Genesis 12b-13: Egypt and Its Aftermath

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Continuing the story, Abraham, his people, and cattle travel about 400 miles (over 600 km) southeast to the land of Canaan.

He arrives at the place of God's appointing, but his troubles are far from over. Shortly, he encounters a severe famine. So he "goes down into Egypt." This is a dangerous move for an alien in a foreign land. Plus, Pharaoh was always interested in adding beautiful women to his harem. And Sarah is a beautiful woman (though she is at least 65 years old!). So, Abraham says to her: "I know what a beautiful woman you are. When the Egyptians see you, they will say, 'This is his wife.' Then they will kill me but will let you live. Say you are my sister, so that I will be treated well for your sake and my life will be spared because of you."

As it turns out, his fears are well grounded. Pharaoh does, indeed, find out about Sarah, and he takes her into his harem, paying Abraham handsomely for the loss of his sister.

Scholars have long wrestled with this story. Some are willing to excuse it as a necessary little white lie, noting that in the end an Israelite bested a powerful Pharaoh. Others point out how Abraham lied to save his own skin; he disregarded Sarah and lacked faith in God.

Yet, this story comes on the heels of God's promises to Abraham. God had promised that He would bless Abraham, who would have descendants, and that they would have land. Actually, nothing was ever said about Sarah's role in these promises. Perhaps, Abraham decided that in order to safeguard the promise, Sarah was the most expendable person. Because of Sarah's sacrifice, both Abraham and Lot would be safe. Abraham is still convinced that his best hope of descendants lies with Lot, his fatherless nephew.

Plus, there are harsh realities in this story. The group is in serious danger from starvation. As an alien, Abraham has no rights, and no guarantees of protection. His is a tiny clan compared to a colossal superpower. His only option is to rely totally on the promises of God. But at this point in the story, there is no mention of God. It does not say God directed them to Egypt, or that they even asked for His guidance. The text simply says, he "went down." The choice of those words, literally and figuratively, warn the reader about what is to come. On the heels of Abraham's most noble acts of faithfulness, at the highpoint of his obedient acts, he "went down" and demonstrated a decided lack of faith.

And yet, Abraham is not abandoned. Plagues are inflicted upon Pharaoh and his household, and presumably, it is God who reveals to Pharaoh the reason for his misfortunes. Pharaoh summons Abraham, rebukes him and, finally, has them all escorted safely outside Egyptian borders—with all their loot intact. The inherent irony of the story is that Pharaoh makes out with the clear conscience, yet Abraham is materially blessed with abundant possessions and cattle.

It is noteworthy, however, to point out that Abraham is not punished for this. He is chastised by Pharaoh, at which point Abraham remains silent, thereby, accepting the shameful nature of his deceit. On the other hand, he experiences, in a very direct way, the fulfillment of God's blessing.

Also, someone might wonder what actually happened to Sarah while she was in Pharaoh's harem? Was she violated or did God safeguard her purity? The best response is to say that the text is silent on this point. It does say she was "taken." The Hebrew root of that word is generally used in a marital relationship, which would obviously include sexual activity. Arguments that she was fully protected from participating in Pharaoh's harem are probably more hopeful than based on textual information. What can be said, however, is that Abraham willingly took her back when the ordeal was over. And, unfortunately, Sarah is given no opportunity to say how she felt about the whole thing.

Nonetheless, they leave Egypt; time passes. Soon both Lot and Abraham have too much cattle and too many herds. Have they been blessed too abundantly? Obviously, Lot is sharing in the blessings given to Abraham. His people begin to quarrel with Abraham's people. They have been blessed so abundantly that the land can no longer support them all.

Rather than let things fester, Abraham proposes a solution. "Let there be no strife between you and me, between my herdsmen and yours, for we are kinsmen. Is not the whole land before you? Please separate from me. If you go to the left, I will go right; and if you go to the right, I will go left." In all its other uses, the Hebrew word for strife refers exclusively to the grumblings and complaints of the people against their leader. This fact provides a subtle verbal indictment against the base ingratitude on the part of Lot.

Yet, exactly what is Abraham offering? Hebrew directions are always east-oriented. That is, the person is assumed to be facing east. According to the text, they are located somewhere between Bethel and Ai. Therefore, the offer of land to the right is everything in a southerly direction. The land to the left is what lies to the north. Abraham is asking Lot to choose his portion of land from all of Canaan. The land of promise is to be partitioned fairly between him and Lot. God promised to give land to Abraham's descendants; Lot is still Abraham's only possible heir.

But, Lot "lifted his eyes" and saw that the "Jordan valley was well watered everywhere like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt, in the direction of Zoar." This land was way east, not north or south. It was outside the land of promise. What his eyes saw, his heart desired. The ties to Abraham, to the promise, and to the land are no longer important. Lot is snared by his eyes. He chooses, and he goes. He pitches his tents near Sodom, but "the people of Sodom were wicked and sinned greatly against God." The ominous implications of this decision cannot be overstated.

By way of contrast, the story continues with Abraham, who immediately receives another appearance from God in which the divine promise is reaffirmed. It is no accident that this comes right "after Lot had departed." Lot was more than a nephew; he was a potential heir. But now Lot is gone, and the very next line is an affirmation by God of His promise to Abraham. The promise does not end with Lot's departure. Abraham is told that all the land he can see will be given to him and to his descendants, which presumably includes the fertile regions of the Jordan. Additionally, his descendants will be as numerous as the dust of the earth. He is told to walk across his land. Walking the length and breadth of the land symbolically constitutes a mode of legal acquisition.

Abraham works his way back to Hebron, where he builds another altar to the Lord. Worship has now become an integral part of his family's experience.

Before we move on, let's consider carefully the contrasts between their choices and their experiences. The text says that Lot lifted up his eyes; God tells Abraham to "lift up your eyes." Lot "saw;" God tells Abraham to "look." Lot chooses "all the land of the Jordan;" Abraham is given "all the land that he could see." The author has effectively used this device of rewording Lot's decisions and making them into the Lord's instructions to show that Lot just did it, while Abraham was told to do it. Sometimes that makes all the difference in the world.

In fact, as Abraham's only apparent heir, Lot has effectively removed himself from the land of promise. The parting appears amicable, but to a certain extent, Lot has also separated himself from Abraham, from the source of blessing. Lot, who has always been Abraham's ace in the hole, has now aced himself out. The story continues.