Frail Man, Faithful God
When I was young, I especially loved shows that had a plot that was fast paced without much filler. A shorter show that was resolved quickly. If the plot was moving slow, or paused altogether, I’d get impatient and find a new show. But as I aged, I came to appreciate longer shows with “side stories”. I learned what the “side story” episodes were doing in the big story. Often, even though the plot wasn’t moving forward, the characters were being developed. You’d learn things about the characters that made the rest of the story that much more interesting, or satisfying.
This “episode” in Abram’s pilgrimage reminds me of one of those “side story” episodes. You’ll remember from last week there was a massive advancement in the story, namely God’s promises to Abram to make a great nation of him, and bless the world through his offspring. But in our text today, the main plot of Scripture (the plan of redemption), doesn’t really move forward. However, through Abram’s side-quest to Egypt, we learn a little bit about Abram, and we learn a lot about God.
This “episode” is contained between 12:10 and 13:1. In 12:10, Abram goes down to Egypt, and in 13:1, he comes up from Egypt. This forms an” inclusio”, which again, is indicators in the text that imply the “bookends” of a certain section. So, let’s dive right in, starting with verse 10 with section A: Departure.
1. DEPARTURE INTO EGYPT
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.”
Just in verse 9, Abram was in the land traveling toward the Negeb, which is the “south country”. So he’s been touring his land, breathing in the air, soaking it all up. He’s probably still filled with hope and awe in God’s promises to him. After being a home dweller for 75 years, he was likely still adjusting to this new reality, looking for a place to set up shop in the land. And so, does he settle down in the land? Not even close. He just keeps on strolling through the south-lands to go south-west into Egypt. Pretty anticlimactic; Abram finally reaches the land God promised to prosper him in, sets up altars to worship God there, and almost immediately high tails straight through to Egypt. And why does he go? Verse 10 told us there was a severe famine in the land.
Now, there’s many things that can cause a famine. Drought, locust plagues, enemy sieges… But beyond natural causes, we know that God is sovereign over all climate. So why would God send famine right where He promised to bless Abram? Was He testing Abram’s faith to see if he’d stay? Was His providence pushing Abram to Egypt on purpose? We’re not told. But this causes us to ask; should Abram have gone to Egypt, or stayed in Canaan? Again, we’re not told.
On one hand, it just makes plain sense to go to Egypt. There’s a famine. Abram is a nomad, with no long-term food storage options. Egypt has the Nile River, and so they have a dependable water supply, and likely lots of food. This could be an act of obedience. Abram could be trying to preserve his and Sarai’s lives, so they don’t put God’s promises at risk. If they die of starvation, they can’t have a nation's worth of descendants.
On the other hand, this could be an act of faithlessness. The word translated “sojourn” points to a long term stay in Egypt, making Abram a stationary immigrant there, and not just a moving pilgrim. He could be planning to settle there and forget about God’s promise all together. After all, Abram, being a late bloomer, was likely attracted to settling where there was more stability, and less need for faith. There were other times when the patriarchs went to Egypt because of a famine, like Jacob. But Jacob was called there by God’s voice directly. Abram by now was also accustomed to hearing from God directly, and we don’t see God saying anything to Abram about going to Egypt here. What I’m not saying is that there’s never a time to go with the flow of circumstance to provide for your family, but Abram was a unique man with a unique calling. I personally lean in the direction that Abram was disobeying to go to Egypt, and I think that’s fitting with his character with what we’re going to see today. But ultimately the text just doesn’t make it clear to us, and that’s okay.
Where we really start to see Abram’s character come through is in the plan he hatches on the way to Egypt.
2. ABRAM’S PLAN
11 “When he was about to enter Egypt, he said to Sarai his wife,
Sarai’s character is added to the plot now. But she doesn't really say anything in this segment. For better or for worse, she’s pretty submissive to Abram, and plays more of a passive quiet role in this story. Now stop here for a second. Have we ever heard Abram talk before? No. Abram hasn’t said anything yet in the Scriptures. Remember, the first time a character speaks in the Bible is usually pretty telling. So maybe what Abram’s about to say will show us the kind of guy God is using here. So, Abram and Sarai are about to enter Egypt because of a famine, and on the way, Abram realizes something, and reacts with a plan.
“I know that you are a woman beautiful in appearance,” Men – if you ever need to ask your wife for a big favor, start here; “Honey, you are a woman beautiful in appearance.”
“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.”
So not only does Abram think that his wife is beautiful. He knows that she is so beautiful that when they get to Egypt, other guys are going to take notice. And they won’t just take notice – she’s so beautiful, Abram is convinced that they’ll be willing to kill him to have her for themselves. Either Sarai is wildly attractive – to kill for. Or the Egyptians are wildly wicked – willing to kill to have a woman for themselves. Most likely both.
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.”
What’s interesting here is that Sarai actually is Abram’s half sister. Genesis 20:12 tells us that they have the same father. So, while this is true in a sense, it’s not the full truth. They’re going to have to use deceit to pull this off.
If they find out Abram is her husband, they’ll probably kill him to have her for themselves – at least Abram thinks so. So, he wants to make it appear like they’re only siblings. He’s asking her to lie. So, is Abram just throwing Sarai’s purity to the Egyptians to save his own neck? It seems so.
“If they know I’m her husband they’ll have to kill me to be with her. So I’ll pretend to only be her brother, and let them have her”
So, is this a sinful lie? Or just a helpful strategic reflection of certain truths? Could you compare this to Rahab’s lie to protect the spies? Of course, it's a sin. Rahab’s lie was to protect others at her own expense. Abram’s lie puts his wife in the line of fire to save his neck. Doesn’t he sound like his father Adam? Throwing his wife in the line of fire?
There should be something in Abram that would sooner die than let his wife be defiled. If someone’s got to go, it should be him, not her. As a husband, his job every time his wife is approaching danger is to launch himself in front of her and say “me – not her.” Where is the spark in Abram? It's missing!
And husbands… haven't we all been without that spark at times when we let our wives go through something alone. We also are sons of Adam after all.
But besides that, consider this. Abram shouldn’t even need that spark. He shouldn’t even feel a need to plan any of this. Why?
God just promised Abram that He would make a people from him…. And Abram doesn’t have kids yet. And he also hasn’t settled in the promised land yet. So, God needs to keep him alive to fulfill his promise.
Abram should consider himself immortal until he sees these promises fulfilled. No need to lie, or scheme - only obey. But out of fragile faithlessness, he plans the lie of a coward.
So then, we have the first words of our father Abram. On his way out of the promised land, he plots a faithless lie that puts his wife at jeopardy.
3. ENTERING EGYPT
14 “When Abram entered Egypt, the Egyptians saw that the woman was very beautiful.”
So now they’ve entered Egypt. We have Abram, Abram’s wife, Sarai, and the Egyptians. No-one really specific, just “Egyptians”. It seems like all of Egypt is pretty impressed by Sarai. Like Abram guessed, Sarai raises some eyebrows. And this time she’s not just beautiful, but very beautiful. An old tale from Jewish oral tradition says that Sarai was concealed by Abram, and when he uncovered her in Egypt (at night) she lit the city. Not Scriptural, and almost certainly not true, but this shows just how highly tradition regards the attractiveness and allure of Sarai’s beauty. And Sarai is 65 here! It seems that this culture and this tradition is on to something that our culture is missing… Our culture, when it thinks of a woman worth killing for, associates that with extreme youth, when a woman has just passed the verge of womanhood. But these people understood that a woman grows into her beauty more and more. And we also have to consider that Sarai is going to live until 127 years old… which makes her 35 or 40 years old by today's life expectancy standards. Point is - Sarai is off the charts beautiful. Gorgeous. Stunning.
15 “And when the princes of Pharaoh saw her,
So now more specifically than just all of the Egyptians, the royal officials of Pharoah are even staring Sarai down. By now Sarai is either mega-proud, or mega uncomfortable.
Continue in verse 15: They praised her to Pharaoh. And the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house.”
Doesn’t this sound sort of like Genesis 3:6? Satan tells a half truth, Eve see’s that the fruit is pleasing to the eye, and takes what’s not hers. Here, Abram tells a half truth, Pharoah’s henchmen see that Sarai’s pleasing to the eye. They want what’s not theirs, they take anyway. It’s still true that nothing’s changed after the flood.
But note how the characters added in Egypt keep getting more specific, and more important.
- All of Egypt saw Sarai and marvelled
- Then the Egyptian princes took note of her beauty
- Now the Pharaoh of Egypt himself hears of her beauty, and has his men bring her to him.
Sarai’s beauty attracts the common man. Sarai's beauty attracts the princes. Sarai's beauty distracts the king himself. From here on out, Abram, Sarai, and the Pharaoh are going to be our big game players.
It’s worth noting here that this Pharaoh is not the Pharaoh of the Exodus story. Pharoah is just a title – it’s like saying “the king” or, “the crown”. But here’s what’s important – the ruler of all Egypt has his henchmen running the street, and they take Sarai straight into his presence. And Abram doesn’t stop them.
On one hand, this is just his plan working out. But on the other hand, he probably didn’t expect her to be taken to the Pharaoh of all Egypt. He’s in over his head now. And as the situation gets more and more out of hand shouldn’t his conscience become louder and louder? Shouldn’t he eventually snap out of it and get his wife? Maybe he’s drowning it out. Many of us know what it feels like to be in a sin or a situation where it feels like it's too deep to just break it off and do what’s right. That’s never actually the case. But we all know what it feels like to be dead convinced that it’s too late to turn. So, what’s going on with Abram while this progresses?
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.”
So, here’s what Abram receives in return for Sarai. God promised Abram a great nation, a great name, and countless blessings in the promised land. But in Egypt while doing things his way, Abram ends up with some animals and some servants. We have to understand that this is still a blessing from the Lord – God promised that blessing would follow Abram supernaturally. But how much smaller is this blessing than the promises he’s lost sight of?
Even so - Abram is making out like a gangbuster… while Sarai is in the custody of a pagan man who almost certainly plans to defile her. And by this, if it were even possible, Abram puts the promises of God in jeopardy. He’s outside of the promised land with no wife, and no children.
4. DIVINE INTERVENTION
17 “But the Lord… God is stepping into the picture now! When I read this, I can’t help but think of Ephesians 2. We totally blew it “but God” … Abram totally blew it, but the Lord!
So, what does God do?
17 But the Lord afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife.”
In the Hebrew, scholars believe that this word translated plagues points to a sexual disease or infection that came upon Pharoah. This doesn’t mean it was contracted by relations with Sarai. We know that this was an infection supernaturally sent by God. Remember it says that the Lord struck Pharoah. This was probably preventative. The Lord probably struck Pharoah with this so that he couldn’t take Sarai to bed. Verse 18 shows us that he found out that Sarai was Abram’s wife - How did he know that this meant Sarai was married? Did Sarai tell Pharoah? Probably Pharaoh was smart enough to know that this meant God was protecting Abram and Sarai.
And not just Pharoah received this judgment, but his whole house. Nobody could touch Sarai. Abram abandoned Sarai, but not God. God was preserving the purity of Sarai’s womb so that He could keep his promise to Abram even after all of his mistakes… Pharaoh's response?
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?
Do you think Abram has anything to say? Would you?
Have you ever been caught like a deer in headlights? Where you're found out and all you can do is stare into blank space, and everything is a blur while your jaw locks up and your stomach wrenches?
Under this intense questioning, all he can do is stand there in shame, probably fearing for his life. But Pharoah surprisingly doesn’t kill Abram. Instead, continuing in verse 19;
Now then, here is your wife; take her, and go.”
Literally in the language: HERE. WIFE. TAKE. GO. Pharoah is furious, but he doesn’t kill Abram!
20 “And Pharaoh gave men orders concerning him, and they sent him away with his wife and all that he had.”
This word for Pharaoh’s “men” here is a different word even in the original language than the “princes” that took Sarai to Pharoah. He’s not calling on officials. You know who he’s calling on now? Soldiers. He’s calling on armed guards to escort Abram and Sarai out of his house and out of Egypt.
Pharoah is doing 2 things here:
- He’s making sure that he never sees Abram or Sarai again.
- He’s making sure that Abram makes it out of Egypt safely.
Why? Why not kill him? Why is Pharaoh so bent on making sure that Abram gets out of Egypt safely? What has Pharoah realized? That this man is under the protection of God, and Pharoah dare not hurt him. “I’ve taken from this man, I’ve touched his wife, I’ve almost married his wife, and I ended up cursed.” Pharaoh fears Abram’s God.
Do you see what Pharaoh has begun to do? Pharoah is trusting God’s promise to Abram – more than Abram is! God said that He would bless those who bless Abram, and curse those who curse them, and Pharoah can see that – so he sends him away safe.
13:1 “So Abram went up from Egypt, he and his wife and all that he had, and Lot with him, into the Negeb.”
LESSONS FOR A PILGRIM
That’s our text. Into Egypt, and after some trouble, straight back out. Isn’t this ironic? Abram was supposed to be a blessing to the nations, and immediately goes off and becomes a curse to Egypt. While in Egypt he doesn’t achieve anything, or set up any alters. He doesn’t even hear God’s voice there. He’s stooped down to being rebuked by the voice of a pagan king instead of the voice of his God.
But God does not fail to protect, preserve, and even bless Abram. 13:2 implies that Abram was far better off financially coming out of Egypt than when he went in. Abram leaves Egypt protected, and blessed.
So no, the plot doesn’t move a whole bunch here. But we learn about our main characters. We see a faithful God. And we see a pilgrim who has a weak frail faith. Just like us. You and I are pilgrims on this earth. Strangers, and aliens (1 Peter 2:11). So, what are some truths here that us pilgrims can use for our journey? What are some tips that this passage gives us on the life of a pilgrim?
The first truth that we can learn is that the pilgrim has to be convinced that God’s promises are true – and in doing so, we must operate by the obedience of faith. What is the obedience of faith? Well let's start with Abram’s disobedience from faithlessness. Abram forgot about God’s promises, and did what was right in his own eyes – by lying. And look where his one small white lie ended up. God had grace on Abram, but there were still consequences. He fell out of direct fellowship with God’s voice for a time. He was unproductive for God’s purposes.
Small sins, and doing things our way, always gets us in deep water. As it’s been said many times, “sin will take you further than you want to go, and keep you longer than you want to stay”. So, we have to operate with obedience by faith.
A mindset that even when all of the odds are stacked against us, and it seems that God has forgotten us, we will obey by faith. We must be convinced that His promises in His will are more and better than anything that we could scheme up ourselves.
And as pilgrims on this earth, we will have several temptations to hatch our own plan, even if it involves just one small sin. But the road that the pilgrim must take to the promised land trodden with faith and obedience – not compromise.
Maybe you’re having trouble with lust – God commands you to flee (1 Corinthians 6:8), and promises that the pure in heart will see Him (Matthew 5:8)! Overcome that by an obedience born out of faith!
Maybe you’re having trouble with envy – God commands you to put that away (1 Peter 2:1), and promises that whatever he works in your life is for your good (Romans 8:28)! Overcome cursed envy by faith!
The main problem here was not Abram’s morals! It was his lack of faith! So, be obedient! I mean that! That’s not legalism! Do what is right, and don’t compromise! But make those choices like a pilgrim with something ahead of him that he’s journeying toward! Something that he’s promised! Something that he can't quite grasp yet, but it’s there, and it's glorious! Obedience is worth it! Make the right choice - by faith.
GOD’S GRACE TO THE PILGRIM
Next, we need to just reflect on God and His grace. Abram’s trip to Egypt was jam packed with disobedience. And yes, there were consequences. But how does Abram leave Egypt? Doesn’t he leave protected, and with loads of treasure and cattle? But didn’t he botch it? I mean, if it were possible, he would have destroyed God’s promises to him! Why send him on his way with blessing? How does that make sense? It doesn’t. It makes zero human sense. God’s grace doesn’t make sense, and as soon as we try to find a reason why it makes sense we’re stepping away from grace.
This pattern is how God will deal with His people for the rest of history. And Abram’s example of this is just a small shadow of God’s grace yet to come.
Think to yourself; where else do we see this in the Bible? Where else do God’s people end up in Egypt? Where else does God strike the Pharaoh and his house with plagues to protect and preserve a chosen people? Where else do they make it out of Egypt like gangbusters rich with Egyptian wealth?
This pattern is going to happen again when God calls His people out of Egypt! Why? Why did He get Abram out of Egypt? Why did He call Israel out of Egypt? So that they could worship Him! (Exodus 8:1). So that His purposes would be fulfilled through them! So that the Messiah would come!
God had grace on these people failure after failure, because despite our worst failings, His promises and His purposes will stand. Our God is in the heavens, He does whatever He pleases (Psalm 115:3). Let God be true, though every man was a liar (Romans 3:4)! God’s grace is about His purposes, and not about us. You have to wonder why God would write the story this way? Why place some of Abrams most colossal failures directly after His promises? This was to show that no matter how bad we fail, God will keep His promises. So, know this – Are you afraid that you’ve ruined God’s promises in your life because of your failings? Abram shows us today that you are not powerful enough to do that, because again – God’s promises are not dependent on you or about you! They’re about Him, and He performs them!
And so, both of these events (Abram and the Exodus) are shadows of this grace ultimately fulfilled among you and I today through Christ. We’ve seen that Abram’s story had its “but God” moment. What about our story?
Let me read for you from Ephesians 2, starting in verse 9:
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— 3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.
We were not pilgrims. We were wanderers, following Satan, and being pulled along by whatever new lust we could invent. This is how we walked – slaving away for whatever Egypt had to offer us.
4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—
Okay, so we’ve been saved from the mess we got into – but Abram and Israel made it out with riches! Where’s our riches?
6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9not a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:1-9)
Though you have done everything you could do to destroy God’s promises in your life, If you’re in Christ, He has made you alive, protected you from the schemes of the enemy, and he will in the ages to come place riches upon riches upon riches upon you of grace and kindness forever. And just like Abram, you have nothing to boast about here. It’s all Him!
PILGRIM OR WANDERER?
The last thought I have for you is this: Are you a pilgrim or are you a wanderer? How can you tell the difference?
Well, a Pilgrim does fall. A pilgrim does end up in Egypt sometimes. But ultimately, God brings him out. God won’t let him stay there in sin. A pilgrim has promises deep in his heart, and they wake him up, and lure him back onto the path. He’s going somewhere! He knows his end, and he presses on towards it with a vision so clear he can taste it!
But a wanderer. A wanderer goes to Egypt and stays there. A wanderer has no sense of where they're going, and nothing ever drags them out of their sin. They have no promises in their heart to march towards, and they don’t even know what they’re living for. If you’re a wanderer, you can become a pilgrim! You can join us on this walk! You can have a goal, a hope, a map, an endgame in Christ! So, I plead with you wanderers – stop wandering! Stop wandering around, being dragged around by your own passions! You don’t have to know everything! But just pick a promise and start your pilgrimage! Maybe start with this one - whoever comes to me I will never cast out. (John 6:37).
So, if you’re a pilgrim, or you’re just starting this pilgrimage today – let's remember that none of us can walk this road except for Jesus, as we sing “Yet not I, but through Christ in me”.