Description / Transcription
Father in heaven, give us now ears to hear, speak that we may understand, send Your Spirit to illumine our minds and quicken our hearts, help us learn what we do not know, see what we have not seen, remember what we may have forgotten, and do what we should do. Give us grace to live the life of faith. In Jesus we pray. Amen.
You probably saw last Sunday, I’m sure after you were at the evening service, that the Super Bowl was played and Tom Brady won his seventh Super Bowl, so glad for that guy to get a break in life. Which gives me the opportunity to tell you once again what my kids have said, “Please, Dad, don’t use this joke again,” but is Valentine’s Day so I need to tell you that I have a lot in common with Tom Brady. We were both born in the summer of 1977, we both went to college in the state of Michigan, we both lived in Boston during his first Super Bowl run, and we both married supermodels. We have a lot in common. My wife doesn’t actually like that joke, either, but she resembles the remark, so it’s her fault.
Thinking of Super Bowls, you may know, if you’re a fan, that one of the most famous Super Bowls was Super Bowl III where Joe Namath famously guaranteed a Jets victory against the Colts. The Jets were 18 point underdogs, no one expected them to win, and Broadway Joe guaranteed a promise that they would win and sure enough the Jets won 16 to 7. We remember that game because of the gutsy promise that came true. But of course, Joe Namath’s guarantee didn’t have to turn out that way. We remember those sorts of guarantees the few times, the Joe Namath, the Babe Ruth calling his shot, but we don’t remember all the times in sports that promised something and it didn’t come true.
In a playoff game against the Packers that went into overtime, the Seahawks won the coin flip and their quarterback Matt Hasselbeck said, “We want the ball and we’re going to score,” and moments later he threw an interception to Al Harris who ran it back in the end zone and the Packers won.
Dan Gilbert, the owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, after the famous LeBron taking his talents to South Beach, promised “I personally guarantee the Cavs will win an NBA championship before LeBron James.” Didn’t happen.
In the 2008-2009 season an Oklahoma women’s basketball player, their star player, promised that she would refund her scholarship if they did not win a national championship, and they lost in the Final Four. You’ll be glad to know Oklahoma’s president did not make her stick to her promise.
In 2007 the Wyoming football coach guaranteed a victory against their rival Utah. They were down 40 to nothing at halftime, and they ended up losing by 50 points.
While still with the Miami Dolphins, Nick Saban said emphatically, “I’m not going to be the Alabama coach.” Well, that turned out well for Alabama.
We have learned not to take very seriously the promises that sports stars give to us or celebrities, let alone politicians. Think of “read my lips, no new taxes.” Or “I did not have sex with that woman.” We’ve learned not to trust promises that are given to us.
But God’s promises are different. They never falter, they never fail. And I wonder for your life and for mine, do we really live our lives confident in the invincibility of God’s promises? They are so inviolable that not even God’s people can mess them up, and surely that is good news.
I’ll be reading from Genesis chapter 12, verses 10 through 20, so turn there if you haven’t already, the first book of the Bible. Follow along as I read the second half of Genesis chapter 12.
“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, because [sic] 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.”
This is another one of those stories in Genesis, and there are many like this, where there’s much more here than meets the eye. This is the first of three sister-wife stories, here in chapter 12, later with Abraham and Sarah in chapter 20, and then with Isaac and Rebekah in chapter 26. And these three stories, they’re three different stories, they’re not the work of some multiple sources repeating the same story. The family goes into a land ruled by foreigners, the husband lies, says that his wife is his sister, his wife is put in danger, the truth is found out, and the ruler confronts and rebukes the husband for his deception. Three stories, this is the first.
This is also the first of three scenes following the great explosion of promise and blessing in verses 1 through 3 of chapter 12, where we see that very same promise of blessing to be threatened. So here the second half of chapter 12, the promise is threatened by famine, in chapter 13 the promise is threatened by the conflict between Abram’s men and Lot’s men, and then in chapter 14 the promise and the land is threatened by this alliance of eastern kings against them.
The promise seems to immediately threatened. We’ve had great good news of blessing, but what have we seen so far? The land has Canaanites, Sarai is barren, and now the land itself is barren. So Abram leaves. He goes down to Egypt, we read in verse 10. We think down because he went south, but they were thinking of probably topographically that in the valley of the Nile basin is lower level flatter than the hilly terrain of Canaan, so he went down to Egypt. Later we’ll go up to Canaan.
And it says that he is going, verse 10, to sojourn there. You may understand that just to mean he is going to travel or visit, but this is really a semi-technical term throughout the Old Testament. To be a sojourner is to be something not quite a citizen, but not quite a foreigner just passing through. We might think of it as a kind of resident alien. You’re going to set up your tents and to dwell and live in the land for some extended period of time, you’re not quite a citizen with all the benefits of being an Egyptian citizen, but you’re not just someone passing through on holiday, you’re given some legal standing to live and work there as a sojourner.
So Abram is not thinking that he’s just going for two weeks until this thing passes, but he’s going to now make his home for the foreseeable future in Egypt.
Now we’re not told whether this was a wise move or the wrong move. In fact, one of things that you notice here, and it’s really important if we’re going to understand the rest of Genesis, is that the author, Moses, inspired by the Spirit, very rarely will give us a kind of running commentary on what’s happening. We might like to hear from Moses, “And that was wrong, and that was good,” but we don’t. We don’t have a lot of that editorial comment, so we’re left to surmise and fill in the blanks and understand the bigger picture. But it seems to me that this is a step in the wrong direction, that no sooner has Abram been told, “The land in which you are now dwelling,” you see in verse 7, “will be given to your offspring.” This is the Promised Land. No sooner is he given that promise, “This is your land,” then in the very next scene he is leaving the land and hightailing it to Egypt. No sooner does God make Abram a tremendous promise than we see Abram become the very threat to undermine the promise: There’s no food here, we have to go to Egypt.
Then, to make matters worse, and perhaps that could be justified, but what follows next cannot. He goes into the land, and as they’re about to enter Egypt, verse 11, he says to Sarai, “I know that you are very beautiful in appearance. You are so beautiful it’s dangerous to me.”
Now husbands, just sometime today on Valentine’s Day, just say to your wife, “You know what pastor was talking about? I live with that same danger. You are so beautiful that you’re a danger.”
So he says when we go into this land, I want you say that you’re my sister. And you can imagine what Abram is thinking. God promised He would make me into a great nation. He promised that He would bless me. He promised that through me the whole world would be blessed. He promised that I would have a child. In fact, all of this hinges on me having an heir, so none of this can come true if this is the end of old Abram and I die here in Egypt.
He’s concerned that his wife is too beautiful for his own good. No doubt they understood that powerful, ancient, near Eastern kings would often take for themselves a large harem of wives. You think of Solomon, centuries later, doing the same thing. Not how God designed marriage to be. But Pharaoh has some sense of morality. They understand that this Pharaoh will not want to take another man’s wife, so they fear that he’ll see Sarai as beautiful and they’ll kill Abram to get his wife. Sort of like centuries later David would do with Bathsheba and kill Uriah the Hittite.
And we don’t know exactly what the moral compass was for a man like Pharaoh. It may have simply been, “Well, I want to take virgins and so I’m not going to take a man’s wife,” but then Abram’s fear wouldn’t have made sense that they’re going to kill him for his wife.
It may mean some sense of honor toward married women, that even though he would have multiple wives, he would show honor to a married woman. Or he simply doesn’t want to start a war with some other clan or tribe by taking a man’s wife. Whatever the case may be, they figure that if I say that you are my sister, I won’t put my life at risk.
And so he asks Sarai to go along with this deception. We’re not told what Sarai thinks of it. Does she concur? Does she think, “Well, this is the best way to preserve both of our lives? To see you live to see another day.” Or does she think that it’s a rotten idea and she has no choice but to acquiesce? We don’t know.
But they go into the land and they do as they have planned and say that she is Abram’s sister. And perhaps Abram convinced himself that technically this was true. Remember, Sarai is his half-sister, so he can satisfy his own conscience that he’s telling the truth, even though he knows that they will interpret it differently. ‘
Don’t we do this all the time? We get in our mind a half-truth and we convince ourselves, well, technically that’s okay. But our intent really is to deceive. We understand that people are going to hear this different than we know it to be the case.
But he thinks to himself, perhaps, “You know, I’m justified in this. I have to do something for the sake of the promise. It’s for my life, it’s for our marriage. Really this is going to be better for Sarai in the long run. And how can I be a great nation if I die here in Egypt childless? And she is my half-sister, after all.” And so they deceive.
They surely would have known, given the culture, that with this ruse in order to save Abram, they were bound to put Sarai in great danger, that Pharaoh may not kill Abram, but he very well may end up taking Sarai, which he does. Sure enough, it doesn’t take long for the Egyptians to notice how beautiful she is.
Verse 14: When he entered Egypt, they Egyptians saw that the woman was very beautiful and all the princes start nudging Pharaoh, say we’ve seen this man, this man who must have come before you at some point, he’s already some man of note and has some retinue with him and some sort of prosperity to come into the land, and they allow him to be a sojourner and explains things. And they say, “Wait, have you seen this man’s sister? She is absolutely beautiful.”
Now if you know your Bible, you know that Abram, we read in verse 4, is 75 years old. Sarai is 10 years younger. She is 65. Here’s the good news and the bad news. The good news, for all of you 65-year-old women out there, is that you still can be so dangerously beautiful as to turn the head of kings. The bad news is all the commentaries I read wondered how can that be the case.
A dozen or so commentaries give explanations, “How could Sarai be so beautiful?” Some say, well, they had different cultural expectations of beauty which were focused on the eyes. Remember, it will be said about Leah, she had weak eyes. Or some say it was a special gift from God to preserve her beauty and it would not be worn down by age.
And then there’s Calvin’s explanation. Now, I do not disagree with Calvin lightly, but here is one occasion where I must disagree with Calvin. He argues that Sarai could still be ravishing as 65 years old because she had not had any children. Nothing debilitates the appearance of women more, Calvin says, than frequent childbirth. I must take that up with Calvin in heaven someday. No, John, no, it is not the case.
I think the best explanation is people lived longer. Sarai’s not going to die until she’s 127, so she’s only halfway through her life. We might think of her as being in her early 40s. Whatever the case may be, she was stunningly beautiful well into her 60s.
And Pharaoh, and his princes, take notice and so they bring her into his palace, his house, verse 15. And surely this means into his household harem of multiple wives. This is not Pharaoh, a single man, bachelor, who’s just been waiting for the right one his whole life. He would have had many wives and consorts and concubines.
The question is asked, and again the commentaries are evenly divided on this, did Pharaoh sleep with Sarai? Did he commit adultery with her? Force himself upon her as you would with a woman in your harem. It’s possible that he did. Genesis 20, verse 4, in the next one of these sister-wife stories, makes clear that Abimelech had not approached her, and there’s no assurance given here, so some commentators say, well, then he must have slept with her.
But I think not. The language here of taken, “he took her,” that can sound sort of crass to us, but it’s really the formal language of marriage, which in this case does not mean the same thing as sexual intercourse, especially when the wife is one of many wives in the palace harem. He took her to be his wife does not say that he slept with her. In fact, Genesis does not shy away from telling us, very explicitly, when there are inappropriate sexual relations; Lot’s daughters, Abraham and Hagar, Jacob with four different women, Judah and Tamar. It’s not like Genesis is a very prudish sort of book that shies away from mentioning these things, so I think the fact that there’s no mention of it here means that the plagues came upon Pharaoh’s household before he could act toward his new wife in this harem.
The result once Sarai is taken in, verse 16, is that Pharaoh deals very well with Abram. He gives them gifts, sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male servants, female servants, female donkeys, camels. This may not sound impressive to you; this may sound like just sort of a barnyard. Who wants that as your wedding gift? But this is the way that you described great wealth in the ancient world. He gave to them BMWs and condos and houses and private planes. This is a description of great wealth.
Either Pharaoh gave it in a formal sort of way, a kind of bridal price or dowry to what he thinks is Sarai’s brother, or just an informal way, I want to bless you and I want to show my great generosity as I’ve taken your beautiful sister and now you have here from the largess of Pharaoh’s great wealth, new wealth of your own. He gifts sheep, cattle, donkeys, important for riding and plowing, servants of men and women, and camels. Camels were rare, signified great wealth and status. You can picture this. If you were to see a large group of people coming and in their caravan are all these animals and people and there’s the patriarch and the matriarch and the princes and the princesses sitting upon camels, you understand this is a great, wealthy people.
God then, verse 17, sends plagues upon Pharaoh, which he interprets as divine judgment. We’re not told how Pharaoh exactly knows that he’s been lied to. There’s some sort of divine revelation, does one of the men find out, does he simply on his own interpret these plagues as a sign that he’s done something wrong? Whatever the case may be, he realizes that this, in fact, is Abram’s wife.
And he rebukes Abram. What is this you have done? Verse 18. Why did you not tell me? Why did you say “she’s my sister” and I took her for my wife?
The pagan king shows more moral sensitivity than Abram. Think about it. He fears God’s judgment more than Abram does. Abram fears for his own life. You don’t get the sense that Abram is thinking about how he might fear for God’s displeasure. But Pharaoh does. Pharaoh seems to respect marital fidelity more than Abram. He doesn’t want to commit adultery. And he’s angry when he discovers that he almost did with a man that he thought was a sister and is actually a man’s wife.
And he sends him on his way. Quite generous of Pharaoh. He doesn’t insist on returning all of the things that he has given to him, but he orders them to go: “I don’t even want to see you, just take it and leave.”
Now you make think, well, Abram really got away with things. His lie really turned out quite well. He got his wife back and if my interpretation is correct, he got his wife back unharmed. And in the process he got great wealth and now he gets to leave. Wow, this lie really turned out for the best.
But think about it. The very next story will show the problems that come from these riches. Yes, the riches are a blessing, we’ll see that in a moment. But remember, it’s Abram’s men who are quarreling with Lot’s men because now they have too much stuff, and that leads to Lot making his fateful decision to go down and live in Sodom.
And then later with Hagar, chapter 16, verse 1: “She had a female Egyptian servant. Her name was Hagar.” And you may know the trouble that they get into where Abram decides to try to find an heir by sleeping with Hagar and then the jealousy and the bitterness that ensues between Hagar and Sarai. Where do you think this Egyptian female servant came from? Well, we don’t know for sure, but it seems quite likely that this was one of the gifts that was given to Abram and Sarai from Pharaoh.
So quite apart from thinking that there’s no problems that ensue, we will see that Abram has conflicts ahead.
But let’s not miss the larger point, because the point of the story is not to moralize good or bad on Pharaoh or Abram or Sarai. That’s really important as we move through Genesis. We would like to see a running commentary that tells us when someone did something right, when someone did something wrong, but we rarely get that.
The point is to show that even when God’s people get in the way, God is still true to His promise. This strange story, which can seem forgettable compared to the more famous passages in Genesis, the sort of passages that are in kids’ books and painted on nursery walls, the garden of Eden, or Noah with the animals, or even story of Abraham and Isaac, or later Joseph and his amazing technicolor dream coat. We know those stories. This is a strange, somewhat embarrassing, odd story about Abram and Sarai lying to Pharaoh.
And yet, this first story after the promise is meant to underline a seam that will dominate the rest of the book. You see, Genesis is not first of all about what we should or shouldn’t learn from the patriarchs. Now we will draw some lessons from them, and the New Testament often draws lessons and examples, positive or negative, from the Old Testament. We’re right to do that.
But that’s not first of all what Genesis is about. And if you read through Genesis first of all as a story about here’s God’s people who are really good examples, you’re not going to find a lot of that. No, no, no. Genesis is first of all not what we learn from the patriarchs, but what we should learn about God and His promise. Isn’t this story here all about Abram and the promise? He and Sarai were protected from the famine in Canaan, then protected from what looked like certain disaster in Egypt, even protected from themselves.
Pharaoh’s house was cursed when it looked like Pharaoh would dishonor Sarai. That was the promise God made: Whoever dishonors you, I will curse. And through it all, Abram was blessed. Blessed beyond his wildest expectation and certainly blessed well beyond all deserving. This is the story we will see over and over again in Genesis. God’s protection, God’s provision, for the sake of God’s promise.
What did Abram do to deserve to leave this situation a richer man? Nothing. And not just zero, negative numbers. And yet he left with great wealth, because God is true to His promise. And not even Abram could mess it up.
There’s a connection here between this story and what happens in the Garden of Eden. We don’t have time to see all the verbal parallels and especially in Hebrew you can see that it must be deliberate, but just think about the themes that are the same from Genesis 3 in the garden and this story. Both stories center around a temptation caused by food; in the garden it’s the fruit that looks good to eat and the temptation that arises from that, and in here it’s the temptation arising from the lack of food. In both instances, in the garden in chapter 3 and here in Egypt in chapter 12, we see the disastrous results of a husband’s poor leadership involving his wife.
We see that both stories deal with deception. The serpent deceives the couple, and here the couple deceives Pharaoh. The result of both deceptions is this language, “they saw and they took.” The woman saw the fruit and she took and she ate; Pharaoh saw the woman and took her to be his wife. In both stories, once the deception is found out, the ruler asks questions. God comes to Adam: “What have you done?” Pharaoh comes to Abram: “Why have you done this? Why didn’t you tell me?” And in both cases the man’s excuse is to use his wife: “Well, the wife that you gave me, she gave me the fruit. Well, the wife that I have, she’s simply too beautiful. I had to lie.”
And what’s the result in both stories? They’re sent out. Sent out from Eden, get out, and sent out from Egypt.
And after each story, the next story is one of family conflict. So after the Garden of Eden in chapter 3 comes chapter 4, family conflict Cain and Abel. Here in chapter 13 we’re going to see family conflict, the herdsmen of Abram, the herdsmen of Lot. It’s not quite another fall like Noah, but it is another story like Eden. We see the same elements: A husband’s poor leadership, temptation with food, deception, questions from God when they’re found out and finally kicked out of the land. Same story.
Except. Except for this all important detail. In Genesis they are kicked out of Eden and they leave with cursing. Here they are kicked out of Egypt and they leave with blessing. They deserve cursing, just like Adam and Eve did in the garden, but here the promise of God is so operative that when they deserve the same cursing that man got in Genesis 3, instead they get what they don’t deserve, they get more blessing.
And there’s a connection with this story, not only going back to the garden, but looking forward to the exodus. Remember, Moses writing this story is writing it for the people when they are wandering in the wilderness, on the cusp of entering the Promised Land. Think about the parallels they would have seen between their story and the exodus and this story. Abram migrates to Egypt because of a famine. Jacob’s family, at the end of Genesis, will go down to Egypt because of a famine. When Abram and Sarai approach the land, they concoct a plan: Let’s say to Pharaoh, let’s explain, let’s say this to Pharaoh so it will go well with us.
We see and the end of Genesis they also imagine a plan. Let’s go in and say, explain who we are that it may well go with us in the land of Goshen.
Sarai becomes a sort of slave to Pharaoh. The Israelites will become, for many centuries, slaves to Pharaoh. God then afflicts the Pharaoh with plagues. Same word here, plagues in chapter 12 and we’ll have plagues in Exodus. Abram, and the nation of Israel, are told to leave Egypt. And what happens when they leave Egypt? Both times they leave with great wealth from the Egyptians. In the Exodus they plunder the Egyptians and they leave with their gold and their riches, and here Abram leaves Egypt with their animals and servants and great wealth. And in both cases the next stop is to journey in the Negev and then later to arrive back in the land.
This story was meant to be a comfort to God’s people, as their wandering in the wilderness, not yet having entered into the land of promise and they would be able to tell their children, “but think, remember what God did to Abram? And Abram got into that mess by himself. We were mistreated. But God delivered him with the plagues. And don’t you see? He sent the plagues to us and then He sent him out of Egypt with riches just like He did for us, and He eventually brought Abram back into the Promised Land. He’s going to bring us back as well. God will take care of us.”
His plan, His program, His promise, will not fail now. This story, then, is a word of rebuke and a word of hope for us. It’s a word of rebuke because God admonishes us, “Don’t think the end justifies the means.” Abram could have convinced himself, maybe he did, “Well, it’s all about God and the promise, and so I have to do it this way. I have to cut corners. I have to deceive.” Do not think that you and I can somehow be smarter than God, that God doesn’t really know what He’s doing and He needs us to take our own path outside of His Word, outside of His way, in order for God to get His work done.
No, it’s a word of rebuke to us. Let’s run the race to God’s finish line and let’s run the race according to God’s rules, trusting God to fulfill the promise. It’s a word of rebuke.
And more importantly, it’s a word of hope. Nothing and no one can fully and finally derail the promises of God. I hope you don’t get tired of that theme, because we are going to see it again and again throughout the book of Genesis. Nothing and no one can fully and finally derail the promises of God, not even God’s people.
This is a word of hope for you personally. You may think of the way your life seems to have turned out and you may think, “Well, I’ve certainly ruined whatever promises God has for me.” But you haven’t. You haven’t ruined his desire to bless you if you belong to Christ, to bless you with the promise of Abraham if you in faith are a child of Abraham. So do not think that you have so short-circuited God’s plan that you have no blessing and no kindness left from God. Surely that’s not the lesson from Abram.
And if that’s the lesson for us personally, it’s also the lesson for us corporately. Isn’t it the case that we see so many reasons to be discouraged inside the Church? I don’t mean this church in particular, but just God’s Church. Yes, we see secularizing forces and we see people who will persecute the Church in other lands or perhaps in this land, and there are all sorts of threats from without, but if you know Church history, you know that the greatest dangers usually come from within the Church, from God’s own people, and it’s not hard to see scandal, fallen leaders, sinful division, theological errors, and think if only we could get out of God’s way.
Many of you would have read the news story or maybe the report on Ravi Zacharias from this past week. I read the 12 pages; I don’t encourage you to read it unless you really have the stomach for that sort of thing. It’s very egregious, the sin and the deception and the manipulation and the abuse.
It’s easy to look at the faults of God’s people and only the Lord knows what was ever at work in that man’s heart. But it is easy to see and be discouraged by fallen pastors or leaders, or see problems in theological missteps, and wonder if God really is going to build His Church. You and I must rest confident in the promise, not in any one of us. Yes, pray for your pastors and God uses men and women to be faithful and pray that we would be. But ultimately it is Jesus’ promise.
You remember what He said to the disciples in Matthew: I will build My church.
Jesus says “I” so, “I may use other people, I may give gifts in people, in writings, in sermons, in parents,” but Jesus does it. It is ultimately Jesus who builds the Church, not any author, not any pastor, Jesus. And He says “I will build My church.” It’s His. It doesn’t ultimately belong to any pastor or leader or session or denomination. It belongs to Christ.
And so we can have absolute confidence that even though we will get in the way ten thousand times, Jesus will build His church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.
Now this is not an excuse for us to be lazy, let alone for our disobedience, but it is reason for hope.
Romans 11:29: For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.
I don’t know what God is up to, in our church, our city, our denomination, this country, around the world, but we can be absolutely certain of this: He will be true to His Word. He will build His church. And nothing can fully and finally and no one can fully and finally derail or destroy the promises of God. Not even us. Not the world, not the flesh, not the devil. God will have His way and He will build His church and He will bless His people. And through the seed of Abraham He will bless the world.
Let’s pray. Father in heaven, we thank You for Your Word and for Your promises. We pray that we would be the means of fulfilling them, not the means of frustrating them. Surely sometimes we will do some of both, so forgive us. We thank You that the promise is not ultimately dependent upon us, for if it were it would have failed long ago in our sin, in our folly, in our deception, in our hypocrisy. Have mercy, O Lord, and do a great work in our midst and in our day, not for the sake of any man except for the sake of the God-man, Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen.