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God's Call to Abraham - a study of Genesis 12

How are we going to answer? I suggest: “trust and obey.”

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Genesis 12

Unlike the nameless people at Babel, Abram chose to trust and obey God, and the rest is history. God turned Abram into a blessing for the whole world. We can choose to trust and obey; it’s a decision we make each and every moment.

So Abram went, as the Lord had told him (12:4)

This weekly post started as a resource for Bible study leaders; I am slowing adding older posts for reference.

Getting Started: The Icebreaker

Stepping Out in Faith.

I would call this an easy icebreaker: what’s something that you would really like to do but are afraid to do? For starters, it doesn’t have to be religious in nature. Applying for a job, trying out for a team, making a phone call, going skydiving, whatever. But once you have people talking, switch it over to Jesus talk! What are things we know God wants us to do, but we’re afraid (or apathetic) to do it? Sharing our faith, reading through the Bible in a year, volunteering to lead a Bible study, singing with the choir. This lesson is about obeying God, even when it sounds a bit scary; God will be with us all along the journey.

Part 2: Getting Out of Our Comfort Zone.

This goes right along with that: one of the (not very good) reasons we have for avoiding what God calls us to do is we’re not comfortable with it, or it’s not convenient for us. Coming to Wednesday night Bible study, having new church members to your home for a meal, getting involved with a committee. It’s just “not our thing.” I hope you know what God thinks about that attitude! Anyway, a fun way you can experiment with comfort zones is by switching classrooms for one week next week! Whaaat?! Find another group and switch with them. That will destroy any comfort zone! Or at the very least, change up your seating arrangement and have everybody face a different direction than usual. We’re creatures of habit. God called Abram to leave his comfort zone (in every sense of the word); let’s see what happens when you change your group's!


The Context of Genesis

Over the next few weeks, we will talk about the covenant promising Isaac, the reason God changed their names, the episode with Sodom and Gomorrah, the birth of Isaac, the call to sacrifice Isaac, and Abraham’s final desires for Isaac. We will skip over the split with Lot, the battles over Lot, the flight to Egypt, the birth of Ishmael, the three visitors, the visits with Abimelech and Melchizedek, and the death of Sarah. So don’t get too caught up with explaining the covenant today, or talking a lot about Isaac. We’ll get there! In this lesson, the focus is very simply that God called to Abram, and Abram obeyed (feel free to remind your group that God will rename him Abraham in a little bit). Abram wasn’t perfect; he didn’t get it all right. But he obeyed as best he could, and God blessed him for it.

This Week's Big Idea: The World of the Patriarchs

You can’t talk about the patriarchs (meaning Abraham, Isaac, Jacobs, and his 12 sons) without talking about the “Bronze Age.”

Paleontologists have lots of terms to describe the progression of technology, and in the ancient near east of this day, bronze was the most advanced material (followed by iron, then the “middle ages”). You will find lots of arguments about which part of the Bronze Age when Abraham actually lived. I personally date him between 2200-2000 BC, but that’s primarily because I hold an early date for the Exodus, and this allows my timeline to work out. Does it make a huge difference? Probably not.

Anyway, Abraham’s world would have been the natural extension of post-Babel: lots of peoples speaking different languages, building different customs (which naturally entails different religious practices), and creating small towns some of which would have grown to small cities. No major civilizations here for a while yet; Hammurabi, the first great empire builder of Mesopotamia, doesn’t get started until about 1800 BC (Egypt has thrived for centuries by this point, but I mentioned those differences last week). Rather, each town/city has its own “king.” Sometimes a king exerts dominion over several towns; in that case, the city in which the king lives grows in size and complexity. (When you read about the battle of the five kings, this is the size they’re talking about.)

Names of such cities from this time period that you might recognize include Shechem, Joppa, Bethel, Jericho, Jerusalem, and Hebron. Resources would have been put inside walls and towers, and eventually temples would have been built. Most such cities would have been built along major trade routes (you will notice that Abram’s travels basically took him along the “fertile crescent”) where there would have been natural distrust with any terribly large caravans such as Abram’s. Traders and nomads would have always had to stay in the open. Consequently, we have two parallel cultures developing: life in the cities, and life outside the cities. Abram, for example, would have been the primary priest and lawgiver for his caravan. They might not have known anything about the local “deities”, laws, or customs. And because they weren’t going to stick around, those matters were of minor importance. Some nomads (the Arameans) used that to their advantage by selling technology and culture from place to place.

Bonus Idea: The Importance of Cities to Civilization

If I’m writing a set of leader helps on the birth of western civilization, I can’t help but include some more “educational” topics for your learning pleasure. To make a long story short, agriculture drives all civilization. People need food to live. But over time, as technology improves and crop yields increase, people start producing a surplus of food. Because there is no “currency,” the food itself has great value. Eventually, that producer finds things that he wants for which he can trade/barter that food. Eventually, enterprising individuals realize they can sell goods and services to obtain the food they need to survive. Eventually eventually, those individuals realize they can pool their resources to build shelter and hire protection, and we have the first cities. It takes a long time and civil stability.

There are pros and cons to cities. Pros: protection; stability; ownership (and the rights therein); innovation (through interaction); access to a workforce. Cons: slavery; exploitation; disease; stagnation; overpopulation.

For good or for ill, cities are the building blocks for states (and then countries) which are the very basis of all western civilization. But in the age of the patriarchs, we have the juxtaposition of Abram’s nomadic, rural life and the cities and kings of the peoples around him. His “mobile town” probably had a larger population than many of the towns around him, leading to fear. He also relied on the settled towns for goods and services (including access to food). There would always be a tension between Abram and the indigenous people of Canaan.


Part 1: God Calls (Genesis 12:1-3)

The Lord said to Abram: Go out from your land, your relatives, and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, I will bless you, I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, I will curse those who treat you with contempt, and all the peoples on earth will be blessed through you.

What I find most amazing about these words is the explicit rejection of everything “Babel”. What did they want? To stay together, find safety in family, and work together to create something that will make them famous. What did God actually want of them? To focus on Him, trust and rely on Him, and allow God to make their name great. That’s what Abram will do. Why Abram? I don’t know. That was God’s decision. It might have been as simple as “because Abram would do it”. God calls Abram to leave his land and relatives (meaning culture, comfort, community) and also his father’s house. That basically means leaving his name behind. If you can find a way of contextualizing this call for your specific group, please do so; it is as extreme a call as we will ever find in the Bible, and it is the very basis of everything we believe as Christians. And what did God give Abram for obeying? A great name/identity, eternal security, and the ultimate community. To get those things, Abram had to leave them behind!

God knew where He was sending Abram, but it sounds like Abram didn’t. We read in chapter 11 that Abram’s dad Terah took the family as far as Haran before settling down and eventually dying there. Abram continued the journey, literally leaving his father’s house behind. God gave Abram 7 conditional promises that are critical for our understanding of the entire Old Testament:

God will make him a great nation. This is implied to be biological, which leads to one of the confusions we will talk about, and also why the eventual call to sacrifice Isaac is so profound. In a land where nations rise and fall so quickly, this is significant. God will bless him. In the context of everything Abram left behind, this would imply family, community, and security (physical and financial). God will make his name great, directly opposed to the episode at Babel. God will make him a blessing. This, of course, is fulfilled in Jesus Christ, and is one of the major reasons why the Jews were marginalized in God’s plan. (Their answer to Abram’s status made them look inward and boastful, not what God intended.) God will bless those who bless you and curse those who slight you. . .

[Aside: this may not be something you want to bring up in discussion(!), but you know that this is a big reason why the conservative voting bloc is so insistent about American treaty relationships with Israel. “We have to keep our treaty with Israel so God will keep blessing us!” Look, I believe wholeheartedly that the United States should help Israel not be annihilated, but I’m not sure that’s what this passage means. The New Testament gives us two clarifications that might come into play: (1) Abraham’s physical descendants and spiritual descendants are two different groups, and (2) our public declarations and our private sentiments are often different. And God cares about Abraham’s spiritual descendants and our private sentiments. In other words, a public, half-hearted treaty with a politically-constructed nation of Israel might not be what God has in mind here.]

Anyway, the point is quite simple. What is God calling you to do? How difficult do you fear it to be? There’s another way you could word this: what do you think God might be calling you to do that you would really like God to confirm. In other words, you would do it, but you really want to be sure that’s what God wants . . .


Aside: Canaan’s Religions

The patriarchs were nomadic herders. They kept sheep, goats, and cattle. Therefore, their primary concern was grazing and water for their animals. That worked in much of Canaan, which was a very diverse ecosystem from the farmlands around Galilee to the rich timberlands further north.

Canaan was filled with descendants of Shem (Semites; ironically, “Canaan” is not a Semite word). Their primary deities involved fertility, grain, and war. Their heyday, with the most towns, was about 3000-2000 BC; not surprisingly, Egypt ruled the region after about 2000 BC. The primary god of the region was “El” from which the Hebrews took the common word for “God.” El’s wife was Asherah, the fertility goddess who gave birth to many deities. The popular god was Baal and his sister Anat, who eventually took over as chief gods. Over time, the mythology came to say that Baal took over the pantheon through strength and wisdom.

One archeological discovery in Mari (see the map) of many thousands of tablets revealed that while the majority of the population (65%) lived in towns and cities, there were many nomadic tribes like Abram’s which coexisted with the city folk. Those tribes would drift further out in times of rain, and drift closer to the cities in time of drought. Some kings tried to “incorporate” them for tax purposes, and some generations stayed in those cities. As we might expect, the tablets revealed a great diversity in religion from place to place, which would make Abram’s beliefs seem like just another tribal religion and nothing to fuss about. That would change when the Jews fought the Canaanites.

Bonus Aside: The Religion of Ur

We know that Abram came from Ur of the Chaldeans where he lived with his father Terah (literally, most likely) and married his wife. Abram’s brother Haran died there, leaving a son Lot. For some reason, Terah decided to take his family from Ur to Canaan. We don’t know if Abram had already heard the call from God and urged Terah to make the move, or if God simply used that as the catalyst to get Abram going.

Anyway, Abram had grown up in Ur, which would imply that he was aware of or even participated in local culture there. From what we have found, the patron god of Ur was the moon-goddess “Nanna” (how about that!). Because the moon waxed and waned, appeared and disappeared, they thought she was a symbol of provision and fertility and even regeneration. Fertility was associated with field and family, so everyone would bring the fruits of their crops and herds to Nanna’s temple. Worship here, though, was rooted in the home. Terah was the family priest (which would make that adjustment to nomadic life easy). He was responsible for keeping the gods happy by maintaining the altars and giving the sacrifices (if he failed to do so, the gods might withhold produce or children).

Another reflection of Ur in Abram is the family pattern. It was not uncommon in cultures that worshiped fertility deities to practice polygamy; Ur apparently did. There is one record of a king there who had 9 wives and 50 kids. This would have continued along the first half of Abram’s journey at least through Haran (the city) where they also worshiped the moon. And that is where Terah’s story ends.

So . . . Is Polygamy Okay?

I actually hear this from a number of camps. “Because Abraham married his sister and took concubines, doesn’t that mean it’s okay for us, too?” This is where having the whole counsel of Scripture is helpful. Yes, Abraham is a hero of our faith, but that doesn’t mean he had it all together. We have already seen that the culture he grew up in taught him things that would have been contrary to God’s later revelation. This is a great challenge to idolizing our heroes -- just because Abram did it doesn’t make it okay. We will discover things in all of the patriarch’s lives that will make us cringe; that doesn’t make the men evil.


Part 2: Abram Goes (Genesis 12:4-9)

So Abram went, as the Lord had told him, and Lot went with him. Abram was 75 years old when he left Haran. He took his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, all the possessions they had accumulated, and the people he had acquired in Haran, and they set out for the land of Canaan. When they came to the land of Canaan, Abram passed through the land to the site of Shechem, at the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. Then the Lord appeared to Abram and said, “I will give this land to your offspring.” So he built an altar there to the Lord who had appeared to him. From there he moved on to the hill country east of Bethel and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east. He built an altar to Yahweh there, and he called on the name of Yahweh. Then Abram journeyed by stages to the Negev.

Very simple: God called, Abram went. There were plenty of rocky moments along the way, and not a little doubt, but Abram went. Travel might be a fun illustration for you. Do you have group members who like to travel? How much work is it for them to put a trip together? How many people are they responsible for on their trips? How well-planned do they like to be? Look at Abram’s trip: he’s 75, he’s bringing his family, he’s bringing everyone who works for him, he’s bringing all of their possessions, he’s bringing large flocks and herds, and they’re going to an unknown destination. Yikes! The reference to people here is probably not to slaves (as they might have been considered possessions), but rather to those who chose to come with Abram either as workers or who heard about his mission and believed. Either way.

They eventually make it to Canaan (where there are Canaanites; the implication is that they will have to be removed, something that would make sense if God did indeed give this book to Moses while they were wandering in the wilderness) and stop at the oak of Moreh. It was likely an important pagan worship site, but God coopted it for His own purposes. The word can mean “instruction.” That’s where Jacob buried the family gods that Rachel brought from Haran. That’s where God reminded Israel of blessings and curses (Deut 11:26-30). That’s where Joshua placed a memorial (Josh 24:26). And Abraham built an altar there to the Lord. This is going to be very, very early in their relationship, so I think we call this a “baby step” on the part of Abram. He had heard the call of this unknown God, said “okay,” and was now wandering around. Building an altar was probably the first (and maybe the only) thing he thought to do. And it was a good start. We see this repeated along the journey. Everywhere Abram goes, he pitches his tents and he builds an altar. Yes, these actions seem rather simple compared with what God told Moses to do (see the below about progression), but Abram has to start somewhere. Abram had to get to know God, had to learn about God; God wasn’t going to dump the history of the universe on him in one setting. It was going to take time. And Abram wasn’t going to be perfect.

Note that it starts with the reference to “the Negev,” which is the dry region in the south. There, he will encounter a drought that will drive him into Egypt, where some problems arise. The point is that God didn’t call a fully-formed, perfect “Christian”. God called an ordinary man, and really just called him to do ordinary things. God works in ordinary lives, and that gives me hope and comfort.

Your leader guide gives some fun ways to talk about this. One is for our older class members: as you’ve gotten older, how has your service to God changed? What’s gotten harder to do? What’s gotten easier? What are some late-in-life decisions your friends have made that impressed/challenged you? The other is the big question for all of us: how has our obedience to God been a blessing to people around us? If we can’t answer that question, then I challenge each one of us to go out of our way to be a blessing to someone this week.

The last thing has to do with my lesson from Noah: altars and rainbows. Abram built an altar everywhere he went! Every time his people retraced their path to go back to Haran or somewhere, they would walk by those altars and remember why Abram built them. It’s been a couple of weeks: has your group started “building altars” to the Lord to remember what God has done in their lives? Have they identified ways God has worked that they want to remember? You can expand this to include family traditions.

And don’t neglect the tie to worship. After all, that’s what David is preaching about!


Aside: Has Christianity “Progressed”?

This is one of the most common arguments you will read from liberal naysayers of Christianity. They will walk through the Bible as a series of religious developments: natural religion of Adam; first covenant with Noah; primitive worship patterns of the patriarchs; law-based religion of Moses and the tabernacle; more settled and complex religion of the Temple; decentralized synagogue religion of the Exile; charisma-based religion of Jesus; simple worship of the early church; dogma-based religion of Paul. Do you see where they’re coming from? Anyway, the argument then is this: “See? Christianity developed just like other man-made religions. Therefore, it is a manmade system just like the rest.”

If we’re going to be honest, we can absolutely see progression or development throughout the Bible. The Jewish and then Christian religion has certainly become more developed (I don’t like the word “complex” here) as time has gone on. But does that make it manmade? That’s a weak argument if I’ve ever heard one!

The other way of explaining this is through “progressive revelation”. In other words, as time has passed and people become comfortable with what God has revealed, He reveals a little bit more. An obvious one is the knowledge of the Trinity. But just as important would be the development of the sacrificial system and its fulfillment in Jesus Christ. The central truths of Jesus wouldn’t have made sense had the people not had generations of experience in Judaism to see its differences with other religions and its limitations. BUT, because Jesus is the supreme fulfillment of God’s plan, there is no need to further development, as some people still look for it.


Closing Thoughts: The Themes of Genesis

That which is the same and different about the story of Abram compared with everything already in Genesis is so instructive. So far, we have studied the Creation, the Fall of Adam, Noah and the Flood, and the Tower of Babel. Within that, we have the theme of God as Creator, God as Covenant-maker, God as Judge, and God as Redeemer/Savior. Those elements are present in each of the stories to this point. Almost. The story we just studied of Babel had the elements of creation, sin, and judgment, but nothing about redemption. Sinful humanity has rebelled against God, and now they have been scattered by tribes all over the world.

But read closely. What follows Babel is a genealogy that leads to Terah that leads to Abram. How will God redeem sinful, scattered humanity? Through one of those families. God would bring redemption through one of the very agents of rebellion. The story of Abram is the redemption of Babel.

And that leads to one last, but really important, theme: humble origins. In most national mythologies, something very grand is proposed about the progenitor of that race (descent from gods, mighty conqueror, etc.). But look at the origin of the Jews. Abraham wasn’t from anywhere near Israel! He was just some random guy from the Chaldees who wandered through Canaan on his way to Egypt, where he lied about his wife and got chased out of town! There’s nothing particularly compelling about Abraham; his promoted claim to fame is that he believed God. And that’s it. This kind of humble origin story will be repeated in the New Testament church, and it’s good for all of us to remember. This gives me compelling reason to believe it to be true—frankly, it’s all too boring to be a myth. God worked through ordinary people in ordinary lives; He still does today.

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