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. 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. 
Abram’s response to God’s call should be a source of wonder for us – NOT because Abram was able to manufacture great trust into God, but because God demonstrated his faithfulness to his promises by pulling this moon god-worshipping descendent of Shem out of the opulent splendor of the great city of Ur and giving him a new, trusting heart.
Abram had plenty of visual aids to make all the gods of Mesopotamia feel real to him. There were statues, temples, priests, the sun, the moon, the constellations and elaborate ceremonies involving sacrifices and pageantry and music. There was the great man-made mountain dedicated to the moon god. What did this YHWH have? He had only a voice – no priests, no temples, no ziggurat, no singers or musicians, no constellations in the night sky, and no followers. How could a god like that possibly make good on his promises of blessing? It was not that unusual for people in Abram’s demonized pagan culture to hear voices from what they believed to be gods. Certainly, the priests received signs and dreams and prophecies from their demonic masters.
The miracle of Genesis12:1-9 was Abram not only heard the disembodied voice of a god he had never known, but that he trusted into the bare word of this unknown god. The point is this: Abram’s trust in the disembodied voice of the God called YHWH is utterly unhuman. It’s supernatural. No human steeped in the demonized religion of Babylonian hearts, surrounded by all the monuments, bells, and smells of pagan culture and dead in his sin would naturally and logically heed the disembodied voice of some unknown god to leave behind his comfortable life of 75 years. Much less would he do so to travel to an unknown destination in exchange for mere promises from an obscure deity.
Everything in his culture spoke of gods and demi-gods with various limited powers that men could harness to achieve their own destinies. And it worked out very well for Abram and his family. He was prosperous. He flourished in his city and his land. He had harnessed the blessings of Nanna the moon god and Ningal and Enki, the demi-gods, to make a name for himself. He certainly didn’t need to go off in search of more fame and fortune. Abram’s faith was a divine miracle and entirely God-given. The lesson is not “Be an Abram.” The lesson is to seek out the God who lavishes faith upon his people to carry them through their earthly pilgrimage.
“BE AN ABRAHAM” (12:10)
Our text this morning points out to us why “Be an Abram” is not a particularly good motto. In fact, it demonstrates for us why we ARE already like Abram, as we see him using God’s Word to rationalize unholy behavior. Most of us can go at least a month without food. We can last days without water. But few of us can last an hour without a good rationalization. Abram, faced with a difficult situation, rationalized his way into prostituting his wife for safety and profit. Still, he had walked in astonishing, miraculous faith up to this point.
Abram traveled a great 800-mile arc from Ur that took him northwest through Mesopotamia and the southwest along the east end of the Mediterranean, where he descended through Damascus into Canaan, which God then promised to him (12:7) during his tour of Canaan. As he traveled through the promised land he lived in tents and built altars, openly worshipping his Covenant Creator God in the midst of the pagan Canaanites. As St. Author of Hebrews wrote, “By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. 10 For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.”
Abram became an interloper in pagan territory, not the sophisticated big-city culture of Ur but a more rural and raw kind of debauched paganism. Now, to kick up Abram’s training in the life of faith a notch, God sent a famine in Canaan (12:10). Weather is cyclical. Canaan was in a draught and crops were not growing. People and animals were short on food and water.
What do you think the superstitious Canaanites now thought of this foreign interloper who was building altars to his unknown God on land belonging to their fertility deities? It’s quite likely that they would see Abram and his strange God as the cause of the famine. Their gods are punishing them because of the foreigner. Certainly, nobody is going to be sharing their rations with him and his entourage. Abram is forced to decide if he will stay in the promised land or temporarily head for greener pastures. So, he packs up and heads for the Nile River delta where water and crops are plentiful.
DOWN IN EGYPT’S LAND (12:11-13)
Some preachers give poor Abram a hard time for deciding to head to Egypt on the theory that he was leaving the land God promised him and God surely would have miraculously provided for him and his entourage there. This, the theory goes, is Abram’s first step away from faith. But Moses writes that “Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there” – indicating a temporary stay.
“Abram had to feel his way forward (8, 9) without a special revelation at every step, guided like us largely by circumstances (cf. Ruth 1:1; Matt. 12:14, 15). In a famine it might well seem a providence that Egypt was nearby, watered by the flooding of the Nile.” If Abram had turned from his faith in God’s Word, he would have returned to Chaldea and lived along the Euphrates where water, crops, and grazing land were abundant. He would have headed back to Haran where he had relatives. Instead, he takes a relatively short trip to the Nile to wait out the famine in Canaan.
It’s wise to choose to preserve your life and that of your dependents. It was the natural thing to do and many foreigners came regularly to the Nile when their own lands were ravaged by drought and famine. Jacob’s family would move to Egypt during a famine in the promised land and there grow into the great nation Abram was promised. The problem for Abram was that he knew nothing about Egypt. Tribes along the Fertile Crescent had hospitality ingrained in their culture. It was a matter of honor to welcome strangers. But maybe Egypt was different.
What Abram did know was that he had a wife of legendary beauty and others might find Abram worth killing to have her. What should we make of Sarai’s beauty at her advanced age? Some have suggested her beauty was simply because of Abram’s love. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But if that were the case, it’s highly doubtful the king of Egypt would have wanted to add her to his harem as we read in verses 14 and 15. Remember, the lifespan of the patriarchs was at least double our modern-day life expectancy. Abraham died at 175 and Sarah at 127.
Sarai in her sixties would be like you and I in our thirties or early forties. So, Abram devises a plan to keep himself from getting killed:
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.” 
This will not be the last time Abram uses this half-truth to save his own skin (Sarai was Tarah’s daughter by another mother: 11:27-39; 20:2). But, as far as Moses’ record is concerned, this appears to be the first time Abram rationalizes his lying to save his own skin (20:13). Abram’s words to Sarai are better translated, “Please say,” a request, not an order. “Sarah pragmatically consents. Their philosophy was ‘Better defiled than dead.’ This is not a philosophy that establishes God’s kingdom in a pagan world.”
Abram was thinking: “I am the man God is using to build a special nation and to bless the entire world. If I die, God’s plan will be thwarted. I must do anything and everything I can to stay alive.” Our sin nature is excellent at rationalizing our sins. We are so good at it that we can take even God’s Word and bend it to our own will. That’s what good old Father Abraham does: “God may have made me promises, but he doesn’t know MY situation right now.” Abram had the opportunity to trust that, because God made land, seed, and blessing promises to him that he could not die until he had at least one child. Instead, he chose to “help God out” – a choice we will see him make several more times.
Abram rationalized that passing Sarai off merely as his sister would save him because he would be posing as her legal guardian (her eldest brother). As the guardian, any powerful chieftain or warlord they encountered would have to spend time negotiating a bride price before taking possession of Sarai. The negotiations would theoretically buy Abram and Sarah and their entourage time to sneak away in the dead of night. It’s poor plan because there are only so many trade routes in the desert by which anyone could travel.
An offended warlord would certainly track them down and outright take what he offered to pay for in the first place – likely killing Abram in the process. So really, there was no logical hope of protection EXCEPT that which YHWY offered. But sin is not logical. It’s the opposite of logic because it is trust in the creature rather than the Creator. It is, like for Adam and Eve, a choice to pretend to be your own god.
“This trickery was not an act of faith. Abram was living as if the God who had spoken to him in Ur, who had promised those incredible personal and global blessings, who had led him to and through Canaan and promised it to his descendants, did not exist.” Can you see how “Be an Abraham” doesn’t work? More than that, can you see how we are all pretty much “an Abraham” already? Any time we chose self-interest and self-management and self-protection over God’s will, we are choosing to live like an atheist – as if God didn’t exist. We are living like runaways, orphans, street urchins who have no good Father to protect and care for us. Abram has already chosen to live by his “street smarts.” But he cannot imagine the tragedy about to overtake him.
DID NOT SEE THAT COMING (12:14-16)
Abram stupidly hoped he could outsmart the average powerful warlord, but he never considered he might find himself caught in a lie with the king. The average Egyptian would have happily negotiated for Sarai, but Pharaoh’s don’t negotiate. They take what they want, like the Nephilim in the days before the flood when those with great power collected attractive women. “15 And when the princes of Pharaoh saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh. And the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house.” And, just like that, Sarai is snatched to join the king’s harem. “Sarai, so beautiful, would surely become one of Pharaoh’s favorite entertainments. And from then on, life would have taken its natural course. “This is doubtless a case of actual adultery between Pharaoh and Sarai, rather that potential adultery such as we find in 20:3–4. Later in the narrative Pharaoh says, ‘I took her for my wife’ (v. 19).” She well could have lived and died in Egypt, had her place in a royal tomb— and her excavated mummy would be grinning up at us in the British Museum.”
For pimping his wife (it’s an ugly act deserving of an ugly verb!), Abram gets even richer. “16 And for her sake [Pharaoh] dealt well with Abram; and he had sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male servants, female servants, female donkeys, and camels.”  Two of these “gifts” show us luxury. Female donkeys were prized for their temperaments and so were considered the primo ride of their day, not to mention their ability to birth more donkeys. They were the fully loaded Lexus or BMW of their day.
Abram also received numerous camels. Camels were very rare as domesticated creatures in that time period. Some scholars believe the text is mistaken since most historical sources teach camels were not domesticated until the second millennium B.C. If these were domesticated (“rideable”) camels, then they were the Bugatti La Voiture Noire of their day ($12.5 million). Abram now has a large garage full of premium rides. Oxen were the standard transportation of the day, used for pulling carts and wagons.
So, he gets a fleet of reproducing hay-burning BMW’s, Bugatti’s, and pick-up trucks. He also gets a herd of sheep and an unknown (but presumably large) number of male and female slaves – one of whom will be the mother of his son Ishmael. The Hebrew text reads “male donkeys, menservants, maidservants, and female donkeys.” Moses depicts Abraham’s caravan precisely according to the order in which it moves. The donkey wranglers separated male donkeys, with their strong urges sparked by the scent of the females, by placing them in the front and the human servants between to keep order. At the rear of the caravan, behind the herds and the slaves, the wealthy and dignified members of the family rode high upon their camels looking over all their possessions that stretched out in front of them.
Abram’s rationalization that he was “helping God out” by saving his own life brought him even more wealth. But his increased wealth came at the expense of his wife whom he was completely powerless to save. Fortunately for Abram, and for all of us, God is sovereign even over our sins. He brings glory out of the disasters of our own making. “17 But the Lord afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife.”
The Hebrew text stresses the severity of these plagues. Pharaoh may not knowingly be guilty of adultery, but he is certainly openly guilty of coveting Sarai’s beauty and guilty of great pride in wanting to add her to his collection. This will not be the last time God plagues a Pharaoh to redeem his chosen ones out of Egypt (Ex. 7-10). The word translated “plagues” often refers to skin diseases. So possibly the Egyptian court suffered from something akin to a plague of boils (Exodus 9: 9).
Moses doesn’t tell us how Pharaoh came to know the plagues were because of Abram and Sarai. But the most logical assumption is that Sarai did not suffer from the multiple plagues that troubled the rest of the palace. One commentary suggests the nature of the plague is an STD, suggesting to Pharaoh that his possession of Sarah is their cause. “Sarai is the pivotal figure here. Abram prospers because of her. Pharaoh suffers because of her. She is a catalyst for good and for evil.” “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.”
Pharaoh does all the talking here. Abram’s silence expressed his guilt. Pharaoh’s concluding line is staccato— just four Hebrew words: “Here . . . wife . . . take . . . go.” It shows the king’s disgust with Abram. Pharaoh assumed the moral high ground. Abram appeared the sinner, Pharaoh the saint. It calls to mind Paul’s reproach of the church at Corinth for their toleration of immorality: “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. 2 And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn?”
“We should give this Egyptian king some credit. Upon learning of his embarrassing mistake (but note that the text nowhere suggests that the Pharaoh interpreted the plagues as punishment), he immediately returns Sarai to her husband. Furthermore, the king’s three questions addressed to Abram reveal that the pagan king indeed knows that adultery is a moral evil. In fact, Pharaoh exemplifies a higher degree of moral sensitivity than does the patriarch.”
Abram and his vastly increased entourage leave Egypt in shame. Abram would build no altars in Egypt. “20 And Pharaoh gave men orders concerning him, and they sent him away with his wife and all that he had.” Abram is escorted out of Egypt with all Pharaoh’s gifts. He did not call upon the name of YHWY in Egypt. Abram left his greatest gift of God-given faith back in Canaan. So, back to Canaan he slinks under the watchful eyes of Pharaoh’s guards.
Whatever power was behind Abram, Pharaoh wanted never again to be on the receiving end of it. Abram emerges unpunished only because of the king’s fear of God’s power. God glorifies himself even in the midst of our sin. Abram’s tiny faith is still an occasion for God to display his great power. So, Paul writes to Timothy, “if we are faithless, he remains faithful— for he cannot deny himself.” 
God will continue to give Abram moments of supernatural faith as we shall read. And God will also allow Abram more opportunities to rationalize away his faith in difficult moments. As often happens when God gives great faith, God demands his people continue to exercise and grow their trust into him. He sends difficult circumstances to train our trust muscles. And his workouts can be brutal.
As St Author wrote, after taking his readers through the Gallery of Faith in chapter 11, “7 It is for training that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. …8 If you are left without training, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. …he trains us for our good, that we may share his holiness. 11 For the moment all training seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” 
If you think about how you live in moments of faith – weak and strong – you may come to realize you don’t need to be told to “Be an Abraham” because you too live in moments of great Gospel sanity and moments of tragic Gospel insanity. Following all the pictures hung in the Gallery of Faith in Hebrews 11, St Author gives us our standing order of the Christian life. He does not tell us to look to Abram, nor to any of the other saints to whom God granted extraordinary trust in crucial moments. He points us to the object of our trust, the Promised Seed to whom God has given not only Palestine but the entire universe. Our trust does not save us. The OBJECT of our trust saves us and keeps us as we journey like pilgrims through this pagan land.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, 2 looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. 
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ge 12:10–20.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Heb 11:9–10.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ge 12:10.
 Kidner, 127.
 Hamilton, 380.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ge 12:11–13.
 Waltke and Fredricks, 213.
 Hughes, 192. Kindle Edition.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ge 12:15.
 Hamilton, 382.
 Hughes, 193. Kindle Edition.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ge 12:16.
 Hamilton, 383.
 Waltke and Fredricks, 215.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ge 12:17.
 Hughes, 193. Kindle Edition.
 Waltke and Fredricks, 215.
 Hamilton, 384.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ge 12:18–19.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 1 Co 5:1–2.
 Hamilton, 385.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ge 12:20.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 2 Ti 2:13.
 Heb 12:7–11. Trans. mine.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Heb 12:1–2.