The Faith of Abraham | Genesis 12:10-20 | Abram and Sarai in Egypt
10 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. 11 When he was about to enter Egypt, he said to Sarai his wife, “I know that you are a woman beautiful in appearance, 12 and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me, but they will let you live. 13 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.” 14 When Abram entered Egypt, the Egyptians saw that the woman was very beautiful. 15 And when the princes of Pharaoh saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh. And the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house. 16 And for her sake he dealt well with Abram; and he had sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male servants, female servants, female donkeys, and camels.
17 But the Lord afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife. 18 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? 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.” 20 And Pharaoh gave men orders concerning him, and they sent him away with his wife and all that he had.
Lest we get the wrong impression about Abram from his initial obedience, Genesis 12:10-20 shows us that he was all too human, even in his redeemed state. It is so with us all. None is hero but Jesus. We are all, as Martin Luther said, simul justus et peccator, simultaneously just and sinner.
Abram’s obedience to God’s call was to be commended and imitated, but the next event we see in his life is to be condemned and avoided. Seeking relief from the famine, he goes down to Egypt. That in itself was not a problem. Though Egypt was a place to avoid in Israel’s future, it is not thus so yet. The problem with Abram’s journey to Egypt is not the going; it’s the leaving behind. He went to Egypt without seeking God’s input. He didn’t deny God. He just forgot him. How often we do the same!
In Genesis 12:10-20, we see what often happens in the life of faith: faith is often followed by famine, famine can lead us far from God, but God brings us back in his mercy and grace.
FAITH IS OFTEN FOLLOWED BY FAMINE (v. 10)
Abram was faithful to God. He followed his call, leaving his home, his family, his father’s house, and going to the land God would show him later.
Verse 10 opens the passage simply enough. “Now there was a famine in the land.” We would think Abram’s obedience would be rewarded with favor in the land. He would arrive at fertile fields, much food and water, easy passage and comfortable dwelling. But that was not so. In the life of faith, it rarely is. Faith is not about what we deserve. Faith is about trusting God. We cannot call faith that which we do only for a meager earthly reward. We call faith that which trusts God in the famine for an eternal reward to come.
Abram had true faith. That is not in question. But Abram was also a human. He sinned, even as he was justified before God. That’s who we are. We will never become perfect in this life. As long as we live, sin will cling to us, causing us to fall, though it no longer has ultimate power over us. But we can fight it, and at times, the fight is made all the harder by our circumstances, like famine in the midst of your mission.
Psalm 62:8 says “Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us.” What Abram is learning—and what the entire Bible is teaching us today—is that trusting God is the foundational structure from which all of life must be lived. If we don’t learn to trust God, we will fail to know anything else about life.
Faith is trust. Hebrews 11:1 defines faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” In other words, trust. Faith is no leap in the dark. It is not a baseless hope in “something good.” Faith is standing tall and straight on the character of God. Faith is looking at God and seeing in him the promise that all will come to pass. When we look to God by faith, we look at one who never tires of us because he made us and saved us, never runs out of supply for us because our need energizes him, and never turns away from us because Jesus made us righteous in him at the cross.
So what’s going on with Abram here? First of all, nothing abnormal. Abram isn’t a model for how to handle the anomalies of life. He’s the model for how to handle the regularities in life. God’s regular way of working is to give his people famines in the midst of their faith. The Bible says our faith is tested. The tests may not come immediately after a great act of obedience, but they will surely come. That’s why James wrote, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” (James 1:2-4). Peter said, “do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Peter 4:12). Proverbs 17:3 says, “The crucible is for silver, and the furnace is for gold, and the Lord tests hearts.” Testing will come. The Christian is to “remain steadfast under trial” (James 1:12).
We can question this method of God’s. We can wonder why he tests us. But we cannot go around the fact that Jesus, God himself, was tested in his earthly life. After Jesus’ baptism, “the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan.” (Mark 1:12-13). Jesus experienced his own famine in the midst of his mission. The author of Hebrews tells us Jesus was “made perfect through suffering” (Hebrews 5:7-10).
So though we can wonder why God works this way, we cannot get around the fact that he does. Jesus experienced it. We will too. Faith is often followed by famine. It’s what we do in the famine that determines the path forward.
FAMINE CAN LEAD US FAR FROM GOD (vv. 11-16)
The famine is more than an event in Abram’s life. The famine in the land caused a famine in his own heart. Abram experienced the deep love of God. He had the protection of God, the leading of God, the nearness of God. He knew who he was deep down and saw that God loved him anyway. He was a real Christian with a life-giving faith. He believed the gospel. I hope you do too. But it is possible for us to stop believing all of that at any moment. It’s possible to convert trust in the Lord to trust in yourself. We may still look like Christians, doing the right things, but we are far from the heart of Christ. As Abram searched for food, he strayed from God.
How did Abram’s straying happen? Francis Schaeffer helps us understand with an illustration of two chairs.
According to the biblical view, there are two parts to reality: the natural world-that which we see, normally; and the supernatural part…I would suggest that this may be illustrated by two chairs. The men who sit in these chairs look at the universe in two different ways. We are all sitting in one or other of these chairs at every single moment of our lives. The first man sits in his chair and faces the total reality of the universe, the seen part and the normally unseen part, and sees truth against this background. The Christian is a man who has said, ‘I sit in this chair.’ The unbeliever, however, is the man who sits in the other chair. He sees only the natural part of the universe, and interprets truth against that background. Let us see that these two positions cannot both be true. One is true, one is false. If indeed there is only the natural portion of the universe, with a uniformity of natural causes in a closed system, then to sit in the other chair is to delude oneself. If, however, there are the two halves of reality, then to sit in the naturalist’s chair is to be extremely naïve and to misunderstand the universe completely…
However, to be a true Bible-believing Christian, we must understand that it is not enough simply to acknowledge that the universe has these two halves. The Christian life means living in the two halves of reality: the supernatural and the natural parts…
Being a biblical Christian means living in the supernatural now, not only theoretically but in practice. If a man sits in the one chair, and denies the existence of the supernatural portion of the world, we say he is an unbeliever. What shall we call ourselves when we sit in the other chair but live as though the supernatural were not there? Should not such an attitude be given the name ‘unfaith?’ ‘Unfaith’ is the Christian not living in the light of the supernatural now. It is then Christianity that has become simply a ‘good philosophy.’
In Genesis 12:1-9, Abram sits in the chair of faith. I would argue that even in Genesis 12:10, he still resides in the chair of faith. There was nothing wrong with going down to Egypt because of the famine. He had to feed his family. But along the way, somewhere between the leaving of the land and the entering into Egypt, Abram jumped to the chair of unfaith. Why do I say that? Because in verse 11, we see a shift. The first time we hear Abram speak, it’s a word of unfaith. “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.”
Famine can lead us far from God. We care so much about our circumstances. Rightly so. Where we are matters. We are physical beings. Comfort and security matter. We have needs. God knows that. His trials are not ultimately threats to our comfort and security, only threats to the idols we’ve established that look like them. Our ultimate comfort is in the love of Christ. Our ultimate security is in his cross-secured salvation. But when we face a famine and then face a Pharaoh, we feel threatened. And if we turn from God’s face, we jump from the chair of faith to the chair of unfaith.
How did this happen? It’s simple. Abram didn’t deny God. Abram forgot God. When faced with the threat of Sarai’s beauty in Pharaoh’s kingdom, he didn’t consider the promises of God. He took matters into his own hands. He looked around and saw only the natural world, not the supernatural providence and protection of God. How often do we do the same?
Sarai was extremely beautiful. At sixty-five years old, she captured the eyes of those who saw her. Abram knew this, and he assumed that when the Egyptians saw her, they would plan to eliminate Abram as his competition, take Sarai, and go on with life.
So Abram devised a plan. It was a good one. He planned to have Sarai say she was his sister. That was only half-false. She was his half-sister (Genesis 20:2). If she’s his wife, eliminating him is the simplest solution. But if she’s his sister, they can’t merely remove him. They must negotiate with him. As Kent Hughes explains, “Abram was playing off the well-known custom of fratriarchy, as Nahum Sarna has explained: ‘Where there is no father, the brother assumes legal guardianship of his sister, particularly with respect to obligations and responsibilities in arranging marriage on her behalf. Therefore, whoever wished to take Sarai to wife would have to negotiate with her ‘brother.’ In this way, Abram could gain time to plan escape.’”
Abram was trying to buy time to get out. He wasn’t giving Sarai up, but he wasn’t trusting God with his marriage either. He looked at the promises of God, then looked at his situation, and decided that if something happened to him, God’s promises were compromised. So, he had to save himself. This act of unfaith—this jumping to the other chair—was a functional denial of the God who called him out of Ur. It was Abram saying, in effect, that God doesn’t exist, he isn’t ruling and reigning, he can’t control what happens in Egypt. But Abram can, so he will.
His plan wasn’t strong enough, though. He planned for the regular Egyptians, but he didn’t plan for Pharaoh. A normal Egyptian would negotiate with him for Sarai. Pharaoh does not need to. He takes what he wants. When he hears she’s his sister, he simply takes her into his harem. Now Abram has a real problem. The promise of God is in jeopardy.
To top it off, the famine turned to riches. Pharaoh gave Abram significant remuneration for Sarai. How many of us fail in the famine? How many more fail in the surplus? Abram’s great swing in fortune must have been extremely trying. He was in a tough spot. He was rewarded in earthly goods for a spiritual blunder. He sat surrounded by riches while Sarai sat worried in Pharaoh’s harem. What a disaster.
The famine led Abram far from God, but it wasn’t the famine’s fault. It was what he did during the famine that mattered most. So it is with us all. When faced with trials, the question is not, “Is God faithful?” The question is, “Will I trust him?” In which chair will I sit when everything is on the line: the chair of faith or unfaith?
GOD BRINGS US BACK IN HIS MERCY AND GRACE (vv. 17-20)
It’s striking that the first time we hear Abram’s voice, it’s the voice of unfaith. Contrast that with his Savior, whose first recorded words int he gospels are heard firmly in the chair of faith. “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?” (Luke 2:49).
God is not placing all his plans on our shoulders. He’s placed those plans on Christ’s shoulders. As damaging to our pride as it may be, it doesn’t depend on us. It depends on God who raises the dead. We are not left to our own devices. The messes we get ourselves into have real, earthly consequences, but God has ways of releasing us from ultimate punishment. After all, it is his story we’re in, and the characters cannot ruin the storyteller’s tale.
Abram knew that, but as he entered Egypt, he made up his own plan. He thought he was saving his life, but now he had to be wondering if he’d lose it trying to save his wife.
Then God broke in. “But the Lord afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife” (Genesis 12:17). The language points to the severity of the affliction. The household was overwhelmed. Sarai alone was untouched.
Pharaoh saw what was going on. He called Abram, rebuked him, and sent him away. Abram leaves with his wife but not before public condemnation. Abram entered Egypt a man full of hopes and dreams. He left as a man fully exposed for the sinner he is. What would come of him? Pharaoh sent him away with all his riches. Those riches, however, would continue to cause Abram trouble in life. It caused Abram and Lot to separate upon returning to the land. It’s possible Hagar, the servant of Sarai with whom Abram would have a child in another act of unfaith, came from Pharaoh. Abram experienced the reality of more money, more problems. His act of unfaith caused long-term problems. It always does.
Abram’s plan failed. Our plans always do. But God’s plan didn’t fail. It never does. The Apostle Paul tells us in Galatians 3:16 that it was not ultimately to Abram that the promises were made. They were made instead to Jesus. “Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, ‘And to offsprings,’ referring to many, but to one, ‘And to your offspring,’ who is Christ.” Try as he may, Abram cannot ultimately thwart the plan of God. The promise would come to pass despite this and many other acts of unfaith along the way.
Abram did not deserve to be brought back. But God doesn’t treat us as we deserve. He treats us with grace and mercy. When everything is on the line and we who have believed God take the wrong road, God is there to bring us back. We will face the earthly consequences of our sin, but we will not face the ultimate consequences. Jesus faced them for us. On the cross, Jesus died for Abram’s lack of faith in Egypt. He died for your lack of faith this morning. He died for my lack of faith right now.
The Bible says we are in Christ. That means that no matter where we go, our eternal place with God is not compromised. In Christ, we are secure. In Christ, we are held. In Christ, though we prove unfaithful, God proves faithful to the end. We are sinners, yes, but we’re justified by Christ.
What is Abram’s way back? It’s the same as ours: to look by faith to God who gives us what we don’t deserve, makes promises to those who can only fail, and who saves us by himself, for himself, to himself, for the glory of himself. When we see that, we can sit forever in the chair of faith, knowing that it’s the God who reigns and rules that is in control of it all. When famines come, they need not compromise our faith. They may just build it.