The Faith of Abraham | Genesis 11:27-12:9 | The Call of Abram
27 Now these are the generations of Terah. Terah fathered Abram, Nahor, and Haran; and Haran fathered Lot. 28 Haran died in the presence of his father Terah in the land of his kindred, in Ur of the Chaldeans. 29 And Abram and Nahor took wives. The name of Abram’s wife was Sarai, and the name of Nahor’s wife, Milcah, the daughter of Haran the father of Milcah and Iscah. 30 Now Sarai was barren; she had no child.
31 Terah took Abram his son and Lot the son of Haran, his grandson, and Sarai his daughter-in-law, his son Abram’s wife, and they went forth together from Ur of the Chaldeans to go into the land of Canaan, but when they came to Haran, they settled there. 32 The days of Terah were 205 years, and Terah died in Haran.
1 Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2 And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
4 So Abram went, as the Lord had told him, and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. 5 And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother’s son, and all their possessions that they had gathered, and the people that they had acquired in Haran, and they set out to go to the land of Canaan. When they came to the land of Canaan, 6 Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. 7 Then the Lord appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him. 8 From there he moved to the hill country on the east of Bethel and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east. And there he built an altar to the Lord and called upon the name of the Lord. 9 And Abram journeyed on, still going toward the Negeb.
When Paul looked in the Old Testament for the model of faith, he didn’t choose Moses or David or Isaiah. He chose Abraham. “For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.’” (Romans 4:3). What was it that Abraham believed? Paul says in Galatians 3:8 that it was the gospel. “And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘In you shall all the nations be blessed.’”
In Genesis 11:27-12:9, we see the beginning of Abram’s life of faith. Abram believed God’s word, followed God’s call, and exalted God’s name.
ABRAM BELIEVED GOD’S WORD (11:27-12:3)
Genesis 11:27-32 is more than a genealogy. It’s a status update on humanity. We’re at a dead end. Genesis 1-11 is the story of beginnings. It takes us from the creation of the world down to Abram’s family. As the Bible zeroes in on Abram, we find not a God-fearing family thriving in their land but a pagan family barely making it. It’s a hopeless scene. Even Sarai, Abram’s wife, is barren, and he’s an old man.
It shouldn’t have been this way. Go back far enough in Abram’s family line, and you’ll find faithful Noah. Keep going, and you’ll find Enosh, the son of Seth, who called upon the name of the Lord (Genesis 4:26). But by the time we find Abram, we see a family far from God. Joshua tells us, “Long ago, your fathers lived beyond the Euphrates, Terah, the father of Abraham and of Nahor; and they served other gods” (Joshua 24:2). Somewhere along the way, Enosh’s kids stopped calling upon the name of the Lord.
The once-bright future is now a darkening present, and no one can do anything about it. Commentator Walter Brueggemann says, “The barrenness of Sarah is an effective metaphor for hopelessness. This text tells us there is no foreseeable future. There is no human power to invent a future. The human race and human history have just hit a dead end. It’s over. And then God speaks, and there’s hope again.”
Genesis 12:1 shows us what happens when God speaks to a man. Before God speaks, deadness and darkness; after God speaks, life abundant. Abram’s redemption—like every believer’s—began with God speaking. No one comes to saving faith apart from God’s effective call.
We see that call in verse 1. In the midst of darkness, God speaks to Abram and calls him into his marvelous light. But it isn’t easy. God’s call is to go, to leave, to follow God wherever he leads. It is a call to abandon his father’s gods and place his faith in him alone.
The Bible gives us the facts here, but we can imagine this wasn’t an easy decision for Abram. Terah, Abram’s father, took his family away from Ur to the land of Canaan. But they stopped in Haran and settled there. That was a problem. The land of Haran was not the land the Lord had for his people. They needed to go onward. It was time for Abram to leave his country, his family, his father’s house. It was time to follow God. Terah took him only so far. But God’s call on Abram’s life was to go further. He says simply, “Go.” The King James version says, “Get thee out.” The language is strong. God is saying to Abram, “Your father won’t go, so you go. Get yourself out of here. Now.”
The call wasn’t an easy one. God called him away from everything he knew without telling him where he would end up. As John Calvin says, the call was, “I command you to go forth with closed eyes, and forbid you to inquire where I am about to lead you, until, having renounced your country, you shall have given yourself wholly to me.” The call was void of specifics. It was a naked call. It was the kind of call that caused Abram to rely wholly upon God. And even in the face of hopelessness, that’s a scary thing. Sometimes the miserable life you know is better than the unknown life you fear.
Tim Keller helps us see the internal struggle Abram must have faced. His family descended from the faithful, and though his father never heard the word of God, Abram did. Nominal belief no longer worked.
Abram basically is having a conversation, and he’s saying, “Well you know, God, I’ve come halfway. This is as far as Dad and everybody else wants to go. You know, Nahor and all the guys … I just can’t get them … They like it here, and they don’t want to go any farther. I’ve come halfway.” So what is God saying? “Then come yourself.”
Keller goes on to apply this to us all.
[God] is saying, “It’s not good enough to be part of a Christian ethos.” It’s not good enough for you to say, “Well I’m in a Christian family, and I’ve always joined a church,” or “I’m from Scotland, and I feel at home in a Presbyterian church,” or “I’m Italian, and I feel at home in a Roman Catholic church,” or “I’m Mississippian, and I’m at home in a Southern Baptist church.” It’s not enough to be part of the ethos. It’s not enough just to be part of the environment.
“Yes, of course, I feel very good around Christians…” Have you met God yourself? Have you gotten out yourself? Have you encountered him yourself, in your own self? Has it penetrated you as an individual? Have you made the personal commitment? Do you see that? That’s the first thing. It’s personally radical. You can’t come in on anybody else’s coattails. It has to be your faith.
How does one’s faith become one’s own? By believing God’s word at the deepest personal level. When what God says stops becoming a theory and becomes a reality, when you stop thinking about obeying and begin to obey, when you forsake your plans for your life and accept God’s, you know you’ve stepped across the line from unfaith to faith. When you hear God’s word as a word for you, you step over the line of unbelief into belief. That’s what Abram does in Genesis 12:1-9. He steps over the line. Abram becomes a believer.
Of course, verses 2 and 3 show us God’s call isn’t only sacrificial; it is also promissory. It always is. The gospel is not merely a call away from sin; it’s a promise of righteousness. The gospel is a message of what God has done in Christ for his people. And though Abram didn’t hear the good news of what God did in Christ, he heard the news of what God would do for him. God calls Abram from three things, but he isn’t asking him to abandon those good things forever. He will restore them in himself with a three-fold promise. In leaving his country, he was leaving part of his identity. But God promised to make of Abram a great nation. In leaving his kindred, he was leaving his name behind. But God promised to give Abram a great name. In leaving his father’s house, he was leaving any blessing he could receive. But God promised Abram he would be a blessing. God called him away from the lesser to give him the greater. That is the normal way of God. Yes, he calls us away, but he gives abundance in himself.
The abundance of God comes in part in this life, but in fullness only later. When we step over the line from unbelief to belief, we’re stepping into a hope that extends beyond this world. We’re stepping into an eternal hope. Abram realized this. Though he trusted God’s promises, he didn’t live to see them come to pass entirely. Hebrews 11:39 says, “And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised.” Abram was made into a great nation, but he didn’t see it. He was given a great name, but he didn’t hear it. He was a blessing to the world, but he didn’t know it. Such is the life of faith—following God to the Promised Land when that land cannot be seen, trusting God for a great name when you’re despised, hoping for a home as aliens in the world.
Still, God’s call goes forth, and we all stand where Abram stood wondering if we should follow.
ABRAM FOLLOWED GOD’S CALL (12:4-5)
The text is to the point, “So Abram went.” Hebrews 11:8-10 says, “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to received as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations.”
The life of faith is the life of a pilgrim. This world is not our home. We are journeying onward to God’s celestial shore. Kent Hughes comments on this reality.
That idea is radical because it challenges “the dominant ideologies of our time which yearn for settlement, security and placement” (Brueggemann). Everything around us tells us to hunker down, save everything, hedge ourselves about with every protection. Our natural desires are for more comforts. Our culture celebrates great homes and dynastic families. But God’s Word says otherwise, instructing us to “seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (Colossians 3:1–4).
Abram went because the Lord told him to do so. Believing God’s word led Abram to follow God’s call. As we’ve said, the call was mysterious. God said, “Go to the land that I will show you.” He gave no details. He rarely does. The call of God to follow and obey is never as specific as we wish.
Imagine explaining to everyone where he’s going. “I don’t know.” What will you find when you get there? “I don’t know.” What will come of you in the new land? “I don’t know.” What did Abram know? He knew God and that he must be good. That was it. The rest was waiting—waiting on God to make good on his promises, to prove himself true to his word.
Following God is waiting on God. And Abram proves that waiting on God is hard but ultimately worth it. As Ray Ortlund says, “The life of Abraham shows us how God builds waiting into our lives. He makes us promises, and then he keeps us waiting, to deepen us. A major way we ‘bear the cross’ is by accepting God’s excruciating delays. We hate waiting. But he really is worth the wait. So, okay.”
Abram waited a long time. His waiting started the second he believed God for the very first time. The waiting continued as he started walking. Verse 4 is not as shocking to us as it would have been to the original readers. That Abram left his country, his kindred, and his father’s house is unremarkable to us. We live in an age and culture where leaving those things is easy. But in Abram’s day, it was scandalous. The family was everything. Leaving wasn’t an option. Unless God called.
And at the age of seventy-five, Abram traveled a route of 800 miles. It wasn’t short or easy. In all, he made three moves in the first nine verses of chapter 12. He went from Haran to Canaan, from Canaan to Bethel, and, finally, from Bethel to the Negeb.
Traveling from Haran to Canaan, he passed through to the place at Shechem. Shechem would become a familiar crossroads for the people of God. Located in central Palestine, it was the place of decision for Israel throughout their history. Derek Kidner comments, “Here the Israelites would be assembled to choose between blessing and cursing (Deut. 11:29, 30), here Joshua would give his last charge (Josh. 24), and here the kingdom of Solomon would one day break in two (1 Kgs 12).”
And here Abram stood, far from home, in a foreign land among foreign people, clinging to the word of God. He came to the Oak of Moreh, a place where pagan prophets would listen to the oracles of their gods sending their messages in the rustling of the leaves. Abram knew the true voice of the true god. He knew the emptiness of pagan worship and the fullness of Yahweh worship. He followed God this far. And now he faced a choice: would he keep following the God who called him out of darkness or would he find a home among the pagans? Would he praise the gods of the land or would he praise the name of the one true God? God was faithful thus far, but how far does the goodness of the Lord extend? We all have the same choice. In pagan places, who will we worship? When everything is on the line, who will we follow?
ABRAM EXALTED GOD’S NAME (12:6-9)
“Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness” (Romans 4:3). As Psalm 33:1 says, “Praise befits the upright.” So it is only right that standing in the middle of a pagan place, Abram exalted God’s name. Why? Because in the middle of Canaan, Abram heard God’s voice again (12:7)—the same voice that called him away from home in the first place. He heard the word of God and believed God’s word. In response, he exalted God’s name. That’s how it always goes. As we hear God’s word, he gives us the grace to believe his word and to worship him. Praise isn’t merely obligatory. It is fitting. It is beautiful. It is the only right response to God’s gracious word.
God’s word to Abram was a promise. “To your offspring I will give this land.” It’s as if he’s saying to Abram at that moment, “Yes, it appears this land belongs to pagans. Yes, it appears they have a culture here, a stronghold on the land. But, no, it will not last forever. I have other plans for this land. It will belong to your offspring. Trust me.”
So, in response, Abram built an altar. Then he left and went to Bethel, and he built an altar there as well. Kent Hughes says that as Abram journeyed from place to place “the only architecture that remained from Abram’s life were altars.” How beautiful! Abraham left this world without ever having a home, but he left this world with altars everywhere to his God. What will remain after we leave? Only in God’s providence could the pilgrim become the builder—and not in an inconsequential place, either. Abram, the pilgrim, built altars to God in the very places pagans lived and worshiped! The faith he had surpassed any fear. God’s fame ruled his heart. Praise befitted him because God made him upright in his righteousness.
We who are righteous should follow Abram’s example: to build altars to God in pagan places. Yes, it may look hopeless. But God is on his throne. Everything is going his way. And he has purposes for this place far beyond what we can think or imagine. This is God’s world, and one day everyone in it will worship him. Why not start now?
When Abram reached Bethel, 12:8 says he “called upon the name of the Lord.” Martin Luther translated it as “preached.” As Abram journeyed to the Promised Land, he preached the good news of the God who called him. No one was wondering who this wanderer praised. Yes, God had promised to make Abram’s name great, but Abram’s response is to make God’s name great. He was more concerned with God’s glory than his own.
How did all of Abram’s life become worship, and how can it become so in yours? Tim Keller says, “You’re not a Christian until you’ve taken your hands off your life.” In other words, as long as you cling to the life you want to live, you’ll never live the life God wants you to live. You’ll never learn to worship until you stop pretending to be your own God. You’ll never follow the God who calls if you don’t let go of the life you want. Abram had a life. He had a country. He had a family. He had a responsibility to his father’s house. But when God called, he followed. Keller says, “Abraham didn’t just live life. Life didn’t just happen to him. He didn’t just go with the flow of events. He happened to life…What made Abraham great was the call of God.” He took his hands off his life. He listened to the call of God. What could Life do to a man like that? What can Life do to a man like you, living under the call of God?
But this is only the beginning of Abram’s journey. As he goes, he will learn again and again to take his hands off his life. The life of faith is learning to trust God. Trusting God doesn’t come in theoretical concepts but in the warp and woof of life. We learn to trust God as we follow him. When we’re faced with pagan worship and choose to exalt God’s name, we learn to trust him. When we get bad news and hope in the eternal promises of God, we learn to trust him. When we are despised and disparaged, left with a bad reputation and sullied name but look to the one who blesses, we learn to trust him.
Radical obedience doesn’t come all at once. It comes step by step as we follow God in the small things that lead to big things. We wonder how Abraham obeyed God in Genesis 22, taking Isaac up the mountain to sacrifice him according to God’s command. He obeyed then because he obeyed in the beginning. His faith didn't start in the few days before the mountain trek. It started way back in Ur when God called and he went. Sacrifice wasn't uncommon to him. And it shouldn’t be to us.
The New Testament uses Abram over and over again as the model for true faith. No, he wasn’t the perfect man. Jesus was. And it was to him that he looked. Jesus himself said, “Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.” How did he see it? By faith.
By faith, Abram believed the word of God. By faith, he followed God’s call. By faith, he built altars in pagan lands. By faith, he exalted God’s name. By faith, he lived his life. Life didn’t just happen to him. He happened to life. Why? Because God happened to Abram, and God is Life. Jesus is the way, and the truth, and the life (John 14:6), and whoever comes to him he will never cast out (John 6:37). Abram went to him. And his life is proof that all who come to Christ are never let down. What’s keeping you from coming to him today?