To this point in the story of Abram the text has told only of his obedience to God’s call. He left Ur and then Haran and went away from all he knew to follow God’s command to go to a new land. Once in Canaan, he continued to follow God and even set up two altars where he called on God and worshiped Him. The next two events, however, will test Abram’s faith and present him in a new light. In the first test he fails and in the other he thrives. The stories of Abram’s journey to Egypt and the division of the land with Lot show Abram both at his worst and his best. The lesson, as always, is that man – even a great man – is sinful while God is faithful; but perhaps an even bigger lesson is that God works His plan through man’s actions whether they are righteous or unrighteous.
It is important to remember that this is the first event recorded after Abram enters the land and after God promised to make of him a great nation and to bless him. God said He would both bless him and make him a blessing to others. And yet what happens next? Famine. In the land God told him to go to. He will be blessed and God will take care of him and make him great, and yet right away there is a famine that seems to go against everything God just said. And it is severe enough that Abram decides he cannot stay in Canaan and survive.
How great is it that the Bible records this? This is real life. This is how things go in a fallen world. There will be times when what God says and what He causes to happen do not seem to correspond. “Obey My call to go to Canaan and I will bless you and make your name great. Oh, but first there will be a famine that makes it look like coming to Canaan was a really dumb idea and it will be so severe that you’ll think you and your family will starve. OK? All on board? Let’s go!” This is how it can appear to finite man as he interacts with an infinite God. Just as we said that God choosing one childless couple to begin His great nation and then allowing another 25 years to go by before they have ONE son seems like an odd strategy, so does promising to bless the first patriarch and then instantly sending a famine on the very land he was commanded to settle in. God is sovereign and incomprehensible and wildly beyond us and so are His plans. YET – they are in fact HIS plans – and we are called upon to obey, not understand. And the lesson we need to take from just this one seemingly innocuous verse is that even when things seem to directly oppose God’s truth and promises, we need to continue to obey and trust that in the end God will accomplish His purposes. Even if the route He chooses to accomplish them in seems odd and slow and utterly confusing.
The text does not comment on Abram’s decision to go to Egypt (or any other decision in this story actually). It is hard to know if he sins by choosing to do this or not. On the one hand, God told him to go to Canaan and nowhere does it say Abram consults God before leaving. On the other hand, God has not told him explicitly that Canaan is the land of promise – that is soon to come – so it is not entirely clear that he is not to leave. Obviously bad things are about to happen as a result of the choice to go to Egypt. But he easily could have gone to Egypt and made different choices that would not have resulted in sin.
Here is where the story becomes a little strange. As they come to Egypt, Abram asks Sarai to say she is his sister instead of his wife. He asks her to do this because she is “a beautiful woman; and it will come about when the Egyptians see you, that they will say, ‘This is his wife’; and they will kill me, but they will let you live.” He is scared that because of her beauty the Egyptians will desire her enough to kill him so they can have her. If she is his sister, however, the problem goes away because he will not have to die for her to be available (note that Abram and Sarai are able to carry this off only because they have no children).
It is not clear at all what Abram thinks will happen as a result of his plan. The whole problem he is worried about is her beauty attracting the Egyptians so much that they will kill him to get her. If that is the case, it would seem that he would not be surprised when someone does indeed want her for his wife. But if that is the assumption, what does he think will be the end game? Does he assume that somehow he will get her back? Or does he just decide to risk losing her forever? Or is there some kind of cultural nuance that we miss today in that being his sister makes her less attractive than if she were his wife?
Not that they help us understand why Abram does this, but several things are important to keep in mind as we read the story. We will find out later that Sarai is in fact his half-sister (same father, different mother – 20:12). We will also find out that this ruse is something the two of them agreed to when they first left Ur (20:13 – it is interesting that apparently they did not feel they needed to do this in Canaan – perhaps the Egyptians have a reputation?). We also know from Peter that Abram and Sarai’s marriage is apparently committed and strong (I Pet 3:1-6 – it is also notable that when Abram approaches Sarai with this plan apparently soon after leaving Ur, he prefaces it with, “This is the kindness you will show to me”). So it does not seem that this is a case of Abram callously deciding to sacrifice Sarai for his own skin or that Sarai is totally against the strategy.
There is another facet of this story that is interesting to consider. Sarai is in her mid-to-late sixties. That she is considered so desirable probably speaks to a couple of differences from present-day norms. One is that she will live to be 127, so at this point she is effectively middle-aged – younger than we would describe mid-sixties today. Secondly, it is likely that the people of Abram’s time define beauty differently than we do. We will find later during the story of Leah and Rachel (29:17) that the eyes, for instance, are pivotal in assessing a woman’s appearance. And it could also be that Sarai’s overall bearing makes her desirable beyond her physical beauty. We need not think that every culture is so superficial in their assessments of beauty as ours is. The phrase used here is also used to describe a fine specimen of cow (41:2). 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. (John H. Walton, Genesis; The NIV Application Commentary, 397.)
Lastly, it is also notable that Abram apparently believes they will not go into Egypt unnoticed. You would think they could enter a country the size of Egypt without necessarily coming to anyone’s attention. However, it may be that even at this point Abram and Lot and their retinue make up a fairly large group. And it is also likely that Egypt is not nearly as populous as we would think of a country being today (they are only several centuries removed from the entire earth’s population being made up of eight people). Abram therefore knows they will not be able to sneak in and ride out the famine without someone noticing they are there.
Unanswered questions aside, the bottom line here is that Abram apparently has no trust that God will protect him in Egypt. God has promised to make a great nation of him and he currently has no offspring, so it would seem to follow that he is in no danger of getting killed. But Abram does not think that way. All he knows is that he is in a new land with unpredictable people and he needs to take matters into his own hands to ensure his survival. God’s promises seemingly do not enter into the equation (it would be interesting to know if perhaps Abram thinks he is outside of God’s care once he is outside of Canaan – it is common in his day to ascribe geographical limits to the gods, and it is telling that nothing is said about him erecting an altar in Egypt or worshiping – he actually does not do this again until he returns to Canaan – perhaps at this point in his relationship with God he thinks of Him as the God of Canaan?).
All of Abram’s fears are realized. They enter Egypt; the Egyptians instantly notice them and take special note of Sarai’s beauty. And it is not just the common people who notice Sarai – and this Abram likely did not anticipate. Some officials of Pharaoh’s court see Sarai and take word back to Pharaoh that a beautiful woman has just entered the country. He then sends for her and takes her into his royal harem. So not only has Abram’s plan ended with him losing Sarai and putting her into a terrible position where adultery perhaps becomes inevitable, he has lost her to the most powerful man in the country who could make things very difficult if Abram tries to get her back.
There is a positive that comes out of this, however. As a result of Pharaoh’s taking Sarai for his wife, he treats Abram very well. He gives him sheep and oxen and donkeys and male and female servants (Hagar comes to him here?) and female donkeys and camels. Pharaoh enriches Abram. He has lost his wife but gained wealth.
This obviously puts Abram in an extremely odd situation. He is rich and newly single. And his covenant promise from God is in tatters. He has no wife and no way to get her back and yet he has God’s promise that he is the first of what will become a great nation. And he is not living where God told him to live. The wealth may be nice but everything else in life is completely upended.
Nothing has been said about God to this point but He now makes His presence felt. Once Sarai comes into Pharaoh’s household, Pharaoh and everyone in his house is afflicted with plagues (something the Egyptians should get used to, eh?). Nothing is said about what this entails, but it is obviously drastic and somehow makes Pharaoh realize that it is happening because of Sarai. And he somehow also finds out that she is in fact Abram’s wife and not his sister.
If Abram doubted God’s power outside of Canaan, this puts that to rest. And it also shows that even when someone acts against Abram out of ignorance, to curse Abram is to be cursed (just as God promised – 12:3). Pharaoh has taken the wife of the wrong man.
As a result, Pharaoh calls for Abram and expresses his exasperation in no uncertain terms. “What is this you have done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife?” He then tells him to take Sarai and go. And he has his men escort them out of the country (note that this is not a request – he orders Abram out of the country and makes sure it happens). Pharaoh has seen what happens when Abram is crossed and wants nothing more to do with him. Sarai may be beautiful but nothing is worth being afflicted with plagues.
In expressing his displeasure to Abram, Pharaoh says, “Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her for my wife?” This could mean that he consummated the relationship with Sarai and Abram’s scheme resulted in Sarai committing adultery. However, when this happens again – and, amazingly, it does – God will come to the king involved and threaten him with death if he touches Sarai (20:3). Knowing that, it does not make sense that God would allow it here and not allow it later. Perhaps the plagues kept Pharaoh from approaching her or perhaps God simply made sure he found out her identity before he was able to act.
Abram and his family – including Sarai and Lot – travel back to Canaan (interesting to know what the conversation between Sarai and Abram is like after their adventure). Nothing is said about the famine but it presumably has ended. The author mentions that Abram is now very rich – in livestock and silver and gold. Pharaoh apparently favored him greatly as a result of Sarai.
When they reach Canaan they travel back to their first stop in the land – between Bethel and Ai where Abram built an altar before. He again uses the same altar to call on the name of the Lord (which he did not do in Egypt).
At this point Lot is also wealthy (remember that God said Abram would BE a blessing as well as enjoy blessing – 12:2) and the combination of their vast flocks and herds overwhelms the land – to the point that the herdsmen from the two camps begin to feud. There simply is not enough grazing area for both groups.
Abram comes to Lot and proposes a solution. He says there should not be any strife between the camps because they are family. He then tells Lot to look at the whole land and choose where he wants to settle with his flocks. He can go anywhere and Abram will go the opposite way. If Lot chooses east, Abram will go west, and if Lot goes left, Abram will go right. It is totally Lot’s call but they need to separate.
Notice how differently Abram approaches this problem versus how he schemed in Egypt. Here he completely trusts God for the outcome. He puts no contingencies on what he tells Lot. “Go anywhere and I’ll go the opposite way.” He does not try to influence Lot’s decision or manipulate him into a certain area. He is perfectly content to let God work out what happens and trusts that God will provide whichever direction he goes.
Lot takes Abram up on his offer. He looks over the country and sees that the Jordan valley to the east is well watered everywhere – like the garden of the Lord. The land to the east is almost like Eden. It’s an incredibly fertile area perfect for all his flocks (remember that he has just come out of a famine so he is likely sensitive to possibility of drought). From his perspective, it seems like an easy choice – he decides to move east, across the Jordan and outside of Canaan. [This is where the alarms should start going off for those of us who have been studying Genesis. What does east almost always represent in Genesis? Going away from God. Bad things happen to people who go east. No Lot! NO!]
There is no reason to fault Lot for this choice. By choosing this direction he moves closer to Sodom (with its men who are wicked exceedingly and sinners against the Lord), but there is nothing in the story that leads us to think this was intentional. He simply chooses the best land for his wellbeing and livelihood. Abram gave him the choice and he took what appeared to be the best one. He is often faulted for being selfish, but what other choice should he make if he is trying to do what is best for his flocks and family?
The focus instead should be on Abram. His choice is what is notable. He completely trusts God. There is no other conclusion to draw from this. He does not worry at all about anything other than keeping peace with Lot. And he apparently assumes that God will provide even if he has to take the lesser lands to the west.
Once Lot goes out of Canaan (and it seems that this was God’s intention – more on this below), God appears to Abram and tells him the land is his. He says all the land that he can see to the north, south, east, and west will be his and his descendants’ forever. He also tells him that his descendants will be “as the dust of the earth; so that if anyone can number the dust of the earth, then your descendants can also be numbered.”
This is an extension of the original promise. Not only will God make him into a great nation and make his name great, He will also give him Canaan. Canaan now officially becomes the Promised Land. The descendants of Abram may now claim the land as their own for all generations forever. This is the verse that truly informs the rest of history. It is what will bring the people back from Egypt and back from Babylon and back from the Nazi Holocaust. Canaan becomes as much a part of Abram as the nation of Israel. Both are promised to him explicitly by God.
There is no way to read these two stories without seeing God sovereignly accomplishing His purposes in Abram’s life even in the midst varying circumstances. Consider the following:
- God sends a famine that causes Abram to go to Egypt (perhaps unrighteously).
- God uses Abram’s deceitfulness to enrich him through Pharaoh – and thus fulfill a portion of the promise to bless him.
- God uses the punishment of Pharaoh and the wealth transfer to Abram to foreshadow what will happen when Abram’s descendants are delivered from Egypt through Moses.
- God uses the wealth that Abram garners as a result of his faithless scheme to start a chain of events that moves Lot out of the land and leaves Canaan to Abram alone.
All of this points to God working His plan in the midst of natural events, varying circumstances, and man’s righteous and unrighteous acts. Nothing gets in the way of His ultimate will. Does God need Abram to sin to accomplish His purposes? And does the good end justify Abram acting unfaithfully and deceitfully in Egypt? Absolutely not. God never needs anyone to sin. But by the same token, God never needs anyone to obey in order to fulfill His plan. God is completely sovereign over all things and nothing man does can thwart His intentions. And while the thought that God accomplishes His purposes through man’s sin is hard to comprehend, it simply points to God’s transcendence. Remember that Solomon – in the line of David and the Messiah – comes about as a result of David committing adultery and murder. God superintends all things and is above all things and is not limited by the sinful tendency of man.