How could God bless Abraham when he was deceitful?

Q. When Abram (Abraham) went to live in Egypt, he said deceitfully that Sarai (Sarah) was his sister, not his wife. But as a result, he “acquired sheep and cattle, male and female donkeys, male and female servants, and camels.” In other words, he got very rich. And he got to take all those things with him when he left after his deception was exposed. It’s almost as if God blessed him for being deceitful. That doesn’t seem right to me. I mean, God doesn’t want us to get money through deception, does He?

When I consider this passage about Abram in Egypt, it strikes me that the original Hebrew readers would have readily understood his time there as an “antetype” or preceding example of their own experience in Egypt. Consider the parallels:

• Abraham goes to Egypt because of a famine, as the Israelites did.

• The Egyptians compel Sarah to serve Pharaoh, as they later compelled the Israelites to serve them. (Sarah was intended as a concubine for Pharaoh, though the passage does not say whether she actually became his concubine before he realized her true identity.)

• God strikes the Egyptians with plagues because of how they are treating Abraham and Sarah, just as he struck them with plagues for enslaving the Israelites. (Some translations say something like “the Lord inflicted serious diseases,” but the statement is more general: “afflicted them with great afflictions.” The same term, “affliction,” literally “a striking,” is used for the tenth plague in Exodus.)

• When Abraham leaves Egypt, he takes away much wealth from there, just as the Israelites “plundered” the Egyptians by asking them “for articles of silver and gold and for clothing” and carrying those away with them.

Indeed, the association between Abram’s time in Egypt and the later experience of the Israelites is made explicit just a little later in Genesis, when God tells Abram, “Know for certain that for four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and that they will be enslaved and mistreated there. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions.”

It’s worth noting that this suggests that the “plunder” the Israelites would take from Egypt would be at least partial compensation for the many years they would be forced to work without pay. But what about the riches Abraham acquired? They don’t seem to be anything that the Egyptians “owed” him.

I think the issue really comes down to this: Did the Egyptians only take Sarai as a concubine for Pharaoh because Abram told them she was his sister—they wouldn’t have done so otherwise? Or was Abram correct in believing that the Egyptians were going to take her one way or another, and the only question was whether they would kill him to get her?

If the former is the case, then Abram feared unnecessarily, rather than trusting in the Lord, and he was also unnecessarily deceitful and caused Sarai real or potential dishonor as a result. It would certainly be difficult to understand how God could allow him to acquire such riches under those circumstances.

However, the thematic connections between Abram’s experience in Egypt and the later experience of the Israelites there, along with the explicit connection that is made shortly afterwards, suggest that Abram was  correct to see the Egyptians as people who would oppress foreigners. Indeed, the fact that when “the Egyptians saw that Sarai was a very beautiful woman,” they “took” her as a concubine—there’s nothing about them seeking consent from the “brother,” offering a bride-price, etc., as we typically see elsewhere—indicates that they may well have been as forcefully oppressive as Abram feared.

This brings us to a different question: Was it valid for Abram to use deception to try to ensure that, if Sarai were inevitably going to be taken as a concubine, at least he wouldn’t be killed in the process? In this series of posts, I consider some other biblical characters (such as Rahab and Samuel) who apparently used deception to protect themselves and others from oppressors who held a significant power advantage. It seems that in some cases, God’s purposes may actually have been advanced through this.

It’s a controversial question with no clear answer, but if we assume that people who are at a hopeless power disadvantage can legitimately use deception for protection (for example, by hiding people who would otherwise be captured and mistreated or killed), and if we conclude that Abram was indeed right in believing that the Egyptians would want to take Sarai even if they had to kill him to get her, then his deception is at least understandable. He didn’t deceive the Egyptians in order to get wealth; instead, he got the wealth as the “brother” of a woman who had been “taken into Pharaoh’s palace.” In a sense, accepting these gifts was a means of maintaining the deception, which appears to have been vital to his survival.

However, we also have to consider that Pharaoh responded by returning Sarai to Abram and sending them on their way when the Lord “afflicted the Egyptians with great afflictions.” We do have to wonder what would have happened if Abram, instead of claiming that Sarai was his sister, had cried out to God for protection in this dangerous situation. God could presumably have “afflicted with great afflictions” anyone who tried to harm them, and that would have protected them.

But as so often happens in the Bible, what we are seeing is the action of God in a situation that is already imperfect because of human choices. Still later in Genesis, Abraham and Sarah go to live among the Philistines for a while. Abraham says to himself, “There is surely no fear of God in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife,” so he once again claims that Sarah is his sister, and she is taken into the palace of King Abimelek. But in this case God speaks to Abimelek in a dream and he responds by returning Sarah immediately. (It turns out that there was “fear of God” in that place.) But even though in this case the passage specifies that Sarah had not yet become Abimelek’s concubine, the king still pays Abraham a large quantity of silver “to cover the offense against you,” that is, as compensation for an offense against Abraham and Sarah’s honor, even though it was unintended and based on a deceptive claim, and no actual harm was done.

We might conclude that if such compensation was appropriate in the case of Abimelek, some compensation would also be appropriate in the case of Pharaoh, particularly if he was more oppressive and less God-fearing. Even though the riches Abram acquired in Egypt were not originally intended as compensation, but rather as gifts, and they were due to Abram’s false pretenses, we could still understand them ultimately as being compensation: Pharaoh says, “Take your wife and go,” and he doesn’t ask for the gifts back.

However, as I said, it’s already an imperfect situation due to human choices by the time we get to sorting out what role God’s actions play in it, so I think there’s good reason to continue pondering what happens in this episode.

 

Why are the pyramids of Giza never mentioned in the Bible?

Q. Why are the pyramids of Giza never mentioned in the Bible?

That’s an interesting question, because those pyramids are apparently visible from Goshen, where the Israelites lived in Egypt. (See the photograph below from the Matson Collection in the U.S. Library of Congress. The photo is entitled, “Egypt. Pyramids. The land of Goshen with pyramids in the distance.”)

But let me try to answer your question. For one thing, the pyramids were constructed well over a thousand years before the time of Moses, so the Egyptians weren’t actively working on them in biblical times. Rather, the book of Exodus tells us that the Egyptians “put slave masters over the Israelites to oppress them with forced labor, and they built Pithom and Rameses as store cities for Pharaoh.” So the Bible does refer to major construction projects in Egypt, but it describes the ones that intersect with the story of the covenant people.

However, I think an even more important reason why the Bible doesn’t mention the pyramids is that they were assertions of power and even immortality by the pharaohs. Rather than acknowledge those claims and dispute them, the Bible simply ignores them!

The case is similar with another of the “seven wonders of the ancient world,” the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. While it’s unclear whether they actually existed, tradition says that they were created by King Nebuchadnezzar. While the book of Daniel describes life in Babylon under that king, it never mentions the gardens. If they did exist, the Bible doesn’t give us any evidence for them. It quotes Nebuchadnezzar as speaking of “great Babylon I have built  . . . by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty,” but it doesn’t provide any details that would glorify Nebuchadnezzar rather than the God he ultimately had to admit “is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and gives them to anyone he wishes.”

So the Bible’s silence about ancient wonders doesn’t indicate that it actually lacks a firsthand perspective on the events it describes. Rather, the Bible wants us to “praise and exalt and glorify the King of heaven,” not any earthly ruler, whatever their achievements.

How can I obtain copies of the Luke-Acts study guide?

Q. Can I get your Luke-Acts study guide directly from you, since IVP no longer offers it? I want to offer a men’s Bible study at my church. I’d like either to purchase multiple copies or to obtain the rights to reproduce a digital version.

I have made all of the study guides in my Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series available for free download through this blog, since they are no longer in print. You can access them through the “Free Study Guides” link at the top of this page. The Luke-Acts guide specifically is available in PDF format at this link.

As I say on that page that makes all of the guides available, “In reading or downloading the guides, I ask only that you respect ‘fair use.’ The content of the guides may not be sold in any way (for example, by being incorporated into another published book). If you quote from the guides, please acknowledge the source. You may print out copies of individual lessons to distribute to participants in Bible studies, but I ask that you not charge anyone for their copy. Rather, I would like you or your church or other organization to pay even the printing costs. As you can tell, I’m eager for this resource to be made available truly free to everyone. Thank you.”

So you may distribute the Luke-Acts guide to the participants in your group either in printed or electronic form, at no cost. I hope you have a great study with the men in your church. And if any questions come up while you’re using the guide, please feel free to ask them here.

Saved by calling on the name of the Lord, but what about . . .?

Q. I have a question that troubles me from time to time that perhaps you can answer. We read in the book of Romans, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Great news, right? But then there seem to some other passages that put qualifying conditions on that. Here are a few cases that come to mind. “Whoever shall say ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of the fire of Gehenna.” “It is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven.” (I’m certainly rich compared to the rest of the world.) “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” I am sure you are aware of even more statements that Jesus made that cause people like me to question their salvation, even though they follow Jesus. I love Jesus, but I realize that in my humanness I fail each day to be like him. I am so thankful for God’s love and grace. Sometimes I just worry that when I stand before God he will say, “Thanks for loving me, but you said ‘you fool’ one too many times.”

One thing I’d say right away in response to your question is that if you know that you love Jesus and you have a continual desire to become more like him, those are signs that you truly do belong to him. They are what the book of Hebrews calls “better things . . . that have to do with salvation.”

I would then encourage you to consider the context of each of the seemingly qualifying statements you’re concerned about. For example, the point of the statement, “Whoever shall say ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of the fire of Gehenna,” is not that we need to avoid saying certain words in order not to go to hell. Rather, in that whole section of the Sermon on the Mount (the so-called “antitheses”), Jesus is stressing that fulfillment of the law is not an external or surface matter, but a matter of inward attitudes and intentions. His listeners were reassuring themselves in this case that only “anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.” So long as they didn’t go that far, they thought, they were safe. Jesus warns them instead that the goal of this commandment in the law is not merely to prevent murder, but to promote love instead of hatred.

Our attitudes and words are indicators of our inner intentions, and so they show whether we are fulfilling this commandment by loving, or breaking it by hating. Using the characteristic form of Hebrew poetry, Jesus makes this point by presenting a series of parallels in which the judgment intensifies on a person who hates instead of loves:

Anyone who is angry with a brother or sister ~ will be subject to judgment.
Anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ ~ is answerable to the court.
Anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ ~ will be in danger of the fire of hell.

So the takeaway for us isn’t, “I shouldn’t say those words if I want to escape hell.” The takeaway is, “If I’m truly a follower of Jesus, I need to cultivate love instead of hate.”

I won’t discuss all the passages you mention, but let me refer to another passage, in 1 Corinthians, that many people have similar concerns about. Paul says that people who do various kinds of things “will not inherit the kingdom of God.” But this doesn’t mean that if, for example, you’re greedy, or you say something bad about somebody, this will send you straight to hell. Paul isn’t saying that people won’t inherit the kingdom because they do such things; rather, he’s saying that people do such things because they won’t inherit the kingdom. That is, they’re currently outside the community of Jesus’ followers, and so they’re not being transformed by the influence of the Holy Spirit within.

Put another way, “progress in sanctification is necessary for assurance of salvation.” But the key word here is “progress.” So long as you can tell that the Holy Spirit is steadily transforming you as you love and follow Jesus, you don’t need to question whether you are truly saved.

God wants us to have this assurance and the peace that it brings. Scripture tells us in 1 John: “This is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence: If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God and receive from him anything we ask, because we keep his commands and do what pleases him. And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. The one who keeps God’s commands lives in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us.”

I hope this gives you encouragement and reassurance.

How old was Jesus at the presentation of the temple?

Q. How old was Jesus at the presentation of the temple?

Since Luke tells us that Mary and Joseph offered “a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: ‘a pair of doves or two young pigeons,'” we know that Mary was performing the ceremony for purification after childbirth, as described in Leviticus. There we read, “A woman who . . . gives birth to a son will be ceremonially unclean for seven days . . . On the eighth day the boy is to be circumcised. Then the woman must wait thirty-three days to be purified. . . . When the days of her purification for a son or daughter are over, she is to bring to the priest at the entrance to the tent of meeting a year-old lamb for a burnt offering and a young pigeon or a dove for a sin offering. . . But if she cannot afford a lamb, she is to bring two doves or two young pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering.

So we know from this that Jesus was 7 + 33 = 40 days old at the time of this ceremony. (We know that the eighth day after birth is the first of the following 33 days because the account also says that after the birth of a daughter a mother waits twice as long, specifically 14 + 66 = 80 days.)

It’s interesting to compare Mary’s 40 days of waiting to dedicate Jesus, during which she no doubt continued to “treasure up” all the events surrounding his birth and “ponder them in her heart,” with Jesus’ 40 days of testing in the wilderness as he prepared to take on his role as the Messiah. In fact, for Jesus himself this time right after his birth was 40 initial days of waiting to assume a life dedicated to God.

Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, 12th century cloisonné enamel icon from Georgia.

 

Why did Jesus pray only that Peter’s faith wouldn’t fail?

Q. According to Luke, at the Last Supper Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Satan has asked to sift all of you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail.” What does “all of you” mean in this context? That Satan wanted “all of Simon,” or that he wanted to sift all twelve of the apostles? If the answer is that Satan wanted to sift all twelve of the apostles,  then why did Jesus tell only Simon that he had prayed that his faith would not fail? Why didn’t Jesus pray for all twelve of his disciples?

“All of you” means that Satan wants to sift all twelve of the apostles. The pronoun “you” is plural in the Greek, and the NIV, which you are quoting from, is using the expression “all of you” to reflect that. Other translations say “you apostles,” “you disciples,” or “you men.”

When Jesus addresses Simon specifically, the pronoun becomes singular in Greek. I think Jesus recognized the bravado that Peter in particular was likely displaying as the disciples, in response to Jesus’ warning that one of them would betray him, instead argued about which one of them was the greatest. Sure enough, Peter then boasted that he would never abandon Jesus, and Jesus had to tell him that he was actually going to deny him three times.

But Jesus had Peter in mind all along for a leadership role in the community of his followers after his death, and “strengthen your brothers” is a call to step into that role even after the denial. (It’s like “feed my sheep” at the end of the gospel of John.) As for why Jesus didn’t say that he was also praying that the faith of the other disciples wouldn’t fail, perhaps Peter was at the greatest risk because he was the most insistent that his faith would never fail.

“The Denial of St. Peter,” Flemish, early 1600s. Despite his bravado at the Last Supper, Peter denied Jesus that same evening. But later he did “return” and “strengthen his brothers,” as Jesus had prayed he would.