God appeared to Abram sometime during the first sixty years of his life. The details of this appearance are sparse. Four sentences spoken by Stephen in Acts chapter 7 reveal that God appeared to Abram before his family moved to Haran. At the time God appeared, Abram may have been a teenager like Joseph perceiving God’s plan in a dream, or a full-grown man like Paul arrested by a great light.
We know God made a conditional promise in his first appearance. If Abram separated from his family to live in a foreign land, God would bless Abram and everyone all families of the earth. We also know that Abram did not obey God for a very long time. Instead of following God to a foreign land, sixty-year-old Abram followed his father, Terah, to the land of Haran. Fifteen years elapsed before Abram’s story continued.
After seventy-five-year-old Abram buried his father, he remembered the promise a spiritual father made to him and took his first step of faith – a halting, faltering baby step. He had already left his country, Ur, but stopped short of going to the land God would “show him”. A fifteen year absence from Ur left him little reason to return. He no doubt loved his father and longed for another one, so he traveled to the land his spiritual father would show him but he did not fully obey God the Father’s instructions. His nephew, Lot, traveled with him to Canaan.
Abram’s attempt at obedience was sufficient for God. When Abram and his entourage arrived at Shechem in the land of Canaan, God appeared to him a second time. Let’s consider the word “appeared”, which suggest Abram saw God first while living in Ur and a second time at Shechem. Why didn’t seeing an all-powerful being of light spur Abram to prompt obedience? What exactly did Abram “see” when God “appeared” to him?
We know that Abram did not see God’s face. God said to Moses, “…[Y]ou cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live” (Exodus 33:20). But those are Old Testament words; what does the New Testament say? “No one has ever seen God….”(John 1:18). All right, but the gospel of John records things said before the Holy Spirit came; what did John write later? “No one has ever seen God…”(1 John 4:12). God and the Apostle John have made it very clear that no one has seen God and that would include Abram.
Yet the Bible says God spoke to Moses “face to face as a man does his friend” (Exodus 33:11). God also spoke to the nation of Israel “face to face” (Deuteronomy 5:4). If “no one has ever seen God” why are there several “face-to-face” encounters recorded in the Bible? Examining these encounters with God may shed light on Abram’s experience when God appeared to him.
Moses reminded Israel, “The Lord talked with you face to face on the mountain from the midst of the fire” (Deuteronomy 5:4, NKJ). If we carefully study the entire passage of which this verse is a part we find that Israel was not near the mountain when their face-to-face encounter took place. When God arrived, they were frightened by the fire that descended on the mountain in the midst of a torrential rain storm and fled from the mountain to stand “afar off”. They were not the only ones terrified. Hebrews Chapter 12 says, “so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, ‘I am exceedingly afraid and trembling.’”
Israel’s face-to-face encounter with God terrified everyone, but we must not forget what else happened that day. During Israel’s face-to-face encounter God spoke the Ten Commandments, which revealed his character. God lives by the commands he gave Israel to live by, hence, the irony of Israel’s fear. While they stood afar off terrified God would kill them, God was on the mountain saying “do not murder.” The things God spoke were overpowered by the disturbance his presence among them created.
Israel’s encounter with the manifest presence of God did not benefit them. Within months, they broke the covenant he made with them by worshipping a golden calf their own hands had made. If God appeared to us today in a physical manifestation of his presence, it’s doubtful it would benefit us either.
Moses’ face-to-face revelation of God revealed slightly more, a glimpse of God’s back as he walked by. The greater revelation of God came to Moses through the words God spoke as he walked by because God revealed his character through the things he spoke. Clearly, both Israel and Moses’s face-to-face revelation of God came from what they heard more than from what they saw.
The first time the Bible says that God “appeared” is in Genesis 12:7 but it’s not the first time the Hebrew word ra’ ah that was translated “appeared” is used. Ra’ ah’s first occurrence is in Genesis 1:4 “And God saw/ra’ ah the light that it was good…” In Chapter 1ra’ ah is translated God “saw” and in Chapter 7 God “appeared”, yet it is the same Hebrew word.
Strong’s Dictionary defines ra’ ah as “to see literally or figuratively.” Vine’s exposition of ra’ ah says “to see, observe, perceive, get acquainted with, gain understanding, examine, choose, discover.” Basically, ra’ ah connotes “seeing with one’s eyes; and this is its meaning in Gen. 1:4, its first biblical appearance.” Who was seeing with one’s eyes? God saw with his eyes.
If the translators had remained true to ra’ah meaning Genesis 12:7 would say; “Then the Lord “saw” Abram and said, ‘To your descendants I will give this land,’” or “Then the Lord got acquainted with Abram… or “Then the Lord chose Abram…” If you replace “appeared” with the meaning of ra’ ah, it becomes clear that God initiated contact with Abram. Abram was not looking for God. God was looking for Abram. Abram did not see God. God saw Abram.
Now look at Genesis 12:1 where I have inserted ra’ ah. “The Lord had said to Abram, “Leave you country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will “see” you.” Yes, the word translated “show” is in Genesis 12:1 is ra’ ah. In verse1ra’ ah is translated as “show” and in verse 7 it’s translated as “appeared”. Based on the fact that no one has ever seen God, the translators should have maintained ra’ ah’s meaning “to see”.
In Summary, in verse 1 God told Abram to leave his country and “come to a land where I will see you”. When Abraham arrived in Canaan, verse 7 literally says, “the Lord saw him.” Let me remind you that more than 15 years elapsed between the first time God saw Abram in Ur and the second time God saw him in Shechem. Abram’s disobedience created the long silence.
As we have already seen in Moses and Israel’s experience, a face to face encounter with God encompasses what you hear, not what you see. We won’t see God the way we can see one another — God will see us. We cannot see God with our physical eyes today. Doing so would kill us. We do have “eyes” with which we can see God. Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8, kjv, emphasis added).” We can see God today if we purify our hearts. That is why what we hope for is so very important. “Everyone who has this hope in him (God) purifies himself, just as he (God) is pure” (1 John 3:3). The hope we have that God will keep the promises he made to Abram is the only way to purify our hearts, so we can see God.
But, I already made it clear that no one has ever seen God and at this point you may be wondering if I am confused. I’m not. No one has ever seen God with the eyeballs that rest on either side of our nose. All right, if we can’t see God with our physical eyes today, how can we see God? The answer is found in Ephesians.
“…that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give to you the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him, the eyes of your understanding being enlightened; that you may know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints” (Ephesians 1:17-18, NKJ, emphasis added).
We cannot see God with our physical eyes like we see one another, but we can see God with the eyes of our understanding. Other translations read “eyes of your heart”. Specifically, with the eyes of a pure heart, and even more specifically still, with the eyes of a heart purified by making God’s hope my hope.
Appearances don’t tell us very much and can be deceiving. Appearances deceive us into fearing what we should NOT fear. Israel feared the fire of God that rested on the mountain top would consume them. Consequently, they did not desire to know God. They told Moses, “You talk to God and tell us what he says!” The Apostle Paul desired more than anything that those he won to Christ would know and clearly understand the God who desired to make them his beloved children. Ephesians 1:17-18 in the Living Bible says:
“I have never stopped thanking God for you, I pray for you constantly, asking God the glorious Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, to give you wisdom to see clearly and really understand who Christ is and all that he has done for you. I pray that your hearts will be flooded with light so that you can see something of the future he has called you to share. I want you to realize that God has been made rich because we who are Christ’s have been given to him!” (Ephesians 1:17-18, The Living Bible)
We are the treasure God seeks. Someone who owns everything, as God does, would not measure riches in dollars and cents. Our desire to let God be our Father has enriched God’s life.
God is looking for us. When we obey God’s will for our lives, God will appear to us, too. God will ra’ ah us. God will see us. Just as Abram knew the will of God for his life, we also can know God’s will, because he’s given us a book that reveals who he is and his plan for the future.
The prophet Habakkuk said to God, “You are of purer eyes than to behold evil.” Anything that is not God’s will is evil, because only God is good. When God sees us in his will, he will speak to us because the purity of embracing the hope he has given to us enables us to understand God and he can add to our knowledge about him.