Text: Genesis 12:10-13:4
A Crisis of Faith
After coming to the land of Canaan, Abram is beset with hardship. Famine could spell certain doom to himself and his household. The large number of people and livestock require a huge amount of resources to feed. This famine is not just an ordinary famine; it is severe. Abram is faced with a difficult choice. He must either remain and potentially lose those under his charge to starvation or find a place to feed his household and leave the land of God’s promise. It is easy to judge Abram for his lack of faith, but few may honestly say that they would act differently if faced with same choice. Regardless, the famine was ordained by God, and God knew the outcome and Abram’s actions. He provided Egypt as a means to supply the need for Abram’s household. Abram is to be commended for going to Egypt rather than home to Ur.
It is worth noting a little bit about Egypt. Just as Babylon represents a culture in rebellion to God and Canaan represents God’s promise of restoration, so also Egypt has a common motif in Scripture. It frequently represents an unreliable, temporary, human solution that is used in lieu of reliance upon God. Egypt is the refuge of those who vacillate.
Egypt was already an ancient civilization. Even the pyramids were old. Egypt was at this time in the period known as the Middle Kingdom. The Middle Kingdom was a time marked by unusual openness and even welcome to outsiders. Thus, Abram’s arrival is at a time when he is likely to be welcomed into Egypt.
Before he even enters Egypt, Abram concocts a plan. He fears the Egyptians. He likely knows little about them and projects upon them his own knowledge of societies like Ur. He fears for his life in light of the fact that his wife is uniquely beautiful. He proposes a telling a half-truth. Sarai is indeed his half-sister as we see later in Genesis. However, his intention is nevertheless deceitful. As head of this enormous household, he sets the example. This example of deceit is later repeated by his wife.
The source of Abram’s fear is unbelief. He likely knows little about God, and he might have held onto the theology of the times. In Ur, Canaan, and Egypt, the theology of the time was that a given god only had power in his city or country. One of the central purposes of this narrative is to demonstrate the omnipresent and supreme sovereignty of God in all places.
Whatever the reason for Abram’s choice to deceive, he likely had little reason to fear if he had been honest. The Egyptians practiced polygamy to a lower degree than the people of Ur and highly revered marriage. Nonetheless, he was right about one thing. The Egyptians recognized Sarai’s beauty. She was then recommended to one of the few Egyptians who regularly practiced polygamy – the Pharaoh.
In reality, this may not be as bad as we think. This is likely a ceremonial marriage to cement an alliance with Abram. Sarai is taken into the household and likely would have had to have undergone an “Egyptianization.” This would have been similar to the treatment that Esther underwent before entering the household of Ahasuerus. However, Abram does have a problem. He is stuck in Egypt and not able to return to Canaan.
The gifts given by Pharaoh to Abram represent a solidification of political alliance as well as a bride price for his “sister.” It was customary to give this gift to the man charged with care of a particular woman. The gifts are large and costly. Some scholars claim that the presence of camels is an anachronism for the Abram’s time, but the evidence is hardly conclusive. There is at least one (roughly) contemporary Ugaritic text that mentions them. Also noteworthy among the wealth bestowed upon Abram was most likely a servant girl named Hagar.
God is faithful to his people even when they act faithlessly with Him. The author of Genesis rarely comments on the morality of the actions of the actors involved. His audience were the recipients of the Law and had little need for a moral commentary. They knew that Abram’s actions did not match the commandments given by God. This would have been the first of many illustrations that their forbearers were imperfect people chosen by a perfect God not according to their own righteousness.
God preserves the covenant union of Abram and Sarai by plaguing Egypt. It is an interesting foreshadowing of how God would later deliver their descendants by plagues out of the land of Egypt. If God plagued a Pharaoh who unknowingly sinned against His elect, how much more would He plague the Pharaoh who sinned against His elect with the fullness of guile? In this, God prevents Pharaoh from sinning by taking another man’s wife. Also, it would have like shaken any preconceptions of Abram of the limitations of God. This God that he served was not merely the God of Canaan. Rather, He is the one true God of all the world. He is All-present and Almighty.
Pharaoh recognizes that this plague is no ordinary plague. As the Egyptian magicians would one day say before the Exodus, “This is the finger of God!” How Pharaoh learned that Sarai is Abram’s wife is not imparted here. He may have learned it from some sort of dream or other revelation of God, but the text does not say. Regardless, Pharaoh promptly rebukes Abram. Here is a picture of pagan who was blasphemously declared to be a god by his own people rebuking God’s elect for his sin.
Pharaoh harshly questions him with regard to why did what he did. Why did you lie and ensnare me to sin? Do you hate me so much that you would bring condemnation on me? Pharaoh in effect shows that Abram’s fears were unfounded. Perhaps most importantly, Abram has violated a sacred Near Eastern custom of hospitality. Pharaoh has opened his borders and Abram has treated him with contempt.
Despite the stern dressing down that he receives from Pharaoh, Abram is favorably sent away. However, in the midst of famine, this is still an unfortunate situation. Pharaoh sends him away with all the gifts and gives instructions that his people should not molest him in his going. It is likely that Pharaoh feared harming this man on account of whom he had received such plagues.
God demonstrates his love to Abram by sparing his union with Sarai from being tainted on account of his sin, by preserving the purpose of his promise of the Offspring (or Seed), and by returning Abram back to the land of promise. God does not long allow his own to remain in disobedience. Rather, He chastens them by His hand for their deliverance. God did not make His people for captivity to sin but for freedom in His grace.
A Return to Obedience
When Abram returns, where does he go first? He returns through the desert of the Negev and makes his way to the place between Bethel and Ai where formerly he had worshipped God. In his return from sin, he goes to the last place where he was within God’s revealed will. Here he had built his altar and called upon the Name of the Lord in worship. Once again, he worships the Lord in this place. This is such a beautiful picture of the return of one of God’s elect by God’s grace. Here he is restored from sin back to the worship of the one true God.
Abram has much cause to worship God. God has provided for him in the midst of the famine. Indeed, his wealth is augmented by the hand of the Lord through Pharaoh. God has spared Pharaoh from sinning against him and thereby preserved his plan and covenant. God has chastened him. This is a grace often forgotten by Christians. We fear God’s discipline, but it is a gracious gift of God for our salvation. Lastly, God has spared him from retribution at the hand of Pharaoh and restored him to the land of promise.
Abram comes out of Egypt heavy with blessing. God’s blessing is manifested to him in physical terms as a sign of his favor. To all who saw Abram, this was a testament of God’s blessing to him. However, these material blessings are all temporary. Oxen, camels, sheep, goats, manservants, and maidservants all die in time. Silver tarnishes. Clothes wear out and are moth-eaten. The eternal blessings of God, however, do not fade in these ways. Abram’s greatest blessing is yet to come.
Despite God’s restoration of Abram to the land of promise, there are nonetheless negative fruits of Abram’s sin. Sin is vile and deceptive weed in the garden. The weed may appear rooted out, but it returns time and again even in the well cultivated ground of the life of the elect. On account of his sojourning in Egypt Abram’s wealth has increased even more. This wealth will cause strife between Abram and his nephew Lot. Lot also has seen the riches of Egypt. This desire will set him on the path to pitching his tent near Sodom, to dwelling in Sodom, and to being accepted at the city gate of Sodom as a city leader. Lastly, if Hagar has indeed entered his household at this time, she will become part of one of Abram’s greatest failings of faith.
This passage and others like it are comforting to me as a believer. Abram is used time and time again in the Scriptures as the picture of saving faith, yet we see that he doubted and sinned. Nevertheless, God was faithful to restore him to obedience. We stumble, we fall, and we fail, but we are never outside of the grace of the God who saves us. If we are indeed His saints, He will restore us to obedience. As with so many passages, this direct our attention to the goodness and faithfulness of the God that we serve.