A Nation in One Man
Immediately following Terah and Abram’s exodus from Ur, we encounter one of the most striking exoduses of all. Following a famine in the land, Abram goes down into Egypt and prophetically lives out the later history of the Exodus. As we will see, the parallels with the later Exodus are quite remarkable.
Abram’s experience of the later history of the Israelite nation in his own life provides us with a great example of the way in which the Exodus pattern serves to connect Israel with the lives of the patriarchs (we will later see how this principle extends to our own relationship to the life of Christ). The children of Abraham have their experience conformed to that of their father or, alternatively, Abram’s experience is always prefiguring and anticipating its fuller realization in the life of his offspring (James Jordan suggests a detailed and expansive relationship here).
When YHWH promises to make Abram a great nation (12:2), this isn’t just fulfilled in Abram’s having many descendants: it is also fulfilled as Abram is made into a prototype and paradigm for those who are descended from him. Abram’s own life is blown up to the size of a great nation, his life like a small scale model of a mighty edifice. As we see the development of the Exodus theme in Scripture, it is akin to a line of Russian dolls of increasing size being lined up next to each other on a table. Not only do these dolls look similar, they also fit inside each other, exhibiting an internal unity. As we see the dolls fitting into each other, we see how a single figure such as Abram is able to sum up the entire nation of Israel in himself and how Israel’s identity arises out of his.
The Apostle Paul teaches this same principle in regard to our relationship to Abram. YHWH’s accounting of righteousness to Abram in Genesis 15:6 is not merely an accounting of righteousness to Abram as an individual, but an imputing of righteousness to all of his seed who share the same faith (Romans 4:20-25).
Different Forms of Reading
A common approach to the reading of such passages as Genesis 12:10-20 focuses our attention upon figures such as Abram as examples of faith and unbelief. This passage supposedly manifests Abram’s unbelief in leaving the land of Canaan that had been promised to him and going into Egypt. Abram was fearful, lacking faith and, rather than telling the truth, he sinned by lying to Pharaoh about Sarai being his wife. From this we learn that we need to be people of faith, unlike Abram was in this narrative, trusting God, even in the ‘famines’ of our lives.
While this reading may appear to be a natural one, it tends to gloss over the troubling details in the passage. Rather than punishing or rebuking Abram for his lack of faith, God makes him rich and plagues Pharaoh and his household. Peter Leithart writes:
While one can mine nuggets of moral instruction from the depths of the text, the Bible’s apparent lessons are difficult, and not infrequently troubling. Abraham goes to Egypt, deceives Pharaoh about his relationship to Sarah, and leaves Egypt richer than ever. What’s the lesson—that lying pays? What moral do we draw from Moses’ killing of the Egyptian, or Joshua’s slaughter of everything that breathed at Jericho? The more we read the Bible, the clearer it becomes that the book isn’t a Hebraic Aesop’s fables.
While we do need to read the stories of the patriarchs as examples of faith and occasional examples of wavering unbelief, for the most part, such an exemplary role for our ethical reflections is not their chief purpose. Also, as we shall see, in this case, Abram’s actions were not sinful, nor did they spring from the lack of faith that many suppose.
The purpose of such passages becomes clearer when we begin to recognize the typological character of biblical narrative. The story of Abram is given to us as a deep source for our identity as his children and as an anticipation of our destiny as the people of God. As we read the story of Abram’s exodus from Egypt, we are supposed to recognize that this is a ‘Russian doll’ that looks forward to and fits inside the great Exodus accomplished by Christ, in whom we have been caught up. Abram’s story is thus a story in which we need to be able to see both Christ and ourselves, the children of Abraham in the promised Seed.
In Genesis 12:10-20 Abram leaves Canaan for Egypt on account of a famine in the land. Before entering Egypt, he asks Sarai to tell the Egyptians that she was his sister. This, of course, was technically true, as we see in 20:12, although an extremely partial truth. This may seem to be a purely self-interested action on Abram’s part, but there were good reasons for it. Abram, we must remember, was not a solitary pilgrim, accompanied only by his wife, but was at the head of several hundred persons. If anything happened to Abram, they would all be under threat too. Abram’s safety was of paramount importance.
Abram’s plan hinged on the custom of the brother having the duty of protecting his sister and vetting suitors (Genesis 24:29-31, 50-51, 60; 34). If Pharaoh thought that Sarai was Abram’s wife, Abram would have to be killed. However, if Pharaoh thought that Abram was her brother, he wouldn’t be perceived as an insurmountable obstacle. In such a situation, Abram would be able to hold off on giving permission and stall for time.
Abram’s plan doesn’t really work: Pharaoh just takes Sarai, although he does treat Abram well for her sake. At this point, Abram’s plan having failed, Abram and Sarai and the many other persons with them are cast entirely upon God’s protection.
In Scripture we see many examples of righteous deception, where the righteous mislead tyrants to save their lives and the lives of others, or to defeat evil persons. The Hebrew midwives deceive Pharaoh, Rahab deceives the men of Jericho, Jael deceives Sisera, Michal deceives Saul, Esther deceives Haman, etc. The serpent is the great deceiver, but the righteous are as shrewd as serpents and can outwit him. As the righteous deceive tyrants, poetic justice is delivered upon the serpent who first incited mankind to fall.
Several features of the story of Abram in Egypt mark it out as akin to the story of the Exodus.
Abram leaves Canaan for Egypt on account of a severe famine (12:10), something that his descendants will one day do (45:9-11). Egypt is a place where the men of Israel will be threatened with death, while the women risk being taken as captive brides, in Abram’s day as in Moses’. In both cases, shrewd deception is used as a means of protection from the tyrant.
The description of the Egyptians seeing that Sarai was beautiful, taking her, and commending her to Pharaoh should remind us of the pattern of the Fall, a pattern that we see repeated on several occasions in Genesis. The sons of God seeing the beauty of the daughters of men and taking them in Genesis 6, the sin and judgment of Ham in Genesis 9, and Abram, Sarai, and Hagar in Genesis 16 are further examples of such allusions.
The account of the beautiful woman being taken to Pharaoh’s house might also remind us of the story of the beautiful infant Moses (cf. Exodus 2:2), where the woman’s seed is taken to Pharaoh’s house. Behind both of these stories we should hear Genesis 3:14-15: there is enmity between the serpent and the woman and her seed. The serpent will seek to capture the woman and her child and resist or destroy their guardians. In later studies, we shall see more of the importance of the woman within the exodus pattern.
While Sarai is in the house of Pharaoh, Abram prospers for her sake. The multiplication of population or possessions while in captivity is a common exodus theme, as we shall see. Leithart notes Jerome Walsh’s observation of the chiastic (ABCBA) structure of the passage.
A. Abram in Egypt to escape famine, 12:10
B. Sarai taken to harem, 12:11-15 (Sarai poses as sister)
C. Pharaoh treats Abram well, 12:16
C’. Yahweh strikes Pharaoh with plagues, 12:17-19a
B’. Pharaoh returns Sarai, 12:19b (“She is my sister”)
A’. Pharaoh expels Abram, 12:20
At the centre of this chiasm we see the list of the gifts that Pharaoh gave to Abram (v.16). This list is also chiastic in structure, with male and female servants at its centre. This is significant. Just as Moses enters Egypt from Midian as a small number, but leaves with a host of former Hebrew slaves of Pharaoh, so Abram leaves Egypt with many former slaves of Pharaoh (we may presume that Hagar was one of these – 16:1).
There is good evidence to suggest that these servants experienced a genuine form of liberation as they became part of Abram’s sheikhdom. Abram’s servants were covenant members (17:12-13) and, at this point in time, one of Abram’s homeborn servants was his heir (15:2-3). As they were adopted as members of Abram’s household, they would share in the promises made to him, eventually going on to become members of the tribes, each belonging to the company of one of the tribes. We will return to the theme of the liberation of slaves and servants at a later point and will comment on it in far more detail, so I won’t go into much detail on this point here.
The parallels with the Exodus continue as God plagues Pharaoh for refusing to let the bride/seed go (v.17). When Pharaoh realizes the cause of the plagues and that Sarai is Abram’s wife, he accuses Abram of mistreating him – why didn’t Abram tell him that Sarai was his wife? Far too many commentators side with Pharaoh’s assessment of Abram here. However, a careful reading of the story should show that Abram was in the right. Pharaoh and his men had disregarded custom in taking Sarai, without properly asking Abram’s permission. Although Pharaoh had given Abram gifts, he hadn’t honoured Abram’s role as the brotherly guardian of Sarai. Pharaoh suggest that he might just have taken Sarai as his wife, unaware that she was Abram’s wife (vv.18-19). The problem with Pharaoh’s claim is that it just presumes Abram’s permission, which hadn’t been granted.
As we look through Scripture, we will see that the wicked continually accuse the righteous of wronging them and play the innocent wounded victim. Abimelech blames Abraham (Genesis 20:9), Abimelech blames Isaac (Genesis 26:10), Esau blames Jacob (Genesis 27:36), Laban blames Jacob (Genesis 31:26), Pharaoh blames Moses (Exodus 10:28), Saul blames David (1 Samuel 20:31), Ahab blames Elijah (1 Kings 18:17), the city mobs blame the apostles (Acts 16:20). The unrighteous still love to paint the righteous as aggressors and offenders against the peace. If we have been paying attention to the pattern in Scripture, we should know better than to take such claims at face value.
The Israelites will one day be driven out of Egypt by Pharaoh. Here Abram and his people are told that they must leave. Like the Israelites after him (Exodus 12:35-36), Abram leaves with great possessions, having received great gifts from the Egyptians and become rich during his sojourn.
Return to the Land
On Abram’s return to the land, he re-established the altar at Bethel and proclaimed the name of YHWH again. By this point, Abram’s sheikhdom has grown so large that the land couldn’t support both him and Lot and there was conflict between their herdsmen (13:7). Lot and Abram go their separate ways, Lot moving towards the plain of Jordan (vv.12-13). God promises the land to Abram, instructing him to walk the length and width of the land (v.17). Abram surveys the land as he walks through it, claiming ownership of it. He establishes another altar at Hebron.
In chapter 14, following the capture of Lot, we see Abram playing a role that he hadn’t played before. While Abram’s initial role had been the priestly one of establishing new worship within the land, after Lot’s capture we see him playing the role of a king, gaining victory over other kings within the land. Following his exodus from Egypt, Abram advances to becoming a prototype Joshua, the commander of an avenging army within the Promise Land. By this stage Abram, who left Haran no more than ten years earlier (cf. 12:4; 16:16), already had over three hundred military trained and ready homeborn servants (14:14). One presumes that the larger body of servants – including those who were given to him by Pharaoh in Egypt – were left behind with the women, children, flocks, herds, and possessions, suggesting that Abram really was a force to be reckoned with within the land.
Abram’s victory over the kings ends with an encounter with Melchizedek, King of Salem (cf. Psalm 76:2), who gives Abram bread and wine, as tokens of victory and kingly rest. Having previously remarked upon the connection between wine and kingly rule and rest, this is significant.
In Genesis 12:10—14:24, we see Abram experience an exodus from Egypt, foreshadowing the future Exodus of the children of Israel. The bride is captured and later released. The foreign tyrant is plagued and then accuses the righteous man. Abram prospers and delivers many slaves with him when he is told to depart. Returning to the land he walks throughout the land, surveying it, as the spies will later do during the Exodus (Numbers 13:17-25). In Genesis 14 we see Abram as the first Joshua, a shrewd military leader and tactician, gaining victory over kings within the land. Finally, we see him enjoying the fruits of victory and Noahic rest from the hands of the priest king of Salem.
Abram is the man who encapsulates and anticipates the later history of the nation within himself. When the Israelites leave Egypt and enter into the land, they will be following in the footsteps of their faithful father Abram. As they go proceed by faith, they will manifest themselves as his children and discover their destiny within him.
So it is for us, those who are in the true Seed of Abraham, Jesus Christ. In him we find the source of our identity and the realization of our destiny. In the Church the name of Jesus Christ is made great, and the one Man is made into a mighty nation.