According to the Bible, a famine sent Abram to Egypt. The Jewish historian, Josephus, adds another reason.
“[W]hen a famine had invaded the land of Canaan, and Abram had discovered that the Egyptians were in a flourishing condition, he was disposed to go down to them, both to partake of the plenty they enjoyed, and to become an auditor of their priests, and to know what they said concerning the gods; designing either to follow them if they had better notions than he, or to convert them into a better way, if his own notions proved the truest.”1
Mark 4:16-17 NLT (16) The seed on the rocky soil represents those who hear the message and immediately receive it with joy. (17) But since they don’t have deep roots, they don’t last long. They fall away as soon as they have problems or are persecuted for believing God’s word.
Abram’s actions tell us he was not fully persuaded. He left Canaan and the altar he built to call upon God. He also feared someone would kill him, or God would let him starve. If he was persuaded God will keep his word, neither one of them could die before Sarai gave birth.
Jesus compared faith to a mustard seed. Seeds grow. If the people in Jesus’ parable had roots, they would have survived problems and persecution. The problem of surviving a famine, and prospects of death left Abram open to dropping Shem’s God who promised to do the impossible.
Even though Abram had accepted God’s salvation, he still wrestled with doubts. He entered Egypt straddling the fence between the familiar polytheistic religion of his youth, and the gospel of one God, creator of all things, that his grandfathers and God preached to him.
Genesis 12:14-17 NAS95 (14) It came about when Abram came into Egypt, the Egyptians saw that the woman was very beautiful. (15) Pharaoh’s officials saw her and praised her to Pharaoh; and the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house. (16) Therefore he treated Abram well for her sake; and gave him sheep and oxen and donkeys and male and female servants and female donkeys and camels. (17) But the LORD struck Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife.
As Abram feared, Sarai’s beauty became the talk of Egypt. The Egyptians in the royal courts commended the beautiful “sister” of the stranger from Canaan, and Pharaoh added her to his harem. The Amplified Bible says he took her into his harem for the purpose of marriage. His interest in Sarai made Abram a rich man. Pharaoh gave her “brother” gifts of sheep, oxen, donkeys, camels, as well as male and female servants.
Before Pharaoh made Sarai a permanent member of his family by consummating their marriage, God intervened. He distracted Pharaoh with a plague and, according to Josephus, a sedition arose against his government.
Abram is the one who lied and made his wife complicit in his lie to Pharaoh. Abram is the one shopping around to see if someone has a better God than he does. What did God do to his disobedient child? Nothing. God plagued the man Abram lied to, but he did not do it for Abram’s sake. He plagued Pharaoh because Sarai is essential to his plan and just as important as Abram.
Paul sheds light on God’s response in his letter to the Galatians. To explain the Gospel Pau used Hagar and her son Ishmael to represent the covenant of law, and Sarah and her son Isaac to represent Abraham’s covenant of grace (Galatians 4:24-27).
Hagar is symbolic of Jerusalem and its people doing their best to worship God by obeying the law of Moses. Even today the Temple Institute in Jerusalem is working toward rebuilding the temple and reinstituting the ritual laws of Moses with its animal sacrifices. A law that no one can live by and be blessed.
Sarah is symbolic of the New Jerusalem that will descend from heaven to earth. It’s people live by grace and keep Jesus’ command to love one another. The New Jerusalem is barren just like Sarai’s womb. One day, God will fill the city with his children.
Jeremiah 3:14 Return, O faithless children [of the twelve tribes], says the Lord, For I am a master and husband to you, And I will take you [not as a nation, but individually] – one from a city and two from a [tribal] family – and I will bring you to Zion.
God addressed both the northern and southern kingdom of Israel to return to him. But this time he will take them back not as a nation [their nation founded on a covenant of law] but individually and bring them to live with him in the New Jerusalem he is building on the foundations and justice and equality he is laying.
Paul’s allegory puts in context God’s reaction when his wayward children went to Egypt and tried to protect themselves from death with deceit, which resulted in God’s New Jerusalem/Sarai being added to the harem of a foreign king.
God is a jealous God. He loves the New Jerusalem and wants to make her children rich. Yet here is Pharoah about to marry God’s fiancée making Abram rich. Abram’s fear of death opened the door for Pharaoh to take the place of God in both his and Sarai’s life, and that made God jealous. But God’s jealously is not bitter like human jealously. He did not plague Abram for his deceit, nor did he plague Sarai for complying. They remained the objects of his unconditional love. God dealt with Abram and Sarai by letting their own actions teach them who they really are.
While the Bible is silent on how Pharaoh learned the source of his problems, Josephus tells us that Pharaoh summoned his priests for an explanation.
“And when he inquired of the priests, how he might be freed from these calamities, they told him that his miserable condition was derived from the wrath of God, upon account of his inclination to abuse the stranger’s wife. He then out of fear asked Sarai who she was, and who it was that she brought along with her.3
The charade was over. Abram and Sarai’s deceit caused Pharaoh’s unintentional sin against God that produced his troubles.
Genesis 12:18-19 NAS95 (18) Then Pharaoh called Abram and said, “What is this you have done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife? (19) “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.”
Pharaoh’s questions forced Abram to face his true character. Whatever illusions of worthiness to receive the Promised Land Abram may have had were shattered by the blast of Pharaoh’s demand for an explanation. Neither the Bible nor Josephus reveals how Abram answered Pharaoh’s questions. The humiliation of being exposed as a liar and the interrogation proved to be adequate punishment that changed Abram’s character.