The Name Above All Names

So Abram went, as the Lord had told him, and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother’s son, and all their possessions that they had gathered, and the people that they had acquired in Haran, and they set out to go to the land of Canaan. When they came to the land of Canaan, Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. Then the Lord appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him. From there he moved to the hill country on the east of Bethel and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east. And there he built an altar to the Lord and called upon the name of the Lord. And Abram journeyed on, still going toward the Negeb. Genesis 12:4-9 ESV

Abram followed in the footsteps of his ancestor Noah, who “walked with God” (Genesis 6:9 ESV). When God told Abram to “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1 ESV), he went. And the text makes it clear that Abram went, “as the Lord had told him” (Genesis 12:4 ESV). He not only proved to be compliant but comprehensive in his obedience. He did everything just as God had commanded him to do. But there is one small detail that stands out.

When it came time for Abram to comply with God’s command, he “took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother’s son, and all their possessions that they had gathered, and the people that they had acquired in Haran, and they set out to go to the land of Canaan” (Genesis 12:5 ESV). It all sounds good, except for the fact that God had clearly told Abram to leave behind his country and his kindred. The Hebrew word for “kindred” is מוֹלֶדֶת (môleḏeṯ), and it can refer to “offspring” or “relatives.” Considering the context, it seems clear that God was telling Abram to leave his extended family behind. Abram and his wife, Sarai, had no children because she was barren.

And yet, the text reveals that Abram brought along his nephew, the son of his brother, Haran. A look back at the genealogy in chapter 11 reveals that Haran had fathered a son named Lot while the clan was still living in Ur of the Chaldeans. But Haran died, leaving his son, Lot, without a father. Under the circumstances, Terah, the boy’s grandfather, assumed responsibility for his care and protection. He became a surrogate father to Lot. So, when Terah moved his entire extended family to the land of Haran, Lot accompanied him. But in time, Terah died as well, leaving Lot fatherless once more. It seems that Abram and Sarai, without children of their own, assumed responsibility for the boy’s well-being. And when they packed up their belongings to follow God’s will and move to Canaan, Lot was in their company.

Abram was not explicitly violating the command to leave his kindred behind. Lot had become part of his immediate family. It is almost as if he and Sarai had made the decision to adopt this young man. After all, she was barren and they were doomed to a life without children of their own.

But what can’t be ignored is the distinct possibility that Abram and Sarai viewed Lot as a possible heir and the means by which God would fulfill His promise to produce a great nation from them. In a way, Lot could have been Abram’s ace in the hole – a security blanket that helped mitigate any doubts he may have had about God’s plan and promise. If one believes in the sovereignty of God, then it seems obvious that the death of Haran and Terah was no surprise to God. And the fact that this young man had twice been rendered fatherless was not a byproduct of chance or bad luck. There was a divine strategy in play in which God was providentially orchestrating the details surrounding Abram’s life. Terah’s decision to leave Ur had been God-ordained. The birth of Lot and his father’s eventual death were also part of God’s plan. And Abram’s “adoption” of Lot when Terah died in Haran must also be seen as the handiwork of God.

There is no indication as to how long the journey from Haran to Canaan took. But it would have been an arduous and extremely lengthy trip as Abram and his retinue made their way through strange lands occupied by many of those foreign-speaking nations that had been scattered by God after His judgment at Babel (Genesis 11:1-9).

Evidently, Abram was leading a rather large caravan, transporting all the possessions and people he had “acquired” while living in Haran (Genesis 12:5). It would appear that Abram had livestock and slaves in tow. A few of these unnamed servants or slaves will play important roles as the story unfolds. But their presence in the traveling party would have made progress slow and demanded greater resourcefulness when it came to provisions and protection.

But eventually, Abram arrived in the land of Canaan, just as God had commanded. And Moses indicates that Abram “passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh” (Genesis 12:6 ESV), where “he built there an altar to the Lord” (Genesis 12:7 ESV). While there’s no indication from the text that God directed Abram’s steps by providing him with detailed navigational instructions, it seems only logical that God was guiding His servant all along the way. Once again, the sovereign hand of God was determining every aspect of Abram’s pilgrimage from Haran to Canaan, even choosing Shechem as the place where Abram would erect an altar. Two times in verse 7, Moses discloses that God had appeared to Abram. These divine theophanies or manifestations of God’s presence had probably occurred all along the way, providing Abram with guidance and assurance that he was not alone.

Shechem was located in the center of Canaan, and it was there, in the heart of this foreign land that God instructed Abram to build an altar and offer sacrifices. Most likely exhausted by the long and arduous journey, Abram still obeyed God and did just as he was told. He “called upon the name of the Lord” (Genesis 12:8 ESV). This phrase refers to much more than just worship. It reveals an underlying awareness of the holy and righteous character of God as embodied in His divine name. The first occurrence of this phrase is found in Genesis 4:26, where it reads, “To Seth also a son was born, and he called his name Enosh. At that time people began to call upon the name of the Lord.

The “name of the Lord” is synonymous with His character.  To devalue God’s name is tantamount to profaning His character. To call upon His name is to recognize that God alone is God. He is the transcendent and holy “other.” There is no other god besides Him. Man was made in the image of God and given the unique role of glorifying His great name by living in humble submission to His will. To call upon His name is to acknowledge one’s complete reliance upon Him and trust in Him. That is why God would later command the Israelites to treat His name with respect.

“You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain. – Exodus 20:7 ESV

To treat God’s name vainly or flippantly has much more to do with behavior than speech. Later on, God would provide His people with an example of what it meant to treat His name vainly.

You shall not give any of your children to offer them to Molech, and so profane the name of your God: I am the Lord. – Leviticus 18:21 ESV

Proverbs 30:8-9 indicates that a life of self-sufficiency is a way to profane the name of the Lord.

Remove far from me falsehood and lying;
    give me neither poverty nor riches;
    feed me with the food that is needful for me,
lest I be full and deny you
    and say, “Who is the Lord?”
or lest I be poor and steal
    and profane the name of my God.

When men make the false assumption that they can be their own benefactor and provider, they rob God of glory and profane His name. The prophet Isaiah described the anger of God against those who give Him lip-service, but whose actions reveal that they have no respect for His name and character.

“These people say they are mine. They honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. And their worship of me is nothing but man-made rules learned by rote.” – Isaiah 29:13 NLT

At this point in the story of Abram’s life, he is revealing his deep dependence upon God. He recognizes that his journey from Haran to Canaan has been the work of God and he wants to express his gratitude through sacrifice and praise. And having completed his sacrifice to God, Abram continued to his journey to “the hill country on the east of Bethel” (Genesis 12:8 ESV). And there, he pitched his tent, erected a second altar, and called upon the name of the Lord. Here we have a picture of the nomadic lifestyle that Abram would come to know. He would spend his entire life on the move, relocating from one place to another within the land of Canaan. Even after pitching his tent in Bethel, Abram would eventually break camp and continue his tireless trek through the land God had promised to give him as a possession. And the author of Hebrews reveals that Abram’s transient lifestyle was motivated by a firm belief that God had something great in store for him.

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. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. – Hebrews 11:8-10 ESV

He was a man on the move, but with a faith that was firmly founded on the faithfulness of God.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

A Call and a Commitment

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. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Genesis 12:1-3 ESV

With the opening verses of chapter 12, Moses provides his Hebrew readers with an important history lesson that solidifies their unique role in God’s redemptive plan for all mankind. For generations, the Jews had rightfully viewed themselves as God’s chosen people. They considered themselves to be a people who had been set apart by God and declared to be His “treasured possession.” Those were the very words that Moses had communicated to them not long after God delivered them out of captivity in Egypt.

“Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the people of Israel: ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’” – Exodus 19:3-6 ESV

Years later, when the people of Israel were standing on the border of Canaan, preparing to enter into the land that God had promised to give them, Moses reminded them of their privileged position as God’s set-apart people.

For you are a holy people, who belong to the LORD your God. Of all the people on earth, the LORD your God has chosen you to be his own special treasure.” – Deuteronomy 7:6 NLT

When reading the story of Abram’s call, it is essential to keep this unique relationship between God and the nation of Israel in mind. The original audience to whom Moses wrote would have relished this retelling of their storied history, but it’s likely that they missed some of the key messages that God had intended for them to hear. They would have brightened at the mention of Abram’s name. This would have been the part of the story where they sat up and took notice. God’s call of Abram had been the impetus for their very existence.

And while that was true, there is something far more significant in the story of Abram’s call than the formation of a single, set-apart nation. For generations, the descendants of Abram had missed the divine purpose behind their existence. They had not earned their favored status with God. The Almighty had not looked down from heaven, noticed their righteous behavior, and decided to reward them with a promotion. In fact, Moses had fully dispelled any thought of their favored status being a reward.

“The LORD did not set his heart on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other nations, for you were the smallest of all nations! Rather, it was simply that the LORD loves you, and he was keeping the oath he had sworn to your ancestors.” – Deuteronomy 7:7-8 NLT

That last line is the key to understanding Genesis 12. The Hebrews, as descendants of Abram, had been created by God. Despite their long and storied history, they had not always existed. There had been a time when not a single Jew walked the face of the earth. Even Abram was not of Jewish descent. He was a Chaldean. But from this one man came a people whom God would set apart. Like the rest of the universe in Genesis 1, the Hebrew people would be created by God, ex nihilo (out of nothing). And the 12th chapter of Genesis begins the story of this “new creation” by God.

The apostle Peter picked up on this theme when writing his first letter. He was addressing Christians who were living in Asia Minor and suffering persecution because of their faith. At one point in his letter, he describes them as “aliens and strangers” (1 Peter 2:11), living in the midst of the spiritual darkness that surrounded them. And he used language that compared them to the people of Israel.

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. – 1 Peter 2:9-10 ESV

That last line is critical. At one time, these people had not been “a people.” Oh, they existed, but they lacked a relationship with God. The apostle Paul addressed the Gentile believers in Ephesus with a similar thought.

…remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. – Ephesians 2:12 BSB

And Paul went on to remind them of the dramatic transformation that God had brought about in their lives.

Therefore you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of God’s household… – Ephesians 2:19 BSB

So, back to Genesis 12. With the opening line of the chapter, Moses describes God as sovereignly inserting Himself into the affairs of humanity once again. After all the genealogical lists describing the various lines of Shem, Ham, and Japheth, God focuses His attention on one man: Abram. And to this one individual, God issues a call and provides a promise.

“Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to 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, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” – Genesis 12:1-3 ESV

According to chapter 11, Abram had been born in Ur of the Chaldeans, located in the land of Shinar. But at one point, his father had made the decision to move his entire family to Canaan. The text provides is no explanation for this costly and difficult relocation. But it is not difficult to see the sovereign hand of God orchestrating this entire affair.

It would have taken a great deal of time and effort to make the long journey from Ur to Canaan. Because the arid and impassable Arabian Desert was located immediately east of Ur, Terah was forced to take a time-consuming detour that eventually led them to Haran. And, once in Haran, Terah had a change of heart and decided to settle down. but God had other plans for Abram. In time, Haran became home to Abram. He too settled down and began to put down roots. But at some point, God commanded him to leave everything behind.

“Leave your native country, your relatives, and your father’s family, and go to the land that I will show you. – Genesis 12:1 NLT

This was a huge “ask” on God’s part. In those days, family ties were essential to survival. By this time in human history, the world had become a hostile place occupied by disparate people groups based on clans and tribal relationships. After God had scattered the nations across the face of the earth (Genesis 11:9), territorial boundaries and indigenous communities had become commonplace. Everyone had staked out their claims and was protecting their particular piece of the global pie. So, it would not have been easy for Abram to leave the safety and security of his clan behind.

But God’s command came with a promise. He was going to provide Abram with a new home in a new land. And it just happened to be the very same land that Terah had intended as his family’s destination. Perhaps Terah had given up on Canaan because he heard it was already occupied by other, more powerful clans. But this would prove to be no problem for God. For the first time since God had placed Adam in Eden, a man was going to be given a specific tract of land to occupy. And like Eden, Canaan was a beautiful and fruitful land, “a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:8 ESV).

According to God, this new land would become the sole possession of Abram’s descendants. In a sense, Canaan had Abram’s name on the deed. And it would be in this land that God would bless Abram and produce through him “a great nation.”

But there is a problem. It was mentioned in chapter 11 but only in passing. In the listing of Terah’s descendants, Abram is described as taking a wife for himself – a woman named Sarai. And then, almost as an aside, the test reveals, “Now Sarai was barren; she had no child” (Genesis 11:30 ESV). Abram would have been completely unaware of Sarai’s condition. But God knew. And yet, knowing that Sarai was incapable of bearing children, God declared that Abram would become the father of a great nation. God was going to bless Abram by giving him offspring. And those offspring would become a blessing to all the nations of the earth. An undeserving man and his barren wife would become the means by which God would pour out His blessings on all humanity.

And this is the point that the Hebrew people tended to miss. They considered themselves to be blessed by God because they were descendants of Abram. But they neglected to remember that their blessing came with a responsibility: They were to have been a blessing to the nations. God had set apart Abram and all his descendants so that they might serve as His representatives to the nations. God had promised to make them His “treasured possession among all peoples” (Exodus 19:5 ESV). But they had a job to do.

…you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation… – Exodus 19:6 ESV

Priests were intended to be the mediators between God and man. The Hebrew people had been set apart by God so that they might minister on His behalf to all the nations of the earth. But they had proved to be unfaithful priests and far from a holy nation. But God’s promise would still be fulfilled. Because it would be through the line of Abram that He would bring the offspring through whom all the nations of the earth would be blessed. Jesus would accomplish what the nation of Israel had failed to do.

“I am the Lord; I have called you in righteousness;
    I will take you by the hand and keep you;
I will give you as a covenant for the people,
    a light for the nations… ” – Isaiah 42:6 ESV

“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
    to raise up the tribes of Jacob
    and to bring back the preserved of Israel;
I will make you as a light for the nations,
    that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” – Isaiah 49:6 ESV

That is what sets this chapter apart. In it is contained the hope of all eternity. The coming of the Messiah is weaved into the fabric of Abram’s call and provides the underlying foundation for God’s promise of future blessing for all mankind.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.