Okay, So Just Pretend That You’re My Sister (Gen. 12)

Abram—one of the most significant figures in Judaism, Christianity and Islam—is curiously introduced in Genesis. After a brief description of his lineage in Gen. 11, Abram’s primary importance is summed up in Gen. 12 that “the LORD spoke to Abram” and told him some pretty sweet things: “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse” (Gen. 12:2-3*). In other words, God purportedly said to Abram that he was a really important dude, and, pretty much whatever he wanted to do God would have his back.

This Abram, you’d think, must be a pretty good dude, right? A hero? Someone to admire?

Wrong. After a famine hits the land of Canaan, where Abram decided to settle ostensibly without any direct mandate from God (Gen. 12:5), Abram decides to pack up his stuff and move to Egypt. There’s just one problem:

When he was about to enter Egypt, [Abram] said to his wife Sarai, ‘I know well that you are a woman beautiful in appearance; and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is my wife’; then they will kill me, but they will let you live. Say you are my sister, so that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared on your account.'”

How noble! The text of Genesis doesn’t contain much in the way of whether this was really an issue, or, for that matter, why Abram and Sarai had to go to Egypt specifically. (Sure there was a famine in Canaan and all, but why not go somewhere else?) Sure enough, when they get to Egypt, everything goes as Abram had predicted, and Sarai gets to be a wife of the Pharaoh, where she’s presumably raped/used as a concubine. In return, Abram gets “sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male and female slaves, female donkeys and camels” (Gen. 12:16). Well that sure worked out well for Abram. But what about poor Sarai? And what about all these slaves? Isn’t slaveholding wrong?

Ah, but then comes the LORD with Abram’s back! He issues “great plagues” because of Sarai, and this causes Pharaoh to give Sarai up and figure out, inexplicably, what’s going on. “‘Why did you not tell me that she was your wife?'” Pharaoh asks Abram (Gen. 12:18). Indeed, Abram, why? This question seems to indicate that Pharaoh wouldn’t have just killed Abram for her, right? Why else would he ask — he should just know what the reason is. After all, Pharaoh “dealt well” (Gen. 12:18) with Abram; furthermore, upon learning that Sarai was Abram’s wife, Pharaoh just lets them go—he doesn’t even kill or punish Abram at all!

But God shouldn’t get off either: Wait, LORD, if you had Abram’s back, then why did you create this famine in Canaan and allow him to send Sarai into sexual slavery? And doesn’t this whole plague issuance indicate to Abram that maybe, just maybe, God didn’t want him to sell his wife for some farm animals?

Some introduction, indeed.

*For this post I’m quoting not out of the NIV, but from the NSRV.

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