YHWH called Abram to found his nation. Abram obeyed, leaving the Babel region behind, travelling to the land YHWH chose. There Abram constructed altars—symbols of YHWH’s authority.
But there are constant threats to the fulfilment of YHWH’s promise. A famine drives Abram out of the land, into the jaws of Egypt—the most powerful kingdom of the region (12:10). Abram knows that the rulers of earthly kingdoms take whatever they want, even if they have to kill to get it. He fears they will kill him to take Sarai (12:12).
To resolve this threat, Abram devises a wily scheme. He will pass Sarai off as his sister. Instead of killing him to take Sarai, the Egyptians can pay him to have Sarai (12:13). It works (12:15). Pharaoh pays a handsome bride price, and Abram gains from this royal connection:
Genesis 12:16 (NIV)
He [Pharaoh] treated Abram well for her sake, and Abram acquired sheep and cattle, male and female donkeys, male and female servants, and camels.
Sarai is coerced into complying: effectively, “If you don’t go along with this, I’ll be dead and it will be your fault.”
What were Abram and Sarai thinking? How did they imagine this would play out? YHWH honoured them as the founders of his nation, but Abram sells Sarai off to produce children for the kingdom of Egypt instead? Tragically, they have capitulated to earthly powers and sold out God’s nation before it even began.
What should YHWH do? Should he give up on these unfaithful representatives, and start again with someone else? The great sovereign sides with his traitorous representatives, against Pharaoh! YHWH afflicts the great house of Pharaoh (12:17). He promised to curse anyone who dishonoured his representative (12:3), so that’s what he does. He brings affliction on Pharaoh, even though the fault lies with Abram.
Pharaoh realizes something is amiss. He sees that his troubles are caused by Abram’s lies. Pharaoh condemns Abram for his duplicity (12:18-19). Abram is publicly shamed, and ejected from Egypt (12:20).
Abram has shamed the monarch he represents. Despite Abram’s failure, YHWH is still shown to be the greatest sovereign—even greater than the greatest of the rulers of the nations. Abram’s mistake was to fear the earthly ruler: it would have been wiser to fear the one who really rules.
In the centuries that lie ahead, Abram’s descendants will face similar threats in their struggle with the earthly powers. In Joseph’s day they will also journey to Egypt because of a famine. There they will be afflicted by Pharaoh. YHWH will again send plagues, until Pharaoh sends them out of Egypt. Under Moses’ leadership, both Egypt and Israel see that YHWH rules the nations. He knows how to release people from earthly rule, into his governance (the kingdom of God).
But God’s kingdom restoration project through Abram was almost shipwrecked before it began. Famine threatened them. Earthly powers threated to divide and subsume them. Abram and Sarai sold out. But YHWH rules. He remains faithful, even when we’re unfaithful. His character is our hope.
What others are saying
Nahum M. Sarna, Genesis, The JPS Torah Commentary (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989), 93:
No sooner does Abram receive the divine blessings than the contrasting reality of the present asserts itself. The promises of nationhood and territory seem to be in danger of miscarrying. Famine drives him from the land, and physical peril threatens him and his wife. But God’s purposes cannot be frustrated by human powers. The hand of Providence is ever ready to deliver those whom He has chosen. The theme of peril and reaffirmation of promises is a recurring one throughout the Book of Genesis.
Derek Kidner, Genesis: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1967), 127
The prime importance of the story, however, is its bearing on the promise of land and people. This is the true theme of these chapters, with Abram’s vision under constant challenge. Here, at the first touch of hunger, fear and riches, the vision was lost and the whole enterprise hazarded: it would need plagues to restore Sarai to her destiny (17), and deportation (20) to get Abram back to Canaan.
John Peter Lange et al., A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Genesis (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2008), 396
In the deception which Abram uses, as in the later instances of Jacob and Moses, we see a weakness and impurity of faith which did not yet rely perfectly upon the help of God in his own way and time, but selfishly and eagerly grasped after it. It is not without reproof.
Read Genesis 12:3-20.