In Genesis 14, we come to the story of Abram’s visit to Egypt and the somewhat peculiar incidents that follow.
I say peculiar, because they are strange events to us, even though similar events occur later in Genesis. But what seems to us a strange and quirky little story has a far greater significance for the story of God’s people than we could imagine at first glance.
This story of Abram descending to and ascending from Egypt becomes prototypical, it sets a pattern, for the whole history of Israel that follows. And that’s what we want to explore in this article.
We pick up the story at chapter 12, verse 7, where Abram has recently come into the land of Canaan, only to find it inhabited, strangely enough, by Canaanites.
“The LORD appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built an altar there to the LORD, who had appeared to him. From there he went on toward the hills east of Bethel and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east. There he built an altar to the LORD and called on the name of the LORD. Then Abram set out and continued toward the Negev.”
So God appears to Abram and tells him that He is going to give this land to Abram and his descendants. Notice that God doesn’t tell him where the boundaries of the land are, or when He will give it to him – simply that it will happen. Abram responds by building an altar and moving southwards through the land – toward the Negev.
The story continues:
“Now there was a famine in the land, and Abram went down to Egypt to live there for a while because the famine was severe.”
Now Abram must have wondered what use God’s promises really amounted to, because not only is the land already inhabited, but there is famine in the land as well. So he keeps going south, all the way down to Egypt.
Then we get to the weird bit in the story:
“As he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, “I know what a beautiful woman you are. When the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me but will let you live. Say you are my sister, so that I will be treated well for your sake and my life will be spared because of you.”
When Abram came to Egypt, the Egyptians saw that Sarai was a very beautiful woman. And when Pharaoh’s officials saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh, and she was taken into his palace. He treated Abram well for her sake, and Abram acquired sheep and cattle, male and female donkeys, male and female servants, and camels. “
Now we don’t really know why Abram did this. We can only guess that this was Abram’s way of declaring his undying love for Sarai – he wasn’t going to get killed for her.
But in spite of the wealth he is accumulating, Abram is now trapped in Egypt. The land he was promised is already inhabited and drought-stricken, and now his wife through whom he was meant to become a great nation has been taken away from him by Pharaoh.
At this stage, all of God’s promises seem to have failed. Everything Abram had been promised seems to have been taken away from him. He cannot return to the Promised Land, and now he has no wife to begin the family that God has promised. All appears to be lost.
“But the LORD inflicted serious diseases on Pharaoh and his household because of Abram’s wife Sarai. “
So God steps in and punishes Pharaoh to force him to release Sarai.
“Pharaoh summoned Abram. “What have you done to me?” he said. “Why didn’t you tell me she was your wife? Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her to be my wife? Now then, here is your wife. Take her and go!” Then Pharaoh gave orders about Abram to his men, and they sent him on his way, with his wife and everything he had. “
It’s interesting to note that it was common practice for Pharaohs and senior aristocracy in Egypt to marry their sisters, so when Pharaoh realised that Abram had married his own sister, Pharaoh at this point probably saw Abram as a real political threat, as well as the threat of judgement by God upon his household. It certainly would have caused Abram to be regarded as a far more powerful and potentially dangerous threat.
Not only does Pharaoh release Sarai, but he sends Abram back north to Canaan with all the possessions he had accumulated in Egypt. So Abram, in effect, plunders the Egyptians, and carts off all the wealth he had accumulated because of Sarai.
“So Abram went up from Egypt to the Negev, with his wife and everything he had, and Lot went with him. Abram had become very wealthy in livestock and in silver and gold.”
Now we want to stand back a bit and look at the key points to this story. I mentioned at the outset that this story becomes a prototype for the history of Israel, so we want to draw out the key elements and look at them more closely.
God’s people in exile
- The descent into exile. This is usually done willingly, as a means of averting disaster [Abram goes to Egypt because there was famine in Canaan]
- Fleeing from danger – starvation, warfare
- Looking for a place of safety
- Trapped in exile by oppressors [Sarai taken by Pharaoh]
- God judges the oppressors [Plague upon Pharaoh]
- God’s judgment vindicates His people and sets them free [Pharaoh sends Abram & Sarai away]
- Plunder taken from oppressors and God’s people return to their land [Abram is loaded up with gifts from Pharaoh]
Now this pattern can be seen in several of the key stories in the Bible. We see it repeated in the story of Jacob.
- Jacob flees for his life from his brother Esau. He doesn’t go to Egypt, but rather to Padan Aram, the home of his relatives.
- He gets deceived and trapped into working for Laban for fourteen years in order to marry Rachel.
- God judges Laban by allowing Jacob to prosper at his expense.
- Jacob escapes from Laban’s household while he is away
- Jacob returns from Laban’s service a very wealthy man.
We see this pattern most clearly in the story of the Exodus from Egypt under Moses.
- Jacob and his 12 sons went down to Egypt because of a famine in the land of Israel. They were looking for food and trying to avoid starvation.
- Once in Egypt, Israel grew numerous and strong to the point where they became a threat to Egypt. So they were forced into slavery and oppression to keep them subdued.
- Ten plagues on Egypt as a result of Pharaoh’s obstinacy.
- Pharaoh admits defeat and sends Israel out to Sinai.
- Israelites ask Egyptians for gold, jewellery and gifts as they leave Egypt.
We see the same pattern, although slightly different, in Babylon
- The exile into Babylon was not really a voluntary exile, but it was an exile that the people of Judah either had to accept willingly or face death by the sword. They were fleeing warfare and violence. Those that didn’t go willingly to Babylon were hunted down and killed (Jeremiah 42, Ezekiel 6).
- The Jews prospered in Babylon and some were appointed to high office (Daniel, Esther). They became a threat to the internal power structure and faced oppression and elaborate plots to decimate them (Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach & Abednego, Haman).
- God judges the Babylonians and they are overthrown by the Medes and Persians.
- Persian rulers become convinced of God’s authority and send the Jews back to rebuild Jerusalem and the temple.
- Cyrus and Darius pay for the repatriation of the Jews and the costs of rebuilding the temple.
So there is a pattern here that is repeated at least four times, with the same elements showing up in different ways. And so it establishes a certain way of life for God’s people while we wait for the age to come.
There will always be times of exile, oppression and return from exile for God’s people. The book of Judges also talks about this, but in a microcosmic way – God’s people drift away from God, they suffer at the hands of oppressors, and then they are restored when God intervenes with a judge. The process goes on and on in many different ways.
And so it’s this pattern of exile and return that Matthew wants to refer to when he quotes from Hosea. “Out of Egypt I called my son”.
Now for many people, the story of Jesus’ birth is about the beginning of Christianity, the birth of this special person who started a religion that turned the world upside down. When we hear the Christmas story re-told each year, most of the focus is on the child who will grow up to become a great teacher and saviour of the world. And this is fair enough.
But when you read the gospel accounts of the story of Jesus’ birth, we get the distinct impression that rather than being the beginning of something, the birth of Jesus becomes a fulfilment, an end if you like, to thousands of years of waiting. All four of the gospel writers draw us back into the history of Israel and beyond to explain what the birth of Jesus is all about.
John likens the birth of Jesus to the re-creation of the world, the restoration of creation to its original holiness and beauty.
Luke draws us back into a fruit-salad of prophecies and promises from all of the Psalms and prophets in the songs of Mary and Zechariah, and rounds it out with a genealogy that identifies Jesus as the son of Adam and Son of God.
Mark draws us back into Isaiah, and sees Jesus as the Anointed One, the Messiah of God, who is going to re-establish God’s kingdom on the earth.
And then there’s Matthew, who begins his gospel with a genealogy of Jesus that shows him as the son of David and the son of Abraham, and bundles in prophecies from Micah and Hosea to reinforce the point.
Matthew begins with a genealogy of Jesus, which separates his ancestors in 3 lots of 14 generation. The first one begins with Abraham, the second with David, and the third with the exile.
This is the backdrop Matthew paints for the birth of Jesus. This is where Israel has come from, and this is where the nation is at the moment.
There are fourteen generations from Abraham to David, fourteen generations from David to the deportation to Babylon, and now fourteen more generations have passed since that event.
So with the birth of Jesus, Israel has entered the final stage of that history.
With Abraham, Israel was wandering through the land of Canaan;
with David, Israel was living in prosperity in the Promised Land.
But now, in this last set of fourteen generations, Israel is seen as living in exile.
So the exile is the most recent significant event in Israel’s history.
Even though the Jews are living in Israel and with a temple in Jerusalem, they still see themselves as in exile, because their country is occupied by the invading Roman army. Their ultimate king is Caesar, and the puppet who sits on the throne of Israel is not a descendant of David, but a descendant of Esau.
And Matthew picks up this frame of mind when he quotes Micah.
Micah 5:1 “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times. Therefore Israel will be abandoned until the time when she who is in labour bears a son, and the rest of his brothers return to join the Israelites. He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they will live securely, for then his greatness will reach to the ends of the earth. ”
Now notice that Micah is talking about a time when the exile will be finished, and God’s people “will live securely”. When out of Bethlehem Ephrathah will come a “ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times. He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.”
So Matthew is saying that Israel is currently living in exile. Israel has been “abandoned” until the Messiah would be born. And it is this good news about the birth of Jesus the Messiah that means that Israel’s exile is now going to end.
Then Matthew gives us an account of how Herod reacts to this news that the Magi bring to him, by ordering the slaughter of all the children born in Bethlehem that are under two years of age.
An angel then warns Joseph of this impending slaughter and he packs up his family and takes them Egypt, safely out of the way until the death of Herod.
So we’re back to the exile pattern again that we first read about with Abram.
Matt 2:14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”
Now it’s interesting that Matthew injects this sentence and the quote at this point, rather than waiting until further on in the story after he has explained what Herod did to the children. We would have expected this sentence to come down at about verse 20 where we read about the angel telling Joseph to return to Israel.
But Matthew injects it here, as if to make a definite point. It’s almost as if he is saying that “out of Egypt I called my son” is describing Joseph’s flight to Egypt, rather than his return.
Because, after all, surely it is in Egypt that they throw infants into the Nile, like they did at the time of Moses; it is in Egypt where God’s people were oppressed and humiliated for 400 years, not in Israel. Israel was meant to be a place of security and prosperity.
Matthew appears to be saying that Israel has now become like Egypt. Israel is now intent on destroying God’s people, not protecting them. God’s people are in exile in their own land. And we get another hint of this if we read the full prophecy of Hosea from which this quote is taken.
Hos 11:1 “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. The more they were called, the more they went away; they kept sacrificing to the Baals and burning offerings to idols. Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk; I took them up by their arms, but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of kindness, with the bands of love, and I became to them as one who eases the yoke on their jaws, and I bent down to them and fed them.”
In this passage we hear that in spite of God’s grace in rescuing His people out of slavery in Egypt, Israel consistently and continually turned their backs on God and walked away from Him. They kept sacrificing to the Baals and other idols. They refused to listen to the One who was calling them, the one who taught them to walk and become an independent nation.
In spite of God’s kindness, they refused to love Him, but followed other gods instead.
And so God sent them into exile, so that they could learn first-hand what life was like serving other gods.
But when they returned from Babylon, things didn’t improve much. There was still a heart of rebellion and sin that kept leading Israel away from God.
And here is Israel now, still in exile, and its self-appointed King has become like the Pharaoh in Egypt, murdering infants in an effort to prevent his authority being overthrown.
But with the birth of Jesus, a new exodus is beginning, a new return from exile is about to occur. A return from exile within their own land to a land that God has promised to give them. A land without any borders – like God’s promise to Abram – but a land where God lives with His people and rules by His word and Spirit.
And so the story of Jesus also displays this cycle of exile and return.
- Like Abram, Jesus descended – but not into Egypt. Rather he descended from his throne in heaven to live amongst his people and become one like them and with them. And he did this voluntarily, so that He could restore the world that sin had corrupted so badly.
- And He became trapped by His oppressors. The political and religious leaders arrested Him and falsely accused Him, before passing the death sentence on Him.
- But in dying on the cross, God judged His oppressors for all of eternity. The curse of sin and death was destroyed forever and the accuser who is always trying to destroy the people of God has himself been destroyed. More than that, on the cross, Jesus “disarmed the powers and authorities, (making) a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross”
- And this judgement upon sin has freed all of God’s people from the power and penalty of sin. There is now no condemnation for all of those who trust in Jesus for forgiveness.
- And in winning this victory, God gives the gift of the Holy Spirit to His church. Eph 4:7 But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it says, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.” Ps 68:17 You ascended on high, leading a host of captives in your train and receiving gifts among men, even among the rebellious, that the Lord God may dwell there. Blessed be the Lord, who daily bears us up; God is our salvation. Our God is a God of salvation, and to God, the Lord, belong deliverances from death.
Just as Abram ascended from Egypt, laden with much gold, silver and livestock to build a nation; just as Jacob returned from Laban with all the flocks and herds he could manage; just as the Jews returned from Babylon with gifts and money to rebuild God’s temple; so when Jesus ascended from the grave to the right hand of the Father, He gave the gift of His Holy Spirit to the church, so that it could be strengthened and built up.
So Matthew’s words take on a new meaning.
“Out of Egypt I called my son. We have now left Egypt. The exile is over!
This cycle of exile and return has now been broken forever. Never again will God reject His people and abandon them to their enemies. Never again will He be angry with His people and send them away from His presence.
Now the dwelling of God is with men, in the words of John. Not in the fullness of the new Jerusalem that John was talking about in Revelation – that’s still coming-, but through the presence of the Holy Spirit. God remains with His people wherever they may be.
We now speak of God coming to live with His people in the person of Jesus Christ. The exile is over, and we all have access into the holy of holies, into the very presence of the almighty God, our creator and friend.
This is why at the birth of Jesus, the angel choruses sang in the fields to the shepherds and to the whole universe. God’s plan from the time of Adam’s sin in the garden of Eden is now being completed. One has been born who will crush the serpent’s head and allow God’s people to return from exile.
Because we have been living in exile for a long, long time – long before Abram, even. Our exile started when Adam and Eve were thrown out of the garden of Eden.
Ever since that time we have been waiting and longing to return from our exile of wandering aimlessly about, east of Eden, fighting the thorns and thistles, struggling with broken relationships between husbands and wives, between brother and brother and every other family member; trying to find our way back to a God who is far too holy for us to even approach.
And so the good news of Jesus is that this exile is over. God has brought judgement upon everything in the universe that would stand in the way of His people returning to Him. Jesus has now made this possible through His life, His death and His resurrection.
But there is still a bit missing, isn’t there? Even though God lives with His people through His Spirit, we don’t see the fullness of His holiness and righteousness, because we still see sin and its effects lingering on in this world.
Sin and death have been defeated, but they’re still hanging around, until the time when God finally throws them out of the universe. The exile is over, we can now return to God and live as His people, but we still have to travel the road back to the Promised Land.
And so as we return from exile, we still experience some of the effects of exile. When we become one with Jesus Christ, Paul tells us that we also share in His sufferings. We experience something of the exile and abandonment that Jesus went through.
There are times when God still seems so far away. Times when the world seems to have won, and tyrants and dictators murder and oppress the weak and powerless; the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, the strong get stronger and the weak get weaker, and we cry out to God “Where are you? Don’t you care about what is going on in the world? When are you going to do something about it?”
And there appears to be no answer. We seem to be living in exile once again.
But we know that’s not the case. We know it because Jesus was raised from the dead and has given us the Holy Spirit to live in us and amongst us.
And so the words that we cry out and the tears we shed and the frustration we feel are really the cries and the tears and the frustrations that the Spirit Himself cries and sheds and feels. Our suffering is an echo of the pain that God feels for this world.
We are not in exile, but we are not home yet.
We are waiting for God’s call to this world to return to Him to be exhausted. The gospel of God’s grace in Jesus is being proclaimed to every part of the world, because God wants the whole world to return to Him and be saved. But God is not going to wait forever.
There is also an exile with no return. An exile into a Godless eternity for those who refuse to bow the knee before Jesus. That’s an exile that nobody should ever want to experience, nor is it necessary for anyone to go that path. God is calling us again today to turn around, and return to Him. The exile is over, so there’s no reason we can’t go back to where we belong, living as fully restored people in the presence of our God and king.