Genesis Lesson Twelve | 11:10–12:9

Prayerfully read Genesis 11:10–12:9 at least two times and then read the following notes.

Context: Setting the Table

After the magnificent introduction of 1:1–2:3, the book of Genesis is divided into two unequal halves of five sections each. The first set of five sections (2:4–11:26) deals with the history of humanity as a whole, from its creation to the birth of Abram. In striking contrast, the second set of five sections (11:27–50:26) begins with the birth of Abram and then focuses exclusively on him and his descendants. This sixth section, the “family history” of Terah (11:27–25:11), marks the transition between these two halves.
Content: Reading the Text
(11:10–26) The “Family History” of Shem
(11:10a) This marks the fifth of the “generations” headings in Genesis—the last section in the first half of the book. From this point on, Genesis alternates between compact genealogies (like this one) and longer narratives involving a few key characters.1
(11:10b) While the genealogy here has some overlaps with the “table of the nations” in chapter 10, it focuses relentlessly on the direct line that led to Abram. Whereas 10:22 lists five sons of Seth, with Arphaxad as the third son, he is the only son of Shem mentioned in this list.
(11:11) Given how stylistically similar this genealogy is in style to the Adam-Seth line found in 5:3–32, it is striking that the characteristic phrase, “and he died” is not used even once.
(11:18) The genealogy in 11:25 mentions Peleg but does not list any of his descendants, focusing instead on the descendants of his brother Joktan. This is the last point of overlap between the two lists and it is perhaps possible that the “division” mentioned in 10:25 is somehow connected with this.
(11:26) Like Adam (4:1–2, 5:3) and Noah (6:10), Terah was the father of three named sons. All three are key transitional figures in the early chapters of Genesis.
(11:27–32) The “Family History” of Terah
(11:27) This marks the start of the sixth section, the first in the second half of the book. The repetition of the information included at the end of the previous section (the birth of three sons to Terah) is entirely characteristic of the way sections are linked together throughout the book. It is also “characteristic of the patriarchal narratives that the heading should mention the father, while the stories focus on the sons. Thus “this is the family history of Isaac” (25:19) introduces the stories of Jacob and Esau, and “the family history of Jacob” (37:2) heads the Joseph story.”2
(11:29) “Though the parentage of Nahor’s wife is given, that of Sarai is not. This omission is so extraordinary that it must be intentional…[this information is withheld] so as not to ruin the suspense in chapter 20 when Abraham, in order to extricate himself from an embarrassing predicament, reveals that Sarai is his half sister.”3
(11:30) It is very difficult for modern westerners to understand how devastating it was for a woman in the ancient world to be found barren, and it is astonishing how many women in the chosen line experienced this devastation. While the ultimate outcome is certain, the war of the seed of the woman with the seed of the serpent (Genesis 3:15) has never been a one-sided conflict. Throughout the book of Genesis, we find almost every conceivable obstacle to the propagation of the promised line (barrenness, abduction, rape, incest, etc)—yet God’s word of promise overcame them all.
(11:31) This move was the result, not of Terah’s decision alone (though it was that), but also of the direct working of the Lord (Genesis 15:7). The Lord had by this point already appeared to Abram (Acts 7:2).
(11:32) Stephen (Acts 7:4) points out that Abram did not depart from Haran until after the death of his father. It is important to note that Genesis 11:26 states only that all three of Terah’s sons were born after Terah had reached the age of 70. The varying order in which Shem, Ham, and Japheth are found make it clear that the order in which sons were listed was not always the order in which they were born. As Abram was only 75 years old when he departed from Haran (Genesis 12:4), the simplest reconciliation is that he must have been born when his father was 130. As this stands in some tension with Abraham’s shock at the possibility of fathering a child at the age of 100 (Genesis 17:17), other solutions, too complex to explore here, have also been proposed. In the end, our focus must always be on the clarity of what God has made clear rather than the difficulty of what he has chosen to leave obscure.
(12:1–9) The Call of Abram
(12:1a) The call in 12:1–3 can be interpreted either as a flashback to an earlier call that took place in Ur (Genesis 15:7) or as a repetition of this call. As the Hebrew grammar permits both options (“said” or “had said”), English translations differ.4
(12:1–3a) In the Hebrew of these verses, there are two unambiguous imperatives “go” (12:1a) and “be a blessing” (12:2b). Each of these two imperatives is followed by three words of promise. Abraham is told to “go”—the result of which would be that God would (a) make him into a great nation, (b) bless him, and (c) make his name great. He was further commanded to “be a blessing”—the result of which would be that God would (a) bless those who blessed him, (b) curse those who cursed him, and (c) that through him all the families of the earth would find blessing. The first group of promises are concerned with Abram, his family, and the blessing that God was going to give them. The second set of promises moves far beyond immediate blessing for Abram to God’s plans for restoring all of creation. The amazing promises God made to Abram were never ultimately about Abram. While Abram obeyed the command to “go,” it would be a long time before he learned how to “be a blessing”—and it is this dynamic that drives the remainder of his story.
(12:1–3b) Just as the Hebrew word for curse occurs five times in Genesis 1:1–11:26 (the half of Genesis that deals with humanity as a whole), so also the Hebrew word for blessing occurs five times in the call of Abram in 12:1–3. This is unlikely to be a coincidence. It is just one more indication among many that “God intends to use Abram and his family as the instrument of rescuing and restoring his broken creation.”5
(12:2a) The use of the word “nation” to describe God’s chosen people is very unusual as this word in the plural is the one normally translated as “Gentiles” The point in context is that Abraham’s descendants will “grow into the status of a nation” a status that is “linked with government and territory.”6 The promise of the land is therefore already implicitly included.
(12:2b) The “name” that the tower builders had sought in their rebellion (11:4), God gives to Abram as a gracious promise. See also God’s promise to David in 2 Samuel 7:9 and the fulfillment of both of these promises in the victory of Abraham’s Seed and David’s Son in Philippians 2:9.
(12:7a) This is the first time the Lord is said to “appear.” It should, however, be noted that these vision accounts, (sometimes referred to as theophanies), never occur independently of Divine speech.
(12:7b) The faith by which Abram obeyed (Hebrews 11:8) demanded the open and public expression of altar-building—even in the land of the Canaanites. “[T]he inward worship of the heart is not sufficient, unless external profession before men be added. Religion has truly its appropriate seat in the heart; but from this root, public confession afterwards arises, as its fruit. For we are created to this end, that we may offer soul and body unto God.”7
(12:9) “[T]he brief itinerary of Abram described in verses 5–9 takes him from the northern to the southern border of the land. He not only sees what has been promised to him; he walks through it, and he lives and worships in it. Symbolically he has taken possession of it.”8

Credo: Believing the Truth

Divided and scattered by God’s judgment after the great tower disaster, it looked increasingly unlikely that God’s image bearers would ever be able to accomplish his purposes for them. At this very moment, when the rebellion looked most unstoppable and the curse seemed most unbearable, God chose a man named Abram. What God had once commanded to Adam and to Noah, he now promised to Abram and his descendants. He promised Abram a fruitful seed of abundant descendants. He promised that he would bring that seed into covenant relationship with him. He promised that He would give that seed the land he had promised them. And—best of all—he promised that through the fulfillment of these promises, the curse would be reversed, all the scattered nations of the earth would be blessed, and God’s good purposes for creation would finally begin to be accomplished.

Conduct: Reshaping Our Walk

Discuss the meaning of the text and then walk through the following application questions as you discuss the difference this meaning ought to make in our lives today.
The amazing promises God made to Abram were never about Abram but about the fulfillment of his good purposes for the entirety of his creation. How might we be tempted to forget that the promises we have received are no different?

Examples: Reducing the gospel message to one of “living your best life now;” Defining God’s purposes in terms of our plans for our lives instead of the other way around, etc.

While true worship is a matter of the heart, genuine belief always demands an appropriate outward expression. What are some of the ways in which we might be tempted to mute our public profession of faith before the world?

Examples: Praying for our meals in public while pretending not to; Being willing to remain silent rather than be shamed for being one of “those people,” whether at work or at family gatherings.

1. Wenham 1987, 248 
2. Wenham 1987, 269 
3. Sarna 1989, 87 
4. Mathews 2005, 109
5. Gentry & Wellum 2012, 234 
6. Hamilton 1990, 372 
7. Calvin 1847, 1.353–354 
8. Wenham 1987, 281