The Bible often compares the Christian life to a marathon race. But if the Biblical writers lived in modern times, they might have chosen a slightly different metaphor to describe the Christian life. I suspect that they might have likened the Christian life to competing in the Decathlon. A Decathlon is a modern type of marathon race that involves ten different competitive events that are performed over a two-day period. The winner is traditionally called, “The World’s Greatest Athlete.”
On the Importance of a Good Start
One such man was Rafer Johnson, who represented the United States in the 1960 Olympics at Rome and won the Gold Medal. In his autobiography, entitled, The Best that I Can Be, Rafer reflects upon his success in the Decathlon event and at the top of the list he offers the following advice:
THE FIRST THING an athlete learns is the importance of a good start. As a sprinter, I honed the ability to settle comfortably into the starting blocks and focus my attention radar-like, ready to explode the instant I heard the starter’s gun. If I hesitated for a split second I might be too far behind to catch up; if I was overeager and tried to anticipate the gun, I might bolt too early and have a false start. In the decathlon, a good start also means scoring well in the first of the ten events, the hundred-meter dash. Because it sets the tone for everything that follows, the race can have a disproportionate impact on the outcome of the decathlon as a whole.1
Abram’s Apparently “Good Start”
Reading Genesis 12:1-9 leaves the reader with the impression that Abraham wonderfully exemplifies the advice of Rafer Johnson. In verses 1-3, God appears to Abram and commands him, “Get out of your country, from your family, and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you.” And even though this command was followed by a grand promise, it still constituted a major test in Abraham’s life. To leave your own country or hometown can be a definite challenge. Some of us know what that’s like. But to forsake friend and family in order to follow God is an even greater trial. Those of us who have alienated friends and family members because of our decision to follow Christ know something of the tension Abraham must have felt in his heart.
Nevertheless, despite the “tug-of-war” that must have torn at Abraham’s heart, he seems to have obeyed God’s command without delay. In verse four we read, “So Abram went, as the LORD had told him.” Moreover, when he arrives in Canaan, we read in verse seven that “he built an altar to the Lord who had appeared to him.” Then he journeys on to Bethel, verse eight, and again we read, “And there he built an altar to the LORD and called upon the name of the LORD.”
Interestingly, Jewish tradition refers to ten trials in the life of Abraham and claims that in all ten trials Abraham proved to be successful. “One reason for his success,” a Jew might argue from Genesis 12, “is the apparent fact that Abraham got off to a good start.” It’s not surprising, then, to find commentators praising the patriarch for his obedient faith. One modern Jewish commentator describes his response as “unwavering obedience to the divine will.”2 Martin Luther praises Abram as “an outstanding example of faith.”3 A modern evangelical scholar remarks, “There is no sense of hesitation or lingering—he does as God bids.”4 And so in the estimation of these and many other commentators, Abram gets off to a good start and scores a major victory in the first event of life’s “Spiritual Decathlon.”
Not So Fast! Taking Another Look
Before we award Abraham the Gold Medal, we must stop and take a closer look at our passage. In fact, a careful rereading of our passage in its larger context suggests that Abraham did not get off to a good start. On the contrary, Abraham nearly dropped out of the race! In reality, were it not for the patience and persistence of God, Abraham would have never made it to the Promised Land.
One may wonder how I get that from the text. I answer, the starting line for Abraham did not begin in chapter 12:1. Actually, Abraham began the race to Canaan in chapter 11! Moses implies this fact in a passing comment found in 11:31. There we read,
Terah took Abram his son and Lot the son of Haran, his grandson, and Sarai his daughter-in-law, his son Abram’s wife, and they went forth together from Ur of the Chaldeans to go into the land of Canaan, but when they came to Haran, they settled there.
Placing the Call in Context
According to this passage, something prompted Abraham’s father, Terah, to leave Ur of the Chaldeans and move to Canaan. Whatever it was that prompted this move, it must have been significant because in Abraham’s day, Ur of the Chaldeans was the place of opportunity. At this time, Ur was one of the largest cities in the ancient Near East. One archaeologist suggests that the walled city boasted a population of about 34,000 and together with the surrounding districts probably exceeded a quarter of a million people! Situated in the delta region of the Persian Gulf, Ur was a fertile breadbasket and a major trading post.
Why would Terah want to leave a place of such economic prosperity and potential? Why would he choose to begin a journey that would take him over 1000 miles? And I don’t have to remind you that they didn’t have cars or trains or planes in those days. Whether on foot or by camel, 1000 miles was a long distance! Furthermore, compared to Ur, the Land of Canaan was still relatively underdeveloped. It would be roughly analogous to a move from America to a 3rd world country.
What prompted Terah to leave Ur and set off for Canaan? Moses provides us with two hints in the preceding context. First, in verse 28, we learn that Terah’s son Haran died in his father’s presence in his native land of Ur. Second, after introducing us to the other members of Terah’s family, Moses provides a passing remark about Abraham’s wife in verse 30: “But Sarai was barren; she had no child.”
How might the premature death of a son and the barrenness of a daughter-in-law could influence Terah’s to leave Ur?
In the ancient Near East, both premature death and barrenness were sometimes viewed as punishments from God. You may recall that in Genesis 38, God himself took the lives of two of Judah’s son when they were still in their prime because they did evil in God’s sight. In Genesis 20, God “closes up the wombs” of Abimelech’s wives and concubines because he had taken Sarah into his harem. Elsewhere we learn that Terah and his family worshipped false gods (Josh. 24:2). According to archaeological data, the popular god of Ur was Nannar the moon god. Perhaps Terah became convicted of that his idolatry was the cause of Haran’s death and Sarai’s barrenness, and as a result, felt compelled to leave Ur of the Chaldees in order to appease the one true God.
But this raises two more questions: (1) how would Terah learn about the one true God, and (2) how would he know that the one true God wanted him to go to Canaan?
Terah could have learned about the true God through tradition passed down from his forefathers. After all, Terah and his family had descended from the line of Shem, and Shem was certainly a true believer. But that wouldn’t explain Terah’s decision to move to Canaan.
Waiting Around for Pop in Ur
I think a more likely reconstruction of the events is as follows: God first revealed himself to Terah’s son Abram while they were still living in Ur of the Chaldeans. There, God said to him, “Get out of your country and from your relatives, and come to a land that I will show you.”
Instead of obeying God promptly and without qualification, Abram decided to convince his father and family members to come with him. But Terah at first resisted. He had become too attached to his life in Ur. However, not long after Abram’s entreaty, Terah’s son Haran died prematurely in his father’s presence. Not a good sign. Moreover, Terah’s daughter-in-law Sarai was not bearing children for his son Abram. “Could it be,” reasoned Terah in light of these misfortunes, “that I have angered the God who appeared to my son Abram?”
Therefore, in order to appease the God who had commanded his son Abram to go to Canaan, Terah changes his mind. Thus, we read in verse 31 that Terah took his son Abram and his grandson Lot, whose father had died, and Abram’s wife Sarai and they set off for Canaan. Elsewhere we learn that Terah’s son Nahor and his wife Milcah also joined the pilgrimage.
Waiting Around for Pop in Haran
However, as we read further, we learn that Terah and family stopped short of Canaan. The last part of verse 31 indicates that as they reached the top of the Fertile Crescent they decided to stop and settle in a city called “Haran.” Perhaps, though we can’t be certain of this, Terah found an attractive location on their journey, decided to settle there instead of continuing to Canaan, and he named the place after his deceased son. It’s also possible that there was already a city by that name when Terah arrived. In any case, Terah stopped short of Canaan.
But what did Abram do? Did Abram obey the call of God and leave Terah and family in Haran? Or did Abram decide to remain with his father in Haran? Abram had already hesitated once in Ur. Certainly, he would not hesitate a second time in Haran!
It’s difficult to be conclusive from the information in Genesis. The fact that Moses mentions Terah’s death in 11:32 before he records Abram’s departure from Haran for Canaan in 12:4 would seem to suggest that Abram waited around in Haran until his father died.
Stephen’s “Instant Replay”
Thankfully, we’re not left up to conjecture. In Acts chapter seven we find a striking confirmation of the events I’ve just reconstructed. Here, Stephen the first Christian Martyr preaches his final sermon to his Jewish countrymen. He begins with the story of Abraham:
And Stephen said: “Brothers and fathers, hear me. The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran, and said to him, ‘Go out from your land and from your kindred and go into the land that I will show you.’ Then he went out from the land of the Chaldeans and lived in Haran. And after his father died, God removed him from there into this land in which you are now living (Acts 7:2-4).
Let me make several observations from Stephen’s interpretation of Abram’s “Call to Canaan.” To begin with, God first commanded Abraham to leave Ur and his family and journey to Canaan while Abraham was still living in Ur. This point is significant because it confirms that Abraham did not get off to a very good start after all. God’s original call to Abraham not only demanded that he leave Ur but also that he leave relatives if necessary. But apparently, Abraham decided to wait around to try to persuade his family to join him. This does not appear to fit the description of “unwavering obedience to the divine will,” which modern commentators give it. On the contrary, Abram at first “wavered.”
Second, according to Stephen’s inspired interpretation of Genesis, Abram also wavered a second time at Haran. For some reason Terah decided to stop short of Canaan and to settle town in northern part of the Fertile Crescent. Abram lingered in Haran until his father Terah finally died. It’s difficult to estimate how long Abram spent in Haran, but it’s pretty clear that Abram was guilty of failing to follow through with his commitment to God a second time. In fact, he may have been waiting for his father’s inheritance!
Third, Stephen says it was God who actually relocated Abram to the Land of Canaan. Note once again the language of verse four: “Then [Abram] went out from the land of the Chaldeans and lived in Haran. And after his father died, God removed him from there into this land in which you are now living” (emphasis added). The Greek word that Stephen uses (or that Luke uses to translate Stephen’s sermon) is in the causative form, and Stephen uses it again in the same sermon to describe God’s “deporting” Israel to Babylon. So just as the Scripture writers attribute Israel’s destruction and deportation to the sovereign hand of God, Stephen also gives God the glory for Abram’s move to Canaan!
How did God do it? Perhaps the death of Abram’s own father was the “providential push” that Abraham needed to obey God’s call.
Giving God the Credit
Abram does provide for us an example of genuine faith. However, our study has cautioned us against making too much out of Abram’s faith. We’ve seen that Abraham’s faith was at times mixed with unbelief. In fact, the real hero of our story is not Abram but God. As Stephen noted, it was God who moved Abraham to Canaan!
Here are a few “take aways” from Abram’s no-so-good start:
1. We see the powerful influence family members can have upon an individual’s decision either to follow or not to follow God.
When one of Jesus’ professing disciples came up to Him and said, “Lord, permit me first to go and bury my father” (Matt 8:21), he was not asking permission to arrange for and attend his deceased father’s funeral. Rather, he was using an idiom that meant something like, “Let me stay around home and tend my family business until my father passes away, and then I’ll follow you as a disciple.”
In some respects, Abram’s initial responses to God’s call remind me of that man’s response to Christ. God commanded Abram to be willing not only to leave Ur but also to leave his family if necessary. And it appears that at least two times, Abram lingered and hesitated because his father Terah wasn’t ready to follow Yahweh, the true God.
Let us take heed. We must not allow a nostalgic love for our hometown or an inordinate allegiance to flesh-and-blood to keep us from wholeheartedly and unreservedly serving God!
2. We see the fact that the beginnings of true faith are sometimes accompanied by struggles of unbelief.
As we’ve seen, Abram’s acts of faith and obedience were not as virtuous or meritorious as some commentators have alleged. We cannot agree with an otherwise sound commentator like Kent Hughes who asserts, “[Abraham’s] obedience was so prompt … that he seems to have set out while the command yet rang in his ears.”5 Later in his commentary, Hughes alludes to Abraham’s departure from Ur and he writes, “Abram’s initial walk of faith [has] set the standard.”6 Set the standard for what? Certainly not for setting a world record for the spiritual decathlon!
My point: let’s not glorify or exaggerate what conversion looks like. Yes, in one sense, conversion is a supernatural miracle. A person who was once spiritually dead becomes spiritually alive and becomes a new creation. Nevertheless, we need to beware of glamorizing or elevating a person’s conversion to some kind of super-act of heroic proportions. In reality, even those who experience the most dramatic conversions, still have a measure of remaining unbelief mixed in with their genuine faith. And if we remember that fact, then (1) we won’t entertain unrealistic expectations of the people we’re trying to lead to Christ (including our own children), and (2) we’ll be careful not to make super-heroes out of people like Abram who convert out of paganism.
3. We see both the patience and the power of God’s saving grace in the way He grants sinners “second chances” and in the way God ultimately brings His elect to a place of faith and obedience.
God told him to leave the city and leave his family, and when Abram decided to hang around until he could convince Pop to move, God could have decided, “Phooey on Abram. I’m going to find a more worthy pagan to call to Canaan.” But God didn’t do that. He waited. And later, when Abram tarried at Haran, God waited again—a second time. He didn’t have to. But he did. In fact, because God had chosen to bless Abram, He was definitely determined not to give up. He would do whatever it took—even if it meant bringing painful providences into Abraham’s life—in order to bring Abraham to a point of trust and obedience.
The Father had decided from eternity past to give Abram to Jesus, and, as a result, “Abraham rejoiced to see [Jesus’] day, and he saw it and was glad” (John 8:56). Abram had been appointed to eternal life. Therefore, he believed. But Abraham could not take the credit for his faith. As Paul states it in his letter to the Ephesians: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast” (Eph 2:8-9).
Isn’t that the point that Stephen stresses when he describes Abraham’s conversion? Abram was a man of faith. But that faith was not self-generated. It was the gift of God. And there’s no room for boasting in Abram, because ultimately, it was God who moved him to Canaan.
That’s what God will do for all of his elect. We don’t have to worry and fret about whether God’s has the patience and ability to convert his chosen ones. In the language of Jesus: “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out” (John 6:37). Hence, we can sing, ‘Tis grace hath brought [us] safe thus far, and grace will lead [us] home.”
To God be all the glory and praise!
- The opening words of the first chapter of his biography The Best That I Can Be (WaterBrook, 1999). Emphasis added. [↩]
- Nahum Sarna, Genesis (The Jewish Publication Society, 1989), 90. [↩]
- Luther’s Works (Concordia Publishing House, 1960), 2:268. [↩]
- A Study Commentary on Genesis (Webster, N.Y.: Evangelical Press, 2003), 1:254. [↩]
- Genesis (Crossway, 2004), 179. [↩]
- Ibid., 187. [↩]