Abram’s obedience to God handed him a tall glass of bitter water to drink. He traveled to Canaan looking for a city built by God (Hebrews 11:10). When he arrived, all God talked about was giving land to one of Abram’s non-existent children. After God spoke to him at Shechem, Abram built an altar to worship God. But I can also imagine Abram sitting in his tent, face buried in his hands, wondering if he had been a fool, wondering if God told him the truth, wondering if he had put his faith in a lie.
At this point in Abram’s life, he is struggling in his faith, trying to discern the truth from lies. The Mesopotamian religion that Abram forsook worshiped gods who were as corrupt as their worshipers. His former religion taught elaborate rituals and sacrifices, but never conceived the idea that a pure heart and clean hands were more meaningful than ritual. For Abram to believe in his God, he must decide if his new God is pure and clean.
Abram left Shechem, and pitched his tent between Bethel and Ai where he built another altar, but he didn’t stay. He kept drifting south away from Canaan and the bitter truth so difficult of swallow. He drifted until he encountered a famine and turned toward Egypt. According to the Bible, famine sent Abram to Egypt, but the Jewish historian, Josephus, revealed another reason.
“…when a famine had invaded the land of Canaan, and Abram had discovered that the Egyptians were in a flourishing condition, he was disposed to go down to them, both to partake of the plenty they enjoyed, and to become an auditor of their priests, and to know what they said concerning the gods; designing either to follow them if they had better notions than he, or to convert them into a better way, if his own notions proved the truest.” (Works of Josephus, Vol II 87-88)
Abram’s faith stood at a crossroads. Would the Egyptians convert Abram, or would he convert the Egyptians? The favor he asked of Sarai proved he doubted God would give him a child through Sarai. As Abram drew near Egypt he asked Sarai to “Say you are my sister” (Genesis 12:13). Technically, Sarai would be telling the truth. They shared a father but not a mother. Abram’s truth left out an important detail. Abram and Sarai were husband and wife.
Abram asked Sarai to omit this detail because she was beautiful. He feared the Egyptians would kill him and abscond with her. God’s promise could not be fulfilled without Sarai, making her very important. Yet Abram deemed it better to lose Sarai than to risk his life.
When the Egyptians saw Sarai, they commended the beautiful sister of the stranger from Canaan in the royal courts and Pharaoh took her into his house. His interest in Sarai made Abram a rich man. Pharaoh gave her “brother” gifts of sheep, oxen, donkeys, camels, male and female servants (Genesis 12:15-16).
Before Pharaoh made Sarai a permanent part of his harem by consummating their union, God intervened. He distracted Pharaoh with illness that infected his entire family and, according to Josephus, a sedition arose against his government. The Bible is silent on how Pharaoh learned the source of his problems. Josephus tells us he summoned his priest who pointed the finger at Abram and Sarai.
It is important to note that Pharaoh is innocent. Abram’s deceit provoked Pharaoh to sin against God without malice. Yet we find God plaguing the innocent while the one who created the problem grows rich. But God’s ways are not our ways, nor does he see what we see. To understand God’s reaction, we must understand who Sarai represents to God. Paul tells us what she represented in Galatians:
For it is written that Abraham had two sons: the one by a bondwoman [Hagar], the other by a freewoman [Sarai]. But he who was of the bondwoman was born according to the flesh [Ishmael, Abram and Sarai’s plan], and he of the freewoman through promise [Jesus, God's plan], which things are symbolic. [Hagar and Sarai are symbolic of two different covenants.] For these are the two covenants [a covenant of law; a covenant of grace]; the one from Mount Sinai which gives birth to bondage, which is Hagar — for this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia [Mt. Sinai is where the covenant of law was established] and corresponds to Jerusalem which now is [Hagar is symbolic of Jerusalem attempting to live by the law given to Moses at Mt. Sinai] and is in bondage with her children – [The religious leadership of Jerusalem rejected Jesus in preference to the law given to Moses. When you live by the law you are in bondage to satisfy the law or suffer the curse the law requires if you break the law.] but the Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all. [Paul is referring to the New Jerusalem that is reserved in heaven for us. John said in Revelation 21: "Then I, John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God...”]. (Galatians 4:22-26, NKJ)
According to the passage in Galatians, Hagar is symbolic of the people in Jerusalem who strive to worship God by obeying the Law of Moses. By contrast, Sarai is symbolic of the New Jerusalem, which demands its people live by the law of grace Jesus gave us: Love one another.
God was not happy when King Pharaoh took his wife, the New Jerusalem, whom Sarah symbolizes, into his house and then in gratitude made Abram rich. Abram’s fear of death opened the door for Pharaoh to take the place of God in both his and Sarah’s life; and that made God jealous, so he plagued Pharaoh.
It is important to note the God did not plague Abram, and God did not plague Sarah. They remained the objects of his great love. God plagued Pharaoh, his “competition” for Abram and Sarai’s love. He did not plague Pharaoh for Abram’s sake. God hadn’t yet promised to include Abram in the fulfillment of his promises. He plagued Pharaoh for the New Jerusalem/Sarai’s sake. God was jealous because she was his New Jerusalem, and he wanted to make her children rich. God doesn’t plague his people when they stray. He plagues the society we live in so everyone will know that we are equal in God’s eyes.
God’s actions protected Pharaoh from committing a sin worthy of death and exposed Abram’s deceit. The Bible does not tell us how Pharaoh learned the truth. Josephus credits Sarai for putting an end to the charade.
Pharaoh summoned Abram and demanded answers. “What have you done to me? Why didn’t you tell me she was your wife? Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her to be my wife?” (Genesis 12:18-19)
Abram had betrayed the most powerful man in Egypt, giving Egypt a justifiable reason to kill him. He also betrayed God when he built altars to worship him but didn’t believe God was honest. The death Abram feared never befell him. God loved him and the Egyptian were not the dishonorable people he assumed they were.
Neither the Bible nor Josephus reveals how Abram answered Pharaoh’s questions. The questions may have been enough punishment as Abram was forced to face his true character and acknowledge his worth. He wasn’t worthy to inherit the promises of God but one of his children would be worthy. And through that one child Abram would obtain all God desires to give.
Abram learned a humbling lesson. He was not worthy to be king of the New Jerusalem/Sarah because he did not love her enough to die for her. He had been married to this beautiful woman for more than thirty years. Yet he would have given her up forever and did so without anyone threatening his life.
According to Josephus, before Abram left Egypt with his wife, Pharaoh gave him a large gift of money to compensate for any perceived wrong and permission to speak to the “most learned among the Egyptians”. Abram traveled to Egypt hoping to learn what they believed about God. God granted the fulfillment of that desire. Abram needed to know that his beliefs were sound and reasonable. Abram discovered that
“…the Egyptians were formerly addicted to different customs, and despised one another’s scared and accustomed rites, and were very angry one with another on that account, Abram conferred with each of them, and, confuting their reasonings they made use of, everyone for their own practices, demonstrated that such reasonings were vain and void of truth; whereupon he was admired by them in those conferences as a very wise man, and one of great sagacity, when he discoursed on any subject he undertook; and this not only in understanding it, but in persuading other men also to assent to him.” (Works of Josephus, Vol. II, 87-88)
Learning what others believed about God strengthened Abram’s faith. There is no indication he converted the Egyptians, but he did impress them.
And Pharaoh sent them out of the country under armed escort — Abram, his wife and all his household and possessions (Genesis 12:20, The Living Bible).
In his great love for the New Jerusalem/Sarai and Abram, his soon to be adopted son, God surrounded them with the armies of Pharaoh, and brought them safely back home to Canaan. Abram left Egypt knowing what he must do — return to the altar he built in Canaan and bow his knee to his own son – the Son of Promise. Abram could see him afar off hanging on a cross before he wore a crown. He saw the day the promised son would do what he had failed to do. Die so we can live free.