Father Abraham's Father and First True Son: Calvin on Terah (Gen. 11.31-12.9)

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Scripture's account of Terah and Abraham's departure from Ur of the Chaldeans for Canaan (via Haran) presents Calvin with a difficulty. In Genesis 11.31 it appears that Terah takes the initiative in quitting Chaldea for the greener pastures of some other place. In Genesis 12.4 it appears that Abraham, in response to the divine call (Gen. 12.1), takes the initiative to abandon country and kindred in favor of a land yet to be named.

Calvin takes the line that Abraham, not Terah, orchestrated the family's departure from the city of Ur. In support of this position there is, first of all, the fact that God's call to Abraham to "go from your country and your kindred" makes precious little sense if Abraham had already done so in filial submission to his father. Had Abraham already left Chaldea in Terah's train, he might, Calvin wryly observes, have responded to God's command by insisting: "I have left my country, I am far removed from my kindred." The very substance of God's directive to Abraham, in other words, supposes that Abraham was "settled in his [Chaldean] nest, having his affairs underanged, and living quietly and tranquilly among his relatives."

There is, secondly, the evidence of subsequent canonical references to Abraham's call. In Gen. 15.7, God, again in dialogue with Abraham, names himself as the one who brought Abraham "out from Ur of the Chaldeans," not as the one who directed Abraham to Canaan after Terah had already uprooted the family. So also Joshua names Abraham, not Terah, as the one whom God brought forth from an eastern land of (un)happy idolaters (Joshua 24.2-3). Most definitively, perhaps, there is Stephen's testimony in Acts 7.2-4: "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...."

Calvin is also sensitive, thirdly, to the paradigmatic nature of God's call to Abraham. In his view, the divine call which triggers Abraham's departure from idolatrous Ur for an eventual land of Yahweh worshippers serves as a theological model of sorts for that divine call which prompts elect sinners to quit the kingdom of darkness for the kingdom of God's Son. Should Abraham have already left idolatrous Ur when God's call came, one might get the impression that God helps those that have to some degree already helped themselves -- that God, in other words, privileges sinners who have cleaned up their act to some extent (and thus set sail from the shores of the kingdom of darkness, even if they haven't yet determined a destination). 

Calvin puts it this way: "This calling of Abram is a signal instance of the gratuitous mercy of God. Had Abram been beforehand with God by any merit of works? Had Abram come to him, or conciliated his favour? Nay, we must ever recall to mind, (what I have before adduced from the passage in Joshua,) that he was plunged in the filth of idolatry; and now God freely stretches forth his hand to bring back the wanderer." Calvin's understanding of divine election and the outworking of the same in vocation, justification, sanctification, and glorification leaves no room for sinners to prepare themselves for grace.

What, then, are we to make of Genesis 11.31, which seems to suggest that Terah orchestrated the family's departure from idolatrous Ur with the express intent, at least, of reaching Canaan? Based on the evidence cited above, Calvin argues that Terah "was not so much the leader or author of the journey, as the companion of his son." After all, Calvin notes, "the divine command to Abram respecting his departure did not prohibit [Abram] from informing his father that his only reason for leaving him was that he preferred the command of God to all human obligations." When Scripture, then, seemingly "assigns the priority to Terah [in Gen. 11.31], as if Abram had departed under his auspices and direction, rather than by the command of God," it does so with rhetorical respect to that "authority" that Terah naturally had over Abraham. In other words, "this is an honour conferred upon the father's name." "Nor," Calvin adds, "do I doubt that Abraham, when he saw his father willingly obeying [God's call to Abraham], became in return the more obedient to him."

Calvin reserves profuse praise for Terah with regard to his willingness to follow his son from Chaldea to Canaan. "It was," Calvin judges, "difficult for the old man, already broken and failing in health, to tear himself away from his own country.... [But] when he knew that the place, from which his son was commanded to depart, was accursed, it was his wish not to perish there; but he joined himself as an associate with him whom the Lord was about to deliver.... Easy and plausible was the excuse which he might have alleged; namely, that he would remain quietly at home, because he had received no command" (emphasis mine).

We present day believers tend to celebrate Abraham's faith, and make it a model for our own. And rightly so -- Scripture calls us to exercise faith just like that by which Abraham was justified (cf. Rom. 4 & Gal. 3); faith, that is, in the one who leads his people to the eternal Canaan. But if Calvin's take on Terah is right, we would do well to emulate Abraham's father's faith as well. Indeed, Terah's faith was, at least in one regard, more remarkable than his son's: Abraham directly received the divine call; Terah had to trust his son when his son claimed to have received that call.

Of course, in so trusting, Terah became -- ironically -- Abraham's first true son. Scripture, after all, identifies all those who look in faith to God's (ultimate) deliverer/deliverance as "Abraham's offspring, heirs according to the promise." Father Abraham had many sons. Many sons had Father Abraham. His father Terah was one of them. Not the stuff of Sunday School songs, perhaps, but interesting, and potentially inspiring, nonetheless.

Let each of us, then, dare to be a Terah. Terah left Ur for Canaan clinging to the coattails (or their ancient near eastern equivalent) of his son. He made himself "an associate [of] him whom the Lord was about to deliver," however humbling such a move must have been, since that one was his own child. May we, with like determination (and humility), set a course for the true promised land by clinging to the coattails of Abraham's seed and God's own son, him whom the Lord has already delivered from death. Association with him is our only hope.

Aaron Clay Denlinger is professor of church history and historical theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Florida.

Posted May 30, 2015 @ 5:09 PM by Aaron Denlinger

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