The Flawed Hope of Self-Salvation

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.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

The Subtle Snare of Self-Salvation.

And David said to Abigail, “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, who sent you this day to meet me! Blessed be your discretion, and blessed be you, who have kept me this day from bloodguilt and from working salvation with my own hand! For as surely as the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, who has restrained me from hurting you, unless you had hurried and come to meet me, truly by morning there had not been left to Nabal so much as one male.” Then David received from her hand what she had brought him. And he said to her, “Go up in peace to your house. See, I have obeyed your voice, and I have granted your petition.”

And Abigail came to Nabal, and behold, he was holding a feast in his house, like the feast of a king. And Nabal’s heart was merry within him, for he was very drunk. So she told him nothing at all until the morning light. In the morning, when the wine had gone out of Nabal, his wife told him these things, and his heart died within him, and he became as a stone. And about ten days later the Lord struck Nabal, and he died. – 1 Samuel 25:32-38 ESV

David knew the hand of God when he saw it. As he and his men stood there with their weapons at the ready, prepared to wipe out Nabal and every male in his household, Abigail had showed up with a gift of food and a word of wise counsel. She had bowed down before David and begged his forgiveness. And she appealed to David to refrain from doing something he would later regret. Nabal was a fool. He was insignificant and not worth the time and effort it would take to enact revenge. She wisely warned David, “When the Lord has done all he promised and has made you leader of Israel,  don’t let this be a blemish on your record. Then your conscience won’t have to bear the staggering burden of needless bloodshed and vengeance” (1 Samuel 25:30-31 NLT).

Her words struck a chord with David. They were like a cold glass of water thrown in his face, waking him up to the reality and danger of what he was about to do. And he was grateful, not only to her, but to God for having sent her. “Praise the Lord, the God of Israel, who has sent you to meet me today!” (1 Samuel 25:32 NLT). He knew this was a God-ordained encounter with Abigail. He clearly sensed that God had sent her to prevent him from doing something he would later regret. Killing Nabal would have been an act of vengeance, but not an act of God. David had not sought out or received any word from God to take the life of Nabal or anyone else. But the temptation of self-salvation and taking revenge on those who offend us always lingers within us. David had been offended by a rich fool and he was man enough to do something about it. But a man after God’s own heart would leave vengeance up to the Lord. And that is exactly what Abigail reminded David of. God had bigger plans for David. He was going to be the next king of Israel. Nabal was a bump in the road on the way to the throne room, and David would be better off letting God deal with him.

It’s interesting to note that when David had been given the opportunity to kill Saul, he had refrained from doing so. He even told Saul, “May the Lord judge between me and you, may the Lord avenge me against you, but my hand shall not be against you” (1 Samuel 24:12 ESV). At that point, David had been willing to leave the judgment of Saul in the hands of God. But when it came to Nabal, David had suddenly determined to take matters into his own hands. Only the words of Abigail prevented David from doing the unthinkable and committing an act of fratricide against fellow Jews.

And when David heard the words of Abigail, he immediately recognized the gravity of what he had been about to do. He said to her,  “Thank God for your good sense! Bless you for keeping me from murder and from carrying out vengeance with my own hands” (1 Samuel 25:33 NLT). There is the key to understanding this exchange between Abigail and David. His sin was not his anger with Nabal, but his desire to carry out vengeance against Nabal with his own hands. What he was about to do was an act of self-salvation, but not self-preservation. Nabal was no threat to David. All he had done was offend David by treating him with contempt and disrespect. He had hurt David’s pride. And David had been willing to slaughter Nabal and everyone associated with him in a needless act of revenge.

It’s interesting to note that, years later, when David was king, he would have another opportunity to take revenge on someone who treated him with disdain and disrespect. It was when his son, Absalom, had taken over Jerusalem and David had been forced to flee for his life. On his way out of town, he had been confronted by a man named Shimei, a member of the clan of Saul. As David and his men made their way out of the city, he threw stones at them and loudly cursed David.

“Get out of here, you murderer, you scoundrel!” he shouted at David. “The Lord is paying you back for all the bloodshed in Saul’s clan. You stole his throne, and now the Lord has given it to your son Absalom. At last you will taste some of your own medicine, for you are a murderer!” – 2 Samuel 16:7-8 NLT

David’s men offered to kill Shimei, but David restrained them, saying:

“My own son is trying to kill me. Doesn’t this relative of Saul have even more reason to do so? Leave him alone and let him curse, for the Lord has told him to do it. And perhaps the Lord will see that I am being wronged and will bless me because of these curses today.” – 2 Samuel 16:11-12 NLT

David’s encounter with Abigail had taught him a valuable lesson: To leave vengeance in the hands of God. He was to do nothing without God’s expressed permission. Taking Nabal’s life might have assuaged David’s damaged pride, but it would have done far more damage to his reputation. It would appear from studying the life of David, that he was a man prone to impulsive behavior. He was susceptible to giving in to his inner impulses and failing to think things through. His affair with Bathsheba is a case in point. He let his physical passions override his reasoning. He saw her and he wanted her. So, he took her. He didn’t think it through. And when his actions got him in trouble and she became pregnant, he threw reason to the wind, and went into self-preservation mode. He attempted to cover up his indiscretion with a carefully thought-out plan to have Uriah, he husband returned from war so that it might appear that the child was his. And when is efforts failed, his self-preservation efforts escalated and he had Uriah murdered, so he could take Bathsheba as his wife.

Self-salvation is tempting, but it never turns out like we were expecting. Taking matters into our own hands may feel good for the moment, but the repercussions can be devastating. Too often, our desire for revenge is based on nothing more than our own damaged pride. There is no real threat to our safety, but we find ourselves offended by something someone has said to us or about us. Perhaps it’s a rumor that someone has spread falsely representing us. It could be a simple case of someone showing us disrespect or treating us in a way we find distasteful. Our first impulse is to get even, to teach them a lesson. But what would God have us do? How would He prefer we respond? For David, the best course of action was no action at all. He was to leave Nabal in God’s hands. Rather than seeking revenge on Nabal, he was to rest in the sovereign will of God.

Jesus gave us some similar advice in the Beatitudes.

“You have heard the law that says the punishment must match the injury: ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say, do not resist an evil person! If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also. If you are sued in court and your shirt is taken from you, give your coat, too. If a soldier demands that you carry his gear for a mile, carry it two miles. Give to those who ask, and don’t turn away from those who want to borrow.” – Matthew 5:38-42 NLT

We are to be driven by a bigger purpose than our own self-salvation and preservation. God has bigger plans for us than worrying about what others think and wasting our time attempting to protect our reputations. God had greater plans for David than eliminating a fool who happened to offend him. There were greater enemies to fight. There were much more significant wars for David to wage. He was to leave Nabal in God’s hands. And because he did, David would see God deal with Nabal as only God could. When Abigail told Nabal all that had happened and how David had been planning to come and destroy him, “he had a stroke, and he lay paralyzed on his bed like a stone. About ten days later, the Lord struck him, and he died” (1 Samuel 25:37-38 NLT). God avenged David. God dealt with Nabal. And David learned that the salvation of God is preferable to self-salvation every time.

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.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson