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The Early History of God’s Gracious Dealing with Mankind among the Patriarchs (Genesis Chapter 11, verse 27 through chapter 50, verse 26)
The sixth account: Terah (11:27–25:11)
With the first five of the ten accounts that make up the book of Genesis, Moses has sketched God’s saving activity among the families of the original world. Genesis 1:1 to 11:26 form Part I of Genesis.
In the remaining five accounts, Moses again sketches God’s saving activity, but this time only in one single family the family of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. With 11:27, then, Part II of Genesis begins. (Logically a new chapter ought to begin here. Some of the chapter divisions in English Bibles are unfortunate and unhelpful. The reader is asked to remember that the chapter divisions are not inspired.)
God calls Abram, giving him a whole cluster of promises
Genesis Chapter 11, verses 27 through 32
This is the account of Terah.
Terah became the father of Abram, Nahor and Haran. And Haran became the father of Lot. While his father Terah was still alive, Haran died in Ur of the Chaldeans, in the land of his birth. Abram and Nahor both married. The name of Abram’s wife was Sarai, and the name of Nahor’s wife was Milcah; she was the daughter of Haran, the father of both Milcah and Iscah. Now Sarai was barren; she had no children.
Terah took his son Abram, his grandson Lot son of Haran, and his daughter-in- law Sarai, the wife of his son Abram, and together they set out from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to Canaan. But when they came to Haran, they settled there.
Terah lived 205 years, and he died in Haran.
The account of Terah traces the life of Abraham and occupies more than a dozen chapters. The reader may wonder why Moses didn’t name this account after Abraham, since he’s its most prominent character. There are several reasons. For one, Abraham’s father, Terah, was the head of this important family when we meet them here. This account will introduce us to a number of members of Terah’s family who were not descendants of Abraham—people like Lot, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah. We see once again that in determining the outline of the book of Genesis, Moses chose and used his terms carefully.
The account of Terah helps us to see how, after the human race had again turned away from God in unbelief, God chose the family of Abram, from the line of Shem, as the messianic line. In the interest of his magnificent plan for the human race, God gave Abram a whole cluster of promises centering in the Savior and trained him to trust those promises.
We first meet Terah’s important clan in the city of Ur, west and north of the Persian Gulf. The time is about 2100 B.C. Ur was the busy and prosperous capital of the ancient Sumerian people. Clay documents uncovered in the archaeological excavation of Ur paint a picture of an advanced and sophisticated culture. Unfortunately, they also document the existence of a number of heathen temples. Centuries later Joshua told the Israelites, “Your forefathers, including Terah the father of Abraham and Nahor . . . worshiped other gods” (Joshua Chapter 24, verse 2).
It would be overstating the case to say that Terah and his family knew nothing at all of the true God. That would clash with Abraham’s words years later when he was seeking a wife for his son Isaac. He commanded his servant not to look for Isaac’s wife among the Canaanites but instead to go to his relatives to find a God-fearing wife for his son (24:3,4). One would like to think that Terah knew and worshiped the true God. Yet his faith was not completely free from elements of heathen superstition.
God called Abram to leave Ur. In obedience to God, Abram and his wife, Sarai, together with his father, Terah, and his brother Nahor left Ur and traveled about five hundred miles northwest to the city of Haran (in present day Syria). After the death of Terah (Acts 7:2-4), God called Abram a second time. In response to God’s call, Abram left Haran at the age of 75 and migrated south to the land of Canaan, accompanied by his wife, Sarai, and his nephew Lot. A significant fact about Sarai is mentioned here that will later become an important factor in God’s training program for Abram. Sarai, whose name would later be changed to Sarah, was barren.
Genesis Chapter 12, verses 1 through 3
The LORD had said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you.
“I will make you into a great nation
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.”
“The LORD . . . said to Abram . . .” With these simple words, the book of Genesis begins its narrative of the life of Abram, whose name God would later change to Abraham. Moses devotes more than a dozen chapters to the life of this man (more precisely, to the last half of his life). Why should one man rate so much space in the sacred record?
There are two reasons. First, God chose Abram to become the father of a new nation, the nation of Israel, the nation that would be the cradle of the Savior. But there is a second reason why Abram gets so much attention in both the Old and New Testaments. The way God dealt with Abram is typical of the way God deals with every sinner. The better we understand how God spoke to Abram, the better we will understand what God has to say to a world of sinners today.
Note also that it was the LORD, the Savior-God, who spoke to Abram. We don’t know how he chose to speak to Abram, but we do know it was a miraculous conversation, which would never have taken place if God had not intervened in Abram’s life.
Many biblical scholars today have little sympathy for the idea that God intervenes in human history. But Christianity asks us to believe the miraculous, and it does so without apology. During the centuries after the flood, unbelief made such progress among the descendants of Shem that the faithful covenant-God felt constrained to intervene so the knowledge of his great plan would not perish from the earth. Note also the direction of this supernatural conversation: God spoke to Abram, not vice versa. It’s important to note that if contact is to be established between God and the sinner, the initiative must start on God’s end, not on ours.
“Abram, leave your country.” Abram heard God say those words twice in his lifetime. This first time was in Ur, in southern Mesopotamia, when he and his father’s and brothers’ families left their homes. Following established trade routes of the day, they moved north to Haran. It was in Haran that Abram heard God speak those words a second time. Humanly speaking, it must have been more difficult for Abram to obey them the second time. When Abram left Haran, God not only asked him to leave his country and his people; he added, “Leave . . . your father’s household.” The only relatives who accompanied Abram from Haran were his wife, Sarai, and his nephew Lot.
It might seem almost unreasonable for God to ask a 75-year-old man to leave his home and his relatives and to travel to an unknown destination. To build in Abram a willingness to follow his call, God gave Abram a promise or, more accurately, a whole cluster of promises. And that is a truth that is in itself worth noting. God deals with us, as he dealt with Abram, not in terms of demand but primarily in terms of promise.
We can isolate various individual jewels in the gem cluster of promises God gave Abram. The childless 75-year-old husband of a barren 65-year-old woman heard God say, “I will make you into a great nation.” To drive out the thought “A man my age should pull up all his roots and start a new life?” God assured Abram, “I will bless you.” God would not only pour blessings into Abram’s personal life; he would use him to bless countless other people. “You will be a blessing.”
“I will make your name great.” At the time of his call, Abram had the reputation of being a well-to-do cattleman. But that isn’t the reputation Abram has on the pages of the Scriptures. He is a man with whom God shared some of his sacred secrets. He is called the friend of God; he is the
father of believers; he is the father of the Israelite nation; he is an ancestor of the Messiah. Blessings would be identified with Abram. Throughout history, happiness (or the lack of it) would flow from the relationship people had with Abram.
Abram would experience opposition in the last century of his life, when he lived as a nomad in lands belonging to others. But God promised him that he would be so closely identified with the work of God that to curse him, to despise him, would be tantamount to opposing God.
The greatest blessing God held out to Abram when he called him was “All peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” The unfaithfulness of the Shemites could threaten once again to plunge the whole race into spiritual darkness, but a loving God took the initiative to guarantee that would not happen. God promised Abram that a great descendant would be born to his family and would bring blessings to every member of the human race.
We can isolate individual components of this cluster of divine promises to Abram, but the important thing to remember is that they all centered in Christ. Everything that God told Abram about his large family of descendants or about the new homeland they would inherit gets its real purpose and meaning from God’s revelation centering in Christ. Abram understood this from what God told him. Jesus made this clear when he said, “Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad” (John Chapter 8, verse 56).
Abram was not saved by a generic faith in a merciful God. He was saved by faith in a person and only by faith in a person and only by faith in one person. And that’s what makes the scriptural record of Abram’s faith and life so important. The way Abram was saved is the same way sinners are saved today. God didn’t have one way for people of Old Testament times to enter his family and a different way for us of the New Testament period. There has always been only one way: to trust God’s promises as these center in Jesus Christ.
God trains Abram to believe the promise of the land
Genesis Chapter 12 verses 4 through 9
So Abram left, as the LORD had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he set out from Haran. 5He took his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, all the possessions they had accumulated and the people they had acquired in Haran, and they set out for the land of Canaan, and they arrived there.
Abram traveled through the land as far as the site of the great tree of Moreh at Shechem. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. The LORD appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built an altar there to the LORD, who had appeared to him.
From there he went on toward the hills east of Bethel and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east. There he built an altar to the LORD and called on the name of the LORD. Then Abram set out and continued toward the Negev.
In his marvelous conversation with Abram, God had really said all that there was to say. All Abram could do was to speak the amen to what God had promised. The Bible calls this faith. Faith, then, is the hand that takes God’s promises and makes them our own. By contrast, unbelief closes its hand into a fist and makes it impossible for God to give us his blessings.
Abram’s trust in God’s promises didn’t simply lie in his heart “like foam on beer,” to use Luther’s earthy comparison. Abram’s trust in what God had promised powered him to respond to God’s call. He took his wife and his nephew, together with their households of servants and their flocks, said good-bye to relatives and friends in Haran, and set out on the hot and dusty journey to Canaan, the land God had promised, a narrow land bridge between three continents. Abram committed himself and his future completely into God’s hands. There’s a time to pray for God’s guidance, but there’s also a time to stop praying and to start moving. Abram followed God in glad obedience.
Abram traveled south to the center of Canaan, to the ancient city of Shechem. Moses mentions specifically that the Canaanites were in the land. From this Abram realized he would not be able to homestead the land; it was already occupied. Before his descendants could live here as their home, they would have to dispossess the Canaanites. This had to be a sobering realization for Abram. God was training Abram to believe what he had said about the Promised Land.
At this critical moment for Abram, the LORD, the Savior God, appeared to him to reaffirm and clarify his promise and to bolster Abram’s faith. He made it clear that Abram was not to try to take immediate possession of the land. It was only for Abram’s descendants that the land of Canaan would become a new homeland. Each new promise of God nourished and exercised Abram’s faith.
Now look at Abram’s response to the Lord’s appearance. In a land full of Canaanites and Canaanite religion, he built an altar to the Lord, the true God, the God who had appeared to him and restated his promise. Abram traveled south another 25 miles to the city of Bethel. There he built another altar and “called on the name of the LORD” or, more precisely, “proclaimed the name of the LORD.” In a land lying in the darkness of false religion, rays of light streamed from Abram’s worship. To the heathen Canaanites, as well as to the men and women of his own household, Abram’s worship announced, “I don’t know whom you’re going to worship, but I want you to know that the only God deserving of your worship is the God who has appeared to me with all his grace and his favor.”
Abram continued to journey south along the spine of mountains that bisects the land of Canaan, the “continental divide” along which most of Canaan’s chief cities were built. At the south end of the country was the city of Beersheba, in the region known as the Negev, the hot, dry southland.
Remember that Moses originally wrote the book of Genesis for the ancient people of Israel, who at the time had not yet entered the land. Can you imagine how mentioning the names of cities that they would one day inhabit would awaken anticipation for their new home? Each of the historic spots where Abram visited and where he worshiped would have special meaning for his descendants when they one day occupied the homeland God had picked out for them.
Abram was an important person in God’s plans for saving the world. Since he was, as the New Testament calls him, the father of believers, God had to train him to trust his promises implicitly. The only safe foundation for faith is not what we see and feel but what God has said. That’s what God was after with Abram, and that’s what he’s after with us.
Genesis Chapter 12, verses 10 through 20
Now there was a famine in the land, and Abram went down to Egypt to live there for a while because the famine was severe. As he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, “I know what a beautiful woman you are. When the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me but will let you live. Say you are my sister, so that I will be treated well for your sake and my life will be spared because of you.”
When Abram came to Egypt, the Egyptians saw that she was a very beautiful woman. And when Pharaoh’s officials saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh, and she was taken into his palace. He treated Abram well for her sake, and Abram acquired sheep and cattle, male and female donkeys, menservants and maidservants, and camels.
But the LORD inflicted serious diseases on Pharaoh and his household because of Abram’s wife Sarai. So Pharaoh summoned Abram. “What have you done to me?” he said. “Why didn’t you tell me she was your wife? Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her to be my wife? Now then, here is your wife. Take her and go!” Then Pharaoh gave orders about Abram to his men, and they sent him on his way, with his wife and everything he had.
We call God’s grace free grace. By that we mean not only that we get it for nothing but that it’s independent of our behavior. God’s mercy doesn’t need an excuse; it’s its own reason for existence. The narrative of Abram’s life gives us abundant evidence of how God’s mercy reached out for Abram in spite of his sinful shortcomings. We see an example of this in the closing verses of chapter 12.
Canaan has always been a land of what we would call minimal rainfall. Since ancient Canaan’s agriculture was rain-fed, drought was a recurring problem. One could guess that this would be especially hard on a nonresident like Abram, who didn’t own a square inch of land but depended on the goodwill of landowners for water and grazing rights for his cattle. Egypt, by contrast, practiced irrigation agri culture. In ancient times the Nile River, swollen by snow melt from the interior of Africa, each year brought life-giving water and nutrients down through the valley of the Nile, that green 5 percent of Egypt’s territory that supported the other 95 percent, and made Egypt the breadbasket of the Mediterranean world. It’s not hard to understand why, in a time of drought, Abram would take his household and his flocks and head south for Egypt.
It was in this foreign land that Abram’s faith buckled under temptation. Afraid that the Egyptians would be impressed by Sarai’s beauty and would kill him to get her, he asked her to demonstrate her love by deceiving the Egyptians into thinking she was his sister, not his wife.
This was a piece of unbelief. When Abram suggested this, he was not demonstrating his trust in God’s promise but his reliance on his own cleverness to get him out of a potentially dangerous situation. And where the root of faith is defective, the fruits of faith will also be defective. Instead of loving God above all and his fellow human being (in this case his wife) as himself, Abram was most concerned about his own safety. He explained to Sarai, “If the Egyptians think you’re my sister, not only will they have no thought of killing me, but they will probably treat me very well for your sake.”
We learn later that there was a grain of truth in what Abram had told the Egyptians. Sarai actually was his half sister. But that doesn’t change the fact that his behavior here was a lie; he was trying to deceive his Egyptian hosts. He was enjoying their hospitality; surely he owed them the truth. Abram could have been confident that the Lord would not let anything happen to him and his wife that would cancel out God’s great promises about numerous descendants and about one great descendant.
God let Abram learn the hard way. Part of what Abram had predicted came true; he was treated royally. But what Abraham did not foresee was that Egypt’s pharaoh would take Sarai into the royal harem for himself. And she very likely would have stayed there too, if God had not intervened.
Sarai had an important role in the promise God had solemnly announced to Abram, and God wasn’t going to let anything block the fulfillment of that promise—not the frailty of Abram’s faith, not even the power of the Egyptian king. Abram’s scheme to protect himself had placed God’s promise into jeopardy, but God’s faithful love preserved the purity of the Savior’s ancestress. The Lord, the God of the covenant, inflicted diseases on the royal household. We don’t know how Pharaoh came to the conclusion that God was warning him, but he surely got the message. He understood that taking Sarai was the cause of the disaster that had overtaken the palace.
It isn’t a pretty sight that we see here. The father of believers was raked over the coals by a heathen king, who then forcibly escorted him to the border as an undesirable alien.
This episode has a familiar ring to it. Like Abram, we are often strong in faith when it comes to the big things in life—like accepting God’s pardon or trusting in Christ’s merit to make us members of God’s family. But then in some earthly matter we stumble in doubt and unbelief, and we fall. Perhaps it’s a problem with earning our daily bread that trips us up. Maybe our particular problem is learning to face life one day at a time without running to the medicine cabinet or reaching for a bottle. “Satan will climb the fence where it’s lowest,” Martin Luther once remarked. Fortunately for us, Satan is not the only one who knows what frail creatures of clay we are. It was only the loyal love of God that rescued Abram. If you and I are to be kept from falling and preserved to inherit God’s promised blessing, God’s free and faithful love is our only hope.
Genesis Chapter 13, verses 1 through 9
So Abram went up from Egypt to the Negev, with his wife and everything he had, and Lot went with him. Abram had become very wealthy in livestock and in silver and gold.
From the Negev he went from place to place until he came to Bethel, to the place between Bethel and Ai where his tent had been earlier and where he had first built an altar. There Abram called on the name of the LORD.
Now Lot, who was moving about with Abram, also had flocks and herds and tents. But the land could not support them while they stayed together, for their possessions were so great that they were not able to stay together. And quarreling arose between Abram’s herdsmen and the herdsmen of Lot. The Canaanites and Perizzites were also living in the land at that time.
So Abram said to Lot, “Let’s not have any quarreling between you and me, or between your herdsmen and mine, for we are brothers. Is not the whole land before you? Let’s part company. If you go to the left, I’ll go to the right; if you go to the right, I’ll go to the left.”
We can imagine how happy Abram was to leave Egypt and to set foot on the soil of Canaan again. He had embarrassed himself and his household with his shameful dishonesty. He must have been especially thankful that his beloved Sarai was still at his side. Abram knew he’d almost lost her; it was only the Lord’s hand that had safeguarded the family of promise.
The first thing Abram did upon returning to Canaan was to head for Bethel. Years earlier when he had first entered the land, Bethel was one of the places where he had built an altar to the Lord and conducted public worship (Chapter 12, verse 8). There may have been more than one reason why Abram made this special trip to the altar at Bethel. One reason was surely his own personal need. Abram needed to express his penitence over his sorry performance in Egypt and his gratitude to God for mercifully undoing any potential damage he could have caused.
There may have been an additional reason. Abram had just experienced the grace of God as it appeared on the dark background of his sin, and he wanted to give public testimony to God’s amazing grace. Abram may have realized, furthermore, that it was not only the heathen inhabitants around Bethel who needed to hear that testimony. He knew that he owed a clear witness to the many members of his own household, who must have numbered in the hundreds (Chapter 14, verse 14). There was no way they could have been impressed with their master’s dishonesty. Some of them may even have wondered, “Is this what it means to be a follower of the true God?” Abram’s worship at Bethel gave them a clear and correct answer.
Now that the important spiritual business had been attended to, Abram could give his attention to another problem that demanded his attention. He was surrounded by all sorts of evidence that the Lord had blessed him and his nephew Lot. In Mesopotamia, in Canaan, and most recently in Egypt, the Lord had blessed them with earthly wealth most of which had four legs. The Lord who had promised Abram, “I will bless you,” had kept his promise so abundantly that “the land could not support them while they stayed together.” There simply weren’t enough grazing areas and waterholes to satisfy the needs of the two flocks, and this led to arguments between Abram’s and Lot’s herdsmen.
Here this question might arise: Was this the land the Bible later described as “flowing with milk and honey”? We need to remember that the best portions of Canaan were not available to Abram and Lot. They were only strangers, temporary residents, who had to be satisfied with what rangeland was available. Here again we can see part of God’s training program for Abram. God was training him to believe what he had promised about the land, despite all evidence to the contrary.
Abram saw in the herdsmen’s quarreling something that could not be allowed to continue. “There simply must be no quarreling between you and me,” he told Lot. Surrounded as they were by heathen occupants of the land, it would simply not do for two of the Lord’s sons to be seen quarreling. Abram saw clearly that not only was their fellowship of faith endangered, but the testimony of their faith was being blunted by the continual bickering.
Abram not only pointed out the problem, but he offered the solution. “Better that there be an outward separation between us than an inner one, Lot, and I’ll make the parting of our ways as pleasant for you as I can. You choose where you want to live, and I’ll go in the opposite direction.”
By making this generous offer, Abram was putting to work his faith in God’s promise. God had promised the land to his descendants. Since he had God’s promise, he did not have to guard his future possessions jealously. Abram’s attitude toward earthly possessions gives us a good illustration of living to the glory of God. How easy it is to say, “I trust in Christ as my Savior!” But how hard it often seems to say, “I trust in him as my Provider! ” Those who have learned to trust God’s promise to provide can be generous with their possessions. Like Abram, they know they have this promise of the Savior: “Christian, you put me first, and I promise you will lack for nothing you need for body and soul!”
Genesis Chapter 13, verses 10 through 18
Lot looked up and saw that the whole plain of the Jordan was well watered, like the garden of the LORD, like the land of Egypt, toward Zoar. (This was before the LORD destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah.) So Lot chose for himself the whole plain of the Jordan and set out toward the east. The two men parted company: Abram lived in the land of Canaan, while Lot lived among the cities of the plain and pitched his tents near Sodom. Now the men of Sodom were wicked and were sinning greatly against the LORD. The LORD said to Abram after Lot had parted from him, “Lift up your eyes from where you are and look north and south, east and west. All the land that you see I will give to you and your offspring forever. I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth, so that if anyone could count the dust, then your offspring could be counted. Go, walk through the length and breadth of the land, for I am giving it to you.”
So Abram moved hi s tent s and went to live near the great trees of Mamre at Hebron, where he built an altar to the LORD.
Lot took advantage of his uncle’s generous offer. He thought back to the time, years earlier, when he and Abram had traveled south along Canaan’s central ridge. At that time Lot had noted that the area through which the Jordan River flowed on its way to the Dead Sea was an attractive place to raise cattle. Now he chose to settle there and “pitched his tents near Sodom.” It was a terribly unwise choice, and Lot was going to pay dearly for it, in heartache and heartbreak.
One can imagine the loneliness Abram must have felt, separated from the only blood relative he had in the land. And right there the LORD, the God of the covenant, intervened. Once again Moses inverts the customary word order of the Hebrew sentence to emphasize the fact that after Abram said good-bye to Lot, the Savior-God spoke to him. To indicate his approval of what Abram had done and to compensate him for what he had given up, the Lord reaffirmed the promise of blessing to him. “All the land that you see I will give to you and your offspring forever.” Abram had yielded grazing and water rights to his nephew, but God reserved the right of ownership for Abram and his descendants.
God did still more to reward Abram for the splendid demonstration of his faith. He not only restated the promise but enlarged it by promising to give the entire land, including the land to the east, which Lot had chosen, to Abram’s descendants “forever.” That last word calls for explanation, since some have interpreted it to mean that the descendants of Abram hold title to the land of Canaan for all time. The word Moses originally used means “for the indefinite future.” God later warned the Israelites that if they turned from him they would forfeit the good land he had given them (Deuteronomy Chapter 28 verse 63 and chapter 30, verses 17 and 18). Twentyfive centuries of history have documented the fact that this actually happened.
God also enlarged his promise of descendants for Abram. This childless old man heard God say, “I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth.” Apart from God’s special promise, Abram and Sarai could only have expected that their family line would die out with them. But by faith they knew otherwise, and now God bolstered their faith with a special promise.
God also instructed Abram to give evidence of this strengthened faith by walking through the land, from one end to the other. He was to make a kind of inspection tour, the sort of thing the new owner of a piece of property might want to do. Abram did this and settled in Hebron, in the southern part of Canaan. Here is where the family of the patriarch lived the longest. Here is where they buried their beloved dead.
The chapter closes on the same note on which it opened. Abram built an altar to express his personal faith and to give public testimony to the one true God.