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Genesis 12:10-20

Text Comment

v.10     Egypt was a typical refuge in times of famine because the Nile provided a much more reliable supply of water and so of food. Famines were invariably caused by drought. By the way, this was the first of three times Egypt would provide protection for the “seed of the woman” promised in Genesis 3:15. The second was when Jacob’s family took refuge in Egypt and remained there for 400 years. The third when the holy family fled to Egypt to escape Herod’s attempt to kill the baby Jesus.

v.11     There are still today plenty of sixty-five year old women who are very beautiful, but perhaps we are supposed to think that the Lord had granted Sarai an unusually beautiful appearance for her age. This could also explain the remarkable vigor of the patriarchs when they were very old by our standards. So perhaps Sarai was no ordinary 65 but was a woman, at that age, who looked like a woman might who was much younger.

v.13     This was technically true (cf. 20:12), she was his half-sister, but using part of the truth to conceal the other part was clearly a lie, as Pharaoh will understand it to have been in vv. 18-19, and to which accusation Abraham had no reply. There will always be ready justifications for unfaithful conduct! But Abram had to ask Sarai to consent to this ruse. She was in a position to hang him out to dry!

By the way, this is some proof of the antiquity of this narrative. No later writer would have reported that Abram, the patriarch of Israel, had married his half-sister, when such a marriage was condemned in the Law of Moses.

It is possible that Abram wasn’t completely willing to hazard his wife’s honor for the safety of his own skin.  He might have been counting on the fact that, as Sarai’s brother, he could fend off suitors by promising her in marriage without ever actually having to make good on his promise.  It is a small point:  As Pharaoh’s rebuke and Abraham’s silence will make clear later in the chapter, he did expose her to great risk and did so in order to protect his own skin. His philosophy was: “‘Better defiled than dead.’ This is not a philosophy that establishes God’s kingdom in a pagan world.” [Waltke, 213]

v.14     “…the woman…” a typical objectification of a woman. That they saw Sarai’s beauty indicates that she didn’t typically veil her face. [Sarna, 95]

v.15     “Pharaoh” is not a name; it is a title. The literal meaning of the word is “Great House,” and serves as a figure of speech for the Egyptian monarch, as “The Crown” is often used as metonymy for the British monarch or “White House” for the American president. [Sarna, 95]

But now Abram and Sarai face an unforeseen complication. Sarai is taken into the Pharaoh’s harem! Now what? “…she was taken…” suggests a formal relationship, marriage really, as will be confirmed in v. 19.  The narrative suggests that God intervened before a sexual relationship ensued. Abram’s ruse had backfired in the worst possible way. Only God could get them out of this mess!

v.16     This must have stung Abraham’s conscience. He got richer because he had let his beautiful wife be taken into the Pharaoh’s harem.

There is an interesting detail here. The narrator describes Abram’s possessions in the precise order in which they would move in caravan, with the human servants separating the male donkeys, with their strong sexual drive, from the scent of the female donkeys. Female donkeys were easier to handle and so were typically the ones to be ridden. They came last with the camels. [Sarna, 96] It was once thought that this reference to camels was anachronistic and the domestication of camels came much later, but, as so often with such claims that the biblical narrative is unhistorical, evidence has been found of the use of camels long before Abram, though in his time it was an animal only the wealthy would own. Such is the picture here. [Cf. Kitchen, Ancient Orient and OT, 79-80; On the Reliability of the OT, 640; Sarna, 96]

v.18     It is not said how Pharaoh connected the plagues with Sarai. Some have supposed that the plagues produced impotence or involved some acute inflammation of the genitals, and so were connected in Pharaoh’s mind with his passion for Sarai. [Sarna, 96-97] Obviously in some way the Lord made it clear to Pharaoh what the problem was. It is possible, of course, that Pharaoh interrogated Sarai, the newcomer in the harem, and she told him who she was.

v.19     Pharaoh seemed to be conscience-stricken. He realized that he has done wrong. The Lord punished him and Pharaoh understood that he got what he deserved, even if Abram was also to blame. That explains why Pharaoh did not punish Abram, but actually gave him leave to return to Canaan with all the wealth he had accumulated in Egypt.

The first time I preached on this text, some twenty years ago, I began by saying that it wasn’t clear to me whether Abram was at fault for his decision to go to Egypt on account of the famine. My argument was that the text doesn’t say that this was an error of judgment or failure of faith on his part. After all, we are not given to believe that Abram was provided divine instruction for every step he took.

I think otherwise today. The Lord had told him to go to Canaan, “to go to the land that I will show you,” as we read in 12:1. We have no reason to think that Abram should have thought himself free then to leave the land the Lord had brought him to. In fact, we have learned of late to consider a biblical author’s silences as significant as his statements. We wait for some word that God had told Abram to seek refuge in Egypt or that Abram built an altar to the Lord in Egypt, but none is forthcoming. A lesson that is going to be taught in many ways through the following chapters is that the life of faith will always be beset with temptation and that faith obeys even when it cannot see the way forward. Troubles and obstacles are never adequate excuses for disobedience.

Further, while the language of going down to Egypt and coming up from Egypt (13:1) is the ordinary way of describing travel from Canaan to Egypt and back again, we have learned that biblical narrators often use such vocabulary to describe spiritual movement as well. Abram went down when he left Canaan; he came up when he returned to the Promised Land. [Waltke, 212]

Still more, the word “sojourn” in v. 10 seems to suggest, certainly can suggest and in the context probably does suggest, that Abram was planning to live in Egypt, to settle there, at least for some significant period of time. Finally, when Abram arrived in Egypt and was confronted with what he thought might be a threat to his safety, his faith in God seemed entirely to desert him. The Lord had promised him that he would make of Abram’s seed a great nation, and, though the Lord had promised that he would curse those who sought to do Abram harm, Abram was terrified of what the Egyptians might do to him. He certainly was not serenely counting on the promise of God! Abram’s statement in v. 13 does not sound like he was doing what Jesus would later teach us to do.

“Therefore, I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink…. Is not life more than food…. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” [Matt. 6:25-33]

Abram had ceased to live by divine revelation and had ceased to count on the promises God had made to him. That is a perfect definition of unbelief and, of course, all our disobedience stems from unbelief.

I made the point, in a previous sermon on the sin of Noah and of Ham following the flood, that every time God enters into covenant with man in the Word of God, every time he renews his covenant with his people in the Word of God, every time a new stage is reached in God’s covenant with his people, that covenant is betrayed from the people’s side.  As soon as God made his covenant with Noah and in Noah with the world, Noah and his son betrayed that covenant.  Now, no sooner had God made his covenant with Abram than Abram was throwing the entire covenant into jeopardy by his behavior.

And you see how he was doing that.  God had promised him the land of Canaan as his possession and that of his offspring, and soon after Abram was in Egypt, the Hebrew of v. 10 suggesting that he was there as an immigrant, as an outsider but one who planned to stay. And so he did, long enough to accumulate still greater wealth!  That is startling enough so soon after our hearing God promise the land of Canaan to him and his seed and so soon after we have grown accustomed to thinking of Abram as a pilgrim. But, there is more: immediately we find him in danger of losing his wife, perhaps even his own life, and forfeiting any hope of offspring who might someday inherit the land of Canaan. God had promised him a seed, even though he and his wife were older and childless, and now, through his own cowardice, his wife belonged to another man, a powerful King. Where then was his offspring to come from, now that his wife was in an Egyptian harem?

Thankfully the Lord rescued Abram, Sarai, and the future seed from the predicament into which Abram’s unbelief and disobedience had cast them. The rescue was not a reward for Abram’s righteousness. The Lord in effect was saying, “I have more invested in this marriage than you seem to!” Without Sarai there will be no promised seed, no nation through whom the whole world will be blessed. And so the Lord acted and quickly and decisively turned the entire situation around and brought Abram back to Canaan where he belonged and whence he should never have left.

Obviously this text provides a grand demonstration of Yahweh’s faithfulness to his promise. The salvation of individuals and of the world will not come to pass because of the faithfulness of God’s people but because of God’s own faithfulness. But this short narrative is also an early and important indication of what we are going to find is a commonplace of believing life in the world, a sad fact the Bible will ring the changes on and church history will confirm with depressing regularity.

It is not obvious, after all, that this should be the case. It is not obvious that a man who had responded to God’s call with such noteworthy obedience, who had so willingly sacrificed the comforts of hearth and home to take a long and dangerous journey to a far country, that a man whose faith in God and in God’s word was so sturdy and so clear that he undertook to turn his life upside down, that a man who seemed to be not at all in doubt that what God had promised him would come to pass, I say it is not obvious that a man of such faith would so soon be found playing the part of a coward, forgetting all about God, trusting him not at all to protect his life or to fulfill his promise. It is not obvious that a man who had already traveled so far and had faced down so many obstacles by faith would collapse before the mere suspicion that his life might be in danger. God had said, “I will make of you a great nation” and Abram had believed it!  And, now, Abram is saying to himself “The Egyptians will kill me,” as if God had never spoken; indeed, as if there were no God.

How are we to explain this?  What are we to make of a man who is a perfect hero of faith one minute and a sniveling coward who seems not to know that God exists the next? What are we to make of a man whose faith overcomes the world one day and collapses before the world the next?  Well, whatever we are to make of it, it is a fact of life throughout the rest of biblical history. Every believing man or woman we will meet is going to demonstrate this spiritual schizophrenia: this mixture of spiritual sanity and of the loss of one’s spiritual mind; of faith and unbelief, courage and cowardice, obedience and flagrant disobedience.

Abram, as we said last week, is going to serve in the Bible as a prototypical Christian, and in this way too. Just as he is at one moment heroic in his trust in God and at another a disgrace to the covenant God had made with him, so God’s people are going to be alternately a credit and a disgrace to the covenant God has made with them. It will be so with Isaac, Jacob, and with Moses; it will be so with David, Hezekiah, and Josiah, who were the best and most faithful kings of Judah; and it will be with Peter and in Paul. Yes, even with the Apostle Paul.

What a lion of a man, what a hero of the covenant, what a champion of the gospel and the Christian life Paul was! If there is an Abraham in the New Testament, it is the Apostle Paul. What an exemplar of everything that is beautiful and noble and pure and true in the Christian faith and life!

            He who can part from country and from kin,

And scorn delights, and tread the thorny way,

A heavenly crown, through toil and pain, to win —

He who reviled can tender love repay,

And buffeted, for bitter foes can pray —

He who, upspringing at his Captain’s call,

Fights the good fight, and when at last the day

Of fiery trial comes, can nobly fall —

Such were a saint — or more — and such the holy Paul!

Whoever suffered more or gave more or loved more or accomplished more for the sake of Jesus Christ and his gospel and the salvation of the world than did Paul? And yet Paul himself tells us in letters written in his own blood, that throughout his Christian life, through all the years of days and nights in various Roman prisons, through all the stonings and beatings, through all the scorn and humiliation, through all the hard work, the victorious preaching and planting of new churches from Antioch to Spain, he was sick at heart about his own soul and his own still so sinful life.

            “I do not understand what I do.  For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do — this I keep on doing. What a wretched man I am! Who shall deliver me from this body of death?”

So Paul concerning himself as an experienced Christian and Apostle of Christ in Romans 7:14-25. And Abraham could have said the very same thing and no doubt did say and think the same thing as he was making his shameful way home from Egypt to Canaan, every look from his wife, every sight of her cutting his conscience to the quick.

All of this is so familiar to us who have been Christians for any length of time. This honesty about believers, about us, we find in the Bible everywhere we look; this striking juxtaposition of Abram’s heroism and Abram’s cowardice, his faith and his doubt, his obedience and his betrayal.  We are not surprised by it because, often as we have found this in Holy Scripture, we have found it more often in ourselves. We do believe in the Lord and we do obey. Our lives are so different than they would be were we not followers of Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, sometimes we cannot believe that we are the same person: that the one who prays and believes and speaks and obeys as only a Christian will is the very one whose attitudes and inner thoughts and whose speech and whose behavior, toward God and toward others, seem to bear no mark, no evidence of faith whatsoever. We sometimes live as only the truest Christian will and other times — too often — as no Christian ever should.

When Sheldon Vanauken was coming to faith, the great story he tells so beautifully in his book, A Severe Mercy, he noticed, as many have noticed before him, that the Christians he knew were, at one and the same time, the best and the worst recommendations of Christianity. But, what is more, the same Christian, depending upon the day, the hour, the moment, can be the best or the worst recommendation for the Christian faith.

Which David will you choose: the David who trusts God to give him victory over Goliath, the David leaping and dancing before the ark of the covenant, the David who loves Jonathan, his rival, with an almost perfect love and later shows such kindness to Jonathan’s house, the David who refuses to take matters into his own hands when he has the opportunity, twice, to kill King Saul who was so unjustly attempting to murder him — is that the David you will choose — or, the David who steals another man’s wife, who murders her husband, and who neglects his own children so terribly as to bring disaster upon his house and upon the nation of Israel?  Which Peter will you have: the one who at the great catch of fish fell down at the Lord’s feet and cried, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” or the Peter who, the night before the crucifixion, a pure, unadulterated coward, three times denied that he ever knew Jesus of Nazareth, and cursed to sell the lie?

No one could ever carry away from the Bible the idea that Christians, because of their new heart from God and their faith in Christ, would always live as God would have them live. Nor would you ever hear that from the finest Christians who have ever lived in the world. No, on the contrary, the Christian of strongest faith invariably sees more clearly than anyone how much there is in his life that is totally incompatible with his own Christian faith.

Now, there are a great many applications that might be made from this fact. We can take from Abram’s fall, the first and most obvious application: that our salvation from first to last depends upon God and his faithfulness and not at all upon us. It was God who got Abram out of the mess he had created for himself in Egypt and without God Abram would have died there, a rich widower, who had let the promise of the ages slip through his fingers. Or we can take from this fact, illustrated so powerfully in Abram’s behavior in Egypt, the necessity of a Christian’s constant watchfulness over his or her own heart. We must live wide awake to our own susceptibility to fall, to betray, and to doubt the Word of God.

Or, we could call ourselves to arms. If this is the fact of life, this double-mindedness of spiritual commitment and life, how much more then must we strive and must we labor to put our sins to death and to put on Christ for our living every day. What Abram shows us is that no one is going to live a consecrated Christian life by accident; that God meant what he said when he described the life of faith as a fight, a struggle, a wrestling match, and a race. We have obstacles, enemies, and the greatest one is still our own self; and so we must fight tooth and nail if we would live faithful lives in this world, if we would amidst our failures, have triumphs and successes too in serving Christ and honoring him.

But, I want to apply Abram’s fall in another way this morning. This too is the meaning of this history. Perhaps it is its truest and most important meaning. I want not so much to warn you from this history or humble you as to console you.

He might just as well have been speaking about Genesis 12:10-20, as about Romans 7:14-25, when Alexander Whyte said, of Paul’s confession of his still so great sinfulness and spiritual failure:

            “I would like you to tell me where I can find another chapter so full of the profoundest, surest, most spiritual, and most experimental [experiential] comfort. I have not found it… No. In its own wonderful way there is not a more comfortable and hopeful Scripture in all the Book of God than this… As long as I am sold under sin I will continue to read continually this chapter…”

For what does any Christian, who knows full well what faith requires of him and what God deserves of him and what his own happiness and his own welfare demand of him; what does any Christian think when he sees how often he does what no Christian should ever do and how often he fails to do what any Christian, however young, however inexperienced, however immature, should always do; I say what does he think but, “Can I be a Christian at all when I do such things and fail to do so much else?”

And then Abram appears and then Paul to tell him that they wondered the very same thing and for the very same reason! They were so disgusted with their lives and so amazed at what failures they could be when, at the same time, they really were believers in and lovers of the Lord Jesus.

And not just the biblical figures. Every holy man or woman who has ever lived in the world. I could regale you for hours with their confessions of sin and failure and with their heartfelt expressions of confusion that they who loved the Lord so truly could still betray him so often and so terribly. Or I could give you illustrations from a thousand lives, from every time and period of church history, of exactly what we find in Abram in Gen. 12.

Take Martin Luther at the very end of his life. The great Reformer, at constant risk of his own life, took on unbelieving Christendom in the name of Jesus Christ and restored the gospel to the church. To the end of his life he was served the Lord in his own mighty and wonderfully unique way: writing, lecturing, counseling, and preaching on behalf of the Bible and the gospel of free grace.  But if you know anything about Martin Luther, you know that there was alongside all of that, alas, was the peevishness and the short temper. In the closing days of his life he worked himself literally into such a stew over the fact that the girls in Wittenberg were wearing low-cut dresses that he left home promising never to return. His doctor brought him back. But then came a request from another town that he come to mediate a dispute and reconcile some offended Christian brothers. Luther was really too sick to go, but he went, reconciled the men, and died on the way home. [Bainton, p. 383]

Luther used to describe the Christian as “simul justus et peccator,” at one and the same time, righteous and a sinner. He was speaking of the fact that though we continue to sin, we are perfectly righteous in Christ through our faith in him. But, he also meant that while we live in this world as Christians we are, at one and the same time, men and women of faith and men and women whose faith often fails.

And what does God himself think of all of this? Here is Christopher Love, one of the great Puritan preachers. Listen carefully to this brothers and sisters. It is the lesson of Abram in Egypt.

“Look not so much on your sins, but look upon your grace also, though weak. Weak Christians look more on their sins than on their graces; yet God looks on their graces and overlooks their sins and infirmities. The Holy [Spirit] said, “[You] have heard of the patience of Job”. He might also have said, “[You] have heard of the impatience of Job”; but God reckons his people not by what is bad in them, but by what is good in them. Mention is made of what…was well done…and what was amiss, is buried in silence, or, at least, is not recorded against [him] and charged upon [him]… O it is good to serve such a Master, who is ready to reward the good we do, and is ready to forgive and pass by what is amiss.  Therefore, you who have but little grace, yet remember that God will have his eye on that little grace. He will not quench the smoking flax nor break the bruised reed.”  [Sermons, vol. 3, on “Growing in Grace.”]

Or, to put it in terms of our text, Abraham is, through the rest of the Bible, called the father of the faithful and the friend of God; he is never once called the coward of Egypt!