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.

 

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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