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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible

Genesis 12

 

 

Verses 1-3

‘And Yahweh said to Abram, “Leave your country and your kinsfolk, and your father’s house, for 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, and you be a blessing. And I will bless those who bless you and the one who curses you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth will be blessed”.’

This is the first appearance of Yahweh to Abram of which we learn, and it is spoken as matter of fact, without introduction. We are not told how Abram had come to know of Yahweh, but possibly we are to recognise that he would come to know Him from the family records, Genesis 1:1 - Genesis 11:27 a. Later appearances draw attention to the awesome nature of these experiences that Abraham has with God.

We note again at this point that all the records which are pieced together in the account of Abram’s dealings with God are built around covenants. They are covenant records, and only incidentally history. Thus they would be recorded in writing immediately as evidence of the covenant with Yahweh. (We do not have a ‘life of Abraham’, we have a record of covenants in which Abraham was involved. This is why so much is missing from his life story. This is also why knowledge of Isaac’s life is so limited. He did not have the experiences with God that Abraham had).

It is easy through familiarity to fail to recognise the stupendous nature of these experiences of Abram. Here was a man, in a family where other gods were prominent, who had established himself semi-independently, and was now experiencing an awe-inspiring theophany which would determine his whole future. The whole of what has gone before has been leading up to this.

We must not have the wrong idea about Abram. He was already a prince of his own family tribe, well-to-do and with many servants (Genesis 12:5). He would not be going alone, for his family tribe would go with him. But he was called to leave his family and all his ties, for only then could he establish an exclusive community of Yahweh, (the first ‘church’). It required faith - no longer would he enjoy the protection of the larger tribal connections and the place ahead was unknown - and obedience, for the decision lay with him and with him alone. Sometimes much is required of one to whom much will be given.

“Leave ---- for a land that I will show you”. He is called to venture into the unknown. The way ahead will be revealed to him as he takes the path of obedience. His part is to trust and obey. What a crucial moment this is in his life. It will determine his whole destiny. Indeed it will determine the destiny of the world.

God does not hold back on what is being demanded. It is spelled out clearly. He must leave his land, to which by now he has become tied by a sense of belonging. He must leave his kinsfolk, those whom he knows so well and has relied on so often. He must leave his position in the family hierarchy, his father’s house, those who are most important to him. The thoughts are progressive.

But in return he is promised what every man dreams of. He is to enjoy a new land. He will become ‘a great nation’. He will experience God’s special protection. He is to become ‘a blessing’. Indeed the whole earth will be blessed through what he does, or rather what God does through him. The ideas are in parallel. He must leave a land to receive a land. He must leave kinsfolk in order to become part of a great nation. He must leave his close family so that all the world might become his family. This is God’s covenant. Obey, he is told, and you will receive abundantly and flowing over. And Abram believes and obeys.

It was against all natural common sense. Surely his opportunity to become a great nation lay in inheriting his father’s position over the combined family sub-tribes? But God knows that unless he breaks free he will not be truly free, for always he will be held back by tradition, connections with his father’s gods and responsibility to others. Only when he has fully broken free to become master of his own destiny will he be able to receive and to offer the fullness of blessing. When God chooses a man He strips him of all that could prevent his usefulness. But sometimes we are not willing to let go. Abram was willing to let go.

“I will make you a great nation”. This thought is prominent in all the promises to Abram. He will have many descendants, and in Genesis 17:5-6 (compare Genesis 17:20) the promise is expanded to become ‘nations’ (see Genesis 13:16; Genesis 15:5; Genesis 17:5 on; Genesis 18:18; Genesis 22:17; Genesis 26:4; Genesis 26:24; Genesis 28:14; Genesis 35:11).

“Make your name great.” There is a deliberate contrast here with those who went to Babel (Genesis 11:4). They went out from their family background to make themselves a name, but it ended in miserable failure, for they built what was only temporary, and they brought division to the world which would only result in further misery. Abram will build what is permanent, which will result in blessing. He builds no city but what he builds, a household of faith, will be a blessing to the world. The choice the world always faces is spelled out clearly here. God or mammon? The ‘pleasures of civilisation’ or joy in God? It is where the heart is that really matters.

“Be a blessing”. The covenant is full of blessing. Blessing for Abram. Blessing for his friends. Blessing for the world. Abram is to be the earthly source of that blessing. He is not given the narrow view of seeking to achieve blessing for himself. He is to seek to be a blessing. And as he does so he will be blessed himself. What a contrast this is with those who sought to build ‘civilisation’ only for their own ends.

“I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse.” There is a deliberate contrast between the plural and the singular. His friends will be many, his enemies few. But enemies he will have for he seeks to serve God and this will always result in those who react to such an attitude. But Abram is assured that God will be watching over his relationships and acting accordingly.


Verse 4

‘So Abram went as Yahweh had spoken to him, and Lot went with him. And Abram was seventy five years old when he left Haran.’

Abram obeyed the voice of God. Lot, his nephew also went with him. It is very probable that through Abram’s witness Lot too had begun to worship Yahweh. It is possibly difficult to comprehend what a major step for Abram this move was. To the ancients membership of the tribe was a sacred duty and to leave it was to dismember the tribe. But Abram has the call of Yahweh and his act is therefore a declaration of faith.

Abram’s age at leaving (seventy five) indicates according to the Hebrew text that Terah was still alive when he left. Terah was ‘seventy’ when he begat Abram (Genesis 11:26). Seventy plus seventy five (Genesis 12:4) is one hundred and forty five. Terah died at two hundred and five. Thus he would live for another sixty years.

However we have already seen that the ‘seventy’ indicates a divinely perfect birth and the seventy and five here may suggest the divinely perfect time (seven intensified) plus five (the covenant number). It is explaining why Abram acts at this point in time. Thus the numbers may not be intended as literal numbers. Furthermore the Samaritan Pentateuch gives Terah’s age on death as one hundred and forty five. It thus sees Abram as leaving Haran on the death of his father. This is the tradition known to Stephen in Acts 7.

(The Samaritan Pentateuch, comprising the five books of Moses, is a separate and very ancient tradition of the Hebrew text, which, with a few particular alterations, was preserved by the Samaritans).


Verse 5

‘And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother’s son, and all their substance that they had gathered, and the souls they had obtained in Haran, and they went out to go into the land of Canaan, and into the land of Canaan they came.’

The repetitive phrases at the end are in typical Ancient Near Eastern style. They confirm that what they purposed to do, they did, unlike Terah earlier.

It is clear that Abram has built up a family sub-tribe since arriving in Haran. He was a man of substance and he has increased his wealth and obtained servants of his own. He has had this moment in mind, and the time had now come to act. Lot too is a man of substance, with his father’s wealth handed down to him. Later their joint substance is so great that they have to separate (Genesis 13:6), and Abram is able to field 318 fighting men ‘born in his house’ for battle (Genesis 14:14).


Verse 6

‘And Abram passed through the land to the place of Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. And the Canaanite was then in the land.’ The arrival at Shechem (a very ancient city) is mentioned because it is here that Abram will have his first meeting with Yahweh in the land.

“The oak of Moreh” may be intended to indicate an oak forest (compare Genesis 13:18 and Deuteronomy 11:30). Alternately it may refer to a particularly famous oak, possibly with religious connotations. Indeed the particular oak may have been called that precisely because it was there that God met Abram, and there that he built the first altar to Yahweh (Genesis 12:7 compare Genesis 35:4; Joshua 24:6).

Shechem was under the control of the Hivites (Genesis 33:18 to Genesis 34:2). This is drawn to our attention by the phrase that ‘the Canaanite was then in the land’. Hivites were seen as ‘Canaanites’, and had associations with Lebanon (Genesis 10:17; Judges 3:3; 2 Samuel 24:7). Thus ‘the Canaanite was then in the land’ is probably not a phrase written long after, looking back, but is one pointing out that by this time Shechem was Canaanite. It had previously not been so. The presence of people called Canaanites in the area is mentioned for the first time around this time in external documents. Thus the writer has an intimate knowledge of the recent history of Canaan.

Some take the other view in which case we have a typical explanatory note of the kind often introduced into records as an updating comment, without changing the narrative. But the former explanation is more likely. Whichever way it is it cannot be used to date the whole record.


Verse 7

‘And Yahweh appeared to Abram and said, “To your seed I will give this land.” And there he built an altar to Yahweh who appeared to him.’

This is the first theophany (awesome experience of God) received by Abram in the land. It confirms that he has now arrived at the place to which God has sent him. This land is the land promised to him, the land that God would show him (Genesis 12:1). This is a postscript to the earlier covenant. This also confirms our above view about the mention of the Canaanite presence. The mention is ominous. It is the Canaanites who will need to be dispossessed by Abram’s descendants.

“He built there an altar”. Noah had also built an altar to celebrate the ending of the flood (Genesis 8:20). The altar would be built of earth for the purpose of offering a burnt offering in gratitude to God. We are not to read into it the later complicated sacrificial system. The offering is predominantly an act of worship. But it reminds us that man’s approach to God must be through the death of another. As head of the family tribe Abram would be its priest.


Verse 8

‘And he removed from there to the mountain on the east of Bethel (‘house of God’), and pitched his tent, having Bethel to the West and Ai to the East. And there he built an altar to Yahweh and called on the name of Yahweh.’

Abram is surveying the land and finding places for his herds and flocks to feed. But wherever he goes he does not forget the public worship of God.

“Called on the name of Yahweh”. A technical term for Yahweh worship (see Genesis 4:26). Abram is announcing to his family tribe that Yahweh is now the God of the land. The writer’s mention of the two great walled Canaanite cities (both well attested) is deliberate in order to emphasise Abram’s claim even in the face of these walled cities. It is an act of faith. He does not doubt that God can deal with the walled cities.

It is not said that he ‘called on the name of Yahweh’ at Shechem. That was more of a temporary altar, built because of the covenant confirmed there. That was a more personal act of worship. This one is more important and is recognised as the primary altar for worship by the tribe at this time.

To Abram there is only one God. He is Yahweh, the Creator of all things and Judge of all the earth (Genesis 18:25, compare Genesis 13:13 where Sodom’s sins are said to be ‘against Yahweh’). He is confident that Yahweh can work His will wherever He wishes, even in mighty Egypt (Genesis 12:10-20). He rarely needs to deal with the question of the gods of others. When he meets Melchizedech king of Jerusalem he is ready to accept that El Elyon, ‘the Most High God’, maker of heaven and earth, is the same as Yahweh, for that is what he knows Yahweh to be (Genesis 14:22). The same is true of El Shaddai, ‘God the Almighty’ (Genesis 17:1) and El ‘Olam ‘the Everlasting God’ (Genesis 21:33). For to him Yahweh is all. But this is because the descriptions fit Yahweh, not because he is prepared to equate Him with any god. He is not primarily a syncretist.

“Pitched his tent”. The use of tents is paralleled by the “seventeen kings who lived in tents”, mentioned in a later Assyrian inscription, and the first of whom is referred to at Ebla (3rd millennium BC). The Amorite tent dwellers of the earlier myth of Martu, and references in the Tale of Sinuhe (c.1950BC) also confirm the use of tents at this time.


Verse 9

‘And Abram journeyed going on still towards the Negev.’

The Negev was the Southern highland, sloping southward between Hebron and Beer-sheba, the southernmost part of Canaan, and very suitable for grazing. Abram has now passed through the whole land, surveying it in Yahweh’s name, and seeking pasture. It is his new home. Archaeology testifies to the occupancy of this area by peoples similar to Abram around this time. The route taken by Abram also fits in with what we know of such people from this period, keeping to the hills and avoiding the great cities in the coastal plain.


Verse 10

Adventure in Egypt, Increasing Wealth, Separation from Lot, God Confirms His Covenant (Genesis 12:10 to Genesis 13:18).

This section is to be seen as a whole leading up to the final covenant (Genesis 13:14-17). It reveals God’s watch over Abram in all circumstances, and stresses that Yahweh’s power reaches even into Egypt. Pharaoh was believed to be the earthly manifestation of a god, but he is shown as having no protection against Yahweh. The account helps to explain how Abram and Lot became so rich in herds that they had to separate.

Genesis 12:10

‘And there was a famine in the land, and Abram went down into Egypt to sojourn there, for the famine was sore in the land.’

It is clear that by this time Abram has been some time in Canaan. A severe famine occurs there. Canaan was always vulnerable to famine because it was so totally dependent on rain, so Abram makes for Egypt as would many others with herds to protect. Egypt exercised general control over the area over this period. There is no suggestion of blame here about his going to Egypt. On the contrary the writer justifies Abram on the grounds of the severity of the famine.

The well known mural painting of Beni-Hasan, dated about the year 1892 BC, portraying a visit to Middle Egypt by a small caravan of travelling Semitic smiths and musicians, provides background to this incident.

But this must have been a real test to Abram’s faith. The land that God has brought him to has failed and he must leave it at least for a time. He needs some special reassurance of God’s care and he receives it in what follows.

Because of the Nile, which overflowed its banks seasonally and kept the ground well watered, Egypt was usually protected from the worst aspects of famine, although, rarely, they did happen even there, and we know from external records that people often sought refuge in Egypt at such times and were accepted in (compare also Genesis 26:2; Genesis 41:54 on; Genesis 43; Genesis 47:4). Abram’s intention was only to stay as long as was necessary.

As with much of the narrative it reads as though Abram were almost on his own, but it is commonplace in ancient literature to depict the activity of a group in terms of its leader unless there is an intention to make a specific impression (compare e.g. 1 Kings 14:25; 2 Kings 12:17; 2 Kings 16:9). The action here is centred on Abram and Sarai, those who are with him, including Lot (but see Genesis 13:1), are unimportant to the narrative.


Verses 11-13

‘And it happened that when he was on the verge of entering Egypt he said to Sarai his wife, “Look now, I know that you are a very beautiful woman. And when the Egyptians see you they will say ‘this is his wife’, and they will kill me and save you alive. I beg you, say you are my sister so that it may be well with me for your sake, and that my soul may live because of you’.” ’

Sarai’s beauty must have been exceptionally outstanding for Abram to have this fear, for he would have had his retainers with him. But he has clearly heard rumours about the way Egyptians sometimes treated ‘foreigners’ and her beauty fills him with apprehension.

The Egyptians undoubtedly despised foreigners and saw themselves as ‘men’, and foreigners as mere ‘humans’, until they learned to speak Egyptian. Abram had nothing to judge the Egyptians by except hearsay for he knew nothing about Egypt except for what he had been told, but he knew that they were a powerful nation and famine would have left him and his retainers somewhat weak and frail. They were after all coming to beg for help.

Furthermore we learn later that this habit of describing Sarai as his sister was a policy he had settled on long before when he first ‘left his father’s house’ (Genesis 20:13). The statement was true in terms of those days. She was in fact his half-sister (Genesis 20:12). In fairness to Abram it must be recognised that while this was undoubtedly because he was concerned for his own life he also has in mind Sarai’s safety. He no doubt thought that if men killed him for his wife, his wife would become their plaything. But if they saw the opportunity of wooing Sarai respectably they may well treat Abram well with a view to a respectable marriage, giving them the opportunity to move on in safety.

The plan may have worked well elsewhere but here it misfired. What he could not have foreseen (because he was not familiar with great kings and their ways) was the policy of Pharaoh to have men constantly on the lookout for beautiful women for his harem.


Verse 14-15

‘And it happened that when Abram had arrived in Egypt the Egyptians saw that the woman was very beautiful, and the princes of Pharaoh saw her, and praised her to Pharaoh and the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house.’

The description fits well with what would be expected to happen in a case like this. It bears all the marks of genuineness. First the Egyptians in general begin to praise her beauty, and the word gets around. Then the princes of Pharaoh, always eager to win his favour, would hear about her and have her appraised. Then she is ‘taken into Pharaoh’s house’.

This does not mean that Pharaoh ever saw her. He had many harems and she was taken into one of them. There would then be a period of preparation in which this ‘barbarian’ could be fitted for her position after which she would be offered to Pharaoh. It is clear, however, that Abram is respected enough as a petty prince to have her treated properly.

“Pharaoh.” The title of the king of Egypt. It derives from the Egyptian term for ‘great house’ and originally signified the palace and court of the king. The first known use of the king himself is around 1450 BC. Some time after the time of Moses it began to be connected with the actual name of the Pharaoh. Thus we may see the use here as being probably the work of Moses, changing an original ‘king of Egypt’ into the more modern title.


Verse 16

‘And he treated Abram well for her sake, and he had sheep and oxen and he asses, and menservants and maidservants, and she asses and camels.’

Great kings were often not ungenerous when a beautiful woman was involved. Here he was dispensing favours, and the courtiers would be well instructed in the matter. These gifts were of course supplied by Pharaohs’ princes on his behalf. Pharaoh himself would not get involved in such a matter until the woman was presented to him. The gifts show that Abram was respected and the certainty the princes had of Pharaoh’s satisfaction. They were munificent as became a Pharaoh. They explain how Abram so quickly became rich enough to have to separate from Lot. Notice the stress on the expansion of his herds and flocks.

Camels were a comparative luxury at this stage but there is no question but that the privileged had them. Camels are attested in a cuneiform tablet from Alalah (18th century BC), a kneeling camel figure from Byblos (19th century BC), a 19th century BC text from Ugarit and a Middle Bronze Age tomb at Nablus (1900 - 1550 BC), as well as at other places. Figurines of camels have been found at Al-Ubaid, also at Uruq, Lagash and in Egypt. Camel bones and teeth have been found in Palestine (1700 B.C.). When Abram wishes to impress his far off relatives it is camels that he sends (Genesis 24:10).

But the size of his ‘household’ was also increased. Many more men now served under him. His power and effectiveness was thus extended.


Verse 17

‘And Yahweh plagued Pharaoh and his house with great plagues, because of Sarai, Abram’s wife.’

Presumably Pharaoh must have visited the particular palace where Sarai was in the harem and some dreadful illness clearly ensued there. Enquiries would then be made as to new arrivals to explain the problem, and diviners would be consulted. God may have spoken to them as he later spoke to the soothsayer Balaam. Certainly in some way they learned the truth about Sarai.

It is even possible that Abram or one of his servants might have arranged for the news to reach the ear of someone influential. He must have been devastated at what had happened and not have known what to do about it. But when news of the illness in the palace reached him he may have seen it as a God given opportunity, and acted. Alternately Sarai may have communicated the message to someone influential in the harem and spoken of what Abram’s God would do in the light of the circumstances.

However to the writer the most amazing thing was that Yahweh could afflict Pharaoh. Pharaoh was a distant and fearful figure not easily approached even by Egyptians, a god, and one of whom to be afraid. But the incident demonstrates to him that the gods of Egypt are no match for Yahweh. His power is clearly all embracing. This is one of the main lessons of the account.


Verses 18-20

‘And Pharaoh called Abram and said, “What is this that you have done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife? Why did you say ‘she is my sister’. Now therefore here is your wife. Take her and leave.” And Pharaoh gave men charge concerning him, and they brought him on the way, and his wife, and all that he had.’

The words aptly bring out the superior status of Pharaoh. There is no discussion. Indeed the message would probably be conveyed through servants, although it is possible that, in the circumstances, he might have been brought into the presence of Pharaoh with all the preparations that that would entail (compare Genesis 41:14 which simplified a more complex requirement).

It is clear that whatever the illness was it was sufficient to awe Pharaoh enough to prevent him taking revenge on Abram. Rather than punish him he wants this man with his powerful God to be well out of his way. Pharaoh the god is afraid of Yahweh. There is the specific idea here that Abram was at fault. The writer does not attempt to hide the fact. But he also wants the reader to know that Pharaoh is afraid.

So Abram is escorted to the frontier and firmly ejected from Egypt. But he is allowed to take his gifts with him. In the writer’s eyes the superiority of Yahweh is recognised by Pharaoh so that he acts accordingly.

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Genesis 12:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/genesis-12.html. 2013.

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