10 Now there was a famine in the land. So Abram went down to Egypt to reside there as an alien, for the famine was severe in the land. 11 When he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, ‘I know well that you are a woman beautiful in appearance; 12 and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, “This is his wife”; then they will kill me, but they will let you live. 13 Say you are my sister, so that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared on your account.’ 14 When Abram entered Egypt the Egyptians saw that the woman was very beautiful. 15 When the officials of Pharaoh saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh. And the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house. 16 And for her sake he dealt well with Abram; and he had sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male and female slaves, female donkeys, and camels.
17 But the Lord afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife. 18 So Pharaoh called Abram, and said, ‘What is this you have done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife? 19 Why did you say, “She is my sister”, so that I took her for my wife? Now then, here is your wife; take her, and be gone.’ 20 And Pharaoh gave his men orders concerning him; and they set him on the way, with his wife and all that he had.
Abraham probably lived about 4,000 years ago. His father's name was Terah, and he had two brothers, Nahor and Haran. His wife was Sarah, and he was the uncle of Lot. Abraham was sent by God from his home in Ur and then from his home in Haran to Canaan. We read in the opening verses of chapter 12.
“Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’” (12:1-3).
Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are sometimes called "Abrahamic religions" because all three faiths recognize Abraham as a pioneer or founder. In Jewish tradition, God made a covenant with Abraham and promised him and his descendents the land of Canaan. Through Abraham’s son Isaac, the Jews consider Abraham to be the father and founder of Israel. For Muslims, that same Abraham is a prophet of Islam and the ancestor of Muhammad through his other son Ishmael, born to him by Sarah's slave, Hagar.
And thirdly, Christians recognize Abraham as an example of faith. We read in Hebrews 11, “By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac. He who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son, of whom he had been told, ‘It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named after you.’ He considered the fact that God is able even to raise someone from the dead—and figuratively speaking, he did receive him back” (17-19). The imagery of father Abraham sacrificing his son Isaac is seen as a symbol of God the Father offering his Son on Golgotha.
The traditional view in Christianity is that the chief promise made to Abraham in Genesis 12 is that through Abraham's seed, all the people of earth are blessed, and that promise is fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth. Paul reasons in Galatians, “Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring; it does not say, ‘And to offsprings’, as of many; but it says, ‘And to your offspring’, that is, to one person, who is Christ” (3:16). Thus, the promise in Genesis to Abraham is Jesus, and Abraham’s belief in the covenant God established is held up to us as model of belief.
God called Abraham to go to Canaan, he obeyed, and so received the blessings of God, and the lesson is, Go ye and do likewise. However, it is not that simple. If we read what Genesis actually says about Abraham, we do not find a larger-than-life model of faith, rather we find a man whose faith is constantly under construction.
In Genesis chapter 12, after Abraham makes his covenant with God, he goes to Canaan, and everything appears to be going well for a period of time. We do not know how long but for some time everything went just fine, and then the economy collapsed. Business failed. There were no jobs. Hard times came to Canaan. This sounds all too current, doesn't it?
Hard times 4,000 years ago were usually associated with famine. Agriculture in Canaan depended entirely on rainfall. If it did not rain, there was no food. They could not truck in supplies from Florida or California or Costa Rica. All food was produced locally, and if local supplies failed, they starved. There was no government in Canaan, so FEMA was not going to help; the US Army was not going to show up with a million MRE’s. So what do you do? Well Genesis tells us what Abraham did. He left Canaan.
Think about this. Just 10 verses earlier, God has promised Abraham this land, and told Abraham to go to this land, and now when the going gets tough Abraham gets out of Dodge. Is our model of faith already a failure of faith? Let me defend Abraham a little. He is hungry. Instead of sitting in his tent and twiddling his thumbs and saying God will solve the problem, he says, I am going to solve the problem. I am going to be responsible for myself. There is food in Egypt. I am going down there. He probably does not see this as a betrayal of the covenant. He thinks he will get some food and come back eventually to Canaan.
But it was not that simple. It never is.
For one thing, we learn Sarah is a beautiful woman. She is drop-dead gorgeous in spite of the fact that she is 65 years old. Maybe they had different calendars in 2000 B.C., or maybe Sarah just aged well. In any case, Abraham is afraid that the Egyptians will kill him and take Sarah to be the concubine of some high official, so Abraham says to her, we will say that you are my sister—which was partly true; she was his half sister—same father, different mother. So Abraham is not technically lying when he says, “She is my sister,” but he is lying when he covers up the fact that she is his wife.
There is an old Yiddish proverb: “A half truth is a whole lie.” Or, as William Blake wrote
A truth that's told with bad intent
beats all the lies you can invent.
["Auguries of Innocence," Poems from the Pickering Manuscript]
I have heard something like that before. The best lies, the most effective lies, are almost true, but they put a spin on truth that makes it totally untrue.
So our role model, Abraham, lied. He was afraid. He did not believe that God could save him from the Egyptian border guards, and he lied through the teeth.
You might say that this is an example of one sin leading to another sin. He should not have been in Egypt at all. He should have been in Canaan, but he went anyway and now he is lying to the authorities.
Now I personally like Abraham and I will try to defend him a little bit again.
Abraham was correct in his assessment of the situation. When they got to Egypt, the authorities were blown away by Sarah. They said, “Wow, would you look at that. That is the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. Pharaoh has got to hear about this.” So we come to v15, “And the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house.” Notice how that reads. We know perfectly well that her name was Sarah, but in this verse, she is suddenly just “the woman.” She was Abraham’s sister and wife. Now she is “the woman.” It is almost like she has become less of a person and more of a thing.
You might ask, well, didn’t she have anything to say about becoming a concubine in Pharaoh’s Harem? But there was nothing she could say. Egypt was an absolute dictatorship. Pharaoh was literally God. She was a stranger and there were no laws that would protect her. Abraham made no effort to protect her. In fact, we are told that Pharaoh and Abraham are suddenly the best of buddies. Pharaoh rewarded Abraham magnificently for Sarah. Apparently, Pharaoh is enchanted with his new concubine and he heaps honors and wealth on her brother.
So what has happened to the covenant of God? The son of the covenant is supposed to come through Sarah, and Sarah is not even Abraham’s wife anymore, and they are not even in the land of the covenant anymore. Everything has gone wrong, and Abraham and Sarah seem content in Egypt.
Then in v17, God takes action. He afflicts Pharaoh with plagues. Much is left out here. Somehow, Pharaoh makes a connection between his new concubine and the plague and somehow he learns that the concubine is in fact the wife of Abraham. We do not know how he figured this out, but I am sure the author would tell us that that does not matter. That is not the point. The point is that Pharaoh realizes he has taken another man’s wife and that God is angry with him about that.
Pharaoh assumes a position of morality and says to Abraham, why did you not tell me she was your wife—implying that if Abraham had told the truth, he, Pharaoh would not have taken her. Abraham does not reply, but we already know why. Abraham was afraid. Fear makes people do many strange and despicable things.
He was afraid because he did not have enough faith. He did not trust God. He lived in fear and fear just made things worse.
Then Pharaoh had Abraham and Sarah kicked out of Egypt. They were forcibly returned to Canaan. So the covenant seemed ruined down in Egypt, but God fixes that.
You might see all this as a struggle between human free will and God’s will. Abraham had free will, used it, and wound up in Egypt with his wife in Pharaoh’s Harem. But God’s will still prevailed and by the end of the chapter, Abraham and Sarah are back in Canaan.
So do we have free will? Certainly we do. Is God’s will being accomplished? Certainly it is. In the course of things, God’s will is mixed in with and intermeshed with and behind our will to bring about his purpose for our lives and for our world. We have the free will to oppose God’s will or to unite ourselves with the will of God, but in the end, God’s will is still done, and that is a happy ending. Genesis 12 has a happy ending. Abraham and Sarah are back in Canaan. The famine has apparently ended, for we hear no more of it. And in the next chapter, we are told how wealthy Abraham has become. Apparently, he has become the equivalent of a second millennium B.C. billionaire. Everything is going just fine again.
But what about Abraham’s faith? If we could bring Abraham before us this morning and ask him about his faith in Egypt, what would he say?
He might ask us, what would you do if you were starving, could not find food, could not buy it or trade for it. He might say to us that it is not a failure of faith under those circumstances to go where the food is. That is just common sense.
But what about the lie? Surely common decency required Abraham to acknowledge Sarah as his wife, no matter the consequences.
But Abraham might reply. How could it benefit God’s promise if I got killed in Egypt? Abraham thought that he had to manipulate things to make the promise work. He had not yet understood that the dead end from which God had called him could only be transformed by God.
Abraham was willing to believe the promise but he was not always willing to believe God. Abraham thought that he had to make the promise work out, so he was willing to do whatever he thought necessary to make the promise happen. He did have faith, but it was a faith mixed with many other emotions and attitudes. He believed God but not entirely. Abraham was much more comfortable when he could get things under control on his own.
Abraham’s faith was always partly in what he could do. It was always faith on his terms, which sometimes was not much faith at all. He had faith in God, but in terms of what he could conceive as possible or what he could control and make happen.
Abraham was, as I said earlier, a man for whom faith was very much under construction. He was learning to believe, and so are we. Faith is not something you have instantaneously. You do not wave a magic wand and suddenly you got it. It is something we develop in a life-long journey with the lord. And the NT is right to hold Abraham before us as a role model of faith. He learned to believe. We are learning to believe.
But having said that, we should note that this story also says that the future that God calls us to is not entirely dependent on our efforts to make it happen. We should do all we can and learn all we can in the school of faith but ultimately what we learn is the grace of God. The grace of God is simply this: God is working with us to help us toward that promise that only he can bring to pass. God is faithful to us. We need to learn to be faithful to God. Amen.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
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