There was a famine in the land, so Abram went down to Egypt to stay there for a while because the famine in the land was severe. When he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife, Sarai, “Look, I know what a beautiful woman you are. When the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ They will kill me but let you live. Please say you’re my sister so it will go well for me because of you, and my life will be spared on your account.”Genesis 12:10-13
So God had called Abram and told him he would make of him a great nation, that he would bless all other nations through him. He promised Abram and his wife Sarai offspring and land.
Then famine hit the land where Abram and his family were–the land to which God had led him.
Now everything was in jeopardy. After all, the famine was severe. If Abram didn’t do something, if he didn’t act, so much for God’s plans.
One of the interesting features of biblical narrative is that it doesn’t always go out of its way to point out when someone is doing something wrong. Instead, we’re allowed to see the consequences of someone’s actions. That’s true of Abram here in Genesis 12.
Notice what happens. Abram decides to go to Egypt to wait out the famine. But as they approach the border, Abram tells Sarai that they’ll have to lie and say she is his sister. “Don’t let the Egyptians know you’re my wife,” he says, “Or they’ll kill me to have you.”
Abram’s decision to go to Egypt leads him to deceive.
Once in Egypt, Pharaoh adds Sarai to his harem.
Abram’s decision to go to Egypt results in his wife committing adultery with the Egyptian Pharaoh.
Then God visits plagues upon Pharaoh and his household because of Sarai. Incensed, Pharaoh confronts Abram and expels him and his family from the country.
Abram’s decision to go to Egypt leads to suffering in Pharaoh’s household.
Lest we think those are the only consequences of Abram’s actions, the fallout continues in later chapters.
For instance, when Abram and Sarai first arrive in Egypt and deceive Pharaoh and his officials about his relationship with her, we’re told that Pharaoh treated Abram well because of her, and Abram acquired flocks and herds, male and female donkeys, male and female slaves, and camels.
So Abram profited as a result of his deception. How is that a consequence? Let’s fast forward to Genesis 13 where we see this:
Now Lot, who was traveling with Abram, also had flocks, herds, and tents. But the land was unable to support them as long as they stayed together, for they had so many possessions that they could not stay together, and there was quarreling between the herdsmen of Abram’s livestock and the herdsmen of Lot’s livestock. So Abram said to Lot, “Please, let’s not have quarreling between you and me, or between your herdsmen and my herdsmen, since we are relatives. Isn’t the whole land before you? Separate from me: if you go to the left, I will go to the right; if you go to the right, I will go to the left.” . . . So Lot chose the entire plain of the Jordan for himself. Then Lot journeyed eastward, and they separated from each other. Abram lived in the land of Canaan, but Lot lived in the cities on the plain and set up his tent near Sodom. (Now the men of Sodom were evil, sinning immensely against the Lord.)Genesis 13:5-9, 11-13
So what’s happening? Because Abram had become so much wealthier thanks to Pharaoh (because he had traveled to Egypt in the first place), he and his nephew Lot’s herdsmen ended up fighting because the land could not support both of them. Lot and Abram separated. And where did Lot end up settling? We’re told he set up his tent near Sodom. And then we’re told parenthetically: Now the men of Sodom were evil, sinning immensely against the Lord. This is called foreshadowing. There’s trouble ahead for Lot and his family.
Abram’s decision to go to Egypt leads Lot to pitch his tent near Sodom, a city rife with immorality and wickedness.
Sadly, it doesn’t end there. Let’s skip a few chapters ahead.
Abram’s wife, Sarai, had not borne any children for him, but she owned an Egyptian slave named Hagar. Sarai said to Abram, “Since the Lord has prevented me from bearing children, go to my slave; perhaps through her I can build a family.” And Abram agreed to what Sarai said. So Abram’s wife, Sarai, took Hagar, her Egyptian slave, and gave her to her husband, Abram, as a wife for him. This happened after Abram had lived in the land of Canaan ten years. He slept with Hagar, and she became pregnant. When she saw that she was pregnant, her mistress became contemptible to her. Then Sarai said to Abram, “You are responsible for my suffering! I put my slave in your arms, and when she saw that she was pregnant, I became contemptible to her. May the Lord judge between me and you.” Abram replied to Sarai, “Here, your slave is in your power; do whatever you want with her.” Then Sarai mistreated her so much that she ran away from her.Genesis 16:1-6
We’re given a hint of the problem in the very first verse of Genesis 16: Abram’s wife, Sarai, had not borne any children for him, but she owned an Egyptian slave named Hagar.
Aha! An Egyptian slave? Where did Abram happen to come by an Egyptian slave?
Exactly. He had Egyptian slaves because of his decision to go to Egypt and deceive Pharaoh about his wife Sarai.
This Egyptian slave-girl’s name is Hagar and her story is a sad one. Despite God’s promise of future offspring, Sarai tries to take matters into her own hands. She offers Hagar to Abram as a means of having children. Abram, maybe still feeling guilty about having prostituted Sarai to Pharaoh, shows no resistance to this suggestion at all.
Then, strife. Between Sarai and Hagar. Between Abram and Sarai.
Abram’s decision to go to Egypt actually leads Sarai into sin and Hagar’s mistreatment.
(Sidenote: To anyone who complains that the Bible condones polygamy, just look at how it usually turns out for those involved.)
Now the question: what’s at the root of all this? What led to this cycle of sin and brokenness?
Go back to Genesis 12:10: There was a famine in the land, so Abram went down to Egypt.
Famine or food, Abram thought. “Let’s go where there’s food!” Seems like a reasonable choice were it not for the fact that he was already exactly where God led him, the God who promised land and offspring.
Would not the God who made those promises provide during a famine? Could not God provide? Why didn’t Abram ask God to provide? Why didn’t he build an altar on this occasion and call on the name of the Lord?
He was afraid of the famine. He was afraid of the Egyptians. Fear, fear, fear. That’s what drove his decisions.
And it was contagious. Sarai also was fearful. Remember her words? Since the Lord has prevented me from bearing children, go to my slave; perhaps through her I can build a family. This, after God had explicitly promised Abram that he and Sarai would have a child. Only one chapter before, we have this encounter between Abram and the Lord.
After these events, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision:
Do not be afraid, Abram.
I am your shield;
your reward will be very great.
But Abram said, “Lord God, what can you give me, since I am childless and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” Abram continued, “Look, you have given me no offspring, so a slave born in my house will be my heir.” Now the word of the Lord came to him: “This one will not be your heir; instead, one who comes from your own body will be your heir.” He took him outside and said, “Look at the sky and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “Your offspring will be that numerous.” Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.Genesis 15:1-6
So they’d already been through this option. “No,” God says, “Your child will be your child through Sarai.”
Yet one chapter later, there’s Abram conceding to Sarai to have a child through an Egyptian slave-girl named Hagar.
So was Abram wrong to go to Egypt? Again, what consequences result from this one decision? The narrative is more show, less tell.
Indeed, Abram’s initial decision was rooted in fear, not faith. Fear for his life, for preserving what he had versus hoping for what God would provide. Rather than build an altar and pray out his fears in the presence of the God who called him, trusting that this God could manage the circumstances, Abram instead tried to take matters into his own hands.
He focused on the tangible situation he thought he could control rather than the intangible God who he was called to trust.
And notice how the one initial decision made out of fear instead of faith led to more and more sin and brokenness.
Imagine how different the narrative would have been if Abram had built an altar and prayed to God before deciding to go to Egypt.
Of course, it needs to be said that God kept on working in and through Abram’s life. Even with his failures, Abram eventually becomes an example of faith for us. But it takes a long time for Abram’s trust in God to grow and deepen. Yet God keeps his promises. Over and over again, God redeems Abram’s poor decisions.
Still, seems to me that if Abram had only asked he would have heard God say pretty clearly, “Don’t go to Egypt, Abram. I’ve got this.”