In Sunday School this week, we looked at Genesis 12 — the last part, where Abram has Sarai tell Pharaoh that she is his sister.
One of the problems in interpreting the passage is to decide whether it is condemning or condoning Abram and Sarai for what they did. Were they lying? Telling a half-truth?Doubting God’s provision? Were they wrong? Or were they just being crafty?
Another is the general question of how to apply a narrative passage.
After our discussion (and, in most respects, before our discussion), my views are as follows.
- One person asked, “Are we even sure that every passage has an application?” My answer is Yes, based on 2 Timothy 3:16.
- I think the passage itself is silent on whether Abram and Sarai were right or wrong. I assume they were wrong, but it isn’t critical to interpreting the passage.
- Someone in class said the application might be, “God can bless us even when we’re stupid!”. I think that’s sort of correct. The point of the passage is to show how God blessed Abram. The focus is on God’s blessing, not Abram’s righteousness. It doesn’t matter in the passage whether Abram should have lied or had Sarai lie or whether they told a half-truth or whatever. The point isn’t about Abram’s good or bad works at all. It’s just focused on God’s blessing.
- The structure of the passage is interesting: it’s book-ended by two nearly identical sets of verses, in Gen 12:8-9 and 13:3-4. In between is the episode in Egypt. The effect of that is to emphasize the change that took place while in Egypt. There’s a basic before and after picture being presented. When Abram went down to Egypt he was of modest means and when he came back he was rich. So I think the main point of the passage is to explain how he got rich (Gen 13:1-2).
- The passage follows immediately on the heels of God’s promise to Abram in Gen 12:1-3, in which he promised to make Abram’s people preeminent among all the nations of the earth. The next thing we see is God enriching Abram by using the nation of Egypt. It’s an instant demonstration of God’s favor to Abram above all the nations and even through those nations.
- Furthermore, God promised specifically that “I will bless those who bless you, And the one who curses you I will curse”. (Gen 12:3). Abram visits Egypt and what happens? Pharaoh harms Abram by taking his wife, and God curses Pharaoh. Then Pharaoh repents and restores Sarai to Abram and gives him all sorts of gifts, and God blesses Pharaoh again. Again, the promise came first, then a story which instantly demonstrates it.
- There’s more. The most pivotal event in Israel’s history was the exodus. No Israelite reader would have missed the parallels: Israel / Abram left Canaan and went to Egypt because of a famine; Israel / Sarai were taken into Pharaoh’s possession; God sent plagues on Pharaoh; Pharaoh agreed to let them go; Egypt gave them riches before they left (Exodus 12:35-36!) ; they returned to Canaan. The Genesis 12 story foreshadows the greater drama that would follow later.
- When we read stories like this one, we are trained to look for the individual believer and try to figure out what we should imitate in his example. We see this as all about Abram, and have trouble figuring out whether this is saying we should act like Abram or act unlike him. But I suspect the Old Testament Jews would have read this as being about Israel. They would have been reading to see what this said about them as a nation. They would have been encouraged to see God immediately confirm the promises of Genesis 12:1-3 in a visible way. They would have taken heart and trusted that God still had plans for them as a nation and still was sovereign over all the other nations.
- In the same way, I think most of the Old Testament stories are easier to understand if we see them as stories about the nation of Israel, with individual characters as part of the supporting cast, instead of seeing them as mainly about the individual characters with the nation as a part of the supporting cast.
P.S. If you want to see my latest philosophy post, on values, go here.