Bibliotheca Sacra 147 (1990) 399-413

          Copyright © 1990 by Dallas Theological Seminary.  Cited with permission.




                 Looking for Abraham's City




                                               Daniel J. Estes

                                    Assistant Professor of Bible

                                Cedarville College, Cedarville, Ohio




Hebrews 11:9-10 describes the life of Abraham in the following

way: "By faith he lived as an alien in the land of promise, as in a

foreign land, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, fellow heirs of

the same promise; for he was looking for the city which has founda-

tions, whose architect and builder is God."

In alluding to the Old Testament portrayal of Abraham, these

verses raise intriguing questions. On what textual basis is Abraham

regarded as looking for the city of God? Does this concept find its

roots in the biblical record, or has it been imported from some other

source? How did the patriarch come to be viewed as a pilgrim?

Though the complete answer to these questions would require a

comprehensive examination of all the relevant biblical and extra-

biblical Jewish texts, this article is limited to a survey of several

key passages in Genesis that may contain potential for significant

metaphorical development into the pilgrim imagery of Hebrews 11.

It is argued that the presentation of Abraham in Hebrews 11:9-10

may to a large degree be explained as an extrapolation from the lan-

guage and ordering of the references to Abraham in Genesis.


            The Language of the Genesis Texts


GENESIS 12:1-9

Though Abraham is first mentioned in Genesis 11:26-32, it is

with Genesis 12 that a new section in the divine program of salva-

tion begins. If Abraham lived in the late third millennium or early

second millennium B.C.,1 as the biblical record purports, his migration


1 M. H. Segal notes, "Life in Mesopotamia in the second millennium must have been


400     Bibliotheca Sacra / October-December 1990


would outwardly have been indistinguishable from that of many

people who were migrating at that time.2 The biblical story, how-

ever, begins with a directive from God, which differentiates Abra-

ham's journey from that of his contemporaries.3 The selection of de-

tails included in the narrative manifests a clear theological interest.

Thus, to seek to limit his travels to what can be geographically

traced and sociologically explained fails to give full weight to the

specific call by Yahweh that introduces the biblical portrayal of

Abraham's trip to Canaan and his subsequent life there. As Speiser

remarks, "Abraham's journey to the Promised Land was thus no rou-

tine expedition of several hundred miles. Instead, it was the start of

an epic voyage in search of spiritual truths, a quest that was to con-

stitute the central theme of all biblical history."4 The narrative

manifests the unusual nature of Abraham's movement to Canaan.

The story of Abraham begins with a promise that introduces the

patriarchal age. Abraham's journey begins simply as a response to

the word of God. In fact the original command in 12:1 makes no men-

tion of the identity of the land, nor even that the land was to be

given to him.5 God's promises in verses 2-3, reiterated and enlarged

to the patriarchs throughout the Genesis narratives, became the

theological nexus for much of the Old Testament literature.6


intolerable to a believer in the One God. The whole life of society and of the individ-

ual was strictly regulated on the principles of a crass polytheism and demonology,

governed by a multitude of priests, diviners and magicians under the rule of the great

temples and their hierarchies. There was no room in that Mesopotamia for an indi-

vidual who could not join in the worship and in the magical practices of his fellows.

Abraham must have felt early the pressing need to remove himself from such a sti-

fling environment" (The Pentateuch: Its Composition and Its Authorship and Other

Biblical Studies [Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1967], p. 128).

2 H. Wansbrough, "Abraham Our Father," Clergy Review 52 (1967): 661; cf. H.

Gunkel, The Legends of Genesis: The Biblical Saga and History (New York: Schocken

Books, 1964), p. 137, who argues that the patriarchal legends were originally com-

posed by 1200 B.C. This provenance, however, is challenged by J. Van Seters, Abraham

in History and Tradition (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1975) and T.

Thompson, The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives (New York: Walter de

Gruyter, 1974).

3 M. Eliade notes, "But the religious conception implicit in the 'election' of Abra-

ham continues beliefs and customs well known in the Near East of the second millen-

nium. What distinguishes the biblical narrative is God's personal message and its

consequences. Without being first invoked, God reveals himself to a human being and

after laying a series of injunctions on him, makes him a series of prodigious promises"

(A History of Religious Ideas, 3 vols. [London: Collins, 1979], 1:171).

4 E. A. Speiser, Genesis, The Anchor Bible (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co.,

1964), p. 88.

5 Nahum M. Sarna, Understanding Genesis (New York: Schocken Books, 1970), pp.

101-2. The uncertainty is reflected by the Septuagint h{n a@n soi dei<cw.

6 R. E. Clements, Abraham and David: Genesis XV and Its Meaning for Israelite

Tradition (London: SCM Press, 1967), p. 57.

 Looking for Abraham's City 401


The divine word of command, j~l-j`l, , calls Abram to an abrupt

and cataclysmic change in location and pattern of life. The call was

to go from (Nmi) his most fundamental loyalties to (lx,) a destination

that is indicated in the vaguest of terms. In essence, Yahweh was re-

quiring Abram to obey, knowing the full price involved, but with

only a hint as to the compensation. The divine demand was that

Abram should forsake the familiar for the foreign.7

It is evident from Genesis 11 that Abram was a member of an in-

timate family structure. His homeland of Ur had a highly devel-

oped culture, far superior to that of Canaan.8 Thus Abram did not

migrate to Canaan in search of a settled home, but he was called to

leave his "secure home and to exchange it for a very unsettled exis-

tence in the far-away and strange land of Canaan."9

The form of the divine command did little to mitigate the per-

sonal anguish involved in such a relocation. In three parallel prepo-

sitional phrases introduced by Nmi, Abram's departure moves from the

general (j~c;r;xame “from your country") to the specific (j~ybixA tyBemiU  

"from your father's house") with ever-increasing personal identification."10

As Liebowitz points out, this sequence is contrary to what would be

expected, for the logical sequence is that one first leaves his home,

then his birthplace, and after that his country. She concurs with

early Jewish commentators that what is being suggested by the pas-

sage is "a spiritual rather than physical withdrawal, beginning

with the periphery and ending with the inner core."11

God called Abram to go from Mesopotamia, and He also enjoined

him to go "to the land which I will show you." Brueggemann main-

tains that "land is a central, if not the central theme of biblical

faith. Biblical faith is a pursuit of historical belonging that in-

cludes a sense of destiny derived from such belonging."12 Abram's re-


7 Cf. J. Muilenburg, "Abraham and the Nations," Interpretation 19 (1965): 391; James

L. Mays, "God Has Spoken," Interpretation 14 (1960): 419.

8 Bruce Vawter succinctly traces the history and describes the culture of Ur-III (On

Genesis: A Neap Reading [London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1977], p. 171).

9 J. B. Soucek, "Pilgrims and Sojourners," Convnunio Viatorlnn 1 (1958): 5.

10 A similar progression in intensity may be noted in the divine call in Genesis 22:2

for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. It may be significant that the command for the

Agedah is also phrased Cr,x,-lx, j~l;-j`l,.  As in 12:4 the command was followed by ex-

plicit, unquestioning obedience.

11 N. Liebowitz, Studies in Bereshit (Genesis), 2d rev. ed. (Jerusalem: World Zionist

Organization, 1974), p. 113.

12 W. Brueggemann, The Land, Overtures to Biblical Theology (London: SPCK,

1978), p. 3. The magisterial study by W. D. Davies traces the theme of the land

throughout the biblical corpus (The Gospel and the Land [Berkeley: University of

California, 19741). Other useful studies include W. D. Davies, The Territorial Dirnen-

sion of Judaism (Berkeley: University of California, 1982); G. Strecker, ed., Das Land

402     Bibliotheca Sacra / October-December 1990


sponse to Yahweh's call and the divine promise of land, name, and

blessing (vv. 2-3) set the tone both for the patriarchal history and

for the rest of biblical literature.13

God's command in verse I was matched by the record in verse 4 of

Abram's obedience. No mention is made of any objection, question, or

delay.14 As the narrative stands, Abram is portrayed as explicitly

obeying the word of God.15 Three items are noted in verse 4, all of

which prove crucial in the larger narrative. The action is defined as

being in accord with (rw,xEKa) the word of Yahweh.16 The mention of

Lot anticipates the theme of the problem of an heir, which is preva-

lent throughout the Abrahamic narratives.17 Abram's advanced age

(then 75), along with the statement of Sarai's barrenness in 11:30,

serves to accentuate the magnitude of his obedience in the face of

scant human prospects.

Verse 5 makes particular the general description in the previous

verse. The destination of the trip is stated proleptically by the nar-

rator as Canaan, though in the account it was not disclosed as such to

Abram until verse 7. The enumeration of those whom Abram took

with him, from Sarai his wife to the purchased slaves ("the persons

which they had acquired in Haran"),18 serves to highlight the rad-


Israel in biblischer Zeit, Gottingen Theologische Arbeiten 25 (Gottingen: Vanden-

hoeck and Ruprecht, 1983); Gerhard von Rad, "Verheissenes Land and Jahwes Land im

Hexateuch," Gesamelte Studies zum Alten Testament (Mi nchen: Chr. Kaiser, 1958),

pp. 87-100; and B. H. Amaru, "Land Theology in Josephus' Jewish Antiquities," Jewish

Quarterly Review 71 (1981): 201-29.

13 The eschatological portions of both Testaments resonate with these themes intro-

duced in Genesis 12, as noted by W. Eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament, 2 vols.

(London: SCM Press, 1961, 1967),1:476.

14 G. von Rad comments: "Abraham obeys blindly and without objection. The one

word wayyelek ('and he set out') is more effective than any psychological description

could be, and in its majestic simplicity does greater justice to the importance of this

event" (Genesis: A Cormnentary, 3d rev. ed. [London: SCM Press, 19721, p. 161).

15 This point must not be pressed, however, for Hebrew narrative is characteristi-

cally laconic. The lack of detail is a chief provocation for midrash, such as detailed

by L. Ginzberg, The Legends of the Jews, 7 vols. (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication

Society of America, 1913-67), 1:205. But as H. Gunkel notes, the details that are

presented are of special significance: "He does not share the modern point of view,

that the most interesting and worthy theme for art is the soul-life of man; his child-

like taste is fondest of the outward, objective facts. And in this line his achievements

are excellent. He has an extraordinary faculty for selecting just the action which is

most characteristic for the state of feeling of his hero" (The Legends of Genesis, p. 61).

16 Cf. E. Kautzsch, Gesenius' Hebrew Grammar, trans. A. E. Cowley (Oxford:

Clarendon Press, 1910), par. 161h, and kaqa<per in the Septuagint.

17 L. R. Helyer demonstrates well that "the overall concern of the cycle is, Who will

be Abraham's heir?" ("The Separation of Abram and Lot: Its Significance in the Pa-

triarchal Narratives," Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 26 [1983]: 85).

18 Jewish midrash viewed these individuals as proselytes whom Abram and Sarai

had converted in Haran (Gen. Rab. 39.14).

Looking for Abraham's City   403


ical relocation involved in Abram's decision of obedience. Nothing

was left behind should the venture fail, but Abram followed the

word of Yahweh without reserve into the unknown.

Verses 6-9 trace the initial travels of Abram within the land of

Canaan, which Yahweh then gave to his offspring (v. 7). Abram is

portrayed as moving through the land from Shechem (v. 6) to Bethel

(v. 8) and eventually toward the Negev (v. 9). This progression can

be viewed from several perspectives. Yeivin relates it to the politi-

cal and economic necessities of seminomadism in the patriarchal

times.19 Cassuto views the journeys throughout Canaan in light of

God's land gift stated in verse 7. Comparing Abram's movements to

the inaugural tour of Jacob later in Genesis, Cassuto says, "In the

same way, Abram's passage across the land of Canaan from north to

south represents the ideal transfer of the country to his possession for

the purpose of the Lord's service. He was like a man who has ac-

quired a field and inspects it from end to end."20

It is evident that the narrator was setting the action within a

theological context. The site at which the land promise was given is

specified in three ways in verse 6. The name of the place was Shech-

em, a city in the heart of the land that later became a place of

assembly for Israel (cf. Josh. 24:1).21 At this location was also the oak

of Moreh, a center of pagan worship. Moreover, the Canaanites were

in the land Yahweh was giving to Abram's seed (not to Abram him-

self), thus shifting actual possession of the land into the future. This

juxtaposition of divine utterance and incomplete human awareness or

appropriation parallels the call of Abram in verse 1 and demands

the same quality of unquestioning obedience and trusting anticipa-

tion. Von Rad notes that "Abraham is therefore brought by God into

a completely unexplained relationship with the Canaanites, and

Yahweh does not hurry about solving and explaining this opaque

status of ownership as one expects the director of history to do."22

Throughout the pericope the narrator was careful to focus only

on Abram's activities without discussing the motivation that


19 S. Yeivin, "The Patriarchs in the Land of Canaan," in The World History of the

Jewish People, ed. Benjamin Mazar, 6 vols. (Tel Aviv: Massada, 1964-72), 2:201. Cf.

Vawter, On Genesis: A New Reading, p. 178.

20 Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Genesis, 2 vols. (Jerusalem:

Magnes Press, 1961-64), 2:323.

21 M. A. Fishbane cites Genesis 28:18 and Judges 9:37 to support his contention that

the sites of Shechern and Bethel, and Canaan in general, are viewed as a sacred center

in Israel's traditions ("The Sacred Center: The Symbolic Structure of the Bible," in

Texts and Responses, ed. M. A. Fishbane and P. R. Flohr [Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1975], p.


22 Von Rad, Genesis: A Commentary, p. 166.

404     Bibliotheca Sacra / October-December 1990


prompted them. However, the response of Abram to both God's call

and His promise clearly indicates that his reason for migrating to

Canaan was his dedication to Yahweh and His service.23 This ob-

servation is supported by the structure of verses 7-8, in which Abram

is described as building altars for Yahweh. In verse 7 the divine

promise, "To your descendants I will give this land," is followed by

the response, "So he built an altar there to the Lord who had ap-

peared to him." The physical activities in the first half of verse 8

are preparatory to the spiritual activities in the second half. Thus

Abram manifested a spiritual motivation in settling at Bethel by

building an altar to Yahweh and by calling on His name.24

It may then be concluded that Genesis 12:1-9 contains substantial

theological potential that could be developed into a pilgrim ideol-

ogy.25 Abram's unquestioning obedience to Yahweh's call and his re-

sponse to the divine land grant to his offspring manifest a significant

perspective dimension in the narrative. Though presented as sober

history, transcending the literal level of the action is the presenta-

tion of a man who heeded the word of Yahweh to leave all that was

familiar to venture out to an unspecified location, which later was

given not to him but to his descendants. To this command Abram re-

sponded in obedience and worship.



The divine command, "Walk before Me, and be blameless"

(MymitA hyeh;v, ynapAl; j`l.ehat;hi), bears unmistakable theological overtones.

Von Rad notes that what is being commanded is Abram's complete,

unqualified surrender of his life to God.26 It may thus be said that


23 Cassuto points out that "what the Bible does not say expressly it indicates by in-

ference. It is a characteristic of these narratives ... not to describe the thoughts and

feelings of the dramatis personae, but only to record their deeds, and to inform the

reader through the narration of events of the ideas and sentiments that prompted

their actions" (A Commentary on the Book of Genesis, 2:303).

24 This is reflected in Jewish tradition, as summarized by L. Ginzberg. "Each altar

raised by him was a centre for his activities as a missionary. As soon as he came to a

place in which he desired to sojourn, he would stretch a tent first for Sarah, and next

for himself, and then he would proceed at once to make proselytes and bring them un-

der the wings of the Shekinah. Thus he accomplished his purpose of inducing all men

to proclaim the name of God" (The Legends of the Jews, 1:219).

25 Interpretive development in a metaphorical direction is evident in Philo De Migr.


26 Von Rad, Genesis: A Commentary, pp. 198-99, and supported by Aquila's te<leioj

for MymiTA. Thus Jubilees 23:10 reads, "For Abraham was perfect in all his actions with

the Lord and was pleasing through righteousness all the days of his life." Cf.

Zadokite Fragments 7.5 and Philo Quaest. et Sol. in Gen. III 40, who stated that "a

character which pleases God does not incur blame, while one who is blameless and

faultless in all things is altogether pleasing [to God]." This reading is also followed

by Jerome Against the Pelagians 3.12.

Looking for Abraham's City   405


MymitA hyeh;v, is the reality of which j`l.ehat;hi is the figure. It should be

noted, however, that much Jewish translation and exegesis renders

MymitA in relation to the subsequent circumcision of Abraham.27

In the highly covenantal language of the passage,28 God

promised Abraham (his name was changed in 17:5), "And I will give

to you and to your descendants after you, the land of your sojournings

[j~yr,gum; Cr,x,], all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and

I will be their God" (v. 8). As in 12:7 the land would be possessed not

by Abraham but only by his descendants. For Abraham, Canaan

would be only a land of sojournings, not a possessed home. Thus as

Klein points out, it is "recognized that the patriarchs never really

occupied the land as owners." 29

Moreover, the evident allusion to Enoch (Gen. 5:22, 24) and

Noah (6:9) must be accounted for. As Enoch had walked with God

and had been translated from his society into the divine presence,

and as Noah had walked with God and been delivered from divine

judgment on his sinful culture, so Abraham was commanded to walk

before God. It is recognizable then that Abraham was being called to

a relationship with God that by its very orientation would cause

him to be differentiated from his human society.



Genesis 2330 is crucial31 for understanding the socio-political con-

cept of Abraham the sojourner and the background of the later meta-

phorical concept of spiritual pilgrimage. The occasion for the trans-

action here recorded is Sarah's death. Though God had promised

Abraham the entire land of Canaan, the patriarch had not yet come

into possession of even enough ground for a burial site for his wife.

The legal setting of the pericope in which "preoccupation with

the problem of ownership determines every stage, every detail of


27 Cf. Gen. Rab. 46.4; Tg. Ps.-J.; Tg. Neof.; b. Ned. 31b-32a; y. Ned. 3.11; t. Ned. 2.5.

28 Cf. Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, ed. C. Johannes Botterweck and

Helmer Ringgren (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974), s.v. MhArAb;xa,

by Ronald E. Clements, 1:58.

29 R. W. Klein, Israel in Exile: A Theological Interpretation, Overtures to Biblical

Theology (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979), p. 137.

30 H. Hahn gives a useful discussion of the interpretation of Genesis 23 in the later

rabbinic literature (Wallfahrt nod Auferstehung zur inessianischen Zeit: Eine rob-

bi)iische Homilie zion Neumond-Shtabbat (Pes R 1), Frankforter Judaistische Studien 5

[Frankfort am Main, 19791, pp. 156-70).

31 Thus J. G. Vink says of Genesis 23, "The text is important for ... because it tells

about the primitiae of the possession of the land and the beginning of the fulfilment of

the divine promise" ("The Date and Origin of the Priestly Code in the Old Testa-

ment," Old Testament Studies 15 [1969]: 91).


406     Bibliotheca Sacra / October-December 1990


the negotiation,"32 is determinative for Abraham's self-description,

"I am a stranger and a sojourner among you" (23:4). The issue involved

more than mere title to a plot of land. At stake is "whether Abra-

ham was to gain a permanent foothold or not"33 in Canaanite society.

When read in isolation, Genesis 23 fits comfortably in the legal

or commercial domain. However, in its literary context in the Abra-

hamic narratives and in the biblical corpus, theological implications

emerge. As Coats remarks, "the unit itself draws no theological con-

sequence from the acquisition," 34 but when seen in the light of the re-

iterated land promise to Abraham, the purchase of even a burial site

becomes the earnest of the ultimate fulfillment.35 The positioning of

this transaction between the sacrifice of his heir in chapter 22 and

the securing of a wife for Isaac (thus providing for the perpetuation

of the covenant family) in chapter 24 hints at the prospective nature

of Abraham's purchase. Nevertheless to posit an explicit metaphor-

ical meaning to bwAOtv;-rGe  exceeds the dimensions of this context.


             The Ordering of the Genesis Texts


This section examines the relationship of Genesis 12-25, particu-

larly 12:1-3, to the primeval narratives in Genesis 1-11. The liter-

ary arrangement will be analyzed to determine to what extent later

Jewish and Christian writers may have derived the metaphorical

concept of pilgrimage from the ordering of the narratives in Genesis.


32 J. Licht, Storytelling in the Bible (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1978), p. 22. Cf. M. R.

Lehmann, who relates the incident to Hittite laws regarding feudal obligation

("Abraham's Purchase of Machpelah and Hittite Law," Bulletin of the American

Schools of Oriental Research 129 [19531: 15-18) and G. M. Tucker, who details the par-

allels between the transaction in Genesis 23 and a wide range of Near Eastern legal

forms, in particular, the Neo-Babylonian dialogue documents ("The Legal Background

of Genesis 23," Journal of Biblical Literature 85 119661: 77-84). Van Seters argues that

the suggested parallels with Old Babylonian contracts point only to the continuity of

legal procedures over a long time (Abraham in History and Tradition, pp. 99-100). He

agrees with Tucker that Genesis 23 follows completely the model of the sale contracts

of the Neo-Babylonian and Achaemenid periods.

33 Derek Kidner, Genesis, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Chicago: Inter-

Varsity Press, 1967), p. 145.

34 G. W. Coats, Genesis with an Introduction to Narrative Literature, The Forms of

the Old Testament Literature (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1983),

p. 164.

35 Von Rad, Genesis: A Commentary, p. 250. Cf. R. Davidson, Genesis 12-50, Cam-

bridge Bible Commentary (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), p. 101, and

Brevard S. Childs, Old Testament Theology in a Canonical Context (London: SCM

Press, 1985), p. 219. M. R. Hauge seems to take the theological implication a step too

far when he asserts that "corresponding to Cana'an developed as the land of Estrange-

ment, the Promised Land as the land of the Grave expresses a definite reinterpretation

of the traditional land motif" ("The Struggles of the Blessed in Estrangement," Studia

Theologica 29 [19751: part 2, p. 140).

Looking for Abraham's City   407


Several factors justify the examination of the traditional text as

a legitimate focus in biblical study: (1) It is the only objectively

available text, in contrast with the speculative reconstructions of

source criticism.36 (2) The accepted text is the corpus which shaped

later tradition in Judaism and Christianity.37 (3) The juxtaposition

of accounts can produce "unexpected narrative connections and theo-

logical insights" so that the literary whole is a sum greater than its

parts.38 Indeed, these collocations bear evidence of logical39 or theo-

logical40 intention. (4) The relevance of the synthetic approach is

confirmed by Jewish midrashic exegesis, which seeks to explain the

juxtaposition of texts.41 Thus the conclusion by Sawyer is apposite:

The original meaning of the final form of the text is a concept which not

only permits fruitful study of a clearly defined corpus of lexical data,

but also provides an obvious starting-point for theological discussion,

since it was the final form of the text, not its separate component parts,


36 James Barr, The Bible in the Modern World (London: SCM Press, 1973), pp. 163-64.

R. Smend, in assessing the work of Childs, states, "Generations of scholars have seen

their primary task as the reconstruction of the oldest written texts and, as far as pos-

sible, the oral forms that preceded them. The further such work continues, the greater

the danger of its becoming speculation. So it is not only understandable, but also ap-

propriate, if the focus of analysis is now, by way of reaction, the end of the process of

tradition, i.e., the final written form of the material. This is not only a neglected and

hence a fertile field, but also a more certain one, since the finalised texts are not imag-

inary entities. Here we are less under the influence of speculations, but can make ob-

servations on material that clearly lies before us, and are often also in a position to

prove and disprove" ("Questions about the Importance of the Canon in an Old Testa-

ment Introduction," Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 16 [19801: 45-46).

37 Brevard S. Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture (London: SCM

Press, 1979), pp. 76-77.

38 M. Noth, Uberlieferungsgeschichte des Pentateuch (Stuttgart: W. Kohlhammer,

1948), pp. 269-70; cf. B. W. Anderson, "The New Frontier of Rhetorical Criticism," in

Rhetorical Criticism, ed. J. J. Jackson and M. Kessler, Pittsburgh Theological Mono-

graph Series I (Pittsburgh: Pickwick Press, 1974), p. xvii.

39 M. H. Segal, "The Composition of the Pentateuch: A Fresh Examination," Scripta

Hierosolymitana 8 (1961): 95. However, R. N. Whybray issues a salutary caution:

"While there is undoubtedly a continuous narrative thread, this is often extremely

thin, and the various incidents described are frequently joined together only very

loosely" (The Making of the Pentateuch [Sheffield: University of Sheffield Press,

19871, p. 14). One then must be cautious in interpreting the juxtapositions of the extant

text as deliberate collocations intended to teach explicit principles.

40 G. M. Landes, "The Canonical Approach to Introducing the Old Testament:

Prodigy and Problems," Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 16 (1980): 33; and

R. Rendtorff, The Old Testament: An Introduction (London: SCM Press, 1985), p. 290.

41 M. Wadsworth, "Making and Interpreting Scripture," in Ways of Reading the

Bible, ed. M. Wadsworth (Sussex: Harvester, 1981), p. 10. He goes on to state concern-

ing Genesis: "There are narrative connections in the story from chapter 10 through 12

which an inordinate reliance on the J or P writers as self-contained, autonomous

chroniclers has tended to obscure" (ibid., p. 11). Cf. R. Rendtorff, "Rabbinic Exegesis

and the Modern Christian Bible Scholar," Proceedings of the Eighth World Congress

of Jewish Studies (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1983), pp. 35-36.

408     Bibliotheca Sacra / October-December 1990


that was canonized in all the religious communities for which it is an

authoritative religious text.42



Though a division between the primeval history (Gen. 1-11) and

the patriarchal history (Gen. 12-50) has often been made, a careful

reading of Genesis 11-12 reveals a significant degree of continuity be-

tween the two sections. To be sure, Abram was called to a new phase

of life in 12:1, but he and his family are introduced in chapter 11.

The elaborate transitional passage in 11:10-32 compels the reader of

the canonical text43 to view the patriarchal history in some rela-

tionship with the primeval history.44 Von Rad explains this conjunc-

tion in terms of aetiology, in that the meaning of the call of Abram is

expounded in the primeval history. He concludes, "Indeed, because

of this welding of primeval history and saving history, the whole of

Israel's saving history is properly to be understood with reference to

the unsolved problem of Jahweh's relationship to the nations."45

In the interpretive process the combination of Genesis 1-11 and

Genesis 12 has a sum greater than the constitutive parts.46 Certain

motifs present in both literary blocks are thus brought to the fore as

key themes in the extant form.47 By this juxtaposition, potential for

interpretive correlations is created that might not have occurred to

the reader had the individual passages remained as discrete units.


42 J. F. A. Sawyer, "The Meaning of Myhilox< Ml,c,B; ('In the Image of God') in Genesis I-

XI," Journal of Theological Studies 25 (1974): 419. Though Sawyer's argument from

canonical status is open to question (cf. L. G. Perdue, "Review of Brevard S. Childs, In-

troduction to the Old Testament as Scripture," Restoration Quarterly 23 [1980]: 243-49,

and J. Barton, Reading the Old Testament [London: Darton, Longman, and Todd, 19841,

pp. 91, 96), his emphasis on the usefulness of studying the traditionally accepted text

is salutary.

43 The juxtaposition of Genesis 11 and 12 finds unanimous attestation in all the an-

cient sources, including the Masoretic Text, SP, Targums, and the Septuagint, and it can

justifiably be maintained that the early Jewish and Christian writers would have

had before them this arrangement of texts. Thus at least in this specific case, a

canonical approach is warranted. J. M. Sasson argues well for the validity of both an-

alytic and synthetic study of the biblical texts ("The 'Tower of Babel' as a Clue to the

Redactional Structuring of the Primeval History [Gen. 1-11:9]," in The Bible World,

ed. G. Rendsburg et al. [New York: KTAV Publishing House, 19801, p. 213).

44 D. J. A. Clines, The Theme of the Pentateuch (Sheffield: University of Sheffield

Press, 1978), pp. 77-78.

45 Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, 2 vols. (New York: Harper & Row,

1962-1965), 1:164.

46 The interpretive potential latent in the literary arrangement of Pentateuchal

texts is frequently exploited by the Targums, as Targum du Pentateuque notes with nu-

merous examples (ed. R. le Deaut, SC 240 [Paris: Cerf, 19781, pp. 54-55).

47 Brevard S. Childs, "The Exegetical Significance of Canon for the Study of the Old

Testament," Congress Volume: Göttingen, 1977, Vetus Testamentum Supplements, vol.

29 (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1978), p. 69.

Looking for Abraham's City    409



It is evident from the divine call to Abram in Genesis 12:1 that

the focus has narrowed from the more universal scope of chapters 1-

11. The primeval narratives trace the spiritual degeneration of the

human race as a whole by means of the recurrent pattern of human sin

and divine punishment.48 But the story of Abraham also has a uni-

versal dimension, for the ultimate result of the blessing on the patri-

arch is that all families of the earth will be blessed (12:3),49 in

essence a reformation of creation.50 The positioning of Genesis 12 im-

mediately after the primeval narratives suggests that "the election

of Israel in some way must be the answer to the plight of man."51

The land promise in 12:7 is a reversal of the pattern of expulsion

that dominates Genesis 3-11.52 Dispersion or homelessness is mani-

fested in Adam and Eve's removal from Eden (3:23-24), the curse on

Cain (4:16), and the scattering of Babel (11:8), but it is strikingly re-

versed in the divine call of Abram. As Fishbane suggests, Abram is

in a sense a new Adam, in whom is hope for the renewal of human

life in history.53 Though Eden could not be regained by human means,

divine grace to Abram gives the prospect of the restoration of the

land, fertility, and blessing lost by the human parents.54

The primeval narratives relate the tragic story of nearly unmit-


48 R. L. Cohn, "Narrative Structure and Canonical Perspective in Genesis," Journal

for the Study of the Old Testament 25 (1983): 4.

49 R. Martin-Achard states, "Gen. XII.3 has universalistic implications. The Patri-

arch is the instrument by which Yahweh is seeking to save all mankind. His promise

to Abraham is the answer to the curse of the dispersion of the human race (Gen.

XI.7ff.) and determines the whole destiny of Israel and the world; henceforth history

is going to unfold under the sign of that blessing which is offered to all peoples

through Abraham and his descendants" (A Light to the Nations [London: Oliver and

Boyd, 1962], p. 36).

50 Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, Interpretation (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982),

pp. 105-6. O. H. Steck sees Genesis 12:1-3 as a renewal of God's blessing to mankind as

in Genesis 2:18-24 ("Die Paradieserzilhlung: Eine Auslegung von Genesis 2,4b-3,24,"

Wahrnehmungen Gottes im Alten Testament [Munich: Chr. Kaiser, 19821, pp. 112-14).

B. Albrektson argues unconvincingly against the universal dimension of the blessing

(History and the Gods [Lund: CWK Gleerup, 19671, pp. 80-81).

51 G. E. Wright, The Old Testament against Its Environment (London: SCM Press,

1950), p. 53.

52 W. Brueggemann, The Land, Overtures to Biblical Theology (London: SPCK,

1978), pp. 15-16.

53 M. Fishbane, Text and Texture (New York: Schocken Books, 1979), p. 39.

54 Ibid., p. 112. The biblical solution to the problem in Genesis 1-11 is in sharp con-

trast with that given in the Old Babylonian Atrahasis epic, which finds an urban so-

lution to the threat of extinction. Despite formal similarities between the two ac-

counts the ideologies are different from one another. Cf. I. M. Kidawada, "Literary

Convention of the Primaeval History," Anneal of the Japanese Biblical Institute 1

(1975): 7-13.

410     Bibliotheca Sacra / October-December 1990


igated human disobedience and failure. Though there are exceptions

like Abel, Enoch, and Noah, more characteristic is the observation

in 6:5 that man's thoughts were "only evil continually." Instead of

submitting to God, man in his hubris55 refused to obey the divine stan-

dards, and consequently he brought on himself repeated judgment.

Throughout the first 11 chapters of Genesis the motif of cursing,

or crime and punishment,56 is dominant. From the fall onward, sinful

humanity is justly under the curse of God. Five times in the primeval

history the divine curse is pronounced on the sin-tainted creation

(3:14, 17; 4:11; 5:29; 9:25).57 This repeated theme sets the stage for

the call of Abram to be the mediator of God's blessing to the world.58

Thus Genesis 1-11 and Genesis 12:1-3 are structured as problem and

solution.59 Wolff notes, "The so-called primal history explains in

advance why all the families of the earth need blessing. This is dis-

closed in retrospect by 12:3b as its hidden, leading question

(Leitfrage)."60 In the patriarchal narratives blessing becomes the

recurrent chord61 as the divine answer to the human dilemma caused

by sin. The motive for this blessing is the grace of God. In the prime-

val narratives after each occasion of judgment there is a gracious op-

portunity.62 The grace extended after the dispersion of the nations

(11:1-9) is the blessing mediated through Abram and his seed.63


55 Cf. G. W. Coats, "The God of Death: Power and Obedience in the Primeval His-

tory," Interpretation 29 (1975): 234.

56 C. Westermann, Die Verheissungen an die Väter (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck and Ru-

precht, 1976), p. 47.

57 Cf. J. L. Vesco, "Abraham: Actualisation et Relectures," Revue des sciences

philosophiques et théologiques 55 (1971): 43-44.

58 W. Zimmerli reasons: "The Yahwist wants to make clear by the shape of his nar-

rative that here a turning point is reached. The persistence with which the key-word

'blessing-to bless' occurs no less than five times in both of the quoted verses [Gen 12:2-

3] is intended to ensure that we realize that here the shift from the curse upon the

world to blessing upon it is taking place" (Man and His Hope in the Old Testament

[London: SCM Press, 1971], p. 50).

59 Cf. O. H. Steck, "Genesis 12.1-3 and die Urgeschichte des Jahwisten," (Munich:

Chr. Kaiser, 1982), pp. 117-48; and R. Rendtorff, The Old Testament: An Introduction

(London: SCM Press, 1985), p. 134.

60 H W. Wolff, "The Kerygma of the Yahwist," Interpretation 20 (1964): 145.

61 Walter C. Kaiser, Jr. notes that "blessing" appears 82 times in the patriarchal

narratives (Toward an Old Testament Theology [Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publish-

ing House, 19781, p. 57). Cf. W. Zimmerli, "Abraham," Journal of Northwest Semitic

Languages 6 (1978): 52-53.

62 Clines, The Theme of the Pentateuch, p. 65.

63 G. von Rad, Theologie des Alten Testaments, 2 vols. (Munich: Chr. Kaiser, 1958,

1961), 1:167-68.

Looking for Abraham's City   411



It has been demonstrated that the call of Abram stands in or-

ganic connection with the primeval narratives. This significant

canonical arrangement is even more apparent when Genesis 12 is

viewed in relationship with the preceeding chapter. Several fac-

tors emerge that bear on the use of Abraham as a pilgrim figure, in

particular as he is depicted in Hebrews 11:8-16.

The call of Abram is set firmly in conjunction with the tdol;OT in

Genesis 11:10-32. The narrator in tracing the line of Shem arrives at

Abram and his wife Sarai and then adds cryptically in 11:30, "And

Sarai was barren; she had no child." Sarna points out that this de-

tail along with several other notices in the passage serves to intro-

duce information in the subsequent Abrahamic narratives.64 If chap-

ters 11 and 12-50 were not intended to be read together, the details in

the tdol;OT would be superfluous. Their inclusion, however, is intended

to inform the reader of a crucial theme. Though the point must not be

pressed too far, the fact stands that the biblical texts often present

barrenness as preparatory to divine intervention in blessing.65 In the

narrative of Genesis, if Abram and Sarai are to have any future, the

problem of barrenness will have to be overcome. This then sets the

stage for the divine promise of a seed.66

Because the tdol;OT introducing the genealogy culminating in

Abram follows immediately after the incident of the Tower of Babel

in Genesis 11:1-9, it is not surprising that common strands may be de-

tected between the call of Abram and the corporate building and con-

sequent dispersion.67 The stated motivation for the construction of


64 N. H. Sarna, "The Anticipatory Use of Information as a Literary Feature of the

Genesis Narratives," in The Creation of Sacred Literature, ed. R. E. Friedman (Berke-

ley: University of California, 1982), pp. 78-79. Cf. Hauge, "The Struggles of the

Blessed in Estrangement," part 1, p. 7, and R. Kilian, Die vorpriesterlichen Abraham-

süberlieferungen (Bonn: Peter Hanstein, 1966), pp. 279-80.

65 Cf. the examples of Rebekah (Gen. 25:21), Rachel (Gen. 30:1), Samson's mother

(Judg. 13:2), Hannah (1 Sam. 1:2), and Elizabeth (Luke 1:7).

66 Genesis 12:2; 13:15-16; 15:4-5; 17:4-8, 19; fulfilled in 21:1-3. M. Sternberg points out

that the dual references to Sarai's barrenness (11:30) and the divine promise of a seed

(12:2) at the beginning of the Abrahamic narratives set the stage for the subsequent

stories. Thus "each new development ... sharpens the non sequitur between God's

promise and Abraham's plight" (The Poetics of Biblical Narrative, Indiana Literary

Biblical Series [Bloomington, IN: University of Indiana, 19851, p. 148).

67 J. R. Lundbom relates Genesis 11:1-9 and 12:1-3 to 2 Samuel 7 ("Abraham and

David in the Theology of the Yahwist," The Word of the Lord Shall Go Forth, ed. C.

L. Meyers and M. O'Conner [Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1983], p. 204). He specu-

lates, "2 Samuel 7-with its message about what kind of house Yahweh really

wants provides the Yahwist with, just the inspiration he needs to complete the

transition from primeval to patriarchal history. It leads him to juxtapose the Tower

of Babel story and the Call of Abraham, and in doing so he is able to render a theolog-

412     Bibliotheca Sacra / October-December 1990


Babel was the desire for social unity and greatness (11:4),68 but its

frustration led to social fragmentation.69 The divine plan was that

in Abraham all the families of the earth should be blessed (12:3).

This general correspondence between Abram and Babel is speci-

fied in the motifs of name and city.70 As Kaiser notes, the driving

ambition of the builders was the quest for a name, or renown.71 But to

Abram (12:2), "God now grants that which men had tried to gain by

their own resources, but to the man of His choice and on His terms." 72

Yahweh's gracious blessing on Abram answers the self-seeking ambi-

tions of Babel.73

The exposition of Abraham's pilgrimage of faith in Hebrews

11:8-16 highlights the notion that he was seeking "the city which

has foundations, whose architect and builder is God" (v. 10). The nar-

ratives of Abraham in Genesis give no hint to this. However, the

juxtaposition of the call of Abram with the building of a city in Gen-

esis 11:1-9 provides a plausible biblical matrix for the assertion in

Hebrews. The builders of Babel sought to build for themselves a

city74 and a tower whose top would reach into heaven .75 Their aspi-


ical judgment about 'hoar antiquity' that comes very close to being the same as one al-

ready contained in the Court History."

68 Josephus forges a connection between Nimrod, the Flood, and Babel (Antiquities of

the Jews 1.113-15).

69 Cf. R. B. Laurin, "The Tower of Babel Revisited," in Biblical and Near Eastern

Studies, ed. G. A. Tuttle (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1978), pp.

144-45. Augustine commented, "And that celebrated tower which was built to reach to

heaven was an indication of this arrogance of spirit; and the ungodly men concerned in

it justly earned the punishment of having not their minds only, but their tongues be-

sides, thrown into confusion and discordance" (On Christian Doctrine 2.4).

70 Cf. W. Zimmerli, Man and His Hope in the Old Testament (London: SCM Press,

1971), p. 50.

71 Kaiser, Toward an Old Testament Theology, p. 86.

72 J. J. M. Navone, "The Patriarchs of Faith, Hope and Love," Revue de I'université

d'Ottawa 34 (1964): 340. Lundbom writes, "'Making a name' means one thing in 11:4

but quite another in 12:2. In the Babel story men seek a name by erecting a city within

which there is a religious temple.... Abraham, however,, will achieve his name by

having a myriad of descendants. These will become a great nation which no doubt is

what the men of Babel are also striving for as they set out to build their city"

("Abraham and David in the Theology of the Yahwist," p. 205).

73 Vesco, "Abraham: Actualisation et Relectures," pp. 42-43.

74 In both the primeval and the patriarchal narratives, city building and city

dwelling are viewed in a somewhat ominous light, as for example in Genesis 4:17,18-

19, 34. Cf. G. Wallis, "Die Stadt in den Uberlieferungen der Genesis," Zeitschrift für

die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 78 (1966): 133-48, and E. Starobinski-Safrai,

"Aspects de Jerusalem dans les Écrits Rabbiniques," Revue de théologie et de philoso-

phie 112 (1980): 153.

75 MyimawA can be used both for the visible sky and for the abode of God (Francis Brown,

Looking for Abraham's City    413


rations were dashed, however, when Yahweh confused their lan-

guage, so that "they stopped building the city" (v. 8). But from that

very geographical area,76 from Ur of the Chaldeans,77 Yahweh

called Abram to begin the quest for a different kind of city, not a city

to reach up to God, but a city which has been constructed by God .78




Several conclusions may be drawn from the analysis of the texts

in Genesis referring to Abraham. First, the specific texts that speak

of Abraham's movements are presented as historical narratives,79

but emerging from the stories are frequent theological overtones. Sec-

ond, the ordering of the Abrahamic narratives in the biblical corpus

serves the theological function of providing the divine solution to

the problem of sin in Genesis 1-11. Third, the motif of the city of God

for which Abraham sought as expressed in Hebrews 11:9-10 can plau-

sibly be taken to have a possible derivation from the collocation of

the narratives of the Tower of Babel and the call of Abram in Gene-

sis 11 and 12.

It would be claiming more than the evidence will sustain to in-

sist that the Christian metaphor of spiritual pilgrimage is derived

solely from the Genesis narratives of Abraham. Nevertheless the

presence of metaphorical implications in the language and ordering

of the narratives is at times already confirmed by the early Jewish

writings and by the ancient versions. Therefore the early Christian

concept of spiritual pilgrimage evidenced in Hebrews 11:9-10 can be

explained reasonably as in part an extrapolation from the meta-

phorical intimations in the Genesis texts.


S. R. Driver, and C. A. Briggs, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament

[Oxford: Clarendon Press, 19071, pp. 1029-30). Note the audacious assertion by the

king of Babylon: "I will ascend to MyimawA.ha" (Isa. 14:13).

76 J. Guillet, Themes Bibliques, Théologie 18 (Paris: Aubier, 1951), p. 104.

77 The debated question of the location of Abram when he received the call in Gene-

sis 12:1-3 (cf. Acts 7:2-4) is of little consequence on this point. What is of paramount

significance is that his original domicile was regarded as Ur of the Chaldeans (Gen.

11:28, 31; 15:7; Neh. 9:7). Fishbane notes with reference to Genesis 11:1-9: "This final

episode of the Primeval Cycle is thus a bathetic re-expression of the alienation of

man from order and harmony when his orientation is not God-centered.... But the

ironic mask of tragedy also smiles: the episode is double-edged, and unfolds its own

reversal. For it is from this Babylon, from Ur, that Abraham separates for a new

land" ("The Sacred Center: The Symbolic Structure of the Bible," p. 13).

78 G. A. F. Knight, Theology in Pictures (Edinburgh: Handsel, 1981), pp. 122-23.

79 The controversial question as to the historicity of the patriarchal narratives is

not the issue here. The presentation of Abraham is effected by means of the genre of

historical narrative. The veracity of the narrative presentation is a question separate

from the description of the literary phenomena.


This material is cited with gracious permission from:

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