Sometime after Abram worshiped God at Bethel, he went down into Egypt, because there was famine in the land of Canaan. Every commentary I consulted criticizes Abram for doing so, yet we have no proof that Abram did not consult God before going, nor do we have any proof that, even if he hadn’t, that he sinned or made a mistake in doing so. What would sin be like without the law of God? According to Romans 5:13, God wouldn’t have faulted Abram, even if he had sinned. So, why should we find fault?
A similar incident occurred in Jacob’s life in Genesis 42 & 43, and God told him to go down to Egypt (Genesis 46:3) and would make him a great nation there, that is, away from the Promised Land. Did God change is mind? I don’t believe he did, nor do I believe Abram was wrong for trying to provide for those who were with him by going to Egypt, where he could obtain food and a place for his flocks to feed. Whether we like it or not—whether we wish to believe it or not, God blessed both Abram and Jacob in Egypt. What, therefore, can be said of this?
First of all, we are told that Abram went to Egypt to sojourn there. That is, he wasn’t abandoning the promises for something more desirable. It was for the sake of the need of the moment that he went. He was even afraid to go there and devised a plan to keep safe (Genesis 12:11-13). He believed the mighty men of Egypt would kill him in order to take Sarai, his wife, for she was beautiful. Sure enough, Pharaoh took Sarai for his harem and treated Abram very well for her sake (Genesis 12:15-16). What was Abram thinking? Was he willing to sell Sarai for the sake of his own skin—to save his own life? What kind of man would do such a thing?
I believe Abram’s plan was an expression of his faith in God. He went to Egypt as a temporary move, not a permanent one. He was afraid and asked Sarai to pose as his sister to keep him alive. Abram expected God to intervene before anything bad would happen. How do I know this? Well, it wasn’t the habit of the ancient kings to rape their women. New women lived in the king’s harem for awhile before consummating the relationship. This was done so that it could be determined she was not pregnant with another man’s child. The king, in this case Pharaoh, wanted to be certain that only his own progeny would be born to the women of his harem. Therefore, Sarai had time before she would be violated, and Abram had time to resupply his people and return to the land of Canaan. We aren’t certain how long a period that would have been, but for Esther it was a full year (Esther 2:12). Abram was well treated and grew rich in Egypt, so we can logically assume that God was with him there, and there is no reason to believe that Abram didn’t realize all these blessings that came to him through Pharaoh were from God.
Knowing God had promised to make Abram a great nation, it is logical to assume Abram believed God would intervene for Sarai’s sake and allow Abram and everyone with him to leave Egypt and return to Canaan with fresh supplies. This is exactly what occurred. God plagued Pharaoh’s house for Sarai’s sake (Genesis 12:17) through some kind of terrible disease. We are not told how Pharaoh came to realize his problems were due to his taking Sarai into his harem, but it may be because Sarai was the only one in the harem who was not infected! If this was not the case, we can assume he came by his understanding in a manner similar to how Abimelech would later understand his predicament (cp. Genesis 20:3-7).
In any case, Abram was driven out of Egypt by Pharaoh and his mighty men. The call of the world and the call of God are not compatible. Abram, like Moses after him, became an important man in Egypt (cp. Hebrews 11:24-26), and neither man chose the riches of this world over the promises of God. Abram would become a great nation, but this couldn’t happen if he stayed in Egypt as an important man in that culture. God was not interested in revising the culture of Egypt. He wanted to create something new—a new nation, beginning with Abram and Sarai. The text implies that Abram, throughout his fears, depended upon God to help him succeed in his own efforts to resupply his little community and then return to Canaan.
God is sensitive to our fears. He doesn’t require more of us than we are able to offer at any given time in our lives. Both Abram and Sarai acted together to save their lives. If God didn’t promise Abram food for his people and good pasture for his flocks during the famine in Canaan, wouldn’t it be presumptuous of Abram to stay in Canaan and, in effect, force God to provide for him? Jesus, himself, says: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” (Matthew 4:7; Luke 4:12). So, Abram’s conduct in going to Egypt is more respectful toward God’s freedom to act than it would at first seem. Why wouldn’t God bless that attitude?