The Call of Abraham


Genesis 12:1–9

We have no record of God’s having spoken to anyone since the covenant promise to Noah consisting of a rainbow. Now at the end of the genealogical table of Shem, preserved in purity by the dispersion at Babel (Genesis 10:32), we find a brief narrative concerning Abram’s father, Terah. He had three sons, Abram, Nahor, and Haran. Abram must have been the youngest for Abram was born when Terah was 130 (cf. 11:32 and 12:4). Haran perhaps was the oldest for he died in Ur, leaving a son, Lot, to be cared for by Terah and eventually accompanying Abram to Canaan. Taking His son Abram, his grandson Lot, his daughter-in-law Sarai, Terah left his home in Ur. He stopped just north of the land of Canaan, settling in Haran, about 600 miles from Ur. Why he went and why he stopped the text does not say. Stephen the deacon, however, said that “The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he dwelt in Haran and said to him, ‘Get out of your country, and from your relatives, and come to a land that I will show you’” (Acts 7:2, 3). Having arrived after the long trip, they stayed in Haran until Terah died. This pilgrimage to Canaan would be a resumption of Abram’s progress in response to divine revelation.

I. Verses 1, 4, and 5 record the call to go and its eventual fulfillment when they “came to the land of Canaan” (5).

Chapter 12, verse 1 has these profound words, “The Lord Said;” after generations of quiet in revelatory truth, God appeared in such a way to Abraham—“the God of glory”—that he could not be mistaken about the legitimate authority of the call. “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called” (Hebrews 11:8). God made himself clear.

A. The call originally given at Ur (11:31) is now, after the death of Terah, renewed. Conceivably, verses 1–3 recapitulate the call that came in Ur and explain why Abram now moves from Haran to Canaan.

They “went forth together from Ur of the Chaldeans to go into the land of Canaan” (11:31). The call was given to Abram, but, as the head of the family, Terah initiated the original move from Ur [“Terah took Abram his son etc”].

B. Though they originally had set out for Canaan, they had stopped in Haran and while there Terah died.

The order of listing of Terah’s sons probably is not the birth order but the order of importance in this narrative. From the years enumerated, it appears that Abram was born when Terah was 130, Abram being 75 close to the time that Terah died. This would mean that Haran, who died first (11:28). was the firstborn and was sixty years older than Abram. Perhaps for as long as 25 years they stayed in Haran.

C. After the death of Terah, the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”

The family already had heard of the land and for that reason had begun a journey there before stopping in Haran. They probably had not seen it, and the promise God gave to Abram included his showing it to him. According to Hebrews, the impression on Abram did not culminate on the earthly site but on the prospect of the eternal city and eternal life (Hebrews 11:15, 16).

D. In Abram’s first “work of faith” (1 Thessalonians 1:3; James 2:20–23), they now continue their journey interrupted by a quarter of a century, but not as mere vagabonds; instead, they journey with the purpose of promise and command of God as their impetus.

When they set out, therefore, their destination was the land of Canaan [“they set out to go to the land of Canaan”]. The original group that had left Ur, with the exception of the deceased Terah, resumed the trek to Canaan with all their possessions. They had become enriched in Haran. Evidently Abram had acquired a large number of servants to help tend the flocks so that he had at least 318 “trained men” born within his household that could go to war (14:14).

E. John Gill remarks on this passage: “This call of Abram is an emblem of the call of men by the grace of God out of the world, and from among the men of it, and to renounce the things of it, and not be conformed unto it, and to forget their own people and their father’s house, and to cleave to the Lord, and follow him whithersoever he directs them.”

The willingness to forsake all earthly places, relations, and positions for the sake of the infinite and eternal superiority of the eternal life gained through the person and work of Christ is a mark of genuine faith according to the words of Jesus (Luke 14:25–33).

II. The covenant promise and its implications.

After the command to go, God gives a covenant promise in which he says five times, “I will”—“I will show you, … I will make, … I will bless, … I will bless, … I will curse.” Also, God says, “You shall” and “the earth will.” These are the certainties of God reiterated on many occasions [e.g; Isaiah 9:7—“The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this;” Isaiah 66:18–21 has 4 times “I will” and consequently 3 times “They shall.” See also Jeremiah 31:31–34 and Ezekiel 36:22–32 for God’s determination of the covenantal operations of the Spirit. These covenants have within them elements of the covenant established in eternity, promises made within the eternal counsels of the triune God. The purpose of this covenant is to establish an everlasting display of increasing manifestations of God’s glory to the creatures made in his image and rescued by his grace (Ephesians 1:11; 2 Timothy 1:9; Titus 1:2; Hebrews 13:20). The covenantal purpose of God, gradually opened in the curse upon Satan (Genesis 3:15), the clothing of Adam and Eve (Genesis 3:21), the warning to Cain (Genesis 4:4–7), the protection of Noah and his family (Genesis 6:18), the promise to Noah of sustaining the earth (Genesis 8:21f, 9:8–17), now is distilled into a specific promise of blessings to all the nations of the earth through God’s purpose in this one man.

A. “I will make of you a great nation.” Initially this refers to Abram’s natural descendants through the son of promise, Isaac, through his son Jacob, and through his twelve sons (Romans 9:4, 5).

Isaac literally was a child of the promise and by type represented all those who would be saved and considered the offspring of Abram by grace through faith (Galatians 3:26–29).

B. The personal promise to Abram was for his present blessings and the greatness of his name (12:2). This encounter becomes paradigmatic for faith, obedience, the identity of Christ, and the doctrine of justification.

    1. In the Jews’ questioning of Jesus and in his condemnation of their unbelief, Abra[ha]m is the central figure of the discussion (John 8:52–59). God’s revelation to Abraham, though minimal in language and detail, was powerful in its internal impression and final meaning, for Jesus said, “Abraham saw my day” (John 8:56).
    2. Abraham is the central figure in Paul’s discussion of justification by faith in Romans 4 and in Galatians 3:5–9 and 4:21ff. In Roman 4, Paul gives a detailed discussion of Abram’s faith and its relation to imputed righteousness. Galatians 3:5–9, 13–18, 29 give exposition to the same reality in defense of the power of the gospel apart from the ceremonial law in bringing justification to Gentiles. “The blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles in Christ Jesus; … An if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.”
    3. His actions are used by the writer of Hebrews to show that he was a man of faith (Hebrews 11:8–12, 17–19). The writer said, “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to the place which he would receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going” (Hebrews 11:8).
    4. Similarly, his works are used by James in demonstration of the effectuality of saving faith to produce works of obedience. Paul in Romans 1:5 indicates that faith, true belief in the divine word about divine acts, brings about obedience—“obedience arising from faith.” James 2:21–26 insists that so-called faith devoid of works of obedience is no faith at all. “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the alter? Do you see that faith was working with his works, and by works was made perfect?” (James 2:21, 22).

C. Abraham is blessed so that he would be a blessing.

His position as a child of grace set him apart as one through whom blessing of grace would come to others. Paul makes it clear that the seed, singular, of Abraham that would bring blessing (see Galatians 3:8, 14, 16) would be Christ Jesus. It is interesting that Paul calls this passage “the gospel”—“And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying ‘In you shall all the nations be blessed. . . . so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith. . . . Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say ‘And to offsprings,’ referring to many, but referring to one, ‘And to your offspring,’ who is Christ.”

D. Verse 3 shows the reciprocal relation between blessing and cursing.

The ultimate fulfillment of this is seen in the final day when Jesus says either, “Come you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world,” or “Depart from me you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25: 34, 41).

III. As Abraham journeyed through the land, seeing what his descendants according to the flesh would inherit, he established a pattern of worship.

A. When he had traveled as far as Shechem, about halfway down the future inheritance, God again spoke to him saying “To your offspring I will give this land.” Upon that encounter, Abram built an altar (7).

B. As he moved further and pitched his tent in another location, Abram again built an altar, this time without a special appearance of God to him, and “called upon the name of the Lord” (8). Again in 13:18 after the reiteration of the promise Abram “built an altar to the Lord.”

C. This serves as witness to Abraham’s growing awareness of the claim of God on his life and of the impossibility of approaching God without sacrifice.

The revelation is minimal, but profound and foundational to every blessing of the covenant of redemption. By divine grace, Abraham’s perceptions were sharp and mature. Jesus said, “Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad” (John 8:56). Jesus in this statement sems to summarize the expansive encounter of Abraham with God’s covenantal purpose from chapter 12 through 22:8–14. “Abraham called the name of that place The Lord will provide, as it is said to this day, ‘In the mount of the Lord it will be provided.’”

D. The strife between the herdsmen of Abram and Lot resulted in Abram’s unchallenged access to Canaan (13:6–11).

Lot went to the fertile valley east of the Jordan River settling near Sodom. This sent Abram to the west with the entirety of Canaan before him. God’s promise was restated with an exuberance that surely must have impressed the spirit of Abram (13:14–18). Matthew Henry says about the call and Abram’s response: “Those that deal with God must deal upon trust; we must quit the things that are seen for things that are not seen, and submit to the sufferings of this present time in hopes of a glory that is yet to be revealed (Rom. viii. 18); for it doth not yet appear what we shall be (1 John iii. 2), any more than it did to Abram, when God called him to live in a continual dependence upon his direction, and with his eye towards him.”

God’s intention of grace
Wended its way through sinful sires;
Disgusted with the race,
God judged a way pure wrath inspires.
One family received favor,
Through whom God would send the Savior.

To Japeth, Ham, and Shem,
God said that they should fill the earth.
They paid no mind to him,
But sought their ease, pursued their mirth.
Thus God destroyed their sinful plans,
Confused their tongues to seek new lands.

Then to a man from Ur
The grace of God issued a call.
By grace he would concur
To follow the Lord and leave all.
A promise of people and land
By grace saturates the command.

Blessing to those who bless,
For blessing conforms to God’s grace.
Dependence we confess,
Forgiveness, the need we embrace.
On those who curse, a curse will fall,
A native state that covers all.

An altar among the cursed
A picture of redeeming blood,
The wanderer’s faith was nursed
By prayer to wait for mercy’s flood.
God will provide the sacrifice,
His word of promise will suffice.

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
Get Founders
in Your Inbox
A weekly brief of our new teaching resources.

"*" indicates required fields

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Teaching BY TYPE
Teaching BY Author
Founders Podcasts