34. Genesis 12:4-20

III. A.  1. continued

c) Arrival in the Land of Canaan (Genesis 12:4-9)

Abram and Lot traveled more than four hundred miles to the land of Canaan. We call it the land of Canaan but in fact Abram and Lot got there first, several hundred years before the Canaanites moved in and made it their own. At this time the land was inhabited by a miscellany of tribes including some Amorites, distant cousins of Abram. The Canaanite people lived to the north and along the coast, in Byblos and Tyre and Sidon. A few Canaanites doubtless lived in the land, but mainly not. It was a journey of several weeks for people who are not in a hurry and have large herds to control. Since there was no large empire keeping the peace in that land at that time, it was a journey that was somewhat dangerous on the mainly unguarded roads. Doubtless they followed the main trading route that linked the north with Egypt.

Their first stop was Shechem (the modern city of Nablus) and the oak of Moreh. This particular tree must have been unusually impressive and therefore an important place of worship for some local god, a place of worship for a cult that was well enough known in that land to be identified by this tree. If so, then God chose that place for His second appearance to Abram to make a point. Whatever god might be the local god of that land, the God who had called Abram, God Most High, was also there and even had the authority to give away that god’s land to whomever He chose. In His speech with Abram, the Most High God did not make any claims directly against the gods of the land; on the contrary, He ignored them out of existence, reducing them to irrelevance by never giving them so much as a nod. If Abram had theological questions concerning the presence or authority of God Most High in a foreign land among rival gods, then God’s appearance and promise of land was a direct answer.

This point deserves repeating. The promise to give Abram and his descendants the land of Canaan only came after he had arrived in the land. The original call was to go to a land, not take possession of it. It could be argued that ownership of the land was tacit in the original call, but here that tacit promise was being made explicit. In promising to give the land to Abram, God was making a clear assertion of His authority, and Abram would have naturally understood Him this way. Although the land belonged to other gods, nonetheless He had the power and the right to take their land and give it to whomever He chose. The promise of land was one way of revealing to Abram that God Most High was God over the whole world. This was a truth that Abram was not quick to understand but this claim to authority is the main point of the gift of the land.

There was a different religious mentality in Canaan than there had been in the great city of Ur, and they were both different from the religious mentality Abram would encounter in Egypt. Ancient religion was all about survival in an unpredictable world. But the world of Mesopotamia and Egypt was somewhat less unpredictable than the world of Canaan. The Mesopotamian and the Egyptian civilizations depended on the annual floods of their main rivers. Occasionally the floods would fail, but those rivers drew water from a very large area. Only a major, extensive drought in a large region of the world would be devastating. But the land of Canaan, the hill country around Mesopotamia depended on rain and punctual seasons. So the religion that grew up in the more barbaric hill country was a fertility religion, a religion of agriculture and weather gods who were much more erratic that the more “civilized” gods of Mesopotamia, and the more esoteric gods of Egypt. Abram was entering the land of more sinister gods, smaller and more immediate than the gods he had left behind. Possibly God Most High appeared to him at the oak of Moreh to emphasize that even in this different religious environment, He was still not just “one of the guys”, the Chairman of the Heavenly Board. He was the Boss.

Abram and Lot led nomadic lives, but appear to have spent a fairly long time at Shechem and then near Bethel (which was called Luz at that time, being renamed Bethel much later). In those two places they stayed long enough that Abram built altars; otherwise, Abram and Lot gradually wandered toward the south arriving at last in the southern part of Canaan called the Negev (which meant “the South”). This section of Scripture probably covers a couple of years of wandering in the land. Abram and Lot were already fairly rich when they left Haran, and grew richer as they lived in Canaan.

d)  The Visit to Egypt (Genesis 12:10-20)

Life in the ancient world was much more closely linked to the vagaries of the weather than modern life, particularly in Canaan. There was no regional system of food distribution; each city had to be self-sufficient. Since agriculture was fairly inefficient, and since it was very difficult to store up a large surplus in the good years for use in the bad years, drought and famine were the greatest threats and were not uncommon. One dry year, or one year with a disastrous storm at just the wrong time, could severely reduce the local food supply. The only option in a time of famine was to eat a skimpy diet or to kill off a portion of your animals or to go elsewhere in search of food. Abram’s possessions were very great and a drought which made pasture scarce would have forced him to seek new pasture land for his animals. Egypt was relatively immune to such droughts and so Egypt was a common refuge for hungry neighbors in times of trouble. Thus it was not remarkable that within two or three years of his arrival in Canaan Abram was forced to seek shelter in Egypt.

The Egypt that Abram visited was the northern half of two rival Egyptian kingdoms in what is known as the First Intermediate Period, between the end of the Old Kingdom and the beginning of the Middle Kingdom. He came there late in the First Intermediate Period around 2080 b.c.  The pharaohs of the northern kingdom, centered at Hierakleopolis, were in decline, gradually succumbing to their rivals from Thebes. The ruler of the southern branch of the Old Egyptian kingdom was Intef II, an aggressive ruler who pressed hard against the northern kingdom at about this time. The Pharaoh Abram visited is not known or knowable at the present. There were something like eighteen pharaohs in the north and only three or four of them are known by name; this one would not be remembered. Presumably Lot and his wife and two daughters would have gone with Abram and Sarai. They would not necessarily have stayed in close proximity to each other in Egypt since their possessions were great, and perhaps Lot did not know of the deception Abram and Sarai practiced on the Pharaoh.

Abram thought of having Sarai pose as his sister when they first set out from Haran (Genesis 20:13), but it was in Egypt that he first used the trick. Sarai was in truth Abram’s half sister (20:12) so he told the pharaoh a half truth. Such marriages were not uncommon in the ancient Middle East, and became routine for Pharaoh’s later in Egyptian history. The goddess Isis was both sister and wife to Osiris, and it was a wide spread custom among the gods to marry brother and sister. Thus, it would not have been thought a strange thing if Abram had told the truth, but it might have carried with it an implicit claim to more status that he wanted to claim. The Egyptian religious mentality was different from either the primitive religions in Canaan or the civilized religions of Mesopotamia. It was esoteric, mysterious, difficult for an outsider to comprehend. The Egyptians were the ones who most closely identified their gods with their human rulers. It was an age in decline, but talking to a Pharaoh in any age was something like talking to a god, and it may have been all the more emphatic to compensate for the decline in political power. It was a dangerous age, an unstable age, and rulers had to be ready to fight for whatever status they claimed. Perhaps Abram adopted the half-truth in order to avoid possible conflict on a more political level.

So how did Abram come to meet Pharaoh at all? As a wealthy unknown foreigner, meeting Pharaoh may have been inevitable, a legal obligation to obtain the necessary permits or whatever, especially in a time of war. It is not that Abram’s fears of rulers wanting his wife were groundless. What other Pharaoh or king has been hesitant to take another man’s wife, especially if she is the wife of a foreigner? Even the great King David, the man after God’s own heart, would not hesitate to steal another’s wife and murder the husband; why would the god-king of Egypt hesitate?

Still it is difficult to understand how Abram could have asked Sarai to assume such a compromising role, and even risk losing her. Pharaoh summoned her and intended to take her as one of his wives, as a concubine, and Abram was apparently going to let him have her. What exactly did he plan to do then? Just leave her behind when he left, or stay in Egypt and wait for the Pharaoh to die? What was he thinking? Was there any scenario in which this scheme could end well? And what was Sarai thinking she would do? Did she really intend to marry Pharaoh, stay in the Egyptian court and lose Abram forever? The modern reader of this story has to think that the marriage between Abram and Sarai was very strange. And it would seem that Abram did not have much faith in God Most High to stoop to such a scheme to protect himself from an imagined danger. It does not seem to have occurred to Abram that God could protect him from Pharaoh, who was, after all, a god himself.

But God sent great plagues against Pharaoh, though their exact nature is unspecified. And though the passage does not say how, in some manner Pharaoh discerned that the calamities befalling his household were due to Abram’s deception. Plainly, though Pharaoh was naturally offended by Abram’s deception, he had reason to respect Abram and even to fear him. Pharaoh felt powerless to do anything to punish Abram. Perhaps God Most High had impressed on Pharaoh, in some manner, that he had better not hurt Abram, or perhaps political circumstances made retribution impossible. At this point, though, the Pharaoh seems to have been more sensitive to God’s purposes and presence than Abram was. Certainly we can’t blame Pharaoh for throwing Abram out of the country; Abram was too dangerous.

God’s treatment of Pharaoh does not seem entirely fair, though. Pharaoh had done nothing wrong. If anyone did anything wrong it was Abram, and Sarai as his accomplice. Yet God never rebuked Abram for deceiving the Pharaoh, for misusing Sarai, or for having such weak faith that he didn’t trust Him to take care of him. What God did was bless Abram materially, rescue Sarai, and punish Pharaoh. God’s behavior was more inexplicable than Abram’s. But blessing Abram, in spite his questionable behavior, is part of the covenant aspect of their relationship. Whoever cursed Abram, even if his curse were justified, would find himself cursing God. It may seem unreasonable to think it, but God was right behind Abram even when Abram was stupid and unethical. That God did not speak some private word of rebuke to Abram goes beyond the Covenant, however, and we will consider this strange silence later.

Not only did God not rebuke Abram when any of us might have said something, His eventual behavior is more problematic that that. Such marriages of a man with his half-sister would later be forbidden in the Law of Moses. In Leviticus 20:17 we find, “If there is a man who takes his sister, his father’s daughter or his mother’s daughter, so that he sees her nakedness and she sees his nakedness, it is a disgrace; and they shall be cut off in the sight of the sons of their people. He has uncovered his sister’s nakedness; he bears his guilt.” Thus, by God’s later standards of morality Abram would have been cut off from his own people. This has a lot to say about how we are to understand the Law of Moses and sin but we can only consider briefly here.

There are two seemingly inconsistent choices God made. First God chose Abram and his sister-wife to be the foundational marriage to produce His covenant people. Second, He chose to forbid such marriages in the Law He gave their children, a law that branded Abram and Sarai as sexually impure, as a disgrace. Either the Bible is simply internally inconsistent and therefore not to be taken seriously, or else the Law of Moses was not the absolute standard of morality we usually take it to be, or else God does not care about sexual purity as much as we were taught that He does. Or perhaps it is all a bit more complicated that any of these alternatives suggest. I believe His purpose in choosing Abram and Sarai and then labeling their marriage disgraceful was to show us that His purpose was to involve Himself in our disgrace. He chose a “tainted lineage” to be His own so that He could rescue all of us, who are all also children of such a lineage.

The episode in Egypt was revelatory on several levels. First we have another glimpse of the nature of the Covenant relationship. When God binds Himself to a person in a covenant, He chooses to be blind to that person’s faults (to some extent, anyway) and to bless that person in preference to others who are not in the covenant. In short, God is biased toward His covenant people. This may seem strange at first, but if we think for a moment we know exactly what such bias feels like from the inside. It is the most natural thing in the world to be biased in this same way toward our own family, biased in their favor and biased against those who are outside the family. As a father I give special favors, special attention, to my own children that I do not give to other people’s children. When my children do something wrong, I find it easier to make excuses for them or give them the benefit of the doubt than when other people’s children do the same thing. It is part of the ideal of the good parent, the ideal we measure ourselves by, that, while we may be harsh to our children ourselves in private, we defend them equally strongly to the outside world. Failing to be biased in this way toward our own children would be considered a defect in a parent. God had adopted Abram as His child in a peculiar way that did not apply to Pharaoh. On the contrary, the Pharaoh claimed descent from his own god. He and Abram were simply from different spiritual families. The issue was not one of fairness but of loyalty. Abram had not realized how intimately God identified with him, and it took yet more time for him to realize it better.

Secondly, the episode is another illustration of grace: God did not feel the need to correct every mistaken idea Abram may have had, nor discipline every fault of Abram’s character, nor punish every one of Abram’s sins. Looking at this same idea from the other direction, being under God’s blessing is not proof that we are right in what we think and do, nor does it prove that others are wrong if they are not blessed by God. God does not send down blessings or calamities for the purpose of settling theological arguments. He has more important things to reveal to us than the answers to our questions; He is answering the questions we should have asked.

Thirdly, the episode makes it clear that God took care to keep His name known in the world, and the knowledge He preserved there was not, and is not, insignificant. Even this lame Pharaoh of a dying kingdom knew more about God Most High than we give him credit for. Egypt, the rest of the Middle East, and the rest of the world, did not have access to that knowledge of God that provided the hope of the Messiah and salvation, but the knowledge God did give out was the knowledge He chose to give out, and would accomplish His purposes in their lives. God was content that virtually the whole world remained in relative darkness while He slowly got to know and be known by a single family, so either God did not care about the desperate plight of a world dieing without the knowledge of God, or else their plight was not as desperate as we thought.

Finally the episode shows us that God did not choose Abram because he understood God better than others, nor that he had more faith than others, nor that he was more righteous than others. Abram’s limitations and weaknesses were the common ones. So why did God choose Abram? As we shall soon see, the first part of the answer is that Abram was very similar to Noah in one critical respect: he did not try to do God’s job for Him. Abram was a man who knew his limits and he was able to wait for God to accomplish His own promises in His own way. But this is only half of the answer, and it was only half of the answer with Noah as well.

The other half of the answer is that God loved him, with no further explanation. But Abram had so little going for him! Can’t we narrow the focus to some specific character traits that God valued in Abram? Perhaps so, but even if we do we would be all wrong to think that those traits caused God to love him. It is similar to what we call “falling in love”. We may be able to specify what we like in the beloved: beauty, kindness, intelligence, punctuality, whatever. But none of these are the actual reasons we love them.  Indeed we can always find others who are more beautiful, more kind, more intelligent, more punctual, than the beloved but they do not attract the way the beloved does. The chemistry of such things cannot be explained. Similarly God never offers any explanation for why He chooses one but not another. If such love is a mystery for humans, it is more so for God. We must take care to remember what it felt like to fall in love. It is not a matter of reason, it is not a matter of being fair, it is not a matter of rationally evaluating the candidates objectively. Of course God does not “fall in love” exactly like we do. But He gave us the experience of falling in love to give us a glimpse of how He feels about us. In short, God loved Pharaoh but He was in love with Abram.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: