Updated June 17, 2023
We know Abraham as the father of many nations. Jews, Christians, and Muslims claim him as their ancestor. His life story forms the very foundation of the basic Christian concept of justification by faith.
He did not start out that way. His name was Abram. We first see him only as a name in the last line of Shem’s genealogy: Shem. Arphaxad. Shelah. Eber. Peleg. Reu. Serug. Nahor. Terah, who became the father of Abram, Nahor, and Haran (Genesis 11:26).
How did this Abram grow to become the Abraham so many nations revere?
Abram before God called him
Because Abram eventually became Abraham, Genesis adds a few words about his father Terah.
He had three sons in Ur. Haran had a son named Lot and died in Ur. Abram and Nahor married in Ur. Abram did not have children. Later in Genesis, we find a list of Nahor’s children. He must have started his family in Ur, because we learn that Terah, his orphaned grandson Lot and his childless son Abram—but not Nahor–decided to move from Ur to Canaan. For some reason, they stopped in Haran.
The story of Abraham in the Bible tells us nothing about lots of things we’d be interested to know.
- Was Abram Terah’s firstborn son? Or does the Bible list him first because he became the most important? It doesn’t say.
- How long did Abram live in Ur and how long did he stay in Haran? It doesn’t say.
- Did Terah and Abram worship the moon in Ur? Or did they leave because they didn’t like its spiritual atmosphere? It doesn’t say.
- Were they wealthy or poor? It doesn’t say.
The sin of Ur and its society
Ur was a major center of trade and political power. It’s easy to suppose that Terah left Ur, stopped in the middle of nowhere, and named his settlement for his late son. On further investigation, that’s not what happened. The father of Nahor’s wife was also named Haran. As it turns out, Haran was, like Ur, a major trade center.
The whole region of Mesopotamia boasted an amazingly sophisticated and brilliantly intellectual society. Mesopotamiansbecame the first to learn to measure the movements of the sun, moon, and stars. Their invention of the science of astronomy led to the calendar and other practical applications.
Unfortunately, they also misused their science, as has every other scientific society. They turned their scientific discovery both to good uses and evil. They attempted to use their knowledge to control their environment. In the process they began to worship heavenly bodies, especially the moon. Like most of the world’s population. both before and since, they ignored the living God to worship what he has made.
Ur and Haran were centers of civilization, but that is not entirely a good thing. They became influential in the ungodly world system. Their society was a small class of incredibly rich and powerful people exploiting large numbers of poor people. The whole concept of law came from Mesopotamia, but so did tyranny.
God’s call of Abram marks the first major turning point in the Bible. Earlier, the book of Genesis largely consists of genealogies. A sequence of disasters punctuates the lists of names. After the fall came the first murder, a growing wickedness that resulted in the flood, and the repopulation of the earth by more people who proved to be wicked and godless. The story culminates in the tower of Babel.
At the mention of Abram, we begin to read about the first fully formed personality in the Bible. His story also marks the beginning of God’s plan to redeem civilization.
God calls Abram
As Genesis 12 describes the call,
The Lord said to Abram:
Go from your land,
and your father’s house
to the land that I will show you.
I will make you into a great nation,
I will bless you,
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
I will curse anyone who treats you with contempt,
and all the peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.
So Abram went, as the Lord had told him, and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he left Haran. He took his wife, Sarai, his nephew Lot, all the possessions they had accumulated, and the people they had acquired in Haran, and they set out for the land of Canaan. When they came to the land of Canaan, Abram passed through the land to the site of Shechem, at the oak of Moreh. (At that time the Canaanites were in the land.) The Lord appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built an altar there to the Lord who had appeared to him. From there he moved on to the hill country east of Bethel and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east. He built an altar to the Lord there, and he called on the name of the Lord. Then Abram journeyed by stages to the Negev.—Genesis 12:1-9 CSB
Abram’s response to the call
God told Abram to leave his homeland and go to. . . Well, he didn’t exactly say much more than, “I’ll tell you when you get there.” Acts 7:4, tells us that God spoke these words in Ur, not Haran. For Abram to travele with Terah and Lot and stop in Haran looks like a mistake. Or maybe Terah decided to move to Canaan, took Abram with him, decided to stop in Haran, and refused to allow his son to go without him. In that case, it was a delay that may have tested the faith of a frustrated Abram until Terah’s death enabled him to go on. Again, the Bible doesn’t say.
God only knows how old Abram was when he made the promise, but he was 75 when he left Haran. He still had no children.
Abram obeyed. He packed all his stuff, gathered his wife and servants (and maybe some friends who shared his enthusiasm for learning to know the God who speaks to people). Unfortunately, he took his nephew Lot, whom he should have left behind. They all set off for Canaan. Abram may not have even known if that is where God wanted him to wind up, but he had to go somewhere. Returning to Ur would have been the only wrong direction.
Abram’s arrival at Shechem
He had left pagan Ur, and perhaps practiced moon worship there himself, but he met the living God and dedicated his life from that time on to serving him. He had stayed in pagan Haran for a while, and now, when God reveals that he has come to the land that his offspring will inherit, it is another pagan center. Abram’s altar therefore means more than worship of the one God. He defied and repudiated this new paganism he had encountered. Then he moved a little farther, pitched his tent, built another altar, and called on the name of the Lord.
By praying, worshiping, and calling on the name of a God apparently no one else in the world knew, he planted a flag and claimed the land for offspring not yet born.
He would live as a nomad until the day he died. He would pitch his tent many times in many places. Its location was always temporary. Meanwhile, he built altars. He worshiped at them, and they remained when he departed.
Scripture does not record another word that God spoke to Abram for another 10 years. That’s the way God works. He invades our thoughts without warning, speaks so vividly that it feels like something wonderful will happen in the next fifteen minutes–or at least by the end of the week. Then the waiting begins.
Abram decides to help God’s promise along
It’s hard to receive a promise and wait. A year or two is bad. Abram had lived with his promise since before he left Ur. Still childless when God told him he had arrived in the land promised to his descendants, he must have thought that, finally, he and his wife would start a family. Ten later, Abram continued to worship faithfully. Meanwhile he did some noble things and some foolish, cowardly things. Day by day, the promise faded. He developed a plan B and designated one of his servants as his heir.
Then God showed up again. Abram spilled out his frustrations and worries. He pointed out his lack. He complained. Haven’t all believers done the same thing, sometimes with more than one promise?
God repeated his promise to Abram. The servant would not be Abram’s heir. Abram would have a son from his own body. God told Abram to look up at the sky and try to count the stars. He promised Abram that his descendants would be that numerous. “Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6).
This verse marks the first occurrence of any form of “believe” in the Bible. Nowhere does Genesis record that Abel, Enoch, Noah, or even Abram himself when he first heard the promise believed God. He had no more evidence, no more logical reason than before. He believed anyway.
Abram and his wife hatched a scheme to help God along, but the son born a year later, Ishmael, was not the son of the promise.
God gets his way and Abram gets a new name, becoming Abraham
God appeared to Abram 13 years later and ordered that he and all the males in his household be circumcised. He changed Abram’s name to Abraham and his wife Sarai’s to Sarah. He promised that Sarah herself would bear a child. And she bore Isaac a year later.
Abraham continued to do some noble things and some foolish and cowardly things for the rest of his life. Being declared righteous does not guarantee against committing sins from time to time.
Abram started out as nobody but a name in a genealogy. God spoke to him and made a wild promise. No amount of waiting, no amount of his own sin, could deter him from hanging on to that promise. As he waited, his faith grew. And that is how Abram became Abraham, father of many nations, including the spiritual nation of those of like faith.