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. – Genesis 12:11-20 ESV
Due to a severe famine in the land of Canaan, Abram was forced to seek refuge in Egypt. But upon his arrival, Abram immediately began to second guess the wisdom of his decision. He was far from home and way out of his comfort zone. Find himself in unfamiliar surroundings yet again. Abram quickly recognized that his new neighbors looked and sounded nothing like him. And his reaction to these uncomfortable circumstances reveals a great deal about Abram’s current mindset.
Even before arriving in the land, Abram began to develop a plan for dealing with what he believed would be a far-from-friendly welcome. Just as he was about to cross the border into Egypt, he came up with a strategy for dealing with what he expected would be a culture of questionable morals.
…he said to Sarai his wife, “I know that you are a woman beautiful in appearance, and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me, but they will let you live.” – Genesis 12:11-12 ESV
Abram feared that his wife’s stunning beauty would make her an object of desire to the Egyptians. And he feared that once they discovered that Sarai was his wife, one of them would simply kill him so he could have her as his own. In ancient cultures, women were often seen as little more than the personal property of their husbands. It was usually considered illegal to take a man’s wife. But if the husband were to die “unexpectedly,” then she would become available for purchase.
So, fearing the worst, Abram orders Sarai to tell anyone who asks that she is his sister.
“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.” – Genesis 12:13 ESV
Notice Abram’s self-obsessed outlook. He can’t stop talking about the need to protect his personal well-being. He wanted things to “go well” for him, but he shows little concern for how his little ruse might impact the life of Sarai. And as soon as they crossed the border into Egypt, Abram’s worst fears were realized.
When Abram entered Egypt, the Egyptians saw that the woman was very beautiful. And when the princes of Pharaoh saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh. And the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house. – Genesis 12:14-15 ESV
Now, to be fair, when Abram commanded Sarai to say that she was his sister, it was technically true. According to Genesis 20:12, Sarai was Abram’s half-sister because they shared the same father but different mothers. And Abram would use this convenient half-truth as a clever means of self-protection when dealing with those of less scrupulous character. But little did Abram know that his plan would backfire in such a dramatic fashion. Pharaoh himself developed an eye for the lively Sarai and had her taken into his house. And, strangely enough, Abram actually benefited from his self-centered strategy.
And for her sake he [Pharaoh] dealt well with Abram; and he had sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male servants, female servants, female donkeys, and camels. – Genesis 12:16 ESV
Believing Abram to be Sarai’s older brother and official guardian, Pharaoh offered Abram what was essentially a bride price for having taken Sarai into his harem. She became Pharoah’s property and Abram was reward for it. All along, it had been Abram’s hope that things would “go well” for him, and now it had. He had benefited greatly from Sarai’s compromising situation.
But, as has been the case all along in the book of Genesis, God was operating in the background, unseen by Abram, Sarai, or Pharaoh. But it wasn’t long before He made His presence known.
…the Lord afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife. – Genesis 12:17 ESV
This leader of the nation of Egypt had used his great power and wealth to purchase another trophy for his harem. And Abram had experienced a sizeable boost to his financial net-worth. But both of these men were in for a shock. Pharaoh suddenly found his royal house facing a series of devastating plagues. Unknowingly, he had taken the bride of Abram and enslaved her as one of his servants. She had gone from being the wife of Abram to just one of the many concubines in Pharaoh’s royal harem.
Once again, the original Jewish audience to whom Moses wrote this book would have sat up and taken notice upon hearing this story from the lives of Abram and Sarai. They would have immediately seen the parallels between the enslavement of Sarai and that of their ancestors. Years later, 70 descendants of Abram would seek refuge in the land of Egypt, attempting to escape a famine in the land. They would enter Egypt as the “bride” of Yahweh. But in time, they would become the personal slaves of Pharaoh. And God would bring upon Pharaoh and his royal house a series of ten plagues, each designed to force the release of His people. The prophet Isaiah would later remind the nation of Israel of their unique status as God’s bride.
For your Maker is your husband,
the Lord of hosts is his name;
and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer,
the God of the whole earth he is called. – Isaiah 54:5 ESV
So, there are tremendous similarities between the story found in Genesis 12 and that of the Israelites recorded in the book of Exodus. Unlike his successor, the Pharaoh in Abram’s day proved to be teachable and ready to rectify the grave mistake he has made.
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? 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.” – Genesis 12:18-19 ESV
Pharaoh, suffering under the judgment of God, was ready to repent and make restitution. Rather than punishing Abram for his deceitfulness and the pain he had brought upon the royal house, Pharaoh released Sarai, and sent Abram on his way with his wife restored and his newly acquired wealth intact.
You would think that Abram learned a valuable lesson from this potentially devastating encounter with Pharaoh. But, amazingly, he would live to lie another day. Just a few chapters later, Moses records yet another incident where Abram pulled this highly flawed strategy out of his bag of tricks. Despite its highly questionable efficacy, Abram would utilize this same plan years later when dealing with Abimelech, the king of Gerar. He seems to have learned nothing from his former attempt at self-preservation.
And Abraham said of Sarah his wife, “She is my sister.” And Abimelech king of Gerar sent and took Sarah. – Genesis 20:2 ESV
As before, God intervened and delivered a terrifying message to Abimelech in a dream.
“Behold, you are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is a man’s wife.” – Genesis 20:3 ESV
Fearful for his life, Abimelech declared his innocence to God and was told to return Sarai to Abraham. Essentially, God told the petrified king, “No harm done.” He had sovereignly protected Abimelech from doing anything to Sarai. But when the king confronted Abram and demanded to know why he had done such a thing, Abram was quick to justify his actions and explain his warped rationale.
“Besides, she is indeed my sister, the daughter of my father though not the daughter of my mother, and she became my wife. And when God caused me to wander from my father’s house, I said to her, ‘This is the kindness you must do me: at every place to which we come, say of me, “He is my brother.”’” – Genesis 20:12-13 ESV
And like the earlier story, Abram walks away blessed rather than chastened by God.
Then Abimelech took sheep and oxen, and male servants and female servants, and gave them to Abraham, and returned Sarah his wife to him. And Abimelech said, “Behold, my land is before you; dwell where it pleases you.” – Genesis 20:14-15 ESV
God was not rewarding Abram for his deception and dishonesty. Nor was He condoning Abram’s methods. He was simply fulfilling the promise He had made to bless Abram (Genesis 12:2). And he was slowly teaching His stubborn servant a much-needed lesson about divine sovereignty and providential care. Even Abram’s ill-fated attempts to act as his own god could not jeopardize God’s plans or prevent God’s promise from being fulfilled. This was so much bigger than Abram. He was simply a conduit through whom God would bring a blessing to all the nations of the earth. And God was not going to allow Abram to derail the divine plan for mankind’s redemption.
Mankind’s constant attempts at self-salvation will always fall short. But God’s promise of future blessing will never fail to come to fruition.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.