GENESIS 1-11. THE CONTEXT
Genesis 1-11 tells the story of human history from the beginning to Abram. It is a dismal history that includes the Fall (chapter 3), the murder of Abel (4:1-16), wickedness and the Flood (chapters 6-8), Noah’s nakedness and the cursing of Canaan (9:18-27), and the story of Babel (11:1-9).
These chapters include five curses (3:15, 17; 4:11; 8:21; 9:25), but “after each act of divine judgment there are corresponding acts of grace.” (Spina, 22). The man and woman do not die immediately. God marks Cain, but does not kill him. God preserves Noah, his family, and the animals from the flood. Noah cursed Canaan (9:26-27), but Canaan lives to become a nation (10:15-20). “However, the pattern breaks down with the Babel story. There is no corresponding act of grace in that episode” (Spina, 22-23).
Chapter 10 lists the descendants of Noah and his sons (Shem, Ham, and Japheth), and is often referred to as the Table of Nations because the descendants of each son become various nations. In the story of Abram’s call, God promises Abram, “I will make of you a great nation” and “I will bless those who bless you” (12:3). The close proximity of these promises and the Table of Nations (chapter 10) cannot be coincidental. God singles out Abram for a special call, but will use Abram as a vehicle to bless the rest of the human race.
Chapter 11 lists the descendants of Shem (11:10-26) and Terah, Abram’s father (11:27-32). Of particular interest are the following:
• Terah had three sons, Abram, Nahor, and Haran (11:27).
• Haran was born in Ur (11:28), which suggests that Abram was probably born there too.
• Haran was the father of Lot, who plays an important role in the Genesis story (chapters 13-14, 19), but Haran died in Ur before his extended family moved from Ur to Haran (Haran was the name of one of Terah’s sons, but it was also the name of the city to which Terah and his family moved).
• Abram married Sarai prior to moving to the city of Haran (11:29, 31), so we can assume that he lived in Ur for a significant number of years – that he thought of Ur as his hometown.
• Terah took his extended family, including Abram, Sarai, and Lot, to Haran, where they settled and where Terah died (11:31-32).
If chapters 1-11 present a dismal history, chapters 12-50 present a brighter future characterized by God’s promises and blessings (although the people in these chapters remain quite human and capable of sin – sin that has consequences).
In 12:1-3 we are presented with a fivefold blessing that counters the five curses of chapters 1-11 (Mathews, Vol. 1a, 51; Vol. 1b, 105). This is a lovely symmetry that reveals the balance between God’s judgment and God’s salvation work – a balance always favoring salvation. That is not to say that salvation will be universal, but rather that God is always at work redeeming his creation. Blessing rather than cursing is God’s plan and preference.
A review of the geography is in order. Both Ur and Haran are cities in Mesopotamia, the area bounded by the Euphrates River on the south and the Tigris River on the north. These two rivers run from northwest to southeast, separated by a large wedge of fertile land, and empty into the Persian Gulf. The area bounded by the rivers constitutes a significant portion of modern Iraq (in the south) and Syria (in the north) and lies several hundred miles east of the Mediterranean Sea – east of modern Lebanon and Israel. It was the home of several well-developed early cultures, including Babylonia.
• Ur was located on the Euphrates River about 150 miles (240 km.) northwest of the Persian Gulf (southern Mesopotamia). It was a major city-state with an advanced culture.
• Haran was on the Balikh River, a tributary of the Euphrates, and was located some 600+ miles (1000 km.) northwest of Ur (northern Mesopotamia). It, too, was a major city with an advanced culture.
• Canaan (see v. 12:5) was roughly the area that would later be occupied later by Israel – from the Sea of Galilee on the north to the Dead Sea on the south – from the Mediterranean Sea on the west to the Jordan River on the east. Numbers 34:1-12 provides a detailed description of Canaan’s boundaries (see also Judges 1:1-36; Ezekiel 47:15-20; 48:1-28).
The distance from Ur to Haran, 600+ miles (1000 km.), is substantial. However, Terah’s family would travel slowly, stopping to rest along the way, taking advantage of grass and water for their sheep (see 13:5).
The journey from Haran to Canaan is another 400 miles (650 km). Abram will also do a considerable amount of travel even after arriving in Canaan – to the Negeb, a desert area southwest of the Dead Sea (12:9) – to Egypt (12:10) – back to the Negeb (13:1) – north to Bethel and Ai (13:3) – and then a bit south to Hebron (13:18).
GENESIS 12:1-3. GO TO THE LAND THAT I WILL SHOW YOU
1Now Yahweh said to Abram, “Get out of your country, and from your relatives, and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you. 2 I will make of you a great nation. I will bless you and make your name great. You will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you. All of the families of the earth will be blessed in you.”
“Now Yahweh said to Abram, “Get out of your country, and from your relatives, and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.”(v. 1). This verse is the great turning point in human history. As noted above, chapters 1-11 present a dismal human history, but chapters 12-50 are characterized by God’s promise and blessing.
“Get out of your country, and from your relatives, and from your father’s house” (v. 1b). There is a progressive movement at work here. God first mentions Abram’s country – the place that Abram has called home for 75 years (v. 4). Then God mentions Abram’s kindred – his extended family. Finally, God mentions Abram’s “father’s house” – his immediate family. In a series of concentric circles, Abram’s country would be the large, outer circle. His kindred would be the middle, medium circle. His father’s house would be the small center circle. It would be difficult in that patriarchal culture to leave one’s country. It would be more difficult to leave one’s extended family. It would be wrenching to leave one’s immediate family.
In a patriarchal culture with no governmental welfare system to serve as a safety net for people in trouble, one’s family is one’s security. If you are ill or injured, your family will take care of you. If you need help, your family will lend a helping hand. The immediate family (father, mother, spouse, sister, brother, child) is your first defense against a harsh world. The extended family is your next layer of defense. Neighbors will also help in time of need, knowing that they will receive help in return as they need it. Old fashioned barn raisings on the American prairies come to mind.
When God says, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you,” he is telling Abram to let go of the security on which he has depended all his life and to trust God to provide for the future. He is requiring Abram to take a leap of faith into the darkness, a leap that many people would think reckless. If Abram abandons his family and God fails to provide, he will be in serious trouble.
Westermann and others have argued it would have been easy for a nomad (a wanderer) to leave his home, but that is not consistent with this story (Wenham, 274). Abram might be a nomad, but his nomadic wanderings have centered for 75 years around one of two places – Ur in southern Mesopotamia or Haran in northern Mesopotamia. His life for all of his 75 years has been centered on his country, his kindred, and his father’s house. To suggest that Abram’s nomadic status makes it easy for him to uproot himself from his family seems like scholarly over-think.
“to the land that I will show you” (v. 1c). In verse 5a, Abram sets out for Canaan in obedience to God’s command, but in verse 1c God said only that he will show Abram where to go, leaving the destination unnamed. God seldom lays out a complete roadmap when he calls us. He usually specifies only the next stop along the way – and often tells us only the direction to start moving. It is frustrating to be on the receiving end of such a call. When dealing with God, only faith can save us from anxiety.
“I will make of you a great nation” (v. 2a). Keep in mind the proximity of this promise to the Table of Nations in chapter 10, where the text lists many nations. Unlike ordinary nations, Abram will become a great nation, one that stands above the crowd.
To be a great nation, Abram must have people and land. At present he has neither, and neither he nor Sarai are of the usual child-bearing age. However, elderly men are more often able to father a child than elderly women are to conceive a child. God’s promise at this point is to Abram rather than to Abram and Sarai, and God could honor it by giving Abram children through another woman, something that would not seem out of place in a patriarchal culture. However, as we will see in chapter 16 where Sarai invites Abram to have a child by her slave-girl, Hagar, this is not God’s intent. God will make that clear to Abraham (God changes Abram’s name at 17:5) in chapter 17, and will make it clear to Sarah (God changes Sarai’s name at 17:15) in chapter 18.
“I will bless you” (v. 2b). God’s first promise is a solitary blessing, having to do with Abram alone. The other three blessings of verses 2-3 involve others: God will make Abram’s name great so that he will be a blessing to others (v. 2c). Those who bless Abram will be blessed (v. 3a). And in Abram all the families of the earth will be blessed (v. 3b). God’s blessing of Abram is unique to Abram, but it also serves a wider purpose.
Blessings are important in the Bible. Blessings are assumed to have power to confer good things on the one who is blessed. Genesis tells of people blessing God (24:48), by which blessing means the offering of worship or gratitude to God. It also tells of people blessing other people. The classic blessing story is that of Isaac blessing Jacob instead of Esau (chapter 27), a blessing that confers Isaac’s authority on Jacob – a blessing that cannot be revoked (27:33-38).
But the blessings spoken of most frequently in Genesis are those conferred by God on people (1:28; 5:2; 9:1; 12:2-3; 17:16, 20; 22:17-18; 24:1; 25:11; 26:3-4, 12, 24; 35:9; 39:5). Abraham will become wealthy (12:5, 16, 20; 13:2, 6; 24:35), but will not be blessed with a large family.
Blessings given by God are assumed to be enduring, but God reserves the right to turn a blessing into a curse if the blessed one turns out to be undeserving (Malachi 2:1-3).
“make your name great” (v. 2c). These words recall the people of Babel who sought to make a name for themselves by building a city and a tower (11:4). God frustrated their self-serving project, and the only name that they made for themselves was Babel (confusion). That contrasts nicely with God’s promise to Abram, the one whom he has chosen. Abram will not need to build cities or towers to make his name great, but his great name will be a gift from God. Abram needs only obey the command, “Go!”
“you will be a blessing” (v. 2d). Scholars debate the translation of this phrase. It could mean “you shall be blessed” or “you will be a source of blessing to others” or “you shall be a blessing.”
“I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you” (umeqalelka – holds you in contempt). (v. 3a). God will repay those who bless Abram with blessings. There is a sense of equity here – blessing as a reward for blessing and cursing in response to cursing. In the event of cursing, there is a nuance in the Hebrew that deserves notice. While most English translations say “the one who curses you I will curse,” there are two different Hebrew words (umeqalelka and a’or) with different meanings (“hold in contempt” and “curse”). This verse might better be translated, “the one who holds you in contempt I will curse” (Wenham, 276-277).
“All of the families of the earth will be blessed in you.” (v. 3b). God is the giver of these promises and Abram is the receiver. There is little sense of quid pro quo (equal exchange) here. God’s promises are sweeping and generous. In return God requires only that Abram obey his command to go (v. 1). In chapter 15, God will formalize these promises in a covenant and will initiate a covenant ceremony.
GENESIS 12:4-5a. SO ABRAM WENT
4So Abram went, as Yahweh had spoken to him. Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed out of Haran. 5aAbram took Sarai his wife, Lot his brother’s son, all their substance that they had gathered, and the souls whom they had gotten in Haran, and they went to go into the land of Canaan. Into the land of Canaan they came.
“So Abram went, as Yahweh had spoken to him. Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed out of Haran“ (v. 4). Abram obeys the call of the Lord without question or complaint. “Abraham is presented as the perfectly faithful man. He is called and he goes. He relies only on the name (12:8) and the word (12:1-4a) of this god who has suddenly inverted his life. The call of God has been fully embraced. That is where the history of Israel begins (Brueggemann, Interpretation, 125).
Terah was seventy years old when Abram was born (11:26), so he would be 145 years old when Abram leaves Haran. Terah will die at the age of 205 years (11:32), so he will live for sixty years after Abram leaves Haran. Terah is not named again except in genealogies (1 Chronicles 1:16; Luke 3:34), so seems likely that Abram never sees him again after leaving Haran. However, Jacob will return to Haran to find a wife (27:41 ff.).
As the story progresses, it notes that Abraham will be 100 years old when Isaac is born (21:5) and that he will die at age 175 (25:7). For the first 75 years of his life, then, Abraham had a father, and for the last 75 years of his life he was a father.
“Abram took Sarai his wife, Lot his brother’s son, all their substance that they had gathered, and the souls whom they had gotten in Haran, and they went to go into the land of Canaan“ (v. 5a). Abram’s father, Terah, started earlier to travel to Canaan, but along the way settled in Haran (11:31). The text doesn’t tell us Terah’s reason for settling rather than proceeding on, but it does tell us that he died in Haran (11:32). Perhaps he stopped in Haran because he found it pleasant. Perhaps he stopped to consolidate his family and resources before continuing his journey. Perhaps the infirmity that would eventually lead to his death had begun to weaken him. We don’t know. In any event, Abram, obeying God’s call, now sets out to go where his father had earlier intended to go. In doing so, however, he is not living out Terah’s dream, but is rather answering God’s call.
GENESIS 12:5b-7. TO YOUR OFFSPRING I WILL GIVE THIS LAND
5b and they went to go into the land of Canaan. Into the land of Canaan they came. 6Abram passed through the land to the place of Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. The Canaanite was then in the land. 7Yahweh appeared to Abram and said, “I will give this land to your seed.” He built an altar there to Yahweh, who appeared to him.
“Abram passed through the land to the place of Shechem” (v. 6a). Coming from Haran, Abram most likely enters Canaan from the north and travels to Shechem, which is located in the hill country near Mounts Ebal and Gerizim—a few miles west of the Jordan River and midway between the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea—40 miles (65 km.) north of Jerusalem.
“to the oak of Moreh” (v. 6b). This oak will have continuing significance in the biblical story. When Rachel and Leah bring household gods along, Jacob will follow God’s call to get rid of them by burying them under this oak (Genesis 35:4). Joshua will set up a stone at this oak tree as a sign of the covenant between God and Israel (Joshua 24:26). The lords of Shechem will make Abimelech king by this tree (Judges 9:6).
“The Canaanite was then in the land“ (v. 6c). Abram cannot claim this land yet, because it belongs to the Canaanites.
“I will give this land to your seed” (v. 7a). God promises, however, that he will give the land to Abram’s offspring. Abram will spend most of the rest of his life in Canaan, but will own only the cave at Machpelah that he purchases as a grave for Sarah (23:19). Only after the Exodus will Abram’s offspring truly possess this land.
“He built an altar there to Yahweh, who appeared to him” (v. 7b). The building of an altar (and presumably offering a sacrifice there) is an act of worship—an act by which Abram acknowledges his encounter with God—an act of obeisance and gratitude. Abram will build altars at various places as he travels (13:18; 22:9), and Isaac and Jacob will continue that tradition (26:25; 35:7).
GENESIS 12:8-9. AND ABRAM JOURNEYED ON BY STAGES
8He left from there to the mountain on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, having Bethel on the west, and Ai on the east. There he built an altar to Yahweh and called on the name of Yahweh. 9Abram traveled, going on still toward the South.
“He left from there to the mountain on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, having Bethel on the west, and Ai on the east. There he built an altar to Yahweh and called on the name of Yahweh“ (v. 8). Bethel and Ai are located about 12 miles (19 km.) north of Jerusalem. Bethel will continue to be important to the biblical story. Jacob will erect a pillar at Bethel as an act of worship after experiencing his famous ladder-dream (28:19; see also 35:1ff.).
“and pitched his tent” (v. 8). Pitching his tent contrasts with he built…an altar. The tents are dismantled, but the altars are left standing” (Hamilton, 378).
“Abram traveled, going on still toward the South“ (v. 9). As noted above, the Negeb (also known as the Negev) is a desert area southwest of the Dead Sea. Abram has traveled from north to south in Canaan, which gave him an opportunity to see the land that his offspring will possess. The Negeb is in the far south region of Canaan, which positions Abram for his next journey—to Egypt (12:10ff.).
This is not the last time that God will call Abram to step out in faith. Later, God will command Abraham (God changed his name at v. 17:5), “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you” (22:2). Abraham will obey, and God will send an angel to prevent the execution.
These two calls by God to Abraham – the first to cut off ties to his past (12:1) and the second to cut off ties to his future (22:2) – serve throughout the rest of the Bible as the gold standard for faithfulness, obedience, and discipleship. Not many people ever reach that standard, but Abraham stands as a reminder of what is possible. These stories not only challenge us to give God our all, but also assure us that God is faithful – that God will reward our faithfulness.
We can be sure that Jesus knew these two stories like the back of his hand – nothing would have been more familiar to him. These stories of Abram/Abraham’s faithfulness to God’s call to leave his home (12:1) and to sacrifice his son (22:2) form the background for several of Jesus’ pronouncements:
“For I came to set a man at odds against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law” (Matthew 10:35).
“He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me isn’t worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37).
“For whoever does the will of my Father who is in heaven, he is my brother, and sister, and mother” (Matthew 12:50).
“Everyone who has left houses, or brothers, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive one hundred times, and will inherit eternal life” (Matthew 19:29; Mark 10:29).
Jesus will also say, “The foxes have holes, and the birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20; Luke 9:58).
Abraham is a paradigm of faith in both testaments. In Acts, Stephen begins his sermon to the council with a recital of Abraham’s obedience (Acts 7:1-8). The great faith chapter of the New Testament uses Abraham as a prime example of faith (Hebrews 11:8ff.).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Brueggemann, Walter, Interpretation Commentary: Genesis (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982)
Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, B (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1993)
Fretheim, Terence E., “The Book of Genesis,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 1: General Old Testament Articles, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994.
Hamilton, Victor P., The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1-17 (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990)
Mathews, Kenneth A., The New American Commentary, Genesis 11:27-50:26, Vol. 1b (Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2005)
Plaut, W. Gunther, The Torah: A Modern Commentary (Revised Edition) (New York: Union for Reform Judaism, 2005)
Myers, Allen C. (ed.), The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987)
Pfeiffer, Charles F., Baker’s Bible Atlas (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2003)
Rasmussen, Carl G., Zondervan NIV Atlas of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1989.
Roop, Eugene F., Believers Church Bible Commentaries: Genesis (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1987)
Spina, Frank Anthony in Van Harn, Roger, E. (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: The First Readings: The Old Testament and Acts (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001)
Von Rad, Gerhard, The Old Testament Library: Genesis, (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1972)
Wenham, Gordon J., Word Biblical Commentary: Genesis 1-15 (Dallas: Word Books, 1987)
Copyright 2006, 2010, Richard Niell Donovan