In the third part of my study of the story of Abraham and his family, I discuss Abram’s sojourn in the land of Egypt, his journeys in Canaan, and his separation from Lot.
Welcome back. Today is the third of my series on the family of Abraham. I am exploring the story of Abraham and his family from Chapters 11 to 50 of the book of Genesis, seeing the way that this family has a tightly-interwoven history and how we can learn about the different characters and the significance of the events by tracing some of the parallels and the ways in which they are juxtaposed with each other.
We are going to be looking at chapters 12 and 13 today, which concern Abraham’s journey into the land of Canaan for the first time, his time in Egypt, and then his return to the land and separation from Lot.
If you look at these two chapters, you will notice, if you are playing close attention, that they are structured, in many respects, as a grand chiasm. A chiasm, as I have described on other occasions before, is a bookend structure where you have bookends coming in to a central section. It enables you to have a unified narrative that is connected in its various parts. If you look through this passage, you will see promises and appearances of God to Abraham at the very beginning (A—12:1-3) and at the end (A’—13:14-17). We have going with Lot at the next stage (B—12:4-5), and then separating from Lot after that (B’—13:5-13). Then you have the description of the Canaanites being in the land (C—12:6b; C’—13:7b). That is 12:6. And then, in 13:7, “The Canaanites and the Perizzites then dwelt in the land.” This would seem to be repetitive and unnecessary: we already know the Canaanites and Perizzites dwell in the land. But the fact it is repeated helps us to see that there is a chiastic structure, that there is this bookend structure being worked out.
Then he goes to Bethel and to Ai and pitches his tent with Bethel in the West and Ai in the East, and builds an altar there (D—12:8). And then, in the second part of the story, in Verses 3 and 4, he returns to that same place (D’—13:3-4). Then we have him journeying to the South in 12:9 (E), and then journeying to the south in 13:1 (E’). Then we have him going to Egypt (F—12:10) and departing from Egypt (F’—12:20). We have him as he comes towards Egypt, saying that Sarah is a beautiful woman. The Egyptians will see her, say it is his wife, take her, and that, if she says that she is his sister, he will be blessed for her sake (G—12:11-13). And that is exactly what we see in the next passage (G’—12:14-16).
This whole passage is a unified text, then, and it is paralleled throughout its different parts. There are several important things that happen within the span of this passage. And, to some extent, the larger chiastic structure can alert us to them. But there is more going on here than the chiastic structure would show.
It begins with a promise that is made to Abraham and a calling that is given to him:
Get out of your country,
From your kindred
And from your father’s house,
To a land that I will show you.
I will make you a great nation;
I will bless you
And make your name great;
And you shall be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
And I will curse him who curses you;
And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.
As we saw last time, this plays off the background of the story of Babel, where the nations—the families of the earth—were scattered and judged, cursed on the basis of their sin. By contrast, here God is forming a nation through a blessing to be a blessing, to address the problem caused by Babel.
He goes out with Lot. Again, as I mentioned last time, Lot, at this point, would seem to be Abram’s natural heir. He is the one who is the son of his brother Haran, who has died, and Abram has taken him under his wing. And Abram and Lot have a sort of father-son relationship at this point, we might think.
Then he arrives at Shechem. Shechem is an important point in the story of Abraham. Abram has just been promised, here, that his family, will be made great. There is nothing yet said about land at this point, just that his family and his name will be made great. And he arrives at the point of Shechem and builds an altar there.
There is a significance to the site of Shechem. Shechem is the site where the family is divided on a number of occasions. Shechem is the site where Dinah is seduced and raped by Shechem. There is a breach within the family, as Simeon and Levi seek to avenge their sister, angry at their father’s failure to take action. Their sister, a daughter of Leah, is someone who has been mistreated badly and their father has not acted. There is a breach within the family and Simeon and Levi suffer as a result of this. They are judged, to some extent, in the later blessing account in chapter 49.
There is also a breach in the family at Shechem as Joseph is sold into slavery by Judah and the brethren—another breach in the family. And at Shechem, Rehoboam and the people are divided, and the northern kingdom and the southern kingdom go their different ways. The breaches in the family of Abraham at Shechem present this site as having some significance, particularly as it occurs immediately after a promise that God would make Abram’s name great and that his family would be a great nation. This is the site of the breaches within the nation, and yet God has promised immediately beforehand that the family will be made great. Passing through that point, then, is significant.
Likewise, after the promise that God would give his descendants that land, which occurs at Shechem, he moves on from there and goes to Ai and Bethel. Now, Ai is a significant place as well. It is where, as they enter in the land, Achan sins by taking devoted items, and the people lose the battle. They fail to enter into the land. It is a great defeat. They have immediately won the battle of Jericho, as they cross over the Jordan. But yet, they lose at Ai. So, it is their failure to enter into the land. Abram builds another altar at that site.
I think there is something going on here, that these sites are connected with the promises: Shechem with the divisions within the family, Ai with a failure to enter into the land. So, these two promises and these two sites seem to be connected together. [This is not original to me. This came from Rabbi David Forman, who is very helpful on this passage.]
Now, they go, then, down to Egypt. There is a famine in the land. And as a result of the famine, they travel down to Egypt to sojourn there. This is an interesting movement, particularly when you read this passage and you notice just how many similarities there are between this and the story of the Exodus later on. In that story, Israel goes into Egypt as the result of famine. They need bread, and so they go down into Egypt. They are taken into Egypt. They multiply there. And then there is a threat to the men, with the women presumably to be taken as wives, as the men (the slaughtered baby boys) are removed out of the way. The baby boys are killed by Pharaoh, who presumably wants the women. What we see in this passage is something similar. There is an expected threat to Abram’s life.
Now, many people—particularly in an evangelical context—have a notion of Abram as really being sinful here, just selling Sarai off and allowing her to suffer for his own personal safety, or individual well-being. That is not what is going on here. Rather, Abram is playing for time. He recognizes that he is going into a place where it is quite violent. He is not going to be safe. And he is not just an individual, as I noted last time. Abram is probably surrounded with a sheikhdom of at least two thousand at this point. There are a great many people depending upon him for their safety. And if he is removed out of the way, they will be killed. And so, Sarai’s beauty is a threat, because, if she is taken in and if he is seen as her husband, he is an obstacle to be removed by the people. And the Egyptians will kill him, take her, and destroy the people of his sheikhdom.
Now, to avoid that, he presents himself as her brother. As her brother, he would stand in an important relationship relative to her, because the brother was the one who would often arrange the affairs of the marriage. He would talk with the other parties and work out the arrangements with the prospective suitors. Acting in such a capacity would give him time to play with, and it would also give him leverage. And that was significant; he could play for time in this particular role. And it would enable him to protect both Sarai and his people. Now, of course, this plan fails, but it is important to recognize that what is going through Abram’s mind here is not just selfish private interest. One way or another, Sarai is in danger. But if he presents himself as her brother, he can defend her and his people a lot better than if he presents himself as her husband. If he is her husband, he is the obstacle to be removed. However, if he is her brother, he is someone to be courted, because he is going to be arranging affairs. And so they would want to get in good terms with him, so he would be treated well for her sake.
That is exactly what we see. He predicts that he will be treated well for her sake. But what he does not predict is the fact that Pharaoh is the one who takes direct interest in Sarai; it is not just one of the other Egyptians. Pharaoh just takes Sarai into his house and then begins the courting process, as it were. And that is the way the king would do it. This is obviously highly concerning! This was not something that Abram foresaw. It was not something that he had prepared for. And God intervenes at this point. God intervenes by bringing plagues upon Pharaoh and his household, and Pharaoh finds out that Sarai is indeed Abram’s wife. At that point he returns her, and Abram leaves with many gifts.
Now, what is going on here? What we are seeing, among other things, is the story of the Exodus playing out. In a nutshell, the whole story of the Exodus is playing out. There is a threat to the men and there is a threat to the women—different threats. And then there is Pharaoh—Pharaoh being judged by plagues until he lets the people go—lets the bride go. And then, they leave the land with many gifts, go into the Promised Land, wander throughout the land, and win a battle in the land. So, there is a general playing out of the destiny of Israel here. Just as we saw in the sites of Shechem and Ai, these are significant sites in the story of Israel. Likewise, this pattern of story is one that is very significant. It is the core narrative of Israel, the story of the Exodus, and here is being played out in a very basic form, so that we can recognize that when the people do come out of Egypt later on, in the book of Exodus, they are walking in the footsteps of their father, Abraham.
As the father of the people, Abraham anticipates the destiny of his descendants. He lives out in advance what will later happen to them. And so, there is a participation in the events that occurred to the fathers. This is something that we see in Scripture more generally. So, for instance, when we read about the Exodus in the New Testament, it says that they were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, that they all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink. And all these things happened to them as examples for us, upon whom the end of the ages have come.
Now, what is the point of that? The point of that is to show that there are symmetries across history, that these symmetries help us to understand our particular place in history, and that when we enter into these patterns of events, we are entering into a union with those people who have gone before us: they are our forefathers. They are the ones who have trod this path before us, and we can learn from their example. We can recognize that they have gone before us, that we are being united with them in this.
Now, there are ways in which we can be concerned about this particular story. Is it a positive thing that he goes into Egypt? Well, clearly, it is not good that Sarai is taken. It is clearly not good that it plays out in quite the way that it does. God protects and delivers Sarai and Abram, but it is a close shave, and this situation is, we could see, an example of God anticipating—as will later be mentioned more explicitly—the time of Israel’s sojourn in Egypt and their struggle there. But there is also this sense of threat and what could Abram have done to avoid that. Was he wrong to leave the Promised Land in the first place?
I am not sure I would say that, but yet, there is a danger here to which he exposed himself and Sarai. He maybe could not have avoided that, but it is something to reflect upon.
What happens next? Well, he returns to the land, and he returns to the places that he has been to before. And at this point, there is a division. We have seen to this point there are two characters who have a relationship to Abram that is unclear. Is Sarai going to be put in the slot of ‘wife’, or is she going to be put in the slot of ‘sister’? She could be either. Is Lot going to be put in the category of ‘son’ or is he going to be put in the category of ‘brother’? At the beginning of this narrative, when Abram leaves to go to Canaan with Lot, it would seem that Lot is in the category of son. He is the brother’s son, and Abram has made it his concern to uphold his brother’s name. And yet, Lot ends up taking a different course from Abram and separating from him.
They both have great wealth. They both have great flocks, and they are competing with each other. They have to separate, so they go their own different ways. And this leads to a greater separation, as Lot goes towards the land of Sodom, which is seen as incredibly wicked. This movement in the direction of Sodom is, in many ways, a departure for Lot. There has been a division now in the family, and this division is one that means that Lot can no longer be classed straightforwardly as son. He is not the one who is going to be the one who through Abram’s name is going to be made great. He is not the one who is going to be the one that establishes the nation of Abram. There is a clear problem that results from this. Where is his descendant going to come from? And we will see that later on. But, at this point, we should just register the existence of this particular crisis—as Lot goes, something has changed.
Now, Lot and Abram are, in many respects, seen together as a sort of diptych. As we look through the story of Genesis, what we will notice, if we look carefully, is a series of characters who are juxtaposed with each other: brothers, sisters, and other characters who are related to each other in ways that help us to recognize salient features of each. It is seldom merely a straightforward good-bad juxtaposition. It can be characters that are both flawed, but are related to each other in ways that are significant in other respects.
Some examples of this—certain of which would be closer to good-bad oppositions—Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob, Sarah and Hagar, Rachel and Leah, Judah and Joseph. These sorts of characters are played out throughout the book of Genesis. And another example of this is Abram and Lot. Abram and Lot, who might have been in a father-son relationship initially, are now cast more as brother-brother. Later on, we will see that Lot is explicitly referred to as ‘brother’ (14:16). That relationship is one that enables us to hold Lot and Abram over against each other and see their destinies as played out over against each other. What happens to Lot and what happens to Abram helps us to recognize something about each character, who they are, and what is significant about them.
At the very end of this passage, God promises the land to Abram.
And the Lord said to Abram, after Lot had separated from him: “Lift your eyes now and look from the place where you are—northward, southward, eastward, and westward; for all the land which you see I give to you and your descendants forever. And I will make your descendants as the dust of the earth; so that if a man could number the dust of the earth, then your descendants also could be numbered. Arise, walk in the land through its length and its width, for I give it to you.” Then Abram moved his tent, and went and dwelt by the terebinth trees of Mamre, which are in Hebron, and built an altar there to the Lord.
Now, that parallels with what we see at the very beginning of chapter 12, which is the promise that God will make Abram’s name great, that he will be a blessing, and he will overcome the curse, in many ways, of Babel. What we see is that, as the story develops, the promises become ramped up in different ways. The story that begins is about his name; it is about his family; it is about making him a nation. And now, here we see a promise to give that nation a place—that this particular place will be the place where they will be made great and they will inherit that particular land.
Other things to notice about this—what did we see in chapter 11? An attempt to make the name great, to build a legacy to avoid death. What happened? They built a tower. And what we see in the story of Abraham—as he gets these individual promises, what does he do? He builds an altar. An altar is something that lasts for a long time. But the purpose of an altar is not to make the person who built the altar’s name great, but to make God’s name great. And so, there is something about the character of Abraham that is a fitting response to the story of the builders of the Tower of Babel. They were trying to make their own names great by building this great tower.
Abram is going throughout this land and he is building these altars in different places, and at significant sites—significant sites that anticipate the later story of Israel, the events that will define its identity—the scars upon the life and the body of Israel, those events that help to determine its destiny. And his involvement at those particular sites is a significant anticipation of what is about to come, as is the event of the exodus that occurs at the very heart of the story. Abram and Sarai go through the story of the Exodus in advance, ahead of their people.
What we see here as well is this greater anticipation of the events that are going to happen later on in this story. Sodom is already marked out as an evil place. Sodom will later be destroyed, but this is something that already highlights something that is about to come. This is something that prepares us for that thing that is coming down the road.
Now, when we have seen these two characters Lot and Sarai—who may have been brother and sister themselves (Sarai described as ‘sister’ and Lot initially presented as ‘son’ but and later on falling into the category of ‘brother’)—what we can see is there is a movement in the shape that this promise is taking. Initially, it seems as if the promise will be one that is fulfilled through Lot, and then Lot goes his own way. And then, Sarai is not clearly the one that this is going to be fulfilled through. Even at a later point, in chapter 15, we will see that Abram thinks that Eliezer of Damascus might be the one—the homeborn servant might be the one who is going to be the fulfilment of the promises of God to him. So, there is a series of promises that need to play out before this point, where it becomes clear that Sarai is the one through whom Abram and his name will be made great. This is important to register at this point.
Another thing that is significant is seeing the way in which, more generally, Abram is responding to these events. First of all, when he is given each of these promises, he builds altars. So, he is making God’s name great within the land. And then he is also holding things with an open hand. He has left his father’s house. It is a very significant thing to do. It is something that is similar language to leaving father and mother for marriage. There is a break. There is a breach in history. Something new has started. There is a departure and a re-establishment. But then, there is a wandering throughout the land. He does not take possession of the land straightforwardly. He does not put down his own roots. What he does is he builds altars. And so, those, as it were, are the roots. He lives in a tent.
Now, those altars can survive many hundreds of years, even thousands of years. But this is an initial event, an initial building within the land. But that initial building is not building a tower and a city for himself to defend his own name and his own reputation; it is an attempt to uphold the name of God. And then there is also this holding of things with an open hand—he allows Lot to depart from him. He does not pursue Lot. He does not seek to maintain Lot within his household. And that, again, is a willingness to follow God, to be prepared to have his name be made great on God’s terms, not his own.
This is all significant background for understanding the character of Abram, and the stories that play out will help us to flesh out the picture of Abraham. Abram in the story of the exodus-type narrative here is not the bad guy that many people have seen him to be. He is someone who makes not a fatal miscalculation, but a near-fatal miscalculation. He is someone who is trying to protect his people. He is trying to protect Sarai. And yet, there is something about it that shows the danger that he is exposed to and to which he has exposed Sarai. There is something about that event where God has to intervene to deliver, that shows that there are dangerous clouds on the horizon.