Welcome back to my study/review of Genesis. If you missed the previous parts of this study, you can find them HERE.
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. 11 When he was about to enter Egypt, he said to Sarai his wife, “I know that you are a woman beautiful in appearance, 12 and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me, but they will let you live. 13 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.” 14 When Abram entered Egypt, the Egyptians saw that the woman was very beautiful. 15 And when the princes of Pharaoh saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh. And the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house. 16 And for her sake he dealt well with Abram; and he had sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male servants, female servants, female donkeys, and camels.
17 But the Lord afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife. 18 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? 19 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.” 20 And Pharaoh gave men orders concerning him, and they sent him away with his wife and all that he had.
ABRAM’S VISIT TO EGYPT.
(10) There was a famine in the land.—This famine must have happened within a few years after Abram reached Canaan; for he was seventy-five years of age on leaving Haran, and as Ishmael, his son by an Egyptian slave-woman, was thirteen years old when Abram was ninety-nine, only about eight years are left for the events recorded in Genesis 12-16. As rain falls in Palestine only at two periods of the year, the failure of either of these seasons would be immediately felt, especially in a dry region like the Negeb, and at a time when, with no means of bringing food from a distance, men had to depend upon the annual products of the land. As Egypt is watered by the flooding of the Nile, caused by the heavy rains which fall in Abyssinia, it probably had not suffered from what was a mere local failure in South Palestine; and Abram, already far on his way to Egypt, was forced by the necessity of providing fodder for his cattle to run the risk of proceeding thither. In Canaan he had found a thinly scattered Canaanite population, for whom probably he would have been a match in war; in Egypt he would find a powerful empire, and would be at the mercy of its rulers. It is a proof of Abram’s faith that in this necessity he neither retraced his steps (Hebrews 11:15), nor sought a new home. For he went to Egypt with no intention of settling, but only “to sojourn there,” to remain there for a brief period, after which with returning rains he would go back to Canaan.
From David Guzik:
2. (Gen 12:11-13) Sensing potential danger in Egypt, Abram persuades Sarai to lie on his behalf.
And it came to pass, when he was close to entering Egypt, that he said to Sarai his wife, “Indeed I know that you are a woman of beautiful countenance. Therefore it will happen, when the Egyptians see you, that they will say, ‘This is his wife’; and they will kill me, but they will let you live. Please say you are my sister, that it may be well with me for your sake, and that I may live because of you.”
a. I know that you are a woman of beautiful countenance: We are first struck at Abram’s concern over his 60-year-old wife’s attractiveness to the Egyptians. This shows Sarai was not only a woman of particular beauty, but also that not every culture worships youthful appearance the way modern culture does.
i. The long life span of Abram and Sarai also explains her beauty. Since Abram lived to be 175 and Sarai to be 127, this was only middle age for her, perhaps corresponding to what we think of as her thirties.
ii. A Jewish legend says when Abram went into Egypt, he tried to hide Sarai in a casket. When Egyptian customs officials asked what he had in the casket, he said, “barley.” “No,” they said, “it contains wheat.” “Very well,” answered Abram. “I’ll pay the custom on wheat.” Then the officers said it contained pepper. Abram said he would pay the custom charges on pepper. Then the officers said it contained gold. Abram said he would pay the custom charges on gold. Then the officers said it contained precious stones. Abram said he would pay the custom charges on precious stones. By this time, the officers insisted on opening the casket. When they did, all of Egypt shined with the beauty of Sarai. These same legends say that in comparison to Sarai, all other women looked like monkeys. She was even more beautiful than Eve.
b. Please say you are my sister: This was in fact a half-truth. Sarai was Abram’s half sister (Genesis 20:12). Yet a half-truth is a whole lie. Abram’s intent here was clearly to deceive, and he trusted in his deception to protect him instead of trusting in the LORD.
i. If you want to do something wrong, you can find some good reasons to do it. If you can’t think of the reasons yourself, the devil is happy to suggest them.
ii. Ideally Abram would say, “God promised me children, and I don’t have them yet; therefore, I know I am indestructible until God’s promise is fulfilled, because God’s promises are always true.”
From the verses and the commentary above, we see that a lot transpires in just a few verses. Through these verses we see a few tests of his faith.
- Abram is forced by famine, almost immediately, to leave the land God had only just sent him to dwell within.
- Abram flees to a place wherein he will be of inferior military prowess.
- Abram flees to a place wherein he worries about being murdered due to the attractiveness of his wife. (He fears the Egyptians will kill him to take her as their own.)
Abram does not appear to pass these initial tests of faith. However, God is faithful to him anyway.
From Guzik again, we see how large a problem it is that Abram essentially handed over his wife, to the Egyptians, to save himself from potential murder.
3. (Gen 12:14-15) Sarai is taken into Pharaoh’s house.
So it was, when Abram came into Egypt, that the Egyptians saw the woman, that she was very beautiful. The princes of Pharaoh also saw her and commended her to Pharaoh. And the woman was taken to Pharaoh’s house.
a. The woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house: Understanding the place Abram and Sarai have in God’s redemptive plan, we realize how serious this is. God did not want Sari’s womb to be defiled by a gentile king, because the Messiah will come from her line of descendants.
From the Pulpit Commentaries:
And it came to pass, that, when Abram was come into Egypt, the Egyptians beheld the woman that she was very fair. The princes also—literally, and the princes ( שָׂרֵי, mas. of Sarah), chief men or courtiers, who, in accordance with the ancient custom of Egypt that no slave should approach the priestly person of Pharaoh, were sons of the principal priests (vide Havernick, § 18)—of Pharaoh. The official title of the kings of Egypt (cf. Caesar, the designation of the Roman emperors, and Czar, that of the Emperor of Russia), who are never introduced in the Pentateuch, as in later books, by their individual names (1 Kings 3:1; 1 Kings 9:1-28 :40); an indirect evidence that the author of Genesis must at least have been acquainted with the manners of the Egyptian Court. The term Pharaoh, which continued in use till after the Persian invasion—under the Greek empire the Egyptian rulers were styled Ptolemies—is declared by Josephus to signify “king” (‘Ant.,’ 8.6, 2), which agrees with the Koptic Pouro (Piouro;from ouro, to rule, whence touro, queen), which also means king. Modern Egyptologers, however, in. cline to regard it as corresponding to the Phra of the inscriptions (Rosellini, Lepeius, Wilkinson), or to the hieroglyphic Peraa, or Perao, “the great house (M. de Rouge, Brugsch, Ebers), an appellation which belonged to the Egyptian monarchs, and with which may be compared “the Sublime Porte,” as applied to the Turkish sultans. The particular monarch who occupied the Egyptian throne at the time of Abram’s arrival has been conjectured to be Necao (Josephus, ‘Bell. Jud.,’ 5. 9.4), Ramessemenes, Pharethones (Euseb; ‘Praep. Ev.,’ 9.8), Apappus, Achthoes, the sixth king of the eleventh dynasty, Salatis or Saitas, the first king of the fifteenth dynasty, whose reign commenced B.C. 2080 (Stuart Poole in ‘Smith’s Dict.,’ art. Pharaoh), a monarch belonging to the sixteenth dynasty of shepherd kings (Kalisch), and a Pharaoh who flourished between the middle of the eleventh and thirteenth dynasties, most probably one of the earliest Pharaohs of the twelfth. Amid such conflicting testimony from erudite archaeologists it is apparent that nothing can be ascertained with exactitude as to the date of Abram’s sojourn in Egypt; though the last-named writer, who exhibits the latest results of scholarship on the question, mentions in support of his conclusion a variety of considerations that may be profitably studied. Saw her. So that she must have been unveiled, which agrees with monumental evidence that in the reign of the Pharaohs the Egyptian ladies exposed their faces, though the custom was discontinued after the Pemian conquest. And commended her before Pharaoh: and the woman was taken. Capta (Targum of Jonathan), rapta (Arab.), abducta (Pagnini), capta et deducta (Rosenmüller); all implying more or less the idea of violence, which, however, besides being not warranted by the text, was scarcely likely in the circumstances, the king being perfectly honorable in his proposals, and Abram and Sarai by their deception having rendered it impossible to object without divulging their secret. Into Pharaoh’s house. Or harem, with a view to marriage as a secondary wife. Cf. the Papyrus D’Orbiney, now in the British Museum, but belonging to the age of Rameses II; in which the Pharaoh of the time, acting on the advice of his counselors, sends two armies to fetch a beautiful woman by force, and then to murder her husband. A translation by M. Renouf will be found in The Tale of the Two Brothers, in ‘Records of the Past,’ vol. 2. p. 138.
We see in the text above that Abram’s fears were likely unwarranted. The text implies a friendly meeting also. Let’s look more at Ellicott.
(16) He entreated Abram well.—Heb., did good to Abram. It was usual to give the relatives a sum of money when taking a daughter or sister to wife. The presents here show that Pharaoh fully believed that he was acting lawfully, while the largeness of them proves that Sarai, in spite of her years, was looked upon as a valuable acquisition. Among the presents are “asses.” The charge on this account brought against the author of “inaccuracy,” as if asses were not known at this time in Egypt, is disproved by the occurrence of representations of this animal on the tombs of Benihassan: we have proof even that they were numerous as far back as when the Pyramids of Gizeh were built. The horse is not mentioned, and the earliest representation of one is in the war-chariot of Ahmes, the first: Pharaoh of the eighteenth dynasty, who expelled the Hyksôs. Male and female slaves are, curiously enough, introduced between “he-asses” and “she-asses.” As she-asses were especially valuable, perhaps these and the camels were looked upon as the monarch’s choicest gifts.
Camels are not represented on the monuments, and are said not to thrive well in Egypt; but the Semitic hordes who were peopling the Delta would certainly bring camels with them. Many, too, of the Egyptian monarchs—as, for instance, those of the twelfth dynasty—held rule over a great part of the Sinaitic peninsula, and must have known the value of the camel for transporting heavy burdens in the desert, and its usefulness to a nomad sheik like Abram. (See Genesis 24:10.)
In verse 17, the Lord afflicts the Egyptians due to Abram’s deceptions.
Abram’s God is not a regional God. He speaks to Abram in Ur. He speaks to Abram in Canaan. He acts on behalf of Abram in Egypt. As a result of God’s actions, Pharaoh rebukes Abram. From Guzik:
4. (Gen 12:16-20) Abram leaves Egypt after being rebuked by a heathen king.
He treated Abram well for her sake. He had sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male and female servants, female donkeys, and camels. But the LORD plagued Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife. And 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’? I might have taken her as my wife. Now therefore, here is your wife; take her and go your way.” So Pharaoh commanded his men concerning him; and they sent him away, with his wife and all that he had.
a. He treated Abram well for her sake: God blessed Abram even when he didn’t do what he should. God continued to protect Abram, even when Abram acted like a liar. God did not call back His promise to Abram because the promise depended on God, not on Abram.
b. What is this you have done to me? Sadly, a pagan king had to rebuke Abram. The king shows Abram if he trusted in God and told the truth, everything would have been all right.
i. But God is in the business of growing Abram into a man of great faith, and this requires circumstances where Abram must trust God. “Faith is not a mushroom that grows overnight in damp soil; it is an oak tree that grows for a thousand years under the blast of the wind and rain.” (Barnhouse)
This section of verses show us Abram’s failure of faith. Though he is remembered in history of a man of deepest faith, he had to grow into it. From the Pulpit Commentaries.
I. THE STORY OF A GOOD MAN‘S FALL.
1. Experiencing disappointment.Arrived in Canaan, the patriarch must have felt his heart sink as he surveyed its famine-stricken fields and heathen population; in respect of which it was so utterly unlike the fair realm of his imaginings. So God educates his children, destroying their hopes, blighting their, expectations, breaking their ideals, “having provided some better thing for them, some loftier and more beautiful ideal than they have ever ventured to conceive.
2. Declining in faith.In presence of the famine the patriarch must have found himself transfixed upon the horns of a terrible dilemma. The promised land, to all appearance, was only fit to be his grave, like the wilderness, in later years, to his descendants. To return to Ur or Haran was impossible without abandoning his faith and renouncing Jehovah’s promise. The only harbor of refuge that loomed before his anxious vision was the rich corn-land of Egypt, and yet going into Egypt was, if not exhibiting a want of trust in God, voluntarily running into danger. So situated, unless the spiritual vision of the patriarch had suffered a temporary obscuration he would not have quitted Canaan. A calm, steady, unwavering faith would have perceived that the God who had brought him from Chaldaea could support him in Palestine, even should his flocks be unable to obtain pasture in its fields; and, besides, would have remembered that God had promised Canaan only to himself, and not at all to his herds.
3. Going into danger.The descent into Egypt was attended by special hazard, being calculated not only to endanger the life of Abram himself, but also to jeopardize the chastity of Sarai, and, as a consequence, to imperil the fulfillment of God’s promise. Yet this very course of action was adopted, notwithstanding its peculiar risks; another sign that Abram was going down the gradient of sin. Besides being in itself wrong to court injury to our own persons, to expose to hurt those we should protect, or occupy positions that render the fulfillment of God’s promises dubious, no one who acts in either of these ways need anticipate the Divine favor or protection. Saints who rush with open eyes into peril need hardly look for God to lift them out.
4. Resorting to worldly policy.Had Abram and Sarai felt persuaded in their own minds that the proposed journey southwards entirely met the Divine approval, they would simply have committed their way to God without so much as thinking of c, crooked ways.” But instead they have recourse to a miserable little subterfuge of their own, in the shape of a specious equivocation, forgetting that he who trusts in his own heart is a fool, and that only they whom God keeps are perfectly secure.
5. Practicing deception.Cunningly concocted, the little scheme was set in operation. Crossing into Egypt, the Mesopotamian sheik and his beautiful partner represented themselves as brother and sister. It is a melancholy indication of spiritual declension when a saint condescends to equivocate, and a deplorable proof of obliquity of moral vision when he trusts to a lie for protection.
6. Looking after self.Anxious about his wife’s chastity, the patriarch, it would appear, was much more solicitous about his own safety. The tendency of sin is to render selfish; the spirit of religion ever leads men to prefer the interests of others to their own, and in particular to esteem a wife’s happiness and comfort dearer than life.
7. Caught in his own toils.The thing which Abram feared actually came upon him. Sarai’s beauty was admired and coveted, and Sarai’s person was conducted to the royal harem. So God frequently “disappoints the devices of the crafty,” allows transgressors to be taken in their own net, and causes worldly policy to outwit itself.
If you are somewhat familiar with the Bible, this entire event may feel like foreshadowing. Father Abraham experiences something like a proto-Exodus from Egypt.
Professor Christopher Levin writes a fascinating article on that topic HERE. I will share a bit of it below. I highly encourage reading the article in its entirety.
The sister-wife story of Abraham and Sarah in Egypt reworks the sister-wife story of Isaac and Rebekah in Gerar. The passage is an intertextual bricolage, composed to have Abraham, the paradigmatic “first Israelite,” personally experience the nation’s core redemptive event.Prof.Christoph LevinPrint
Stories of Prefiguration
The Bible expresses the interdependence of Israel’s past and present in writing tales of the great ancestor figures, Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David, etc., in such a way as to prefigure what will be in later times. The rabbis even categorize this as a principle: כל מה שאירע לאבות סימן לבנים “everything that happens to the ancestors is a sign for their descendants.”
The story of Abraham’s migration to Egypt in Genesis 12 (vv. 10–20) is a particularly strong example of this principle. Some midrashim recognised that the story anticipates the later fate of the people of God even in its details. כל מה שכתוב באבינו אברהם כתוב בבניו “Everything written in connection with our father Abraham is written in connection with his children,” says Genesis Rabbah 40:6, offering no fewer than eleven instances illustrating this principle.