When Abraham was called, he was literally living in Babylon on the plain of Shinar in the city of Ur. He did not come from a God-fearing family, and there is no evidence that he was converted at the time of Genesis 12:1. Every indication is that he, too, was a heathen. As we shall see, every called person begins in idolatry.
God had in all likelihood begun to work with him, preparing him for his calling by guiding his thinking to begin to question areas of life he had previously accepted without question. Historical traditions indicate that his family was of a priestly caste, and perhaps he was already questioning the validity of the false gods he served.
Acts 7:2-4 clarifies a few things relating to the early period of his calling:
And [Stephen] said, "Brethren and fathers, listen: The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he dwelt in Haran, and said to him, 'Get out of your country and from your relatives, and come to a land that I will show you.' Then he came out of the land of the Chaldeans and dwelt in Haran. And from there, when his father was dead, He moved him to this land in which you now dwell."
What is included in God's appearance is not known. Whether it was literal, in a vision, or by dream is not explained anywhere else. The element we need to understand is that, as with us, Abraham did not earn his calling. He had done nothing to earn or deserve God's notice.
Isaiah 51:2 adds a further piece of information worth considering: "Look to Abraham your father, and to Sarah who bore you; for I called him alone, and blessed him and increased him." While Sarah is at least mentioned, no other family members are included within the scope of this statement. It appears that several members of Abraham's family depended on him, since much of his family left with him, yet God makes clear that Abraham was the only one spiritually called.
To how many of us has a similar thing happened? Why does this happen? Nobody knows! It is unanswerable. God shows mercy to whom He shows mercy. He loves Jacob but loves Esau less by comparison, despite their being twins. He accepts Abel and rejects Cain. He chooses only Noah among millions of others to whom He could have given grace.
This we know: At some time before leaving Babylon, God became a living reality to Abraham to a degree no one else near and dear to him experienced. Even amidst his personal self-seeking and self-pleasing, he was motivated to leave his set routines of life. It must have been similar to what Job experienced when he said, "I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees You" (Job 42:5).
Whether the opening of Abraham's mind was gradual or sudden, God had graciously revealed Himself enough to make him move, and he did so to the extent of leaving his homeland and journeying over 1,200 miles, probably on foot or at best by donkey or cart, to a land known for violent weather, especially for its high temperatures.
Abraham was already 70 years old, yet he severed virtually every relationship that matters to normal human concepts of life and well-being. For a long time, stability became a thing of the past, considering that he never again dwelt in a home with foundations. This may seem an unusually hard and harsh requirement. Nevertheless, he embarked on a journey into an utterly unknown future.
What can we learn from this God-engineered example? Undoubtedly, He was testing Abraham, a process we should expect a measure of in our calling as well. We may never have to leave our homeland and set out on a long journey without knowing where we are headed, but it is highly likely that disruptions will accompany our calling.
A primary instruction God wants us to understand from Abraham's calling is that we must make a complete break from our old lives. We must clearly begin to sever ourselves from the old, "inner" life that was implanted in our character by our living according to the course of this world (Ephesians 2:2).
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Christian Fight (Part Six)
This demonstrates a problem Abraham appears to have had at the beginning of his conversion, showing that he was not perfect in his obedience. It also reveals God's patience in dealing with us, as well as how little control we sometimes exercise over some circumstances. In such times, we must continue trusting God and fighting to overcome as He leads us through them and teaches us aspects of His character.
Abraham's family members were outright pagans, as was Abraham before his conversion. We need to add Genesis 11:27-32 to the mix:
This is the genealogy of Terah: Terah begot Abram, Nahor, and Haran. Haran begot Lot. And Haran died before his father Terah in his native land, Ur of the Chaldeans. Then Abram and Nahor took wives: the name of Abram's wife was Sarai, and the name of Nahor's wife, Milcah, the daughter of Haran the father of Milcah and the father of Iscah. But Sarai was barren; she had no child. And Terah took his son Abram, and his grandson Lot, the son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, his son Abram's wife, and they went out with them from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to the land of Canaan; and they came to Haran and dwelt there. So the days of Terah were two hundred and five years, and Terah died in Haran.
Barnes Notes contains a fairly complex study of these verses, showing that Abraham actually received his initial calling when he was 70 while living in Ur of the Chaldeans. Why "initial"? Verse 31 says they left Ur and then came to Haran, adding that Abraham's family dwelt there. "Dwelt" indicates that they remained there for an extended period—it was no mere overnight stop by a group of pilgrims at a motel.
Stephen's speech in Acts 7:2-4 helps us to understand:
Brethren and fathers, listen: The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he dwelt in Haran, and said to him, "Get out of your country and from your relatives, and come to a land that I will show you." Then he came out of the land of the Chaldeans and dwelt in Haran. And from there, when his father was dead, He moved him to this land in which you now dwell.
Stephen clearly states that God called Abraham before he dwelt in Haran, but Genesis 12:1 shows God then moved him from Haran after his father died. Apparently, Abraham's account to his father and others in the family—but most especially his father—of the things he was learning and believing in his calling persuaded them, despite being pagan to the core, that they, too, should emigrate to wherever God was leading Abraham.
Recall, however, from Isaiah 51:2 that God says that He called Abraham alone. Genesis 11:31 clearly shows Terah, the pagan patriarch of the family, leading the expedition, not Abraham. Abraham no doubt deferred to his father in this decision, but this was not God's will.
God knew that, because of Abraham's attitude, he would continue to defer to Terah. God did not want Terah's direct influence in what He was establishing through Abraham. Under Terah's pagan, patriarchal leadership, they got only as far as Haran from Ur, by itself an arduous 700-mile journey on foot!
Researchers speculate that the trip from Ur to Haran plus the sojourn there may have taken as long as five years before the party resumed the journey to Canaan. Perhaps Terah had a lengthy, lingering illness before dying. However, when the last leg of the journey was made, it was under Abraham's leadership.
God intends us to understand that the distance to the Promised Land—1,200 miles on foot from Ur to Canaan—plus the time spent getting there, illustrate the difficulty of breaking away from what we were to what God wants us to be. Unfortunately, some people never seem to accomplish the break.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Christian Fight (Part Seven)