the meaning of “you shall be a blessing,” is that Abram will be a source of blessings and abundance for other people.
“You SHALL be”: Command or Statement?
This leads to a fascinating translation issue that is almost impossible to notice in the English translations. Consider the following three common translations:
and you will be a blessing – NIV
so that you will be a blessing – ESV
And you shall be a blessing. – NKJV
The Hebrew here is made up of two words:
V’heyeh – you shall be; you will be
Berachah – a blessing
There are two different words used in the Bible for “you will be”. The word used here, v’heyeh, is quite rare, appearing only 6 times in the entire Bible. The more common word is v’hayita, appearing 30 times. For example, when God spoke to Abram at the covenant of circumcision, He said:
As for Me, My covenant is hereby established with you, and you shall be [v’hayita] the father of a multitude of nations – Genesis 17:4
Or when Isaac blessed his son Jacob:
May God Almighty bless you, And make you fruitful and multiply you, That you may be [v’hayita] an assembly of peoples; – Genesis 28:3
Both examples cited here are quite similar to our verse, Genesis 12:2. In all three verses, a blessing is being bestowed, either by God or by Isaac.
So, if both v’heyeh and v’hayita are translated as “you shall be” or “you will be”, what is the difference between them?
I mentioned that v’heyeh appears only 6 times in the entire Bible. One of them is here in Genesis 12:2. In all other 5 times, v’heyeh is a command or instruction. Here are two examples:
When Abram was ninety-nine years old the Lord appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be – v’heyeh – blameless, – Genesis 17:1
And the Lord said unto Moses, Come up to me into the mount, and remain – v’heyeh – there: and I will give thee tables of stone, and a law, and commandments which I have written; that thou mayest teach them. – Exodus 24:12
In other words, v’heyeh – “you shall be” – does not mean “you will be” as a prediction or the bestowing of blessing; it is not a statement about what will be in the future. V’heyeh is an instruction or command. For example, if a parent is telling a child to behave in school and they say, “you shall behave”, the parent is stating an instruction, not making a prediction about what will be in the future.
The call to be a blessing
When God said to Abram, v’heyeh berachah – “you shall be a blessing,” God was not telling Abraham what will be in the future. God was giving Abram an instruction and a command. He was giving Abram his mission.
To sum up, the correct meaning of verse 2 is this: “I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you with abundance, giving you the tools to impact and influence the world. I will make your name known so that people pay attention to you. V’heyeh berachah – It is your job and mission to be a blessing; to use all the gifts that I have bestowed upon you to bring blessing to others.”
The mission of Abram is the mission of all who share the faith of Abram. Just as Abraham was commanded to use the gifts that God bestowed upon him to bring blessings to others, so too, we must use the blessings and tools of influence that God has given us in order to bring increase and blessing to others. We must strive to be a blessing.
Rabbi Pesach Wolicki is Executive Director of Ohr Torah Stone’s Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation and is cohost of the Shoulder to Shoulder podcast