Although God had sent a famine into the Promised Land in order that Abram might learn God’s grace through trials, Abram took matters into his own hands and simply moved down to Egypt.
Now, we don’t read explicitly that Abram had sinned by leaving Egypt, but we do know that God had commanded Abram to go to a specific place–the place he would show him. So, by leaving that place, Abram was violating the commandment that God had given.
But also, from the rest of the story in the last half of Genesis 12, we see Abram in a downward spiral of manipulative, self-centered disobedience. The whole story paints a picture of Abram’s having completely turned from God in order to take care of himself:
11When he was about to enter Egypt, he said to Sarai his wife, “I know that you are a woman beautiful in appearance, 12and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me, but they will let you live. 13Say you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared for your sake.” 14When Abram entered Egypt, the Egyptians saw that the woman was very beautiful. 15And when the princes of Pharaoh saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh. And the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house. 16And for her sake he dealt well with Abram; and he had sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male servants, female servants, female donkeys, and camels.
17But the LORD afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife. (Genesis 12:11-17)
It would be one thing for Abram simply to lie, but it is another thing entirely for Abram to involve his own wife in the deception. In fact, there are three major problems with the lie that Abram has Sarai tell.
First, Abram incites Sarai to sin. Remember, while Abram offended the Egyptian Pharaoh, his sin offended a much more important monarch: the Most High God. Jesus, warning us not to incite anyone else to sin, said:
“1And he said to his disciples, “Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! 2It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin.” (Luke 17:1-2)
Second, Abram put his wife in a terrible kind of danger. To preserve his own life, he actually offered up his wife to another man, and said nothing when Pharaoh took her into his house as a wife. Think of this: Abram was willing to let his wife sleep with another man to avoid this perceived danger.
This puts him on the level of Lot, who offered up his own virgin daughters to the men of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19:8), and on the level of the Levite who offers up his own concubine to be raped to death at the end of the book of Judges (Judges 19:22-26), when “every man did what was right in his own eyes.”
For Abraham, the father of the nation of Israel, to do to such a thing is shocking.
But third, Abram actually jeopardized God’s covenant promise to him. God had promised that he would make Abram into a great nation, and that through him all the families of the earth would be blessed. But this promise falls apart if Sarai becomes pregnant while being the wife of another man. In the days before paternity tests, such an event would bring serious doubt as to the legitimacy of Sarai’s child, as well as to the promise of God.
By all counts, Abram’s disobedience was a cataclysmic failure before his God.
God’s Grace Through Unmerited Favor
And yet, we read that YHWH not only protected Abram and Sarai, but that YHWH actually enriched them. Pharaoh dealt well with Abram for Sarai’s sake, giving him sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male servants, female servants, female donkeys, and camels. Through Pharaoh, God actually fulfilled part of his promise to make him a great (in this case, wealthy) nation.
Moreover, in v. 17, we find that God afflicted plagues on Pharaoh until Pharaoh let Sarai return to Abram. Pharaoh had been completely innocent in this story, while Abram had been completely in the wrong; however, YHWH nevertheless blesses Abram and curses Pharaoh!
Whatever is happening here, it doesn’t seem like justice.
But that’s because we are looking at grace, not justice. Even when he does something abominably sinful, Abram nevertheless experiences God’s grace–that is, the wholly unmerited favor of God. God had chosen Abram by grace and made promises to Abram by grace. Recall that Abram was an idolater when God called him out of Haran. Everything God did for Abram was by grace–Abram deserved none of it.
And so, even when Abram himself brings the fulfilment of those promises into jeopardy, YHWH is faithful and gracious to preserve Abram, Sarai, and the covenant line through which God was going to bless the entire world.
In the final analysis, this story is not so much about Abram and Abram’s sin as it is about God and God’s grace. We might scratch our heads at the fact that God would be so kind to someone who had blundered so magnificently, but that is simply how God’s grace works–even in our own lives.
A (Gospel) Story that Resists Moralizing
Now, this is a difficult story to preach because of the way it resists a preacher’s natural tendency toward moralizing: that is, the desire to say “Abram did this; therefore, go and do likewise.” A preacher simply cannot moralize a story like this because Abram did nothing that we ought to mimic here!
But a story like this helps us get at the pure, shocking, scandalous grace of the gospel of Jesus Christ itself. It’s pretty easy for us to throw rocks at Abram from the comfort of reading his story several thousand years later, but if we do throw rocks, we are going to cause a lot of damage to our own glass houses.
A story like this helps us remember how little we deserve God’s grace–in fact, it helps us remember that we don’t deserve God’s grace at all.Christ died for the ungodly, not for people to whom he owed his life. What God did for us in his Son Jesus Christ, he did out of wholly unmerited favor toward us. By grace we have been saved!
Therefore, a story like this points us to the gospel. It reminds us that God chose to show us grace rather than justice when he punished another innocent man because of the sins of his own people. Instead of sending plagues against Pharaoh–or against you and me–God sent plagues against his own Son at the cross.
A story like this, then, points us to repent of our own sins–especially the ones where we put others in the way of harm–and to cling thankfully to the extraordinary offer of grace that God has announced through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We can do nothing to earn it, and we can do nothing to repay God for what he has done.
We ought simply to repent from our sins and believe the gospel of God’s grace.