Genesis 12 – Lying Down in Egypt

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Today’s PassageGenesis 12

Meet Abraham. He’s known as Abram right now. He’s the son of Terah, descended from Noah’s son Shem, whose name means “name.” In the last chapter, Abraham’s dad died, and in this chapter, God calls Abraham to go to a place where God will bless Abraham, his descendants, and finally all the families of the earth. Abraham follows God’s leading to the land of Canaan, which is named for the son of Noah’s youngest son Ham. Abraham builds an altar to God there, and he later moves on to Bethel, where he also builds an altar. But more importantly for today’s post, he goes down to Egypt to avoid the effects of a famine, and while he’s there, problematic stuff happens.

See, Abraham has a good-looking wife. And when you have a good-looking wife in the ancient Near East, sometimes powerful men like pharaohs will kill you and marry your good-looking wife. So, Abraham decides to lie, saying that his good-looking wife, Sarah (known at this point in the narrative as Sarai), is his sister. Then Pharaoh will have no reason to kill anyone! But when Abraham’s entourage goes to Egypt, Pharaoh takes Sarah into his house. It’s only when God afflicts Pharaoh’s household with massive plagues that Pharaoh realizes he’s taken in a married woman. He criticizes Abraham for deceiving him, then sends him on his way with all he owns.

But why does God afflict Pharaoh with plagues when the situation is Abraham’s fault? Pharaoh is aboveboard throughout the whole ordeal. He gives Abraham loads of wealth in the form of livestock and servants, and when Abraham’s lie comes to light, he doesn’t kill Abraham, instead allowing him to leave with apparently all his gifts. Abraham makes out like a bandit as a result of his lie, and Pharaoh and his whole crew have to suffer under God’s plagues. And it’s all well and good if God wants Abraham to be wealthy, but why’s he gotta make Pharaoh and his household suffer?

GotQuestions.org posits that the plagues were intended to alert Pharaoh that something was awry, and it further notes that they served their purpose. But while their answers are generally on point, this explanation I find unsatisfying. God could have afflicted Abraham with a plague; I’m sure Abraham would have copped to the truth in order to relieve a sufficiently undesirable pain point. Or how about this: God simply tells Pharaoh that Abraham lied, everything else pans out the same, and no one has to suffer at all!

And here’s the part where I propose my own explanation, right? I wish I had a more satisfying one. But what do I want out of God, anyway? A world without pain? I don’t think for a second that painless means perfect. I assume the plagues are a punishment, but “punishment” is my word, not the narrative’s; it just says that God hit Pharaoh’s house with afflictions. C.S. Lewis said that pain is God’s megaphone. The message isn’t always that we did something wrong. Sometimes the message is that someone else did something wrong: someone, perhaps, like Abraham.

I mean, I’ve got to admit I don’t believe all pleasure is good, nor do I believe all pain is bad. If I’m concerned because Pharaoh is suffering at all, I can’t say for certain that he didn’t come out somehow better off for having suffered, just as I have in my own life. So am I concerned about Pharaoh and his household experiencing suffering that they don’t deserve? All have sinned, and the wages of sin is death (Romans 3:23, 6:23); if we want to talk about just desserts, everyone in this narrative gets off easy. Look, maybe I’m just biased against this particular sort of suffering because I hate to get sick. I hate it! And if you gave me a chance to believe that God wouldn’t ever improve my life by making me sick, I’d be sorely tempted to take that chance and believe that thing.

I think I’m getting a little far afield of the story. The bottom line is: I don’t know what the bottom line is. I’m not the omniscient one here. God is.

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