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Bible Commentaries

Whedon's Commentary on the Bible

Genesis 12

 

 

Verse 1

1. The Lord had said — Rather, the Lord said. The pluperfect rendering was adopted by our translators from a supposed necessity of harmonizing this verse with Acts 7:2. But it is not necessary to suppose the writer here refers to a second call, which Abram received in Haran. According to a usage often noticed in these pages, the writer goes back and takes up his narrative at a point previously recorded — so we may believe, with Stephen, that this call of Abram occurred “before he dwelt in Haran.” The history of Terah was in the last chapter finished, and now begins the continuous history of the chosen seed from the great event in which it had its birth. It was a Jewish tradition, as we see from the book of Judith, that the descendants of Terah were driven out from Chaldea because they refused to follow the prevalent idolatry: “For they left the way of their ancestors, and worshipped the God of heaven, the God whom they knew: so they [the Chaldeans] cast them out from the face of their gods, and they fled into Mesopotamia, and sojourned there many days. Then their God commanded them to depart from the place where they sojourned, and to go into the land of Canaan.” Judith 5:8-9.

Get thee out Go for thyself; a special command. Note four particulars in this divine call. 1) Abram was to leave his native country, the fertile land where his fathers had dwelt for centuries, with its cities and its civilization, the mountains and noble rivers of his childhood. 2) His kindred, the stock of Eber, whom he left in Chaldea. 3) His father’s house, the family of Terah, whom he left in Haran. The closest earthly ties were to be broken. 4) He was to go forth, he knew not whither, unto a land that God should show him. Hebrews 11:8. He was to exchange the town and the pastoral life for that of the nomad; to leave the massive temples of Chaldea to build altars here and there in the wilderness. But by faith he saw his father-land, his home, in the promise of God. Hebrews 11:14.


Verses 1-3

THE CALL OF ABRAM, Genesis 12:1-3.

The history now narrows again to a single branch of the family of Terah — Abram and his descendants. The other branches, which are only incidentally alluded to hereafter as they are connected with the fortunes of the covenant people, remained in Chaldea at least for generations, and a large portion of them settled around the wells of Haran, where, in the days of Isaac and Jacob, we find them forming a community which furnished these patriarchs wives of their kinsfolks, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah, while the sons of Abram were still sojourners among the children of Ham. It was now more than four centuries since God’s last revelation to Noah, and the blessing of Shem. The scattered nations were fast sinking into idolatry; but that the knowledge of God was yet in the earth, incidental notices, as that of “Melchizedek, king of Salem and priest of the most high God,” sufficiently declare. Where there was such a priest, and a royal priest, there must have been established worship and a number of worshippers. Probably the history of Job, the patriarch of Uz, wherein, as Ewald says, the manners, customs, style of thought and expression are all of the pre-Mosaic age, furnishes another example of genuine faith in the true God among a people who had never heard of the Abrahamic covenant.

But Abram was now called from the family of Terah to be a blessing to the whole earth; the father of a missionary nation, who should preserve and disseminate the knowledge of the true God through all nations and ages. His whole life was to be an education in faith, which is the root of true religion. “Every movement in the physical and ethical history of Abraham is fraught with instruction of the deepest interest for the heirs of immortality. The leading points in spiritual experience are here laid before us. The susceptibilites and activities of a soul born of the Spirit are unfolded to our view. These are lessons for eternity.” — Murphy. It is in this way that the biblical history is so profitable for doctrine, counsel, and instruction in righteousness.


Verse 2

2. I will make of thee a great nation — Great promises correspond with the great sacrifices commanded. 1) He left his nation, but should himself be the founder of a great nation. 2) He sacrificed kindred, but should be blessed with a spiritual kinship, as yet by him unimagined and inconceivable, but hailed afar off by faith. Hebrews 11:13. 3) He broke away from ancestral ties, but his own name should be illustrious as father of the faithful, ancestor of the Hebrew people, and of the world’s Messiah. 4) Most glorious of all,

Thou shalt be a blessing — Hebrews, Be thou a blessing. “It is more blessed to give than to receive;” and, like the great Antitype, Abram’s highest glory was in being a fount of blessing to all mankind. He should be famous, not for what he took from men, but for what he gave to men; not like Sesostris, Caesar, Alexander, for the victories of the sword, but for the grander victories of truth and love.

Abram signifies “the lofty Father,” and to-day Christians, Mohammedans, and Jews contend with each other in the veneration which they show for Abram as a father. Alexander Severus, the Roman emperor, built a chapel in his palace in which all the great religions of the earth were honored; and it is related that the statues of Abram and Zoroaster stood there with those of Orpheus and of Christ. Probably no human name is to-day so widely honored as that of the “father of the faithful.”


Verse 3

3. I will bless… curse — The promise is here expanded — Abram, as the man of faith, is to be identified with the divine plan for human redemption; his friends are, therefore, God’s friends, his enemies God’s enemies. Faith makes man one with God; takes up his plans into the divine plan. Thus “all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called [as was Abram] according to his purpose,” who elects, as sons of God, those in whom this faith is foreknown. Romans 8:28-29. The foreknowledge of Abram’s faith was the basis of the great promise, in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed. This promise was conspicuously fulfilled in three modes by Abram. Abram became a channel of the divine law to all mankind. 1) From him came the Hebrew people, who for fifteen centuries preserved the knowledge of the unity, spirit, and holiness of God amidst manifold and abominable idolatries, which saturated all the ancient ceremonies. 2) From him thus came the Bible, God’s book, to the world. 3) And from him came the Messiah, the Incarnate God and Redeemer. This promise is as broad as mankind, as deep and high as human wants and aspirations, as far reaching as immortality itself. Abram believed it, though imperfectly comprehending it; not receiving in his earthly lifetime the thing promised, yet having God’s testimony of acceptance through faith, (Hebrews 11:39,) God having, in all this preparatory dispensation, provided, (Hebrews 11:40,) foreseen, and arranged for better things concerning us who enjoy the revelations in full sunshine, whose twilight gleam patriarchs saw afar off. Yet they were made perfect in their love by this distant view; what then must be our responsibility, who have come unto Mount Zion?


Verse 4

ABRAM IN CANAAN, Genesis 12:4-9.

4. Departed — Abram obeys, and goes forth from Haran, westward, over the river, as it was ever called by the Hebrews, the great Euphrates, afterwards the boundary of the kingdom of David and Solomon, separating Aram from Padan-Aram, the fertile Mesopotamian plain from the Syrian desert, and henceforth he was Abram, the Hebrew, the man who had crossed the border from beyond the great river, ( ο περατης, LXX of Genesis 14:13,) the emigrant, the pilgrim, (peregrinus, perager,) a typical name of spiritual depth and beauty. See note on Genesis 10:24. He crossed the high chalk cliffs which wall the plain on the west, and forded the broad strong stream with wife and nephew and dependants, his flocks and his asses and camels, and entered the Syrian desert, a pilgrim, henceforth a type of all who set out on the heavenly pilgrimage. The manners and habits of the East are to day so nearly what they were in Abram’s day that we can easily picture the scene.


Verse 5

5. Substance — Literally, possessions which they had gained possession of — flocks and herds.

Souls — Persons, which they had acquired, the dependent followers of the household establishment. We find afterwards that Abram has three hundred and eighteen trained servants whom he leads forth in a warlike expedition, to rescue Lot. Genesis 14:14.


Verse 6

6. Passed through the land — Descending, probably, by way of Damascus — as we find afterwards that the steward of his house is a native of that city — thence southward and along the valley of the Jabbok by the route afterwards followed by Jacob, and across the Jordan unto the place of Sichem, or Shechem, the region in which afterwards, and in the writer’s time, the town of Shechem was situated. (Neapolis and Nablus in subsequent time.) Yet the name, meaning shoulder, was probably given the locality from its being the water shed between the Jordan and the Mediterranean, and from the place passed to the man Shechem, son of Hamor. The particular spot of Abram’s halt was the oak or oak grove (not plain) of Moreh, the name of its owner or planter. The town of Shechem, which we find here in the time of Jacob, lay in a beautiful sequestered valley between Mount Ebal on the north and Gerizim on the south. These mountains are in the narrowest place only sixty rods apart, and rise in bold bluffs to the height of about one thousand feet. Groves of evergreen oak and terebinth, as well as luxuriant orchards of orange and citron, vocal with birds and running waters, are a delightful feature of the valley of Nablus to-day. In this lovely valley, beneath and between these bold crags, which more than four centuries afterwards echoed with the solemn blessings and cursings of his descendants as they covenanted with God at their entrance into the land of promise — here, near the spot where, more than nineteen centuries afterwards, Jesus sat on the well of Jacob and made “this mountain” a stepping-stone to the spiritual kingdom in which men shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth — it was fit that here the father of the chosen people should first pitch his tent and build his altar. But the oak grove under which he encamped belonged to Moreh the Canaanite. The land whose very earth and air were to be saturated with his name was the possession of idolatrous strangers, the Canaanite was (even) then in the land, as he was when this narrative was written. This remark seems to have been added to show why it was impossible at that time for Abram to take possession. This handful of pilgrims, when they arrived in the vale of Shechem, found a widely-spread nation already in possession of the land of promise.


Verse 7

7. The Lord appeared unto Abram — This is the first time that Jehovah is said to have appeared to man; and here, at Shechem, Christ revealed himself as the Messiah to a woman of Samaria. How Jehovah appeared at this time to Abram no man is now competent to say, and speculation and theories seem idle. Here was the first altar built to Jehovah as the covenant God; but we may be sure that “Melchizedek, king of Salem, and priest of the Most High God,” was also at this time offering acceptable worship in this land of idolatry. Now for the first time Abram is told what is the land promised him, and yet it is not to be an inheritance for him, but only for his children.

Unto thy seed will I give this land — There was now no established priesthood; the head of the family was priest in his own household. Abram builds an altar of earth and rough stones, and in the midst of his assembled household calls upon God by the mysterious covenant Name. He thus enters the land of promise with the solemn worship of Jehovah.


Verse 8

8. Removed from thence — Abram moved southward from Shechem and pitched his tent on the little round mount now seen strewn with stones, as if for the building of an altar, south-east of Bethel — now called Beitin by the Arabs — a little spot covered with foundation stones and half-standing walls, while east of this mount, and at about the same distance, may be seen a hill covered with the gray ruins of Ai, the modern Et-Tel. See Joshua 7:2, note. The name Beth-el (house of God) is said to have been given to this spot by Jacob on two different occasions, (Genesis 28:19; Genesis 35:15,) so that here the historian may mean that Abram pitched his tent at the place afterwards called Beth-el; or it may have borne this name already in Abram’s day, an interesting relic of ancient piety, such as we meet with in the name Melchizedek, and the name may have again been applied to it in a new sense by Jacob after his wondrous vision there.


Verse 9

9. Abram journeyed — Literally, and Abram pulled up, (his tent-pins,) going and pulling up, (encamping and striking his tents.)

Toward the south — Hebrew, towards the Negeb, that is, the country south of Palestine; probably encamping in the vale of Hebron, where we afterwards find him. Thus he dwelt in tabernacles (tents) with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the promise, a stranger in the land which yet he called his own. Hebrews 11:9.


Verse 10

ABRAM IN EGYPT, Genesis 12:10-20.

10. Famine in the land — Famine comes on him in the land of promise, and thus his faith is sorely tried. Not only were idolaters in possession of the ground on which he pitched his tents, but famine comes also. Canaan is watered by periodic rains; when they fail the ground dries up, and scarcity becomes no uncommon event. But Egypt, being watered by the regular overflow of the Nile, which was utilized by artificial irrigation, was rarely afflicted with famine, although when it did occur it was terribly destructive. Egypt was the granary of the adjacent nations in times of want. But Abram went there only to sojourn ( גור ) till the famine was passed, not to dwell there. Abram passes down through the desert, as Jacob and his sons did afterwards for a similar cause to go down into Egypt. Abram, Israel, and the promised Seed fled before calamity through the same desert into the same land of refuge, sojourned there awhile amid its idolatrous civilization, its massive gods and temples, and then returned to Canaan — three advancing dispensations and divine manifestations which broke upon the world from this mysterious land, that it might be fulfilled that was spoken by the prophet, “I… called my son out of Egypt.” Hosea 11:1.


Verse 11

11. Thou art a fair woman — Sarai was sixty-five years of age when Abram left Haran, being ten years younger than he, but, considering the longevity of the patriarchs, we may assume that at that period of life she would retain much of her youthful beauty, appearing much as a woman of thirty in our time. To the more dusky Egyptians an Asiatic woman would appear especially beautiful. The Egyptians were not Negroes, as is shown by the monuments; they were tawny in color, with straight hair, and features more Asiatic than African, (Rawl. Herod., 2:104;) but there was still a strong contrast between them and the true Asiatics, whose women might, therefore, appear to them very fair. Abram’s fear was by no means groundless, for the Egyptian monarchs were unscrupulous in exercising their despotic power for the gratification of their desires. But we here meet with a manifestation of unbelief and of a lack of sensitiveness in regard to the marriage tie on the part of the father of the faithful, which, to a Christian, is startling. But we must, as Kurtz observes, “Consider what Abram could gain by pretending that Sarai was merely his sister. If she had been introduced as his wife, any one who wished to possess her could only attain this by violence, which would have greatly endangered Abram’s life. But if she passed for his sister, it seemed probable that overtures would be made, and thus time, in this case the one thing requisite, be gained. Besides, he probably hoped that Jehovah, who had destined his wife to be the mother of the promised seed, would vindicate the honour of his promise.” But while the narrative furnishes a faithful picture of Abram’s struggle into true faith through the heathen corruptions which surrounded him, it teaches us also lessons of the divine discipline, and at the same time furnishes valuable incidental evidence of the impartial truthfulness of a history that so frankly sets down most humiliating truths concerning the father of the chosen people. Overawed by the splendours of the Egyptian civilization and by the absolute power of the Pharaohs, his faith in God’s power wavers, and he resorts to a prevarication for the preservation of his life, which it seems he had preconcerted with Sarai at the commencement of his wanderings. Genesis 20:13. Sarai was, it seems by Genesis 20:12, his half sister, daughter of his father by another mother, and he tells a half truth by calling her simply his sister, thus weakly exposing her to save himself. Of course, the sin was not so great as it would be under the Gospel or even the Mosaic law, but the course of Providence by which its weakness and wickedness was revealed to Abram is detailed for our instruction, while God’s forgiving tenderness is also set forth in his remarkable interposition to rescue Sarai from her peril. Abram — reproved and punished, yet spared and forgiven, as one who yet walked in the twilight of revelation — is thus trained for fuller manifestations of the divine will, and thus in his weakness as well as his strength — in his sin as well as virtue — becomes an encouragement and warning to his children, the heirs of faith. In judging of the magnitude of this sin we are to remember that Abram was everywhere encompassed by idolatry, and where there is idolatry there is always sensuality and falsehood. Such a lapse is not to be wondered at in one who breathed such a tainted air, although privileged to receive direct revelations from God. In fact, how truthful to human nature is this incident! how unlike the artificial virtue of legendary saints and heroes!


Verse 14

14. Beheld — The Egyptian women were not veiled, like the Orientals. The pictorial representations in Egypt show the women unveiled, associating with men in all the freedom of modern civilization.


Verse 15

15. Commended her before Pharaoh — The result is as Abram anticipated. He sins to help Providence, and Providence abandons him. This was also the sin of Jacob in stealing Esau’s blessing, and is no uncommon sin in God’s Church to-day.

Pharaoh — This is the same as the PI-Ra and PHRAH of the hieroglyphics, meaning “The Sun,” and applied as a title to the Egyptian kings. P-RE is written as a hieroglyphic symbol over the titles of the Egyptian kings. In the monuments the sun is treated as the visible representation of the generative principle of nature, and sun worship may have been a primitive idolatry brought into Egypt from the East. The colossal Theban statues, representing kings as brothers of the gods, show how they assumed divine dignities, and furnish a comment on the name Pharaoh.

Taken into Pharaoh’s house — An Egyptian harem. Herodotus mentions that the Egyptians had but one wife; but Diodorus says that this restriction was confined to the priests, while other men took as many wives as they pleased. Polygamy seems to have been allowed, while monogamy was deemed more reputable. Wilkinson states that the monuments show evidence that the kings had many foreign wives or concubines, captives taken in war.


Verse 16

16. He entreated Abram well — Observe that the presents which Pharaoh makes Abram are such as were suited to his nomad life. It is noticeable that nothing is here said of horses, which, as shown by the monuments, were introduced at a later period of Egyptian civilization. We find them there in the time of Moses.


Verse 17

17. The Lord plagued Pharaoh — As another Pharaoh and his people were afterwards smitten for their cruel oppression of Abram’s seed. What these plagues were we are not told, but they seem to have fallen upon all who were engaged in this despotic proceeding, and probably were of such a nature as to prevent Pharaoh from consummating his marriage with Sarai, and led him to see that his design ran counter to the purposes of Abram’s God. According to Josephus, the priests told Pharaoh the cause of the plagues; but Patrick suggests, that Sarai confessed the truth to Pharaoh.


Verse 18

18. What is this — The heathen despot reproves the sin of the God-fearing Abram! What a humiliation!


Verse 20

20. Sent him away — The language implies an honourable escort, and a safe conduct out of Egypt. “It deserves to be noticed that throughout the history of the chosen race, Egypt was to them the scene of spiritual danger, of covetousness and love of riches, of worldly security, of temptation to rest on man’s arm and understanding, and not on God only. All this appears from the very first, in Abram’s sojourn there, Sarai’s danger, and their departure full of wealth and prosperity.” — Speaker’s Commentary.

 


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Bibliography Information
Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Genesis 12:4". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/whe/genesis-12.html. 1874-1909.

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