Abram is now the representative on earth of the heavenly ruler’s kingdom. His descendants will be the great nation through whom YHWH will restore his rule to all the families of the earth.
Abram believes YHWH will fulfil these promises. His faith is evident in his obedience:
Genesis 12:4-5 (NIV)
4 So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; … he set out from Harran. 5 … they set out for the land of Canaan, and they arrived there.
Abram continues his journey southward to Shechem, “the true physical centre of the country” (Sarna, Genesis, JPS, 1989, 90). But the land is not vacant; in fact Shechem is a significant political/sacred site for the Canaanites:
Genesis 12:6 (NIV)
Abram travelled through the land as far as the site of the great tree of Moreh at Shechem. At that time the Canaanites were in the land.
The Canaanites don’t acknowledge YHWH’s authority, but that is no limitation for YHWH. He shows up to meet his governor general and confirm their plans for the future:
Genesis 12:7 (NIV)
The Lord appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.”
This is the first time we’ve seen the language of YHWH showing up like this. It becomes a recurring motif:
17:1 … the Lord appeared to him [Abram] and said …
18:1 The Lord appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre …
26:2 The Lord appeared to Isaac and said …
26:24 That night the Lord appeared to him [Isaac] and said …
35:1 … God who appeared to you [Jacob] when you were fleeing …
35:9 … God appeared to him [Jacob] again and blessed him.
48:3 … God Almighty appeared to me [Jacob] at Luz …
Do you read these texts hoping that God will show up for you too, in your church service, prayer meeting, or retreat? Naturally we want to experience God’s presence in the events where we invest our energies. There is an important sense in which his Holy Spirit is always present with us now. But that’s not what these Scriptures are saying.
These are not random peek-a-boo moments. Look back at those verses, and ask: To whom did God show himself? Where? Why?
- To whom? His governor general (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in turn).
- Where? In the land where their descendants would represent his reign.
- Why? To deliver a message—an instruction or encouragement.
Rather than spiritualize the language of Scripture into expectations of personal experiences (as our culture does), we would be better to read the story of the kingdom. If we did, we may understand how we should respond.
Abram responds by erecting an altar in honour of the sovereign who revealed himself as lord of this land. As he travels, he erects similar altars as symbols of YHWH’s authority:
Genesis 12:7-8 (NIV)
7 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. 8 From there he went on toward the hills … There he built an altar to the Lord and called on the name of the Lord.
Erecting altars is as much a political statement as a spiritual one. Abram’s altars are statements that this land belongs to YHWH. To call on the name of YHWH is appeal to his authority, i.e. to invoke YHWH as ruler of the land. It is exactly what you would expect YHWH’s representative to do now he has reached the land. (Presumably Abram offered sacrifices, but the narrator focuses on building altars, not offering sacrifices.)
The land does not come under YHWH’s direct governance for hundreds of years. That process doesn’t even begin until Joshua’s day. Nevertheless, Abram is representing YHWH, acknowledging his authority, and erecting altars as symbols of his coming reign. Abram believes that, in the place where YHWH has revealed himself, his reign will be established.
The God who “appeared” to Abram continued to “appear” throughout Scripture. Each time he does so, it is a revelation of his sovereignty. He appeared most fully in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus will ultimately be revealed as the unopposed ruler who restores earth under his Father’s rule.
There is a huge story between Abram’s arrival in Canaan and Jesus’ arrival as sovereign over all nations, but it’s the same hope. It is that hope that motivates us—the hope of his “appearing,” when his kingship is fully revealed (2 Timothy 4:1, 8; Titus 2:13).
What others are saying
John Calvin, Commentary on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis, vol. 1 translated by John King (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 354 (emphasis added):
The Canaanites had their religion; they had also altars for sacrifices: but Abram, that he might not involve himself in their superstitions, erects a domestic altar, on which he may offer sacrifice; as if he had resolved to place a royal throne for God within his house.
Claus Westermann, A Continental Commentary: Genesis 12–36 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1995), 155:
Abraham built an altar there (i.e., where he received the promise). This sentence has almost universally been understood as follows: by building this altar Abraham founds a cult centre; but this is a misunderstanding. The building of the altar is not a general reference to a divine revelation, but to the oracle given to Abraham, the promise. Because the promise refers to the possession of the land, the building of the altar is Abraham’s response. B. Jacob has seen this and written appropriately: “There is a marvellous contradiction here: with the altar, Abraham lays his hand on a land already held fast by other hands.… The erection of the altar captures this moment in a memorial” (Comm., ad. loc); cf. also O. Procksch: “For him the altar is more a memorial stone than a stone of sacrifice.” R. de Vaux shows that there can be no intention of an altar in the later sense, because it is nowhere said that sacrifice is offered on an altar erected by the patriarchs. In the context of the promise of the land, which appears only in a later period, the building of the altar is also meant to be a sign which refers to the later possession of the land.
Read Genesis 12:4-9.