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Genesis: The Call of Abram

This lesson is a part of an audio course Why Read Genesis by Robert Garland

Up till now, Genesis has concerned itself with all humanity but we've now reached the ancestral or patriarchal section, which deals exclusively with a single family. We're in history, so to speak. The date is about 1500-1300 BCE. That is deduced from details in Genesis itself. When Abram's story begins he and his family are living in a place called Harran in Upper Mesopotamia. Mesopotamia, a Greek word, means the land between the two rivers; that is to say, between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, on the borders between modern-day Iraq and Iran. He's married to his half-sister Sarai, but they don't have any children. He has a nephew, his brother's son Lot, who also lives with him. Evidently Lot's father is dead. And suddenly at the beginning of Chapter 12, the Lord says to Abram, "Get out of your country and your birthplace and your father's house and go to a land that I'll show you. I'll make a great nation of you and I'll bless you and make your name great and you'll be a blessing." The text doesn't read "suddenly". It merely says "and". But it amounts to the same thing because the Lord's statement comes out of the blue.

Why does the Lord choose Abram to be the patriarch of a great nation? What specific qualities does he possess? None are given. As I've indicated, the story begins out of nowhere, so to speak. And what is Abram's response? What is he thinking at this point? Is he elated? Presumably so. After all, this is a very great honour, but we're not told. As so often in Genesis, the text is silent and we're left to work things out for ourselves. After the Lord has spoken, the story continues: "Abram departed, as the Lord had spoken to him."

Abram doesn't journey simply from A to B. Anything but. He stops first at a place called Shechem in Canaan, where he builds an altar to the Lord, that's to say, where he puts down roots. Shechem will become important later in Genesis, in connection with the Jacob story. There's a geographical circularity at work here, which is unsurprising in light of the fact that this is a story about a nomadic people seeking a homeland. They're always on the move. Then, because of a famine, Abram journeys to Egypt. Egypt was the wealthiest region in this period. It was technologically advanced – think, pyramids, think chariots – highly sophisticated, and it had been around for thousands of years. It was what the US used to represent, still represents, I'd like to think – a place of prosperity and opportunity.

But Abram is shrewd, and this is the first thing we learn about him, apart from his obedience to God. Because his wife Sarai is beautiful, he tells her to pretend she's his sister, which is a white lie, because she's actually his half-sister. If she were to reveal that she was Abram's wife, the Egyptians would kill him, he says. But if she says she's his sister, things will go well for him and he'll live. Sarai evidently agrees, we're not actually told what she says, the Pharaoh hears about her beauty, she enters his palace, and Abram becomes very rich in consequence. However, the Lord punishes Pharaoh, presumably for sleeping with a married woman, by inflicting an unnamed disease on both him and his household. Pharaoh summons Abram, gives him a dressing down for lying to him, and tells him to get out of Egypt.

After he's been thrown out of Egypt, Abram returns to Canaan, to the place where he built an altar. By now, however, both he and Lot both have large herds, so the land isn't big enough to accommodate them both. They agree to part, and Abram heads south to Hebron, where he builds another altar to the Lord. Much later in the story he will bury his wife in Hebron, in the cave of Machpelah, which he will buy from a Hittite called Ephron. As I've indicated, Abram's wanderings circle around the same small place. The fact that he buys the burial plot – in fact he will insist in buying the plot against the wishes of Ephron who wishes to make a present of it – is vitally important. It will give him and his descendants legal entitlement to the land. But all that lies in the future.

Back to his Egyptian adventure. What are we to make of it? Are we to think of Abram as a shameless opportunist who selfishly sacrificed his wife to the lust of the Egyptians to save his own skin. Or as a pragmatist who, in light of what the Lord had promised, acted shrewdly to ensure that the Lord's promise could be fulfilled? The text doesn't make any moral judgement or guide us in either direction, though it is instructive that the Lord does rescue Sarah from the plight Abram has placed her in. My own view is that it was a hard choice but a necessary one.

In Chapter 14 we encounter an unexpected side of Abram, who rescues his nephew Lot, after he has been captured by a coalition of four kings. A Canaanite priest called Melchizedek is so impressed that he blesses Abram in the name of his – Abram's – god. It's the only military action in Genesis. Genesis is not the story of a warlike people. They can barely support themselves and have little to call their own.

In Chapter 15 the Lord appears to Abram in a vision and reaffirms his promise to make him a patriarch. When Abram complains that he's still childless, the Lord – wait for it – took him outside – outside his tent, that is – and told him to look up at the stars. Your descendants will be as numerous as the stars, he tells him.

You would have seen far more stars in the ancient world than we do today, especially in the desert because, surprise, surprise, there was no pollution. But what I want to draw your attention to is the detail "He took him outside." I see the two of them almost as equals. It's such a homely detail. And it's evidence, too, of a lingering anthropomorphism – of a god with a human shape, as we saw as well in the Noah story with God smelling the savour of roast flesh.

Then the Lord says to him, "I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldees." There are a number of places both in Genesis and in Exodus where the author slips back into a polytheistic cast of mind, one that is inhabited by many gods. The Lord is stating his credentials. He's saying, "In case you don't know which god I am. I'm the one who told you to leave Ur." Ur, in southern Iraq, was Abram's birthplace.

Abram wants to know what he should do to ensure that the Lord keeps His promise, and the Lord tells him to slice a heifer and a goat and a ram down the middle. It's a curious ritual whose meaning is obscure. Then he falls asleep. All this is taking place at sunset. When it's dark the Lord makes a covenant with Abram – He now calls it a covenant because it's legally binding. He says he has given to him and his descendants – note the past tense, now used for the first time – all the land from the Nile to the Euphrates. This then is the second of the Lord's covenant with humans. He'll make a third covenant with Moses.

Abram/Abraham will continue to move from one place to another because he has flocks of sheep and herds of cattle to feed. And, as his story continues, his flocks and herds will increase. But he's also a family man – a husband and a father – and how he behaves as a husband and become a father is the subject of the next lesson.

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Written by

Robert Garland