The divine call came to Abraham while he was still in Haran (in the early patriarchal narratives. Abraham’s name appears as Abram. The new name of Abraham will be used throughout this article). The divine command was simple and yet demanding: “Leave your native country, your relatives, and your father’s family, and go to the land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1). Abraham’s response was striking: although he did not know his destination, he went without hesitation, without doubting God’s word.
When Abraham arrived in Canaan, he could not take immediate possession of the land because at that time, the Canaanites were still living in the land (Genesis 12:6). This statement implies that Abraham could not take possession of the land without a challenge. The only thing Abraham was able to do was to travel through the land which the Lord had promised to give to him.
After his arrival in Canaan, Abraham traveled through the land as far as Shechem and came to the site of the great tree of Moreh. In the history of Israel’s religious traditions, Shechem became an important religious site; it was the place where the Lord first appeared to Abraham after his arrival in the land of promise.
There, at Shechem, the Lord appeared to Abraham. This theophany was the first of many appearances of God to Abraham. Stephen mentioned that God had appeared to him while he was in Ur (Acts 7:2), but there is no mention of altars built by Abraham in Ur or Haran.
In Shechem, God renewed the promise he had made to Abraham: “I am going to give this land to your descendants.” Although the land was inhabited by the Canaanites, Abraham believed God’s promise even though he was an old man, seventy-five years old, and a man without a son.
In Shechem Abraham built an altar to the God who appeared to him in order to acknowledge, with a grateful heart, God’s kindness to him and his family and by this act, he reaffirmed his trust in the promise which God had made to him (Genesis 12:7).
From Shechem, Abraham traveled south and set up his tent in the hill country, with Bethel to the west and Ai to the east. While at Bethel, Abraham built another altar and dedicated it to the Lord, and there Abraham “called upon the name of the Lord” (Genesis 12:8).
The expression to call upon the name of the Lord is a term for the worship of God. The expression appears in Genesis 13:4 and 26:5 in connection with the building of altars.
However, Abraham did not stay in Bethel very long. He had not yet found a permanent place in which to settle in the new land. He was only a stranger and sojourner in the land, wandering from place to place, stopping here and there to find adequate pasture to feed his flock. Thus, Abraham continued his journey south, until he reached the Negev.
The act of building altars conveyed a significant religious message to the inhabitants of the land. When Abraham arrived in the land of Canaan, he was a sojourner there, living among the Canaanites and their religious practices, and yet he was able to establish the worship of God in the land. An important factor in Abraham’s pilgrimage was that wherever he pitched his tent he also built an altar to God.
Although Shechem was a Canaanite city and although the site of Moreh was a holy place for the inhabitants of the land, Abraham’s altar was an implied message that his God was different from the gods of the land. Abraham could not worship with the Canaanites because the worship of YHWH was incompatible with the cultic practices of the Canaanites. As Walter Brueggemann (Genesis [Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982], p. 123) wrote: “Abraham is called always to be a minority report among those who live and manage society against the promise.”
In addition, the building of an altar in the land was, in fact, a form of taking possession of it. The worship of God in the new land expressed Abraham’s faith in the fulfilment of the divine promise. Abraham was already in the land of promise, and could leave the future implementation of the promise to God. Thus, Abraham was, by building those altars, taking possession of the land.
In the narrative of Abraham coming to Canaan, three places are mentioned: Shechem (Genesis 12:6), the region between Bethel and Ai (Genesis 12:8), and the area of the Negev (Genesis 12:9). These are three of the sites occupied by the Israelites in the conquest of the land of Canaan by Joshua and the army of Israel.
When Abraham arrived in Canaan, he went to Shechem and built an altar, thus claiming the land for his God. Then he went to Bethel, with Bethel in the west and Ai in the east and there he built an altar to God. From there he journeyed to the Negev and in Hebron he bought the field of Machpelah.
The places Abraham visited were the same places the armies of Israel conquered when they entered the land of Canaan. After the fall of Jericho, the first city the Israelites conquered was Ai, the location of which is expressed with the same words used in Genesis 12:8: “With Bethel on the west and Ai on the east” (see Joshua 7:2; 8:9, 8:12). After the conquest of Ai, the Israelites built an altar to the Lord on Mount Ebal, an area near Shechem (Joshua 8:30).
The building of altars by Abraham and his purchase of the field of Machpelah was an indirect way of claiming the land for God. Thus, in the theology of the patriarchal narratives, the conquest of the land of Canaan had already begun when Abraham built those altars and when he bought the land of Machpelah.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
For another perspective of this topic, read Abraham and the Promises of God.