Twickenham URC 1 Nov 1998
Economical with the truth (Genesis 12:7-13:1 + Gen 20:1-18)
In part one of this series we followed Abram and Sarai as they left Ur with Abram’s father Terah, and Abram’s nephew, Lot, to go west to Haran. Following Terah’s death responding to the call of God they went south into Canaan, the place which Abram was told would be the Promised Land, where Abram set up altars in various places. But famine came upon the land and they had to move. Perhaps they should have stayed put, and trusted in God to provide – though at least one commentator argues that the ready availability of food in Egypt was due to God’s provision – but we read nothing about Abram moving to Egypt as a result of God’s command.
Egypt is associated with the world: Isa 31:1 says “Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help, who rely on horses, who trust in the multitude of their chariots and in the great strength of their horsemen, but do not look to the Holy One of Israel, or seek help from the LORD”.
Perhaps it is the case in our own lives that we sometimes prefer to stay put suffering hunger – not physical, but perhaps financial or emotional – because we are unwilling to move to where our needs can be satisfied. Perhaps Abram was more than a little tempted to retrace his footsteps back to the urban civilisation of Haran, but he didn’t. Again this is pure speculation, but perhaps like the Prodigal Son, he wasn’t anxious to go back to his family and confess that things hadn’t worked out.
But enough of speculation. We come to our readings from Genesis and at this point I will freely admit that they are not the easiest to understand. The Bible commentator, Peake, is of the opinion that both passages (and a very similar one in Genesis 26) refer to the same incident. Of the second incident he says ‘Sarah is obviously of an age and beauty to attract royal attention, therefore not ninety years of age’ – others have a little more imagination and can conceive an era where being ‘the other side of 25’ was a fate to be mentioned in hushed tones. Pastor Chuck Smith, who you may have heard on Premier Christian Radio, is sure that these are two incidents, separated by 20 years or so, and it comes down to the fact that under pressure we tend to react in a particular way – perhaps withdrawing, perhaps getting angry, or, as in this case, resorting to deception.
One of the things that we must surely value about the Biblical account of God’s dealing with men and women is we are reminded time and again that the people who God chooses are only too human, and only too capable of showing weakness and doing the wrong thing. Starting with Adam and Eve in the garden, through Noah getting drunk, these stories of Abraham and Isaac, Joseph deceiving his father to get the blessing and so on, we see time and time again how people fail. Let that be an encouragement to us – we all have our failings but they do not stop God calling and using us.
So, in each of these stories Abram is, to quote a much-used phrase, ‘economical with the truth’. The key to his wrongdoing is fear. If the Pharaoh, if Abimelech, was to take a shine to Sarah and then found out that she was Abram’s wife, then surely they would kill him, so that they could have her for themselves. You see exactly this happening in the story of David and Bathsheba – he wants her so he gets Uriah killed. We saw in my series on Elijah, where Ahab wanted Naboth’s vineyard and as he could not buy it, arranged a kangaroo court so as to get Naboth executed.
Abram was not prepared to take the chance. A pop song from my youth included a stanza that said something like “When you’re in love with a beautiful woman, everyone wants her”; my guess is that the woman who inspired the lyric was not the owner of a free bus pass. But in this case age was not a barrier – Abram was sure that she would be noticed by those in authority, and so came up with this arrangement that he would pass her off as his sister. As he says later in each story when found out, “she is my sister, the daughter of my father, though not of my mother”.
As I just said, the phrase that comes to mind is ‘economical with the truth’. You see it with the woman at the well who says “I have no husband”. We’ve saw it a while back with President Clinton who when the truth came out argued that he had not told any untruths, but had merely answered the question put to him.
In saying that Sarai was his sister, Abram was not actually telling a lie, but his half truth was deceitful nevertheless, and we find it both indefensible and hard to understand. It’s indefensible because it is an action which, in Paul’s words, causes a brother (in the wider sense) to stumble. I find it almost impossible to understand because I would like to think that if I were in that situation my attitude would be that there would be no way that I would voluntarily allow the relationship to be broken up. One might understand it if they were facing starvation and by allowing her to join the harem, she at least would live, but his concern is for himself.
The deception is taken as face value, and in each case Sarai is taken into the harem. Abraham, as her brother, is richly rewarded. But then it all starts to go wrong. In the first story, illness breaks out and, in some way that we are not told, the Pharaoh sees a connection between this and Abram. He is summoned and forced to tell the whole truth. Then they are expelled from Egypt. Note, in passing, the parallels with the story of the Exodus: famine pushes the sons of Jacob into Egypt, where they stay, only to end up enslaved. Finally after the angel of death kills all the oldest sons they are expelled and make their way back to the Promised Land.
In the second account we get a much more detailed account of what happens. God speaks to Abimelech in a dream and says “You are as good as dead because of the woman you have taken; she is a married woman”. At this point my sympathies are with him. He tells God that his conscience is clear, and God agrees with him. But now he knows the truth, he must do what is right.
In the first account, the Pharaoh wanted to see the back of them as a way of getting rid of the plague. In this story Abimelech demonstrates a moral outrage: because of what you, Abraham, have done, I and this nation are tarred with guilt. Why did you do it. “Your sister”! And so Abraham mumbles something about thinking they were not a God-fearing people and how he was scared, and one may surmise that the more he attempted to justify himself the worse it got. To put it mildly, Abimelech is doubly shocked at the deception.
One of the things that I think this story reminds us of is not to be too quick to judge who is and isn’t seeing things God’s way. There are some in the Christian church whose are very sure that they have all the answers and the ‘unsaved’ have none. At this point Abraham learns a hard lesson. Think of the story of Jonah running away – there is nothing to suggest that the sailors had any faith in or knowledge of God, but when Jonah confesses that he is running away they are very shocked. So with us. The world looks to see how we act. Let us not be found wanting.
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