- The Call of Abram
6. שׁכם shekem Shekem, “the upper part of the back.” Here it is the name of a person, the owner of this place, where afterward is built the town called at first Shekem, then Flavia Neapolis, and now Nablous. אלון 'ēlôn “the oak;” related: “be lasting, strong.” מורה môreh In Onkelos “plain;” Moreh, “archer, early rain, teacher.” Here the name of a man who owned the oak that marked the spot. In the Septuagint it is rendered ὑψηγήν hupseegeen בית־אל bēyt -'êl Bethel, “house of God.” ים yam “sea, great river, west.” עי ‛ay ‹Ai, “heap.”
9. נגב negeb “south.”
The narrative now takes leave of the rest of the Shemites, as well as the other branches of the human family, and confines itself to Abram. It is no part of the design of Scripture to trace the development of worldliness. It marks its source, and indicates the law of its downward tendency; but then it turns away from the dark detail, to devote its attention to the way by which light from heaven may again pierce the gloom of the fallen heart. Here, then, we have the starting of a new spring of spiritual life in the human race.
Having brought the affairs of Terah‘s family to a fit resting point, the sacred writer now reverts to the call of Abram. This, we have seen, took place when he was seventy years of age, and therefore five years before the death of Terah. “The Lord said unto Abram.” Four hundred and twenty-two years on the lowest calculation after the last recorded communication with Noah, the Lord again opens his mouth, to Abram. Noah, Shem, or Heber, must have been in communication with heaven, indeed, at the time of the confusion of tongues, and hence, we have an account of that miraculous interposition. The call of Abram consists of a command and a promise. The command is to leave the place of all his old and fond associations, for a land which he had not yet seen, and therefore did not know. Three ties are to be severed in complying with this command - his country, in the widest range of his affections; his place of birth and kindred comes closer to his heart; his father‘s house is the inmost circle of all his tender emotions. All these are to be resigned; not, however, without reason. The reason may not be entirely obvious to the mind of Abram. But he has entire faith in the reasonableness of what God proposes. So with reason and faith he is willing to go to the unknown land. It is enough that God will show him the land to which he is now sent.
The promise corresponds to the command. If he is to lose much by his exile, he will also gain in the end. The promise contains a lower and higher blessing. The lower blessing has three parts: “First, I will make of thee a great nation.” This will compensate for the loss of his country. The nation to which he had hitherto belonged was fast sinking into polytheism and idolatry. To escape from it and its defiling influence was itself a benefit; but to be made himself the head of a chosen nation was a double blessing. Secondly, “And bless thee.” The place of his birth and kindred was the scene of all his past earthly joys. But the Lord will make up the loss to him in a purer and safer scene of temporal prosperity. Thirdly, “And make thy name great.” This was to compensate him for his father‘s house. He was to be the patriarch of a new house, on account of which he would be known and venerated all over the world.
The higher blessing is expressed in these remarkable terms: “And be thou a blessing.” He is to be not merely a subject of blessing, but a medium of blessing to others. It is more blessed to give than to receive. And the Lord here confers on Abram the delightful prerogative of dispensing good to others. The next verse expands this higher element of the divine promise. “I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee.” Here the Lord identifies the cause of Abram with his own, and declares him to be essentially connected with the weal or woe of all who come into contact with him. “And blessed in thee shall be all the families of the ground.” The ground was cursed for the sake of Adam, who fell by transgression. But now shall the ground again participate in the blessing. “In thee.” In Abram is this blessing laid up as a treasure hid in a field to be realized in due time. “All the families” of mankind shall ultimately enter into the enjoyment of this unbounded blessing.
Thus, when the Lord saw fit to select a man to preserve vital piety on the earth and be the head of a race suited to be the depository of a revelation of mercy, he at the same time designed that this step should be the means of effectually recalling the sin-enthralled world to the knowledge and love of himself. The race was twice already since the fall put upon its probation - once under the promise of victory to the seed of the woman, and again under the covenant with Noah. In each of these cases, notwithstanding the growing light of revelation and accumulating evidence of the divine forbearance, the race had apostatised from the God of mercy, with lamentably few known exceptions. Yet, undeterred by the gathering tokens of this second apostasy, and after reiterated practical demonstration to all people of the debasing, demoralizing effect of sin, the Lord, with calm determination of purpose, sets about another step in the great process of removing the curse of sin, dispensing the blessing of pardon, and eventually drawing all the nations to accept of his mercy. The special call of Abram contemplates the calling of the Gentiles as its final issue, and is therefore to be regarded as one link in a series of wonderful events by which the legal obstacles to the divine mercy are to be taken out of the way, and the Spirit of the Lord is to prevail with still more and more of men to return to God.
It is sometimes inadvertently said that the Old Testament is narrow and exclusive, while the New Testament is broad and catholic in its spirit. This is a mistake. The Old and New Testaments are of one mind on this matter. Many are called, and few chosen. This is the common doctrine of the New as well as of the Old. They are both equally catholic in proclaiming the gospel to all. The covenant with Adam and with Noah is still valid and sure to all who return to God; and the call of Abram is expressly said to be a means of extending blessing to all the families of man. The New Testament does not aim at anything more than this; it merely hails the approaching accomplishment of the same gracious end. They both concur also in limiting salvation to the few who repent and believe the gospel. Even when Abram was called there were a few who still trusted in the God of mercy. According to the chronology of the Masoretic text, Heber was still alive, Melkizedec was contemporary with Abram, Job was probably later, and many other now unknown witnesses for God were doubtless to be found, down to the time of the exodus, outside the chosen family. God marks the first symptoms of decaying piety. He does not wait until it has died out before he calls Abram. He proceeds in a leisurely, deliberate manner with his eternal purpose of mercy, and hence, a single heir of promise suffices for three generations, until the set time comes for the chosen family and the chosen nation. Universalism, then, in the sense of the offer of mercy to man, is the rule of the Old and the New Testament. Particularism in the acceptance of it is the accident of the time. The call of Abram is a special expedient for providing a salvation that may be offered to all the families of the earth.
In all God‘s teachings the near and the sensible come before the far and the conceivable, the present and the earthly before the eternal and the heavenly. Thus, Abram‘s immediate acts of self-denial are leaving his country, his birthplace, his home. The promise to him is to be made a great nation, be blessed, and have a great name in the new land which the Lord would show him. This is unspeakably enhanced by his being made a blessing to all nations. God pursues this mode of teaching for several important reasons. First, the sensible and the present are intelligible to those who are taught. The Great Teacher begins with the known, and leads the mind forward to the unknown. If he had begun with things too high, too deep, or too far for the range of Abram‘s mental vision, he would not have come into relation with Abram‘s mind. It is superfluous to say that he might have enlarged Abram‘s view in proportion to the grandeur of the conceptions to be revealed.
On the same principle he might have made Abram cognizant of all present and all developed truth. On the same principle he might have developed all things in an instant of time, and so have had done with creation and providence at once. Secondly, the present and the sensible are the types of the future and the conceivable; the land is the type of the better land; the nation of the spiritual nation; the temporal blessing of the eternal blessing; the earthly greatness of the name of the heavenly. And let us not suppose that we are arrived at the end of all knowledge. We pique ourselves on our advance in spiritual knowledge beyond the age of Abram. But even we may be in the very infancy of mental development. There may be a land, a nation, a blessing, a great name, of which our present realizations or conceptions are but the types. Any other supposition would be a large abatement from the sweetness of hope‘s overflowing cup.
Thirdly, these things which God now promises are the immediate form of his bounty, the very gifts he begins at the moment to bestow. God has his gift to Abram ready in his hand in a tangible form. He points to it and says, This is what thou presently needest; this I give thee, with my blessing and favor. But, fourthly, these are the earnest and the germ of all temporal and eternal blessing. Man is a growing thing, whether as an individual or a race. God graduates his benefits according to the condition and capacity of the recipients. In the first boon of his good-will is the earnest of what he will continue to bestow on those who continue to walk in his ways. And as the present is the womb of the future, so is the external the symbol of the internal, the material the shadow of the spiritual, in the order of the divine blessing. And as events unfold themselves in the history of man and conceptions in his soul within, so are doctrines gradually opened up in the Word of God, and progressively revealed to the soul by the Spirit of God.
Abram obeys the call. He had set out from Ur under the revered guardianship of his aged father, Terah, with other companions, “as the Lord had spoken unto him.” Lot is now mentioned as his companion. Terah‘s death has been already recorded. Sarai is with him, of course, and therefore it is unnecessary to repeat the fact. But Lot is associated with him as an incidental companion for some time longer. The age of Abram at the second stage of his journey is now mentioned. This enables us to determine, as, we have seen, that he departed from Ur five years before.
This is the record of what is presumed in the close of Genesis 12:4; namely, the second setting out for Kenaan. “Abram took.” He is now the leader of the little colony, as Terah was before his death. Sarai, as well as Lot, is now named. “The gaining they had gained” during the five years of their residence in Haran. If Jacob became comparatively rich in six years Genesis 30:43, so might Abram, with the divine blessing, in five. “The souls they had gotten” - the bondservants they had acquired. Where there is a large stock of cattle, there must be a corresponding number of servants to attend to them. Abram and Lot enter the land as men of substance. They are in a position of independence. The Lord is realizing to Abram the blessing promised. They start for the land of Kenaan, and at length arrive there. This event is made as important as it ought to be in our minds by the mode in which it is stated.
Abram does not enter into immediate possession, but only travels through the land which the Lord had promised to show him Genesis 12:1. He arrives at “the place of Shekem.” The town was probably not yet in existence. It lay between Mount Gerizzim and Mount Ebal. It possesses a special interest as the spot where the Lord first appeared to Abram in the land of promise. It was afterward dedicated to the Lord by being made a Levitical town, and a city of refuge. At this place Joshua convened an assembly of all Israel to hear his farewell address. “So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and set them a statute and an ordinance in Shekem” Genesis 4:26. Some of these former inhabitants will meet us in the course of the narrative. It admits also of the supposition that the Kenaanites afterward ceased to be its inhabitants. Hence, some have inferred that this could not have been penned by Moses, as they were expelled after his death. If this supposition were the necessary or the only one implied in the form of expression, we should acquiesce in the conclusion that this sentence came from one of the prophets to whom the conservation, revision, and continuation of the living oracles were committed. But we have seen that two other presuppositions may be made that satisfy the import of the passage. Moreover, the first of the three accounts for the fact that Abram does not instantly enter on possession, as there was an occupying tenant. And, finally, the third supposition may fairly be, not that the Kenaanites afterward ceased, but that they should afterward cease to be in the land. This, then, as well as the others, admits of Moses being the writer of this interesting sentence.
We are inclined to think, however, that the term “Kenaanite” here means, not the whole race of Kenaan, but the special tribe so called. If the former were meant, the statement would be in a manner superfluous, after calling the country the land of Kenaan. If the proper tribe be intended, then we have evidence here that they once possessed this part of the land which was afterward occupied by the Hivite and the Amorite Genesis 34:2; Joshua 11:3; for, at the time of the conquest by Abram‘s descendants, the mountainous land in the center, including the place of Shekem, was occupied by the Amorites and other tribes, while the coast of the Mediterranean and the west bank of the Jordan was held by the Kenaanites proper (Josephus v. 1; xi. 3). This change of occupants had taken place before the time of Moses.
And the Lord appeared unto Abram. - Here, for the first time, this remarkable phrase occurs. It indicates that the Lord presents himself to the consciousness of man in any way suitable to his nature. It is not confined to the sight, but may refer to the hearing 1 Samuel 3:15. The possibility of God appearing to man is antecedently undeniable. The fact of his having done so proves the possibility. On the mode of his doing this it is vain for us to speculate. The Lord said unto him, “Unto thy seed will I give this land.” “Unto thy seed,” not unto thee. To Abram himself “he gave none inheritance in it, no, not so much as to set his foot on” Acts 7:5. “This land” which the Lord had now shown him, though at present occupied by the Kenaanite invader. “An altar.” This altar is erected on the spot which is hallowed by the appearance of the Lord to Abram. The place of Shekem might have been supposed to have received its name from Shekem, a son of Gilead Numbers 26:31, did we not meet with Shekem, the son of Hamor, in this very place in the time of Jacob Genesis 34:2. We learn from this the precariousness of the inference that the name of a place is of later origin because a person of that name lived there at a later period. The place of Shekem was doubtless called after a Shekem antecedent to Abram. Shekem and Moreh may have preceded even the Kenaanites, for anything we know.
From the oak of Moreh Abram now moves to the hill east of Bethel, and pitches his tent, with “Bethel on the west and Ai on the east.” These localities are still recognized - the former as Beiten, and the latter as Tell er-Rijmeh (the mount of the heap). Bethel was “a place,” adjacent to which was the town called “Luz at the first” Genesis 28:19. Jacob gave this name to the place twice Genesis 28:19; Genesis 35:15. The name, then, was not first given at the second nomination by him. It follows that it may not have been first given at his first nomination. Accordingly we meet with it as an existing name in Abram‘s time, without being constrained to account for it by supposing the present narrative to have been composed in its present form after the time of Jacob‘s visit. On the other hand, we may regard it as an interesting trace of early piety having been present in the land even before the arrival of Abram. We shall meet with other corroborating proofs. Bethel continued afterward to be a place hallowed by the presence of God, to which the people resorted for counsel in the war with Benjamin Judges 20:18, Judges 20:26, Judges 20:31; Judges 21:2, and in which Jeroboam set up one of the golden calves 1 Kings 12:29.
On the hill east of this sacred ground Abram built another altar; and called upon the name of the Lord. Here we bare the reappearance of an ancient custom, instituted in the family of Adam after the birth of Enok Genesis 4:26. Abram addresses God by his proper name, Yahweh, with an audible voice, in his assembled household. This, then, is a continuation of the worship of Adam, with additional light according to the progressive development of the moral nature of man. But Abram has not yet any settled abode in the land. He is only surveying its several regions, and feeding his flocks as he finds an opening. Hence, he continues his journey southward.
After the dispersion from Babel idolatry again became well-nigh universal, and the Lord finally left the hardened transgressors to follow their evil ways, while He chose Abraham, of the line of Shem, and made him the keeper of His law for future generations. Abraham had grown up in the midst of superstition and heathenism. Even his father's household, by whom the knowledge of God had been preserved, were yielding to the seductive influences surrounding them, and they “served other gods” than Jehovah. But the true faith was not to become extinct. God has ever preserved a remnant to serve Him. Adam, Seth, Enoch, Methuselah, Noah, Shem, in unbroken line, had preserved from age to age the precious revealings of His will. The son of Terah became the inheritor of this holy trust. Idolatry invited him on every side, but in vain. Faithful among the faithless, uncorrupted by the prevailing apostasy, he steadfastly adhered to the worship of the one true God. “The Lord is nigh unto all them that call upon Him, to all that call upon Him in truth.” Psalm 145:18. He communicated His will to Abraham, and gave him a distinct knowledge of the requirements of His law and of the salvation that would be accomplished through Christ. PP 125.1
There was given to Abraham the promise, especially dear to the people of that age, of a numerous posterity and of national greatness: “I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing.” And to this was added the assurance, precious above every other to the inheritor of faith, that of his line the Redeemer of the world should come: “In thee shall all families of the earth be blessed.” Yet, as the first condition of fulfillment, there was to be a test of faith; a sacrifice was demanded. PP 125.2Read in context »