The Call of Abram (Genesis 11:31-19:9)
Chapter 12 begins a new division in the book of Genesis. The first eleven chapters have often been called ‘primeval history.’ The last chapters are known as ‘patriarchal history.’ While the effect of man’s sin has become increasingly widespread, the fulfillment of the promise of God in Genesis 3:15 has become more selective. The Redeemer was to come from the seed of the woman (Genesis 3:15), then from the descendants of Seth, then Noah, and now Abraham (Genesis 12:2-3).
Theologically, Genesis chapter 12 is one of the key Old Testament passages, for it contains what has been called the Abrahamic Covenant. This covenant is the thread which ties the rest of the Old Testament together. It is critical to a correct understanding of Bible prophecy.
In Genesis chapter 12 we come not only to a new division and an important theological covenant, but most of all to a great and godly man—Abraham. Nearly one-fourth of the book of Genesis is devoted to this man’s life. Over 40 Old Testament references are made to Abraham. It is of interest to note that Islam holds Abram second in importance to Mohammed, with the Koran referring to Abraham 188 times.128
The New Testament in no way diminishes the significance of the life and character of Abraham. There are nearly 75 references to him in the New Testament. Paul chose Abraham as the finest example of a man who is justified before God by faith apart from works (Romans 4). James referred to Abraham as a man who demonstrated his faith to men by his works (James 2:21-23). The writer to the Hebrews pointed to Abraham as an illustration of a man who walked by faith, devoting more space to him than any other individual in chapter eleven (Hebrews 11:8-19). In Galatians chapter 3 Paul wrote that Christians are the ‘sons of Abraham’ by faith, and therefore, rightful heirs to the blessings promised him (Galatians 3:7,9).
As we turn our attention to Genesis chapter 12 let us do so with an eye to Abraham as an example of the walk of faith. In particular, I want to underscore the process which God employed to strengthen Abram’s faith and make him the godly man he became. Most of the errors so popular in Christian circles concerning the nature of the life of faith can be corrected by a study of the life of Abraham.
Surrounding the Call of Abram
(Joshua 24:2-3; Acts 7:2-5)
Moses did not give us all the background needed to properly grasp the significance of the call of Abram, but it has been recorded for us in the Bible. Stephen clarifies the time that Abram was first called of God. It was not in Haran, as a casual reading of Genesis 12 might incline us to believe, but in Ur. As Stephen stood before his unbelieving Jewish brethren, he recounted the history of God’s chosen people, beginning with the call of Abraham:
And he said, ‘Hear me, brethren and fathers! The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran and said to him, “Depart from your country and your relatives, and come into the land that I will show you”’ (Acts 7:2-3).
While not all Bible students agree on the location of Ur,129 most agree that it is the Ur of southern Mesopotamia, on what used to be the coast of the Persian Gulf. The site of the great city was first discovered in 1854, and has since that time been excavated, revealing much about life in the times of Abram.130 While the actual period that Abram lived in Ur may be a matter of discussion, we can say with certainty that Ur was justified in its boast of being a highly developed civilization. There are ample evidences of elaborate wealth, skilled craftsmanship, and advanced technology and science.131 All of this tells us something of the city which Abram was commanded to leave. In the words of Vos,
Regardless of when Abraham left Ur, he turned his back on a great metropolis, setting out by faith for a land about which he knew little or nothing and which could probably offer him little from a standpoint of material benefits.132
If the city which Abram was told to leave was great, the home he left behind seems to have been less than godly. I would have assumed that Terah was a God-fearing man, who brought up his son, Abram, to believe in only one God, unlike the people of his day, but this was not so. Joshua gives us helpful insight into the character of Terah in his farewell speech at the end of his life:
And Joshua said to all the people, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, “From ancient times your fathers lived beyond the River, namely, Terah, the father of Abraham and the father of Nahor, and they served other gods”’ (Joshua 24:2).
So far as we can tell, then, Terah was an idolater, like those of his days. No wonder God commanded Abram to leave his father’s house (Genesis 12:1)!
Abram’s age was not a factor in favor of leaving Ur for some unknown land either. Moses tells us that Abram was 75 when he entered the land of Canaan. Think of it. Abram would have been on social security for over ten years. The ‘mid-life crisis’ would have been past history for him. Rather than thinking of a new land and a new life, most of us would have been thinking in terms of a rocking chair and a rest home.
We are not inclined to be impressed with Abram’s age because of the length of men’s lives in olden times, but Genesis chapter 11 informs us that man’s longevity was much greater in times past, than in Abram’s day. Abram died at the ripe old age of 175 (25:7-8), a much shorter time than Shem (11:10-11) or Arpachshad (11:12-13). One purpose of the genealogy of chapter 11 is that it informs us that men were living shorter lives, and having children younger. Abram was, in our vernacular, ‘no spring chicken’ when he left Haran for Canaan.
All of this should remind us of the objections and obstacles which must have been in the mind of Abram when the call of God came. He left Haran, not because it was the easiest thing to do, but because God intended for him to do it. Having said this, I do not wish to glorify Abram’s faith either, for as we shall see, it was initially very weak. The obstacles were largely overcome by the initiative of God in the early stages of the life of Abram. This remains to be proven.
The Command of God
The call of Abram is recorded for us in Genesis 12:1: “Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go forth from your country, and from your relatives and from your father’s house, to the land which I will show you.’”
A better rendering of the first sentence of this call is found in the King James Version and in the New International Version, both of which read, “The Lord had said to Abram, … ”
The difference is important. Without it we are inclined to think that the call of Abram came at Haran, rather than at Ur. But we know from Stephen’s words that the call came to Abram at Ur (Acts 7:2). The pluperfect tense (had said) is both grammatically legitimate and exegetically necessary. It tells us that verses 27-32 of chapter 11 are parenthetical,133 and not strictly in chronological order.
The command of God to Abram was in conjunction with an appearance of God.134 While Moses mentioned only an appearance of God after Abram was in the land (12:7), Stephen informs us that God appeared to Abram while in Ur (Acts 7:2). In the light of all the objections which might be raised by Abram, such an appearance should not be unusual. God also appeared to Moses at the time of his call (Exodus 3:2, etc.).
In one sense, the command of God to Abram was very specific. Abram was told in detail what he must leave behind. He must leave his country, his relatives, and his father’s house. God was going to make a new nation, not merely revise an existing one. Little of the culture, religion, or philosophy of the people of Ur was to be a part of what God planned to do with His people, Israel.
On the other hand, God’s command was deliberately vague. While what was to be left behind was crystal clear, what lay ahead was distressingly devoid of detail: “… to the land which I will show you.”
Abram did not even know where he would settle. As the writer to the Hebrews put it, “… he went out, not knowing where he was going” (Hebrews 11:8).
The faith to which we are called is not faith in a plan, but faith in a person. Much more important than where he was, God was concerned with who he was, and in Whom he trusted. God is not nearly so concerned with geography as He is with godliness.
The relationship between the command of God to Abram in verse 1 and the incident at Babel in chapter 11 should not be overlooked. At Babel men chose to disregard the command of God to disperse and populate the earth. They strove to find security and renown by banding together and building a great city (11:3-4). They sought blessing in the product of their own labors, rather than in the promise of God.
The command of God to Abram is, in effect, a reversal of what man attempted at Babel. Abram was secure and comfortable in Ur, a great city. God called him to leave that city and to exchange his townhouse for a tent. God promised Abram a great name (what the people of Babel sought, 11:4) as a result of leaving Ur, leaving the security of his relatives, and trusting only in God. How unlike man’s ways are from God’s.
The Covenant with Abram
Technically, the covenant with Abram is not found in chapter 12, but in chapters 15 (verse 18) and 17 (verses 2,4,7,9,10,11,13,14,19,21) where the word covenant appears. It is there that the specific details of the covenant are spelled out. Here in chapter 12 the general features of the covenant are introduced.
Three major promises are contained in verses 2 and 3: a land; a seed; and a blessing. The land, as we have already said, is implied in verse 1. At the time of the call, Abram did not know where this land was. At Shechem, God promised to give ‘this land’ to Abram (12:7). It was not until chapter 15 that a full description of the land was given:
On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, ‘To your descendants I have given this land, from the river of Egypt as far as the great river, the river Euphrates: … ’ (Genesis 15:18).
This land never belonged to Abram in his lifetime, even as God had said (15:13-16). When Sarah died, he had to buy a portion of the land for a burial site (23:3ff.). Those who first read the book of Genesis were about to take possession of the land which was promised Abram. What a thrill that must have been for the people of Moses’ day to read this promise and realize that the time for possession had come.
The second promise of the Abrahamic Covenant was that of a great nation coming from Abram. We have already mentioned the significance of Psalm 127 in relation to the efforts of man at Babel. Real blessing does not come from toil and agonizing hours of labor, but from the fruit of intimacy, namely children. Abraham’s blessing was largely to be seen in his descendants. Here was the basis for the ‘great name’ that God would give to Abram.
This promise demanded faith on the part of Abram, for it was obvious that he was already aged, and that Sarai, his wife, was incapable of having children (11:30). It would be many years before Abram would fully grasp that this heir that God had promised would come from the union of he and Sarai.
The final promise was that of blessing—blessing for him, and blessing through him. Much of Abram’s blessing was to come in the form of his offspring, but there was also the blessing that would come in the form of the Messiah, who would bring salvation to God’s people. To this hope our Lord, the Messiah, spoke, “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day; and he saw it, and was glad” (John 8:56).
Beyond this, Abram was destined to become a blessing to men of every nation. Blessing would come through Abraham in several ways. Those who recognized the hand of God in Abram and his descendants would be blessed by contact with them. Pharaoh, for example, was blessed by exalting Joseph. Men of all nations would be blessed by the Scriptures which, to a great extent, came through the instrumentality of the Jewish people. Ultimately, the whole world was blessed by the coming of the Messiah, who came to save men of every nation, not just the Jews:
Therefore, be sure that it is those who are of faith that are sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘All the nations shall be blessed in you.’ So then those who are of faith are blessed with Abraham, the believer (Galatians 3:7-9)
The Compliance of Abram
I am greatly distressed by the glamorizing of heroes, especially by Christians. The giants of the faith seem to be sterling characters with no evident flaws, with machine-like discipline, and unfaltering faith. I do not find such people in the Bible. The heroes of the Bible are men with ‘like passions’ (James 5:17) and feet of clay. That is my kind of hero. I can identify with men and women like this. And, most important, I can find hope for a person like myself. Little wonder that men like Peter and not Paul, are our heroes, for we can see ourselves in them.
Abram was a man like you and me. Moses’ account of his initial steps of faith makes it evident that much was to be desired, and to be developed in him. God called him in Ur, but Abram did not leave his father’s house or his relatives. Now Abram did leave Ur and go to Haran, but it appears to me that this was only because his pagan father decided to leave Ur. There may well have been political or economic factors which made such a move expedient, apart from any spiritual considerations.
Much of Abram’s first moves were neither purposeful nor pious, but rather were a more passive response to external forces. God providentially led Terah to pull up roots at Ur and to move toward Canaan (11:31). For some reason, Terah and his family stopped short of Canaan, and remained in Haran. Since Abram was unwilling or unable to leave his father’s house, God took Abram’s father in death (11:32). Now Abram obeyed God by faith and entered into the land of Canaan, but only after considerable preparatory steps had been taken by God.
I am saying that Abram obeyed God in faith, but it was a very little faith, and a very late faith. But does such a claim contradict the words of Scripture? Is this inconsistent with the words of the writer to the Hebrews?
By faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed by going out to a place which he was to receive for an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was going (Hebrews 11:8).
At least two things must be said in response to this question. First, the emphasis of Hebrews 11 is on faith. The writer wished to stress here the positive aspects of the Christian’s walk, not his failures. Therefore, the failures are not mentioned. Secondly, consistent with this approach, the author does not stress the timing of Abram’s obedience. He simply wrote, “… Abraham, when he was called, obeyed by going out.” Let us remember that Abram did go to Canaan, just as Moses went to Egypt, but not without considerable pressure from God.
We should not find this discouraging, but consistent with our own reluctance to put our future on the line in active, aggressive, unquestioning faith. Abraham was a man of great faith—after years of testing by God. But at the point of Abram’s call, he was a man whose faith was meager; real, but meager. And if we are honest with ourselves, that is just about where most of us are. In our best moments, our faith is vibrant and vital, but in the moments of testing, it is weak and wanting.
Once in the land of Canaan, the route taken by Abram is noteworthy. It should first of all be said that it was the route we would have expected him to have taken if he were going in that direction. A look at a map of the ancient world of patriarchal times would indicate that Abram traveled the well-trodden roads of his day.135 This route was that commonly traveled by those who engaged in the commerce of those days.
This I believe to be a significant observation, for many Christians seem to feel that God’s way is the way of the bizarre and the unusual. They do not expect God to lead them in a normal, predictable fashion. The lesson we may need to learn is this: very often the way God would have us go is the most sensible way that we would have chosen anyhow. It is only when God wishes us to depart from the expected that we should look for guidance that is spectacular or unusual.
Cassuto has suggested that the places mentioned (Shechem, Bethel, the Negev) are significant. He believes that the land is thus divided into three regions: one extending from the northern border to Shechem, the second from Shechem as far as Bethel, and the third from Bethel to the southern boundary.136
Jacob, after his return from Paddan-aram, came first to Shechem (33:18). Later he was instructed to go up to Bethel (35:1; cf. verse 6). At both Shechem and Bethel he built altars, like Abram, his grandfather (33:20; 35:7).
When Israel went into the land of Canaan, to possess it under Joshua, these same key cities were captured:
So Joshua sent them away, and they went to the place of ambush and remained between Bethel and Ai, on the west side of Ai; … (Joshua 8:9).
Then Joshua built an altar to the Lord, the God of Israel, in Mount Ebal (Joshua 8:30).
Cassuto concludes that Abram’s journey unknowingly outlined the territory which would belong to Israel, and that the places he stopped symbolically forecast the future conquest of the land.137 In an additional comment, Cassuto adds the fact that these places were also religious centers of Canaanite worship.138 In effect, Abram’s actions of building altars and proclaiming the name of the Lord prophesied the coming time when true religious worship would overcome the pagan religion of the Canaanites. While the exact meaning of the expression, ‘called upon the name of the Lord’ may not be known, worship is surely described. It is difficult to believe that Abram’s public act of worship was not noted and viewed with particular interest by the Canaanites. Personally I believe that there is some kind of missionary function being carried out by Abram. As such, it would have been an act flowing from faith.
Characteristics of the Life of Faith
From these events in the early stages of Abram’s growth in grace several principles are found which depict the walk of faith in every age, and certainly in our own.
(1) Abram’s faith was commenced at the initiative of God. The sovereignty of God in salvation is beautifully illustrated in the call of Abram. Abram came from a pagan home. To our knowledge, he had no particular spiritual qualities which drew God to him. God, in His electing grace, chose Abram to follow Him, while he was going his own way. Abram, like Paul, and true believers of every age, would acknowledge that it was God Who sought him out and saved him, on the basis of divine grace.
(2) Abram’s spiritual life continued through the sovereign work of God. God is not only sovereign in salvation, but sovereign in the process of sanctification. Had Abram’s spiritual life depended solely upon his faithfulness, the story of Abram would have ended very quickly. Having called Abram, it was God Who providentially brought Abram to the point of leaving home and homeland and entering Canaan. Thank God our spiritual lives are ultimately dependent upon His faithfulness and not ours.
(3) The Christian’s walk is a pilgrimage. Abraham lived as a pilgrim, looking for the city of God:
“By faith he lived as an alien in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, fellow-heirs of the some promise; for he was looking for the city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Hebrews 11:9-10).
Our permanent home is not to be found in this world, but in the one that is to come, in the presence of our Lord (cf. John 14:1-3). That is the message of the New Testament (cf. Ephesians 2:19, I Peter 1:17, 2:11).
The tent is thus the symbol of the pilgrim. He does not invest heavily in that which will not last. He dare not become too attached to that which he cannot take with him. In this life we cannot expect to fully possess what lies in the future, but only to survey it. The Christian life is not knowing exactly what the future holds, but knowing Him Who holds the future.
(4) The Christian walk is rooted in the reliability of the Word of God. When you stop to think about it, Abram had no concrete, tangible proof that a life of blessing lay ahead, outside of Ur, away from his family. All he had to rely upon was God, Who had revealed Himself to him.
In the final analysis, that is all anyone can have. There are, of course, evidences for the reasonableness of faith, but at the bottom line we simply must believe what God has said to us in His Word. If His ‘Word is not true and reliable, then we, of all men, are most miserable.’
But isn’t that enough? What more should we require than God’s Word? The other day I heard a preacher put it very pointedly. He quoted the shopworn saying, ‘God said it. I believe it. That settles it.’ The preacher said it could be said even shorter. ‘God said it, and that settles it, whether you believe it or not.’ I like that. The Word of God is sufficient for man’s faith.
God has said that all men are sinners, deserving of, and destined to eternal punishment. God sent His Son, Jesus Christ, the One Abram looked for in the future, to die on the cross to suffer the penalty for man’s sin. He alone offers man the righteousness necessary for eternal life. God said it. Do you believe it?
(5) The Christian walk is simply doing what God has told us to do and believing that He is leading us as we do so. God told Abram to leave without knowing where the path of obedience would lead, but believing that God was leading as he went. Do not expect that God will indicate each turn in the road with a clearly marked sign. Do what God tells you to do in the most sensible way you know how. Faith is not developed by living life by some kind of map, but by using God’s Word as a compass, pointing us in the right direction, but challenging us to walk by faith and not by sight.
As Abram went from place to place, the will of God must have seemed like a riddle. But as we look back upon it, we can see that God was leading all the way. No stop along the path was irrelevant or without purpose. Such will be the case as we can look back upon our lives from the vantage point of time.
(6) The Christian walk is a process of growth in grace. We often read of Abraham, the man of faith, supposing that he was always that kind of man. I would hope that our study of the initial period of his life indicates otherwise. How long have you been a Christian, my friend? One year? Five years? Twenty years? Do you realize that it was probably years from the time Abram was called in Ur until he ended up in Canaan. Do you know that after Abram entered the land of Canaan it was another 25 years until he had his son, Isaac? Can you fathom the fact that after leaving Haran for Canaan, God worked in Abram’s life for one hundred years? Christian faith grows. It grows through time and through testing. Such was true in Abram’s 1ife.139 Such is the case with every believer.
May God enable us to grow in grace as we walk the path which He has ordained, and as we continue to study the growth of the faith of Abram over many years.
129 Cyrus Gordon has suggested that the true Ur of Genesis 11:31 is to be found in northern Mesopotamia, probably northeast of Haran. Gordon’s view is discussed, but rejected by Howard F. Vos, Genesis and Archaeology (Chicago: Moody Press, 1963), pp. 63-64. Gordon’s view is held by Harold G. Stiflers, A Commentary on Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), pp. 133-134.
131 “The city of Ur on the lower Euphrates River was a large population center, and has yielded extensive information in the royal tombs which were excavated under the direction of Sir Leonard Wooley and the sponsorship of the British Museum and the museum of Pennsylvania University. Although no direct evidence of Abraham’s residence is available, it is significant that the city of Ur reflects a long history preceding Abraham’s time, possessing an elaborate system of writing, educational facilities, mathematical calculations, business and religious records, and art. This points to the fact that Ur may have been one of the largest and wealthiest cities in the Tigris-Euphrates area when Abraham emigrated northward to Haran.” Schultz, “Abraham,” ZPEB, I, p. 22.
133 “Although it may appear from a superficial reading of the account in Genesis (11:31-12:1) that God called Abraham while in Haran, thereby contradicting Stephen’s account that God called Abraham in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran, the two accounts can be harmonized by noting that Genesis 11:27-32 is a parenthetical account of Terah introduced by a waw disjunctive, and that Genesis 12:1, introduced by a waw consecutive, carries on the main narrative which was discontinued in Gen. 11:26.” Bruce Waltke, Unpublished Class Notes, Dallas Theological Seminary, pp. 14-15.
“Outside the Land, it was given to Abraham only to hear the Divine voice (v. 1); but here, in the land destined to be specifically dedicated to the service of the Lord, he was also vouchsafed the privilege of a Divine vision.” U. Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Genesis (Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, 1964), II, p. 328. We must remember that Cassuto, as a Jew, did not regard the New Testament to be authoritative. Thus, he seems to have rejected Stephen’s words flatly.
137 “Now we can understand why the Torah stressed, in all their detail, Abram’s journeys on entering the land of Canaan, at first as far as Schechem, and subsequently up to Ai-Bethel. Scripture intended to present us here, through the symbolic conquest of Abram, with a kind of forecast of what would happen to his descendants later.” Cassuto, Genesis, II, pp. 305-306.
139 “. . . Abram’s early history is partly that of his gradual disentanglement from country, kindred and father’s house, a process not completed until the end of chapter 13.” Derek Kidner, Genesis (Chicago: InterVarsity Press, 1967), p. 113.
“Abram’s life is a growth in faith developed under delayed fulfillment of divine promises. He is promised a seed and when that seed is delayed, he must somehow see meaning in that delay and learn faith in God. When he is promised a land, and when that land is not given, he must look beyond the promise to its Maker so that he may understand. When he is commanded to sacrifice Isaac, he must obey with a willing heart of love, yet somehow see through to balance the command with the promise of the seed of a nation and leave the outcome to God and to find in God all sufficiency. Through all of his experiences he must come to see God as the origin of all that will endure.” Stagers, Genesis, p . 135.