The call of Abraham. 12:1-9
In chapters 12 to 50, the book of Genesis focuses on the family of promise. The restoration of Eden begins with a promise made to Abram (Abraham) and his descendents, but we must wait till the coming of Christ, particularly his second coming, before it is realized, cf. Rev. 21,22 . Here, in the book of Genesis chapter 12, the story of the restoration of a humanity created in the image of God finds its beginnings.
v1-3. As with the creation story, the story of redemption begins with God speaking. Terah and his three sons, Abram, Nahor and Haran, live in Ur of the Chaldeans. Haran dies leaving one son, Lot. Terah then sets out for Canaan with Abram and his wife Sarai, along with his grandson Lot. On the way, Terah turns aside and settles in Haran where he later dies. Abram then continues the journey to Canaan. It is unclear where the Lord speaks with Abram. Is it in Ur (Acts 7:2-4), or in Haran? Most likely it was Ur, with a possible renewing of the promise in Haran. Some commentators believe Abram was held back by his family ties and should have gone immediately to Canaan, but the Bible makes no such judgement. What's so wrong with sticking with your dad for a few years before undertaking a great adventure?
The promise made to Abram was a promise of blessing, blessing to Abram and through him, a blessing to the world. The promise of a "great nation" and a great name is more specifically a promise for many descendents and a land of his own. The promise of a blessing to the world remains undefined. After Genesis, that part of the promise which relates to the peoples of the earth gets no further mention until the prophets. The New Testament sees it fulfilled in the Gentile mission of the early church. The promise is repeated on numerous occasions throughout the book of Genesis, 13:14-16 etc.
v4-5. Abram follows God's lead and sets out for Canaan. At this stage he has no idea where this "promised land" may be, nor how he will populate it with his descendents. He has no children, for "Sari was barren." So, Abram's journey toward Canaan is completely of faith; he takes God at his word, and as the Apostle often reminds us, his "faith is reckoned to him as righteousness." Abram's delayed departure, as well as his possible use of Lot as an adopted son for the maintenance of his family line, is of little interest to the scriptures. Faith is what matters.
v6-7. Abram's journey most likely followed the fertile crescent to the north of Palestine. Moving down into Palestine he comes to Shechem, an important Canaanite community and religious centre in central Palestine, situated between mount Ebal and Mount Gerisim. Here the Lord speaks again declaring that the land of promise is the land of Canaan. For Abram, the promise is nothing more than words, for he owns none of it. Shechem (modern Nablus) will constantly figure in Israel's history.
v8. In this verse we see Abram symbolically claim the land. He settles down in the centre of the land, east of Bethel, and builds an altar to the Lord. While in the land he remains a tent dweller. The name "Ai" means "the ruin" and is obviously not the original Canaanite name.
v9. Again Abram shifts camp, this time to the Negeb south-west of the Dead Sea. Today this is a desert region, but at that time it was semi-dry grassland quite suitable for grazing.
Believing the promise
The Lord's call for Abram to journey to the promised land is often equated with a call to missionary service. For the missionary, there is a sense where God has called them from the ease and security of their suburban life-style into the harsh reality of the third world. As Abram left the security of Ur, so the missionary must leave the security of their world. Even Abram's sideway move to Haran can be used to a positive end. It can show us what not to do. How easily family ties can divert us from the Lord's mission.
Yet, Abram's call is not a call to missionary service. In fact, it is not so much a call as a promise of blessing. Abram is told to journey to Canaan, for there God will give him a land for his inheritance. He will have descendents as the stars in the sky and through his seed the world will be blessed. Abram simply takes God at his word; he believes in the promised blessing. Abram is clearly a man of faith. For most of his life he has no descendents, and even at its end he has no land. So much for the promise. Yet Abram believes God, he takes God at his word, and we are told that this faith-act of his is accounted to him as righteousness. Not that Abram was a righteous man, for he lived a very compromised life. Yet, by resting on God's promise, believing it when life's circumstances seemed to demand another conclusion, he was graciously regarded by God as if he were a righteous man and was therefore rewarded as such.
Like Abraham, we have before us the promise of life eternal in Jesus Christ. For us it is a promise of another land with "many mansions." The circumstances of life often deny the reality of this promise, yet when we believe the promise our faith is accounted to us as righteousness and thus, the gift of eternity is freely ours.
In what sense is Abram's journey like ours?