Famine in the Promised Land
March 31, 1996
“Smart people sometimes do some very stupid things.”
A few years ago Jim Warren shared a statement with me that a friend had shared with him. It goes like this. “When hard times come, we always have two choices. We can be a student or we can be a victim.” A moment’s thought will show the wisdom of those words.
–A victim says, “Why did this happen to me?”
–A student says, “What can I learn from this?”
–A victim complains he is being treated unfairly.
–A student thanks God that he is not being treated as he really deserves.
–A victim tries to get even with those who have hurt him.
–A student seeks ways to serve others in the midst of his difficulty.
–A victim believes the game of life is stacked against him.
–A student believes that God is at work even in the worst situations.
The perceptive reader can think of a hundred other comparisons, but the point is clear. In every circumstance each of us has the opportunity to choose how we will respond. Sometimes we will foolishly make the wrong choice and pay a heavy price for our mistake.
Often we won’t learn the right lessons until we can look back and see how God was at work even in our foolish decisions.
Something like that is about to happen to Abraham. Genesis 12:10-20 tells how he reacts when a sudden famine hits the Promised Land. Faced with a crisis, he makes a series of bad choices that jeopardize everything he has gained to this point. Acting out of fear, he places his wife Sarah in a morally compromised situation. In the end, God rescues him but not before he is thoroughly humiliated in the eyes of the pagans.
From this story we may discern four contemporary lessons regarding foolish choices and the providence of God.
I. Trouble often follows blessing in order that God may test our motives.
“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.” Please note two facts about this. First, God sent a famine just as Abraham began to settle down. Famines occurred often in Bible times (and still occur in parts of Africa and Asia today). That fact in and of itself is not unusual. But the timing of this famine is meant to catch our attention. After all that Abraham has been through you would think that God would give him a period of peace and quiet. Life is rarely that simple for any of us.
God often sends trouble following a period of prosperity in order that he may test our motives.
God often sends trouble following a period of prosperity in order that he may test our motives. Are we serving him just because things are going well? But what if we lose our job? Our marriage? Our friends? Our reputation? Our wealth? Our home? Our health? Will we still serve him then? That by the way is the question that Satan posed to God regarding his servant Job: “Does Job fear God for nothing?” (Job 1:9) He then accuses God of having rigged the game by putting a hedge of comfort and blessing around Job. “Sure, you’ve blessed him. No wonder he serves you. Who wouldn’t? But take everything away and he will curse you to your face.” Everything that happens to Job is sent as a test to prove whether or not Satan was right.
“God Has Been So Good To Me”
So why are you serving God? Is it only because things are going well for you? When life tumbles in, what then? This week I spoke with a man in our church who has recently been diagnosed with cancer. The doctors told him that his cancer is both inoperable and incurable. What do you do then? When I spoke with this godly man he said something like this, “God has been so good to me. He’s never let me down for all these years. No matter what happens, I win. If I’m cured, I get to enjoy life for a few more years. If I die, I go to heaven.” A few days ago he told someone else that he had no complaints because after all that God has done for him, why should he complain about cancer?
I don’t know what the future holds for my friend, but I know that he has already passed the test. His motives are pure because he heart is fixed on the Lord, not on his circumstances.
Notice one another thing. Our text says that Abraham “went down” to Egypt. That’s more than just a geographical note. Egypt in the Bible represents the way of the world. Going to Egypt meant leaving the Promised Land for the wicked ways of paganism. Again and again the people of God fled to Egypt in the Old Testament for protection, but it always cost them dearly in the end. Abraham is a case in point.
II. God’s people often respond to danger with clever deception.
“As he was about to enter Egypt, he said to 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 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.’” (v. 10-13) It’s important for us to understand that much of what Abraham said was true. In the first place, Sarah truly was beautiful. Second, the Egyptians thought nothing of killing a husband in order to add another woman to their harems. Third—and this is where the story gets tricky—Sarah was his half-sister. They shared the same father but had different mothers. So in a sense Abraham could justify himself by saying that he had told a half-truth. But a half-truth is a whole lie, and it is going to get Abraham in a whole lot of trouble as we shall see. Fourth, Abraham was certainly correct in assuming that he would be treated well and that his life would be spared.
In all of this Abraham represents nothing so much as the ordinary man of the world who, in surveying his assets and liabilities decides to shade the truth a bit in order to get by. He is willing to lie “just a little bit” in order to save his own skin. Surely we can all understand his reasoning. And it made sense on a purely human level. As long as you leave God out of the picture, what Abraham does seems wrong, but it doesn’t seem particularly sinful. It’s not a man hanging on and saying what he has to say in order to save his neck.
He Left God Out!
But that of course is the whole problem. Abraham left God out. It’s interesting to compare the two halves of Genesis 12. In the first half God is the reason for everything Abraham does. God calls and he leaves Ur, God promises and he travels to the Promised Land. God speaks again and he builds an altar. But where is God in the last half of Genesis 12? Abraham journeys to Egypt on his own, he concocts this scheme on his own, and he gets rich on his own. Abraham leaves God out, and that’s always a mistake.
What Abraham did probably didn’t seem very wrong to him.
By the way, how do you think Sarah felt about all this? His deception meant that she would become part of Pharaoh’s harem. Here is a man willing to sacrifice his wife’s purity in order to save himself. Not only that, he was also interfering in God’s plan to bless the world by giving them a child. Abraham is willing to risk everything God has promised him just to save his own neck.
Please don’t miss the larger point. What Abraham did probably didn’t seem very wrong to him. It was just a little white lie. Surely, God would understand, wouldn’t he?
Don’t Mock God
Underneath all is the fundamental problem that Abraham was unwilling to trust God in a moment of great personal crisis. Because he refused to wait on the Lord, he devised a scheme to get him out of trouble. But that scheme only got him deeper in trouble.
Remember the word of the Lord: “You may be sure your sin will find you out” (Numbers 23:32) and “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.” (Galatians 6:7). This is the immutable law of the harvest. You can’t sow beans and expect to harvest watermelons. What you sow is what you will later reap.
But all of that awaits another day. At first Abraham’s plans seems to work well.
III. God sometimes allows our deception to gain us a temporary advantage.
“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. He treated Abram well for her sake, and Abram acquired sheep and cattle, male and female donkeys, menservants and maidservants, and camels.”
You might write over these verses the words “So far, so good.” Everything seems to be working out exactly as Abraham planned. The Egyptians—who had a good eye for such things—quickly noticed Sarah’s beauty. Evidently she must have been very beautiful indeed because she was taken into Pharaoh’s palace. That meant she was chosen as one of the select women to join Pharaoh’s personal harem.
This had several advantages. First, it meant that Sarah would be well cared for, with the best of food, the finest of wines, the most expensive clothing, jewelry and perfumes. Second, Abraham received a rather large dowry from Pharaoh. All those animals and servants simply add to his wealth so he’s come out of this smelling like a rose.
In fact, it appears that either God didn’t notice his little deception or maybe God just decided to overlook it or perhaps God actually approved of it. In any case, who’s going to sit around and do some picky moral analysis? Surely, all this prosperity proves that Abraham was right to lie about his wife.
Before going on, let me make an important point. We shouldn’t be surprised if our deceptive plans seem to prosper initially. After all, sin is fun—at least for a while. If sin weren’t fun or at least temporarily rewarding, no one would ever sin at all. The Bible speaks of “the pleasure of sin for a short time” (Hebrews 11:25). Every alcoholic knows what I am talking about. You drink because it numbs the pain or because it decreases stress or because it makes you forget your problems or because it makes you feel happy for awhile.
Living on Easy Street
What happened to the Prodigal Son (see Luke 15:11-32) when he left home for the far country? He prospered! As long as he had money, he was living on Easy Street. For many months it seemed as if his plan had succeeded. Every night he went out on the town and spent money like it would never run out. The guys loved him and the women flocked to him. He was the center of attention wherever he went. Life for him was one big party and he was the guest of honor.
Sin only works if there is no tomorrow.
Don’t miss the larger lesson. Sin brings plenty of short-term rewards. And if that’s where you are right now, you might as well enjoy it because that’s all you’re going to get. Sin only works if there is no tomorrow.
But tomorrow always comes sooner or later.
IV. God disciplines his disobedient children by humiliating them in front of unbelievers.
“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 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.”
Now for the first time the Lord appears in our story. Up until now Abraham has been riding the crest of a wave created by his own clever plans. Perhaps he even thought that God was pleased with what he had done. If so, he is now in for a rude awakening.
When the Bible says that the Lord sent “serious diseases” on Pharaoh, it actually uses a word that means “plagues.” This word is used elsewhere only of painful physical ailments. We aren’t told what these diseases are, but I think there is a hint in the text. I find it fascinating that verse 17 says that the Lord sent these diseases “because of” Sarah. Then the next verse says that Pharaoh somehow connected the disease with Sarah and figured out the whole thing. Who told him? How did he know?
Here’s my theory. Since God wanted to protect Sarah, I think he sent some kind of sexually-transmitted disease to Pharaoh that would have prevented any immoral act with Sarah. It’s even possible that he sent it intermittently so that whenever he called for Sarah, he became violently ill. That would have tipped him off that something strange was happening. Then if he asked Sarah, she would have been forced to tell him the truth or else risk losing her own life.
The Way of Transgressors Is Hard
What follows is one of the most humiliating episodes in Abraham’s life. God is now using a pagan to chasten his own man. Think about that for a moment. Abraham is the one man God chose from all the men of the world to be the father of the nation of Israel. But because of Abraham’s disobedience, he is now humiliated in front of a pagan ruler.
The easy way of deception ends up being the hard road of humiliation.
Twice Pharaoh asks, “Why?” Abraham has no answer. What could he say? He lied to save his own skin. He lied because he was afraid to trust God in a moment of crisis. He lied even though it meant sacrificing his own wife to another man. He lied because he had decided to he couldn’t wait for God to bail him out. He lied because he thought it was the easy way out.
Once again we see that the way of transgressors is hard. And the easy way of deception ends up being the hard road of humiliation.
So off Abraham goes, back toward the Promised Land, back to where he used to be, back to the land he should never have left. His head is bowed, his shoulders slumped. Never has any man been so thoroughly humbled by the hand of God.
What Did Sarah Say?
One question. I wonder what Sarah said to him as they made the long trek across the Sinai Desert. I don’t think he got any sympathy from her. (After I preached this message, a woman told me she knew exactly what Sarah said to Abraham. Nothing. Not a word during the long days of crossing the desert back to Canaan. She didn’t need to say anything, and her silence spoke louder than words.)
Warren Wiersbe makes the point that everything Abraham gained in Egypt cost him later. Because of their great wealth, Abraham and Lot had to separate when they got back to Canaan. The wealth he gained caused Lot to desire the riches of Sodom. Among the servants was a young girl named Hagar who would be the source of much heartache and pain. Dr. Wiersbe adds a simple phrase: “There are no benefits from disobedience.”
IV. Though it may seem painful at the time, chastening is meant to save us from our own stupidity and bring us to the place where our trust will be in God alone.
I don’t imagine that Abraham often told the story of his days in Egypt. Most of us have a way of forgetting our painful failures and emphasizing our victories. But we always learn far more from defeat than we do from victory. That, I think, explains why this story is in the Bible. It teaches us important lessons about the spiritual life.
We always learn far more from defeat than we do from victory.
First, we see the danger of compromise. What seemed so innocent almost cost Abraham everything. Compromise generally starts with a small step in the wrong direction, followed by another and another. Pretty soon we’re so far off the trail that it’s easier to just continue in the same direction. If you don’t want to want to end up in the Valley of Destruction, don’t take that first step down Compromise Alley.
Second, we see the deceitfulness of sin. No one ever “gets away” with sin. Though the wheels of God’s justice grind slowly, they grind with perfect precision. Nothing is missed. All Satan’s apples have worms. Every sin seems fun or reasonable or justified in the beginning. But in the end, we are the ones who pay the price.
Third, we see what Oswald Chambers called the Dance of Circumstance. Who sent the famine? God did. Who sent the plague to Pharaoh? God did. Who stepped in to protect Sarah’s purity at just the right moment? Who caused Abraham to be humiliated so that he would return to the Promised Land? God did. Think about that. As far as we know, God never speaks directly to Abraham, yet he is the Unseen Hand moving behind the events. Whatever else you can say about your life, don’t ever forget that God is in charge of even the tiniest details. Nothing escapes his notice and even the most unlikely events are part of his plan for you.
Don’t ever forget that God is in charge of even the tiniest details.
Finally, this passage teaches us something about the grace of God. That may seem strange because this story ends with Abraham’s humiliation. But where does that humiliation lead? Back to the Promised Land where he should have been all along. The Psalmist cried out, “It was good that I was afflicted, that I might learn your decrees” (Psalm 119:71). How many of God’s saints can testify that through God’s judgment on sin they learned how great is his grace in forgiveness and restoration.
This week I ate lunch with a man who shared how he came to Christ just a few years ago. He said that after his conversion, someone asked him to explain what it really means to be a Christian. What difference does Jesus make once he becomes both Lord and Savior? His answer was profound: “I’ve learned that I can sin but I can’t enjoy it like I used to.” You can still sin, and you can enjoy it for awhile, but not forever. God will not let his children enjoy the pleasures of sin indefinitely. Sooner or later, he steps in and brings his wandering sons and daughters back home to him.
Through Many Dangers, Toils and Snares
That’s what happened to Abraham. It is the grace of God that intervenes to bring us back to where we used to be before we messed up everything. As Abraham slowly trudges across the hot sand, he’s aware that his reputation is ruined forever in Egypt. No doubt his own servants are laughing behind his back. It will be a long time before he can even speak of this humiliating event.
But if you look closely, there is contentment in his eyes. Egypt is behind him. He’s going back home. Back to the Promised Land. Back to God. Back where he belongs.
This is the grace of God at work.
I am reminded of the words to the third verse of Amazing Grace:
Through many dangers, toils and snares
I have already come
‘Tis Grace hath brought we safe thus far
And grace will lead me home.
Tossing the Coin
Donald Grey Barnhouse commented that just as every coin has a head and a tail, so every event in life either draws us to God or leads us away from him. If Abraham had stayed in Canaan during the famine, he would have learned to trust God in a brand-new way. If he hadn’t lied to the Egyptians, he would have given God a chance to meet his needs without resorting to deception. But because he didn’t do those things, that same famine led him away from God.
How much better it would be if we would learn this lesson. Instead of complaining at every trial and saying “Why me?” we would be better off to say, “Lord, what are you trying to teach me through this?” Every difficult situation gives the opportunity to become a student of God’s grace or a hapless victim of negative circumstances.
When the famine comes, remember that God has not abandoned you. He sends the famines of life in order to see if you will trust him even in the most difficult moments. We should say, “Here is another opportunity for me to trust God. I wonder what wonderful things he is going to do for me this time.” It’s not easy to say that. Sometimes it takes more grace to stay in the Promised Land than it does to get there in the first place.
But God never intended that that Christian life should be easy. If it were easy, none of us would ever grow spiritually. He arranges the steps of life so that as we climb higher, we also grow stronger. In the end we will discover heights of blessing that God reserves for those who just keep climbing.