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1. The Abraham family

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: 



Terah took  

Abram took

Sarai...Abram's wife

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 faith. 

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 problem. 

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 faith. 

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 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 Press, 1940).

(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- and responded.

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 the stars.

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) pp. 50,51.