Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Genesis 12-13: Outwitting the tyrant?

Continuing to walk through Genesis.

The book of Genesis introduces us to a vast story. The greatest story of all. A story painted on a cosmic canvas about God and Man walking together. And yet that story is largely composed of small and local moments. Personal exchanges and person folly. Many are happy with God on a cosmic scale, it’s God’s interference on the small scale that is objectionable.

Genesis 12v10ff is a classic example. Famine strikes. Abram and his family go to Egypt to seek refuge, he lies, his wife is taken from him and then God rescues him. What’s going on? Geography and genealogy unlock many of the events of Genesis. Here we find a man leaving the land he has been promised but not yet inherited (Canaan) and fleeing to another land (Egypt). We know that Egypt is like Canaan a Hamite nation (Genesis 10) so that’s not going to be a good place for a Shemite to be. Hamitic people like Nimrod built Babel and the Egyptians can be expected to be like their Canaanite cousins. Moreover the original audience of Genesis know Egypt to be their former captors, and this story certainly carries resonance with their own more immediate story.

Abram concludes that in any scenario the attempt to survive famine is going to result in the taking of his Princess Bride from him. In one scenario he’ll say she’s his wife and he’ll die, in the other he’ll say she’s his sister and he’ll survive (she is his half-sister). Pharaoh takes Sarai from him, where he should have negotiated with the ‘brother’, he takes without permission. The bride is onto a lose-lose situation if she finds herself in Egypt. The wilderness wanders will not be well served if they retrace their steps and return to Egypt. The LORD has already delivered them, plaguing Pharaoh again, going back is sheer folly. In this he dishonours Abram and is duly cursed (12v1-3) for his actions, afflicted with plagues as one of his progeny will be 400 years later. Sheikh Abram leaves with much plunder and arrives back in Canaan with riches and a greater household.

But, we have a problem: Abram lied. Some suggest strongly that this is a man acting out of fear rather than faith. I see where that view is coming from but he’s not rebuked by God and no commentary is given against him. He deceived the Pharaoh. This isn’t the first deception in the book. The first deception was by the serpent. Now the one from whom the seed of the woman will come deceives a godless tyrant. The tables are turned and Abram finds himself delivered, through judgement, by the LORD. He outwits the latest serpent-seed. Rather than faithlessness, could this in fact be wisdom?

The tyrant will strike the Man in his time of need but wisdom overcomes. His bride will slip into the hands of the tyrant but is safe under the saving hand of the LORD who delivers the Man and his bride from Egypt. The ruler of the air lurks around us – the Man and his bride outwit him and know the LORD’s victory and deliverance, so much that he’ll want to be rid of us.


  1. Very, very thought-provoking. I hadn't thought of it like that before.

    Tempting in some ways to see that as a true interpretation. However, Abram doesn't really succeed in outwitting Pharaoh. Also the immediate context is that Abram is to be a cause of blessing to the nations. Yes Pharaoh is guilty and not a victim, but Abram does nothing to bring blessing... he only brings curses. He is part of the problem as much as Pharaoh.

    Also how does this parallel Genesis 20 and 26? It is interesting that both cases involve later Israel's number 1 enemies, but Abimelech is painted as the a man of 'integrity' even if he is not innocent or wholly good.

    I don't know. I've not wholly ruled it out, but is difficult.

  2. Those who first read this would have known the Ten Commandments, including the one about not bearing false witness. While I agree that we mustn't moralise from the OT in that we evaluate the actions of the characters by our own arbitary standards, nevertheless, we can, and are possibly meant to evaluate their behaviour in light of what else has been revealed. In this case, he does have the promises of God newly delivered to him and what does he do? He doesn't believe it - he thinks that Pharaoh will kill him - and so he lies.

    I don't think I had noticed whole bride motif, though. Thanks!

  3. OT narrative rarely states explicit condemnation from God or editor - it's just made clear by what happens that lies lead to bad situations, even if your covenant God graciously rescues you for your sin.

  4. Though, Rosemary, it's Pharoah who is cursed and Abram blessed... so it doesn't look like it was bad for Abe.

  5. Yes, it's interesting - but this all comes immediately after the call in vv.1-3. Through Abram, all the nations of earth are to be blessed - so in a way, him bringing a curse on the pharaoh surely is a Bad Thing for Abram. Certainly it's showing that Abram is not going to be naturally good at what God's blessed him with in vv.1-3 - it's not for anything in himself that God has called him! We have Abram taking self-preservation into his own hands, that is, to accomplish God's promise himself - not in faith, but lies - bringing curse upon nations rather than blessing; and then later we have Abram taking self-generation upon himself, that is, to accomplish God's promise himself - not in faith, but works - bringing about Ishmael who will be a curse to Israel. That narrative is hardly affirming of Abram's lies in Egypt.

  6. (Or I should say, deceit, rather than lies.)

  7. Surely the assumption that because someone is blessed by God, they are better than a person who is cursed by him, should be the first thing to be overturned by Genesis, and the Abraham narrative in particular.

  8. ...Pharaoh being cursed should follow from him cursing Abram...

    ...though how all this gets reversed in a world of grace makes it more interesting.