Genesis: Faithlore, lesson 14

Genesis 12:10-20: Abraham and Pharaoh. Adult Bible Class Home Moravian Church. Originally aired on January 15, 2006.

Introduction:   Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. It was a busy week for me. Classes have started at Wake Forest, which I enjoy. We’re planning some good events at the Divinity School of which you should be aware. Tomorrow night Rev. Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King, will be speaking in Wait Chapel. She’ll also speak at the opening convocation for the Divinity School Tuesday at 11 a.m., and on February 28 and March 1 she will lecture at the Trible Lecture Series on Gender, Sexuality, and Faith. Rosemary Radford Reuther will also be one of the lecturers. Also in March we are having a conference titled “Keeping Faith’s Promises to Our Daughters: Conversations on Justice for Women,” which will be held at Fairview Moravian Church on the 10th and 11th. Among the speakers will be several Moravians, including Bishop Kay Ward.

Abram the Nomad:                This morning we are continuing in our study of Abraham in the book of Genesis. Last week we discussed the importance of Abraham in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. We looked at Abraham as the father of faith who believed in God’s promises and set out on a journey. After we went off the air, the class discussed this idea of journey a bit further. Abraham is presented as the first pilgrim, a traveler on a religious and spiritual quest. It is interesting that when he entered the land of Canaan, he did not settle down. He journeyed on to the Negev. This image of Abram the pilgrim or sojourner has profoundly influenced Jewish and Christian spirituality. Even though the story of Abraham is closely connected to the Promised Land, there is a strong sense in the biblical writings that the true follower of God is a sojourner in this world. Faith is a journey, not a final destination. It is an adventure, a movement of discovery.

Canaanites:                This story of Abram journeying to Canaan has other implications in history. Verse 6 simply says that there were Canaanites in the land at that time. One thing this tells us is that this story was written long after the Canaanites were no longer in the land. In other words, this is part of the evidence for the theory that Genesis was not written by Moses. It comes from a much later period.

            This statement also tells us that the world was well-settled by the time of Abraham, which is not the impression we get from the earlier stories in Genesis. He was not moving into empty land, others had gone before. When we read this statement about the Canaanites we should keep the promise God made to Abram in our minds. Abram was not only going to receive a land for his descendents; he would be a blessing to all the peoples of the earth. That blessing will begin with the Canaanites. Abraham, as we shall see, was a good neighbor. He did not gain the Promised Land through conquest and exploitation. He was a sojourner who tried to live in peace with his neighbors.

            This story of the giving of the land to Abraham has been used in many destructive ways through the centuries, though. It was used by many of the European settlers of the New World to justify taking the land from the native peoples. The Indians were seen as the Canaanites who were unworthy to hold their land. Not everyone agreed with the Puritans, of course. Thomas Penn and others tried to live with the native peoples, but we know how that story turned out. Of course, today this idea of the Promised Land continues to affect world politics. The Canaanites are long gone, but there are others who share the land of Promise.

Egypt:             Life in the Promised Land was not easy for Abram and his family. Rather than flowing with milk and honey, there was a famine in the land. Abram did the sensible thing and went to Egypt where there was food. This begins an important motif in the Old Testament. In times of trouble, the Israelites went to Egypt. This did not always go well, as we know. The formative story of Israel is the story of how they were oppressed in Egypt until God brought them out with signs and wonders. Israel’s history is wrapped up in the history of the mighty empire on the Nile River, but there is little or no mention of Israel in the records of the Egyptians. They were a superpower; Israel was a small nation constantly in danger of invasion or famine.

            We need to keep this in mind when reading the Bible. By the time of Abraham and Sarah, the Egyptians had built the pyramids and probably had built the Temple of Karnak. These remain legacies of ancient Egypt, but Israel was a small nation whose palaces and temples were destroyed by more powerful empires centuries ago. What was not destroyed was the faith of Israel; the faith of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The legacy of ancient Israel is the Bible itself, and this is one of the ways in which Abraham became a blessing to all nations.

            The original hearers of the story of Abraham knew all about the power and prosperity of Egypt, just as almost everyone in the world knows about the wealth of America. They would not have been surprised to hear that when there was a famine in the land of Canaan, Abram journeyed to Egypt seeking food, just as we are not surprised that hungry people look to America for help. Egypt did not have a statue urging “give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free,” but the Pharaohs were wise enough to use food as a way to bind weaker countries to Egypt.

Wife-Sister:                So, it is not surprising that Abram left the Promised Land to seek food in Egypt. What is surprising and, frankly, disturbing is what he did there. He looked at his sixty-five year old wife Sarai, and said, “Wow. She is so beautiful that one of these lusty Egyptians is going to kill me so he can steal my woman.” It sounds like the plot of a really bad television show, doesn’t it? Sixty-five years old and still hot enough to kill over. Reading the story, we can’t help but wonder why Abram is so afraid and so selfish. The plot gets even worse because Abram’s solution to this problem he has invented in his own anxiety is to pretend that Sarai is his sister rather than his wife. That’s right, Sarai agrees to tell people that she is a sister not a wife, and that way no one will be tempted to kill Abram in order to steal his wife.

            It is a very strange story, isn’t it? For over two thousand years Jewish and Christian commentators have struggled over this story in Genesis 12. How could the patriarch of the Jews and father of faith do such a thing? Many readers have gone to great lengths to show that Abram was not telling Sarai to lie. There is a second version of this story, in Genesis 20, which asserts that Sarai was Abram’s half-sister. It seems evident that the second story is an attempt to smooth away some of the difficulties of the first story. This duplication of stories is one bit of evidence for the theory that Genesis is made up of independent sources. We’ll encounter this story two more times in Genesis. It must have been an important idea at one time.

            So according to Genesis 20, Sarai was Abram’s half-sister. Maybe Abram didn’t exactly lie then, but clearly he meant to deceive the Egyptians. We have to acknowledge that this was deceptive, if nothing else. And for modern people, the idea that Abram was married to his half-sister isn’t any better than the idea that he lied. Though some ancient cultures practiced the sister-marriage, including ancient Egypt, such incest is frowned upon today.

            There is no way around the fact that this is a strange little story. At least one biblical scholar has argued that archaeology helps make sense of this story. Some of the cultures of the ancient Near East, especially the Hurrians around the time of Abraham, had a way for a man to adopt his wife as his sister. He could strengthen their legal ties by adopting her. So, it is possible that Abram had made Sarai his sister after marrying her. In that case, Abram neither committed incest, nor lied to Pharaoh. This has been used as evidence that Genesis preserves ancient cultural practices. But even it is true that this reflects Hurrian practices, it does not explain the deception. According to the text, the story that she was his sister was just a way to hide the truth.

Sarai’s Silence:          It is interesting that Sarai is silent throughout this story. We don’t know if she was suffering in silence the way many wives have been forced to through the years. We don’t know if she was silenced by the storyteller who didn’t think a woman’s feelings were important. It could be that Sarai was a willing accomplice in this deception. The truth is we simply do not know why Sarai is silent in the story.

A Joke on Egypt?      What we do know from the story is that Sarai was indeed very beautiful. She was so beautiful that Pharaoh’s entourage, who apparently were always on the prowl for pretty girls for the king, told him that he’s got to have this old woman in his harem. I have no doubt that this story was told with a bit of national pride. Hey, Israelite women are so beautiful that even when they are 65 and barren, Pharaoh lusts after them. He even paid a high price for beautiful Sarai and she couldn’t even have children. According to the story, Pharaoh paid Abram in livestock and slaves. In an ancient rural culture, this is a clever trade.

            There is probably a bit of national pride in this aspect of the story, too. Abram came to Egypt because he was hungry, but he outsmarted the mighty Pharaoh and grew wealthy. We have to remember that in a Middle Eastern culture, this story displays Abram’s cunning, and his wealth was a sign of God’s blessing. Though it is a problematic story for us, originally it was probably told to show just how shrewd Abram was. But if that was all there was to the story, though, it would not have survived for three centuries. There is a deeper tale about faith here.

The LORD acts:          Pharaoh makes Sarai one of his many wives, but the LORD intervenes in their affair. Sarai may have been silent, but the LORD was not. He sent plagues upon Egypt. Clearly this is a foreshadowing of the more famous plagues in the time of Moses, but the meaning of the plagues is a bit different here. The LORD inflicts suffering on the Egyptians because Pharaoh was committing adultery. The LORD did what Abram should have done as a husband. He defended Sarai and her honor.

            Somehow Pharaoh knew that the plagues were because of Sarai. We aren’t told why, but presumably the LORD spoke to Pharaoh. Or the priests of Egypt may have figured out that it was Abram’s God who was causing the difficulties. It could be that Sarai herself informed the king that she was under divine protection. In any case, once Pharaoh understood what was happening, he reprimanded Abram. Rather than punish him, though, he simply returned his wife. Some have wondered if Pharaoh thought that was punishment enough, but I’m not going to explore that idea. Pharaoh returned Sarai, and then he forced Abram to leave Egypt. He let him keep all of the gifts since there was no point in upsetting the LORD any further. Just as the Israelites hundreds of years later would despoil Egypt when they fled from Pharaoh, Abram returns to Canaan with livestock and slaves. He is wealthy and influential when he returns to the Promised Land.

A Morality Tale:        On one level, this is one of those family stories that we tell with a sense of embarrassment. You probably have those stories in your family. Grandfather so and so cheated his brother out of a horse, which he then used to win a race. Or Aunt so and so was engaged to another man, but she ran off with someone richer one night. Such stories are not particularly edifying, but we still tell because they display some of the courage and cunning of our ancestors. In many ways, this story of Abram, Sarai, and the Pharaoh is such a story. There is a hint of pride in the way it is written, but there is some embarrassment as well. It reminds us that we are more prudish than the Bible. I think it is interesting that people think the Bible is a sanctimonious book of morality tales, but it is filled with such stories of complex morality.

            Certainly this story of the wife-sister has caused problems for interpreters for centuries. The rabbis tried to preserve both the honesty of Abram and the dignity of Sarai in their treatments of the story. Not only did they stress the idea that Sarai really was Abram’s sister, they claimed that the plague that struck Egypt was impotence. Pharaoh knew that Sarai was another man’s wife because he was unable to consummate the marriage. That’s just rabbinical speculation though. It shows how much harder we want to protect the virtue of the patriarchs and matriarchs the biblical writers did. Later Christian writers went to similar lengths to protect the reputation of Abram here.

A Flawed Patriarch:               There have been others who have argued that this story is an example of Abram’s failings. Though he was chosen by God, he was flawed, just as King David was. Rather than trusting in God’s protection and the promises God has made, Abram lied and hid. Not only was Abram dishonest, he almost gave up the covenant when he gave up his wife. If the promise was that he would have heirs and descendents, why let Sarai go in exchange for some camels and sheep? He failed in his first crucial test and would have to face a much more difficult test late in life. It was a particularly bad failure because innocent people suffered. It is not fair, but it is still true that the innocent suffer when leaders are dishonest. The stories in Genesis are as current as stories in our daily paper.

            It is interesting that Abram offered no defense to Pharaoh’s reproach. He is silent. I think it is because there is no defense. He deceived Pharaoh and sold his wife. Even by the standards of the day, that is pretty bad. It is no wonder that I’ve never heard a sermon on this passage of Scripture. It doesn’t preach very well does it? Certainly we don’t want people using this story of Abraham as a model of faithful living. I wonder what Dr. Phil or Dr. Laura would do with a case like this one? Just think if Sarai called in for advice.

            What could Abram say? He was wrong. This story that showed how Abram outsmarted Pharaoh becomes one in which Pharaoh appears to be the moral one. Genesis, as is usually the case, does not interpret the meaning of this for us. We are left to ponder the meaning.

            I think that the key to this story is to pay attention to who the main character is. It is not really Abram, Sarai, or the Pharaoh. It is the LORD. The LORD made a covenant with Abram and he made promises to him. That covenant is binding on God. I said last week that we do not know if Abram was chosen because he was worthy or righteous or faithful. All we know is that he was chosen and he responded. God chose to bless him and make him a blessing to others. Even though Abram proved weak during the famine; even though he proved selfish; even though he showed little or no concern for his wife at a critical moment; even though he deceived someone, God did not abandon Abram. God remained true to the covenant even when Abram faltered.

            God had to intervene for the sake of Sarai, and ultimately of Abram, because God had made a covenant with him. Pharaoh recognized that Abram and Sarai were under divine protection, even though Abram did not deserve it. God’s protection does not mean that bad things never happen to Abram and Sarai, but it does mean that God remained true to the promise and the covenant even when Abram was not faithful. There are words of hope in this for us. We tend to turn religion into a game of piety and perfection. Salvation becomes a matter of our works, our righteousness, our beliefs, our words rather than God’s grace. Our story for today reminds us that even when we have failed in our most basic duties as human beings and children of God, God remains true to the promises he has made to us. Faith means trusting God even when we have faltered like Abram.

            Next week we’ll continue with our study of Abraham. To prepare, read chapter 13 of Genesis.

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