LIFE OF ABRAHAM
When I first learned to ride a bicycle, my dad 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. Over time, the mishaps became less frequent. 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” (cf. Gen. 12:8). His practice of worshipping the One-true God continued as before.
Since his flocks and herds regularly required fresh pasture, Abram continued moving them southward. Without indicating the chronology or number of times Abram relocated, the text simply reveals there was a severe famine in the land.
“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” (12:10)
Drought would have made it increasingly difficult to find adequate pasture for his livestock. Because he was unfamiliar with the ecosystem of Canaan, Abram was not equipped to cope.
Hailing from Ur situated in the lush alluvial plane near the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, Abram had moved to Haran, a caravan town, situated in proximity to the convergence of the Balikh and Euphrates Rivers located near the modern day border of Syria and Turkey.
The land of Canaan was mountainous and dependent almost entirely on rain and dew for water. In both Ur and Haran, the rivers provided a dependable water supply enhanced by extensive irrigation systems.
Accustomed to the cycles associated with large rivers, Abram knew his livestock could survive drought in that environment. Egypt had both water and food. In Canaan, there was a severe famine.
Abram sensibly moved his flocks and herds to Egypt. The Hebrew word g’or translated “dwell” conveys the idea of sojourning or a temporary dwelling. He had no intention of staying there permanently. It was a temporary move to wait-out the famine as is borne out in the Contemporary English Version Bible translation.
“The crops failed, and there was no food anywhere in the land. So Abram and his wife Sarai went to live in Egypt for a while. But just before they got there, he said, “Sarai, you are really beautiful!” (12:10-11, CEV)
Before arriving in Egypt, Abram and Sarai confirmed a plan they would use while traveling. They would give the impression that they were brother and sister rather than husband and wife. There was truth in the matter because Sarai was in point of fact his half-sister (cf. Gen. 20:11-13). (To add clarity to the situation, it’s important to remember that in the aftermath of the Great Flood, the human gene pool was more pure and marriages between siblings were permitted until the giving of the Torah at Sinai.)
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 her as wife.
In that culture, any man interested in Sarai would have negotiated wedding terms through the oldest living male in the family, namely her brother Abram. Representing Sarai as his sister, Abram’s plan bought time to maneuver out of potentially life threatening situations.
Abram’s fears actually materialized, but with an unanticipated twist
Sarai’s beauty did in point of fact attract the attention of Egyptian officials as Abram had feared. None, however, approached Abram to arrange a marriage with Sarai. Instead, the princes of Egypt commended her extraordinary beauty to pharaoh (v. 15).
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 part of his harem.
Pharaoh did not kill Abram as he and Sarai feared. Remarkably, gifts were instead lavished 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.
How Abram and Sarai coped with this unexpected contingency is open to speculation. 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 Hebrew word describing the malady is referenced in the book of Leviticus like a skin disease associated with leprosy (Lev. 13:2).
Apparently, Sarai was immune and did not contract the disease causing pharaoh to question why. Whether Sarai told him or he discovered the truth some other way, Abram was immediately summoned.
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?’
I might have taken her as my wife” (Gen. 12:18-19).
Without waiting for Abram to respond, pharaoh returned Sarai to him and ordered the Egyptian army to escort the couple out of the kingdom (v. 20). 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 instructive for the nation of Egypt.
- 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, the pharaoh recorded in the book of Exodus either forgot or ignored the incident and suffered dire consequences for his negligence.
The lessons to Abram were equally important. 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, Abram needed the benefit of real-life experience in the process of learning faith.
Pursuing God’s will takes us into uncharted territory often with unavoidable challenges
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 spread Abram’s fame throughout the region.
God even prospered Abram in spite of the situation with, “sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male and female servants, female donkeys, and camels” (12:16). Because of pharaoh’s generosity, Abram left Egypt with great wealth. The outcome of Abram and Sarai’s experience in Egypt is a reminder that God is not only attentive to our circumstances, but often brings material blessing through unexpected means.
Abram experienced a 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). God used Abram’s encounter with pharaoh as a powerful faith builder.
Abram and Sarai returned from Egypt with deeper insight into the character of God and newfound confidence that He could be trusted in the uncertainty of life. Theirs’ was a 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.
If Christians really want to understand modern Israel, we need to have a biblically authentic view of the man, Abraham. I hope you’ll take advantage of my related FOUNDATION devotionals on the Olive Tree Alliance website that provide a fresh look at the Bible to eliminate confusion about Israel.
1) The Egyptians Admire Sarai’s Beauty. (Image used for illustrative purposes) (By James Jacques Tissot.[Public domain]/Wikimedia/Enhancement, MKM Portfolios).
2) Sarai Is Taken to Pharaoh’s Palace. (Used for illustrative purposes) (By James Jacques Tissot/[Public domain]/Wikimedia/Enhancement, MKM Portfolios)
3) Living the Life of Faith. Quote by Charles E. McCracken © 2019 (Image used for illustrative purposes/Pixabay/[Public domain]/Digital composition, MKM Portfolios)
4) Sarai Conveyed to Pharaoh’s Harem. (Images used for illustrative purposes) (By James Tissot/[Public domain]/Wikimedia/Featured image digital composition, MKM Portfolios)
Copyright © 2016 Charles E. McCracken, devotional comments only. Repost/Reprint with permission from the author. Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.