Notes on the Bible, by Albert Barnes, , at sacred-texts.com
- The Call of Abram
6. שׁכם shekem Shekem, "the upper part of the back." Here it is the name of a person, the owner of this place, where afterward is built the town called at first Shekem, then Flavia Neapolis, and now Nablous. אלון 'ēlôn "the oak;" related: "be lasting, strong." מורה môreh In Onkelos "plain;" Moreh, "archer, early rain, teacher." Here the name of a man who owned the oak that marked the spot. In the Septuagint it is rendered ὑψηγήν hupseegeen.
8. בית־אל bēyt-'êl, Bethel, "house of God." ים yam "sea, great river, west." עי ‛ay, 'Ai, "heap."
9. נגב negeb "south."
The narrative now takes leave of the rest of the Shemites, as well as the other branches of the human family, and confines itself to Abram. It is no part of the design of Scripture to trace the development of worldliness. It marks its source, and indicates the law of its downward tendency; but then it turns away from the dark detail, to devote its attention to the way by which light from heaven may again pierce the gloom of the fallen heart. Here, then, we have the starting of a new spring of spiritual life in the human race.
Having brought the affairs of Terah's family to a fit resting point, the sacred writer now reverts to the call of Abram. This, we have seen, took place when he was seventy years of age, and therefore five years before the death of Terah. "The Lord said unto Abram." Four hundred and twenty-two years on the lowest calculation after the last recorded communication with Noah, the Lord again opens his mouth, to Abram. Noah, Shem, or Heber, must have been in communication with heaven, indeed, at the time of the confusion of tongues, and hence, we have an account of that miraculous interposition. The call of Abram consists of a command and a promise. The command is to leave the place of all his old and fond associations, for a land which he had not yet seen, and therefore did not know. Three ties are to be severed in complying with this command - his country, in the widest range of his affections; his place of birth and kindred comes closer to his heart; his father's house is the inmost circle of all his tender emotions. All these are to be resigned; not, however, without reason. The reason may not be entirely obvious to the mind of Abram. But he has entire faith in the reasonableness of what God proposes. So with reason and faith he is willing to go to the unknown land. It is enough that God will show him the land to which he is now sent.
The promise corresponds to the command. If he is to lose much by his exile, he will also gain in the end. The promise contains a lower and higher blessing. The lower blessing has three parts: "First, I will make of thee a great nation." This will compensate for the loss of his country. The nation to which he had hitherto belonged was fast sinking into polytheism and idolatry. To escape from it and its defiling influence was itself a benefit; but to be made himself the head of a chosen nation was a double blessing. Secondly, "And bless thee." The place of his birth and kindred was the scene of all his past earthly joys. But the Lord will make up the loss to him in a purer and safer scene of temporal prosperity. Thirdly, "And make thy name great." This was to compensate him for his father's house. He was to be the patriarch of a new house, on account of which he would be known and venerated all over the world.
The higher blessing is expressed in these remarkable terms: "And be thou a blessing." He is to be not merely a subject of blessing, but a medium of blessing to others. It is more blessed to give than to receive. And the Lord here confers on Abram the delightful prerogative of dispensing good to others. The next verse expands this higher element of the divine promise. "I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee." Here the Lord identifies the cause of Abram with his own, and declares him to be essentially connected with the weal or woe of all who come into contact with him. "And blessed in thee shall be all the families of the ground." The ground was cursed for the sake of Adam, who fell by transgression. But now shall the ground again participate in the blessing. "In thee." In Abram is this blessing laid up as a treasure hid in a field to be realized in due time. "All the families" of mankind shall ultimately enter into the enjoyment of this unbounded blessing.
Thus, when the Lord saw fit to select a man to preserve vital piety on the earth and be the head of a race suited to be the depository of a revelation of mercy, he at the same time designed that this step should be the means of effectually recalling the sin-enthralled world to the knowledge and love of himself. The race was twice already since the fall put upon its probation - once under the promise of victory to the seed of the woman, and again under the covenant with Noah. In each of these cases, notwithstanding the growing light of revelation and accumulating evidence of the divine forbearance, the race had apostatised from the God of mercy, with lamentably few known exceptions. Yet, undeterred by the gathering tokens of this second apostasy, and after reiterated practical demonstration to all people of the debasing, demoralizing effect of sin, the Lord, with calm determination of purpose, sets about another step in the great process of removing the curse of sin, dispensing the blessing of pardon, and eventually drawing all the nations to accept of his mercy. The special call of Abram contemplates the calling of the Gentiles as its final issue, and is therefore to be regarded as one link in a series of wonderful events by which the legal obstacles to the divine mercy are to be taken out of the way, and the Spirit of the Lord is to prevail with still more and more of men to return to God.
It is sometimes inadvertently said that the Old Testament is narrow and exclusive, while the New Testament is broad and catholic in its spirit. This is a mistake. The Old and New Testaments are of one mind on this matter. Many are called, and few chosen. This is the common doctrine of the New as well as of the Old. They are both equally catholic in proclaiming the gospel to all. The covenant with Adam and with Noah is still valid and sure to all who return to God; and the call of Abram is expressly said to be a means of extending blessing to all the families of man. The New Testament does not aim at anything more than this; it merely hails the approaching accomplishment of the same gracious end. They both concur also in limiting salvation to the few who repent and believe the gospel. Even when Abram was called there were a few who still trusted in the God of mercy. According to the chronology of the Masoretic text, Heber was still alive, Melkizedec was contemporary with Abram, Job was probably later, and many other now unknown witnesses for God were doubtless to be found, down to the time of the exodus, outside the chosen family. God marks the first symptoms of decaying piety. He does not wait until it has died out before he calls Abram. He proceeds in a leisurely, deliberate manner with his eternal purpose of mercy, and hence, a single heir of promise suffices for three generations, until the set time comes for the chosen family and the chosen nation. Universalism, then, in the sense of the offer of mercy to man, is the rule of the Old and the New Testament. Particularism in the acceptance of it is the accident of the time. The call of Abram is a special expedient for providing a salvation that may be offered to all the families of the earth.
In all God's teachings the near and the sensible come before the far and the conceivable, the present and the earthly before the eternal and the heavenly. Thus, Abram's immediate acts of self-denial are leaving his country, his birthplace, his home. The promise to him is to be made a great nation, be blessed, and have a great name in the new land which the Lord would show him. This is unspeakably enhanced by his being made a blessing to all nations. God pursues this mode of teaching for several important reasons. First, the sensible and the present are intelligible to those who are taught. The Great Teacher begins with the known, and leads the mind forward to the unknown. If he had begun with things too high, too deep, or too far for the range of Abram's mental vision, he would not have come into relation with Abram's mind. It is superfluous to say that he might have enlarged Abram's view in proportion to the grandeur of the conceptions to be revealed.
On the same principle he might have made Abram cognizant of all present and all developed truth. On the same principle he might have developed all things in an instant of time, and so have had done with creation and providence at once. Secondly, the present and the sensible are the types of the future and the conceivable; the land is the type of the better land; the nation of the spiritual nation; the temporal blessing of the eternal blessing; the earthly greatness of the name of the heavenly. And let us not suppose that we are arrived at the end of all knowledge. We pique ourselves on our advance in spiritual knowledge beyond the age of Abram. But even we may be in the very infancy of mental development. There may be a land, a nation, a blessing, a great name, of which our present realizations or conceptions are but the types. Any other supposition would be a large abatement from the sweetness of hope's overflowing cup.
Thirdly, these things which God now promises are the immediate form of his bounty, the very gifts he begins at the moment to bestow. God has his gift to Abram ready in his hand in a tangible form. He points to it and says, This is what thou presently needest; this I give thee, with my blessing and favor. But, fourthly, these are the earnest and the germ of all temporal and eternal blessing. Man is a growing thing, whether as an individual or a race. God graduates his benefits according to the condition and capacity of the recipients. In the first boon of his good-will is the earnest of what he will continue to bestow on those who continue to walk in his ways. And as the present is the womb of the future, so is the external the symbol of the internal, the material the shadow of the spiritual, in the order of the divine blessing. And as events unfold themselves in the history of man and conceptions in his soul within, so are doctrines gradually opened up in the Word of God, and progressively revealed to the soul by the Spirit of God.
Abram obeys the call. He had set out from Ur under the revered guardianship of his aged father, Terah, with other companions, "as the Lord had spoken unto him." Lot is now mentioned as his companion. Terah's death has been already recorded. Sarai is with him, of course, and therefore it is unnecessary to repeat the fact. But Lot is associated with him as an incidental companion for some time longer. The age of Abram at the second stage of his journey is now mentioned. This enables us to determine, as, we have seen, that he departed from Ur five years before.
This is the record of what is presumed in the close of Gen 12:4; namely, the second setting out for Kenaan. "Abram took." He is now the leader of the little colony, as Terah was before his death. Sarai, as well as Lot, is now named. "The gaining they had gained" during the five years of their residence in Haran. If Jacob became comparatively rich in six years Gen 30:43, so might Abram, with the divine blessing, in five. "The souls they had gotten" - the bondservants they had acquired. Where there is a large stock of cattle, there must be a corresponding number of servants to attend to them. Abram and Lot enter the land as men of substance. They are in a position of independence. The Lord is realizing to Abram the blessing promised. They start for the land of Kenaan, and at length arrive there. This event is made as important as it ought to be in our minds by the mode in which it is stated.
Abram does not enter into immediate possession, but only travels through the land which the Lord had promised to show him Gen 12:1. He arrives at "the place of Shekem." The town was probably not yet in existence. It lay between Mount Gerizzim and Mount Ebal. It possesses a special interest as the spot where the Lord first appeared to Abram in the land of promise. It was afterward dedicated to the Lord by being made a Levitical town, and a city of refuge. At this place Joshua convened an assembly of all Israel to hear his farewell address. "So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and set them a statute and an ordinance in Shekem" Jos. 24:1-25. The particular point in the place of Shekem where Abram halted is the oak of Moreh; so called, probably, from its planter or owner. The oak attains to great antiquity, and a single tree, well grown, becomes conspicuous for its grandeur and beauty, and was often chosen in ancient times as a meeting-place for religious rites.
And the Kenaanite was then in the land. - This simply implies that the land was not open for Abram to enter upon immediate possession of it without challenge. Another was in possession. The sons of Kenaan had already arrived and preoccupied the country. It also intimates, or admits, of the supposition that there had been previous inhabitants who may have been subjugated by the invading Kenaanites. Thus, אן 'āz then alludes to the past, as in Gen 4:26. Some of these former inhabitants will meet us in the course of the narrative. It admits also of the supposition that the Kenaanites afterward ceased to be its inhabitants. Hence, some have inferred that this could not have been penned by Moses, as they were expelled after his death. If this supposition were the necessary or the only one implied in the form of expression, we should acquiesce in the conclusion that this sentence came from one of the prophets to whom the conservation, revision, and continuation of the living oracles were committed. But we have seen that two other presuppositions may be made that satisfy the import of the passage. Moreover, the first of the three accounts for the fact that Abram does not instantly enter on possession, as there was an occupying tenant. And, finally, the third supposition may fairly be, not that the Kenaanites afterward ceased, but that they should afterward cease to be in the land. This, then, as well as the others, admits of Moses being the writer of this interesting sentence.
We are inclined to think, however, that the term "Kenaanite" here means, not the whole race of Kenaan, but the special tribe so called. If the former were meant, the statement would be in a manner superfluous, after calling the country the land of Kenaan. If the proper tribe be intended, then we have evidence here that they once possessed this part of the land which was afterward occupied by the Hivite and the Amorite Gen 34:2; Jos 11:3; for, at the time of the conquest by Abram's descendants, the mountainous land in the center, including the place of Shekem, was occupied by the Amorites and other tribes, while the coast of the Mediterranean and the west bank of the Jordan was held by the Kenaanites proper (Josephus v. 1; xi. 3). This change of occupants had taken place before the time of Moses.
And the Lord appeared unto Abram. - Here, for the first time, this remarkable phrase occurs. It indicates that the Lord presents himself to the consciousness of man in any way suitable to his nature. It is not confined to the sight, but may refer to the hearing Sa1 3:15. The possibility of God appearing to man is antecedently undeniable. The fact of his having done so proves the possibility. On the mode of his doing this it is vain for us to speculate. The Lord said unto him, "Unto thy seed will I give this land." "Unto thy seed," not unto thee. To Abram himself "he gave none inheritance in it, no, not so much as to set his foot on" Act 7:5. "This land" which the Lord had now shown him, though at present occupied by the Kenaanite invader. "An altar." This altar is erected on the spot which is hallowed by the appearance of the Lord to Abram. The place of Shekem might have been supposed to have received its name from Shekem, a son of Gilead Num 26:31, did we not meet with Shekem, the son of Hamor, in this very place in the time of Jacob Gen 34:2. We learn from this the precariousness of the inference that the name of a place is of later origin because a person of that name lived there at a later period. The place of Shekem was doubtless called after a Shekem antecedent to Abram. Shekem and Moreh may have preceded even the Kenaanites, for anything we know.
From the oak of Moreh Abram now moves to the hill east of Bethel, and pitches his tent, with "Bethel on the west and Ai on the east." These localities are still recognized - the former as Beiten, and the latter as Tell er-Rijmeh (the mount of the heap). Bethel was "a place," adjacent to which was the town called "Luz at the first" Gen 28:19. Jacob gave this name to the place twice Gen 28:19; Gen 35:15. The name, then, was not first given at the second nomination by him. It follows that it may not have been first given at his first nomination. Accordingly we meet with it as an existing name in Abram's time, without being constrained to account for it by supposing the present narrative to have been composed in its present form after the time of Jacob's visit. On the other hand, we may regard it as an interesting trace of early piety having been present in the land even before the arrival of Abram. We shall meet with other corroborating proofs. Bethel continued afterward to be a place hallowed by the presence of God, to which the people resorted for counsel in the war with Benjamin Jdg 20:18, Jdg 20:26, Jdg 20:31; Jdg 21:2, and in which Jeroboam set up one of the golden calves Kg1 12:29.
On the hill east of this sacred ground Abram built another altar; and called upon the name of the Lord. Here we bare the reappearance of an ancient custom, instituted in the family of Adam after the birth of Enok Gen 4:26. Abram addresses God by his proper name, Yahweh, with an audible voice, in his assembled household. This, then, is a continuation of the worship of Adam, with additional light according to the progressive development of the moral nature of man. But Abram has not yet any settled abode in the land. He is only surveying its several regions, and feeding his flocks as he finds an opening. Hence, he continues his journey southward.
- XXXVIII. Abram in Egypt
15. פרעה par‛oh, Par'oh, "ouro." Coptic for "king," with the masculine article pi. or p. P-ouro, "the king." If we separate the article p. from the Hebrew form, we have רעה re‛oh for king, which may be compared with רעה ro‛eh, "pastor, leader," and the Latin rex, king. This is the common title of the Egyptian sovereigns, to which we have the personal name occasionally added, as Pharaoh-Necho, Pharaoh-Hophrah.
This first visit of Abram to Mizraim, or Egypt, is occasioned by the famine in the land of promise. This land is watered by periodical rains. A season of drought arrests the progress of vegetation, and brings on a famine. But in Egypt, the fertility of the loamy soil depends not on local showers, but on the annual rise of the Nile, which is fed by the rains of a far-distant mountain range. Hence, when the land of Kenaan was wasted by drought and consequent famine, Egypt was generally so productive as to be the granary of the neighboring countries. As Kenaan was the brother of Mizraim, the contact between the two countries in which they dwelt was natural and frequent. Dry seasons and dearth of provisions seem to have been of frequent occurrence in the land of Kenaan Gen 26:1; Gen 41:56-57. Even Egypt itself was not exempt from such calamitous visitations. Famine is one of God's rods for the punishment of the wicked and the correction of the penitent Sa2 24:13. It visits Abram even in the land of promise. Doubtless the wickedness of the inhabitants was great even in his day. Abram himself was not out of the need of that tribulation that worketh patience, experience, and hope. He may have been left to himself under this trial, that he might find out by experience his own weakness, and at the same time the faithfulness and omnipotence of Yahweh the promiser. In the moment of his perplexity he flees for refuge to Egypt, and the Lord having a lesson for him, there permits him to enter that land of plenty.
It is not without misgivings, however, that Abram approaches Egypt. All the way from Ur to Haran, from Haran to the land of Kenaan, and from north to south of the land in which he was a stranger, we hear not a word of apprehension. But now he betakes himself to an expedient which had been preconcerted between him and Sarai before they set out on their earthly pilgrimage Gen 20:13. There are some obvious reasons for the change from composure to anxiety he now betrays. Abram was hitherto obeying the voice of the Lord, and walking in the path of duty, and therefore he was full of unhesirating confidence in the divine protection. Now he may be pursuing his own course, and, without waiting patiently for the divine counsel, venturing to cross the boundary of the land of promise. He may therefore be without the fortifying assurance of the divine approval. There is often a whisper of this kind heard in the soul, even when it is not fully conscious of the delinquency which occasions it.
Again, the countries through which be had already passed were inhabited by nomadic tribes, each kept in check by all the others, all unsettled in their habits, and many of them not more potent than himself. The Kenaanites spoke the same language with himself, and were probably only a dominant race among others whose language they spoke, if they did not adopt. But in Egypt all was different. Mizraim had seven sons, and, on the average, the daughters are as numerous as the sons. In eight or nine generations there might be from half a million to a million of inhabitants in Egypt, if we allow five daughters as the average of a family. The definite area of the arable ground on the two sides of the Nile, its fertilization by a natural cause without much human labor, the periodical regularity of the inundation, and the extraordinary abundance of the grain crops, combined both to multiply the population with great rapidity, and to accelerate amazingly the rise and growth of fixed institutions and a stable government. Here there were a settled country with a foreign tongue, a prosperous people, and a powerful sovereign. All this rendered it more perilous to enter Egypt than Kenaan.
If Abram is about to enter Egypt of his own accord, without any divine intimation, it is easy to understand why he resorts to a device of his own to escape the peril of assassination. In an arbitrary government, where the will of the sovereign is law, and the passions are uncontrolled, public or private resolve is sudden, and execution summary. The East still retains its character in this respect. In these circumstances, Abram proposes to Sarai to conceal their marriage, and state that she was his sister; which was perfectly true, as she was the daughter of his father, though not of his mother. At a distance of three or four thousand years, with all the development of mind which a completed Bible and an advanced philosophy can bestow, it is easy to pronounce, with dispassionate coolness, the course of conduct here proposed to be immoral and imprudent. It is not incumbent on us, indeed, to defend it; but neither does it become us to be harsh or excessive in our censure. In the state of manners and customs which then prevailed in Egypt, Abram and Sarai were not certainly bound to disclose all their private concerns to every impertinent inquirer. The seeming simplicity and experience which Abram betrays in seeking to secure his personal safety by an expedient which exposed to risk his wife's chastity and his own honor, are not to be pressed too far. The very uncertainty concerning the relation of the strangers to each other tended to abate that momentary caprice in the treatment of individuals which is the result of a despotic government. And the prime fault and folly of Abram consisted in not waiting for the divine direction in leaving the land of promise, and in not committing himself wholly to the divine protection when he did take that step.
It may seem strange that the Scripture contains no express disapprobation of the conduct of Abram. But its manner is to affirm the great principles of moral truth, on suitable occasions, with great clearness and decision; and in ordinary circumstances simply to record the actions of its characters with faithfulness, leaving it to the reader's intelligence to mark their moral quality. And God's mode of teaching the individual is to implant a moral principle in the heart, which, after many struggles with temptation, will eventually root out all lingering aberrations.
Sarai was sixty-five years of age Gen 17:17 at the time when Abram describes her as a woman fair to look upon. But we are to remember that beauty does not vanish with middle age; that Sarai's age corresponds with twenty-five or thirty years in modern times, as she was at this time not half the age to which men were then accustomed to live; that she had no family or other hardship to bring on premature decay; and that the women of Egypt were far from being distinguished for regularity of feature or freshness of complexion.
The inadequacy of Abram's expedient appears in the issue, which is different from what he expected. Sarai is admired for her beauty, and, being professedly single, is selected as a wife for Pharaoh; while Abram, as her brother, is munificently entertained and rewarded. His property seems to be enumerated according to the time of acquirement, or the quantity, and not the quality of each kind. Sheep and oxen and he-asses he probably brought with him from Kenaan; men-servants and maid-servants were no doubt augmented in Egypt. For she-asses the Septuagint has mules. These, and the camels, may have been received in Egypt. The camel is the carrier of the desert. Abram had now become involved in perplexities, from which he had neither the wisdom nor the power to extricate himself. With what bitterness of spirit he must have kept silence, received these accessions to his wealth which he dared not to refuse, and allowed Sarai to be removed from his temporary abode! His cunning device had saved his own person for the time; but his beautiful and beloved wife is torn from his bosom.
The Lord, who had chosen him, unworthy though he was, yet not more unworthy than others, to be the agent of His gracious purpose, now interposes to effect his deliverance. "And the Lord plagued Pharaoh." The mode of the divine interference is suited to have the desired effect on the parties concerned. As Pharaoh is punished, we conclude he was guilty in the eye of heaven in this matter. He committed a breach of hospitality by invading the private abode of the stranger. He further infringed the law of equity between man and man in the most tender point, by abstracting, if not with violence, at least with a show of arbitrary power which could not be resisted, a female, whether sister or wife, from the home of her natural guardian without the consent of either. A deed of ruthless self-will, also, is often rendered more heinous by a blamable inattention to the character or position of him who is wronged. So it was with Pharaoh. Abram was a man of blameless life and inoffensive manners. He was, moreover, the chosen and special servant of the Most High God. Pharaoh, however, does not condescend to inquire who the stranger is whom he is about to wrong; and is thus unwittingly involved in an aggravated crime. But the hand of the Almighty brings even tyrants to their senses. "And his house." The princes of Pharaoh were accomplices in his crime Gen 12:15, and his domestics were concurring with him in carrying it into effect. But even apart from any positive consent or connivance in a particular act, men, otherwise culpable, are brought into trouble in this world by the faults of those with whom they are associated. "On account of Sarai." Pharoah was made aware of the cause of the plagues or strokes with which he was now visited.
Pharaoh upbraids Abram for his deception, and doubtless not without reason. He then commands his men to dismiss him and his, unharmed, from the country. These men were probably an escort for his safe conduct out of Egypt. Abram was thus reproved through the mouth of Pharaoh, and will be less hasty in abandoning the land of promise, and betaking himself to carnal resources.