Genesis 12:1-9

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. 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. 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.”

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. 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, Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. 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. 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. And Abram journeyed on, still going toward the Negeb.[1]

Though dispersed, the culture of Babel had taken root in the world. During the unknown and numerous generations from Shem to Abram, the entire family of earth had descended into spiritual darkness yet again. With the exception of a few, such as Job in Arabia and Melchizedek in Canaan, everyone (including Abram) worshipped the gods of their own imaginations and the demons that lurked behind them. There was no foreseeable future but darkness. There was no human power to pull mankind from its death pit. There was only the long-ago promise to Shem that blessing would come from his line (9:26,27). Now, here in chapter 12, God begins to act upon his promise long forgotten by faithless men.

If you were so inclined, you could visit and see all the gold, silver, precious stones, jewelry and sculptures that hint at the riches of Abram’s home city. If you did so, you would begin to have some idea of what God called Abram to leave behind – a wealthy and sophisticated culture on an abundantly fertile river plain into which flowed all the treasures of the ancient world. And this command to leave came from a deity Abram had never even heard of – except possibly in ancient family legend.

The city of Ur was one of the world’s first great cities, inhabited from about 5500 to 300 B.C. For 5,000 years, Ur was a dominate force in political, religious, and economic life on the Mesopotamian plains, the area commonly known as “the cradle of civilization.”[2] Little was known about life in Ur until Sir Leonard Woolley’s excavation of the ancient city from 1921 until 1934. Woolley’s discoveries captivated the newspapers of the day and attracted travelers from around the world, including famed novelist Agatha Christie who would later write her 1936 mystery Murder in Mesopotamia based on her experiences at the Ur excavation. Christie wrote of meeting Woolley:

Leonard Woolley saw with the eye of imagination: the place was as real to him as it had been in 1500 BC, or a few thousand years earlier. Wherever he happened to be, he could make it come alive. While he was speaking I felt in my mind no doubt whatever that the house on the corner had been Abraham’s. It was his reconstruction of the past and he believed in it, and anyone who listened to him believed in it also.[3]

His map of the city in what Woolley claimed to be the time of Abraham, shows the great ziggurat upon which stood the temple of Nanna (the moon god), the palace of Ur-Nammu, the temples of Ningal and Enki surrounded by the city’s walls and harbors, his schematic drawings and photographs of the “Great Death Pit” with seventy-three bodies of servants arranged in sacrifice around Queen Puabi’s gorgeously decorated corpse— all serve to make the past come alive.[4] Woolley excavated numerous pubic buildings, temples, and private homes.

His greatest find was the Early Dynastic Royal Cemetery. “These royal tombs consisted of a vaulted or domed stone chamber set at the bottom of a deep pit and accessed by a ramp. The principal body lay in the chamber, buried with substantial quantities of goods and objects made of semiprecious stones, gold, and silver, sometimes including a sled or wheeled vehicle pulled by oxen or [donkeys]. Personal and household attendants lay in the tomb chamber with the deceased king or queen and in the pit outside, which Woolley consequently termed the ‘death pit.’”[5] The servants were sacrificed along with royalty to attend the king or queen in the afterlife. The artifacts and buildings Wooley uncovered show a wealthy and sophisticated city with a vibrant cultural and religious life.

Abram had plenty of visual aids to make all the gods of Mesopotamia feel real to him. There were statues, temples, priests, the sun, the moon, the constellations and elaborate ceremonies involving sacrifices and pageantry and music. There was the great man-made mountain dedicated to the moon god. What did this YHWH have? He had only a voice – no priests, no temples, no ziggurat, no singers or musicians, no constellations in the night sky, and no followers. How could a god like that possibly make good on his promises of blessing? It was not that unusual for people in Abram’s demonized pagan culture to hear voices from what they believed to be gods. Certainly, the priests received signs and dreams and prophecies from their demonic masters.

Abram, descendant of the blessed line of Shem, lived comfortably in dark Ur for 75 years until YHWH spoke. Moses writes in 12:1, “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.[6] God’s shocking demand is intensified by rising order of the personal implications: leave your country; leave your family; leave your father’s household. It is a very personal order. It’s also an extremely vague order. Abram had no earthly idea where he would go. God commanded Abram to renounce his known life, close his eyes, and not ask questions – all based on God’s bare word.

Jesus repeats this gospel call in several places in the gospel accounts. In Matthew 10, he says, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. 38 And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.[7]

In Mark 8, Jesus says, “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. 36 For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? 37 For what can a man give in return for his soul? 38 For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.[8]

The point is this: Abram’s trust in the disembodied voice of the God called YHWH is utterly unhuman. It’s supernatural. No human steeped in the demonized religion of Babylonian hearts, surrounded by all the monuments, bells, and smells of pagan culture and dead in his sin would naturally and logically heed the disembodied voice of some unknown god to leave behind his comfortable life of 75 years. Much less would he do so to travel to an unknown destination in exchange for mere promises from the bare word of an obscure deity. Paul explained it this way to the Ephesian church:

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. [9]

Many commentators and preachers tend to point out how amazing Abraham’s faith was. What an incredible leap of faith Father Abraham took. He certainly did! Everything in his culture spoke of gods and demi-gods with various limited powers that men could harness to achieve their own destinies. And it worked out very well for Abram and his family. He was prosperous. He flourished in his city and his land. He had harnessed the blessings of Nanna the moon god and Ningal and Enki, the demi-gods, to make a name for himself. He certainly didn’t need to go off in search of more fame and fortune.

Abram was much like the wealthy man who came to Jesus seeking the certainty of rightness with God to whom Jesus said, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.[10] Matthew adds, “When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.[11] The difference is Abram didn’t feel that he needed anything. He wasn’t seeking any kind of salvation or any kind of relationship with YHWH. The wealthy seeker turned away from God. Comfortable Abram trusted and traveled toward God. Here’s the point: NOTHING WITHIN EITHER MAN CAUSED THEIR CHOICE!

Abram’s great leap of trust into the God he never knew before Genesis 12:1 is NOT a product of Abram’s wise choice. Father Abraham is NOT the hero of his own story. The hero of Abram’s story is YHWH who, because of his loyalty love, promised Adam and Noah and Shem an Offspring to rescue humanity. Adam’s belief, Noah’s belief, Shem’s belief, and Abram’s belief in God’s promise were miraculous gifts from God to Babylonian hearts once dead in their sin and self-worship. Abram’s journey into the great unknown, together with both his faith and his failures, is a great story of God’s faithfulness to lost humanity who has no natural apprehension of what treasure are found in walking with their Creator Covenant God.

When Jesus calls us, he does not guarantee our future earthly life or even tell us what it will be like. He does promise that he will take us to be with him— which is the ultimate land! Heaven is wherever Jesus is. He does promise forgiveness and peace in spite of our circumstances. He promises that he will be with us through good times and horrible times. He promises our ultimate good. But Jesus does not say that it will be all health and wealth. He does not promise to be your personal genie. “If you are looking for these kinds of up-front promises before turning to Christ, you will never get them. And if you persist in your requirements, you will never come to Christ. He calls you to trust his word alone.”[12] That’s why the wealthy seeker left Jesus; because Jesus called him to a life of trust into the bare word of God.

Of course, God’s bare word to Abram contained great promises. Yet, they were promises he would never live to see fully. Their ultimate fulfillment would come through his seed and David’s seed and find fulfillment first in believing Israel and then in the Church. So, Paul would write to the Church:

27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. [13]

Notice that God’s speech is artistically constructed in such a way that the words “bless,” or “blessing,” appear five times. It contains seven expressions of blessing, indicating that both the form and content of the blessing are perfect in every respect. From first to last, God is the actor, not Abram. Five times God states unconditionally, “I will.” The first half of God’s promises were personal to Abram. “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.[14]

If Abram’s willingness to follow the voice of a God he had never known was a miracle. Equally so was his trust into the bare promise of God that he would have a child – much less have his offspring become a nation. The Hebrew word here for nation is gôy, which is a word used frequently in the Old Testament to describe the Gentile nations of the world (cf. 10: 5, 20, 31, 32). Today the Hebrew word for Gentiles is still gôy (singular) or gôyim (plural). Abram’s offspring would be a gôy among the gôyim – a people with a land and language and government.[15]

There was more to come. God would make Abram’s name great. You might recall the story of the building of Babel was set in between two lists of names, both of which deal with the line of Noah’s son, Shem (“name”). Moses set the Babel narrative there because is deal with a people whose rebellion against their Creator Covenant God boiled down to their rallying cry, “let us make a name for ourselves (11:4). Contrast their desire for self-constructed greatness with God’s promise to make a great name for Abram. His great name was going to be free gift of God. “The builders’ aggressiveness is matched by Abram’s passiveness. If his name is ever to become great it will not be because of any self-initiated effort. The great name will be a gift, not an achievement.”[16] As God later made the same promise of a great name for David (2 Sam. 7:9; Ps. 72:17), this promise of a great name is “clearly royal language, and Abram is to be viewed as a regal figure.”[17]

God not only promised personal blessings to Abram, he also promised global blessing through Abram. Those who bless Abram will be blessed and those who disdain him will be cursed. Abram saw God’s blessing and cursing at work during his lifetime. Melchizedek and Abimelech were blessed for honoring Abram. But Hagar was cut off from Abram’s family for despising Sarah. “One need not go beyond chapter 12 to see an immediate fulfillment of this promise. Pharaoh cursed Abram by taking the patriarch’s wife, albeit in ignorance about her married status. As a result, diseases and plagues fell on Pharaoh and his household.”[18]

Last week, as we focused on 12:3 exclusively, we saw how the ultimate global blessing through Abram came about through the person and work of Messiah Jesus, the Promised Seed. Derik Kidner summed it up in his commentary:

Blessing for the world was a vision fitfully seen at first (it disappears between the patriarchs and the kings, apart from a reminder of Israel’s priestly role in Exod. 19:5, 6). Later it reappeared in the psalms and prophets, and perhaps even at its faintest it always imparted some sense of mission to Israel; yet it never became a programme of concerted action until [Christ’s] ascension.[19]

The gospel, the Good News for all the peoples of the earth, was announced again hundreds of generations after Adam and thousands of years before Christ in the darkly pagan and demonized city of Ur. There in the shadow of the mountain of the moon god idolized by Abram and his family, God demonstrated his covenant loyalty yet again. The devil and his minions could not wipe out the line of the Promised Seed. Out from among their willing worshippers God plucked Abram, descendant of Shem, and breathed into him a life of trust into the one true Covenant Creator God that remained determined to rejoin heaven and earth.

Moses writes in 12:4-5, “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. 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.[20]

Many have speculated on how long Abram stayed in Haran and whether or not Abram was being disobedient to God’s calling by settling down there. It is, I think, a moot point. As R. Kent Hughes writes, “Did he leave Haran immediately upon Terah’s decision to stay there, or did he linger until Terah died? The answer is indifferent. The point is that he obeyed God’s call. He left Ur and Haran. He succeeded in rising above the idolatrous notions of his moon-worshiping environment and recognized the voice of the Lord, Yahweh, ‘God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth’ (14: 22)— so that without argument or questioning on his part, we read of his obedience.”[21]

Moses goes on to contrast Abram’s regenerated heart with the would-be builders of Babel. Everywhere Abram traveled in the land of Canaan, he pitched his tents – temporary shelters. But he did build things. He built altars to God. The only relatively permanent things Abram built in this land were stone testimonies to his Covenant God, YHWH.

One of those altars he built at Shechem (12:6), the place of decision between Mt. Ebal and Mt. Gerizim right in the crossroads of central Palestine. “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)—an event leaving its trace in the Samaritan community still surviving at this spot (modern Nablus). The oak (not the plain, av) of Moreh (‘Teacher’) may have gained its name from soothsaying (cf. Judg. 9:37), and …may indicate the presence of a Canaanite shrine…. If so, it was a foretaste of things to come that at this stronghold of other gods the Lord revealed his presence, allocated the land to his servant and received formal homage.”[22]

There, faith becomes sight for Abram. Moses writes, “Then the Lord appeared to Abram and said, ‘To your offspring I will give this land.’[23] This is God’s first physical manifestation to his pilgrim servant. The God Abram saw only through the eyes of miraculous God-given trust in Ur, he now sees face-to-face in the pass between Ebal and Gerizim. God’s appearance and promise, the shortest of the promises to Abram, bind his people to this Promised Land as a type and shadow of the rejoined heaven and earth to come where God will permanently dwell with his people. In response to God’s promise, Abram built the altar at Shechem. Traveling the entire land from north to south, Abram would build altars in Bethel, Hebron, and Mount Moriah (cf. 12: 8; 13: 18; 22: 9). How beautiful – the only architecture that remained from Abram’s life were his sacrificial altars.[24] YHWH promised to make Abram’s name great. Abram responded by proclaiming the name of the Lord. Abram spent his life making God famous in Canaan.

Luther says of Abram’s display of trust into the bare words of God in our text:

…faith is a vigorous and powerful thing; it is not idle speculation, nor does it float on the heart like a goose on the water. …the work of the Holy Spirit, fashions a different mind and different attitudes, and makes an altogether new human being.

Therefore faith is an active, difficult, and powerful thing. If we want to consider what it really is, it is something that is done to us rather than something that we do; for it changes the heart and mind. And while reason is wont to concern itself with the things that are present, faith apprehends the things that are not present and, contrary to reason, regards them as being present. This is why faith does not belong to all men, as does the sense of hearing; for few believe. The remaining masses prefer to concern themselves with the things that are present, which they can touch and feel, rather than with the Word.[25]

St. Author of Hebrews wrote:

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive 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. 10 For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.[26]

The real message of the text is not, “Be an Abraham and manufacture great faith.” The real message of the text is that salvation is of the Lord from start to finish. And it is found only by trusting into the perfect life and sacrificial death of the resurrected and ascended Messiah Jesus. That may be a hard thing to buy off on. But if you want to trust, ask God who ladles it out liberally to all who come with empty plates. “…there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.[27]


[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ge 12:1–9.


[3] Agatha Christie, Agatha Christie: An Autobiography (474). Quoted at:

[4] Hughes, 181-182. Kindle Edition.


[6] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ge 12:1.

[7] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Mt 10:37–39.

[8] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Mk 8:35–38.

[9] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Eph 2:8–10.

[10] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Mt 19:21.

[11] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Mt 19:22.

[12] Hughes, 183. Kindle Edition.

[13] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ga 3:27–29.

[14] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ge 12:2.

[15] Hughes, op. cit.

[16] Hamilton, 372.

[17] Id.

[18] Id., 373.

[19] Kidner, 125.

[20] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ge 12:4–5.

[21] Hughes, 185. Kindle Edition.

[22] Kidner, 125–126.

[23] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ge 12:7.

[24] Hughes, 187. Kindle Edition.

[25] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 2: Lectures on Genesis: Chapters 6-14, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 2 (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999), 266–267.

[26] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Heb 11:8–10.

[27] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ac 4:12.