1-2-2 The Call Of Abram
So the family came to Haran. According to Jewish tradition,
Abraham was 23 years in Haran. Again, " from thence...God
removed him into (Canaan)" (Acts 7:4 R.V.). But if God had
forced him to be " removed" , Abram's response
to the promises would not be held up for us as the great example
of faith which it is. The call of Abram is an essay in partial response
being confirmed by God. God removed him through repeating
the promises to Abram in Haran, and the providential fact that Terah
died there. Again, the fact that Abram " dwelt" in Haran,
despite his call to leave, with his kindred and father's house shows
a slow reaction to the command to leave those things and go to the
unknown land, which by now Abram must have guessed was Canaan- or
at least, he would have realized that Canaan was en route to it.
There are marked similarities between the record of the exodus from
Ur, and that of the call of Abram to leave Haran:
Sarai his wife
Lot the son of Haran
Lot his brother's son
They went forth from Ur
They went forth (from Haran)
To go into the land of Canaan
To go into the land of Canaan
They came unto Haran
Into the land of Canaan they came.
These similarities may mean that the same processes occurred in
each move- a word of promise made, Abram struggling to show his
abundant faith in that promise and call, and the providence of God
acting to make his expression of faith possible. There may also
be the hint that when Abram left Haran, he still had the same fundamental
problem as when leaving Ur- he had still not fully left his kindred
and father's house. It has been pointed out that around the
time Terah and Abraham left Ur, the city was threatened by and then
destroyed by the Elamites (1). It's a very strange 'co-incidence'
(if that's indeed what it is) that Noah, Peleg and Nahor all died
in the same year- when Abraham was about 50 years old, living in
Ur. Whilst we have no evidence that these men were all living together,
it's not impossible that they were. Perhaps they died in some calamity
in Ur. So it could well be that the motive for leaving Ur in the
first place was therefore mixed- it was fleeing from a material
threat more than plain obedience to a Divine command. This would
explain why the family settled in relatively nearby Haran, and remained
there for so long. Abraham's weak attitude to leaving Ur is reflected
much later too, when he tells Abimelech that "the gods caused
me to wander from my father's house" (Gen. 20:13) (2). The
Hebrew ta'ah ("wander") has the idea of wandering
aimlessly (Gen. 21:14; 37:15) and even sinning (Is. 53:6). It wasn't
a very nice term to use about God's providence. That seems to me
to be a believer in a moment of weakness speaking about his faith
in very worldly terms, as one pagan to another. He doesn't see his
leaving of his father's house as obedience to Divine command and
promise; but rather he portrays that response as his being somehow
manipulated by the gods, picked up and taken out of the situation.
Abraham's comment that God caused him to go astray from
his father's house (Gen. 20:13) would likely have been understood
by those who first heard it as a negative reference to God- for
the word "gone astray" is used of a lost sheep (Jer. 50:6;
Ez. 34:4,16; Ps. 119:176); and it was understood that "A bad
shepherd causes a sheep to go astray from the flock because he is
careless" (3). Perhaps God recognized Abraham's failure by
instructing His people to confess every year that "An Aramaean
gone astray was my father" (Dt. 26:5). I take this to be a
reference to Abraham and not Jacob; for it seems that the people
of Aram migrated to Ur, and that Abraham having settled in Padan
Aram, Abraham could also for that reason be called an Aramaean (4).
So Israel were asked to remember that their forefather Abraham had
gone astray both literally and spiritually; and thus Abraham's God
was a God of grace, and was thereby their God too.
Abram evidently found it so hard to sever the family
ties, and move straight on from Haran. The call of Abram required
breaking with family. Perhaps Terah was too old and ill to move
on further (he died at 205, a great age by post-flood standards),
and Abram found it hard to leave his old and ill father in a strange
city. Or perhaps Terah's strong influence on Abram meant that he
found it just too hard to go against him. How he must have wrestled
with the pain of leaving his family and father! Yet he believed
God's promises, and he knew that these things were necessary if
he was to attain the promised land. Many a convert to Abraham's
seed in these last days has been through the same process. The call
to "come out" of mystical Babylon is surely rooted in
the call for Abram to " come out" from Ur and Haran. Whilst
this evidently occurs at the time of baptism, when these same Abrahamic
promises are made to us personally, our whole lives are a process
of 'coming out' from the world. As we do so, our appreciation of
God's promises is progressively expanded, as God works with our
Separating From Lot
Immediately Terah died, Abram may have felt he had truly left his "
kindred" and eagerly moved on towards the promised land of Canaan
(so Gen.11:32-12:4 implies). It is likely that many of Abram's "
kindred" would have come along with Terah, responding themselves
to the call of Abram. Presumably they settled in Haran after Terah's death.
It is even possible that the family were from this city originally, seeing
that Abraham's brother was called Haran. We saw earlier that just before
leaving Haran, Abram was further told to separate from his " father's
house" too, i.e. all of his father's household. This must
have included Lot. Abram could understand separation from his idolatrous
father and the rest of the family retinue; yet Lot was " a righteous
man" ; Abram evidently rated Lot's spirituality (Gen.18:23,32). Again,
Abram was in a quandary. He had left all but one of his father's house
in Haran. Was he really intended to separate from his father's house to
the extent of leaving Lot too? It is likely that Abram often agonized
about Lot. There he was in Canaan, knowing that his seed would inherit
this land, which was then full of Canaanites (the record twice emphasizes,
in 12:6 and 13:7). But Lot, part of his kindred and father's house, was
still with him. We saw that the Hebrew for " kindred" implies
one born in ones own country. A closely related word is found in Gen.11:28,
describing how Haran, Lot's father, " died in the land of his
nativity, in Ur" . If Lot's father lived and died in Ur, it
is fair to assume that Lot was born in Ur. So Abram knew he must separate
from Lot, his " kindred" - but how? What reason could he give
Lot? Yet he had faith in what God had told him; therefore he wanted
to leave Lot, but just found it hard to do. And so God made a way.
Because the promises were to be made to Abram and not Lot, this separation
was indeed necessary (although nothing should be inferred from this regarding
Lot's spirituality or standing with God). It is stressed in the record
that " Lot went with him" out of Haran (Gen.12:4), and that
in Abram's subsequent passing through the land of Canaan, " Lot...went
with Abram" (Gen.13:5; 13:1). Having been through so much together
(they were together in the Egypt crisis, Gen.13:1), it is unlikely that
they would suffer from a personality clash. Yet the great wealth of them
both resulted in " strife between the herdmen of Abram's cattle,
and the herdmen of Lot's cattle" (Gen.13:7). Abram reasoned that
it would be a shame to let this incident between their employees drive
a wedge between them personally; " for we be brethren" (note
Abram's intense awareness that they were of the same household), and close
spiritual friends too, it may be inferred (Gen.19:8). Abram's subsequent
concern for Lot indicates that they did not fall out personally over the
Abram would have noticed Lot's desire to settle down in the cities of
the plain. Now he saw that providence was giving him the means he needed
to separate from his father's house completely. He knew that if Lot chose,
of his own volition, to separate from him, then there would no longer
be the emotional agony of him separating from Lot. " Separate thyself,
I pray thee, from me" , Abram invited Lot, knowing that now it was
very easy and attractive for Lot to agree (Gen.13:9). " And they
separated themselves the one from the other" (Gen.13:11). Yet a third
time the record emphasizes their separation, and implies that as soon
as this occurred, the full Abrahamic land covenant was made, featuring
Abram's eternal inheritance of the land: " The Lord said unto Abram,
after that Lot was separated from him...all the land which thou seest,
to thee will I give it, and to thy seed for ever"
(Gen.13:14,15). Again we see God's patience in the development of Abram's
It must have seemed impossible for Abraham to imagine that Lot would
ever separate from him of his own volition, as earlier he would
never have dreamed that leaving his own country could be achieved
without major opposition from his father. But providence overruled
that Terah actually became enthusiastic for this move! Abram's faith
was presumably in being willing to make these moves. These
experiences remained firm in Abraham's memory. Later in life, he
used his own experience of how God had opened a way for the expression
of his faith, to inspire his servant to have faith that God would
somehow find a suitable wife for Isaac. It must be significant that
Abraham told Eliezer to take Isaac a wife from " my country...my
kindred...thou shalt not take a wife unto my son of the daughters
of the Canaanites, among whom I dwell" (Gen.24:3,4). It follows
that there were none of Abraham's country or kindred, which he had
been commanded to leave, living anywhere near him. He had truly
and fully obeyed the command to separate from them! As with many
Christian youngsters living in isolation in the mission fields,
the avoidance of marrying those in the surrounding world just seemed
too much to ask. But Abraham knew that a way would be made: "
The Lord God of Heaven, which took me from my father's
house, and from the land of my kindred...he shall send his angel
before thee, and thou shalt take a wife unto my son"
(Gen.24:7). As God had taken Abram from Ur and Haran and
Lot, so God would take a woman from there, suitable for
Isaac. That Abraham did finally break with his family is hinted
at by the way that Laban speaks of "the God of Abraham and
the God of Nahor- may they judge between us (Gen. 31:53 Heb.). Laban
recognized that Nahor and Abraham worshipped different gods- whereas
we know that initially, they worshipped the same gods.
Do we admit that we just don't preach as we should, failing to engage people with the Gospel because we assume 'nobody's interested'? 1 Tim. 2:1-6 has something for us. The Lord's death on the cross was a ransom payment "for all men"; and in this context, Paul urges that because God therefore wishes "all men to be saved" we should therefore pray "for all men, [even] for kings and those in authority". If the Lord's death truly was for all, in that He was representative there of all men, He there "tasted death for every man" (Heb. 2:9)... then we should pray for "all men" quite literally to be saved, knowing that God is willing that "all men be saved". And Paul makes this point in the context of appealing for us to pray for all men, even Kings. This means that we should pray for even those we consider most unlikely- that they might be saved. For the cross of Christ has potentially saved them- if they will accept it. Thus Paul comments in 1 Tim. 2:6 that the cross was "a ransom for all, to be testified". The testifying or witnessing to it is to be done by our preaching. Notice how Paul draws a dynamic parallel between praying for all men and witnessing to all men (1 Tim. 2:1 cp. 6). Preaching- when it is truly inspired by the cross- can never be a prayer-less exercise, a mere presentation of information. It will be done prayerfully, thoughtfully targetted at specific individuals whom we're praying will accept the message.
Left to human response alone, our faith will not always
result in the necessary actions. " How to perform that which
is good I find not" , laments the spiritually frustrated apostle
(Rom.7:18). God saw Abram's willingness, and appreciated the
difficulty he had in appearing to act unreasonably to his kindred
and father's house. And so God made a way. At the time of each of
Abram's moves, from Ur to Haran and from Haran to Canaan, and again
after the separation from Lot, the promises were re-affirmed and
expanded to Abram (Gen.12:1 cp. Acts 7:3; Gen.12:7; 13:14). His
faith was first kindled by the promise made to him in Ur. That faith,
encouraged by God's hand in his life, led to action, which
resulted in God revealing even more of His word to Abram. This stimulated
yet more faith, more action, and an increase in appreciation of
the faith-generating word of promise. This same upward spiral, in
which the word is the dynamic, can be found true in the experience
of all Abram's seed. For we have all received the call of Abram.
(1) Derek Kidner, Genesis (London: Tyndale
Press, 1967) p. 111; also documented in W.F. Albright, .From
The Stone Age To Christianity (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University
(2) This is the implication of how elohim
is used here; see Kidner, op cit. pp. 138,139; Keil and
Delitszch in their commentary make the same point, calling it an
'accommodation' "to the polytheistic standpoint of the king".
(3) Martin Buber, On The Bible (New York: Schocken Books, 1982) p. 127.
(4) Buber, op cit.
How God Worked With Abraham
Terah and his family departed "to go into the land of Canaan"
(Gen. 11:31). These are the same Hebrew words as in the command
to Abram: "Get thee out of thy country" (Gen. 12:1). We
can therefore conclude that Abram received this call to quit his
country, but didn't obey it, until some unrecorded situation led
his father to announce the family's emigration to Canaan. Abram
was therefore very slow to obey the call. Note too that the command
to Abram had been to leave his land and also his "kindred and...
father's house". This he didn't do- for he left Ur with his
father and brothers, i.e. his kindred. His brother Haran died, and
his father then died in Haran, where they temporarily lived on the
way to Canaan. We see here how God seeks to almost make us obedient.
And Gen. 15:7 records that it was God who brought Abram out of Ur-
even though Abraham failed to rise up and be obedient in his own
strength, God manipulated family circumstances to make him obedient
to the call; and in essence He does this for us too. The first promise
to Abraham was actually conditional- if he did these things, then
"I will make of thee a great nation" (Gen. 12:2). If he
left his natural kindred, then God would give him a huge new family.
But he hardly fulfilled those conditions, and yet still the promises
were ultimately fulfilled to him. And he is set up as the "father
of the faithful". We all know that really our faith is pathetically
weak, and this recognition can cause some to stumble altogether.
Yet Abraham our pattern hardly started with a strong faith either.
The comment "So Abram departed [Heb. 'went'- s.w. Gen. 11:31;
12:1], as the Lord had spoken unto him" (Gen. 12:4) is surely
the beginning of the wonderful theme of righteousness being imputed
to Abraham! Heb. 11:8 records things from a positive perspective
too, as if there was instant obedience from Abraham: "By faith
Abraham when he was called to go out into a place which he should
after receive for an inheritance, obeyed; and he went out, not knowing
whither he went". Truly, the Biblical record imputes righteousness
to Abraham, and thus sets a pattern for all of us, the equally faltering
and stumbling children of Abraham.
All that said, Abram's leaving of Haran was still a great act of
faith- he had "gathered" much in the years of staying
in Haran (Gen. 12:5). According to Jewish tradition, Abraham stayed
23 years in Haran. All he had to go on was a word from the Lord
which he'd received some years ago whilst living in Ur. There's
no reason to think that Angels regularly appeared to him and kept
urging him to leave, or that he could read the Lord's word in written
form as we can. Presumably that one word which he received worked
in his conscience, until he said to the family "Right, we're
quitting this nice life for a wilderness journey to some place I
don't know". We can underestimate the power of "just"
one word from the Lord. We're so familiar with possessing His entire
word in written form that we can forget the need to be obedient
to just one of those words, to the extent of losing all we once
held dear... In this I find Abraham a wonderful example. He must,
presumably, have wondered whether he really had heard right, whether
the whole thing wasn't just a weird dream- just as we may wonder
whether really we are supposed to take God's word as it
is and allow it to radically upset our settled, mediocre lives.
Gen. 12:3 states that through Abraham, all the offspring of the
earth / adamah were to be blessed. This is an evident allusion
back to the cursing of the adamah / earth in Eden (Gen.
3:17). The implication was that the promised seed of the woman,
who was to be the way of escape from that curse, was to somehow
be "in Abraham". Although there's no mention yet of a
specific son or seed, it seems to me that God was setting Abraham
up to meditate upon the promise of the earth being blessed "in
him", and figure out that this must mean that he was to have
a descendant or son who would be the Saviour. Perhaps the subsequent
specific promises about this were as it were God's reward for Abraham
following through with where God was leading him. Gen. 28:14 makes
explicit that the blessing of the adamah was to be "in
thy seed". I firmly believe, indeed have experienced, the way
in which God prompts our minds to think of something, to work something
through, and then reveals this specifically, or confirms our understanding,
directly from His word. In our day and context, it would seem that
daily reading of God's word is what's required in order to 'allow'
as it were this process to happen. This, surely, is how God seeks
to work out the same process with us as He did with Abraham. Even
if at the time of reading we feel we 'get nothing out of that chapter',
there will be prompts to thought and later reflection which are
all in God's longer term educational purpose with us. Heb.
11:33 says that the likes of Abraham obtained promises by their
faith. Yet the Old Testament record clearly enough states that the
promises were just given to them by God; they weren't requested
by the patriarchs. Indeed, David was surprised at the promises God
chose to make to him. Conclusion? God read their unspoken, unprayed
for desires for Messiah and His Kingdom as requests for the promises-
There are other examples of Abraham being progressively set up
by God so that his spiritual growth would be an upward spiral. Initially,
he was told to walk / go to a land which God would shew him (Gen.
12:1); when he got there, he was told to "arise", and
"walk" through that land of Canaan (Gen. 13:17). And Abraham,
albeit in a faltering kind of way, did just this. But this was to
prepare him for the test of Gen. 22:3 in the command to offer Isaac.
His obedience this time isn't at all faltering. He "arises"
and 'goes' [s.w. "walk"] "unto the place of which
God had told him" to offer Isaac (Gen. 22:3). This is exactly
what he had been called to do right back in Ur- to arise and walk
/ go to a land / place which God would show him (Gen. 12:1). Events in Abraham's life paved the way for others- for his life was under God's ultimate guidance. The call to go out "to the land which I will show you" is in essence repeated when he is asked to offer Isaac "upon one of the mountains of which I shall show you" (Gen. 22:2). Obedience to one challenge paves the way for the next one. And
so our obedience in one challenge of God leads us to obedience in
others. I've elsewhere pointed out how circumstances tend to repeat
both within and between the lives of God's faithful. One experience
is designed to lead us to another. Nothing- absolutely nothing-
in our lives is senseless chance. All- and this takes some believing-
is part of a higher plan for our spiritual good, in our latter end.
Time and again we see this in Abraham's life. He was taught that
he really could be a blessing to others by the circumstances which
God arranged relating to Lot being blessed / saved for his sake.
Or take how Sarah murmured that it was impossible for her to have
"pleasure" in childbearing (Gen. 18:12). She uses the
word ednah, related to the word Eden. Yet in the
events of Gen. 19, she sees how the land around Sodom that was once
"like the garden of Eden" (Gen. 13:10) is made barren
and sowed with salt so that nothing could grow there (Gen. 19:25;
Dt. 29:23). She was being taught that God can give and take away
fertility on a huge scale. Likewise in Gen. 20:17, Abraham's weakness
leads Abimelech's wives to become barren; yet through the faith
and prayer of an undoubtedly spiritually weak Abraham, their fertility
is restored. Again, God was teaching Abraham through circumstances.
It could also be reasoned from Gen. 20:6 that God weakened Abimelech's
body so that he had no sexual desire for Sarah- and again, this
was to teach Abraham the impotent old man that virility is a gift
which God can give and take at ease. The wonderful thing is that
all these lessons were taught to Abraham through the incident of
lying about and betraying his wife, which shows the weakness of
his faith in God's promises. The way God works with and through
human weakness is awesome.
God never let go of Abraham, even when Abraham didn't readily obey
what God required of him. He was told to "walk through the
land in the length of it and in the breadth of it; for
[because] I will give it unto you" (Gen. 13:17). But Abraham
didn't willingly do this- because perhaps he doubted that he would
be given it. It's like saying to a child: 'Come and look at this!
I am going to give it to you!', and the child doesn't even want
to look. In this context we read of how Abraham "dwelt
in the plain of Mamre"- that's stressed twice (Gen. 13:18;
14:13). Instead of travelling around in his land to see it, he tried
to settle down. But God brought circumstances into his life which
made him travel around the length and breadth of Canaan- thus Abraham
had to pursue Lot's captors "unto Hobah, which is on the left
hand of Damascus" before he recovered Lot (Gen. 14:15). Hobah
is in the far north east of Canaan- Abraham had to go all the way
there from Mamre in the centre of Canaan. For unknown reasons, Abraham
also lived in Beersheba for a while (Gen. 22:19); he had a meeting
with the local rulers at Shaveh, near Jerusalem (Gen. 14:17); and
at the time of Gen. 16:14 Abraham was near Kadesh Barnea, in the
very South of Canaan on the Egyptian border. One wonders whether
the attraction of Egypt had led him there once more- in which case
it was his own weakness which was used by God to ensure that he
travelled to the very south of Canaan. Maybe the record includes
all these geographical markers in order to demonstrate how Abraham
did indeed travel around Canaan through providentially arranged
circumstances, although not it seems as an act of direct obedience
to the Divine command to do so.
What The Promises Demanded
The promises to Abraham were couched in terms that were a real
challenge to Abraham, and that required a total inversion of his
value system. Those same words of promise to us require nothing
less. In those days, pedigree and family, and even one's city of
origin, were fundamental to ones' self-definition. Abram was called
to quit Ur, to separate from his kindred and family, to become a
nobody for the sake of a calling to God's invisible Kingdom and
new family. God changed his name- Abram means 'high / exalted father',
and can mean "he is of exalted i.e. good ancestry" (1).
Yet Abram's name was changed. He was to be the father of a new family,
as 'Abraham' implied, and to sever all connection with his human
ancestry and family.
The way ‘Abram’ was changed to ‘AbraHAm’ and ‘Sarah’
to ‘SarAH’ shows how God wishes to mix syllables of His Name with
that of men. Jacob was changed to Isra-el, mixing God’s name with
that of his father. This is indeed mutuality between God and man-
and it demands so much. According to Jewish midrash, Abram and his
father Terah were leading diviners of the stars in Ur (2). 'Terah'
can mean 'brother of the moon', and Ur and Haran were noted centres
of moon worship (3). In this case, the invitation to Abram to count
the stars and discern there his future seed was a calling to reject
his entire former world-view, to admit his helpless in counting
the stars, to throw himself upon God's grace rather than the strength
of his own former education, wisdom, and inherited ability to discern
Grammatically, Gen. 12:3 can be read as passive
("be blessed", as AV, RV) or reflexive "bless themselves"
(as RSV), i.e. implying those blessed have to do something to appropriate
the blessing. In this we see how God will play His part, but we
must play our part. And yet the covenant in Gen. 15 was one way,
unconditional, from God to us. It's as if His part in our
salvation is so much greater than our response. Yet there is still
an obvious element of choice which we have to make. God repeated
the promise of blessing to Abraham at Shechem (Gen. 12:6), where
later Israel had to chose between blessing and cursing (Dt. 11:29,30)-
as if they had to make the choice to appropriate the promised blessing
to themselves, or not. God's promise to Abraham was made more specifically
at "the oak of Moreh" (Gen. 12:6)- evidently a Canaanite
shrine; and it's emphasized that "the Canaanite was then in
the land". It's as if God's invitation to Abraham to have a
unique relationship with Him was made amidst the calls and presence
of many other gods, and in the thick of the Gentile world. The same
promises are offered to us (Gal. 3:27-29), in a similar context.
Perhaps it's worth suggesting that there may be an intended contrast
between Abraham building an altar in recognition of the
promises, at the same time as he pitched his tent (Gen.
12:7,8)- as if to highlight the temporal nature of our present material
situation in contrast to the permanence of the things we stand related
to in God's promises. Abraham's belief in God's blessing
of him is reflected in the way he is insistent to the King of Sodom
that he will not take any of the spoil, lest anyone should think
that man rather than God had blessed Abraham (Gen. 14:22). It could
be pointed out that this rather contrasts with his not returning
to Pharaoh the things he gave him in return for Sarah becoming his
wife (Gen. 12:16). Perhaps Abraham later reflected upon his failure
in this incident, realizing he'd not displayed faith in God's
blessing of him... and learnt his lesson when the same temptation
occurred in Gen. 14 to be made rich by the men of this world. Our
stumbling response to the same Abrahamic promises often develops
in the same way.
The command "Be perfect" can be translated "Be perfected" (Gen. 17:1). There's some support for this when we consider the inspired commentary upon the promises to Abraham in Heb. 11:39,40: "[He] received not the promise: God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be perfected". "The promise" and being "perfected" are thus paralleled. In this we may have in Gen. 17:1 another promise to Abraham- to 'be perfected', and this could only come true through God's perfect righteousness being imputed to him. The New Testament informs us quite simply that Abraham believed the promise of being in the Kingdom, and he was therefore 'justified', or counted righteous (Gen. 15:6). But God led him in appreciating what those promises really implied. If he was going to live eternally in God's Kingdom, then he would only be there because God counted him righteous. And so it seems to me that God developed Abraham's mind further by promising him in Gen. 17:1 that he would indeed "be perfected", which could only have come about through God imputing righteousness to him. It could be that when Abraham "believed" the promise of the Kingdom in Gen. 15:6, he didn't realize that in Heaven, God was so thrilled with his faith that He counted Abraham as righteous, in order to fulfill the promise of giving him eternal life. And then in Gen. 17:1, God communicated this to Abraham in the promise that He would 'perfect' him. And God patiently works with us likewise, as we struggle to really, really believe that we will live eternally in His Kingdom; and as we progressively realize throughout life that this can only be possible by the Lord's perfection being counted to us.
The Covenant Grace Of God
Abraham and Sarah aren't merely examples of faith- for they didn't always have faith! God predicates what He is prepared to do for them- and for us- upon faith. But even when the faith is lacking, God's grace and love are so strong that He doesn't always insist upon the condition of faith which He has required. Sarah mocked at the promise of a child- but it still came true, with no record of Sarah ever actually having faith in it. God's desire to lavish blessing upon His people is stronger, in the end, than His offer of blessing if we can believe. And we who are experiencing this need to think long and hard about whether our grace to others is as senseless and pure as God's is to us.
God's grace shines through again and again. Abraham went down into
Egypt because of how "grievous" or 'heavy' the famine
was; and comes up out of Egypt, thanks to betraying his wife, "heavy"
[same Hebrew word] with riches (Gen. 12:10; 13:2). Everything he
did was blessed, despite his weakness. The way God confirmed the
covenant in Genesis 15 was another example of this grace. The covenant
God made with Abraham was similar in style to covenants made between
men at that time; and yet there was a glaring difference. Abraham
was not required to do anything or take upon himself any obligations-
only God passed between the pieces, not Abraham. Circumcision [cp.
baptism] was to remember that this covenant of grace had been made.
It isn’t part of the covenant [thus we are under this same new,
Abrahamic covenant, but don’t require circumcision]. The promises
to Abraham are pure, pure grace. Yahweh alone passed between the
pieces of the animals, represented by the flaming torch- presumably
in the form of an Angel as a pillar of fire. There's no record of
Abraham being asked to pass through them as was usual custom. The
promise of God was therefore unilateral- pure grace. And yet by
its very nature, such unilateral grace from God cannot be received
passively. Although there was no specified response from Abraham,
clearly enough he simply had to respond to such grace.
It's been pointed out that Abraham was blessed by God, and yet the
Hebrew form of the promise implies that he was commanded to therefore
go forth and "be a blessing"- and his intercession for
Lot and Sodom, his rescue of Lot in Gen. 14, were providentially
arranged for him to practice that. A similar construction (an imperative
verb string hyh + a noun) occurs in Gen. 17:1, "be
blameless / perfect". The way Gen. 12:1-3 is structured implies
that Abraham receives an unconditional blessing, yet he therefore
is to go forth and "be a blessing". And it's the same
for us- and note how the "blessing" is interpreted as
forgiveness in Acts 3:27-29. We are to forgive and generally bless
others, in all forms of gracious generosity, as God has blessed
us. Note too that the idea of the dead animals in the ceremony of
Gen. 15 was to teach that 'So may I be dismembered and die if I
fail to keep my promise'. Jer. 34:18 speaks of how Israelites must
die, because they passed between the pieces of the dead animal sacrifices
in making a covenant. But here in Gen. 15, it is none less than
the God who cannot die who is offering to do this, subjecting Himself
to this potential curse! And He showed Himself for real in the death
of His Son. That was His way of confirming the utter certainty of
the promises to Abraham which are the basis of the new covenant
which He has cut with us (Rom. 15:8; Gal. 3:17). The "blood
of the covenant" doesn't mean that the blood of Jesus is or was the covenant; the covenant is a set of promises to us, namely
the promises to Abraham and his seed. The blood of Jesus is the
token of that covenant, the sign that this is all so utterly and
totally true for each one of us. The Lord died, in the way that
He did, to get through to us how true this all is- that God Almighty
cut a sober, unilateral covenant with us personally, to give us
the Kingdom. It's as challenging for us to believe as it was for
Abraham and his earlier seed: "This divine-human bond gave
to Israel its most distinctive religious belief, and provided the
basis of its unique social interest and concern. Outside the Old
Testament we have no clear evidence of a treaty between a god and
his people" (4). What the theologian calls a unique basis for
"social interest and concern" we can re-phrase more bluntly:
We simply can't be passive to such grace, we have no option but
to reach out with grace to others in care and concern- and we have
a unique motivation in doing this, which this unbelieving world
can never equal. Yet if unbelievers can show the huge care and self-sacrifice
which they do- we ought to be doing far more, seeing we
have an infinitely stronger motivation.
The command to preach to "all nations" would ring bells
in Jewish minds with the promises to Abraham, concerning the blessing
of forgiveness to come upon " all nations" through Messiah
(Gen. 18:18; 22:18; 26:4). Therefore God's people are to preach
the Gospel of forgiveness in Christ to " all nations"
. The offer of sharing in that blessing did not close at the end
of the first century. Putting the " all nations" of the
Abrahamic promises together with Christ's preaching commission leads
to a simple conclusion: The Hope of Israel now applies to all nations;
so go and tell this good news to all nations. Perhaps this is why there appears to be an intended grammatical
ambiguity in the 'promise' that Abraham and his seed would be a
blessing for all nations. It's unclear, as we've commented elsewhere, whether "be
a blessing" is purely a prophetic prediction or a command.
The commentary upon the promises to David in Ps. 72:17 is similar:
"May his name resound for ever... may men bless themselves
by him, may all nations pronounce him blessed". It is for us
to go forth and be a blessing, and to make His Name great to the
ends of the earth.
The Personal Nature Of The Promises
The Abrahamic covenant is made personally with every member of
the seed " in their generations" (Gen. 17:7). The records
of the renewing of the covenant to Isaac and Jacob are but indicators
that this is the experience of each one of the seed. This means
that the covenant love of God and the promise of personal inheritance
of the land is made personally, and confirmed by the shedding of
Christ's blood, to each of us. God promised Abraham that through
Christ, His seed, blessing would come on people from all nations,
with the result that God would be the God of Abraham's multitudinous
seed: " To be a God unto...thy seed ...I will be their
God" (Gen. 17:7,8). The seed is Christ, and the
" God" is Yahweh. Let's not confuse them.
Now in Revelation 21:3 this fundamental promise is alluded to;
God Himself will be our God then; we will see Him and have
a personal relationship with Him. This would mean that
this idea of personally being with God is a fundamental part of
the Gospel preached to Abraham.
It's hard to grasp how personal all this is- that the promises
to Abraham really are made to us personally; we truly are in essence
in his position. Perhaps it's the reason for the way God promises
to bless them (plural) who bless Abraham, and curse him
(singular) who curse Abraham (Gen. 12:3). In other words, the blessings
are to come specifically and individually to many people; whereas
those who curse Abraham and his seed are just treated as one homogenous
mass. Time and again in the Biblical record, Abraham is held up
as a very real example, in whose steps all God's people are to tread.
For example, as Abraham was bidden leave Ur and go and "see"
the "land" of promise which God would "give"
him (Gen. 13:15), so the spies were told to go and "see"
the "land" which God had "given" them (Num.
13:18; 32:8,9- the same three words as in the promises to Abraham)-
yet they lacked the faith of Abraham to believe that really, they
could possess that land. They did "see" the land, yet
they were punished by being told that they would not now "see
the land" (Num. 14:23; Dt. 1:35). They saw it, but they didn't
"see" it with the eyes of Abraham. And so it can be with
our vision of God's Kingdom. Remember that Moses was the author
of both Genesis and Numbers- such connections aren't incidental.
Moses wished the people to see themselves as going forward in the
spirit of Abraham- and hence he wrote up the Genesis record for
Israel's benefit an inspiration.
This personal nature of the promises resulted in a mutuality between
God and the patriarchs, as it can between Him and all Abraham's
seed. God’s present judgment of us is actually related to how we
‘judge’ God to be. There’s a mutuality between God and man in this
business of present judgment. This theme is played on throughout
Hebrews 11. Sarah “judged” God as faithful, and He ‘judged’ her
as faithful (Heb. 11:11). As Abraham “was offering up Isaac” (RV),
with the knife raised, he was “accounting” God to be capable of
performing a resurrection, just as Moses quit the riches of Egypt,
“accounting the reproach of Christ greater than the treasures of
Egypt” (Heb. 11:17,19,26 RV). And yet God ‘accounts’ us to be faithful,
imputing righteousness to us. Through these acts and attitudes of
faith, “these…had witness borne to them through their faith” (Heb.
11:39 RV). It was as if their lives were lived in the courtroom,
with their actions a constant presentation of evidence to the judge
of all the earth. Our judgment of God to be faithful thus becomes
His judgment of us to be faithful.
All this takes on a yet more beautiful relevance when we consider
historical research into the blessings given at the time of Abraham.
Blessings of many children, a specific seed / son who would bring
glory and blessing, and a name change... are all frequently found
in records of wedding blessings (5). In making those promises to
Abraham, in mixing the letters of His Name with that of Abram...
Yahweh was entering a marriage covenant with Abraham the impotent,
the childless, the humanly hopeless. And He does the very same for
each of us who are baptized into that same Name and become recipients
of the very same promises. What was weird and so counter-instinctive
in this wedding- was the token of the marriage covenant. Abraham
was to mutilate his male generative organ as a sign that God would
generate him a great seed and family. Academics are divided as to
whether such circumcision was in fact a common practice at the time
[in which case it would fail to be a very unique token], or whether
this was actually a radical and unusually intimate and shocking
requirement from God (6). The unique nature of God's covenant with
Abraham, that he alone had God known of all families of
the earth, suggests to me that the latter view is likely to be correct.
And remember time and again, that these same promises, this same
covenant, is made to us in Christ (Gal. 3:27-29). Our response to
what God has promised us requires us to likewise respond in a counter-cultural
and counter-instinctive way . To give up this world in order to
gain it, to lose now in order to win ultimately and eternally.
(1) P.R. Williamson, 'Abraham', in T.D. Alexander and D.W. Baker,
eds., Dictionary Of The Old Testament: Pentateuch (Leicester:
IVP, 2003) p. 8.
(2) See M.E. Stone and T. Bergren, eds., Biblical Figures Outside
The Bible (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1998)
pp. 151-175 for references.
(3) M.W. Chavalas, 'Terah' in T.D. Alexander and D.W. Baker, eds.,
Dictionary Of The Old Testament: Pentateuch (Leicester:
IVP, 2003) p. 829; V.P. Hamilton, The Book Of Genesis: Chapters
1-17 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990).
(4) Ronald Clements, Abraham And David: Genesis 15 And Its
Meaning For Israelite Tradition (London: SCM, 1967) p. 83.
(5) Claus Westermann, "Promises to the Patriarchs," in
The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Keith Crinn
et al. (Nashville: Abingdon, 1976),p. 692.
(6) This is the view documented by J.G. Janzen, Abraham And
All The Families Of The Earth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993)