The Promises of God (The Life of Abraham) – 2 Famine in the Land
Please turn with me to Genesis, chapter 12. We began our study of the life of Abraham last week after a number of weeks looking at Genesis 1 through 11. As we looked at the life of Abram in Genesis 12, verses 1- 9, we said that that section begins a very long section in the book of Genesis, dealing with the life of this patriarch, running from Genesis 12 to about Genesis 23. And then a number of chapters thereafter still pertain to certain events in the life of Abram, though the focus then turns to Isaac and to his other descendants. At any rate we said last week that many have well said that Genesis 12, verses 1 through 3, is the center point in the history of the biblical promises. Everything that leads up to Genesis 12, verses 1 through 3, is in preparation for it. Everything that comes after Genesis 12, verses 1 through 3 in the Bible is in fulfillment of it. And so this is a real center point for the promises of the covenant of grace.
We also noted that the great theme of these chapters is going to be the promise seed to Abram. And then of course to Abraham as his name is changed. So his posterity is at the very center of these chapters, as well as to a lesser extent the theme of the promised land. This little group leaving the Ur of the Chaldeans clings tenaciously to the promises of God that the Lord will give a seed and the Lord will give a land. And the very final chapter of this section looks back to the certainty of return to the land of promise.
As we looked through Genesis 12, verses 1 through 9 last week, we saw the outline of the covenant blessings given in verses 1 through 3. Then in verses 4 and 5 we saw Abram begin to live out God's commands. You remember we said that in the covenant of grace, God in His grace comes and blesses Abram, though Abram does nothing to earn or deserve that. Nevertheless, God places requirements on Abram, and the central requirement that He places on Abram is to separate himself from his land, his relations and from the headship of his father's house. And so there is a requirement that Abram must fulfill in carrying out this mutual relationship which is a covenant. So even in the covenant of grace, which is established by God's grace, there are requirements for God's people and this is seen in verses 4 and 5 as Abram begins to follow through on the command of God to ‘go forth from your country to the land that I will show you.’
Then if you look at verses 6 and 7, we see Abram pausing at the site of Shechem to lift up praise to the Lord as he builds an altar there. And we mentioned that it's very likely that that phrase the site of Shechem or the place of Shechem indicates that there was a pagan altar there. This was a pagan worship center. And so here is Abram coming into the middle of the land of promise. Not a stitch of it is his at this moment. It's under pagan control. The Canaanite is then in the land. This is the center of their worship, their idolatrous worship. And what does he do? He builds an altar to the one true God, the Lord, and he worships Him. He proclaims the Lord's dominion over the nations, even when he is a stranger in a strange land.
And then we saw again, as we looked to the very end of that section in verses 8 and 9 that Abram, his faith was tested in his wanderings, and he learned to live the life of a pilgrim. Though Abram pitched his tent, he built an altar. And we said that really showed us Abram's priority. He built a lasting altar to the Lord for worship, even though he, himself, was dwelling in a tent. He recognized the priorities of life.
That sets the stage for this next scene which we enter here in Genesis, chapter 12, verses 10 through 20. Let's attend to this passage. This is God's word:
Our Lord and our God, we ask that You would open our eyes to behold wonderful things in Your words. We know that every word is given by inspiration and every word is profitable. So help us, we pray, to learn from this great historical narrative, this great event in the history of the life of a faithful man, even this great failure is his faith. We pray, O Lord, that we would learn both through warning and through exhortation. And we ask, O God, that you would make us willing hearers and doers of Your word. For Christ's sake we ask it, Amen.
I. The great themes of the Abrahamic Covenant are: the Seed, the Land, the Nations.
I want to look with you at three or four things in this passage. In verse 10 we see the heading to this whole section in the words, “Now there was famine in the land and so Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there for the famine was severe in the land.” In that passage we see God setting the stage for a trial for Abram. Abram had already had to endure many trials on obedience to God's call. He had, of course, had to leave his native country. He had had to go to an unknown destination. He had to deal with his wife's childlessness in the face of God's promise to make him a great nation. He had to deal with the loss of his father. He had to deal with coming into a land and not finding a permanent home, but living as a nomad. He had to deal with being surrounded by idolaters on every side. And now, there is a famine in the land.
The Lord is testing Abram's faith and faithfulness and this verse 10 is setting the stage for the rest of the event as it enfolds in verses 11 through 20. So this verse sets the stage for a story which reveals the sinfulness of a great man. Abraham, though he was a great man, was a sinner. So we see the sinfulness of a great man set side by side with the grace of a great God. But before we look at this passage as a whole, I think it will help us to remember the themes that are set forth in the promise of God to Abram in the blessing of verses 1 through 3. Because each of these three themes have a role to play in this passage in explaining what exactly is going on here. If you will remember, God promises to Abram blessings in verses 1, 2 and 3, and I'd like you to look there with me very briefly.
We see there at least three main features to that blessing. There is the promise of a seed, the promise of posterity. There is the promise of the land, and there is the promise of the nations. And those promises continue to be repeated throughout the story of Abram here in Genesis 12 through 23. Let me just give you a few examples. If you’ll keep your Bibles open, I'd like you to turn to a few passages.
First of all, looking at Genesis 12, verse 2, let's see the promises about the seed. “I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great; and so you shall be a blessing.” So He promises that he’ll be a great nation. That promise has to do with the seed, with the posterity that he will become a great nation. Then look at Genesis 13, verse 16. There God again says, “I will make your descendants as the dust of the earth so that if anyone can number the dust of the earth; then your descendants can also be numbered.” So again this theme of the posterity that God is going to give to Abram is brought to our attention. Then again in Genesis 15, verse 5, we read: “He took him outside and said, ‘Now look toward the heavens and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ and He said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’” Again a promise concerning the seed. Turn over another chapter to Genesis 16, verse 10. There again: “Moreover the angel of the Lord said to her, ‘I will greatly multiply your descendants so that they will be too many to count.’” And then again in Genesis 17, verse 2, we read: “I will establish My covenant between Me and you, and I will multiply you exceedingly.’” So over and over in God's dealings with Abram, He stresses the blessing of posterity. He is going to give him descendants. He is going to give him not simply an heir, but He's going to make him a father of a great nation, indeed a father of nations.
Then if you’ll turn back to Genesis 12. Let's look at the second theme. This is the theme of the land. In Genesis 12, verse 7, we read: “The Lord appeared to Abram and said, ‘To your descendants I will give this land.’ So he built an altar there to the Lord who had appeared to him.” Then look over in Genesis 13, verse 15: “All the land which you see, I will give it to you and to your descendants forever.” Then look over two more verses, Genesis 13:17: “Arise, walk about the land through its length and breadth; for I will give it to you.” And then if you’d turn forward to Genesis 17, verse 8: “I will give to you and to your descendants after you, the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.” So over and over, throughout God's dealings with Abram in this section we see him repeating His promise of the blessing of the land. Not only posterity, but the land.
Now let's go back to Genesis 12 again and look at the third thing. Genesis 12, verse 3, we read: “I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.” What's the third theme? The nations. The posterity, the land and the nations. God blesses Abram in his covenant promises and says that he will be a blessing to the nations. Look again at this theme as it's carried out. Turn forward, for instance, to Genesis 18, verses 17 and 18. This is Abram and Sodom and Gomorrah have come to the Lord's attention. And God is about to bring judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah and listen to the counsel of the Lord. Genesis 18, verses 17 and 18: “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, since Abraham will surely become a great and mighty nation, and in him all the nations of the earth will be blessed?” And so there even as God is about to bring judgment against Sodom and Gomorrah, he pauses to say, ‘You know, I need to tell Abraham this because in him all the nations of the earth are going to be blessed, and I'm getting ready to bring judgment against one of those nations. He needs to be able to intercede.’ And then if we turn forward to Genesis 22. In the wake of God providing a substitute in the sacrifice of Isaac, we read this. Genesis 22, verse 18: “In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed because you have obeyed my voice.” So over and over the blessing that Abram is to be to the nations is mentioned as the promises of the covenant are reiterated.
Now, isn't it interesting that it is in precisely the three areas of those promises that Abram is tested. Precisely in the area of the promises of the posterity, the land, and his blessing to the nations Abram is tested. Think for a moment about the promise of the posterity. Abram's wife, Sarai, goes to the age of 90 before she ever bears him a son. And do you realize that Rebecca, his daughter-in-law, went 20 years before she bore a son and Abram was still alive? Do you realize what that would have been like for 160-year old Abram having gone through all the pain of waiting with Sarai, now he's waiting for his son's wife to have a child. This man's faith was tested over and over again with regard to the posterity. Think again of the promise of the land. Not only is Abram sent from his home country to a place where he doesn't know, you remember Hebrews tells us he didn't where he was going when he started out. The Lord just said you go, I’ll take you there. Not only does he go to a country that he doesn't know, but he's a stranger there. And when his wife dies, he has to buy a parcel of ground to bury his wife. He doesn't own a stitch of land at his wife's death at the age of 127. Abram's faith is tested in the promises of the land. In fact Hebrews 11 reminds us that Abram died without the promises of God being fulfilled to him with regard to the land. Think again of this testing with regard to the nation. Abram was to be a blessing to the nation, and yet when Abram interceded for Sodom and Gomorrah, judgment still fell on them. Think of it. Abram was to be a blessing to his neighbors, but first in this chapter, and then again in Genesis 20, Abram is going to be a problem for his neighbors. Abram's neighbors take his wells. Abram's neighbors steal his nephew, Lot, and Abram has to engage in warfare. In every single one of God's promises to Abram, God tests him.
Do you see a pattern emerging here? Man's extremities are God's opportunities. You know, it's in the trials of life that we either go one direction or another. We either revert to bitterness or our faith shines brighter in God. And in the midst of all Abram's trials, and we might also add in the midst of all Abram's failings, and we're going to see a big one tonight, we can say this. God did grow Abram by grace, and Abram did persevere to the end. That is an example for you and me, because in precisely the areas of God's promises to you, I promise you He will test you, just as He tested your father, Abram. And that sets the stage for the incident that we see here. Let's review it briefly.
II. The Covenant promises are endangered by unbelief.
First look at verses 11 through 13. There we see a failure in Abram's character. Frankly, we see a display of cowardice on Abram's part here, and we see a failure in Abram's trust in God. Abram wouldn't have resorted to this chicanery if he had truly trusted in God in terms of the promises. And here we see in verses 11 through 13 the covenant promises are endangered by unbelief. Abram has been promised by God that the Lord would give him a seed, the Lord would give him a land, and the Lord would make him a blessing to the nations, and Abram endangers all of those things by his behavior here. They go down into Egypt. As they go into Egypt, Abram knows that he has a beautiful wife. And Abram also knows, and by the way we have copies of laws in Egypt from this time now, that the Pharaoh had the right to take the wife and children of any sojourner coming into his land. Now probably that would not have been done normally with a great dignitary like Abram. But Abraham's faith breaks down, and he knows that when he goes into Egypt, it is very likely that either one of the local petty lords is going to try and kill him for his wife, or that Pharaoh himself is going to hear about her, and he's going to get rid of Abram so he can take her for his wife. And so Abram's faith breaks down. This is a sheer breakdown in trust of the Lord. But even as it is a breakdown in the trust of the Lord, it evidences the truthfulness of this passage.
This passage has been brought under great ridicule by the liberal critics. They mock, for instance, how in the world could a woman 60 years old be considered so beautiful that Abram would be in danger of his life because of her presence. Remember Sarai did live to be 127 years old. Perhaps she was in the very prime of her womanhood at this time. It's very interesting that in the parallel passage to this the next time, it does not mention that she was beautiful. Apparently, when Abimelech tried to take her it was because he wanted a marriage contract and a treaty between him and Abram. It was not necessarily her outward beauty that enticed her, but now she is still in her prime and a beautiful woman. And so Abram fears. We also know from the times that it was a very common thing for people from Haran to take their half-sisters as their wives. In fact, among the Hurrians it was sort of a status symbol to be married to your half-sister. In fact, it was such a status symbol, and we know this from the tablets of Nuzi, that sometimes if you married a woman who wasn't your half-sister, men would actually adopt their wives as their sisters in order to raise their social standing. This was a big deal in this time. And so we see numerous things which confirm the historical accuracy of this account. Abram uses a trick from his culture to try and protect himself in an alien culture. The culture of Egypt. Nevertheless, Abram was endangering the covenant blessings.
You know sometimes we see our children in their late high school age or in their college years, and we see them making decisions that we know could haunt them for the rest of their lives, and we just shake our heads and we say no, don't do it. What is it about freshmen? Because we know the ramifications. And when we come to this passage, I mean, imagine the children of Israel gathered around hearing Moses deliver the story of how God, through his great plan of redemption, was going to raise up a redeemer for Israel, Moses, to bring them out of the land of Egypt as God's representative. And here they are listening to the story of the promised seed and suddenly they see the father of the faith trying to give away the mother of the faith. And they go, ‘No, don't do it, Abram, don't do it.’ But Abram's lack of character shows through here. Derek Kidner says this: “Abram's craven and torturous calculations are doubly revealing, both of the natural character of this spiritual giant.” You are seeing what this man would have been like without grace. Nothing can Abram claim for himself. “There is nothing of our own in our good,” Calvin used to say. “There is nothing of our own in our good.” Abram, apart from grace, was a coward.
But we're also seeing something else. The sudden transition that it is possible for the same person to make from the plane of faith to the plane of fear. Abram only a few days, a few weeks, a few months before buoyed by such faith in God that he can build an altar in the presence of his enemies and worship, is now asking his wife to lie and endanger herself and her virtue, her reputation and the future of all God's promises so that he might be protected. You see, even heroes of the faith are sinners and need to be saved by grace. And is that not one of the great testimonies of the truthfulness of Scripture? If we had been making this up, would we have said that about the father of the faithful? No. But because God's words are true, He records both the good and the bad even about His faithful servants. Here you are seeing He had another evidence, He had another testimony of the truthfulness of Scripture, the inerrancy of Scripture, the authority and the trustworthiness of the Scripture. Now, from this great lack of faith where Abram asks Sarai to say, “tell them you’re my sister.” Technically true, because we know that Sarai was his half-sister. Nevertheless it is endangering the promise of the covenant.
III. The covenant promises are preserved by the sovereign Lord's intervention.
We see in verses 14 through 17 that when Abram fails on the job, the Lord God of Israel does not. The Lord sees, just like He saw on the slopes of Moriah, He sees Sarai in her time of need. And there again we learn that God's covenant promises are preserved by His sovereign intervention, not by us. God's covenant promises are preserved by His sovereign intervention. Even when Abram is faithless, the Lord remains faithful. Abram goes down into Egypt. Just as he anticipated, the Egyptians see that Sarai is beautiful. They begin to talk about her. Word of her beauty gets all the way to the house of Pharaoh. Pharaoh says, I've got to have this light-skinned woman in my harem. By the way, we also know that the Pharaohs of the day very much liked light-skinned Syrian women in their harems to compliment the darker-skinned women who are already in their harems. And so Pharaoh hears about Sarai and says, ‘Pick her out. Bring her to me. Pay for her to her master.’ And so just as Abram had planned, he received a great deal of wealth from Pharaoh, and he gave his wife over into the harem of Pharaoh. But even when Abram is faithless, the Lord is faithful, and he strikes Pharaoh in his house with great plagues.
Reminds you of another thing he did in Egypt once? You see here in Genesis 12 a foreshadow of what God is going to do in His redemption of the people of Israel in the days to come.
IV. The heir of the covenant castigated by the nations.
And that brings us to verses 18 through 20. So far Moses has made absolutely no comment about the morality of what Abram has done. And that has led some commentators to say, ‘Well maybe Moses doesn't think it's so bad, what Abram did.’ Maybe Moses thinks that this is a crafty strategy to keep alive the hope in the midst of danger. But I want you to note that the Lord places, through Moses’ pen, a rebuke of his servant, Abraham, from the mouth of a pagan. Think of it. A godly man rebuked for his untruthfulness by an idolater and a pagan. Now what do you think Moses thinks about what Abram did? Moses is telling you, when you see Pharaoh, the godless Pharaoh, rebuking Abram, Moses is telling you that Abram's faith has failed here. Here we see the heir of the covenant being castigated by the leader of a foreign nation.
But I want you to see as well. Alongside that rebuke and alongside, by the way, of yet one more testing of the promise about Abram being a blessing to the nations. Is he a blessing to Pharaoh? Hardly. He's the cause of curses and famine coming upon his house. But I do want you to see in this passage three things that we see in the Exodus.
Notice that it is famine that brings Abram into the land of Egypt, just as it is famine that brings the brothers of Joseph into the land of Egypt. Notice that God visits plagues on the house of Pharaoh just as in the Exodus God visits plagues on the house of Pharaoh. And notice that Pharaoh gives God's covenant heir plunder and wealth and riches, just as the Egyptians gave to God's people upon their departure from Israel, we are told in Genesis 15 and also in the book of Exodus, many riches. Moses is drawing a parallel for us here so that in this event of the life of Abram is prefigured a greater redemption that God is going to accomplish one day in the future. It's accomplished not because of Abraham's faithfulness, but because of God's faithfulness.
And therein is a lesson for us. We do not learn from this, of course, that we should be complacent about our obedience, because God will dig us out of this mess after all anyway. That's not the message. The message ought to make us tremble at the thought of what we do with God's precious promises. But it is to remind us that in the very last instance it is not our faithfulness that assures the continuance of the promises of God: it is God's faithfulness and the grace which He works in us.
One cannot survey the life of Abram and say that it was Abram's righteousness that caused God to love him. No. When you survey the life of Abram, you say “Every goodness that I see in this man is the result of the grace implanted in him by God.” For he was just an idolater from the land of the Ur of the Chaldeans, that God by grace chose and called to be the man of promise and to be the fountainhead of the promises of all those who trust in Christ. Let us look to the Lord in prayer.
Our Heavenly Father, we thank You for the richness of your words, and we ask now that You would bless it to our spiritual nourishment. We pray, O God, that we would not take lightly the covenant promises nor our requirements to trust You, to rely upon you and not to lean on our own understanding. We ask these things through Jesus Christ, our Lord, Amen.