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Bible Commentaries

John Dummelow's Commentary on the Bible

Genesis 12

 

 

Verses 1-20


The Call of Abraham. The Removal to Canaan. The Visit to Egypt

1. Had said] RV 'said,' when he was in Haran. In what manner the call came to Abraham, whether through some outward incident which he recognised as the prompting of Providence, or through the suggestions of the Divine Spirit in his inmost soul, we do not know. Anyhow he regarded it as divine and authoritative, and it was too definite tobe misunderstood. Get thee out of.. and from.. and from] The repetition emphasises the complete severance of all connexion with his early home and friends. A land that I will shew thee] The fact that the land was not named increased the demand on Abraham's faith and made his self-surrender the more absolute; cp. Hebrews 11.

2. Thou shalt be a blessing] RV 'Be thou a blessing,' i.e. the very embodiment of blessing: blessed thyself, and the source of blessing to others.

3. In thee shall all families of the earth be blessed] or, 'bless themselves.' Through Abraham and his descendants men everywhere would come to know God as One and Holy, and to long for 'the Desire of all nations.'

4. Lot went with him] Haran, Lot's father, was dead, Genesis 11:28.

5. They went forth to go] Haran, the starting-place, was some 300 miles from Canaan. They would go through Syria, halting perhaps at Damascus (see Genesis 15:2), then proceeding southwards through Bashan to the fords of the Jordan S. of the Sea of Galilee, and thence to Shechem in the centre of Palestine. The souls that they had gotten] i.e. their slaves. The land of Canaan] the ancient name of Palestine. At this time much of Syria and Canaan was ruled by the Amorites, who were for centuries the dominant race.

6. Sichern] RV 'Shechem.' The term 'the place of Shechem' intimates that this was an ancient sanctuary, and this is confirmed by Genesis 35:4; Dt; Genesis 11:29; Genesis 27:4; Joshua 8:33; Joshua 24:26. The 'terebinth (or turpentine tree) of the director' (as we may render plain of Moreh) points to the same conclusion. Most likely there was a grove of trees, the rustling of whose leaves was interpreted as an oracle (cp. 2 Samuel 5:24). Oracles of this kind were much resorted to. The Canaanite] see on Joshua 13:7.

7. The Lord appeared unto Abram] see on Genesis 12:1. The faith of Abraham, in leaving Haran in obedience to the divine call, is now rewarded by the definite promise of possession of the land by his descendants. There builded he an altar] thus consecrating the place to God, who had there manifested Himself to him. The building of an altar was the recognised act of worship: cp. Genesis 8:20; Genesis 13:18, etc.

8. Beth-el] 5 m. S. of Shechem; see on Genesis 28:19. Hai] or, Ai, near Bethel.

9. The south] or, 'the Negeb,' the district between Palestine and the wilderness N. of Sinai. It forms a transition from the cultivated land to the desert; and, though not fertile, yields much pasture for flocks; see Joshua 15:21-32.

10-20. Abraham's visit to Egypt. Owing to a famine, to which Palestine is sometimes liable if the winter rains fail, Abraham moves down to Egypt. There, owing to the inundations of the Nile and the system of irrigation practised, crops rarely failed, and neighbouring countries had their wants supplied: cp. Acts 27:6, Acts 27:38. Egypt was already a highly civilised country in Abraham's time. Many of the pyramids were built long before his day.

The patriarch on this occasion appears in a very unfavourable light. Admitting the great dangers which threatened him at the hands of a licentious despot, admitting also that among Easterns duplicity is admired rather than scorned, the readiness he showed to risk his wife's honour in order to secure his own safety, and his lack of trust in God's protection, are inexcusable. But we esteem our Bible all the more for its candour in not hiding the faults of its greatest characters. Of only One can it be said that He was 'without sin.'

13. Thou art my sister] Sarah was Abraham's half-sister (Genesis 20:12). By this prevarication he doubtless thought the danger to himself would be less than if he had confessed that she was his wife.

15. Pharaoh] the official title of the kings of Egypt; cp. Pharaoh-Necho (2 Kings 23:29). It is the Egyptian word Pr'o, 'great house,' which was originally applied to the royal palace and estate, and afterwards to the king: cp. our use of the word 'Court' to designate the king and his household. It is probable that at this time Egypt was governed by Asiatic conquerors known as the Hyksôs, or Shepherd kings: see Intro, to Exodus.

16. It is usual in the East to give presents to the bride's relatives on such occasions, to make, in fact, payment for the bride; cp. Exodus 22:16; Ruth 4:10. Camels] It is doubtful if these were used by the ancient Egyptians. Perhaps the Semitic conquerors of Egypt may have introduced them from Asia at this period.

17. Cp. Psalms 105:14, 'He suffered no man to do them wrong; yea, he reproved kings for their sakes.'


Verses 1-34


The History of Abraham

At this point the specific purpose of the writer of the Pentateuch begins to appear more clearly. Speaking generally, that purpose is to trace the development of the kingdom of God in the line of Israelitish history. To this subject the preceding chapters of Genesis have formed an introduction, dealing with universal history, and indicating the place of Israel among the other nations of the world. The narrative now passes from universal history to the beginnings of the chosen people and their subsequent fortunes. The connecting link is furnished in the person of Abraham, and interest is now concentrated on him, and the promises made to him.

Abraham is one of the very greatest figures in the religious history of the human race. Three great religions look back to him as one of their spiritual ancestors, and accept him as a type of perfect faith and true religion, viz. the Jewish, the Mohammedan, and the Christian. The world owes to him its first clear knowledge of the true God, His spiritual and holy nature, and the way in which He is to be served and worshipped. How much of this Abraham may have brought with him from Ur of the Chaldees we do not know. Recent discovery points to a very close connexion between the religions of Babylonia and Israel. That need not surprise us, nor does it impair the truth and value of the biblical narrative. Every religious system, not excepting Christianity itself, is based upon the foundations of the past. What we find in Abraham is a new point of departure. Religious beliefs, opinions, laws, and ideals, which he inherited, are, by a power which we cannot explain but can only define as the inspiration of God, purified and elevated, with the result that religion starts afresh with him on a higher level. The affirmation of the truth of monotheism and the rejection of human sacrifice in the worship of God would, apart from other considerations, make Abraham rank among the foremost religious reformers the world has seen.

In recent times an attempt has been made to date the beginnings of Israel's religion from Moses, and to represent the patriarchs as 'shadows in the mist' of antiquity of whose personal existence and religious views nothing can be said with certainty. In particular the attempt has been made to reduce Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to later personifications of ancient tribes. The patriarchs, it is said, were not individuals but tribes, and what are represented as personal incidents in their lives are really events, naively and vividly described, in the history of the various tribes to which the nation of Israel owed its descent. In some cases such personification of tribes may be admitted; e.g. Canaan, Japheth, and Shem clearly represent tribes in the blessing of Noah (Genesis 9:25-27; Genesis 10:1-32), cp. also intro. to Genesis 49. The same is true of Ishmael in Genesis 16:12, and of Esau, who is called Edom in Genesis 25:30; Genesis 36:1, Genesis 36:8, Genesis 36:19. But admitting that there may be an element of truth in this theory, and that the biographies of the patriarchs may have been idealised to some extent by the popular feelings and poetical reflection of later times, the view that sees in the story of the patriarchs nothing that is personal and historical is certainly extreme and improbable. Popular imagination may add and modify but it does not entirely create. It requires some historical basis to start from. That basis in the case of Abraham and the other patriarchs is popular oral tradition, and that this preserved a genuine historical kernel cannot be denied. The amount of personal incident, the circumstantiality, the wealth of detail contained in the patriarchal narratives, can only be rightly accounted for on the ground that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were real historical personages; leaders of distinct national and religious movements, who made their mark upon the whole course of subsequent history. Some time ago, when an utterly impenetrable veil of obscurity hung over all contemporary profane history, the biblical narrative of the patriarchs could find no corroboration elsewhere. But of late a flood of light has been thrown upon ancient Assyria, illuminating the very period to which Abraham belongs. A background has been provided for the patriarchal age; and our increasing knowledge of Babylonian civilisation and religion goes to substantiate the historical nature of the stories of Abraham and the other patriarchs, and shows that they might well be the products of such a country and such an age. We may go further, and say that later Jewish history seems to require such a historical basis as the patriarchal narratives furnish, as its starting-point and explanation. Abraham, and not Moses, is the father of the Jewish nation, and the founder of its distinctive religion. It was no new and unknown God in whose name Moses spoke to his brethren in Egypt. He was able to appeal to Israel in the name of a God who had already revealed Himself, in the name of 'the God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.' See Exodus 3:6; Exodus 4:5, and note on the former passage.

The sections of the history of Abraham (Genesis 12-25) which are attributed to the Priestly source are the following: Genesis 11:27-32; Genesis 12:5; Genesis 13:6, Genesis 13:11-12; Genesis 16:1-3, Genesis 16:15-16; Genesis 17:1-27; Genesis 19:29; Genesis 21:1, Genesis 21:2-5; Genesis 23, Genesis 25:7-17. Those which form part of the Primitive narrative are: Genesis 12:1-4, Genesis 12:6; Genesis 13:5, Genesis 13:11, Genesis 13:12-18; Genesis 14, 15, Genesis 16:4-14; Genesis 18, 19 (except Genesis 19:29), 20, 21 (mostly), 22, 24, Genesis 25:1-6, Genesis 25:18-34. They afford a good example of the characteristic differences in style of the two sources, as explained in the art. 'Origin of the Pentateuch.'

 


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Bibliography Information
Dummelow, John. "Commentary on Genesis 12:4". "John Dummelow's Commentary on the Bible". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/dcb/genesis-12.html. 1909.

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