It is important to set the following narrative in historical context. It has been impossible to fix the dates of any of the events related in chapters 1-11. That is one reason why there are such fierce arguments concerning those dates. But counting backward from information in the Bible, and confirming that evidence with a good deal of archaeological data, Abraham can be dated with confidence at approximately 2,000 B.C. That is, he lived as many years before the birth of our Savior as we live after it. Indeed, it is highly interesting how much of the Abraham narrative can be shown to fit neatly into life as we know it to have been in that part of the world at that time. We know much more about the world in which he lived than scholars did even just two generations ago. The older, skeptical view of this history was based on an evolutionary theory of human history and of the Bible in which it was assumed that since human history moves from the primitive to the sophisticated Abraham’s culture must have been much less civilized than it appears to be in the biblical narrative. The influential German scholar of the 19th century, Julius Wellhausen, who popularized this view, argued that Moses could not have written the Pentateuch in the 14th century B.C., 600 years after Abraham, because writing had not been invented by that time.
However, now we know that the world in which Abraham lived was a world in many ways like our own. His was already an older civilization. Nations carried on voluminous international trade, regulated and taxed by government bureaucracies. The people were widely literate and often in more than one language. Abraham, as we know him from the Bible, fits into this picture neatly: a wealthy businessman, able to travel, to develop new commercial ties, and to maintain his position in an international economy.
We even have a description of Canaan from a near contemporary, Sinuhe, an Egyptian nobleman who, in the 20th century B.C., became the governor of a large Amorite tribe of the same highlands of Canaan where Abraham was to spend most of his time. Sinuhe wrote about Canaan:
There were figs in it and vines,
More plentiful than water was its wine,
Copious was its honey, plenteous its oil;
All fruits were upon its trees.
Barley was there and spelt,
Without end all cattle.
This was the rich and fertile country to which Abraham came when God called him.
v.1 As we read in 15:7, Abram was called while still in Ur, before the family moved to Haran. So this was either a second call, summoning Abram from Haran or, as some English translations do, we should translate the verb “had said.” This summons is an act of divine election. As we learn elsewhere, Abram was not a man of faith until God called him. There were other faithful people in the world of that day – think of Melchizedek, whom we will meet in chapter 14 – but God called this one man out of idolatrous Ur to walk with him. And, as so often in the history of salvation, the divine call came suddenly, out of the blue. [Sarna, 88] Then, as now, encounter with God changes everything! However, as we said last time, Abram was somewhat slow to obey God’s command. There are no exemplars of faith in the Bible without feet of clay. That is what so dramatically distinguishes the Lord Jesus Christ: he alone never failed either in faith or obedience.
Take note of the command Abram is given and that he obeys. Calvin summarizes it this way: “I command you to go forth with closed eyes…until, having renounced your country, you shall have given yourself wholly to me.” [Cited in Waltke, 205] That is the nature of faith and will be throughout the Bible and Christian experience.
v.2 In the ancient world a man’s name was not simply a moniker by which he was known, but a revelation of his character. To make Abram’s name great would be to make him a man celebrated for a superior character. [Sarna, 89]
v.3 We will return to vv. 2 and 3, but for now notice that the word “bless,” which occurred five times in chapters 1-11, occurs five times in these two verses! Here, too, is the explanation for perhaps the most extraordinary fact of the modern world of nations and politics: that Israel is the only nation in the world today that is governing itself in the same territory, under the same name, and with the same religion and language as it did 3,000 years ago.
v.4 Abram’s nephew Lot volunteered to accompany his uncle. Lot mentioned at this point because we will encounter him in a later episode. The text draws a veil over Abram’s first 75 years; what matters are the years that follow his coming to know Yahweh.
v.5 Abram was a substantial man with substantial wealth.
v.6 Pagans worshipped at such great trees. Their height suggested a connection with heaven and their fertility gods were thought to prefer such a location. The connection between trees and fertility worship explains the prohibition in the Law of Moses (Deut. 16:21) against planting trees in the temple precincts. Abram still worshipped according to the forms of his time, but the content of that worship had radically changed.
Shechem was in the center of the country and one of the important cities in the central mountainous region of the country.
v.7 The Lord made the promise of the land, but there were obstacles. First, Abram had no children and, second, there were other people already inhabiting the land. “Canaanites,” as frequently later, refers to all pre-Israelite inhabitants of the Promised Land. The “at that time” is another indication of later editing of the book of Genesis, as obviously the Canaanites were in the land both when Abram arrived and when Moses wrote this narrative. The “at that time” was added by a later editor at a time when the Canaanites were no longer in the land. There are a number of such editorial additions in the Pentateuch, no doubt the work of later writers of the OT canon.
We aren’t told how the Lord spoke to Abram in v. 1 but once in Canaan the Lord appeared to him in a vision or a theophany. There will be two more such divine appearances in the history of Abraham (17:1; 18:1).
v.9 Abram continued to look for a place to live, one that didn’t bring him into hostile contact with those already living in the land. By the end of v. 9 Abram had journeyed through the whole land from north to south.
What an epoch in human history it was when God called this man and he left his home in Ur and then in Haran to journey to Canaan. This man, otherwise a man like any other, certainly no one whose past held any promise of his future greatness, became by the grace of God one of the two or three most consequential men ever to live in the world. He is the great patriarch of biblical history and the great exemplar of faith and of salvation by faith. We know more of his life than anyone else in biblical history except Moses, David, Paul, and the Lord Jesus himself.
He will be called in the Bible “the friend of God,” and “the father of all those who believe in Jesus Christ.” Jesus, in a particularly striking statement in the gospel of John, said that Abraham was a believer in him already in his own lifetime, two thousand years before the Lord came into the world. “Abraham rejoiced to see my day and was glad.” Paul will use Abraham’s life story as his crowning demonstration that men are made right with God by faith in Christ; the author of the letter to the Hebrews will use Abraham as an example of what it means to live by faith. Indeed, throughout the remainder of the Bible, God himself will refer to himself, and many times, as simply “The God of Abraham.”
And all of that begins here. Some years ago I was privileged to hear a sermon, perhaps one of the very last sermons that John Stott, the Anglican evangelical leader, preached in the United States. We heard he was going to preach at the First Presbyterian Church in Chattanooga where I happened to be and so several of us ran down to hear him. It was a splendid sermon on the Christian faith as a missionary faith. His points were that the God of the OT was a missionary God; the Christ of the Gospels was a missionary Messiah; the Holy Spirit of the book of Acts was a missionary Spirit; and the church of the NT Epistles and of Revelation was a missionary church. But he began with Gen. 12:1-3 and said of these verses that they are the “most unifying” verses in the Bible. They are the first specific unfolding of God’s purpose for the world. The rest of the Bible will prove to be the outworking of verses 2 and 3.
There are several ways in which this is true. In the broadest sense we begin here with an individual, from whom is made a nation, by which nation the Lord will reach the entire world. In that sense vv. 2 and 3 are the Bible in sum. Or you can think of this way. We have here the promise of a people, a people who will carry forward the seed, the very seed of whom we read first in Genesis 3, the seed who would eventually crush the head of the serpent. But you can’t have a people, not one that will last for ages, unless they are formed into a nation. And to have a nation there must be three things: a land, a constitution, and a government. The books of Genesis through Joshua are concerned with the acquisition of the land and the constitution of the people (Canaan and the Law of Moses). Judges through Kings are concerned with Israel’s government, her king. However you understand the details, the promise that God makes here to Abram is the template for the rest of world history and for the progress of the kingdom of God to its consummation.
We have seen the fulfillment of this promise come to pass in many ways all over the world; we are seeing it coming to pass today, but we still await its consummation when all the nations of the world will have been blessed through Abram.
The covenant that God made with Abraham, first announced here in vv. 2-3, has compressed within it the entire story of salvation — for Jesus Christ is later presented to us as the seed of Abraham through whom the nations will be blessed. In other words, in the life of Abraham, we are face to face with the greatest themes of biblical revelation, set out in flesh and blood in the personal history of this great man, a man whose world, in all really important matters, was the same as ours, a man who inhabited the same spiritual world as we do, with the same principles, laws, opportunities, dangers, promises, and requirements. He is the prototypical Christian in the Bible, with no peers except perhaps Moses, David, and the Apostle Paul.
As the founder of the Jewish race and the Israelite people, as the most significant ancestor of Jesus Christ, who is often identified as the descendant or seed of Abraham, as, therefore, the sire of the Judeo-Christian tradition, there are very few people in human history with a claim to importance or greatness equal to Abraham. Islam reveres him as does Judaism and Christianity. He is one of the very few greatest men of human history and of the history of salvation. But, more than that, much more, he was and his life would prove to be one of the central vehicles or instruments by which Holy Scripture reveals to us the way, the truth and the life.
So let us begin there: with Abraham as the exemplar of the Christian, the father of all who believe in Christ.
Already in these opening verses of his history we are being taught the nature of the Christian faith and the Christian life. The themes introduced here we will have ample opportunity to elaborate in coming Lord’s Days, but we can at least take note of them here at the very beginning and I want to mention three of them in particular.
- First, every Christian life, every individual’s salvation, begins with the call of God.
Where did this great man come from? Why does he suddenly appear as the centerpiece of biblical history? Was he a man who all his life had loved God and sought God and for his reward was made the father of a great nation? No! He was born into an idolater’s family in Ur of the Chaldeans, so we read in Joshua 24:3. No doubt he was raised in that family to worship idols as his parents did — perhaps he was a devotee of the moon god Sin as, apparently, his father Terah was — and no doubt he was content to be an idolater. See Abraham in Ur bowing down in some temple to some idol and see him doing it again and again and again through the first seventy-five years of his life. We have absolutely no reason to think that he was not content to be an idolater like everyone around him. What completely changed this man and all of history with him was the voice, the call, the summons of God. He would have lived out his life and died and his name fallen into perpetual oblivion had God not singled him out and spoken to him.
We have no idea how that summons came, though we know it came to him when he was still in his father’s house in Ur. But like multitudes of people after him, he received a divine summons and his life was turned upside down. As the Puritan, John Arrowsmith, quaintly put it:
“Election having once pitched upon a man, it will find him out, and call him home, wherever he be. It called Zaccheus out of accursed Jericho; Abraham, out of idolatrous Ur of the Chaldeans; Nicodemus, and Paul, from the college of the Pharisees, Christ’s sworn enemies; Dionysius, and Damaris, out of superstitious Athens. In whatsoever dung-hills God’s jewels are hid, election will both find them out, and fetch them out.” [BOT (Jan 1983) 6]
And so with every Christian and so with us — whether we have been Christians all our lives or heard God’s voice for the first time only recently. The Christian life begins and continues with God’s speaking to us and our listening to and responding to what he says. God did not speak but once to Abram; he called him and gave him his marching orders, but then, when he had arrived in Canaan, the Lord appeared to him again and told him still more of his plan and purpose for Abram’s life. And so it will continue throughout the Bible and in the history of salvation that follows. People will hear God’s summons and they will respond in faith and obedience. It is the story of Moses, of David, of the prophets, of the disciples of the Lord Jesus, of Paul, and of countless multitudes of those who have come after. The Lord spoke to them and they responded. It is what continues to happen today, countless times every day all over the world.
And so let us all be reminded, brothers and sisters. This is what the Christian life is — a hearing of God’s voice and giving answer to his summons. Which is to say, entirely unlike the other religious visions of the world, the salvation that Christianity preaches and proclaims and offers to the world is mediated to human lives in an actual communion with God, a conversation between God himself, the living God, and an individual soul. It is not a calculation of merit and reward, it is a personal relationship between the High God and a lowly and sinful human being. That is what is so utterly extraordinary about it. And the question we must always be asking ourselves is whether this is my Christian life? This conversation with God, God speaking and my giving answer to what he has said to me, and even if it is so in the general, has it been so today? Was it so yesterday that my life was a conversation with God? Is it so for you?
The 19th century Scottish lay evangelist, Brownlow North, is an interesting case of the same phenomenon. He too was summoned by the Lord out of his comfortable idolatry; he too was slow to respond, in fact he almost didn’t respond when he heard the Lord’s voice because there was someone else in the room, but he eventually answered the divine summons and then spent the rest of his life teaching the gospel to others far and near. North once published a little pamphlet entitled Six Short Rules for Young Christians. The first two of these rules read as follows:
“Never neglect daily private prayer; and, when you pray, remember that God is present, and that he hears your prayers.”
“Never neglect daily private Bible-reading; and when you read, remember that God is speaking to you, and that you are to believe and act upon what He says. I believe all backsliding begins with the neglect of these two rules.” [K. Moody Stuart, Bio, 109]
Why? Because that is the Christian life: God speaking, we listening and responding. We are not told here how God spoke to Abram – he communicates to human hearts so many different ways – still today sometimes in dreams (we hear about this a lot in the Muslim world), more often he speaks to people as they are reading his Word, suddenly the words on the page become the living voice of God himself. And sometimes the truth simply appears in the heart; the mist clears and there stands the Lord and the truth! That is salvation and that is the Christian life. Just as it was with Abraham, so it will be with you and me and for every other Christian whoever lives in the world. Our salvation, our relationship with God is carried on by personal conversation: his speaking and our listening and responding to him. That is the true Christian life and nothing else.
- Second, God’s call never leaves a man or woman, boy or girl where it finds him or her.
This man, from an idolater’s family, had no knowledge of the one true God. Those around him and in his family worshipped many Gods who were, though they would have hotly denied it, creations of their own imaginations, gods of their own devising. And then, somehow, we know not how — for the Bible did not yet exist — God spoke to this man and everything suddenly was completely different. Abraham woke up and found himself in a different world!
As Sheldon Vanauken put it in describing his own first hearing of the voice of God, “When you are in the jungle, and you hear a hyena growl, you might mistake it for a lion. But, when you hear a lion roar, you know damn well it’s a lion!”
Abram suddenly knew; he had heard the self-authenticating voice of God – he could hardly have told you how but he knew – that Sin, the moon god, was no god at all. He knew that he had been all his life committed to illusions. He found himself at odds with his family and friends because he knew things they did not and had to do things they did not and could not understand. He opened his eyes each morning and wondered how in the world he had missed for so long what was now so obvious to him. This is the reality and the nature of conversion or the new creation or the new birth, NT names for what had happened to Abram. He saw his life in utterly different terms than he was accustomed to. But that was only the beginning. When God spoke to him, he summoned Abram to another country far away, to leave behind family and friends and business and perhaps the accumulated property of generations of his family. He commanded him to do that without telling him precisely where he was to go or what was to become of him. And suddenly Abram found himself on the road to who knows where. The divine voice, as it were, picked him up and set him down hundreds of miles away a different man in a different place with a different life. His nice tidy world was in shambles as off he went to Canaan following the command of God. He found himself, a man of 75, used to a comfortable, probably a very luxurious home, living in a tent for goodness sake.
And so it must be, will be for every Christian. God will not leave you where he finds you. He is interested in taking you places you would never have thought to go and in having you doing things you never thought to do. The Christian church is literally full to the brim with people who are doing things with their lives they never could have imagined themselves doing before they heard the voice of God.
I know women, now happily the mother of a number of children who once hated the very idea of motherhood, but God spoke to them and everything changed. We’ve read the autobiographical account of Rosaria Butterfield, a Lesbian English professor at Syracuse, comfortable in her way of life, enjoying success in her chosen profession, utterly uninterested in Christianity, who, a few years later, found herself a home-schooling mother and pastor’s wife. I’ve told you before of Eta Linnemann, the German Professor of NT, the first woman ever to enter that very exclusive and august fraternity. She had reached the pinnacle of her profession. And she thought like most other German New Testament professors thought in the 1960s and 1970s. And then God spoke to her. That is how she describes it: “Finally God himself spoke to my heart by means of a Christian brother’s words.”
“He immediately took my life into his saving grasp and began to transform it radically. My destructive addictions were replaced by a hunger and thirst for his Word and for fellowship with Christians. I was able to recognize sin clearly as sin rather than merely make excuses for it as was my previous habit. I can still remember the delicious joy I felt when for the first time black was once more black and white was once more white; the two ceased to pool together as indistinguishable gray.” [Historical Criticism of the Bible, 18]
And a few years later she was a missionary in Indonesia! Could she have ever imagined the revolution in her life, the leaving of her homeland, the completely new set of associations, the forsaking of all that she had sought and obtained at such great cost in the academic world? No more than Abraham could have imagined himself on the road to Canaan, even one day before the sound of the Almighty’s voice broke upon his soul.
Brothers and sisters, don’t be surprised that your life is often turned upside down, that God takes you across difficult country, that he sometimes forces you to leave behind much that was once important to you. He summoned you precisely because he intends to take you someplace else. That is the Christian life and always and everywhere the Christian life.
- And, finally, God’s call is always to a future that cannot be seen.
Think, now, and visualize Abraham’s situation when God spoke to him. He was to go, he knew not where; to do, he knew not what; to receive a promise which, as he and Sarah were already past expecting a child, seemed incapable of fulfillment. And off he went!
The Bible has a word for that behavior: faith! And from the beginning to the end of every Christian life, this is what is supremely required. And here is the power and glory of faith in God and faith in Christ. Look what it makes of a person. It made of an idolater in Ur the patriarch of monotheist faith. It made of a man settled in his ways a pilgrim. It made of a childless old man the father of a great nation.
An early church father put it this way:
“Give me a passionate man, a hot-headed man, and one that is headstrong and unmanageable; and with faith as a grain of mustard seed, I will, by degrees make that man as quiet as a lamb. Then give me a covetous man, an avaricious man, a miserly man; and with a little faith working like leaven in his heart, I will yet make him a perfect spendthrift for the church of Christ and for the poor. Then give me one who is mortally afraid of pain; and one who all his days is in bondage through fear of death; and let the spirit of faith once enter and take its seat in his heart and in his imagination, and he shall, in a short time, despise all your crosses and flames….Then show me a man with an unclean heart and I will undertake, by his faith in Christ, to make him whiter than snow, till he will not know himself to be the same man.” [In Whyte, BC IV, 109-110]
Look what a titan faith made of Abraham. It made him the friend of God and the father of all who believe in Christ, a great nation no man can number! Abraham will waver from time to time; he will be slow to obey as Christians so often are. But once faith has got hold of man or a woman, he or she can never go back to the old world, the old life, the life of only sight and sense. Once one has heard the sound of God’ voice, once he or she has seen the world as it really is, there can be no turning back to life with no God, no great promises, no purpose, and no Promised Land.
After all, the Christian lives in the same world as the unbeliever. He can no more see God or heaven with his eyes than can any non-Christian. He can no more see his sins lifted off his conscience and being erased from his record than an unbeliever can see them still written in God’s book in indelible ink. But God has spoken and faith knows it’s all true and finds its confirmations and demonstrations of the truth that God has spoken every day, demonstrations that sight knows nothing of.
I’ve known, you’ve known people who claim to have faith but never act on it, never do anything like what Abraham did in following God and forsaking his world. They say they believe the world is passing away but they live as if it would exist forever. They say they believe that God will give us the desires of our hearts if we delight ourselves in him, but they seem to find their delight in the world not in God.
No, faith is no small thing. It’s a huge thing; it’s a most difficult thing. In fact it’s a thing so difficult that it is frankly impossible apart from the gift and power of God. That is what the life of Abraham shows us and is intended to show us. As Adolphe Monod put it, “Faith is nothing less than the power of God placed at the disposal of man.” Let us not sell its power short to ourselves, brothers and sisters. We are always doing that! We are always living by sight because we put so little stock in faith. “But faith is the victory that overcomes the world.” “With faith as small as a mustard seed we can say to this mountain be cast into the sea.” and it shall be so. See what faith made of Abram! He heard God’s voice and he did what he was told and the whole world was changed as a result. Let us do what he did and be what he was: a great believer in God. Faith is, as Luther was wont to say, “nothing else but a sure and steadfast looking to Christ.” You spend your life, I’ll spend mine, everyday looking at Christ and listening for his voice, and we will find ourselves men and women who go places and do things we never imagined we would and who leave a mark on this world as we are passing through!