Genesis 12
Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
Ch. Genesis 12:1-9. Genesis 12:1-4 a (J); Genesis 12:4 b, Genesis 12:5 (P). The First Promise: and the Migration of Abram into Canaan

This passage is from J, with the exception of Genesis 12:4 b and Genesis 12:5 (P).

Now the LORD had said unto Abram, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father's house, unto a land that I will shew thee:
1. Now the lord said] Lit. “and Jehovah said.” The narrative opens with characteristic simplicity, and with the abruptness possibly indicating its selection from a group of similar traditions.

the lord said] Here, as elsewhere, we must not suppose that “the word of Jehovah” was accompanied either by any external manifestation, or by an audible sound. God in old times “hath spoken unto the fathers” even as He speaks now to those who hear His voice, “in divers manners” (Hebrews 1:1).

out of thy country … kindred … father’s house] See Genesis 24:7. The threefold tie of land, people, and home, is to be severed. Abram is to lay the foundations of the Chosen People independently of any obligation or favour due to local environment or personal association. He is to rely only on his God. Thus the first trial of the patriarch’s faith requires him, (a) to renounce the certainties of the past: (b) to face the uncertainties of the future: (c) to look for and to follow the direction of Jehovah’s will. Cf. Hebrews 11:8, “by faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed to go out … and he went out, not knowing whither he went.”

the land that I will shew thee] The country is not designated by name: an additional test of faith.

And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing:
2. The promise, (1) of national greatness, (2) of personal privilege, embraces a double relation, to the world and to the individual.

a great nation] This thought stands in the forefront. The personal aspect of the promise made to Abram is from the first merged in the thought of its historic influence throughout the ages.

I will bless thee] The experience of happiness in the personal relation to Jehovah is to be the pledge of the ultimate fulfilment of blessing to the world.

make thy name great] Contrast Genesis 11:4. The blessing of Abram, in its spiritual influence upon the world, will be of more enduring renown than any of the material forces of the world.

be thou a blessing] i.e. one who impersonates true felicity; cf. Zechariah 8:13. Not a source, but a type, of blessing, to be pronounced upon others. The imperative expresses a consequence which is intended (Gesenius, Heb. Gr. § 110. 1) = “so that thou shalt be a blessing.” By a slight alteration of the pointing, Giesebrecht reads “and it (the name) shall be a blessing.” For the “curse” of the primaeval age (Genesis 3:13, Genesis 4:11, Genesis 5:29, Genesis 9:25 (J)) is substituted the “blessing” of the Chosen Family.

And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed.
3. and I will bless, &c.] The blessing which Abram receives from God is to be a source of good to his friends and of evil to his foes. Observe the delicacy with which the recipients of the blessing are expressed in the plural; but of the curse in the singular (“him that curseth will I curse”). It is assumed that his friends are numerous and his foes few.

curse] Cf. Genesis 27:29, “Cursed be every one that curseth thee.”

in thee shall all the families of the earth, &c.] These words can be understood in two ways, according as the verb is rendered (a) passively, (b) reflexively. (a) “On account of thee the whole world shall be blessed.” In Abram is impersonated a blessing that shall become universal. The directly Messianic application of this rendering is obvious. (b) “In thy name all the families of the earth will find the true formula of benediction.” The blessing of Abram shall pass into a universal proverb. All will regard it as the best object of human wishes to participate in the happiness of Abram. The rendering would then be, “shall bless themselves.” Cf. Genesis 48:20. This rendering is probably supported by Genesis 22:18, Genesis 26:4; Psalm 72:17. Like the alternative rendering, it admits of a Messianic application in the universal recognition of the place of Abram in the Divine scheme of Redemption.

In this passage, the thought which was faintly foreshadowed in the prediction of (1) the conflict between man and the power of evil in Genesis 3:15, and of (2) the privilege of the family of Shem in Genesis 9:26, becomes more definite in (3) the selection of the patriarchal family as the channel of universal blessing.

4b (P). and Abram was seventy and five years old] Comparing this statement with Genesis 11:26, we gather Abram left Haran when Terah was 145 years old. In Genesis 11:32, Terah lived to an age of 205. If so, he lived for 60 years after Abram’s departure. We should, however, naturally infer both from this verse, and from Genesis 11:32, that Terah died before Abram left Haran. We must conclude, either, that the text of the figures in Genesis 11:32 is erroneous, and should be 145; or, that Abram was born 60 years after Nahor and Haran (Genesis 11:26); or, that divergent strata of tradition have been incorporated in the narrative.

The connexion of the ancestry of Israel with the Aramaeans is elsewhere indicated in chap. 24, Genesis 28:1 to Genesis 32:2, and Deuteronomy 26:5.

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.
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.
5. substance] or goods. A characteristic word in P (cf. Genesis 13:6, Genesis 31:18, Genesis 36:7, Genesis 46:6).

souls] i.e. the slaves and retainers. The movement of Abram out of Haran was evidently on the scale of a large migration, such as was not infrequent among the nomad peoples of Western Asia.

into the land of Canaan] The journey from Haran to Canaan would entail (1) the crossing of the river Euphrates, (2) the traversing of Hamath and Syria, (3) the entrance into N. Palestine. On an ancient tradition that, on the way, Abram conquered Damascus, see Josephus who quotes Nicolaus of Damascus: “Abraham reigned in Damascus, having come with an army from the country beyond Babylon, called the land of the Chaldaeans.”

And Abram passed through the land unto the place of Sichem, unto the plain of Moreh. And the Canaanite was then in the land.
6. the place of Shechem] The word “place” is here probably used in the special sense of “sacred place” or “shrine,” as also possibly in Genesis 22:4, Genesis 28:11; Genesis 28:16; Joshua 5:15; Jeremiah 7:12. It does not mean the “site” of what was afterwards known as Shechem.

Shechem (modern Nablus), one of the most ancient and important towns in the central hill country of Palestine, at the foot of Mt Gerizim, in a fair and fertile valley on the road leading northward from Bethel. For other passages in which Shechem plays an important part, cf. 34; Jdg 1:9; 1 Kings 12:25. On the meaning of Shechem=a “shoulder” or “ridge,” see note on Genesis 48:22.

unto the oak of Moreh] Better, as marg., terebinth. The terebinth, or turpentine tree, is said at a distance to resemble the oak, but botanically it is of a different species; it does not grow in clumps. It is found in the S. and E. of Palestine in warm and sheltered spots; it often attains very considerable dimensions.

Moreh] Cf. Deuteronomy 11:30; Jdg 7:1. In all probability Moreh is not a proper name, but the participle of the verb meaning to “teach” or “instruct,” whence comes also the substantive Torah, “law” or “instruction.” Probably we have here an example of one of the sacred trees under which, in primitive times, a priest, or seer, gave oracles and returned answers to devout questioners. If so, this terebinth may have been the famous tree mentioned elsewhere in connexion with Shechem: cf. Genesis 35:4, Joshua 24:26, and perhaps Jdg 9:37. “The terebinth of Moreh” will then mean “The terebinth of the oracle, or of the soothsayer.”

And the Canaanite was then in the land] i.e. long before the conquest of Palestine. This clause reminds the reader, that the land promised to the seed of Abram was “then” in the possession of the Canaanites. It was not to be taken by merely encamping in it. Perhaps, also, the clause refers to the sacred tree. Abram recognized the sanctity of the spot in the old religious customs of the Canaanites; and here Jehovah manifested Himself. As the Canaanite was to yield to Israel, so the Canaanite religion was to make way for a higher Revelation. The reverence and awe of the unseen Deity were not to be banished, but to be purified and elevated for a higher worship.

And the LORD appeared unto Abram, and said, Unto thy seed will I give this land: and there builded he an altar unto the LORD, who appeared unto him.
7. And the Lord appeared] The first mention of a Theophany in the patriarchal narrative. What form it took, and in what way it was connected with the “sacred tree” or the altar, is not related.

Unto thy seed will I give this land] The continuance of the Divine promise. In Genesis 12:2-3 we had the blessing of the people and the patriarch, in general terms. In this verse, immediately after the mention of the Canaanite occupation, possession of “this land” is promised to the descendants of Abram. This verse lays the foundation of the imperishable devotion of “the seed of Abram” to the Land of Promise.

builded he an altar] Cf. Genesis 8:20. The building of an altar which implies the rite of sacrifice is mentioned in connexion with the promises and appearances of God, cf. 8, Genesis 13:18, Genesis 33:20, Genesis 35:1; Genesis 35:7.

Sacrifice was the expression of the patriarch’s dependence on, communion with, and devotion to, Jehovah.

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.
8. Beth-el on the west, and Ai on the east] For Bethel, see note on Genesis 28:12. For Ai, see Joshua 7:2-5. The situation of Abram’s tent between Bethel and Ai must have commanded a view of the valley of the Jordan and of the Dead Sea, with the mountains of Moab. “Beth-el,” or “House of God,” was probably also an ancient shrine, the modern Bêtîn, 9½ miles N. of Jerusalem.

on the west] The Heb. word for “the west” means literally “the sea,” i.e. the Mediterranean Sea. Such an expression for a point of the compass could only have been used by a people who had long been resident in the country.

called upon the name] See note on Genesis 4:26, i.e. he worshipped, using in his invocation the name “Jehovah.” The Name is the symbol of the Divine attributes.

And Abram journeyed, going on still toward the south.
9. toward the South] Heb. Negeb, the southern tract of Judah. Negeb means “the dry land,” “the land of thin soil.” It was applied especially to the country in the southernmost region of Canaan, described in Joshua 15:21-32, and spoken of in Numbers 13:17; Numbers 13:22; Numbers 13:26. The Israelite, dwelling in Palestine, was accustomed to speak of the south as the “negeb” quarter, just as he spoke of the west as the “sea” quarter, of the compass. The R.V. prints the word “South” with a capital, when it denotes the region between Hebron and the wilderness. It is found in the form Ngb in an Egyptian writing of the reign of Thothmes III (1479–1447 b.c.) as a name for S. Palestine (Müller’s Asien u. Europa, p. 148).

And there was a famine in the land: and Abram went down into Egypt to sojourn there; for the famine was grievous in the land.
10. a famine in the land] Cf. Genesis 26:1, Genesis 42:1. The failure of crops in Palestine and the adjacent countries, owing to defective rainfall, often compelled the inhabitants to “go down” into Egypt, where the crops were not dependent on rainfall. They were wont to “sojourn” (i.e. to reside temporarily) there, until the scarcity was passed.

Genesis 12:10 to Genesis 13:2. Abram in Egypt. (J.)

The narrative in this section should be compared with the similar ones in 20, 26. It is repellent to our sense of honour, chivalry, and purity. It is true that Abram’s cowardice is reproved, and that the action of the Egyptian Pharaoh is represented in a more favourable light. On the other hand, Abram, though dismissed from the court, leaves Egypt enriched with great spoil. By a subterfuge he had hoped to save his own life at the cost of his wife’s honour. His cowardly deceit is detected: and his life is not imperilled. Sarai’s honour is spared; and the patriarch withdraws immensely enriched in possessions. This story, doubtless, would not have appeared so sordid to the ancient Israelite as it does to us. Perhaps the cunning, the detection, and the increase of wealth, may have commended the story to the Israelite of old times. Its popularity must account for its re-appearance in 20, 26.

It would be gratifying, if, in this story and in its variants, we were warranted in recognizing under an allegorical form the peril, to which nomad tribes of the Hebrew stock were exposed, of being absorbed among the inhabitants of a civilized community. Such a tribal misadventure might well be commemorated under the imagery of such a story. It is more probable, however, that the story illustrates the Divine protection over the patriarch amid the dangers of a foreign country. God’s goodness, not Abram’s merit, averts the peril.

In the present sequence of patriarchal narratives, this section shews how the fulfilment of the Divine promise is first imperilled through the patriarch’s own failure in courage and faith. The very qualities for which he is renowned, are lacking in the hour of temptation. God’s goodness and grace alone rescue him and his wife. A heathen king of Egypt upholds the universal law of virtue more successfully than the servant of Jehovah. The story reveals that Jehovah causes His will to be felt in Egypt no less than in Palestine. But the moral of the story does not satisfy any Christian standard in its representation either of Jehovah or of the patriarch. The knowledge of God is progressive.

And it came to pass, when he was come near to enter into Egypt, that he said unto Sarai his wife, Behold now, I know that thou art a fair woman to look upon:
11. thou art a fair woman] According to Genesis 17:17 (P), Sarai was 10 years younger than Abram; and from Genesis 12:4 (P) Abram was at least 75 when he entered Egypt, and Sarai, therefore, 65. This kind of difficulty has led to explanations of a somewhat undignified character. The true explanation is that the ages of the patriarchs which belong to the brief and statistical narrative of P have no place in the narrative of J, in which Sarai is beautiful and childless (Genesis 11:30).

Therefore it shall come to pass, when the Egyptians shall see thee, that they shall say, This is his wife: and they will kill me, but they will save thee alive.
Say, I pray thee, thou art my sister: that it may be well with me for thy sake; and my soul shall live because of thee.
13. my sister] i.e. half-sister. Cf. Genesis 11:29, Genesis 20:12.

my soul] A vivid way of expressing the personal pronoun, cf. Genesis 27:4; Genesis 27:19; Genesis 27:25.

And it came to pass, that, when Abram was come into Egypt, the Egyptians beheld the woman that she was very fair.
The princes also of Pharaoh saw her, and commended her before Pharaoh: and the woman was taken into Pharaoh's house.
15. the princes of Pharaoh] i.e. the chief officers at the court of the king of Egypt. Pharaoh is not a proper name, but the title of the Egyptian king. It is the Hebrew way of transliterating the Egyptian royal title Per’o, “the Great House,” which was transferred from the dwelling to the dynasty of the sovereign. It is often compared with “the Sublime Porte.” As the king’s title, it is no more distinctive than “King,” or “Tsar,” or “Sultan.” There is nothing in this passage to shew which Egyptian king is intended, or at what place he held his court. If Abram was a contemporary of Hammurabi (see note on 14), the Pharaoh of this chapter may have belonged to the 12th or 13th dynasty of Egypt.

All kings of Egypt mentioned in the O.T. (except Shishak, 1 Kings 14:25, and So, 2 Kings 17:4) are designated Pharaoh.

into Pharaoh’s house] i.e. into the harem, or women’s quarter of the king’s palace. The verse illustrates the manner in which the courtiers of an Eastern monarch sought to win royal favour by recommending to his notice beautiful women who might be added to his harem. Cf. the story of the Book of Esther.

The story is much abbreviated: but it is implied that Sarai consented to sacrifice her honour for her husband’s life. We must remember that in the ethics of the O.T. woman is regarded in a less honourable light than man. The idea of a man sacrificing himself to save a woman’s honour belongs almost entirely to the Christian age.

And he entreated Abram well for her sake: and he had sheep, and oxen, and he asses, and menservants, and maidservants, and she asses, and camels.
16. entreated] Old Eng. word for “treated,” or “used.” The manner in which Abram received and retained these extensive gifts implies his consent to Sarai’s position at the court. Abram’s acceptance of the purchase-money was his ratification of the transaction. If it struck the Hebrew mind as clever, it seems to us only base and despicable.

sheep, and oxen, &c.] This list represents the principal possessions of a nomad chieftain. The following points should be noticed: (a) men-servants and maidservants (i.e. male and female slaves) are placed between the animals, either by mistake of a copyist, or being regarded as the chattels of the household, cf. Genesis 24:35; (b) the mention of camels has been criticized as an anachronism, because the camel is not represented in the Egyptian inscriptions before the Persian period. But, whether used or not by the ancient Egyptians, the camel was certainly employed both by traders and nomads in Western Asia, and in the tradition, whether correctly or not, would be considered to be obtainable; (c) the horse is omitted; and the omission has been considered a sign of ignorance of Egyptian life. But the horse never appears among the possessions of the patriarchs, e.g. Genesis 24:35, Genesis 30:43, and its use is condemned in Deuteronomy 17:16; (d) the order of the items in the list may possibly denote their relative values, the camel being the most precious.

And the LORD plagued Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai Abram's wife.
17. plagued … with great plagues] The words in the original run: “and Jehovah struck Pharaoh with great strokes, and his house.” The words “and his house” have all the appearance of being a later explanatory addition. The “great strokes” or “plagues” must have been some kind of epidemic (cf. Genesis 20:17; 1 Chronicles 16:21; Psalm 105:14), the cause of which could not be understood. Pharaoh and his house are guiltless; Abram and Sarai are deceitful and cowardly; Jehovah smites the Egyptian, in order to protect the patriarch and his wife. This representation of the Deity illustrates the immature stage of religious development presented by some of the early Israelite traditions.

And Pharaoh called Abram, and said, What is this that thou hast done unto me? why didst thou not tell me that she was thy wife?
18. Pharaoh called Abram] How Pharaoh discovered the truth is not recorded in our condensed version. All other explanations of the epidemic failing, possibly the wise men and magicians connected it with the presence of a foreigner in the palace serving Jehovah, and with the indignation of the offended local deities.

Why saidst thou, She is my sister? so I might have taken her to me to wife: now therefore behold thy wife, take her, and go thy way.
19. take her, and go thy way] Pharaoh, justly incensed with Abram, dismisses him with sternness and abruptness.

And Pharaoh commanded his men concerning him: and they sent him away, and his wife, and all that he had.
20. they brought him on the way] i.e. they escorted him to the frontier, treating with respect and honour a man of wealth and substance, and a foreigner whose God had been a protection to himself and a peril to the Egyptian royal family. Abram apparently retained the wealth that he had procured on false pretences. For the word rendered “bring on the way,” in the sense of “escort,” cf. Genesis 18:16, Genesis 31:27 (“sent away”).

On this narrative, see the remarks of J. G. Frazer in Psyche’s Task, p. 40, “among many savage races breaches of the marriage laws are believed to draw down on the community public calamities of the most serious character … in particular they are thought to blast the fruits of the earth through excessive rain or excessive drought. Traces of similar beliefs may perhaps be detected among the civilised races of antiquity.” Frazer quotes, in illustration, Job 31:11 sq., and the two narratives of Genesis 12:10-20; Genesis 20:1-18. “These narratives,” he says, “seem to imply that adultery, even when it is committed in ignorance, is a cause of plague and especially of sterility among women.”

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