Abram goes to Egypt
The story of Abram going down to Egypt is quite a weird one, regardless of how you look at it.
It is difficult to understand why it is included in Beresheit, let alone to understand what it means in the larger story in which it sits. But when you look more closely at it, certain familiar images appear which give it an authenticity and value not seen before.
Continuing on from my last post, we find that when Abram finally arrives at the land God has promised him, he finds it inhabited by the Canaanites.
There is little, if any, room for Abram.
To make matters worse, we read next that there is a famine in the land, driving Abram and his family down to Egypt.
Abram travelled through the land as far as the site of the great tree of Moreh at Shechem. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. 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.
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 if we know what comes next, as would the original hearers of this story, we would see the similarities between Abram and Jacob’s (Israel’s) family.
They also went down to Egypt when the famine was too severe in the land of Canaan. And like Israel, Abram also gets trapped by Pharaoh in Egypt, although perhaps for very different reasons.
Abram’s undying love for Sarai
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 she was a very beautiful woman. And when Pharaoh’s officials saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh, and she was taken into his palace.
This seems a really strange thing for Abram to do. A cynic might say that Abram had an undying love for Sarai – he wasn’t going to die because of her.
But Abram knew more about the culture of the place than we do, so we need to give him credit for being shrewd in the way he approached this somewhat delicate situation.
Now unlike Israel, Abram was treated very well by Pharaoh; but Pharaoh and the Egyptians didn’t fare so well because of God’s purposes for Abram. God’s promise that Abram’s descendants should own the land of Canaan could not come about if he had no wife.
Sarai needed to be returned to him if God’s covenant was going to be fulfilled, the whole future of God’s plans depended upon it.
So God intervened to plague the Egyptians until Abram’s deception was shown up and he was evicted from the land, carrying with him all the gifts and booty given to him on account of Sarai.
He (Pharaoh) treated Abram well for her sake, and Abram acquired sheep and cattle, male and female donkeys, menservants and maidservants, and camels. But the LORD inflicted serious diseases on Pharaoh and his household because of Abram’s wife Sarai. So 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.
Israel in Egypt
So we see the story of Israel’s time in Egypt pre-figured in Abram.
Famine drives them to Egypt, and once in Egypt they find favour with Pharaoh, Abram because of Sarai, and Israel because of Joseph.
But that favour doesn’t last, because God wants them in eretz-Israel, not eretz Mitzraim. God is taking them to the land He has prepared for them. Life may have seemed good in Egypt, but whilst in Egypt they could never be the people God intended them to be. Egypt needed to realise that Abram and Sarai, Israel, needed to be in the promised land, the new eretz being created by God.
And so God stepped in to convince Pharaoh to let His people go.
The “plunder” that Abram brought back with him as a result of his ruse, could be seen as the tribute paid by the nations to the priestly nation of God.
It’s interesting to note that the Israelites also “plundered” the Egyptians when they came out of Egypt. (Exodus 12:35)
This little escapade highlights a common theme that runs through the Tanach, and even the Apostolic writings.
Time and again we see these themes of exile and return. Exile occurs usually through the sin of God’s people, and He allows them to return to Him once their sin is acknowledged and a saviour figure arrives.
The sin of Adam and his wife originally exiled them from the land. Cain was exiled to a greater degree when he murdered his brother. Then after Seth, when men began to call upon the name of the Lord, He sent Noah to bring judgement on sin and restore the land to its former state.
Return to the land often brings a re-creation in some sense.
After Noah, though, the cycle of sin continued, and instead of wiping out sin, God sent Abram to live amongst it and bring a different sort of judgement, a dividing of people.
But sin and the curse upon the land drove Abram into exile in Egypt, not because of his own sin, but because of the sin of the eretz, the land, in which he lived.
Eretz-Canaan needed to be re-created, so Abram was sent to Egypt where he effectively became captured by Pharaoh, his wife being stolen from him.
So now we see God Himself step in as the saviour of Abram, inflicting the Egyptians with disease until they realised that they needed to release Sarai and let Abram go.
So Abram returns to eretz-Canaan, having defeated the power of Pharaoh and taken much wealth from him in the process.
This little incident in Egypt bundles together a lot of images that give meaning to later events in Israel’s history.
We also see traces of these in the story of Jesus the Messiah. He came into a land that was suffering under the curse of sin, and he was forced by means of death on a cross to descend into the depths of Sheol, the place of the dead. If he had remained there, then none of God’s promises could have been fulfilled. So God raised him from the dead, plundering the power of death from the evil one who held the world hostage by it. A truly incredible image that shines through such a weird little story.
And through Jesus 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 build up the church.
Abram’s ascension from Egypt was pattern for many things to come.