By Charles E. McCracken
Now there was a famine in the land, and Abram went down to Egypt to dwell there, for the famine was severe in the land. Genesis 12:10
READ TODAY’S TEXT: Genesis 12:9-17
When I first learned to ride a bicycle, my father ran alongside down our street in Hampden Park holding on to the seat to steady me. Faith that Dad wouldn’t let me crash gave confidence to keep trying. After a few successes, I was on my own. There were some falls resulting in scraped and bruised arms and knees. But over time, the mishaps became less frequent; and eventually, I learned to ride in more challenging settings.
Similarly, living the life of faith begins with practice that leads to experience and inevitably a few scrapes and bruises in the process. Unlike riding a bike, success in living the life of faith doesn’t necessarily happen in a couple of days. However, the Bible does instruct using real-life people like Abram and Sarai; and, we can learn from their life experience.
When Abram entered the land of Canaan from the north, he temporarily set-up camp near Shechem. As new pastures were required to feed his flocks and herds, he moved south settling on a plateau between Bethel and Ai in the central highlands. Here, “Abram built an altar to the Lord and called on the name of the Lord” (Gen. 12:8). (1)
Since his flocks and herds regularly required fresh pasture, Abram continued moving them southward. Without indicating any interval of time or the number of times Abram relocated, the text simply reveals there was a severe famine in the land (Gen. 12:10). Drought would have made it increasingly difficult to find adequate pasture for his livestock. Because he was in unfamiliar territory with a unique ecosystem, Abram was not equipped to cope with the severity of the drought.
Hailing from Ur situated in the lush alluvial plane near the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, Abram had moved to Haran. The caravan town of Haran (Akkadian: harranu = caravan, road or journey) was located near the modern day border of Syria and Turkey situated in proximity to the convergence of the Balikh and Euphrates Rivers. In both Ur and Haran, the rivers provided a dependable water supply enhanced by extensive irrigation systems. The land of Canaan was mountainous and dependent almost entirely on rain and dew for water.
Accustomed to the cycles associated with large rivers, Abram knew his livestock could survive drought in that environment. In Canaan, there was a severe drought-induced famine; Egypt had both water and food. He moved his flocks and herds to Egypt. He had no intention of staying there permanently; it was a temporary move to wait-out the famine.
Before arriving in Egypt, Abram and Sarai confirmed a plan they had used in unfamiliar settings since leaving Ur. While traveling, they would give the impression that they were brother and sister rather than husband and wife. There was some truth in the matter because Sarai was in point of fact his half-sister (Gen. 20:12). (2)
Even more worrying, at the age of 65, Sarai was still a beautiful and desirable woman. Abram was justifiably concerned she would draw the attention of powerful men who could kill him in order to take Sarai as wife. In a fratriarchal culture, any man interested in Sarai would seek marriage and negotiate wedding terms though “her brother” Abram. He may have thought that representing Sarai as his sister bought time to maneuver out of potentially life threatening situations.
Abram’s fears actually materialized, but with an unanticipated twist. Sarai’s beauty attracted the attention of Egyptian officials as Abram had anticipated. None, however, approached Abram to arrange a marriage with Sarai; instead, the princes of Egypt commended her extraordinary beauty to Pharaoh.
Unexpectedly, Pharaoh had her taken to the palace. There was no negotiation of wedding arrangements with Abram. The grammar in the Hebrew text suggests that Pharaoh, for all intents and purposes, abducted Sarai and made her a part of his harem.
Pharaoh did not kill Abram as he and Sarai feared. Instead, he lavished gifts on Abram for Sarai’s sake. Unfortunately, Abram and Sarai were in a serious predicament. If they told the truth, Pharaoh would likely execute Abram; the outcome originally predicted. If they tried to escape, Pharaoh would likely send his army in pursuit; the outcome was unknown.
Some have attempted to speculate on how Abram and Sarai coped with this unexpected contingency, but the text does not supply any information. At this point, it wasn’t so much about Abram and Sarai as it was about God working behind the scenes.
While they were weighing options, God intervened. The royal household contracted a disease that not only afflicted Pharaoh, but also his family, servants, harem and possibly his royal officials. The text does not detail the nature of the malady, but the Hebrew word describing the illness is used in Leviticus to describe a form of skin disease like leprosy (Lev. 13:1).
Apparently, Sarai did not contract the disease causing Pharaoh to question why. Whether Sarai told him the truth or he found out some other way, he immediately sent for Abram.
Pharaoh was furious when Abram arrived in his court. In a terse and vexed diatribe, he shot one question after another at Abram:
“Why have you done this to me?
Why did you not tell me she was your wife?
Why did you say, ‘She is my sister?’” (vv.18-19)
Without waiting for Abram to respond, Pharaoh returned Sarai to him and specifically ordered his army to escort them out of the kingdom.
The purpose of the escort was not necessarily to ascertain they had left Egypt although probably included. Having suffered God’s plague on his household, Pharaoh had ample reason to provide protection until they crossed Egypt’s borders lest something befall them on the way resulting in a worse plague. Fear of further offending Abram’s God may also explain why Pharaoh did not require Abram to return the wealth he had received on Sarai’s behalf (vv. 16, 20).
Pharaoh’s encounter with Abram and Sarai was instructional for the nation of Egypt. He discovered:
- Abram’s God was the One-true God.
- Abram had a unique relationship with the One-true God.
- And, after what he had experienced, Pharaoh would no doubt be instrumental in publicizing those facts to the surrounding nations.
God also used the plague of disease in Pharaoh’s household as a powerful warning not only to him, but to successors who might consider mistreating Abram or his descendants. Ironically, two generations later, the pharaohs recorded in the book of Exodus either forgot the lesson or refused to take it seriously and suffered dire consequences for their negligence.
The lessons to Abram were equally important. First and foremost, what transpired in Egypt was a clear reminder that Abram could choose to trust God in any situation. As Abram’s relationship with God deepened and developed, he would gain the faith to believe that truth even more profoundly. In the beginning stages of his walk with the Lord, however, Abram needed increased faith to trust God. And, God used Abram’s encounter with Pharaoh as a powerful faith builder.
From a purely human perspective, it’s obvious that Abram’s plan backfired; yet, God protected Sarai even after being conveyed into Pharaoh’s harem. Abram and Sarai’s plan could have jeopardized the future nation of Israel and the integrity of the Messianic line. None-the-less, God intervened on their behalf and used the incident to give Abram a name of renown in the region.
God even prospered Abram in spite of the situation with, “sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male and female servants, female donkeys, and camels.” Because of Pharaoh’s generosity, Abram left Egypt with great wealth.
Abram experienced a great spiritual truth articulated by the apostle Paul, “all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28).
While Christians often look back from 21st century Western culture critical of Abram and Sarai for their actions, theirs was a newfound faith in the One-true God that would grow through experience. And, as they learned to trust Him, God went with them each step of the way.
1) The Hebrew grammar suggests Abram’s offering to God was a practice he repeated in each new location.
2) In the aftermath of Noah’s Flood, the human gene pool was more pure and marriages between siblings were permitted until the giving of the Law at Sinai.
1) The Egyptians Admire Sarai’s Beauty. By James Jacques Tissot [PD-US, PD-Art], via Wikimedia Commons – Enhancement: MKM Portfolios
2) Sarai Is Taken to Pharaoh’s Palace. By James Jacques Tissot [PD-US, PD-Art], via Wikimedia Commons – Enhancement: MKM Portfolios
© Charles E. McCracken 2016, text content only. Repost/Reprint with permission from the author. Scripture taken from the NKJV, emphasis added.
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