Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, by Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsh, [1857-78], at sacred-texts.com
The life of Abraham, from his call to his death, consists of four stages, the commencement of each of which is marked by a divine revelation of sufficient importance to constitute a distinct epoch. The first stage (Gen 12-14) commences with his call and removal to Canaan; the second (Gen 15-16), with the promise of a lineal heir and the conclusion of a covenant; the third (Gen 17-21), with the establishment of the covenant, accompanied by a change in his name, and the appointment of the covenant sign of circumcision; the fourth (Gen 22-25:11), with the temptation of Abraham to attest and perfect his life of faith. All the revelations made to him proceed from Jehovah; and the name Jehovah is employed throughout the whole life of the father of the faithful, Elohim being used only where Jehovah, from its meaning, would be either entirely inapplicable, or at any rate less appropriate.
(Note: The hypothesis, that the history is compounded of Jehovistic and Elohistic documents, can only be maintained by those who misunderstand that distinctive meaning of these two names, and arbitrarily set aside the Jehovah in Gen 27:1, on account of an erroneous determination of the relation in which שׁדּי אל stands to יהוה.)
The Call. - The word of Jehovah, by which Abram was called, contained a command and a promise. Abram was to leave all - his country, his kindred (see Gen 43:7), and his father's house - and to follow the Lord into the land which He would show him. Thus he was to trust entirely to the guidance of God, and to follow wherever He might lead him. But as he went in consequence of this divine summons into the land of Canaan (Gen 12:5), we must assume that God gave him at the very first a distinct intimation, if not of the land itself, at least of the direction he was to take. That Canaan was to be his destination, was no doubt made known as a matter of certainty in the revelation which he received after his arrival there (Gen 12:7). - For thus renouncing and denying all natural ties, the Lord gave him the inconceivably great promise, "I will make of thee a great nation; and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing." The four members of this promise are not to be divided into two parallel members, in which case the athnach would stand in the wrong place; but are to be regarded as an ascending climax, expressing four elements of the salvation promised to Abram, the last of which is still further expanded in Gen 12:3. By placing the athnach under שׁמך the fourth member is marked as a new and independent feature added to the other three. The four distinct elements are - 1. increase into a numerous people; 2. a blessing, that is to say, material and spiritual prosperity; 3. the exaltation of his name, i.e., the elevation of Abram to honour and glory; 4. his appointment to be the possessor and dispenser of the blessing. Abram was not only to receive blessing, but to be a blessing; not only to be blessed by God, but to become a blessing, or the medium of blessing, to others. The blessing, as the more minute definition of the expression "be a blessing" in Gen 12:3 clearly shows, was henceforth to keep pace as it were with Abram himself, so that (1) the blessing and cursing of men were to depend entirely upon their attitude towards him, and (2) all the families of the earth were to be blessed in him. קלּל, lit., to treat as light or little, to despise, denotes "blasphemous cursing on the part of a man;" ארר "judicial cursing on the part of God." It appears significant, however, "that the plural is used in relation to the blessing, and the singular only in relation to the cursing; grace expects that there will be many to bless, and that only an individual here and there will render not blessing for blessing, but curse for curse." - In Gen 12:3 b, Abram, the one, is made a blessing for all. In the word בּך the primary meaning of ב, in, is not to be given up, though the instrumental sense, through, is not to be excluded. Abram was not merely to become a mediator, but the source of blessing for all. The expression "all the families of the ground" points to the division of the one family into many (Gen 10:5, Gen 10:20, Gen 10:31), and the word האדמה to the curse pronounced upon the ground (Gen 3:17). The blessing of Abraham was once more to unite the divided families, and change the curse, pronounced upon the ground on account of sin, into a blessing for the whole human race. This concluding word comprehends all nations and times, and condenses, as Baumgarten has said, the whole fulness of the divine counsel for the salvation of men into the call of Abram. All further promises, therefore, not only to the patriarchs, but also to Israel, were merely expansions and closer definitions of the salvation held out to the whole human race in the first promise. Even the assurance, which Abram received after his entrance into Canaan (Gen 12:6), was implicitly contained in this first promise; since a great nation could not be conceived of, without a country of its own.
This promise was renewed to Abram on several occasions: first after his separation from Lot (Gen 13:14-16), on which occasion, however, the "blessing" was not mentioned, because not required by the connection, and the two elements only, viz., the numerous increase of his seed, and the possession of the land of Canaan, were assured to him and to his seed, and that "for ever;" secondly, in Gen 18:18 somewhat more casually, as a reason for the confidential manner in which Jehovah explained to him the secret of His government; and lastly, at the two principal turning points of his life, where the whole promise was confirmed with the greatest solemnity, viz., in Gen 17 at the commencement of the establishment of the covenant made with him, where "I will make of thee a great nation" was heightened into "I will make nations of thee, and kings shall come out of thee," and his being a blessing was more fully defined as the establishment of a covenant, inasmuch as Jehovah would be God to him and to his posterity (Gen 11:3.), and in Gen 22 after the attestation of his faith and obedience, even to the sacrifice of his only son, where the innumerable increase of his seed and the blessing to pass from him to all nations were guaranteed by an oath. The same promise was afterwards renewed to Isaac, with a distinct allusion to the oath (Gen 26:3-4), and again to Jacob, both on his flight from Canaan for fear of Esau (Gen 28:13-14), and on his return thither (Gen 35:11-12). In the case of these renewals, it is only in Gen 28:14 that the last expression, "all the families of the Adamah," is repeated verbatim, though with the additional clause "and in thy seed;" in the other passages "all the nations of the earth" are mentioned, the family connection being left out of sight, and the national character of the blessing being brought into especial prominence. In two instances also, instead of the Niphal נרכוּ we find the Hithpael התבּרכוּ. This change of conjugation by no means proves that the Niphal is to be taken in its original reflective sense. The Hithpael has no doubt the meaning "to wish one's self blessed" (Deu 29:19), with ב of the person from whom the blessing is sought (Isa 65:16; Jer 4:2), or whose blessing is desired (Gen 48:20). But the Niphal נברך has only the passive signification "to be blessed." And the promise not only meant that all families of the earth would wish for the blessing which Abram possessed, but that they would really receive this blessing in Abram and his seed. By the explanation "wish themselves blessed" the point of the promise is broken off; and not only is its connection with the prophecy of Noah respecting Japhet's dwelling in the tents of Shem overlooked, and the parallel between the blessing on all the families of the earth, and the curse pronounced upon the earth after the flood, destroyed, but the actual participation of all the nations of the earth in this blessing is rendered doubtful, and the application of this promise by Peter (Act 3:25) and Paul (Gal 3:8) to all nations, is left without any firm scriptural basis. At the same time, we must not attribute a passive signification on that account to the Hithpael in Gen 22:18 and Gen 24:4. In these passages prominence is given to the subjective attitude of the nations towards the blessing of Abraham-in other words, to the fact that the nations would desire the blessing promised to them in Abraham and his seed.
Removal to Canaan. - Abram cheerfully followed the call of the Lord, and "departed as the Lord had spoken to him." He was then 75 years old. His age is given, because a new period in the history of mankind commenced with his exodus. After this brief notice there follows a more circumstantial account, in Gen 12:5, of the fact that he left Haran with his wife, with Lot, and with all that they possessed of servants and cattle, whereas Terah remained in Haran (cf. Gen 11:31). עשׂוּ אשׁר הנּפשׁ are not the souls which they had begotten, but the male and female slaves that Abram and Lot had acquired.
On his arrival in Canaan, "Abram passed through the land to the place of Sichem:" i.e., the place where Sichem, the present Nablus, afterwards stood, between Ebal and Gerizim, in the heart of the land. "To the terebinth (or, according to Deu 11:30, the terebinths) of Moreh:" אלון איל (Gen 14:6) and אילה are the terebinth, אלּון and אלּה the oak; though in many MSS and editions אלּון and אלון are interchanged in Jos 19:33 and Jdg 4:11, either because the pointing in one of these passages is inaccurate, or because the word itself was uncertain, as the ever-green oaks and terebinths resemble one another in the colour of their foliage and their fissured bark of sombre grey. - The notice that "the Canaanites were then in the land" does not point to a post-Mosaic date, when the Canaanites were extinct. For it does not mean that the Canaanites were then still in the land, but refers to the promise which follows, that God would give this land to the seed of Abram (Gen 12:7), and merely states that the land into which Abram had come was not uninhabited and without a possessor; so that Abram could not regard it at once as his own and proceed to take possession of it, but could only wander in it in faith as in a foreign land (Heb 11:9).
Here in Sichem Jehovah appeared to him, and assured him of the possession of the land of Canaan for his descendants. The assurance was made by means of an appearance of Jehovah, as a sign that this land was henceforth to be the scene of the manifestation of Jehovah. Abram understood this, "and there builded he an altar to Jehovah, who appeared to him," to make the soil which was hallowed by the appearance of God a place for the worship of the God who appeared to him.
He did this also in the mountains, to which he probably removed to secure the necessary pasture for his flocks, after he had pitched his tent there. "Bethel westwards and Ai eastwards," i.e., in a spot with Ai to the east and Bethel to the west. The name Bethel occurs here proleptically: at the time referred to, it was still called Luz (Gen 28:19); its present name if Beitin (Robinson's Palestine). At a distance of about five miles to the east was Ai, ruins of which are still to be seen, bearing the name of Medinet Gai (Ritter's Erdkunde). On the words "called upon the name of the Lord," see Gen 4:26. From this point Abram proceeded slowly to the Negeb, i.e., to the southern district of Canaan towards the Arabian desert (vid., Gen 20:1).
Abram in Egypt. - Abram had scarcely passed through the land promised to his seed, when a famine compelled him to leave it, and take refuge in Egypt, which abounded in corn; just as the Bedouins in the neighbourhood are accustomed to do now. Whilst the famine in Canaan was to teach Abram, that even in the promised land food and clothing come from the Lord and His blessing, he was to discover in Egypt that earthly craft is soon put to shame when dealing with the possessor of the power of this world, and that help and deliverance are to be found with the Lord alone, who can so smite the mightiest kings, that they cannot touch His chosen or do them harm (Psa 105:14-15). - When trembling for his life in Egypt on account of the beauty of Sarai his wife, he arranged with her, as he approached that land, that she should give herself out as his sister, since she really was his half-sister (Gen 11:29). He had already made an arrangement with her, that she should do this in certain possible contingencies, when they first removed to Canaan (Gen 20:13). The conduct of the Sodomites (Gen 19) was a proof that he had reason for his anxiety; and it was not without cause even so far as Egypt was concerned. But his precaution did not spring from faith. He might possibly hope, that by means of the plan concerted, he should escape the danger of being put to death on account of his wife, if any one should wish to take her; but how he expected to save the honour and retain possession of his wife, we cannot understand, though we must assume, that he thought he should be able to protect and keep her as his sister more easily, than if he acknowledged her as his wife. But the very thing he feared and hoped to avoid actually occurred.
The princes of Pharaoh finding her very beautiful, extolled her beauty to the king, and she was taken to Pharaoh's house. As Sarah was then 65 years old (cf. Gen 17:17 and Gen 12:4), her beauty at such an age has been made a difficulty by some. But as she lived to the age of 127 (Gen 23:1), she was then middle-aged; and as her vigour and bloom had not been tried by bearing children, she might easily appear very beautiful in the eyes of the Egyptians, whose wives, according to both ancient and modern testimony, were generally ugly, and faded early. Pharaoh (the Egyptian ouro, king, with the article Pi) is the Hebrew name for all the Egyptian kings in the Old Testament; their proper names being only occasionally mentioned, as, for example, Necho in Kg2 23:29, or Hophra in Jer 44:30. For Sarai's sake Pharaoh treated Abram well, presenting him with cattle and slaves, possessions which constitute the wealth of nomads. These presents Abram could not refuse, though by accepting them he increased his sin. God then interfered (Gen 12:17), and smote Pharaoh and his house with great plagues. What the nature of these plagues was, cannot be determined; they were certainly of such a kind, however, that whilst Sarah was preserved by them from dishonour, Pharaoh saw at once that they were sent as punishment by the Deity on account of his relation to Sarai; he may also have learned, on inquiry from Sarai herself, that she was Abram's wife. He gave her back to him, therefore, with a reproof for his untruthfulness, and told him to depart, appointing men to conduct him out of the land together with his wife and all his possessions. שׁלּה, to dismiss, to give an escort (Gen 18:16; Gen 31:27), does not necessarily denote an involuntary dismissal here. For as Pharaoh had discovered in the plague the wrath of the God of Abraham, he did not venture to treat him harshly, but rather sought to mitigate the anger of his God, by the safe-conduct which he granted him on his departure. But Abram was not justified by this result, as was very apparent from the fact, that he was mute under Pharaoh's reproofs, and did not venture to utter a single word in vindication of his conduct, as he did in the similar circumstances described in Gen 10:11-12. The saving mercy of God had so humbled him, that he silently acknowledged his guilt in concealing his relation to Sarah from the Egyptian king.