Genesis 12:10-20 “Now there was a famine in the land, and Abram went down to Egypt to live there for a while because the famine was severe. As he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, ‘I know what a beautiful woman you are. When the Egyptians see you, they will say, “This is his wife.” Then they will kill me but will let you live. Say you are my sister, so that I will be treated well for your sake and my life will be spared because of you.’ When Abram came to Egypt, the Egyptians saw that she was a very beautiful woman. And when Pharaoh’s officials saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh, and she was taken into his palace. He treated Abram well for her sake, and Abram acquired sheep and cattle, male and female donkeys, menservants and maidservants, and camels. But the LORD inflicted serious diseases on Pharaoh and his household because of Abram’s wife Sarai. So Pharaoh summoned Abram. ‘What have you done to me?’ he said. ‘Why didn’t you tell me she was your wife? Why did you say, “She is my sister,” so that I took her to be my wife? Now then, here is your wife. Take her and go!’ Then Pharaoh gave orders about Abram to his men, and they sent him on his way, with his wife and everything he had.”
Abraham is the father figure of everyone who, like him, have put their faith in Jesus Christ so that they’ve obtained divine justification. He is a wonderful example of an Old Testament believer. God had come and spoken to Abram; he immediately obeyed the Lord and went to the promised land of Canaan. He was strengthened in his trust in God as he left the cities of Ur and Haran making the long journey with his family and retainers to the land of Canaan. God kept him every step of the way. Then, as he walked around the land, the pagan Canaanites did him no hard. In that land God came and actually revealed himself to Abram and his faith grew even stronger. The Canaanites did not touch him, even though he set up altars in the land near to prominent sites of pagan worship, calling on the name of the Lord in Canaan. So we enter a new phase in the life of this patriarch. Abram was no longer a baby Christian; he had made great strides in trusting God, but he was still very young in the faith, and unconscious of how much he had to learn about his own heart, which, like the hearts of all believers, has an amazing proneness to deceive. The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked, and Abram was yet to realise that.
Abram has learned about the mighty power of God the good shepherd of his people, but now he has to learn another lesson about the human condition, that he dared not put any confidence in himself. Left to himself he can achieve nothing that God has told him. He cannot have children, he cannot possess this land and his seed will not inherit it. He cannot even survive without the help of God. It is in God that Abram lives and moves and has his being. His breath is in God’s hands. He has to learn to live by trusting in God and not to lean on his own understanding, to acknowledge God in all his ways. Abram must learn about the plight of man, that only mercies that are new every morning can help us through each day.
The weakness of Abram’s baby faith was evidenced when a severe famine came upon Canaan (v.10). This was no ordinary year when the rains were inadequate and late. For months there was no rain at all. The crops died; the springs dried up and the herds had no fodder and no water to drink. All that Abram had was what he carried with him on the backs of his camels and donkeys. He had no home in Canaan to retire to; there were no barns with grain kept for such an emergency in his home valley. Canaan was not a hospitable place at the best of times. Even common grace was meager, and redemptive grace was entirely absent. The Canaanites were not generous to their own families, let alone to strangers. Their own children were starving, and racketeers would have been making a lot of money charging a sky high price for grain. Abram was a wealthy man but the main problem was the lack of water. Where could they find water for their animals and themselves? Later on his herdsmen and Lot’s would fight over taking their animals to the same springs and this resulted in the two believers parting from one another. What must it have been like wresting precious water from the hands of the Canaanites? It would have been a daily hassle. Were his family and servants beginning to complain loudly and say to him, “Have you brought us into the land of Canaan that we should die here? It was better for us back in Haran and Ur. There at least we had food to eat and plenty of water in the wells.”
So Abram came to the conclusion that they would leave the country, heading south for Egypt to live there for a while until the famine in Canaan was over. They packed up their tents and loaded their beasts and carts and walked all the way to north Africa. How do you assess Abram’s strategy? What is your feeling about his action? How do you judge his conduct? I am asking now if you think he acted wisely? Would you say that he did what common sense suggested? Wasn’t it a very responsible and wise reaction to such a fearful providence? I am sure that many of us in the same situation would have acted in a roughly similar manner. We would have been concerned for one thing and that was the physical survival of our families, our faithful retainers and our beasts of burden. We’d have been ruled by one consideration, the material, the temporal and the economic.
Yet if we pause for a moment, and if we see Abram’s action in the more searching context of biblical principles then we are bound to come to very different conclusions. If we see his action in the light of God’s judgment upon it as expressed in the terrible experience that followed their move to Egypt then we shall come to another assessment entirely.
There is every indication that Abram did not intend to stay for very long in Egypt. He went “to live there for a while” (v.10), but whatever his intentions, the instinct for survival, and all the economic considerations, Abram’s decision was by Biblical standards a wrong action.
It was a bad response to the whole situation. How can I say this? God had called him out of Haran and out of Ur of the Chaldeans to start a new community of the righteous. He was not to live any longer amongst those non-Jehovahist citizens. They had no concept of purity and of a holy sovereign God. He was to leave his country, and leave his people and leave his father’s household. Living with them was something he was not to return to. Henceforth there was to be no fraternizing, no inter-faith, no social mingling and marriages with those people. That would be playing with fire. It may seem to you to be a strange prohibition, arbitrary and capricious on God’s part, but it was his directive and very wise.
Abram was to go to the land that God showed them and remain there. He was to set his heart steadfastly on the promises of God and believe against all appearances that God would provide everything necessary for their fulfilment. You protest, “But what do you do when there is a famine in that place?” You did what the thousands of people in Canaan did who didn’t desert the land – many Canaanites didn’t have the wherewithal to travel far away to Egypt. They had to tough it out there as they had on other such occasions. You bartered for food and you searched the valleys for springs of water and you cried mightily to your heavenly Father that he would provide your needs as he had promised. You prayed, “And give us this day our daily bread,” and you made a new discovery of the faithfulness of God. You grew in strength when the heavens finally opened and the drought ended and you had survived. Christians live through barren times as well as revival times. David Brainerd the American missionary to the Indians was caught in a mighty storm which poured down rain and soaked him through. He found shelter in a hollow tree and lay there as the storm continued. He grew hungry but could not leave that shelter, and so he prayed that God would provide for him. After some time a squirrel entered the space and left a pile of nuts in a corner. David was delighted to eat them. The storm was unabated for a few days, but on three occasions the squirrel returned and left a heap of nuts for which Brainerd was delighted. When he got to his destination and described the provision he added the text, “Your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of these things.” God knew that Abraham, his family, his servants and beasts all needed water and food. God’s providence will never guide us to where his grace cannot keep us.
Abram’s emigration was a loss of faith. His plan of action was addressing the wrong problem. The problem was not the lack of bread. The problem was the lack of trust in Jehovah. Man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. This was not the first famine in the land flowing with milk and honey, and it would not be the last. Abram had learned to trust God in less demanding times, on the long journey to Canaan and also during the months he wandered all over the land. He must trust him now in tougher times, when the heavens were like brass; God would provide. Alas, Abram did not cast himself on God’s provision. He chose the easy way out; he went for the provision of Egypt, and there he almost destroyed his marriage and lost his life. The emigration was a confession of his failure to trust in the Lord.
Abram had lost his confidence in the land of promise and the Lord of promise. He did not call together Sarai and Lot and his servants saying, “Now we must humble ourselves before Jehovah, confessing our sins to him, and stop doing what is right in our own eyes. We must seek the Lord and do his will. Who knows whether God will show mercy on us and lead us to water holes, and finally send the rains and end this terrible famine?” As each day ended and they had had sufficient food and drink for themselves and their animals they could have kneeled down and thanked the Lord. When the people rebelled against Moses in the wilderness and longed to return to Egypt Moses refused to take them back there. He inquired of the Lord and at the Lord’s command he struck the rock and life-giving water poured out, and Paul tells us that that Rock was Christ. That Rock was also with Abram in Canaan, but Abram did not seek the life-giving stream from that Rock. Abram wasn’t willing to bow down under the judgment of God and wait for the favoured time for God to deliver them. So we can see how Abram’s reaction to the famine was an unbelieving reaction. It was a violation of God’s directive, a rejection of the divine dissuasive, Jehovah’s exhortation to leave the land of idolatry and live in the land of promise. It was a failure of trust.
The temptation to look to Egypt, the bread-basket, to look to man and the engineering of man for help, was always before the people of God. Even in the days of the prophet Isaiah, 1300 years later, when the people were in trouble they would turn from the Lord and once again look to Egypt to help them. “‘Woe to the obstinate children,’ declares the LORD, ‘to those who carry out plans that are not mine, forming an alliance, but not by my Spirit, heaping sin upon sin; who go down to Egypt without consulting me; who look for help to Pharaoh’s protection, to Egypt’s shade for refuge. But Pharaoh’s protection will be to your shame, Egypt’s shade will bring you disgrace” (Is. 30:1-3). So Abram moved away from what God had promised him in order to survive by the help of Egypt, to wheel and deal there in tough times.
We are often in the same predicament. God has appeared to us as he did to Abram. He has preached the gospel to us; “Get up! Leave this world and take up your citizenship in heaven. Come and suffer with Christ and you will surely be glorified with him.” God has covenanted that he will certainly bring us to heaven at last, and that the sufferings we meet on the way are not worthy to be compared to the glory that shall be revealed in us. He has sworn that neither life nor death, neither angels not principalities nor power, things present not things to come, neither height nor depth nor any other creature shall separate us from his love in Jesus Christ. How our hearts thrill to hear such promises and we long to have strong faith to believe them. We do believe. Help thou our unbelief! We go forth in faith, but then trials come and last, and we begin to doubt, and then we have to focus our faith in the work that Christ has done for us. No hope without it.
So, Abram led his family and servants down to Egypt and as he got nearer the border his worries started to increase. He had not worried in Canaan though he’d been the only believer in the Lord walking freely all over the land. Canaanites to the right of him; Canaanites to the left of him; Canaanites before him and behind him, but Abram had been safe, kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation, walking calmly through the land, erecting altars and worshipping the Lord. God had been with him as his great shield in Canaan, but now Abram is on his own, and he has to depend on his wits. Think of the unbelieving people all around us, young and old. Having rejected the living God that is how they survive; that is how they confront every big decision of life, all by themselves, by their craft and human wisdom and nothing more.
Now the scene moves on and we hear the first of the two little speeches that appear in this narrative. We are first allowed to listen in on pillow talk in the tent one night as it has been set up on the border of Egypt. The little group have been walking a long way from the land of promise, and Abram has been thinking how they are going to survive in this new place. He has worked out a ‘cunning plan’ – as the world does. So he turns to Sarai and this is what he says;
“‘I know what a beautiful woman you are. When the Egyptians see you, they will say, “This is his wife.” Then they will kill me but will let you live. Say you are my sister, so that I will be treated well for your sake and my life will be spared because of you’” (vv. 11-13). I think that Abram’s words are better translated, “Please say . . .” Abram has taken his life in his hands and he realises how insecure he is. He is entering a world where the lust of the eyes and the lust of the flesh and the pride of life are the key to what men live for, and he and his wife are going to be targeted. They may kill him to get Sarai and here Abram is on his own. His plan to survive has back-fired. His life is in greater danger in Egypt than it was back in the famine of Canaan. Who is this man? Abram is the one on whom the hopes of mankind rest; he is the only believer in the world. From him must come the godly Seed who will crush the head of the serpent, overturn the curse, take away transgressions and restore God’s people to paradise and fellowship with God. Yet Abram, faltering in his faith, fails to think of all that. The memory of the God who appeared to him grows faint. He wants to save his own neck. He is on the borders of forbidden territory. He could still turn back. He must turn back in repentance and not take a step further south, but, alas, he goes on. He is determined to go on. “I will survive,” he cries, and this is how he’ll do it, by pleading with his wife to tell a very dangerous lie, and Sarai consents. The philosophy of the world often is, “Better defiled than dead.” Will that philosophy establish the worship of Jehovah in Egypt or anywhere else in paganism? It is by compromise with the world that we are going to erect a standard for truth in our land? Abram risks his honour and his wife’s body to save himself.
Of course, to his mind it is only a white lie. She actually is his half sister; Terah is the father of both of them, but they are not first of all brother and sister are they? They are husband and wife, and Sarai is complicit with him in hiding that fact by referring to another relationship. You know the situation in our royal family, that the Queen is the great-great-great grand-daughter of Queen Victoria, and that her husband, Prince Philip, is also the great-great-great grandson of Queen Victoria. Now they could introduce themselves as cousins, fourth cousins to be exact, and that might be true but it would be a lie if they were seeking to hide the fact that they were husband and wife and claiming just to be cousins. They might as well say that they were friends. Of course they are, but first of all they are a married couple.
What is the purpose of this Egyptian plot? One purpose is to buy time. Abram expects as Sarai’s husband to arrange a series of appointments with the men of Egypt as they pester him for the hand of his sister in marriage. Abram will drag out these negotiations until they have bought sufficient food, and have loaded their carts and then quickly left town. What a tangled web he’s weaving. What danger and deceit he is involving his own dear wife, while not crying out to God for protection and direction. He is relying on his own ingenuity and that’s the way they’re going to survive. Of course he is trusting the Lord; yes he still believes in God, but a man has to live doesn’t he? How often do you hear that?
Churches act like Abraham. They affirm that no one goes to God except through Jesus Christ, and yet they allow their halls to be used for Yoga classes. They plead that they are keeping friendly relations with outsiders, and they are reaping material benefits ‘for the Lord’s work’ – the world often pays a good rent. We all act like our father Abram a thousand times a day. We have our trust in our money and in our intelligence and our man-management skills and our pensions and our family and our network, that all this will provide for us in our time of need. How many people in the past year have had many of things stripped away from their lives? What are they doing now? Are they crying mightily to God? Their plane might have crash landed in the Hudson river and yet they all escaped. Did this encounter with the last enemy make them seek the One who is the resurrection and the life? No. They found comfort in platitudes. They took the lesson of the incident to be that God was on their side and they could go on living as they always had. We Christians can lose our focus on the Lord. We forget the promise of God to supply all our needs. Christ by his perfect life has secured everything for us. Our lives are hid with Christ in God. How safe they are. What harm can come to us while we go on walking with God? Abram had been promised a future by God, prosperity, fatherhood, a family, and he should have been secure in that. We are even more secure. Our salvation is accomplished; it is a finished work. Jesus Christ is seated at the right hand of God.
Stop your scheming and doubting. Don’t put your confidence in princes, that is, in men in authority, in Caesar, in bankers, in doctors, in preachers. They all have their callings, but our faith is not to be in them but our help is in the name of the Lord who made heaven and earth. Do not scheme. Do not do anything concerning which you cannot ask for God’s blessing. So we have seen how the father of all who believe failed to trust in the Lord.
We are told that soon the exquisite beauty of Sarai was reported by Pharaoh’s officials – Pharaoh’s pimps – to him. Immediately soldiers were sent from Pharaoh and she was removed from Abram to the palace. Do you see how it is written? Not that Sarai was beautiful but that the ‘woman’ was beautiful. In Egypt she was being treated as an object not as a person. There was none of the negotiating with suitors that Abram dreamed of to gain time to obtain the grain and then beat a hasty retreat back to Canaan. Out of the blue some chariots drew up outside their tents, some soldiers got out, Sarai was picked up and abducted. If King David himself took a man’s wife because she was beautiful it is not unexpected that the king of Egypt would take any woman he fancied. That is how the lawless world operates. Within a couple of minutes Abram was alone, nonplussed and overwhelmed with grief and guilt. He had been relying on himself to be strong enough to stall the suitors, and smart enough to outwit them, but in a moment it all came to nothing. If we play games with the world according to the rules of the world the church will always lose. The weapons of our warfare are not carnal. We have other weapons which are mighty through God and the strongholds of Egypt will collapse before them.
Abram cannot negotiate with the king of Egypt who is god in Egypt; whatever Pharoah wants Pharaoh gets. Of course even Pharaoh is aware of a certain decorum; there is an etiquette to finding a wife, even if she is your thousandth, and so he sends some men over with a suitable bride-price. Abram has lost his wife of many years; his beautiful wife, the one God has promised shall be the mother of the seed who will crush the serpent’s head. Once again in Genesis the intimacy of man and wife has been broken through fear and disobedience. Something God put as off-limits has been violated. Sarai is gone, and what does he have in her place? “Sheep and cattle, male and female donkeys, menservants and maidservants, and camels” (v.16). He has lost Sarai and gained animals. Now there are many in the world who would think no doubt that they’d gained a bargain. Abram had been an immigrant; now he is honoured; he has wealth and status. But you are not amongst those who think that, and Ab
ram certainly didn’t think that. He has gained slaves and animals and he had lost the most important person in the world; he had lost half of himself. He had no future without Sarai; no children; no blessing, only the curse remaining on him and all mankind. Abram’s schemes and wit are seen to be foolishness, and all his plans were frustrated. If we are going to be blessed then it is entirely through a work right outside of ourselves. It is sheer vertical sovereign grace that can help us and nothing else. God must become our Saviour. Do not seek for the hero inside yourself. He will always let you down. You have to lift your eyes outside yourself and this world and put your hope in the living God. The plans of Abram can save no one at all.
How can God make Abram a great nation now? Please remember that there had been no human hope in Sarai before Pharaoh absconded her. She was past the age of child-bearing and she was barren, and only a miracle could have conceived a son in her old womb, but now the situation is much more despairing. He has no wife to conceive a son. How is the promised seed going to be born? How is Jesus Christ son of Abraham going to come? Poor Abram. Sarai is gone, and the stunned Abram accepts the animals of Egypt. God had promised to bless him and make him a vast nation and that his name would be great, but – think of it – who is blessing him now? The god worshipped in Egypt – Pharaoh! He is making Abram rich. What a bitter pill to swallow, as he entered his empty tent and slept in his empty bed he never glanced at his new slaves. He had to pass the donkeys and the cows and sheep. He had all of those, but he did not have the one his heart loved. What a bitter pill, I say. Two chapters later we are told that the king of Sodom would offer Abram great riches, but on that occasion Abram refused. He had learned his lesson; “Abram said to the king of Sodom, ‘I have raised my hand to the LORD, God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth, and have taken an oath that I will accept nothing belonging to you, not even a thread or the thong of a sandal, so that you will never be able to say, “I made Abram rich.” I will accept nothing’” (Gen.14:22-24). Abram went to a hard school to learn that lesson, but in Egypt he had not learned it yet. He still lacks the faith that trusts God alone in times of need to fulfill his promises. When he takes the rewards of the king of Egypt is he not denying the fulness of God’s provision he once enjoyed?
There was enormous danger in the gift of Pharaoh in that one woman servant given to Abram by the king of Egypt was named Hagar, and she became a snare in Abraham’s house, the means of strengthening unbelief and human ingenuity in the hearts of Sarai and Abraham. Sarai was to persuade Abraham to sleep with Hagar and have a child with her, that that would help God’s promise to be fulfilled. Abram went ahead and did it, expecting that Ishmael, the boy Hagar conceived would inherit the land of Canaan. It was a disaster. Abram had many hard lessons to learn before he stopped trusting in his flesh and in his own schemes. No. God would provide the child and it would come through Sarai. The son of Abram and Sarai would be the one inheriting the promise of God.
3. GOD INTERVENED TO RESTORE ABRAM.
If God did not constantly intervene in our lives, picking us up when we fell, bringing us back when we went astray, patiently bearing with our unbelief, forgiving our sins and restoring our souls – then what helpless, hopeless men and women we would have been. Sarai has been abducted by the most powerful man in the world. She is living in the harem in the palace waiting for the invitation to the royal bedchamber. She is utterly inaccessible to Abram, but not to Jehovah, and then God rouses himself and begins to move. Aren’t you glad that God can act when things are completely out of our hands and the hands of Christians, that then they are not out of God’s hands? Doesn’t this encourage us to pray for the helpless, and the prisoner, and the abducted?
What had Pharaoh done wrong? We know that he was a megalomaniac who got what he wanted, and a prisoner of his lust, yes, but he hadn’t had the privileges of Abram. He had not been told that this woman was Abram’s wife, and upon her all the hope of the world rested. He had not been told, “Don’t even think of touching her.” Pharaoh’s sin was grounded in his ignorance. Abram had lied and taught his wife to lie. Abram had knowingly jeopardized the godly line. Abram had ceased trusting in the Lord who provides, and had put his trust in himself. God’s curses should also have come down on Abram, and yet the Lord was merciful to him. Aren’t we thankful that God doesn’t deal with us as our sins deserve?
What had God said to Abram as he told him to leave the land of his birth? He had said, “Whosoever curses you I will curse” (v.3). They were not mere words. God’s promise was gracious and it was unconditional. Where Abram is weak and helpless God is mighty. He can save Sarai and he does save her; he can protect her from rape; he can keep the integrity of the godly line. Is anything too hard for God? So how does he deliver her? As he delivered the children of Israel from Egypt six centuries later, through plague and disease. An explosion of illnesses erupted in Pharaoh’s palace; servants, bodyguards, men and women, Pharaoh and his family, the women in the harem and the slaves in the kitchens were all lying on their beds groaning with pain. They’d all had illnesses in the past but nothing as bad as this. No one escaped this sickness except Sarai. It was a terrible time and it did not end in 48 hours. None of Pharaoh’s medical team could help. This was outside their experience. They would have judged that there was something creepy, and supernatural and judicial in this plague. It was a judgment focused upon the palace, and to nowhere else, and that became evident very quickly. No one was ill in the royal city except those who lived in the palace, and so they asked questions. What had happened recently to bring this curse upon them? Had there been anything new and different? Ah, yes. That beautiful foreigner had been taken and brought into the harem. Was she sick? No. She was in perfect health. So . . . the man who said he was her brother had lied. She was not his sister; she was his wife. Pharaoh acted immediately to deal with the cause of the plague; “Pharaoh summoned Abram. ‘What have you done to me?’ he said. ‘Why didn’t you tell me she was your wife? Why did you say, “She is my sister,” so that I took her to be my wife? Now then, here is your wife. Take her and go!’ Then Pharaoh gave orders about Abram to his men, and they sent him on his way, with his wife and everything he had” (vv.18-20).
Pharaoh didn’t come and kill Abram as Abram feared would happen if they discovered Sarai was his wife. No. Pharaoh had seen what God does to those who curse Abram. Pharaoh has a fear of the Lord. Abram is no longer doubting that God would have protected him if he’d told the truth. Pharaoh can bluster, “Why didn’t you tell me that she was your wife? I almost violated her and took her into my bed. Of course when I discovered that she was a married woman I stopped.” We doubt whether Pharaoh had that much integrity. It’s a sick Pharaoh and a frightened Pharaoh speaking here. He would have had other plans before the plague came. The living God has made the difference. God can harden Pharaoh’s heart, yes, but he can soften Pharaoh’s heart too. He will protect Abram, Sarai and their line. That is what Abram has to learn. Even when the weakness of Abram’s trust in God is evidenced God still
takes care of him. There was no need for Abram to leave Canaan, or trust in his own wits, or lie about his wife. Trust in the Lord with all your heart.
So while Abram defied the will of God and went into Egypt Pharaoh becomes God’s means of expelling Abram from Egypt and sending him back to the promised land, even as the plagues upon Egypt hundreds of years later finally uprooted the children of Abraham from Goshen and sent them back to Canaan. God is demonstrating what he can do by his great power to build his church and prevail over the gates of hell. How mighty is God’s salvation. Abram’s failures can’t thwart God’s purposes. Pharaoh’s supreme power and his million-strong army and thousands of chariots – the mightiest man in the world – cannot thwart God’s purposes. The king’s heart is in God’s hand and he turns it wherever he wishes, and so the chapter ends with Abram returning to Canaan where he should always have remained. The incident has a happy ending, yes, but it is obtained by the humiliation of Abram and the discovery of the weakness of his unbelieving heart.
This incident is not recorded to encourage you to sin that grace may abound. It tells us that though we all behave at times like Abram, when we doubt and defy and deceive, still grace abounds! God is determined to save his people, that is, to save you, and that principalities and powers cannot prevent him. Not even you can stop him. You read of how Abram behaved and how God delivered him even when the patriarch had been responsible for getting himself into this mess, and this increases your faith. You start to realize that God will truly save you. The people of God will learn from the fall of Abram. We stand in awe of grace that meets us when we have fallen through our own folly and unbelief. We will cry to God to pour out his strength into our lives by the Spirit of Christ and you will seek to live a credible consistent and godly life by the power of the merciful God who does wonders.
29th March 2009 GEOFF THOMAS