Genesis 12 explodes with good news. While Abram was still living in Mesopotamia (Acts 7:2) and part of a family of idol worshipers (Josh. 24:2), God came to him and promised a sevenfold blessing (Gen. 12:1-3). Abram would be a great nation, he would have a great name, and through him, all the families of the earth would be blessed.
But no sooner do we hear of God’s promised blessing to Abram than we find the promise threatened by famine in Egypt and (even worse) by Abram’s foolishness before Pharaoh. Fearing that his life will be in danger because of the beauty of his wife, Abram instructs Sarai to lie to the Egyptian king and say that she is his sister. This leads Pharaoh to shower Abram with riches and to take Sarai into his harem as his wife. Whether Pharaoh committed adultery with Sarai or not is unclear (I think not). What is clear is that when Abram is sent away by the king he leaves Egypt a much wealthier man than we he arrived.
The point of the story is not to moralize, good or bad, on Pharaoh or Abram or Sarai. It’s not wrong to draw lessons from Old Testament history (1 Cor. 10:6), but Genesis 12:10-20 is not mainly about the patriarchs. It is first of all about the invincibility of God’s promise.
Pharaoh’s house was cursed when it looked like Pharaoh would dishonor Sarai (cf. Gen. 12:3). And meanwhile, Abram was blessed—blessed beyond his wildest expectation and certainly blessed well beyond all deserving. This is the story we see over and over again in Genesis: God’s protection and God’s provision for the sake of God’s promise.
What did Abram do to deserve to leave Egypt a richer man than when he arrived? Nothing. Actually, less than nothing! And yet, Abram left with great wealth, because God is true to his promise. The promises of God are so sure, not even God’s people can ultimately mess them up.
There’s a connection between the story about Abram and Sarai in Egypt in chapter 12 and the story about Adam and Eve in the Garden in chapter 3.
Both stories center around a temptation caused by food. In the garden, it’s the fruit that looks good to eat and the temptation that arises from that, and in here it’s the temptation arising from the lack of food.
In both instances, we see the disastrous results of a husband’s poor leadership involving his wife.
We also see that both stories deal with deception. The serpent deceives the couple, and here the couple deceives Pharaoh. The result of both deceptions is this language, “they saw and they took.” The woman saw the fruit, she took and she ate. Pharaoh saw the woman and took her to be his wife.
In both stories, once the deception is found out, the ruler asks questions. God comes to Adam: “What have you done?” Pharaoh comes to Abram: “Why have you done this? Why didn’t you tell me?” In both cases the man’s excuse is to point to his wife: “Well, the wife that you gave me, she gave me the fruit.” “Well, the wife that I have, she’s simply too beautiful. I had to lie.”
And what’s the result in both stories? The couple is sent out. Adam and Eve are kicked out of Eden. Abram and Sarai are sent away from Egypt.
You could even look at the next passage to follow in each instance. After leaving the Garden there is family conflict between Cain and Abel. After leaving Egypt, there is family conflict between Abram and Lot. We are meant to see this episode in chapter 12 as another kind of fall from grace. The two stories track with each other in uncanny ways.
Except for this all-important detail. In Genesis Adam and Eve are kicked out of Eden, and they leave with cursing. In Genesis 12, Abram and Sarai are kicked out of Egypt, and they leave with blessing. They deserve cursing, just like Adam and Eve did in the garden, but here the promise of God is so operative that when they deserve the same cursing, instead they get what they don’t deserve, they get more blessing.
And there’s a connection with this story, not only going back to the garden, but looking forward to the Exodus. Remember, Moses is writing this story is writing it for the people when they are wandering in the wilderness, on the cusp of entering the Promised Land. Think about the parallels they would have seen between their story this story.
Abram migrates to Egypt because of a famine. Jacob’s family, at the end of Genesis, will go down to Egypt because of a famine.
When Abram and Sarai approach the land, they plan a speech for Pharaoh so that it might go well with them. When Israel’s family journeys to Egypt at the end of the book, they plan a speech for Pharaoh so that it might go well with them.
Sarai becomes a sort of slave to Pharaoh. The Israelites will become, for many centuries, slaves to another Pharaoh.
God then afflicts that Pharaoh with plagues, just as he afflicts the Pharaoh in Genesis 12 with plagues. In both cases, the plagues result in Pharaoh sending God’s people out of Egypt.
And what happens when they leave Egypt? Both times they leave with great wealth from the Egyptians. And in both cases, the next stop is to journey in the Negev and then later arrive back in the land.
This story in Genesis 12 was meant to be a comfort to God’s people wandering in the wilderness because of their sin. Parents would have been able to say to their children, “Remember what God did for Abram? He almost blew it. But God took care of him. God rescued him. God blessed him and brought him back to Canaan, all for the sake of his promise. Surely he will do the same for us.”
Looking at Ourselves
Obviously, the lesson from Abram and Sarai in Egypt is not that we should lie our way to wealth and prosperity. Abram’s conniving is a rebuke to all of us who think God’s plan needs help from the world’s ways.
But mostly, the story is a word of hope. It’s a firm reminder that nothing and no one can fully and finally derail the promises of God. You may look at your sin and stupidity and think that you’ve forfeited all of God’s blessing for you. But you haven’t. We may corporately look at the failures of God’s people—worldly compromise, theological error, fallen leaders, hypocrisy, duplicity, sin, and scandal—and wonder how the church will ever accomplish the purposes God has for her. But don’t forget: Jesus himself promises to build his church. This is not an excuse for us to be lazy, let alone to be disobedient, but it is reason for hope.
I don’t know what God is up to in your church, your city, your denomination, or your country, but we can be absolutely certain of this: Christ will be true to his word. The gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable (Rom. 11:29). Nothing can fully and finally derail or destroy the promises of God. Not the world, not the flesh, not the devil. Not even us. Jesus Christ will have his way. He will keep his promises. He will bless his people. He will build his church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.