The Failure of Abraham (Genesis 12:10-20)

Last week, we read how Abram came to know the LORD. Though he was originally a cursed pagan, God spoke to him, giving him a command and a promise. God told Abram to go to a land that God would show him and that He would bless Abram greatly. Trusting the LORD, Abram obeyed, not knowing where God would take him. Thus, Abram displayed great faith in God. He simply trusted the LORD and left behind the security and comfort of his extended family.

Because Abram showed such astounding faith already, it is difficult for us to imagine things going south for him, especially as quickly as they do. In this section of Scripture, we read that God brings Abram to a new land only to face a severe famine. The famine causes Abram to journey into Egypt. Out of fear for his own life, Abram deceives the Egyptians into believing that Sarai is not his wife. This means that within the same chapter of Abram showing great faith in the LORD, he also sells his wife to Pharaoh in order to save his own skin.

It is shocking to see Abram sin so quickly after following the LORD, yet Bible never shies away from people’s sin. It repeatedly makes it clear that our “heroes” of the faith were deeply flawed and sinful people. If we read the Bible as a book of morality lessons and fables, accounts such as this will be hard to understand. However, if we realize that the only true hero of the Bible is God, then we will begin to see how vast the grace of God truly is! Simply put, we are no different than Abram. Each of us has moments of failure and success during our walk with God. Fortunately, “if we are faithless, he remains faithful.” In Christ, we have grace, even in the midst of our sins and failures.

Verse 10: “Now there was a famine in the land. So Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there, for the famine was severe in the land.”

Following the show of faith that Abram displayed by obeying God, we would probably expect everything to go smoothly for him. God promised to bless him; therefore, we would imagine that having God’s favor would make life significantly easier. Abram trusted God more than the security of his extended family in his hometown, but now that trust was already going to be tested when Abram and his family faced a famine in their new land. Because life was of built entire around agriculture in Abram’s day, famines were bringers of death. Famines were often caused by droughts. Rain would cease to fall from the sky for an extended period of time, and then crops would fail to grow. Grass would die, and streams and rivers would dry. Cattle would die of thirst or hunger. Famine was a bitter curse upon any land. Though God promised blessing, Abram was now looking famine in the face. How then did Abram deal with this famine? Did he pray to God, asking for Him to remember His promise and provide for Abram in the midst of the famine? No, Abram fled to Egypt.

Egypt was a great and mighty kingdom at this time in history. One reason for Egypt’s greatness resided in its location around the Nile River. While lands like Canaan and Negeb were entirely dependent upon the rainfall, the Nile proved to be incredibly constant. The massiveness of the Nile meant that only the most severe of droughts and famines affected Egypt. Thus, it makes sense that Abram would want to sojourn in Egypt until the famine in his land ceased. Nevertheless, I do wonder if it would have been best for Abram to trust God to provide and not journey to Egypt. Perhaps this story of Abram’s failure began with one simple act of distrust, of faithlessness.

Regardless of whether it was sinful or not for Abram to go to Egypt, there is still a point to be made from this verse. God allowed a newly believing Abram to be confronted with a famine. Why would God allow something so severe to happen to someone that He loves? We are never given a clear answer for why things like this occur. We do know “that for those who love God, all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose (Rom. 8:28).” So we know that in some way Abram grew from this experience in Egypt. We know that even if it was sin for Abram to go to Egypt God used Abram’s faithlessness to display His faithfulness and His glory. Also, we must remember that God never promises us an easy and comfortable life. God’s promise to bless Abram did not mean that Abram’s life would be without conflict and pain; it only meant that God was going to be with Abram through every trial. And really, God being with us is enough.

Verses 11-13: “When he was about to enter Egypt, he said to Sarai his wife, “I know that you are a woman beautiful in appearance, and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me, but they will let you live. Say you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared for your sake.”

Regardless of whether Abram should have journeyed to Egypt or not, here we find a clear error of Abram. At the heart of Abram’s plan for Sarai is a fear of his own death. Abram feared that the Egyptians would kill him in order to take her as their wife. To be fair, he was not out of line in imagining the Egyptians doing such a thing. Killing a man for his wife was not unheard of in ancient societies. Furthermore, we read in verse 15 that they did kidnap Sarai. So the issue here is not whether Abram’s fears were well-founded or not. Rather, we should ask whether Abram was being faithful to God or not. The answer appears to be quite simple. By taking matters into his own hands, Abram’s deception revealed that he did not trust God to care for him.

Abram’s deception was fundamentally based upon Sarai, her beauty and cooperation. He likely convinced himself that his lie was excusable because Sarai was indeed Abram’s half-sister, which we learn when Abram does this same deception a second time (Gen. 20:12). However, a half-truth does not make a full truth from any sort of angle. At the end of the day, Abram deceived the Egyptians. Abram sinned, and he did so at his wife’s expense. Twice Abram says, “because of you” and “for your sake.” He knew that they would let Sarai live as a wife of an Egyptian, but they would likely kill him. Therefore, he was willing to let his wife go to another man in order to save himself. This is the fundamental problem of Abram’s deception. He is selling away, pimping off, his wife so that he could live. Deception is always selfish and harmful. Like Abram, we deceive for selfish motivations, and in some way, they hurt someone else. Sarai is paying a price so that Abram can feel safe in Egypt.

Verses 14-16: “When Abram entered Egypt, the Egyptians saw that the woman was very beautiful. And when the princes of Pharaoh saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh. And the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house. And for her sake he dealt well with Abram; and he had sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male servants, female servants, female donkeys, and camels.”

Just as Abram expected, the Egyptians did find Sarai beautiful. In fact, they found her so beautiful that they boasted of her to Pharaoh, and she was then brought into Pharaoh’s house. There are a couple of points of observation that we can make here. First, Sarai was about sixty-five years old at this time. Our society, by Greek influence, has a fixation upon youth. How often do we hear people speak of teens and twenties as the greatest years of one’s life! Yet we should be careful to project our society’s mindset upon other societies, current or ancient. For most of the world’s history, old age was valued far above youthfulness. Indeed, cultures similar to our make presumptions of beauty based upon primarily superficial standards. We fixate upon facial and bodily features. Whereas, many cultures have a more wholistic sense of beauty. Walton makes an excellent point on this matter by saying, “We need not therefore assume that Sarai has miraculously retained the stunning beauty of youth. Her dignity, her bearing, her countenance, her outfitting may all contribute to the impression that she is a striking woman (Walton, 397).”

Second, Pharaoh deals well with Abram for Sarai’s sake. Obviously, Sarai followed Abram’s plan, and because of her good word, the king of Egypt gave great gifts to Abram. These items were likely a form of dowry. In the absence of her father, a single woman would fall under the protection of one of her brothers; therefore, it was proper for a man to purchase her to be his wife from her brother. For many years, verse 16 was considered to be a point of contention for people who deny the Bible’s accuracy. They claimed that all archeological evidence showed that camels were not domesticated during Abram’s time. Thus, they said that people wrote Genesis one thousand or so years after Abram actually lived and did not know that people from Abram’s day did not have tamed camels. Though not widely publicized, archeologists discovered a few years ago evidence that proved camels were domesticated during the time of Abram. However, camels likely would have been a fairly recent commodity; therefore, they would have been a highly valuable gift. This means that Abram was paid greatly for Sarai.

Even though Abram was given rich payment in exchange for his wife, let us not mistakenly believe that he was being blessed, at least in the sense that we discussed it in the previous lesson. The prospering of Abram does not mean that God favored Abram’s actions. This is why it is so important for us to divorce the ideas of prosperity and blessing from one another; there is simply no guarantee in Scripture that the two are innately connected. Prosperity is not indicative of blessing. We must always take great care not to correlate the two. Abram’s prosperity comes in the midst of his sin. Sarai did exactly what Abram asked, and everything did go well for him. However, even with his new wealth, Abram lost his wife. Abram got what he wanted but lost much more. He lost his partner, whom the LORD was going to use to bring his offspring into the world. Like Genesis 3, disobedience to God created a rift between man and woman.

Verse 17: “But the LORD afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife.”

We are not told exactly how the Pharaoh comes to realize that the plagues came because of Sarai, but somehow he comes to that conclusion. Most significantly we must note that God now steps into the story. In Abram’s decision to go to Egypt, God was silent. When he told Sarai his plan to secure his own safety, the LORD did not speak. As Abram was given great wealth by Pharaoh, God still did not appear. Now in the eleventh hour, God shows up. Obviously, Abram was going to do nothing to rescue his wife, so God graciously intervenes. The LORD does this by plaguing the Egyptians. This action gives us our first display of God’s complete faithfulness. Remember that in verse three God promised Abram that He would “bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse.” Some of the greatest ways to dishonor a man is through his wife. Sarai was taken as a bride into the house of Pharaoh. For days or weeks, Abram slept alone, knowing that he gave his wife away to another man. Even though the situation was Abram’s fault, the Pharaoh still dishonored Abram by taking his wife; therefore, God made good on his promise. God cursed Pharaoh for dishonoring Abram, even when Abram was acting dishonorably. There is also a subtle hint of the future events of the Exodus within these verses.

Verses 18-20: “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? 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 go.” And Pharaoh gave men orders concerning him, and they sent him away with his wife and all that he had.”

The Egyptian king is understandably angry with Abram for such a deceit. Pharaoh asks Abram a series of questions. He strongly implies that he would never have taken Sarai had he known the truth. He then sends Abram and Sarai away. Interestingly, Pharaoh does not demand his previous gifts to Abram back. Perhaps he hoped that Abram’s God would remove the plagues more quickly if he let Abram keep what he gave to him. Thus, we conclude this section of Abram’s story with him being more prosperous than he previously was. If we read the Bible only as stories with lessons of morality, this one will pose some problems. The moral of the story seems to be that Abram sins, gets mildly scolded, and then gets away rich. Yet that is not how we are to read the Bible. Instead, we read God’s Word knowing that everything except God is sinful. This applies to Abram. Nothing in this story condones his actions. Abram failed miserably. Thus, instead of learning about a sinner who prospers from his sin, we should look at this account and see the riches of God’s grace and mercy. Abram was utterly faithless here, but God remained faithful to him. The LORD kept his promise to Abram. He cursed Pharaoh and rescued Sarai. Abram absolutely did not deserve so great a God, and neither do we.

The great lesson to be learned from Abram’s failure here is summed up well by the Apostle Paul: “if we are faithless, he remains faithful—for he cannot deny himself (2 Tim. 2:13).” Abram did not deserve to have this story end on a good note. He did not deserve to have his wife again or to keep the wealth from Pharaoh. Likewise, we must remember that our walk with God is not dependent upon our own faithfulness. God is continuously faithful to us.

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