Abram has the distinction of being only the fifth human being to be spoken to directly by God, as recorded by the Bible. Adam and Eve were challenged by God (3:11), Cain was cursed (4:11), Noah was chosen (6:13-14), and now Abram is called by God (12:1-3).
He is called to ‘leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you.’ Interestingly, chapter 12 of Genesis introduces this command from God in the pluperfect tense, ‘The Lord had said’, meaning that the command had actually been given previously, while Abram was still loving in Ur in his father Terah’s household. It is repeated now that he has moved with Terah to Haran. God’s call to move can often involve several stages: Haran, in modern-day southern Turkey, was halfway between Ur in Mesopotamia, or modern-day Iraq, and Canaan, or modern-day Israel and Palestine. Why Terah moved to Haran (11:31) is not clear, but it wasn’t part of God’s plan as God had given no command to Terah, while his command to Abram explicitly included leaving ‘your father’s household’. Maybe Abram tarried in Haran because of fear or doubt, maybe he was just waiting for the right opportunity, or maybe, because the tone of the passage contains carries no hint of reproach, it was simply that he required clarification or fresh conviction before embarking upon the second half of the journey.
This move was a big deal for Abram. It involved the uprooting of his entire existence. It must have been painful to leave his family behind. It must have been daunting acting on such vague directions – ‘to the land I will show you.’ When Hebrews 11:8 holds up Abraham as an example of faith, it picks up on this, saying ‘even though he did not know where he was going.’ Can you imagine packing your bags and getting in the car, or going to the airport, having no idea where you are going, only that you must go somewhere?
Two more things strike me about this call on Abram. First, consider the place he was leaving. The unfamiliarity of the name ‘Ur’ and the troubles of contemporary Iraq might lull us into thinking that it was no bad thing to leave such a place, but in fact Ur was an amazing place. Around 2000 BC it was at the heart of the greatest civilisation the world had yet known, one of the very first cities to be built (think of it this way: Ur-ban). Nor was it a small or simplistic place. It was the London of its day, a thriving metropolis full of sophisticated bureaucracy and a centre of trade, culture and religion. Archaeologists working there have found thousands of clay tablets recording the richness of this city’s life, and excavated dwellings show us that the kind of lifestyle Abram was leaving could very well have been prosperous and comfortable. In exchange, he was signing up for a lifetime of living in tents, herding animals and wandering through lands claimed by others. Comfort for discomfort, security for uncertainty, stability for instability.
Secondly, have you ever stopped to ask whether Abram even knew this God who was suddenly speaking to him? The Bible doesn’t say so. Abram was long way separated from Noah and lived in a pagan culture. At most, the God we know today would have been just one of a pantheon of gods known in ancient Mesopotamia, if He was known at all. Descended from Noah he might have been, but a Jew Abraham was not at this stage, much less a Christian. These words of God seem to have come out of the blue, a mysterious deity issuing commands and making promises, which makes Abram’s prompt obedience all the more remarkable. I struggle to obey God’s call even with the benefit of the Bible, the church and twenty years of relationship with Him; how much harder must it have been for Abram, who had likely had no previous dealings with Him?
But Abram obeyed. Or, as verse 4 laconically puts it, ‘So Abram left, as The Lord had told him.’ He set out, despite having no idea as to the direction, no inkling as to the timescale, and little or no experience as to the reliability and trustworthiness of this God who had spoken to him. And yet, this setting out is one of the biggest turning points in the Bible. The extraordinary, epic tale of God’s relationship with a special people, first the nation of Israel, and then the church, begins here. The Law, the coming of Jesus, the recording of the Bible itself, all traces back to this point. Adam failed as the head of humanity, Noah mucked up as the progenitor of a second humanity, but Abram, whose crucial virtue was faith, rose above his forebears and started a line, both biological and spiritual, from which all those who have known, or will know, God, have sprung.
The NIV Study Bible (p.29) puts it this way: ‘Here begins (Genesis ch.12) the history of his saving work, in which human sin is not only judged (the flood) or restrained (Babel) but forgiven (through atonement) and overcome (through the purifying of human hearts). Throughout the rest of Scripture the unfolding of this history remains the golden thread and central theme.’
So as well as owing a lot to Abram/Abraham (not to mention God), what can we learn from this story? Steps of faith are sometimes required in life, and the best way to respond to a call from God is immediately. We shouldn’t worry about what we’re leaving behind, because, as later parts of Abram’s story shows, God takes care of those whom He calls.
Neither should we worry about where we’re going, or if all the details aren’t clear right away. Maybe a lot of people are like me, compulsive planners desperate for a spiritual map through life so they can plan ahead and note the various landmarks and milestones along the way. But the truth is that God doesn’t provide one. His promises are generous and reliable, but very often they begin vaguely, with just the big brushstrokes; the details get added later, gradually. There’s a reason for this. God wants us to trust Him, and trusting Him is good for our spiritual maturity. Yet what trust can there be if we knew everything from the start? There wouldn’t be much relationship without that trust. It’s frustrating not being in control, but it’s also good for us.
So if you’re being called by God, don’t hesitate. Step out in faith.