Text: Genesis 12:1-9
From Abram’s origins in Ur and Haran among pagans, we see where God breaks into his life. We are given no reason for God’s choice of Abram. This makes the choice all the more wondrous. Nonetheless, just as God breaks through to us with His grace to call us to Himself, so also God broke through to Abram in grace to call him to a promise of immeasurable wonder. The Details are made apparent in our passage.
In Genesis 12:1 God gives specific instructions to Abram. The instructions are simple. He is to depart his country where self-worship is supreme. He is to depart his kindred who worship false gods. He is to depart his father’s house where there is comfort and complacency. He is to travel to the land that God would show him. In other words, he must leave what is sinful and comfortable to embrace the promise of God that he knows little about.
In verse 2, God makes His promises clear but at the same time they seem difficult to believe. God promises Abram that He will make him a great nation even when he is childless. In this God will be glorified by doing that which by nature is deemed impossible. God promises that He will bless him even when society would account him cursed. God chooses those whom He will bless. He promises to make Abram’s name great when he is from an insignificant family. This also stands in contrast to the people of Babel who sought to make a name for themselves. God will make Abram’s name great, and through that, He will make Abram a blessing.
The blessings continue in verse 3. God promises to bless those who bless Abram. When a person does good to God’s people, God’s blessing comes to him or her. He promises to curse those who curse Abram. Doing evil to God’s people brings its own punishment. The most significant promise is the last one. God promises that in Abram all the families of the earth shall be blessed. How will this be done? God’s plan of redemption is beginning to appear more clearly. God has chosen Abram to be the ancestor of the mediator between God and man. When Messiah would come, all of the promises named before this one would be fulfilled. It is here that God begins giving us a picture of how He will restore humanity to himself.
Who goes with him?
In verses 4-5, we are introduced to the some of the people who will direct the narrative over the pages of Genesis. First, there is Lot. Lot is Abram’s nephew by his deceased brother Haran. There are several possible reasons why Lot may go. With Abram being childless, he is Abram’s most likely heir. By leaving his family, Abram will have no one to inherit his estate and care for his widow if he should die far from home. Lot may also have recognized Abram’s unique status in his relationship with God. If he knew of God’s promise to Abram, he likely wanted to share in the blessing. We know that Lot is counted among the righteous of the Old Testament by Peter in 2 Peter 2:7-8. However, in bringing Lot, Abram is in partial disobedience to God’s command to leave his father’s house. Bringing his wife Sarai is more reasonable. As his wife, she is bound to him as one flesh. For her to follow him is logical.
In addition to these two members of his family, their possessions come with them. These possessions likely include both livestock and inanimate objects. The most important word with regard to these possessions is the word all. Thus, there will be no need for a return trip. When God calls us, we should respond in an all or nothing approach. To quote the hymn, there is “no turning back.”
Lastly, there is a mention of the people acquired in Haran. In our world today, we look on slavery with a very dim view. Our view, however, has been tainted by a form of slavery that bears little resemblance to that in the ancient world. When we think of slavery, we conjure images of people who are kidnapped and sold against their wills to work for life to another person. While this was true of some slaves in the ancient world, it is not true of all. Some voluntarily enslaved themselves to pay off debt or to ensure a more stable situation. Remember how the prodigal son in Luke 15 thought to return to his father to become a slave. Whatever the circumstances, Abram has a large collection of people with him. Later, in Genesis 14 we are introduced to 318 of these individuals. One of his servants, Eliezer of Damascus, even manages his household. When this number is taken into account, the vast size of Abram’s household becomes clear. These people enjoy great blessings from God through their relationship with Abram.
Where does he go?
Abram has set out for Canaan and has arrived. Just as Babylon is used throughout Scripture as a symbol for a culture in rebellion to God, Canaan is used as symbol for God’s greater promise – a place where God would dwell in perfect harmony with His people forever.
In this land of promise, Abram first stops near Shechem. Shechem was a prominent Canaanite city at the time of Abram and for centuries later. It is mentioned elsewhere in the Bible nearly 60 times. It is also mentioned in the Amarna Letters and Ebla tablets that date to roughly this time period. It is noteworthy that Abram is not in Shechem but near it. He is traveling with a large number of people and we are given the reminder that the Canaanites were also in the land. In other words, Canaan was already crowded, and the residents were not likely to be welcoming to a man with a huge group of people traveling with him. It is here that God confirms that Canaan is the land of promise. God promises the land to Abram’s offspring. This is a promise that takes quite a bit of faith to believe because Abram has no children at the age of 75.
The building of an altar also bears some significance. It shows Abram’s commitment to worshipping God. It also could stand as a memorial to where God appeared to him with a promise. This custom was common not only of God’s people but also among pagans. Whenever a person believed that God or a false god appeared to them, they would mark the site with memorial. In the Book of Joshua, this occurs seven times.
He continues to move from Shechem throughout the land. Despite it being promised to his offspring, he lives as a vagabond. His second dwelling is between Bethel and Ai. Bethel is mentioned frequently (over 60 times) in Scripture as a place where God was worshipped by his people. Ai, in contrast, is mentioned on only a few times. Most notably it was one of the few cities to be sacked by the Israelites in the Book of Joshua. The mention of Shechem, Bethel, and Ai would have resonated strongly to the Israelites who were taking possession of the land who were the original audience of this book.
Once again, Abram builds an altar. This time its purpose is clear. He is worshipping God. It mentions him calling on the name of the Lord. Throughout Genesis, this phrase is used to indicate that person was worshipping the one true God in spirit and in truth. Abram is not worshipping the gods of his fathers or of his neighbors the Canaanites. This is a sign that he and his family are on the path of God.
From here, Abram journeys on to the Negeb. The Negeb is a semiarid region in southern Canaan that is largely an inhospitable wilderness. Why would Abram go here? He is likely looking for a place in the land that is not so crowded. His wandering seems very uncharacteristic of a man whose heirs will possess the whole land. Timing is everything. Just as we are promised a land that will ours to be possess (i.e. the Kingdom of God), so Abram was promised Canaan. In the same way, as Abram had to wait to possess the land, so we must wait to possess the coming Kingdom with Christ.
From the example of Abram, we also become engrafted into his offspring. Abram believed in God’s promise and put action behind it in obedience. We must likewise trust in God’s promise and act in obedience. Together with Abram we look to the same promise – the promise of his offspring, Jesus Christ. The only difference is which side of Calvary and the empty tomb that we stand on.