There is a decided dearth of Biblical material on the early life of Abraham (or “Abram” as he was first known). We know that he was with his father Terah when Terah left Ur of the Chaldeans, and that his wife Sarai, and his nephew Lot were with him. We know that they all arrived safely in Haran and that Terah died there. We know that after Terah’s death God called Abram to move on again to the unnamed place in Canaan where God said He would bring him, and that he was seventy-five years old at the time, and that He made a covenant with him to give him a vast progeny so that in him all the families of the earth would be blessed (Genesis 11:31-12:4).
What we do not know is the historical background to Terah’s move from Ur to Haran. Was it part of a larger migration? Was it due to economic or military factors? What did Abram think of Terah’s move from Ur to Haran? Did God speak to Abram was he was still in Ur (compare Acts 7:2-4) before he came to Haran where the Genesis text seems to locate God’s first communication with him? What was Abram’s devotion to Yahweh before he left Ur?
The Genesis text reveals none of these things. It does mention in passing that Abram had accumulated many things and many persons before they left Haran for Canaan (Genesis 12:5). Indeed, Abram was an important and wealthy man: in Genesis 14 we learn that he was important enough for one of the locals to have made an alliance with him, and that when he learned that his nephew Lot had been taken captive in a raid, he gathered and led out his trained men—318 of them—to pursue Lot’s abductors and bring Lot back. That is, Abram was wealthy enough to have what was essentially a private army.
To put this in perspective, in the fourteenth century B.C. the governor of the city of Byblos, a city controlled by Egypt, sent letters to his Egyptian masters pleading for reinforcements. He specifically requested 100 Kushite soldiers so that with their help he might lift the siege on his city (from the Amarna Letters). Abram had more than three times this amount of soldiers at his disposal. The notion that Abram was a lonely and helpless sojourner needs some revising. He had an army and slaves and was important enough for the locals to treat him with respect as someone to be reckoned with.
That would also explain Pharaoh’s interest in his wife when he sojourned in Egypt during a famine in the land of Canaan. Abram was shrewd enough to know that Pharaoh would take an interest in someone as wealthy and important as Sarai, which is why he proposed to Sarai the ruse that she pretend to be his sister rather than his wife (Genesis 12:10-20). Sarai’s attractiveness and beauty (verse 11) had as much to do with her wealth as her physical appearance (let us remember that she was in her 70’s at this time). Abram journeyed and camped in the midst of an impressive throng.
Yet even so, he still had no land to call his own, and no heir to leave the land to even if he had property. God had promised that everything his eyes could see would one day belong to his descendants, but at the time of the promise, he had neither land nor son, his wife being barren. When his wife Sarah died, he had no land of his own and had to haggle and buy a burial ground from the local people (Genesis 23). They agreed to sell him the land because he was “a mighty prince” (verse 6). When Abraham himself died, he had no claim to the vast tracts of land God had promised him, only the promise itself. Through all his life, he lived as an alien and sojourner in the land of promise as if it was a foreign land (Hebrews 11:9). That is, he lived his whole life after he left Ur as a foreigner, never fitting in, an outsider, someone with no claim to clan loyalty or help from the powerful peoples in whose midst he dwelt.
The question is: Why? Having uprooted himself and his family from their native Ur, why did he never find another similar homeland, why did he never settle down as an immigrant in a new adopted land, and sink his roots there? Why was he content that he and his children after him would remain strangers and sojourners, forever the outsiders? It was as if he enjoyed being stateless and vulnerable. Why could he never settle down?
We are given the answer in Hebrews 11: because he never found in Canaan what he was looking for. If he had simply wanted security, he could have decided to end his wandering and return home to Ur (verse 15). But he was not looking for security, but for something else, something else Canaan and this world could not provide or afford. Abraham was looking for the city which has lasting and eternal foundations, whose architect and builder was not a mighty Chaldean king, but God. He was looking for a better country than could be found in Mesopotamia or in Canaan. He was looking for a heavenly country, for the Kingdom of God. He was looking for Jesus.
Abraham was a visionary, someone whose heart had been captured and was held by God. That was why God called him His friend (James 2:23), the one in whom God confided as a man confides in his comrade (compare Genesis 18:17). It was this love for God that justified Abraham and made him the model for all the faithful that would come after him.
Those who follow in his footsteps need to be visionaries too, men and women who refuse to be bought off by what the world can afford, and who seek what only God can provide. This is the true saving faith—an abandonment of the world to seek the joys of the world to come. The children of Abraham will join him in being strangers and sojourners on the earth, those whose true citizenship is not with any nation flying a flag in this age, but whose citizenship is in heaven (1 Peter 2:11; Philippians 3:20). Like our father Abraham, we too are prepared to leave our country and our father’s house and seek the country which is above.