The Family of Terah (Genesis 11:27-12:9)

After God drove Adam and Eve out of the garden of Eden, the garden remained there: in a valley on the holy mountain of God, its gates guarded by angels armed with swords, the glory of God’s presence shining within.

And during the generations that followed, some people stayed nearby the mountain. They believed God’s promise that, one day, those gates would be opened and they would be allowed to enter once again into their Father’s presence.

But most people decided they were not going to wait. They moved away, toward the east, and they planted their own sacred gardens, surrounded by high, protective walls, gardens that quickly grew into temples, cities, massive centers of false worship, dedicated to enslaving the whole world.

God destroyed those cities with a flood, saving only one man and his family from the wreckage — Noah, the last man who still had faith that one day God would re-open the gates of the garden.

Unfortunately, the flood also wiped out the garden. And this left Noah and his sons with no sacred place to center their worship around. As a result, during the generations that followed, Noah’s descendants scattered, dividing and dividing and dividing again into different tribes and nations and languages.

But some of those nations remembered their history. They remembered that, once upon a time, their ancient ancestors had built their own sacred centers in the east, and they had enjoyed quite a large measure of power and success. So they decided to do the same thing: they began to build a series of cities, the greatest of which they named Babylon, the Gate of the Gods.

But God was not going to allow history to repeat itself; he was not going to allow a world-enslaving civilization to rise again to prominence. So he broke up that coalition of nations and continued the scattering process. Each city turned against its neighbor, and so Babylon’s dreams of empire came crashing down. No longer the Gate of the Gods, it had become the City of Confusion.

But this still left mankind without a sacred center. The garden is gone — and with it: mankind’s hope. God looks like a liar! He promised Adam and Eve that one day he would send a saviour who would crush the serpent’s head, undo the curse, and re-open the gates of paradise. But without a garden, without gates, how is God going to keep his promise now?

And so, by this point in Genesis, people have all turned aside to worship gods of their own design, pet gods that they can manipulate with snacks. Each city, each nation, each tribe has its own collection of gods they worship…confusion has now filled the earth, just as violence had filled the earth before the flood.

There is no one left who still has faith that God will keep his promises.

But God is the God who keeps his promises, even if no one believes. And so, down through all these generations of confusion, he has been preserving one particular family: the family of Shem. When Babylon’s coalition began its rise to power, and Shem’s descendants decided to join in — God divided the family and preserved the line of Peleg. When Babylon’s coalition fell apart, and began to consume itself — God kept Peleg’s descendants safe through the civil wars and the scattering that followed.

But — and this is very important for us to understand — God has not preserved Shem’s family line because Shem’s family has been faithful to him. They have not! — and we’ll find out how we know this later on.

The only reason God has preserved Shem’s family is because he promised he would.

Thousands of years before this point he had promised Noah that the family of his son Shem would one day produce a saviour who would give mankind shelter from the confusion and the coming judgement. God has promised that it is through Shem’s family that he will provide a new sacred center for mankind.

And now that prophecy is going to be fulfilled:

[27] This is the account of Terah’s family line.

And we remember from Part 1 of Genesis that Moses uses this phrase — “this is the account of” — to signal the beginning of a new book. Part 1 contained six books. This is now the beginning of Book 7…which is very significant. This book, the account of Terah’s family, is the central masterpiece of Genesis. This is the book Moses has been working toward from the beginning, and all the books that follow look back on this one for their foundation.

Actually, the whole rest of the bible looks back on this Book 7 of Genesis.

Which means we should definitely pay attention!

Now, this man Terah is the last son of the line of Shem, the tenth name in line from Noah. He is the focal point of all history for this moment!

— and then the moment passes: Terah became the father of Abram, Nahor and Haran. And Haran became the father of Lot.

So the first thing we find out is that Terah did his job well! He was the last son of Shem’s line. If he had died without having sons, Shem’s name would have died, and God’s promise of a saviour would have died. But Terah has three sons. So: good job, man!

And he even has a grandson: this kid named Lot. So: even better!

The line of Shem is secure!

But then: [28] While his father Terah was still alive, Haran died in Ur of the Chaldeans, in the land of his birth.

Mmm. Soooo…that’s not cool. Now Terah is down to just two sons.

But he still has his grandson Lot! So technically he still has three sons.

So the chosen line of Shem is still reasonably secure.

And we have learned where this family is from: Ur of the Chaldeans.

We do not know exactly where this city was. But the Chaldean people did live in the east, and that they were associated with the Babylonian coalition, the city of Babylon.

So Moses wants us to understand that Terah’s family is living in the midst of Babylon’s shattered empire, in the midst of the confusion that has overtaken mankind.

Even so, the family is doing well! — especially since [29] Abram and Nahor both married. The name of Abram’s wife was Sarai, and the name of Nahor’s wife was Milkah; she was the daughter of Haran, the father of both Milkah and Iskah.

So now the other two sons of Terah are going to start having sons of their own! The line of Shem is going to grow stronger and stronger, God’s promises will be more and more secure, everything is going to be great!

Except that Sarai was childless because she was not able to conceive.

So now, technically, Terah has only two male family members who are able to carry on the family name: his son Nahor, and his grandson Lot.

But: it’s okay! It’s too soon to panic. I’m sure one of those boys will have sons and Shem’s line will carry on.

Now [31] Terah took his son Abram, his grandson Lot son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of his son Abram, and together they set out from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to Canaan.

So here they are, on the road. Terah, the father of the family, has made an executive decision: they are leaving the lands of confusion in the east, and they are migrating to the land of Canaan in the west. That is good!

But where is his son Nahor? Nahor is not travelling with them. Apparently he has decided to stay behind in Chaldea, in Babylonia. That’s bad for him.

It’s also bad for Shem’s family line. Because now Terah has only one male family member left who is able to carry on the family name: his grandson Lot.

But at least they’ve escaped from the chaos and confusion of Babylonia! And the further Terah leads his family away from that mess, the better his chances are of actually preserving Shem’s family name…

But when they came to Harran, they settled there.


So it seems that Terah is making the same mistake the Babylonian coalition made. Back at the beginning of Chapter 11 we were told that as they moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. And then God had to judge them.

Now, we are told that when Terah came to Harran, he settled there. Exact same words! Does this mean God might have to judge him also?

Well, verse 32: Terah lived 205 years, and he died in Harran.


Terah started well: he left Babylon behind. He even left one of his sons behind, a son who refused to follow his father’s lead. But apparently he did not leave Babylon far enough behind. Apparently he physically left the Land of Confusion…but he carried the spiritual confusion with him.

And this is confirmed later on in scripture. Joshua, who took over from Moses, made this comment once: “Long ago our ancestors, including Terah the father of Abraham and Nahor, lived beyond the Euphrates River and worshiped other gods.” This is how we know that there was no one left on earth at that time who still had faith that God would keep his promises: even Terah, the last son of Shem, was an idol-worshiper!

So God was faithful to Terah because Terah was a son of Shem, not because Terah was faithful to God. God was faithful to Terah, he saved him from the curse of Babylon — but Terah was not faithful to God. Yes, he left Babylon. But as soon as he came to some fertile countryside…he settled down. Yes, he left Babylon. But he was carrying the curse of Babylon with him: the lust for power and wealth and stability. He basically told God, “Thanks for rescuing me from that chaos…but I’m gonna build my own city now, I’m gonna make a great name for myself.”

And sure enough, archaeologists have uncovered a very ancient city in northern Syria that has Terah’s name.

And that is where Terah ended his life.

And so, once again, the promises of God seem to be hanging by a thread. Terah has turned out to be unfaithful. Terah’s three sons are a train wreck: one is dead, one has refused to leave Babylon, one has a wife who is not able to conceive. So if this grandson Lot does not have sons of his own…the name of Shem is going to disappear from the face of the earth and there will be no saviour for mankind.

Fortunately, there is more to this story. And as we keep reading here we find that Moses backtracks a bit, and shows us why Terah left Babylon in the first place:

[1] The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.”

Apparently leaving the Land of Confusion was Abram’s idea. He showed up one day and said, “Hey, dad, brothers, some god just spoke to me and said I should leave you all behind, and he would lead me to a new land!”

And this would have been a Big Deal: you do not just leave your country, your people, and your father’s household!

Why not? Well, for one thing: that is your economic support structure. It is very hard to survive in the world without connections. This is one reason why refugees struggle so much, because they have been uprooted from their support structures. But this god who just spoke to Abram is telling him to go and become a refugee!

But even more importantly: in those days, your gods were connected to your father’s household, to your tribe, and to your land. So to leave those things physically also meant leaving those things spiritually. Which means this god who just spoke to Abram is telling him to go and become a spiritual refugee as well!

But, apparently this god went on to make some promises in return: [2] “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. [3] I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”

Now, Moses is going to revisit these promises in detail many times during the next 10 chapters of Genesis. So for now I will just point out that this god has just promised Abram that if he does agree to give up everything and become a refugee, then this god will replace everything Abram gives up:

If Abram leaves his father’s household, this god will make Abram a father over his own household.

If Abram leaves his people, this god will give Abram a people of his own.

If Abram leaves his country, this god will give Abram a country of his very own.

And it seems that Abram’s father Terah decided to listen to his son: as Moses just told us, Terah took his son Abram and the rest of the family and left Ur of the Chaldeans to go to Canaan. Terah endorsed his son’s vision and took charge and moved the family away from the Land of Confusion.

But as we have already seen he did not go far enough. He settled in Harran and refused to travel further.

And this left Abram with a hard choice to make. This strange new god did not say, “Persuade your father to follow you.” He said, “Leave your father behind if you have to.” The fact that Terah made the first part of the journey with him…was a nice bonus. But Harran is not the land this god wants to show Abram.

What should Abram do? Should he be faithful to his earthly father Terah, or should he trust in the promises of this new god?

[4] So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him.

So, Abram decides to obey. He continues the journey.

But…he also disobeys. His instructions were to leave his father’s household behind. Lot is part of Terah’s household. In fact, Lot is the last remaining hope of Terah’s household.

So even though Abram is trusting this strange new god to lead him into a new land…he is not really trusting this god’s promise to give him a whole new household of his own. Abram is bringing Lot along as a sort of insurance policy just in case Abram himself does not have any sons of his own. In essence, Lot is his adopted heir, his adopted son.

So Moses is giving Abram 50% marks on this one: he is being halfway obedient. At least he is not stopping and dying along the way!

And that is enough to push the story forward: Abram was seventy-five years old when he set out from Harran. [5] He took his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, all the possessions they had accumulated and the people they had acquired in Harran, and they set out for the land of Canaan, and they arrived there. [6] Abram traveled through the land as far as the site of the great tree of Moreh at Shechem. At that time the Canaanites were in the land.

So as Abram arrives in Canaan he discovers that it is full of people: Canaanites. These are some of the people who were scattered when the Babylonian coalition fell apart. Some generations earlier these Canaanite people had fled from the Land of Confusion in the east and had settled here in these mountains of the west, beside the Mediterranean Sea.

But they had not escaped from the Land of Confusion, they had actually brought the confusion with them: the Canaanites were idolaters who worshiped many pet gods — just like Terah, just like everyone else.

And I’m sure Abram looked around and thought, “Oh. I’m not sure this is much of an improvement on my situation!”

But then, [7] the Lord appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.”

The Lord is telling Abram that this land of Canaan will not always be a Land of Confusion: it is going to be redeemed and brought into proper order. And — this part is very important — it is going to be redeemed for Abram’s offspring…not Lot’s offspring.

The Lord is repeating his promises to Abram. He is also pointing out that at least 50% of Abram’s hope is in the wrong thing. Lot is Abram’s backup plan, but the Lord is saying, “Son, you don’t need a backup plan! I keep my promises!”

— but, just like the Lord, we’re gonna show Abram some grace here. We’re not going to be too hard on him, because — after all — he was raised in an idol-worshiping household, and it has been many many generations since anyone in his family has had any faith at all in God’s promises. It is going to take some time for Abram to learn how to trust this strange new god that no one has talked to for many hundreds of years.

And the truth is: Abram has already made a huge step of faith. Because — did you notice? — this verse here is actually the first time Abram seen his new God. Back in Ur of the Chaldeans, God only spoke to Abram.

In other words: Abram’s faith in God came by hearing, not by sight. And that is a huge step forward for someone who was raised as an idol-worshiper. Idol-worshipers are very visual people. That’s why they make idols! That’s why they build cities. That’s why they are obsessed with having visions to guide them instead of just words.

But Abram is already different from everyone else: he listened to God’s voice, and he did not demand a sign or a miracle. He trusted! He obeyed! He followed! And only then did the Lord appear to him and confirm his faith.

So then, Abram built an altar there to the Lord. [8] From there he went on toward the hills east of Bethel and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east. There he built an altar to the Lord and called on the name of the Lord.

The Lord has rewarded Abram’s first baby steps of faith by appearing to him. So now Abram has responded by taking a further step of faith: he has begun to travel through his promised land, building altars.

What are the significance of these altars?

Well, remember, this is a land full of confused people practicing confused worship. Canaan is a land in terrible disorder, every bit as bad as Babylon. It is full of cities like Bethel and Ai, each city dedicated to gods and goddesses, each city a center of false worship.

Now, the Lord has promised Abram that somehow this land is going to be redeemed and brought into proper order…but how? What should Abram do? Should he start building a city of his own? Should he start building a great name for himself?

No. By God’s grace, Abram has learned the lessons of history: if you try to build your own city, your own name, your own system of worship, God is going to knock it down. It is a fruitless exercise.

And so — just like Noah did when he came out of the ark — Abram is building altars as an act of dedication to God. Just as Noah dedicated the whole earth to God by his sacrifice, now also Abram is dedicating this land to God, piece by piece. He is travelling from north to south, setting up little points of proper worship along the way as he goes.

Is the land transformed? Not yet. Not for a long time. But the seeds of transformation are being planted. The seeds of a new garden of Eden are being planted. God is going to keep his promises.

Each altar is an act of faith on Abram’s part. Back in verse 2 God told him, “I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing to the peoples around you.” So Abram feels no need to build a city and make his own name great. He knows that his job is to trust God to build his own cities in his own time and in his own way. He knows that his job is simply to plant the seeds of true cities — true worship — in the midst of these confused nations.

And that is what he keeps on doing: [9] Abram set out and continued toward the Negev.

He is travelling through the land of Canaan from north to south, symbolically dedicating it to his new Lord as he goes.

So: what does this mean for us? How is this meant to tranform the way we live?

Well, in case you haven’t noticed by this point in Genesis: Moses has a “thing” about cities and sacred centers and worship. In his mind these things always go together.

Now, Moses has not been saying that cities are bad! But he has been pointing out, from the start, that really there are only two kinds of cities in the world: the kind that are built by God, at God’s direction; and the kind that are built by mankind for their own selfish purposes. Cities of God; Cities of Man. The garden of Eden is Moses’ premiere example of a city built by God; Babylon is Moses’ premiere example of a city built by mankind.

And the thing Moses wants all his readers to understand is that every man-built city always always leads to false worship, confusion, division, false unity, tyranny, slavery, destruction, and ultimately: Judgement. But every God-built city always always leads to true worship, order, diversity, true unity, love, freedom and eternal life.

And when we put it that way, the choice is obvious: would you rather live in Babylon, or the garden of Eden? Would you rather live in slavery, or freedom? Would you rather have a pet god that you have to feed, or a real God who feeds you?

And yet we consistently choose to build our own cities and centers and systems of worship.


Because we’re all idol-worshipers. We’re all very visual: we trust our own sight more than we trust God’s voice. We’re a lot like Terah: we realize our current situation is not very good, so we migrate to get away from our old mess. But then, as soon as we come to a new place that looks good to us…we stop. We trust our own sight. We try to ignore that voice that whispers, “No! No, you haven’t gone far enough!” We settle down and start building a new city, a new name for ourselves…and the same old mess catches up with us again because we actually carried the mess with us.

We all carry our idols with us wherever we go. We set them up in every new place we move to, in every new relationship we develop. And then, once the novelty wears off, we wonder why things keep going wrong!

For instance: we quit one job because “too many hours, got no life” — but after a little while the same thing happens at our second job, and then our third. And what is our conclusion? “The work culture in Malaysia is the problem! If I moved to Oz things would be better!” Do I stop to wonder if maybe I am a workaholic, maybe I lack the character to say “no” to the pressures of work? Of course not! I’m not the problem, someone else is!

Or we get a new girlfriend or boyfriend, because the old one — ugh! — but after a while the new one turns out to be same as the previous. And what is our conclusion? “All men are jerks!” “All women are neurotic!” Do we stop to wonder if maybe I keep choosing to date jerks and neurotics because of some deep dysfunction within myself? Of course not! I’m not the problem, someone else is!

And then we do it again: the same old city, the same old pattern.

We are like computers with corrupted operating systems: we can shut it down and carry it somewhere else and start it up again — but the same issue is just going to come back.

What we need is a new operating system. We need a Factory Restore and the latest security update. Our hearts need to be wiped and reformatted.

But how are we supposed to do that?

Well, this is where we need to follow Abram’s example. There is a voice speaking to every person on earth, and it is saying, “Keep going! You have not arrived yet! Do not trust your own vision of what you think is good for you. Do not trust your own hands to build what you need. Trust my voice instead! Let me lead you to a new kind of city.”

That voice is the voice of the Creator God. He wants to have a Father-child relationship with each one of us. But he knows that, like children, we are all born saying, “No! I do it myself! I fix the world myself! I fix myself!”

So…like any good father, he gives us the freedom to try. And as we try, and fail, and as those recurring patterns show up in our lives, he gently points them out to us. He is saying, “Hey, have you noticed that you keep dating abusive men? Could this be because you have a deep, broken, longing to be controlled and protected by a strong male figure? You know, I could be a strong male figure in your life — and I will never abuse you.” Or, “Hey, have you noticed that you keep spending money you don’t have? Could this be because you have a deep, broken, longing to be valued by others? You know, you are valuable to me no matter how much you earn or spend.” Or, “Hey, have you noticed that your emotional life is very closely tied to social media? Could this be because you have a deep, broken longing to be included? You know, I would love to include you in my family, no matter how many ‘likes’ you get online.”

We need to pay attention to the patterns in our lives. They are the voice of God pointing to idols that we are carrying around in our hearts. But then, as those idolatrous patterns are revealed to us…do not try to fix those patterns yourself! Because “fixing it yourself” is part of the idolatrous pattern! That is the confusion of Babylon! And that is the mistake Terah made.

Like Abram, we need to go further than Terah. It is not enough to recognize that where we are is not a good place. We also need to recognize that the next place we go is also not going to be a good place. And if it seems to be a good place — well! that’s when we are in the most danger! Because that is the moment we are most likely to trust our own sight, settle down, and try to do it ourselves…again.

God is asking each of us to leave behind our country, our people, our father’s households. Sometimes this literally means leaving physically — but it definitely means leaving spiritually.

But what does that mean: to leave our fathers’ households spiritually?

It means giving up the core idea that we can reprogram ourselves, that we can build our own countries, our own people, our own households, our own cities. We can’t. Anything we build is going to be just as messed up as what we left behind. This is why we all grow up saying things like, “I am not going to do what my parents did!” — and then we do.

But how?

This impulse to reprogram ourselves is so deeply built into us, it is who we are! And how can we change who we are? That would be like trying to perform a heart transplant on ourselves: clearly impossible!

— that’s right. It is not possible for us to reprogram ourselves. That is the the whole point.

So how?

This is how: the only way to give up this core idea that we can reprogram ourselves…is by following a God who has promised to reprogram his followers. A God who keeps his promises.

And there is only one God like that. In all of history there has only ever been one God like that. Every other god in the world says, “Build me a city! Feed me snacks! and maybe I’ll be nice to you.” But the God of Abram says, “I am going to build a city for you. I am going to feed you. I am going to give you a family: I am going to make you my child.”

And all we have to do is respond to his offer: yes, or no.

If we say no…then no hard feelings: we go back to our old lives, our old patterns, we serve our selfish, demanding idols, and then we die. And continue in slavery to those false gods for all eternity.

But if we say yes…then God adopts us, baptizes us, and the reprogramming begins.

And it begins right away. Because, just like Abram, when we first begin our journey of faith we do not know where we are going. And us not knowing is actually an essential part of the reprogramming process. Because, if we knew where our Father was leading us, we would try to help! Our Father knows this about us. And so, to break us of that bad habit of self-direction, he turns off the lights and he says, “Follow the sound of my voice. Live by faith, not by sight. You can trust me.”

It is by taking that first step into the unknown that we take our first step away from the core idea that we can “fix it ourselves”. And the further we travel, the more our Father reformats our hearts, leading us into a kind of life and freedom that we never imagined could even exist! getting us ready for the city that is to come.

But even as we take those steps of faith, there’s a problem, isn’t there?

Because we know in our heart of hearts that we are not fully committed to this journey. We believe! but we also don’t believe. We follow! but we are also carrying our most precious idols with us. We trust God! but we also have this idea that if God lets us down we can always go back to Plan A and start building our own country, our own nation, our own family, our own city.

And I know that many of us are very aware of how doubleminded we are. We are aware that our commitment is not a total commitment, and this can cause us to doubt. This can cause us to wonder if we really are on the right road. Because how can God be fully committed to us if we are not fully committed to him?

So I want to assure us all that: yes, if you are baptized, if you are listening for your Father’s voice, if you are walking forward in company with brothers and sisters in the faith — then yes, you are on the right road, and our Father is fully committed to you.

And the reason I can tell you this with confidence is because Abram himself was not completely committed to God either. Abram trusted God! and he did not trust God. He followed God! but he also brought an insurance policy with him. And that is going to become very clear over the next few chapters.

The Good News for Abram is this: God is not going to let him hold on to that insurance policy. God is going to completely reformat his heart. But this is going to take time! Abram, at this point in the story, is still mostly Babylonian. He is still mostly confused about who God is and what he is being called to do. But God knows, and God is committed to the process. He already appeared to Abram once; he is going to do so again; and the more Abram gets to know this strange new God, the more he is going to change.

That is the Good News for us as well. We are God’s children. Like children, we all start out with, “No, daddy! I do it myself!” But because he is our Daddy, he is committed to the process. He has already appeared to us, right here in the pages of scripture, in the person of Jesus Christ. If we want to see God, all we have to do is open our bibles and listen. And the more we get to know Christ, the more we are going to change.

So, very practically speaking now, what does all this mean for us? How does this tranform the way we live?

This is how: just like the Lord did for Abram, we’re gonna show ourselves some grace here. We’re gonna show one another some grace. After all, like Abram, we are going to be on this road together for a while. And, like Abram, we are going to be carrying our idols with us for a while. Most likely we are going to see others’ idols more clearly than they can, and most likely they are going to see our idols more clearly that we can. This can be frustrating! And this frustration can lead us to start beating others and beating ourselves, saying, “Come on! Do better! Work harder! Walk faster! Build higher!”

And while we do want to hold one another accountable, we do want to alert our brothers and sisters to idols they may not be aware they are carrying…we are going to do this gently, recognizing that the transformation of hearts is our Father’s work, not ours.

Abram has arrived in the promised land — but it is not what he expected. It is not a finished product. It is not yet the garden of Eden. But instead of shouting, “Come on!” and getting all his old idols out of his backpack, instead Abram has begun setting up little altars of faith, seeds of the godly cities to come. Point by point, he is dedicating different idolatrous pieces of the land to God, trusting that God will do what he has promised when the time is right.

It’s the same way for us. Our lives — our churches — are not a finished product. We look around…and we’re often a bit discouraged. But we live by faith, not by sight. We live by the voice of our Father. And he has told us not to expect perfect instantaneous transformation. All he has called us to do for now is set up little altars of faith in each idolatrous section of our lives. As the Holy Spirit gradually reveals each self-defeating pattern to us, we plant a flag next to it and we say, “Father, I dedicate this to you. Do something about it. Please!”

And he will. That is a promise. 

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