Abram and the Land Promise; Gen. 12:4-9
The first four verses in Genesis 12 actually form a unit. In verse 1 Abram is commanded to go, and when we get to verse 4 we see "Abram departed." It is the same word as in v. 1. There is the command to depart in verse 1 and then the response in verse 4, "So Abram departed, as the LORD had spoken unto him; and Lot went with him: and Abram was seventy and five years old when he departed out of Haran." What we saw in the first three verses was a summation of the Abrahamic covenant with its three provisions: land, seed, and blessing. Each of these are going to be expanded on over the course of Abraham's life. This isn't the covenant itself, it is the original mandate of God to Abram, the covenant itself is laid out in chapter 15, cut in chapter 17. Each section has to do with at least one of the provisions of land, seed, and blessing. Then there is a test. There are twelve tests that God takes Abraham through in the course of his life. Some he passes, some he partially passes, and some he fails. We see the dynamic of the divine promise and the response of the believer in terms of the faith-rest drill.
Lot was no supposed to go with Abram. The mandate was to get away from the family but he is taking his nephew and his father with him. He had to stay in Haran until the Lord took his father home and then he left there, but it is still incomplete obedience. He is trusting God but not fully.
Genesis 12:5, "And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother's son, and all their substance that they had gathered, and the souls that they had gotten in Haran; and they went forth to go into the land of Canaan; and into the land of Canaan they came." Abram is one of the wealthiest men in the ancient world. He not only has material possessions in terms of flocks and herds but also has servants and slaves. Finally, after a period of time Abram arrives at his destination in Canaan. Like many of us it takes a little time to arrive at the next stage in spiritual growth. Then we are told in verse 6 and following, down through verse 9, how Abram entered the land.
Genesis 12:6, "And Abram passed through the land unto the place of Shechem, unto the plain of Moreh. And the Canaanite was then in the land."
Genesis 12:7, "And the LORD appeared unto Abram, and said, Unto thy seed will I give this land: and there built he an altar unto the LORD, who appeared unto him.
Genesis 12:8, "And he removed from thence unto a mountain on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, having Bethel on the west, and Hai on the east: and there he builded an altar unto the LORD, and called upon the name of the LORD.
Genesis 12:9 "And Abram journeyed, going on still toward the south."
Why does God the Holy Spirit furnish us with these details?
1) Why is it necessary for us to know about these places? The first major stop is at Shechem, the second at Bethel, and then he goes on to the Negev which is in the south.
2) Why is there this apparent division of the land into three regions? There is the area in the north, down to Shechem. There is the area in the center from Shechem to Bethel. And then there is the area that is in the south.
3) Why is Abram building altars in the land?
The first place he goes is Shechem. Shechem figures in the Old Testament in a number of different ways and this is the first place it is mentioned. What we see here is that when Abram first came to Shechem God appeared to him. This is the first clear articulation of the land provision in the Abrahamic covenant. He said, "To your descendants," and here we have the Hebrew word zera, the word "seed," the same word that is used Genesis 3:15, the seed of the woman. So this is a narrowing of that seed promise, and what God literally says is, "To your seed I will give this land," not some other land. What is Abram's response? "…and there built he an altar unto the LORD, who appeared unto him." The purpose of the altar was to perform a sacrifice but it was to worship God. Principle: Worship is a response to what God does for us in grace. That is why worship includes singing, prayer, and studying God's Word. But we should not fall prey to the fact that modern evangelicals have distorted the word "worship" to refer to singing. Singing is a minor part of worship. So God promises the land to Abram's descendants and he worships Him at that site.
Abram builds his first altar to the Lord at Shechem, right in the heart of Canaan. Archaeology has discovered that Shechem is an ancient Canaanite worship area. So Abram goes right to the heart of the Canaan religion and, as it were, plants his flag for God there right in the heart of pagan idolatry. This is in response to God saying He has given this land to him. So he is starting to claim the land. He staked the boundaries. He is going to the north, the central part, and the south, and he is going to establish an altar where he calls upon the name of God and he is basically staking his claim to that land even though he never owns it during his lifetime. There is a spiritual dimension to it, it is not just a physical property. This same pattern is followed two generations later with his grandson, Jacob. Genesis 33:18-20, "And Jacob came to Shalem, a city of Shechem, which is in the land of Canaan, when he came from Padanaram; and pitched his tent before the city. And he bought a parcel of a field, where he had spread his tent, at the hand of the children of Hamor, Shechem's father, for an hundred pieces of money. And he erected there an altar, and called it Elelohe-Israel [God, the God of Israel]." Again, Jacob is restating the claim of his grandfather Abraham to that territory. The piece of land which he purchased was probably a large piece of land. Part of it later became the tomb for Joseph. They also dug a well here. It was still operational in New Testament times when the area was called Sychar, and was where Jesus had a conversation with the woman at the well, right here at this spot. Is that incidental? We have to trace these things through the Scripture because these things don't happen by chance. God is not a God who does things in a random manner.
The interesting thing is the next time Shechem is mentioned. It is a word play. This takes place just prior to Jacob's death. Jacob's is now referred to as Israel. When Jacob is referred to as Jacob he is usually carnal; when he is referred to as Israel then that is an application of the principle of his role as a prince of God and an application of the principle of blessing. And he is now going to bless Joseph. Verse 21, "And Israel said unto Joseph, Behold, I die: but God shall be with you, and bring you again unto the land of your fathers." Notice the importance of the land. Genesis 48:22, "Moreover I have given to thee one portion above thy brethren, which I took out of the hand of the Amorite with my sword and with my bow." In other words, he gave Joseph, the youngest, a double portion. In Genesis 33:19 it says that he bought the land, but the Shechemites tried to take it away from him and he had to fight to defend it and to protect it. This establishes the principle that we have the right to fight to the point of killing anyone who tries to take our personal possessions or property, whether it is a criminal or a foreign aggressor seeking to attack the nation. It is passages like this in history that lay the basis in history for the doctrine of just war. (Cf. Augustine and Aquinas on just war) So this property stays in the family and when the Israelites under Joshua go back into the land they take Joseph's bones with them, and Joseph is buried at Shechem. So Shechem has a very important significance all the way through the Scripture. Abram's movement to Shechem first sets a pattern that is followed throughout the rest of the Scripture. He goes to Shechem, Bethel, and then down south. Jacob returns to the land and goes to Shechem, then Bethel, then south. When Joshua brings the army in to conquer the land, and under the command of a holy, righteous, loving God, every Canaanite had to be killed. The pattern in Joshua is the same pattern. He goes to Jericho, then to Ai which is right across the valley from Bethel. Then to Shechem and then he goes south. In Joshua 8:30, 31, "Then Joshua built an altar unto the LORD God of Israel in mount Ebal." He does the same thing that Abraham and Jacob had done. Verse 31, "As Moses the servant of the LORD commanded the children of Israel, as it is written in the book of the law of Moses, an altar of whole stones, over which no man hath lift up any iron: and they offered thereon burnt offerings unto the LORD, and sacrificed peace offerings. And he wrote there upon the stones a copy of the law of Moses, which he wrote in the presence of the children of Israel." Why is he doing that? This is an altar to God. This where there is this record of what man is expected to do. As they stood there on Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim they had a covenant renewal ceremony which took on a symbolic meaning. Mount Gerizim is forested and that was a picture of all of the blessings of the Mosaic law. Mount Ebal is barren and pictured the curses of the law. So there was this big visual that Joshua had which said that if you are blessed you are going to be like Gerizim; if you disobey the law you are going to be like Mount Ebal. Vv. 34, 35, "And afterward he read all the words of the law, the blessings and cursings, according to all that is written in the book of the law." Joshua is standing there with the scroll of the law, i.e. Exodus 20-40, all of Leviticus and the book of Deuteronomy. All of the Jews are standing there all of the time it took to read this, and they are concentrating on the whole thing.
That is not the end of it. At the end of the conquest, just before Joshua dies, he calls the people back to Shechem. Here he is going to rehearse all of God's gracious blessings, everything that God has done, and again there is a covenant renewal ceremony at Shechem. This is a staking the claim. They are claiming the land for God. This is the land that God has given them. They are not presumptuous, they are not arrogant, they understand what God has given them. Joshua 24:15, "And if it seem evil unto you to serve the LORD, choose you this day whom ye will serve; whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the flood, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land ye dwell: but as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD." So he stakes a claim and gives a challenge to the Jews to keep their loyalty with the Lord and not to be distracted by idolatry.
Shechem becomes the focal point of the Lord's gospel witness to the woman at the well in John chapter four. That is important because He is talking about His role there right in the shadow of this false temple that has been built on Mount Grizim by the Samaritans.
Abraham then heads south to Bethel, Genesis 12:8, "And he removed from thence unto a mountain on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, having Bethel on the west, and Hai on the east: and there he builded an altar unto the LORD, and called upon the name of the LORD." He is in the valley between the cities of Bethel and Ai. This is in the central highlands of Israel, so he is claiming that area for God.
The he goes south to the Negev, and it is while he is down here around Beersheba that this famine occurs, and rather than staying in the land God promised him he decides that things are better in Egypt, so he heads down there. He gets into some divine discipline down there and heads home to Beersheba, and he builds another altar in this area. So what he is doing is building these altars and claiming the territory for God. Why does he do that? He does it because God has promised him the land.
Bethel was a city that was originally named Luz. It is located eleven miles from Jerusalem. Jacob, on his way out of the land to go to find his wife, renamed the site Bethel after having a dream from God there, Genesis 28:10-22. This is where he dreamed that there was a ladder coming down from heaven with angels ascending and descending on the ladder. This was a picture of blessing on him and it was a place where God reconfirmed the Abrahamic covenant with him. He called the name of the place Bethel and erected a pillar there to mark the spot of his vision, and later in Genesis 35 he built an altar at Bethel. So just as Abraham built an altar at Bethel, Jacob will come back and build an altar there. This is a sign of their trusting God for the promise that He has made. They are recognizing the divine promise and they are trusting it in terms of the faith-rest drill. They believed God and are acting upon that promise. They are claiming the land on the basis of what is already given them. It is theirs positionally but it is not theirs experientially, and that lays a basis for really understanding a dynamic on the spiritual life throughout all of Genesis and, in fact, throughout much of the Old Testament. It is what is going on between Israel corporately and the believer individually. What happens to Israel as a nation is a picture often, or a type, a shadow of what happens in the individual life of the believer.
What we start off with at the very beginning of Genesis 12 is God's unconditional promise of the Abrahamic covenant. The Abrahamic covenant is illustrative of our position in Christ. That is the typological comparison. The Abrahamic covenant is first of all unconditional, something that was freely given to Abram, not on the basis of what Abram did but on the basis of God's grace. Secondly, it can't be lost. No matter how disobedient Israel became they could never lose the Abrahamic covenant, they were secure in that position. The Abrahamic covenant was given to them. It became the basis or the potential for blessing. On the other hand, and this is all related to the likeness of the believer's position in Christ, the land itself is roughly equivalent to the believer's experiential blessing or his temporal fellowship. Why do we say that? God tells the Jews that the land is theirs, but in the blessing and cursing paragraphs of the Mosaic covenant He says that if they are obedient they will stay in the land; if they are disobedient He will kick them out of the land. The land is a picture of blessing, so their experience of the land is conditional, just as today our experience of fellowship is conditional upon our obedience. The land could be lost; they were kicked out twice. The land is a picture of their ongoing fellowship; it is the place of blessing. When they are in the land it is a picture of blessing; when they are out of the land it is a picture of divine discipline. So the Abrahamic covenant becomes equivalent to us with what we have in Christ. This is what the Jew had in Abraham but it is not activated except through obedience, and when he is obedient he is in the place of blessing. This relates to the nation as a whole, not to the individual. The activation of the promise, the land promise, is there when they are obedient. That is conditional, and this is how it relates to the believer today.
Watch what happens to Abraham. When he is in the land he is in the place of blessing. Next when he goes down to Egypt he is not trusting God to supply his needs in the famine. He is saying there is a great grocery store down here in Egypt and I am headed south. The Lord is going to take care of him there, he says. He is using human viewpoint solutions to solve the problem. When he gets down there the fact that he is carnal—when you opt for human viewpoint carnality or sin will quickly follow—he gets into trouble because he is lying. He is trying to protect himself through lying. This is what happens to us. We get into stress, into problems, into difficulties, and we decide we know the correct way to solve the problem and the next thing we do is start lying about it, shading the truth a little bit to make it work, and we are trying to solve our own problems. So Abraham gets into trouble, goes back to the land and we don't hear about him getting hungry. God takes care of him. So he fails this second test. The first test was to go to the land, the second was to stay in the land. Later on we will see another episode which is very similar. He goes to the Philistines and lies about Sarah again.
Back to the initial question. In these first four verses why does the Holy Spirit gives us this detail? Because it sets the pattern. It sets the pattern for what happens later with Jacob, later with Joshua, and in the conquest of the land. That is, that Abraham is trusting God. He is finally passing that first test. He goes to the land and finally gets there, and he goes to those key points in the land right in the middle of pagan Canaanite worship and he builds an altar to God. He is in effect staking a claim as he goes through the land that God has given him this land him and his descendants. Jacob reestablishes that claim and then eventually when Joshua invades he goes to the same places, builds altars there, and at that point the potential of the land is finally given to Israel.