Now there was a famine in the land, and Abram went down to Egypt to live there for a while because the famine was severe. As he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, “I know what a beautiful woman you are. When the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me but will let you live. Say you are my sister, so that I will be treated well for your sake and my life will be spared because of you.”
When Abram came to Egypt, the Egyptians saw that she was a very beautiful woman. And when Pharaoh’s officials saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh, and she was taken into his palace. He treated Abram well for her sake, and Abram acquired sheep and cattle, male and female donkeys, menservants and maidservants, and camels.
But the LORD inflicted serious diseases on Pharaoh and his household because of Abram’s wife Sarai. So Pharaoh summoned Abram. “What have you done to me?” he said. “Why didn’t you tell me she was your wife? Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her to be my wife? Now then, here is your wife. Take her and go!” Then Pharaoh gave orders about Abram to his men, and they sent him on his way, with his wife and everything he had.
In Genesis 12 we find Abram making one of the worst decisions of his life. Instead of trusting God, Abram fears man. In fear that the Egyptians will kill him to possess his beautiful wife, he convinces Sarai to tell everyone that he is her brother. (This was after all a half truth. Sarai was Abram's half-sister. cf. Genesis 20:12) Scripture says that Pharaoh took her to be his wife. (I have no reason to believe that this statement should be taken to mean anything less than what its full implications would suggest.) It is only once God plagues Pharaoh’s house that the truth is revealed and Abram and Sarai are sent away with much wealth.
It is important that we take note at the outset of what type of writing this is. It is a historical writing, which is immensely important. That tells us that this part of the Bible is a historically accurate detail of events. It is descriptive of what happened. It is not prescriptive, meaning it does not explicitly tell us what Abram should have done or what a person in his situation should do. Much of the Bible is prescriptive in that it commands us to do things. For example, "Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength" is a command that tells us what we ought to do (Deuteronomy 6:5). But many other passages in the Bible make no statements about what should have happened, they merely report what did happen. We cannot assume that just because Abram was a hero of our faith that everything he did was right.
One of Scripture's best qualities in fact is that it presents the heroes of the faith as they really were, human. Abram was not perfect. In this situation he was downright cowardly and others were harmed by his sin. "He's not a very good person to build a religion on," you might think. But that is just the point. Christianity is not built on Abram or Moses or David or any other Biblical hero. It is built on God and His Christ. Christianity isn't the story of great men who elevated themselves to high levels of righteousness and caused God to take notice of them. Many other (if not all other) religions are about this, but Christianity is not. On the contrary, Christianity is about a God who stooped low to show grace to wretched sinners. Even our greatest heroes are presented as wretched sinners...wretched sinners that were forgiven by grace and changed by grace. Scripture's persistent habit of telling the truth about our heroes' human failures constantly reminds us that Christianity is about a great God not about great humans.
It should be clear then that Abram acted in a way that is out of line with Scripture in this passage (cf. Leviticus 20:10 & Hebrews 13:4), but look at God's faithfulness. He has chosen this man Abram to begin a new work with humanity. He will build him into a nation that will proclaim God's greatness to all the people of the world. Eventually through this people he will provide a Savior who will remove the separation of sin and crush the serpent's head. Until then, He has chosen to start with Abram. God is faithful even as Abram is unfaithful and over time He will shape Abram into the man that he needs to be.
Remember this week that we serve a God who stoops low to meet people where they are. He shows them grace. He lifts them out of their circumstances and by His grace He shapes them into men and women worthy to bear His name. If you aren't there yet be comforted by the truth of Philippians 1:6, "He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus." "Today, if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts" (Psalm 95:7-8). He has stooped low for you. Humble yourself and submit your life to His faithful leadership.
For further reading...
- Acts 7:11-36 & Exodus 12:33-36: Is Abram's trip to Egypt a foreshadowing of the Exodus? In both instances God’s people entered Egypt because of a famine, they were taken into Pharaoh’s service, Pharaoh was plagued because of them, and they were sent away laden with riches.
- Genesis 13:1-4: Abram goes back to a place he had been before where he had worshiped the Lord. Why does he return here now? Is this a physical representation of repentance from his sin?