A good story is almost always full of good surprises. And often those best surprises happen when the most unlikely person does the thing that nobody expects and saves the day.
One of my favourite stories is the Lord of the Rings, and what makes that story so good is that the person who saves the day is not a powerful warrior or a mighty elven king but a little hobbit. And within the context of that story it turns out that it was only the small and powerless who actually could have done what needed to be done.
In the real world, it seems that God loves a good surprise as well. The story of redemption is full of upsets and unexpected turns and big things happening with the smallest of people.
And that’s nowhere as clear as with the call of Abram. After the covenant with Noah, this is the next big moment in the unfolding plan of salvation. And who God picks to use for this work is perhaps one of the last people we would have chosen. And that’s actually the whole point.
But before we get to Abram we want to pick up where we left off last week, in chapter 11, and trace the line from Noah to Abram.
A. The Generations of Shem (11:10-26)
Verse 10 begins with “These are the generations of Shem.” And they show the ten generations from Shem to Terah, father of Abram, just like we previously saw ten generations from Adam to Noah, a list that also ended in three sons (Genesis 5:32).
These lists are important because they show that these stories are grounded in real history. This is not “a long time ago in a land far away.” These are real people having real kids. They also keep alive the promise of Genesis 3:15, the promise that the offspring or seed of the woman would crush the head of the serpent. These genealogies trace the line of the offspring of the woman, and every name on the list is one generation closer to the saviour.
This particular genealogy is also important because if you look at the lifespans, you can see that they are getting shorter. Shem lived for 600 years. His son lived for 438 years. His son lived even shorter, and it keeps going down from there to Nahor’s 148 years.
We’re not sure exactly what was going on here after the flood, but humanity was living for shorter and shorter. It’s interesting to note that even today, though modern medicine and medication is keeping us alive for really long times, the human genome is getting worse and worse with each passing generation. What’s happening today is literally the opposite of evolution—our DNA is melting down as time goes on. And it makes me wonder if we’re seeing the early effects of this pattern all the way back here in Genesis 11.
B. The Generations of Terah (11:27-32)
But these ten generations take us to verse 27, where we read, “Now these are the generations of Terah.” Remember that “these are the generations of” is the way that Genesis begins a new section. So here we are, at the new section that’s going to take us all the way to chapter 25.
And isn’t that interesting? We would assume that this section would be called “the generations of Abram.” Instead, it’s the generations of Terah, Abram’s father. We’re going to see a lot of Terah’s family in these chapters. Not only Abram, but Lot, and Rebekah, and Laban, and Leah, and Rachel—they are all from this man.
1. His troubled family in Ur (vv. 27-30)
And there’s two key facts about Terah we want to notice. First is his troubled family in Ur. We read in verse 28 that “Haran died in the presence of his father Terah in the land of his kindred, in Ur of the Chaldeans.” The son dies before the father. That’s not how it’s supposed to happen. We don’t know why he died young, before his father, but its a big enough tragedy that its mentioned in the text.
Next, in verse 29, we read about Terah’s two other sons taking wives. Abram marries Sarai, who we’ll find out later is actually his half-sister—a daughter of Terah from another woman. And, as verse 29 shows us, Nahor marries his niece, Milcah, the daughter of Haran. This seems bizarre to us, but they probably saw this as a kind way to take care of her after her father died, much like Abram took care of Lot.
And yet this isn’t just weird, it’s important. Marrying your half-sister was later forbidden by Moses, just like marrying two sisters at the same time—which Jacob did. And that points to the fact that these accounts here were not invented or cleaned up by later Israelites who were truing to make their ancestors look like good, law-abiding Jews. These are reports of real history in all of its messiness.
Even the fact that they live in Ur of the Chaldeans is important. That’s a later name for the land of Babylon. Think about that: Abram was from what became Babylon. This family arises from the wreckage of Babel.
And there’s one more piece of trouble that’s listed here. Verse 30: “Now Sarai was barren; she had no child.” This was a big deal in the ancient world, and it’s going to become a really big deal in Abram’s life.
Abram’s name means something like “exalted father,” and here is “exalted father” with no children. This would have been a real struggle for Abram and Sarai and Terah in this close-knit family.
2. His stunted journey to Canaan (vv. 31-32)
And we’re going to see a lot more of that in the future. But next, look at verses 31 where we read about Terah’s stunned journey to Canaan: “Terah took Abram his son and Lot the son of Haran, his grandson, and Sarai his daughter-in-law, his son Abram’s wife, and they went forth together from Ur of the Chaldeans to go into the land of Canaan, but when they came to Haran, they settled there.”
Terah, Abram’s dad, actually started the journey to Canaan. And this brings up a lot of questions. According to Stephen’s speech in Acts 7:2-4, God called Abram to go to Canan back when he lived in the land of Ur. So how did this happen? Did God call Abram and his father wouldn’t let him go alone? Did God call the family together? We don’t really know.
But we do know that they didn’t make it. They only made it about half-way, to Haran. The journey from Ur to Canaan would be shaped like a big upside-down “U” and Haran was close to the middle of that U.
And they stayed there. They settled there. We find out later on that Nahor came and settled in this same area as well. And this isn’t great. Not only did they not make it to their destination, but from other sources we know that Haran was a pagan environment just like Ur. It was a major centre of moon worship. It’s interesting that the Lord says in Joshua 24:2, “Long ago, your fathers lived beyond the Euphrates, Terah, the father of Abraham and of Nahor; and they served other gods.”
And that’s where they stayed. And that’s where Haran died.
C. The Call of Abram (12:1-3)
And out of this bleak picture comes the bolt from the blue in chapter 12 verse 1, when we read about the Call of Abram: “Now 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” (Genesis 12:1).
Now there’s a text note right away we need to notice. The grammar of this verb “said” could be translated “had said.” There’s a note in the ESV translation to show this, and “had said” is actually how the NIV translates it.
And if that’s the case, it’s really interesting because it means that God gave Abram this call back when he lived in Ur. That lines up, again, with Acts 7 where Stephen says, “The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran, and said to him, ‘Go out from your land and from your kindred and go into the land that I will show you” (Acts 7:2–3).
Now it is possible that this call in chapter 12 is a fresh call. God had called him back in Ur, and here in Haran God tells him again to get up and go. But either way, there’s this strong suggestion that Abram had spent years in disobedience. He had been unwilling to leave his father and follow God’s call.
Perhaps he was too attached and comfortable with his cozy, close-knit family. Perhaps he couldn’t bear to leave his father. Perhaps the big journey was too much for him to do alone.
We don’t know the details, but this is really interesting, isn’t it? We don’t often think about Abram’s story as starting with this significant period of disobedience, or at least partial and hesitant obedience. But that’s what this is telling us.
That point aside, we should notice just how abrupt verse 1 is. This is really out of the blue. Out of the chaos of the post-Babel world, out of the pagan worship of Haran, God calls this seemingly random man to go and do something big.
Doesn’t this echo the abruptness of Genesis 1:3? Out of the darkness and chaos of the beginning, God just speaks “let there be light.” And, in fact, the pattern of Genesis 12 seems to mirror Genesis 1 in the way its structured. Paul picks up on this in Romans 4:17 where he compares Abraham’s story to the work of creation out of nothing.
So this is a new creation. God is not destroying the old creation and starting over, like he did with Noah. Rather, building on his covenant with Noah, he is carrying forward His redemptive plan by beginning a new work of creation within the creation that already exists.
1. The command to go (12:1)
And key here in this work of new creation is the command for Abram to go. Verse 1: “Now 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” (Genesis 12:1).
Go from your country, and your kindred—your people—and from your father’s house. Notice how it gets narrower and narrower. Hear the echoes in Jesus’ words, “follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead” (Matthew 8:22).
And where was Abram supposed to go? “To the land that I will show you.” There’s very little there in terms of signs and assurance or anything. I don’t know about you, but I really like to have a lot of information in place before I make a big decision like moving to an entirely new spot on the planet.
But all Abram has to go on is that God is going to show him.
2. The Promises
And that’s the command. Next, we see the promises. And here’s where things get really staggering. The promises that God gives him—again, completely out of the blue—come in three parts.
i. A great nation (v. 2)
First, verse 2, the promise of a great nation: “And I will make of you a great nation.” The word “great” here points to size—a big nation—as well as significance. A truly great nation.
This is an incredible promise for anybody to receive, especially anybody out of the blue, and especially somebody who doesn’t have any children. But that’s what God promises him.
ii. A world-wide blessing (v. 2-3)
Next, Abram is promised world-wide blessing. Verse 2 goes on to say that God will bless him and make his name great.
That’s ironic, right? When’s the last time we heard about this idea of “making a name”? It was just back in chapter 11, with how the Babel-builders wanted to make a name for themselves (Genesis 11:4). And here’s a childless man form the same area, and out of the blue God picks him and says “I will make your name great.”
And not great because of the big monuments or towers he’ll build, but because of the blessing. He’s going to be supremely blessed.
Why? Verse 2 tells us: “so that you will be a blessing.” This could also be translated as a command: “Be a blessing.” And either way it shows that Abram is not going to be like a lake or reservoir where the blessings just pour in and he keeps them there. Abram is supposed to be like a river where the blessings will flow out to other people.
And how will this work? Verse 3: “I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonours you I will curse.” This is one of the ways that Abram will be an agent of blessing. It’s not always that Abram will personally bless people, although that will happen. It’s that whoever blesses him will be blessed by God. He becomes the touchstone of blessing.
And the opposite is true. Cursing or dishonouring him will bring a curse from God.
And what’s the end of this? What’s the final result? World-wise blessing: “and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Abram is going to be the agent of global blessing to all families of the world. Even the family of Ham. Even the family of Canaan.
Do you realize what a major turning-point in the story this is? From the time of the Garden of Eden onwards, the story of humanity has been a downward spiral of cursing. And yet here that pattern is interrupted with blessing. Blessing for Abram. And through him, blessing for the world.
iii. A land (v. 7)
There’s a third and final element to the promises to Abram, and they come down in verse 7: “Then the Lord appeared to Abram and said, ‘To your offspring I will give this land’” (Genesis 12:7). God led Abram to the land of Canaan and promised it to his offspring. There would be a place for his offspring to life.
Now there’s some tension here, because verse 6 says that “At that time the Canaanites were in the Land.” So how is this going to work? There’s some big questions here. How is this promise going to work? How are any of the promises going to work? How is a childless older man going to become a great nation to bless the world?
Which is exactly the point. These staggering promises, and the way they are fulfilled against all odds, shape the unfolding story of the rest of Genesis. And not just the rest of Genesis, but the rest of the Bible. And therefore, the whole rest of history. The history and hope of humanity are wrapped up here in these promises.
Three weeks ago we saw how the covenant with Noah created a stable platform for the plan of salvation to unfold. And here is the next big work in that plan of salvation. We don’t know what the tree is going to look like, but it’s all here in this acorn of promises given to Abram 4,000 years ago.
3. Abram’s Response
So how does Abram respond to this?
i. Going (vv. 4-6, 9)
First, after years of stalling and dragging his feet, verse 4 tells us, “Abram went.” Did he have any idea what would follow as he first set out from Haran? The moment that journey began was truly one small step for a man, but one giant leap for mankind. Everything follows from this.
And yet it was just simple obedience. God said go, and he finally went.
There’s two more details in verse 4 that are important. First, “and Lot went with him.” Lot is going to play a very important part in the events to follow. be really important going forward. Then look what comes next: “Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran.” There’s a big lesson from this: you are not too old to follow the Lord. You are not too old to take risks. Don’t ever think that you’ve wasted too many years. Never underestimate what God can do with what you have left.
Verse 5, in typical fashion, repeats the important information by telling us that Abram took Lot and Sarai and all of their people and possessions “set out to go to the land of Canaan.” But what’s really important here is how this verse echoes 11:31, when Terah took Abram and Sarai and Lot “to go into the land of Canaan.” This is not the first time Abram has set out on this journey.
But this time, he makes it. Verse 5 ends on a victory note: “When they came to the land of Canaan.”
They make it. But they also don’t really make it. Because Canaan isn’t a typical destination for Abram. He doesn’t find a city and settle like he did in Haran. His “going” never really stopped. He continued to live as a nomad, always on the move.
Verse 6 tells us that he passed through the land. In verse 8, he “moved to the hill country.” That word “move” there, according to Hebrew scholar Robert Alter, points to the pulling up of tent stakes and gives a very graphic description of the kind of lifestyle Abram lived. Verse 8 goes on to say that he pitched this tent between two cities. Verse 9 says that he “journeyed on,” a word that again points to the idea of successive encampments. [Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible, Vol. 1, p. 41.]
So these verses should Abram going and keeping on going. God promised him a land that was already occupied. So he lived in tents like a stranger in a foreign land. And that continued up until his death.
ii. Worshipping (vv. 7-8)
So Abraham went. But as important as this was, going was not the only thing Abraham did. His response to God was also marked by worshipping. Verse 7, after the Lord appeared to him and gave him the promise of the land, “He build there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him.” And again, when he encamped between Bethel and Ai, “there he built an altar to the Lord and called up on the name of the Lord.”
We might think, “Of course he’d do that. He’s Abram.” But this is actually a really big deal. Abram was from a pagan family and a pagan land. He was used to idol worship and moon worship.
And here, we see him engaged in true worship of the true God. This is huge. Who knows how long it had been since God was worshipped in this way?
And this isn’t just an extra detail. God being worshipped by His people isn’t a side point. It’s the goal of what He’s doing here. That’s the goal of the plan of redemption. The end game is to gather a worshipping people around the living God and His worthy son.
And so it’s massive to see this happening already at this stage of the story. Coming out of idolatry, surrounded by idolators, these altars Abram builds are like flags planted on a battlefield, and little previews of that future day when the plan of salvation reaches it’s goal and the worship of God fills the earth.
We also can’t miss how Abram’s worship was not just a religious duty tacked on to an otherwise disobedient life. Can you imagine if he had stayed in Haran and said, “You know, I don’t think I will go to Canaan—I’m pretty comfortable here—but how about I build you an altar or two?” That would have been an abomination to God.
The worship that pleases the Lord, the worship that honours the Lord, is worship that flows from a life of obedience. Abram’s worshipping can’t be separated from his going. Together, they form the ideal response to the call of God on his life.
D. Enduring Truths
So, there’s our passage for today, and it’s hard to overstate just how important these events are. Everything that follows in history is related to this. The call of Abraham sets the stage for everything—and I mean everything—that comes after.
So we don’t have to dig deep to wonder what here is applicable to us. We’ve already seen many lessons scattered throughout these passages.
But as we step back and sum up today, there are three key enduring truths from this passage we want to make sure we don’t miss.
The first has to do with election. The word “election” just means “choice” and in this context speaks to God’s choice of Abram.
Why did God pick Abram? Why not someone else?
This question really jumped out at me a few years ago when I was reading through the Bible in chronological order. And at the end of Genesis 11, it had me turn over to the book of Job, and read all of the story of righteous Job. And then, at the end of Job, it had me turn back to Genesis 12:1 and read “Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred.’”
The reading plan did this because there’s some good evidence that Job lived around around this same time as Abram. And it just hit me that, if I were God, I probably would not have chosen Abram. I would have picked someone like Job. Someone who had a big family—a head start on being father of a great nation! Someone who had a track record of righteousness before I called them.
But God chooses Abram. Nehemiah 9:7 says, “You are the Lord, the God who chose Abram and brought him out of Ur of the Chaldeans and gave him the name Abraham” (Nehemiah 9:7).
There was nothing about Abram that made him a better choice than anyone else, until God chose him. But that’s what God does. He doesn’t choose people who are up for the task. He chooses people who aren’t up for the task, and then He makes them up for the task.
And He does this because it brings Him glory. It makes it clear that we have nothing to brag about. It makes it clear that God, and not any human, is the main character of this story.
1 Corinthians 1:26-30 makes this point so clearly: “For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord’” (1 Corinthians 1:26–31).
I remember going to a prayer meeting years ago where they’d always be praying for Hollywood actors and politicians and other important people. Because, you know, if those people got saved, think of what God could do with them!
But most of the time, that’s not how God works. Most often God deliberately chooses weak and unlikely and insignificant people for Himself. Like choosing a childless man to start a great nation. Because that brings Him great glory.
So be encouraged by that today. Give up boasting in yourself. Stop looking at your own capabilities or resources. Look to God who loves to work with the weak, and boast in Him.
There’s a second enduring lesson from our passage, and it has to do with faith. What was it that lead Abram to respond to God’s call and get up and go and live the kind of life that he lived for all of those years?
And the answer is faith in the promises. Abram responded in verse 4 to the command to go in verse 1 because he believed the promises in verses 2-3. And that’s exactly what Hebrews 11:8-9 tells us: “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise.”
All Abram did was believe what God told him. And that faith naturally produced a life of obedient worship.
If you are struggling to obey the Lord, it’s probably because you’re not believing the Lord. We have a little book in our library called “Battling Unbelief” that maps out this dynamic so beautifully and helpfully. The struggle to be holy, the struggle to live in righteous, risky obedience, all comes down to whether we take God at His word and actually believe the promises He’s made to us.
When you read through the Bible, you see this everywhere. The commands of God and the promises of God so often come together, again and again.
Try this for yourself. Pick up any New Testament letter, and read through it slowly, and make a note of every command or instruction given, and every promise given. And see how they are linked. And then ask God for the faith to believe the promises. And you will, very naturally, find yourself obeying the commands.
There’s a final stop we need to make this morning, and it has to do with Christ. Because, whether we know it or not, this passage is all about Jesus.
The great nation promised to Abraham would be the nation that would bring forth the Messiah. The world-wide blessing promised to Abraham would be realized through Jesus when He died to save people from every tribe and language and nation.
That’s what Galatians 3:8 says: “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.’”
Genesis 12:3 is the gospel. God is preaching the gospel to Abraham there. Because that promise was finally fulfilled through the gospel of Christ crucified and risen. All the nations are blessed in Abraham because Jesus, Abraham’s offspring, died to save people from every nation.
And it gets even more specific. Genesis 12:7 says, “To your offspring I will give this land.” Who is that offspring? In the short-term, it was the nation of Israel whom God gave the land through Joshua. But ultimately this is pointing to Jesus. Galatians 3:16 says, “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.”
Some people today debate who the land of Israel belongs to. And according to the book of Galatians, who does it belong to? It belongs to Jesus. Because He’s the offspring of Abraham and all of the promises of God are “yes” in Him. Everything comes to a point in Him.
And that’s where you and I come in. Because now, the way that someone becomes one of Abraham’s offspring is not by birth but by faith in Christ. Galatians 3:29: “And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.”
And that’s the note we end on this morning. The story of Abraham matters because this is the story of Jesus. And because this story is about Jesus, this story is your story. If you are in Christ, then Abraham is your father. His journeys in Canaan are a part of your testimony. These are your people. This is the history that you’ve been grafted into by faith in Christ.
And if you’re not in Christ, you could be. Just like Abram, respond by faith to God’s promise that whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. And if you don’t know what that means, please talk to someone before you go today. I’ll be down at the front afterwards and would love to help you connect the dots on this.
We’re going to end our service this morning with a song, and there’s only really one song we could sing after this passage. “We will stand as children of the promise. We will fix our eyes on Him, our soul’s reward. Till the race is finished and the work is done, we’ll walk by faith and not by sight.”