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PSA: Don’t model your family by Abraham’s example. I’m sure he was a nice guy, but still.

First off, as the story begins, God appears to Abraham (still named Abram at this point), and promises to make of him a “great nation”—read, “a ton of offspring”—and a nice patch of land to call his own, presently (and inconveniently) occupied by the Canaanites (Genesis 12:1-9).

Well, the ink is hardly dry on that story when a famine enters the land, thus forcing Abraham and his wife Sarah (still named Sarai) to hightail it to Egypt so they can not starve. And if that sounds familiar to you, well done: looking to Egypt for food during a famine anticipates how the book of Genesis ends, with Jacob and his sons moving to Egypt because of a famine.

Anyway, all this is fine and dandy, but the problems begin when, on the way to Egypt, Abraham realizes that Sarah is a “woman beautiful in appearance” (12:11), and so surmises that the Egyptians are going to kill him so they can take Sarah into Pharaoh’s harem.

Abraham’s solution isn’t to turn back—since dying of starvation is still on the table—but to suggest a ruse. Namely, that she present herself as his sister, for what appears to be an utterly self-serving reason.

. . . and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife’; then they will kill me, but they will let you live. Say you are my sister, so that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared on your account.”  (12:12-13)

In fact, he seems to make a profit in the deal.

And for her sake he [Pharaoh] dealt well with Abram; and he had sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male and female slaves, female donkeys, and camels. (12:16)

Way to go Abraham. Gutsy move. Seriously. Way to pimp out your wife.

How about having some faith in God here? The same kind of faith you just showed when God called you out of your home in Haran to move to Canaan, and you simply up and left. Now, at the first sign of trouble (after all, what’s a little famine to the Almighty?), you press the panic button: Say you are my sister, so that it may go well with me.

But here’s the thing.

While I don’t think this story is all that concerned with presenting Abraham as a model of virtue, neither do I think Abraham is simply forgetting the first half of chapter 12 and kicking into fight-or-flight reptilian brain mode.

I actually have sympathy for him.

After all, God has just made two huge promises to Abraham: kids and land. Those things won’t happen if Abraham and Sarah starve to death. And so, they exercise some common sense by going where they know they could find food.

I don’t think that the act of moving down to Egypt at the beginning of Genesis is any more an act of Abraham’s lack of faith than is Jacob and his sons making the same move at the end. In fact, had they stayed, we could just as well imagine the Lord (or some angel) appearing to Abraham and saying, “Hey. You. Moron. There’s a famine. Get out of here and find food. I hear Egypt is doing just fine.”

OK, but what about Abraham passing his wife off as his sister to save his own neck?

Well, here we come to a crucial point of this story that if we get it, we will get better the drama that unfolds over the next few chapters. And it’s this:

Abraham Sarah and Hagar

God’s promise of land and offspring was to Abraham. He never mentioned Sarah.

Thus—and hang with me here—from Abraham’s point of view, all that was needed was for him to stay alive in order to give God’s promise a chance to be fulfilled. Seeing no other options at the moment, you might say that Abraham’s ruse was an attempt to be faithful to God.

You might even say that Abraham was willing to “sacrifice” his wife in order to obey God as he was later willing to sacrifice (literally) his son Isaac when God commanded it (Genesis 22).

Next, in chapter 15, God reiterates the promise to Abraham. At this point, however, he and Sarah had been childless for a while. Abraham figures that his slave “Eliezer of Damascus” would be the one to fulfill the promise, to which the Lord responds,

This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir. (15:4)

This is great news, and at this point we might be forgiven for assuming that Abraham and Sarah will have this son. But that’s not what God says: no one but your very own issue. Abraham is the key player here. 

In fact, way back in Genesis 11:30 we are already told how this story will end up: Now Sarah was barren; she had no child. Actually, at this point in the story, we should probably expect that someone other than Sarah will be the vessel through which God will fulfill his promise to Abraham. We should probably be asking, “Who’s the lucky girl going to be?”

Sarah herself seems to be operating under this assumption. After living 10 years in Canaan (see 16:3), she herself comes up with a viable Plan B.

You see that the LORD has prevented me from bearing children; go in to my slave-girl; it may be that I shall obtain children by her. (16:2)

This is a perfectly reasonable and legal move, at least by ancient standards (or if you live in Margaret Atwood’s dystopian world of The Handmaid’s Tale—”blessed be the fruit.”)

Even though this move will result in some serious family tensions, this too should be seen as an act of obedience. Abraham is running out of fuel, as it were (if you know what I mean). Time is of the essence—go in to my slave-girl; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.

And now we’re getting somewhere. A child is born, whom they name “Ishmael,” meaning “God sees.” Clearly, this is the way forward.

Finally. Problem solved. Or is it?

Next we come to one of the most startling verses in Genesis, perhaps in all of Israel’s ancient story:

God said to Abraham, “As for Sarah your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name.  I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.”  (Genesis 17:15-16)

We might read this news with a slight shrug of the shoulder, as if, “Obviously. About time. Why couldn’t Abraham and Sarah just be on board with this?” But no.  They had no way of knowing or even remotely considering this option.

Their efforts to make the promise come true (“say you are my sister” and “go into my slave-girl”) were not displays of disloyalty to their God, but faithfulness. They can’t be faulted for not knowing that the story was going to take a turn like this.

For me, this puts a far more interesting twist on the story. It gives us sympathy for Abraham and Sarah’s decision-making process when we see God’s move as utterly unexpected—a surprise move.

It also lends drama to what will come. Isaac is born and immediately Hagar and Ishmael are driven away (chapter 21). God is putting all the promise eggs into the Isaac basket: Plan B, Ishmael, is officially and irrevocably taken off the table.

“And they all lived happily ever after.” No.

No sooner is Plan B sent away never to return that God spoke the following to Abraham:

Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you. (Genesis 22:2)

Isaac. Your only son. Kill him. And once again, Abraham responds with immediate obedience, not knowing where this would lead.

Faith that does its best at the moment.

Let me put it this way. The story of Abraham is one of faith—not perfect faith that sees the future clearly, but a faith that does its best at the moment, and that watches as God goes above and beyond.

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.