The Beginnings of Abraham: Down to Egypt

Sermon by Cory Brock on August 4, 2019

Genesis 12:10-13:4

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So last October I preached three sermons on the beginnings of the story of Abraham, and now ten months later we’re going to pick that same story back up, the story of Abraham. And we’re into the little bit of the middle of the story for the next three weeks. And you’ve probably read it. The Abraham story has everything. It’s got romance and war and sacrifice and exile and it all stands on the divine call of Genesis 12 where God called Abram out of Babylon, out of Ur of the Chaldeans, and the stories are so old yet they’re so relevant for 21st century people. And this story, Genesis 12:10-20, is what commentators call part of the “sister-wife motif series.” There are three moments in Genesis where somebody tells a magistrate that their wife is actually their sister. And Abram does it twice and Isaac does it once. And you know there’s never been something as relevant as that because we’ve all been there before where you’re standing in front of a foreign ruler and you say, you’re tempted! And this passage is saying, “Don’t do it!” Right? It’s not good! No, that’s not really why the passage is here in the Bible. There’s something bigger than that going on in this obscure motif, the “sister-wife motif” that happens three times. So let’s pray and we’ll read God’s Word and we’ll try to see what God is teaching us here. Let’s pray.


Lord, we read in this passage that there was a famine in Your land, in the land of Canaan, and tonight there is famine perhaps in some of our hearts. And so we ask that You would come down, that You would bring the rain, that You would bring forth fruit from Your holy Word. And we ask for this in Christ’s name, amen.


So Genesis 12:10-13:4. This is God’s holy Word:


“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. When he was about to enter Egypt, he said to Sarai his wife, ‘I know that you are a woman beautiful in appearance, and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me, but they will let you live. 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.’ When Abram entered Egypt, the Egyptians saw that the woman was very beautiful. And when the princes of Pharaoh saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh. And the woman was taken into Pharaoh's house. And for her sake he dealt well with Abram; and he had sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male servants, female servants, female donkeys, and camels.


But the Lord afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram's wife. 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? 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.’ And Pharaoh gave men orders concerning him, and they sent him away with his wife and all that he had.


So Abram went up from Egypt, he and his wife and all that he had, and Lot with him, into the Negeb.


Now Abram was very rich in livestock, in silver, and in gold. And he journeyed on from the Negeb as far as Bethel to the place where his tent had been at the beginning, between Bethel and Ai, to the place where he had made an altar at the first. And there Abram called upon the name of the Lord.”


So this story is about Abraham going down to Egypt at the beginning and then getting kicked out of Egypt at the end. And in the middle, God steps in, God intervenes, God imposes, God comes to fix Abram’s mess. And so we’re just going to think about two lessons tonight. The first is that God intervenes, and the second is that God intervenes for a purpose, for a reason.


God Intervenes


And so first, God intervenes. Now we’re jumping into a series we started ten months ago, so we have to do a little bit of background. The background of this story is creation; it’s the beginning. It’s that in the very beginning God made Adam and Eve, the first humans, and He put them in a place, in the Garden of Eden, and that was the home, God’s home, His dwelling place with humanity on this earth. And Adam and Eve fell deep, deep down into sin and darkness and so God established a new mission, God’s mission, in Genesis 3:15. And you remember it. It was that He was going to, out of the womb of the mother of all, Eve, the mother of all the living, that He was going to bring forth a child, a baby that would overturn the curse, that would save the world, that would bring a new family, the people of God, back into God’s place, God’s land where God would make home with His people.


So from that point in Genesis we are looking for babies and for land; for the seed of God, the promise of God, and the place that God’s going to put His people. Babies and land – two of the most important themes throughout the whole of the Old Testament. And you can think about Abel, Seth, to Noah, Noah to Shem – the line continues, genealogy after genealogy, until you get to the previous chapter of Genesis 11 where the tower of Babel is really the ultimate corruption point where the line of Shem, the line of the promise – Genesis 3:15 – gets sucked into Babel. He’s there. And it’s as if God’s people are lost. God’s land is gone, God’s people are gone, and at the beginning of chapter 12, end of chapter 11, God comes down and He calls Abram. It’s the ultimate turning point of history. God is pulling His people out of Babylon, out of paganism, and giving him a new mission to be a new people in a new place – in the land of Canaan where He’s sending Abram. And that’s what we’re looking for, is a people, the people of God, the family of God, in the place of God, the home of God throughout the whole Bible, especially the book of Genesis.


And as soon as Abram is sent on this new mission, the first thing we’re told – the last thing we looked at in October – was that Sarah is barren. And that means we’re hoping to see the promise fulfilled through the lineage of the people of God, a baby, and there’s no baby coming. The womb is closed; she’s barren. Walter Brueggemann says we have been set up here when we read this about Sarah “for a picture of no foreseeable future. Barrenness is the metaphor in the Bible for hopelessness.” And if you read the beginning of chapter 12, verses 1 to 9, there’s still hope because Abram goes in the previous passage into Canaan and he starts planting altars in the north, in the south, in the east, in the west saying, “This is now the land of God. Is this the new Garden of Eden? Is this where God is going to finally come down and rescue the world?” And there’s hope. Yes, there’s not a baby in sight, but at least there’s a home for God’s family here in sight; that He’s going to come down, that He’s going to dwell.


And there is a big gap, a big jump between verse 9 and verse 10 where our passage starts, because the first thing that we’re told in the midst of hope of a new Garden of Eden, verse 10, is what? There’s a famine. And it’s so subtle and it’s so simple but now it’s not only that the womb of God’s people is barren, but now the land of God’s people is barren. And we’ve been hoping since Genesis 3 for a new people and a new place to dwell with God forever. And it’s all barren. It seems at this point like empty promises. And so Abram goes down to Egypt because he’s got to eat. And it says in verse 10 that he went down to Egypt “as a sojourner.” And that word is really important because all it means is he’s an immigrant. He’s going to Egypt to seek out as a resident alien to dwell there as an immigrant.


And that fact makes sense, some sense of what happens next. And that’s when in verse 11 through 16, Abram starts to make his plan. And he turns to Sarah and he says, “We’re about to get to Egypt and when we get there, the Egyptians are going to come out, they’re going to see that you are beautiful, and they’re going to kill me!” Why? What’s going on here culturally? Well, the background is that you have to remember that Abram is a chief of a chiefdom. He’s a clan leader. It’s not just Abram and Sarai entering into Egypt. He has Lot with him and we already know that he has many sheep, many cattle, many servants. He’s coming in with a horde of people and the Egyptian watchmen are going to see him on the horizon with hundreds parading towards them. And what are they going to do? They’re going to send their magistrates, their rulers out to meet with him like you would see in any movie about the ancient world. Right? And they’re going to meet in a tent and they’re going to negotiate because he’s a sojourner, he’s an immigrant. He is seeking residency in a foreign land. And the truth is that he knows the currency of being an immigrant to Egypt.


And this is well documented in extra-Biblical texts from ancient Egypt that we have. We have several that I read this week and we know that it was a common practice in Egypt that it was women, the wife of a clan leader, the daughter of a clan leader that would become a trading price to seek immigration and residency in the land of Egypt. And Abram knows that and so he’s saying, “They’re going to kill me if they think I’m married to you because the princes of Pharaoh are going to see that you’re beautiful and they’re going to want to take you into Pharaoh’s household.” And if there’s a husband and he’s in the way, the Egyptian practice is you kill the husband. But if you’re the brother, if you’re the brother you become the negotiator. You become the agent of the dowry price. You become the person who’s doing the exchange and you actually get rewarded. And that’s a common practice in the ancient world but we know for sure that it was a common practice in Egypt. And that means that this really is a marketplace for exchanging a woman, a beautiful woman – God’s new Eve for the price of immigration papers.


And in verse 15 it’s not that she is being brought to be Pharaoh’s primary wife. There’s a subtle hint here in verse 15 that she’s brought into Pharaoh’s house. And that’s sort of a euphemism. What it’s saying is that she is brought into Pharaoh’s harem. And a harem is a band of wives that rulers would have in the ancient near east, like Solomon did. Like we see in the book of Esther where these women are being prepared for long seasons to maybe go in and see Pharaoh one time, maybe twice. And if he really likes them, maybe he’ll keep them in his court. And that’s what this is. Well there’s a lot going on here. The first instinct you might have as you hear the background in what’s really happening culturally is to talk about the ethics of this and to say, “Whoa, this is very immoral! There is a lot of trouble happening here!” But there are a lot of commentators that read this passage and say that Abraham was between a rock and a hard place; that he had to choose what some say is the lesser of two evils here because he was the man of God, he’s the called prophet of God, and he was saving the prophet of God in this moment. And even John Calvin is somewhat sympathetic to Abram in this scenario. This is what he says. “As soon as Abram reached the land in which he has been bidden to dwell, he is driven from it by famine. And so seeking aid, he flees to a place where he feels forced to prostitute his wife to save his life. This must have been an act more bitter than many deaths.” And so Calvin is somewhat full of sympathy for Abram.


But I think as a reader today, knowing a little bit more about the background of this passage than Calvin did, we come up against it here and say, “Whoa, the man of God! Genesis 12, Abram, carrying the lineage of the Genesis 3:15 promise and here he is, after planning the altar of God all across Canaan, doing this!” And a lot of times when people come to this passage they just go through, rifle off all the ways Abram has sinned here in order that we can learn from it. And Thomas Aquinas says, for instance, that “Abram was motivated by fear, not the mission of God.” And that’s true, right? We can also say there is an Adam and Eve motif coming up here again where Abram, the new Adam, the hope of humanity fails to protect his wife just like Adam failed to protect Eve from the serpent. Of course Abram tells a half-true lie in this passage. And it’s a half-true because Sarai really is Abram’s sister. She’s his half-sister. They have the same father we learn later in the Book of Genesis. And you know, half-truth lies are the slipperiest and the most subtle, but sometimes the most venomous.


And perhaps the worst of all is that this is quite frankly sex slavery. I mean this is turning your wife into a marketplace of sex slavery. A woman’s life for immigration papers. And Abram is special. He is special. We’re doing the story of Abraham, right? But he’s not special. He – this is a side note – his faith is commendable but he’s a big time sinner. And Charles Hodge, when he was working on this passage said this – “The best saints – Abraham, Joseph, Moses, David, Paul, John – were defiled by deep patterns of sin in their Christian lives.” And you know, your pastors are sinners and every saint is a sinner inflicted with patterns of sin in their life.


And that’s very obvious here, but why is this passage here? Why is it in the Bible? And I don’t think it’s primarily to talk about the ethics of it. And that’s because of the ending in verse 16 and following, down into chapter 13:1-4. What happens? And that’s that Abram is blessed! Abram walks out of this with more than he ever started with. He goes up out of Egypt with hundreds more servants, cattle, sheep – a huge blessing. He’s super wealthy, and Pharaoh gets cursed, he gets plagued. And John Currid says this – “Even though Abram is clearly at fault and Pharaoh is duped, he’s tricked, God still intervenes for His people.” And that means that this passage is not primarily in the Bible for us to talk about the ethics of it all, although we obviously could and we will when we get to the Abimelech story later on where this happens again. But it’s about God. It’s about what God does here. It’s about that God steps in to the mess and He even blesses Abram, this deep, deep sinner who sold his wife into sex slavery. And He blesses him and He raises him up out of Egypt and He sends him back to the Promised Land.


And what’s really going on here, I think, is that Genesis 3:15 has to be in the back of your mind. We’re looking for the seed of promise. We’re looking for the one child that’s coming in the future and right now, if Sarah was to have a baby, whose baby was it going to be? It was going to be Pharaoh’s baby, not the prophet, not the man who’s been called by God. But God steps in and God protects the seed that’s been promised and God rips Abram up out of Egypt and even blesses him when he does that. And that means that when Abram messes up, God steps in. And what that means is that God’s plan, God’s plan will not be stopped, even by the sin of His own prophet. It won’t be stopped.


And what that does is it sends us into a dizzying tailspin, deep, deep down in to the fact that the Bible teaches over and over and over again that God intervenes more than that. Not just that God steps in, but that God actually controls, plans, predetermines, determines all things that take place. Everything. Every single aspect of reality. Bebo prayed about it just a minute ago. Human sin cannot negate the plan of God, not even the sin of His own people, not even the prophet Abraham. God works through it all to fulfill His ultimate plan, His ultimate purpose. And you know, this is a difficult topic because of the dilemma. Right? The dilemma is this – as soon as we come to this, we know that throughout the Bible – and we could count story after story where this is true – the Bible clearly teaches that even in the smallest things of life, God determines it all and He brings it about.


And at the very same time, I, and I’ll bet you, feel like you have choices and that your choices in life really matter and that you have to choose your next step and what you’re going to do. Proverbs 16 is where you have to come. Proverbs 16:9 – it lays it out in one little sentence, exactly what the Bible teaches on this – that “man plans his course,” he is the one who carries his path forward, “but the Lord determines,” or guides “his steps.” What that passage is saying is something that no other philosophy, no other religion has ever said. And that’s this – Keller puts it like this when he teaches on Proverbs 16:9. It’s not saying that it’s 50/50, that God does 50 and we do 50; that it’s 60/40, that it’s 70/30. It’s saying that God has absolutely determined all things that shall come to pass and you are actually free. No other philosophy says it like that. How can we say that even?


And what we can say is this. When you start talking about God’s plan, God’s counsel, God’s decree, God’s predestination, God’s foreknowledge, God’s providence, God’s will, God’s desire, God’s upholding of all things, you’ve come up against it. You’ve hit a wall. You’ve entered into the holy place and it’s a reality that the Bible teaches over and over again that human logic cannot dwell because we’ve reached our limitation. We have to come underneath the Word of God here and believe what it says. Let me say this, Herman Bavinck is really helpful here. He says no one has ever had an adequate account of this. And then he quotes Augustine – “The will of the Creator,” said Augustine, “is the nature.” The will of God, the desires of God, is the nature of everything created. Philosophy, however, has never been satisfied with this position and never stopped looking for another and deeper explanations of things. But the logic breaks down. It won’t go there. All accounts of God’s divine determination and human freedom, they bump up against the wall when we’re talking about the counsel of God, the decree of God, the mind of God.


But let me just say this. This exists between alternatives, and one of those alternatives is classically known as fatalism; fatalism. You know fatalism. When I was an intern here I went up to Starkville to see my sister perform in a play by Sophocles, the Greek playwright and the play was “Antigone.” And Antigone is the daughter of Oedipus Rex, Oedipus the king. And Sophocles’ prequel play to “Antigone” is “Oedipus.” And at the beginning of “Oedipus,” Oedipus is told by the prophet, “You’re going to kill your father and marry your mother.” And the whole play is about Oedipus trying to get out from under the yoke. “No, I can’t kill my father!” Every choice he makes is about not doing it. And what happens in the end? He kills his father, he marries his mother, and then the play, “Antigone,” his daughter, comes forth. What it’s saying, it’s classic fatalism – right? That everything is determined and your choices don’t matter at all, that you’re not responsible, that nothing you do is your own actions, that everything, no matter what you choose, is already determined


But then there’s the opposite alternative, which is modern accounts of freedom. What the philosophers call “the new freedom.” And one person defines is like this. “The new freedom is the abandonment of all constraint where the only limit is that you cannot do harm to others.” In the new freedom, it’s the total opposite of fatalism, there’s no determination that stands behind you. You can do whatever you want as long as you don’t harm somebody else. You break free of the yoke of all constraint, of all authority in your life. And the best way to illustrate it is with John Lennon’s song, “Imagine.” “Imagine” is the ultimate ballad of the modern account of freedom because he says in it, “Imagine that there’s no heaven, that there’s no hell.” He goes on to say, “Imagine that there’s no God above, there’s nothing below. Imagine people are only living for today. Imagine that there are no countries, no government, nothing to kill or die for; no religion even. Imagine.” In other words, he’s saying imagine there are no authorities. No government. No state. Nothing. No parents! And then and only then would you be truly free, not determined by anything. Not even needing to take advice. It’s absolute self-determination.


And the Bible says no. No to impersonal fatalism that your choices don’t matter. And no to this modern account of self-determination that shirks against all authority and tries to throw off the yoke of all constraints. It says no, Abram’s plan was his plan. His evil was his evil. He prostituted his wife here. And it’s not just that God stepped in, it is that this was God’s very plan at the very same time. Proverbs 16. Your deeds are your deeds and God determines all things. And the very same, Genesis 50:20 – “You meant it for evil, but God at the very same time meant it for good.” And that means that God determines all things and He never sins. So let me just take stock. This was the long point and we’re going to have a short point to end it.


Two things is this – God’s plan, God’s plan is never thwarted by human sin. It cannot be thwarted by human sin. The three “d’s” of the curse – death, disease, disaster – will not stop it. They can’t stop Him. He can’t be stopped. His plan will come to pass. That’s what the Bible teaches over and over again. And it also teaches here that God never sins. He’s actually so subversive. He makes sin, human sin, even into His own servant. He flips it on its head. He uses it to bring about something big, something huge – His purposes. And so Donald MacLeod, the Scottish theologian says this, “God is neither evil nor is He absent. He is neither evil nor is He ever absent.”


God Intervenes for a Purpose


Alright, secondly and finally and briefly, it’s not just that God steps in, it’s not just that God intervenes, it’s not just that God has a plan, but this passage also actually teaches that God’s plan has a purpose, a purpose. And what’s the purpose? It’s something that Abram couldn’t see here in this passage, but in the New Testament the purpose of God becomes absolutely clear and it’s in Colossians 1. And it’s this – that all things, all things were created from and through Jesus Christ and for Jesus Christ. Now that means that ultimately the answer to the meaning of all events in all of history is that everything that will ever take place is for the purpose of the glory of Jesus Christ. And that means that the Bible offers us a philosophy of history. We can view history in the light of the fact that everything is about serving the ultimate glory, the ushering in of the ultimate salvation of Jesus Christ. Do you have a Biblical view of all of history? Do you have a Biblical view of your own story in the light of the ultimate purpose of God?


And we know that Abram couldn’t have seen the big picture of his life in this passage. He couldn’t have, just like we sometimes can’t see the big picture, the big purpose of our lives, we know what this is like. Sometimes in the moment – have you ever had this happen to you – where you fall on your face, you have some deep loss in your life, you have a failure, and in the moment you can’t see how this could possibly be meaningful or how you could possibly say that God is the author of history right now in this terrible moment. And then five years later, ten years later, fifteen years later, twenty, twenty-five years later, you look back and you start to say thing to people like, “Man, this was the worst time in my life but now I look back on it and God was doing something. God was doing something huge for me and I couldn’t see it at the time.” How many of us who have faith in Christ has that happened to, that God is really weaving together a tapestry of history, painting a masterpiece out of it all, and we can’t see it right at the moment. But right now, if you’re saying that in your life, that what’s happening to me isn’t meaningful, I can’t see any purpose to it, know that’s what you said twenty years ago about that time, you know, that you fell on your face and now look what God’s done with all of that.


And the same thing was happening here in Abram’s life and he could not see it. He could not see the big picture, but the big picture is built right into our text. And here it is. Think about it. Abram, Sarah, the people of God – they’re driven by famine from the Promised Land into Egypt. And this is not the last time that’s going to happen. His grandson, Jacob, Israel, he too will be driven by famine from the Promised Land into the land of Egypt. When he gets there, Abram is blessed with a place to live and sheep and cattle and wealth. And this is not the last time that the people of God who go down to Egypt because of a famine will get there and will be blessed by Pharaoh with immense wealth – the land of Goshen, Genesis 49 and 50. And he’s driven down to Egypt by famine and he’s blessed in the land of Egypt. This is not the last time that the people of God will become slaves to Pharaoh. Sarai, in the midst of all this, becomes the slave, the slave of Pharaoh. And did you know that in 12:13 of our passage, when Abram says to his wife, “When we get there, they’re going to kill me but they’re going to let you live,” is the exact same Hebrew phrase that pops up again in Exodus 1:22 when Pharaoh says, “Kill all the males, the boys, but let the girls live.” Exact same phrase in our Hebrew text. This is not the last time that the people of God are going to get kicked out of Egypt by God. How? Because God steps in and casts a plague down upon Pharaoh’s house right into the midst of Pharaoh’s own household.


You see, what’s going on here, this is the shadow. This is the first story of the Exodus and it wouldn’t be the last, because God is the author of history, and history in God’s big picture is sacred time and it spirals. And the exodus keeps happening over and over again and what we eventually learn – the exodus is the very meaning of salvation. Coming up out of Egypt – that’s what every Christian has to do to be saved. Coming up out of Egypt is the meaning of all redemption. It’s woven into the fabric of all reality and it’s right here for the very first time and it would happen many, many, many times after that. Look, this is not just a shadow of the exodus story in the Book of Exodus, but in Matthew 2, Jesus is taken down to Egypt by His mother, the new Sarai, Mary, and when they’re kicked out, they’re brought back up again to the Promised Land. And what does God say? He says, “Out of Egypt I have called My Son.” When? Not only in the first century, but all the way back, right here, the promise of Genesis 3:15 flowing through the fact of the womb of Sarah in the land of Egypt that one day her great, great, great grandson coming down the line would be this boy who would come up out of the land of Egypt.


But it’s not even that – and this is the last one. At the transfiguration, Jesus is standing there on the mountain talking to Peter and John and He turns and He tells them that He must undergo His own exodus. Jesus uses the word. And what is He talking about? He’s talking about the fact that when He goes to be murdered, to be crucified, to come under the hands of humanity and be killed, that He calls that His exodus, His going down to Egypt. He went down to Egypt. He put on the yoke of slavery just like Israel, just like Sarai had done right here. This story is the shadow of the real paradigm of the exodus, and that’s the cross, the cross of Jesus Christ. God always has a plan. He’s been writing this narrative from eternity and we see it woven throughout the pages of scripture. It’s the exodus pattern.


And we’ll close with this statement. The cross is the most evil, heinous act of all of human history. We, at our hands, murdered the Son of God Himself, and God saved the world with it. It was His plan. And that means that sin cannot stop it. It can’t stop His plan. And so tonight, on the one hand know this – your deeds are your deeds. Your evil is your evil. Your sin is your sin. Your good is your good. That’s the fact that the Bible teaches. And so tonight, come and join the narrative of history – repent, believe, step into the story that we see, the exodus story being woven throughout all of history ushering in the coming of the glory of the Son of God – the ultimate purpose of all of existence. Step into it. It’s your responsibility tonight. You’re being called. That’s real. And at the very same time, rest and relax because the finality of Christ’s glory is unshakable. It can’t be stopped. It can’t be thwarted, not even by your sin. And so love the Son. Let’s pray.


Father, we give thanks for the fact that You have woven all of time and reality together into one grand narrative. Help us to repent, believe, love again afresh tonight and we ask this in Christ’s name, amen.

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