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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

Genesis 12

 

 

Verse 1

XII.

(1) Now the Lord had said unto Abram.—Heb., And Jehovah said unto Abram. There is no new beginning; but having briefly sketched the family from which Abram sprang, and indicated that he had inherited from them the right of primogeniture, the narrative next proceeds to the primary purpose of the Tôldóth Terah, which is to show how in Abram Jehovah prepared for the fulfilment, through Israel, of the prote-vangelium contained in the promise made to Eve at the fall (Genesis 3:15). The rendering “had said” was doubtless adopted because of St. Stephen’s words (Acts 7:2); but it is the manner of the Biblical narrative to revert to the original starting point.

Thy country.—A proof that Abram and his father were no new settlers at Ur, but that the race of Shem had at this time long held sway there, as is now known to have been the case.

Thy kindred.—This rendering is supported by Genesis 43:7; but it more probably means thy birthplace. It is the word translated “nativity” in Genesis 11:28. where its meaning is settled by the prefixed “land;” and the sense is probably the same here. If so, the command certainly came to Abram at Ur, though most of the versions suppose that it happened at Haran.

A land that I will shew thee.—In Genesis 11:31 it is expressly said that the land was Canaan, but possibly this knowledge was concealed from the patriarch himself for a time, and neither he nor Terah knew on leaving Ur what their final destination would be.


Verse 2-3

(2, 3) Thou shalt be a blessing.—More correctly, Be thou a blessing. The promises made to Abram are partly personal and partly universal, embracing the whole world. In return for all that he abandons he is to become the founder of a powerful nation, who will honour his name, and teach the inheritors of their spiritual privileges to share in their veneration for him. But in the command to “be” or “become a blessing,” we reach a higher level, and it is the glory of Abram’s faith that it was not selfish, and in return for his consenting to lead the life of a stranger, he was to be the means of procuring religious privileges, not only for his own descendants, but also “for all families of the earth” (Heb., of the ground—the adâmâh). Not for the earth as the material universe, but solely in its connection with man. Wherever man makes his home upon it, there, through Abram, spiritual blessings will be offered him.

I will bless . . . —These words indicate relations mysteriously close between Jehovah and Abram, whereby the friends and enemies of the one become so equally to the other. But in the second clause our version has not noticed an essential difference between the verbs used. They occur together again in Exodus 22:28, and are there more correctly rendered by “revile” and “curse.” The one word signifies to treat lightly and contemptuously, the other to pronounce a curse, usually in a judicial manner. We might, therefore, translate, “I will curse—pass a sentence of rejection upon—him that speaketh lightly of, or revileth thee.”

In thee shall all families of the earth be blessed.—Some authorities translate, “shall bless themselves;” but there is a different conjugation to express this meaning, and no reason exists for forcing it upon the text. Henceforward Abram and the nation sprung from him were to be the intermediaries between God and mankind, and accordingly revelation was virtually confined to them. But though the knowledge of God’s will was to be given through them, it was for the benefit of all the families of every race and kindred distributed throughout the habitable world, the adâmâh (Romans 3:29; Romans 10:12, &c).


Verse 4

(4) Abram . . . departed out of Haran.—The command given him in Ur may have been repeated in Haran; but more probably Abram had remained there only on account of Terah. At his death (see note on Genesis 11:26) he resumed his migration northward.


Verse 5

(5) Their substance that they had gathered.—Not cattle only, but wealth of every kind. As we have no data about the migration of Terah, except that it was after the death of Haran, and that Haran left children, we cannot tell how long the family rested at their first halting place, but it was probably a period of several years; and as Abram was “very rich in silver and in gold,” he had apparently engaged there in trade, and thus possibly knew the course which the caravans took.

The souls that they had gotten.—Heb., had made. Onkelos and the Jewish interpreters explain this of proselytes, and persons whom they had converted to the faith in one God. Such might probably be in Abram’s company; but the most part were his dependents and slaves (comp. Genesis 14:14,), though the word “slave” suggests a very different relation to us than that which existed between Abram and his household. Their descendants were most certainly incorporated into the Israelitish nation, and we have direct testimony that Abram gave them careful religious training (Genesis 18:19). Thus the Jewish traditions record a fact, and by acknowledging Abram’s household as proselytes admit their claim to incorporation with the race.

Into the land of Canaan they came.—Slowly and leisurely as the cattle with their young and the women and children could travel, Abram would take his way along the 300 miles which separated him from Canaan. The ford by which he crossed the Euphrates was probably that at Jerabolus, the ancient Carchemish, as the route this way is both more direct and more fertile than either that which leads to the ferry of Bir or that by Thapsacus. The difficulty of passing so great a river with so much substance, and people, and cattle would give fresh importance to his title of “the Hebrew,” the passer over, already his by right of descent from Eber, so named from the passage of the Tigris. More correctly, these names are ‘Eber and ‘Ebrew, and have nothing in common with “Heber the Kenite” (Judges 4:11). From Carchemish Abram’s route would lie to the south-west, by Tadmor and Damascus; and Josephus (Antiq., i. 7) has preserved the legend that “Abram came with an army from the country beyond Babylon, and conquered Damascus, and reigned there for a short time, after which he migrated into the land of Canaan.” In Eliezer of Damascus we have a reminiscence of Abram’s halt there (Genesis 15:2). But it could not have been long, for Mr. Malan (Philosophy or Truth, pp. 98-143) has conclusively shown by the dates in Holy Scripture that only about a year elapsed between Abram’s departure from Kharan and his settlement in Canaan.


Verse 6

(6) The place of Sichern.—Heb., Shechem. This word signifies “shoulder,” and was the name of the ridge uniting Mounts Ebal and Gerizim, the summits of which are about two miles apart. As the name is thus taken from the natural conformation of the ground, it may be very ancient. The modern name of the place is Nablous, a contraction of Flavia Neapolis, a title given it in honour of Vespasian. Mr. Conder ( Tent Work in Palestine, ) describes the valley as an oasis of remarkable beauty and luxuriance, but set, like Damascus, in a desert, and girt around by strong and barren mountains.

The plain of Moreh.—Heb., the oak of Moreh, It was here that Jacob buried the strange gods brought by his household from Haran (Genesis 35:4), and here, too, Joshua set up the stone of testimony (Joshua 24:26; Judges 9:6); but as in Deuteronomy 11:30 the oaks (wrongly translated in most places in our version “plains”) are described in the plural, it is probable that the word is to be taken as a collective for an oak grove. Such shady spots were favourite places for the tents of the wandering patriarchs. A famous terebinth, called after Abram’s name, long existed at Mamre, and under it, in the time of Vespasian, the captive Jews were sold for slaves. It disappeared about A.D. 330, and no tree now marks the site of Abram’s grove. The Hebrew word, however, for terebinth is elâh, while that used here is êlôn. It was probably the quercus pseudococcifera (see Tristram, Nat. Hist. of Bible, p. 369). This tree often grows to a vast size.

Moreh.—Literally, teacher (Isaiah 9:15). Probably in this cool grove some religious personage had given instruction to the people. In Judges 7:1 we find a place called the “teacher’s hill,” and it is thus possible that among a people so religious as the race of Shem, men from time to time arose revered by the people as teachers of holiness. Such an one was Melchisedech.

The Canaanite was then in the land.—This is no sign of post-Mosaic authorship, nor a later interpolation, as if the meaning were that the Canaanite was there at that time, but is so no longer. What really is meant is that Abram on his arrival found the country no longer in the hands of the old Semitic stock, but occupied by the Canaanites, who seem to have gained the ascendancy, not so much by conquest as by gradual and peaceful means. We gather from the Egyptian records that this had taken place not very long before Abram’s time. In the early inscriptions we read only of the Sati and Aamu, both apparently Semitic races, the latter name being derived from the Heb. am, “people.” Subsequently we find frequent mention of the Amaor and the Kheta—that is, the Amorites and Hittites, evidently in Abram’s time the two most powerful races of Canaan. (See Tomkins’ Studies, 82 ff.) For their previous wanderings, see on Genesis 10:15-19.


Verse 7

(7) The Lord appeared unto Abram.—This is the first time that any appearance of the Deity is men tioned. Always previously the communications between God and man had been direct, without the intervention of any visible medium. Thus, God commanded Adam (Genesis 2:16); Adam and Eve heard His voice (Genesis 3:8), and He called them (Genesis 3:9); He said unto Cain (Genesis 4:6-9); unto Noah (Genesis 6:13; Genesis 7:1), and spake unto him (Genesis 8:15; Genesis 9:8): but henceforward we read repeatedly of a Divine appearance, and this visible manifestation is subsequently connected with the phrase “an angel of Jehovah” (see Genesis 16:7; Genesis 22:11, &c), and less frequently “an angel of God” (Genesis 21:17; Judges 6:20; Judges 13:9). Upon the question whether this was a created angel, or whether it was an anticipation of the incarnation of Christ, see Excursus on “Angel of Jehovah” at end of this book.

There builded he an altar unto the Lord.—By so doing he took possession of the land for Jehovah, and consecrated it to Him. The altar would, further, be a place of public worship and of sacrifice. In a similar spirit Noah had taken possession of the renovated earth (Genesis 8:20).


Verse 8

(8) He removed.—Broke up his encampment. No special reason for this need be sought; it was the usual condition of the nomad life, and Abram’s wealth in cattle would make frequent changes necessary. His first long halt was in the hill country between Beth-el and Hai, or rather Ai, as in Joshua 8:1-3. The numerous almond-trees, whence the former town took its early name of Luz, the remains of aqueducts and other works for irrigation, and the strength of the town of Ai in Joshua’s days bear witness to the ancient fertility of the district, though said now to be uninviting. Here, too, Abram made open profession of his faith, and worshipped with his household at an altar dedicated to Jehovah.


Verse 9

(9) Toward the south.—The Negeb, or dry land, so called because the soil being a soft white chalk, the rains sink through it, and even in the valleys run below the surface of the ground. Though treeless, it is still rich in flocks and herds, but the water has to be collected in tanks and cisterns (Conder, Tent Work, ii. 87).


Verse 10

ABRAM’S VISIT TO EGYPT.

(10) There was a famine in the land.—This famine must have happened within a few years after Abram reached Canaan; for he was seventy-five years of age on leaving Haran, and as Ishmael, his son by an Egyptian slave-woman, was thirteen years old when Abram was ninety-nine, only about eight years are left for the events recorded in Genesis 12-16. As rain falls in Palestine only at two periods of the year, the failure of either of these seasons would be immediately felt, especially in a dry region like the Negeb, and at a time when, with no means of bringing food from a distance, men had to depend upon the annual products of the land. As Egypt is watered by the flooding of the Nile, caused by the heavy rains which fall in Abyssinia, it probably had not suffered from what was a mere local failure in South Palestine; and Abram, already far on his way to Egypt, was forced by the necessity of providing fodder for his cattle to run the risk of proceeding thither. In Canaan he had found a thinly scattered Canaanite population, for whom probably he would have been a match in war; in Egypt he would find a powerful empire, and would be at the mercy of its rulers. It is a proof of Abram’s faith that in this necessity he neither retraced his steps (Hebrews 11:15), nor sought a new home. For he went to Egypt with no intention of settling, but only “to sojourn there,” to remain there for a brief period, after which with returning rains he would go back to Canaan.


Verses 11-13

(11-13) Thou art a fair woman.—For the word yephath, rendered “fair,” see on Genesis 9:27. Though its general meaning is beautiful, yet there can be no doubt that the light colour of Sarai’s complexion was that which would chiefly commend her to the Egyptians; for she was now past sixty, and though vigorous enough to bear a son at ninety, yet that was by the special favour of God. As she lived to the age of 127 (Genesis 23:1), she was now about middle age, and evidently had retained much of her early beauty; and this, added to the difference of tint, would make her still attractive to the swarthy descendants of Ham, especially as they were not a handsome race, but had flat foreheads, high cheek-bones, large mouths, and thick lips. Twenty years later we find Abram still haunted by fears of the effects of her personal appearance (Genesis 20:2), even when living among a better-featured race. From Genesis 20:13 it appears that on leaving Haran Abram and Sarai had agreed upon adopting this expedient, which seems to us so strangely contrary to the faith which the patriarch was at that very time displaying. He abandons his birthplace at the Divine command, and starts upon endless wanderings; and yet, to protect his own life, he makes an arrangement which involves the possible sacrifice of the chastity of his wife; and twice, but for God’s interference, this painful result would actually have happened. Perhaps Abram may have depended upon Sarai’s cleverness to help herself out of the difficulty; but such a mixture of faith and weakness, of trust in God in abandoning so much and trust in worldly policy for preservation in a foreseen danger, cannot but make us feel how much of infirmity there was even in a character otherwise so noble.


Verse 13

(13) My sister.—True literally, as Sarai was Terah’s daughter (Genesis 20:12), but absolutely false, as it implied that she was wholly his sister, and therefore not his wife.


Verse 14-15

(14, 15) Pharaoh is not the name of a person, but was the title borne by all the Egyptian monarchs.


Verse 15

(15) The princes . . . commended her before Pharaoh.—In the days of Abram Canaan was the highway to Egypt, and so large an immigration of men of the Semitic stock found their way thither that they overspread the whole Delta, and finally, under the name of the Hyksôs, made themselves masters of the throne of the Pharaohs, and retained their supremacy for several centuries. To keep out these hordes, Amenemhai had built a chain of fortresses, with a connecting wall; and though probably, as M. Chabas concludes (Rev. Arch., XVe Année, Livr. ii. 7), the Hyksôs had already in Abram’s time attained to empire, nevertheless, on arriving at this wall, so powerful a sheik, with so large a following, would be interrogated by the Egyptian scribes, and a report sent to the Pharaoh. The word sar. translated here prince, is common to the Babylonian, Egyptian, and Hebrew languages; but while in Babylonia it was the title of the sovereign, in Egypt it was applied to subordinate officers, such as those in command at these fortresses. By one of these Abram would, no doubt, be conducted into Pharaoh’s presence; and on one of the sepulchres at Benihassan we find an exactly parallel occurrence in the presentation of a nomad prince, evidently of Semitic origin, who, with his family and dependents, is seeking the Pharaoh’s protection, and is received by him with honour. As women did not at that time go veiled in Egypt, this custom not having been introduced there till the Persian conquest, the officers at the frontier would have full opportunity of seeing Sarai. and would, no doubt, mention the extraordinary lightness of her complexion.

The most probable derivation of the word Pharaoh is that which identifies it with a symbol constantly used in inscriptions to indicate the king, and which may be read per-ao or phar-ao. It signifies, literally, the double house, or palace. This would be a title of respect. veiling the person of the monarch under the name of his dwelling, in much the same manner as we include the sovereign and his attendants under the name of the Court. For the arguments in favour of this derivation, see Canon Cook’s Excursus on the Egyptian words in the Pentateuch, at the end of Vol. I. of the Speaker’s Commentary. He also gives there the reasons for his opinion, in opposition to that of M. Chabas, that the Pharaoh in whose days Abram visited Egypt was an early king of the twelfth dynasty, some time anterior to the usurpation of the Hyksôs.


Verse 16

(16) He entreated Abram well.—Heb., did good to Abram. It was usual to give the relatives a sum of money when taking a daughter or sister to wife. The presents here show that Pharaoh fully believed that he was acting lawfully, while the largeness of them proves that Sarai, in spite of her years, was looked upon as a valuable acquisition. Among the presents are “asses.” The charge on this account brought against the author of “inaccuracy,” as if asses were not known at this time in Egypt, is disproved by the occurrence of representations of this animal on the tombs of Benihassan: we have proof even that they were numerous as far back as when the Pyramids of Gizeh were built. The horse is not mentioned, and the earliest representation of one is in the war-chariot of Ahmes, the first: Pharaoh of the eighteenth dynasty, who expelled the Hyksôs. Male and female slaves are, curiously enough, introduced between “he-asses” and “she-asses.” As she-asses were especially valuable, perhaps these and the camels were looked upon as the monarch’s choicest gifts.

Camels are not represented on the monuments, and are said not to thrive well in Egypt; but the Semitic hordes who were peopling the Delta would certainly bring camels with them. Many, too, of the Egyptian monarchs—as, for instance, those of the twelfth dynasty—held rule over a great part of the Sinaitic peninsula, and must have known the value of the camel for transporting heavy burdens in the desert, and its usefulness to a nomad sheik like Abram. (See Genesis 24:10.)


Verse 19

(19) So I might have taken her to me to wife.—The Hebrew is, and I took her to me to wife: that is, I took her with the intention of making her my wife. During the interval before the marriage Pharaoh and his household were visited with such marked troubles that he became alarmed, and possibly Sarai then revealed to him her true relationship to Abram. We find in Esther 2:12 that in the case of maidens there was a probation of twelve months duration before the marriage took place, and Sarai was probably saved by some such formality. The conduct of Pharaoh is upright and dignified; nor ought we to disbelieve his assurance that he had acted upon the supposition that Sarai might lawfully be his. The silence of Abram seems to indicate his consciousness that Pharaoh had acted more righteously than himself, and yet his repetition of the offence (Genesis 20) shows that he did not feel much self-reproach at what he had done; nor, possibly, ought we to judge his conduct from the high standpoint of Christian morality. When, however, commentators speak of it as Abram’s fall, they forget that he arranged this matter with Sarai at the very time when he was quitting Haran (Genesis 20:13).

 


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Bibliography Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Genesis 12:4". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/ebc/genesis-12.html. 1905.

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