This is the third article in a short “Genesis January” series to help people explore the complexity of the Bible at the start of a new year.
We live in a restless generation. My husband and I have moved 15 times in 24 years of marriage. And while that number is higher than average, we’re not alone. It’s somewhat unusual to stay put in the same community and the same line of work for more than 10 years.
People these days move for job or school opportunities, marriage, or proximity to family. Some of us relocate simply to find a community that better fits our budgets or ideals. Sometimes our migrations are precipitated by conflict or concern—divorce, a health crisis, an age-related decline, or an escape from violence.
We find similar relocation themes in the Old Testament. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob moved their families a lot. If you’re reading through Genesis this month, you’ve probably noticed. Their reasons for moving are different than ours, but they can still teach us something about how to live well.
Unless you’ve fled with your belongings from a war-torn area, it will be difficult to imagine the arduous journey Abraham’s family faced as they traversed ancient Mesopotamia. They couldn’t rent a U-Haul truck. They traveled in tents, carrying everything they owned and leading flocks of sheep and goats. These herds were their key to survival, providing milk to drink, meat to eat, and animal skins to make water-resistant tents. Keeping these flocks alive was a perpetual challenge in a region with little vegetation and few bodies of fresh water—almost entirely dependent on rainfall. I’m already tired just thinking about it.
They couldn’t pop in to Walmart for supplies. Everything they needed had to be made from scratch or bartered from those they met. Living off the land is one thing when you can fence off your acreage and cultivate fields of your own. It’s quite another when you live as a guest on lands belonging to others. For Abraham and his family, getting along with neighboring groups was essential.
I just returned from a trip to Israel, where we traveled the land in a temperature-controlled tour bus with cushioned seats and (most importantly) Wi-Fi. Bottled water was readily available whenever we were thirsty. As someone who teaches and writes about the Torah—the first five books of the Bible—I was reminded again how few of these narratives take place in the land now known as Israel. With one exception in Numbers 13, all of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy take place outside the Promised Land.
That leaves Genesis, for which the land of Canaan seems hardly more than a waystation. Abraham arrives there and leaves again in Genesis 12. He returns in chapter 13, negotiating with his nephew about where they should both live because “their possessions were so great that they were not able to stay together. And quarreling arose between Abram’s herders and Lot’s” (vv. 6–7). This is the first of many quarrels we read about overgrazing and water rights.
In Genesis 14:14, we learn that Abraham has 318 fighting men in his household, so if you’ve pictured Abraham and Sarah alone with a few sheep in the desert, you’ll need to recalibrate your imagination. Including women and children, Abraham presides over a camp of at least a thousand people. No doubt he possesses many thousands of animals to provide for their needs.
By chapter 20, Abraham and his entourage have moved again for reasons we’re not told. We can only guess he’s searching for enough land and water for his herds and tents. Despite his great wealth, Abraham is still a visitor in Canaan. When Sarah dies in chapter 23, Abraham buys a cave in which to bury her, and by the end of his life, her grave is still the only land he owns.
Isaac’s troubles are similar to his father’s. His increasing wealth creates conflict with the Philistines he lives among. Envious of his success, they clog his wells (Gen. 26:14–15). Whoever controls the water controls the land. Isaac moves and repeatedly finds water, but the locals keep claiming it for themselves (vv. 17–22). Finding a peaceful place to live is a perpetual challenge.
Isaac’s son Jacob leaves Canaan to find a wife and stays for many years in Mesopotamia. He returns in Genesis 32 with an entourage of his own: two wives, two concubines, 11 sons, numerous servants, and sizable herds of cattle, donkeys, sheep, and goats (vv. 4–5). He declines an invitation to live near his brother Esau, which seems wise enough, given what we know about the difficulty of living side by side in a land of limited resources.
Jacob’s sons experience sibling rivalry of their own, although this time the trouble is not water but rather favoritism, as the story of Joseph reveals. After Joseph goes to Egypt as a victim of human trafficking, the rest of the family follows due to famine in Canaan (again, water issues). The Book of Genesis ends here: in Egypt.
Surprisingly, all these moves are a feature, not a bug for Abraham’s family. It makes them who they are. Abraham’s transience becomes part of his legacy.
Toward the end of Deuteronomy, in Moses’ last speech to the Israelites before their entry into Canaan, he instructs them to bring God the first of their crops as a thank offering (Deut. 26). As they do, they’re supposed to recite their history, beginning with this statement: “My father was a wandering Aramean” (v. 5).
Abraham’s moves are such an important part of the Israelites’ story that they are commanded to recount them every year. Having been nomads, they’re to cherish the land with gratitude but not keep it to themselves. Moses instructs them to designate a tithe of their produce every third year for those without land: “the Levite, the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that they may eat in your towns and be satisfied” (v. 12).
Israel’s law is filled with reminders of their immigrant status. “Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt” (Ex. 23:9).
Their experience as outsiders living on the edge of survival is meant to shape their ethics by fostering empathy.
Those of us who’ve moved know how much work it takes to start over in a new community. Moving carries a litany of losses and a significant expenditure of energy, but the gains can be even greater. Our reasons for relocating are different than Abraham’s, but those experiences can still shape our compassionate responses to newcomers in our neighborhoods, workplaces, schools, and churches. And like the Israelites, we’re called to show gracious hospitality to others on the move.
Carmen Joy Imes is an associate professor of Old Testament at Biola University’s Talbot School of Theology and the author of Bearing God’s Name: Why Sinai Still Matters.
Read the other pieces in the series: