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. – Genesis 12:10 ESV
Abram was on the move. He had built a second altar in the hill country near Bethel, but then had “journeyed on, still going toward the Negeb” (Genesis 12:9 ESV). Once again, the text provides no reason for Abram’s choice of destinations, but since the entire book showcases the sovereignty of God, it makes perfect sense to assume that these excursions were divinely ordained and directed. Abram was being led by God.
And, after having passed through Shechem in central Canaan, Abram had traveled further south to the region just east of Bethel. And while Abram had pitched his tent there, he did not stay long, choosing instead to continue his journey to the southernmost tip of Canaan, a desert region known as the Negeb. This name, in Hebrew, is נֶגֶב (neḡeḇ), which literally means “south.” For some undisclosed, but sovereignly ordained reason, Abram was moving away from the heart of Canaan, the very land that God had promised to give to his descendants. And verse 10 provides the first hint at what might be behind God’s rather strange navigational directions to Abram.
Now there was a famine in the land. – Genesis 12:10 ESV
For some seemingly inexplicable reason, God had directed Abram to leave behind the rich and fertile heart of Canaan and travel to the most arid region in the entire land. But there was a method to God’s madness. He was sovereignly orchestrating the entire scene and putting into place all the factors that would lead to Abram’s brief but consequential “sojourn” to Egypt.
So Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there, for the famine was severe in the land. – Genesis 12:10 ESV
The Hebrew word for “sojourn” is גּוּר (gûr), and it means “to temporarily dwell.” To be a “sojourner” was to live temporarily as a “stranger” in another land. Because of the severity of the famine, Abram was forced to seek refuge and sustenance in the land of Egypt. But, once again, this decision appears to be God-ordained and orchestrated. For the Jews who read Moses’ account, this retelling of Abram’s flight into Egypt would have helped to explain their own historical ties to the land of the Pharaohs. There had been a time when their patriarch, Jacob, had made a similar decision to seek shelter in Egypt. Genesis 42 retells the story of Jacob’s fateful decision to send his sons to Egypt to buy grain because there was a famine in the land of Canaan.
“Behold, I have heard that there is grain for sale in Egypt. Go down and buy grain for us there, that we may live and not die.” So ten of Joseph’s brothers went down to buy grain in Egypt. – Genesis 42:2-3 ESV
But when the brothers arrived in Egypt, they discovered far more than grain. They reconnected with their younger brother, Joseph, whom they had sold into slavery years earlier. Much to their surprise, the brother whom they had assumed to be dead, was very much alive and had risen to the second-highest position in the land of Egypt. And rather than seeking revenge on his brothers, Joseph chose to bless them, inviting them to fetch their father and return to Egypt where they could live out the famine.
The brothers did as they were told. They traveled back to Canaan, broke the news to Jacob that his long-lost son was alive, and issued Joseph’s invitation to relocate the entire family to Egypt. And Genesis 46 reveals that Jacob “came to Beersheba, and offered sacrifices to the God of his father Isaac”
Jacob did as his grandfather had done before him. He called upon the name of the Lord, worshiping the Almighty for his goodness and grace. And while at Beersheba, God visited Jacob in a dream, providing him with a powerful promise.
And God spoke to Israel in visions of the night and said, “Jacob, Jacob.” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “I am God, the God of your father. Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for there I will make you into a great nation. I myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up again, and Joseph’s hand shall close your eyes.” – Genesis 46:2-4 ESV
The similarities are undeniable and fully intentional. Abram’s relationship with Pharaoh and the land of Egypt was meant to foreshadow the future of his own descendants. Egypt would end up playing a significant role in the redemptive history of the people of Israel. This land of Abram’s sojourn would become the God-ordained source of Israel’s future, serving as a divine petri dish in which God would cultivate a nation and fulfill the promise He had made to Abram.
“I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” – Genesis 12:2 ESV
Whether Abram realized it or not, his decision to seek shelter in Egypt was ordained by God. There was going to be a long and, sometimes, tumultuous relationship between Abram’s descendants and this land located to the east of Canaan. In fact, not long after Abram’s temporary foray into Egypt, Abram would receive one of those “I’ve-got-good-news-and-bad-news” announcements from God.
“Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions.” – Genesis 15:13-14 ESV
God had promised to give the land of Canaan to Abram’s ancestors, but now there was a famine in the land. This “unexpected” natural disaster forced Abram to temporarily relocate his family, and Egypt seemed to be the only logical location. Famine-stricken Canaan lay to the north and the arid and barren Nebeb to the west was out of the question. So, Abram had only one option: Seek refuge in Egypt. This “choice” by Abram foreshadows Jacob’s future flight into the Valley of the Nile, but it also points to another divinely orchestrated escape from certain death.
In Matthew 2, the apostle records the story of the birth of Jesus, whom he describes as “the son of Abraham” in the opening verse of his book (Matthew 1:1). According to the genealogy recorded in chapter 1, Jesus was a direct descendant of Abram. And, not long after Jesus’ birth, Joseph, the stepfather of Jesus, received a vision from God, warning him of King Herod’s plans to kill the boy.
…the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.” – Matthew 2:13-15 ESV
It was not safe for Joseph and his young family to remain in the land. Death loomed over them but God had already planned a way of escape. For a time, they “sojourned” in Egypt, while Herod enacted his pogrom of infanticide, aimed at eliminating “he who has been born king of the Jews” (Matthew 2:2 ESV).
But Herod’s attempts to kill Jesus would fail. And in time, this human “famine” would come to his own ignominious end, paving the way for Joseph, Mary, and Jesus to return to the land of promise.
But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, “Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.” And he rose and took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. – Matthew 2:19-21 ESV
For the people of Israel, the land of Egypt would always be a place marked by refuge and heartache. At times, it would prove to be a haven of hope and safety, while at other times it would be a place associated with great pain and sorrow. In the case of Abram, Egypt was a logical alternative to remaining in famine-plagued Canaan. Egypt also provided a source of sustenance from certain starvation to Jacob and his family. But it was also the place where Jacob’s beloved son, Joseph, was restored to him. He who was once thought dead was “resurrected” and restored to life. And Joseph, the stepfather of Jesus, would find Egypt to be a safe haven from the deadly plans of Herod. His young son would live to see another day because God had provided refuge in the land of Egypt.
God had promised to bless Abram, and He was going to do so by sending him to the unlikely land of the Pharaohs and the pyramids. This trip into Egypt had not been a mistake by Abram. His actions do not reflect a lack of faith any more than Jacob’s or Joseph’s did. He was simply following the directions of God. But that does not mean that his time in Egypt would be without problems. The fact that God led him into Egypt is no guarantee that Abram would find himself well-fed and completely free from pain or suffering. His days as a stranger in a strange land would be a time of testing. But it would also be a time of great blessing, as God sovereignly orchestrated His plan to make of Abram a great nation.
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.