Missteps and Cul de Sacs
September 17, 2017
Rev. Laurel Neal
Download a PDF document format of this sermon here: Missteps & Cul-de-sacs
Genesis 12:10-13:4 (NIV)
Abram in Egypt
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. As he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his 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 will 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.”
When Abram came to Egypt, the Egyptians saw that Sarai 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, male and female servants, and camels.
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 that 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.
Abram and Lot Separate
So Abram went up from Egypt to the Negev, with his wife and everything he had, and Lot went with him. Abram had become very wealthy in livestock and in silver and gold.
From the Negev he went from place to place until he came to Bethel, to the place between Bethel and Ai where his tent had been earlier and where he had first built an altar. There Abram called on the name of the Lord.
Covenant Pilgrimage: Missteps & Cul-de-Sacs
September 17, 2017
Things were going very well when we left Abraham last week in Genesis 12:9. As we move on today, let’s keep remembering the primeval history we looked at in Genesis 1-11 — because Genesis 1-11 sets the theological context for everything that follows in scripture. So let’s keep remembering how humanity was intended for wholeness and harmony of life, with God at the center. But also how humanity displaced God, choosing self-determination over trust in him. By the end of that primeval history in chapter 11, we see the results of this choice. Humanity is broken and at-odds with itself. It’s divided and violent. It’s a long way from its original experience of perfect joy, satisfaction, and trust — and spiraling more and more out of control every day. But as Genesis 11 transitions into Genesis 12, God launches a new effort in humanity’s direction, beginning with one man — Abraham. God makes a move to show Abraham that Abraham isn’t the center of the world — and that we aren’t either. That this place we occupy isn’t just our place. In fact, God initiates a covenant with Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3. A covenant that has a significant goal: God loving and blessing the whole world back into wholeness. A covenant in which God promises to do most of the work — but not unilaterally or alone. Abraham — and his offspring — will be God’s covenant partner. With Abraham going where God sends him.
So, now, Abraham has done what God said to do. He’s relinquished his home and extended family — and gone. God has shown Abraham the land, and Abraham’s walked it from north to south. God has spoken to Abraham in the land. He’s appeared to Abraham. And he’s promised the land to Abraham’s offspring. In response, Abraham has built altars near the cities of Shechem and Bethel — in the hill country of central Canaan. And he’s also called on the name of Lord. Abraham, in other words, has moved over and made room for God in his life and future. He’s accepted the terms of the covenant by going: going to the land, walking the length of it, worshiping God in it. By these actions Abraham has acknowledged his intention to cooperate with God regarding God’s plans for the world.
When we left Abraham last week, he’d walked all the way to a region called the Negeb, at the southern end of Canaan — where things now change rather abruptly.
The first change we encounter today is a change in Abraham’s circumstances. Topographically, Canaan — Palestine — is a lot like central Oregon. Rainfall fluctuates there — which especially in ancient times led to shortages of food. So, having received the promises of God, having obeyed God’s command to go, having walked the land from top to bottom, now a severe famine overtakes Abraham’s land of promise — and Abraham becomes anxious and afraid. He is, after all, responsible for Sarah, and Lot, and an entire household of animals and servants. He has mouths to feed. How will Abraham deal with this crisis? How should he deal with it?
Well, he does what a lot of other hungry people did at the time: he decides to relocate to Egypt. Which would be like leaving Prineville and moving to the Willamette Valley. Besides being a fabulous tourist destination (even at the time), Egypt had the Nile River — so its food supply was always more stable than Canaan’s. And the ancient Egyptians had a lot of experience with famine refugees. So, going to Egypt makes sense, under the circumstances — and perhaps Egypt really is God’s provision in this time of crisis. But you’ll notice there’s no mention of God in verse 10. No indication that Abraham, in this instance, calls on the name of the Lord. What he does do is decide to leave the land of promise, and he does this as an act of self-preservation.
On his way down to Egypt, however — in that desert region called the Negeb — Abraham’s anxieties escalate rather than subside. Specifically, he gets to worrying about what a beautiful woman Sarah is — and how her beauty might jeopardize his own safety. This line of thinking — plus what Abraham decides to do about it — is not, as one commentator has observed, one of history’s “great moments in husbanding!” Just before they enter Egypt, Abraham discloses his strategy to Sarah: “I know well, Sarah, that you are a beautiful woman. And when the Egyptians see you they’re going to say, ‘This woman is his wife.’” Then they’ll kill me, but let you live. So here’s what we’ll do. You’ll tell everyone you’re my sister, so that things will go well for me because of you — and so that my life will be spared on your account.”
There are so many things wrong with this it’s hard to know where to begin!
Genesis 20 tells us that Sarah is, in fact, Abraham’s half-sister, but she’s primarily his wife and has been for a long time. So, this story Abraham’s concocting may be technically true, but in all the ways that count, it’s a deception and a lie. It’s a misstep on Abraham’s part — and it leads him deeper into the cul-de-sac of self-preservation. Never mind that Sarah might now be subjected to relationships with other men in Egypt. Never mind that Abraham is risking Sarah’s own body here, and her womb: risking God’s promise of offspring, and — really — risking the whole covenant, when it comes right down to it. Because right now, the most important thing to Abraham is finding a quick fix for his own anxiety — and saving his own skin.
Next scene. Abraham was right about the Egyptians admiring Sarah’s beauty. He just hadn’t imagined how high that admiration might go — because Sarah gets noticed and then praised to Pharaoh himself! And not long after this, she ends up inside the royal palace, married to Pharaoh, and an active member of his harem. Not only that, but Abraham gets rich in the process. As Sarah’s “brother,” Abraham receives the customary bridal gift from the groom’s family — a gift of money and property. In this case, the bridal gift is a lucrative haul of sheep, cattle, donkeys, servants, and even camels!
What we should understand at this point in the story is that everything about God’s covenant in verses 1-3 is now in jeopardy. That everything God wants to do to rescue humanity — to set the world right again — is now at risk. So God intervenes. He intervenes to rescue Sarah — and he intervenes to rescue the covenant itself. This intervention takes the form of an illness that suddenly sweeps through the royal palace. Somehow this leads to Pharaoh figuring out Sarah’s true identity as Abraham’s wife. Which, of course, means that Pharaoh has committed adultery. And Pharaoh, it turns out, has a more sensitive conscience than Abraham does. This Pharaoh, at least, wouldn’t knowingly have stolen another man’s wife — no matter how beautiful she was — and he responds with fury.
“What is this that you’ve done to me??” Pharaoh demands to know from Abraham. “Why didn’t you tell me this woman was your wife?? Why did you say, ‘She’s my sister,” so that I took her as my wife?? Here she is! Now take her and go!”
With this, Pharaoh expels Abraham from Egypt in no uncertain terms. The Egyptian army promptly escorts him out of the country — along with Sarah and Lot, and all of Abraham’s property; and including that lucrative bridal gift which Abraham apparently gets to keep. They escort Abraham all the way back to Egypt’s border with the Negeb — and send him packing.
I don’t know if there was much conversation on that trip. But the journey was long enough for Abraham to think over the whole sorry episode:
How his anxiety and fear got the best of him.
How he forgot about God, and the covenant, and Sarah — and started focusing on his own self-preservation.
How saving his own skin became more important to him than honoring and protecting his own wife.
How a windfall of money and property from Pharaoh became more important to him than the land and offspring promised to him by God.
How one of the “families of the earth” mentioned in verse 3 — instead of experiencing blessing because of him — had experienced nothing but trouble because of him instead.
At any rate, when Abraham reaches the Negeb again, he keeps on going. So let’s read on now just a bit, beginning with verse 2 of chapter 13.
Now Abram had become very wealthy in livestock, and in silver and gold. From the Negeb he went on from place to place — he journeyed on by stages — until he came to Bethel, to the place between Bethel and Ai where his tent had been earlier and where he had first built an altar. And there Abram called on the name of the Lord.
In other words, Abraham walks all the way back to where he started. He unwinds, in a way, every step of this disastrous experiment in saving his own skin. In the Negeb, he now realizes that self-preservation is incompatible with the covenant God’s made with him. It’s incompatible with the promises. Incompatible with the project God is undertaking on behalf of the world.
So Abraham returns to that altar he built near Bethel — and there, once again, he calls on the name of the Lord. In other words, he wakes up, moves over, and begins again to share his life with God. Realizing — probably more painfully this time — that he really does belong to a reality that’s much larger than himself. That this place he occupies isn’t just his place. That — no kidding — he really isn’t the center the world. Having begun well, Abraham now knows he’s got some growing to do — when it comes to walking with God and trusting God.
There are lots of connections between this story and our own lives, and I hope we’ll let God use this story to shape us. The connections run in a lot of different directions, but — for example, — where are we focusing on self-preservation in our own lives? That’s a good question to ask ourselves. And here’s another: where are you focused on self-preservation as a congregation? Of course, it’s natural to think about saving our own skins — especially during times of crisis and uncertainty. And we face a lot of crisis and uncertainty at the moment, both here in the U. S. and around the world. Crisis and uncertainty highlight our vulnerability as human beings — they stoke our anxiety, and they stoke our instinct for self-preservation.
There are many reminders right now that we, like Abraham, live in a Genesis 3-11 world — a world where self-preservation is a natural and understandable thing to focus on. But we also live in a Genesis 12 world, where God is loving and blessing everything back into wholeness — and doing that through us. And, of course, we also live in a world that’s been blessed by the life Jesus lived — with God always at the center; and by the death Jesus died; and by the triumph of his resurrection and ascension. So it’s not that it isn’t natural and understandable to focus on self-preservation; it’s just that focusing on self-preservation isn’t a gospel thing to do. The gospel thing for us to do is to do what Abraham did: going back to the place where he first committed himself to the Lord and worshiped him; and diving back into getting a feel for who God is and how God is at work in the world.
It seems to me we discover something important, right here at the beginning of Abraham’s story. Having responded well to God’s command to go, Abraham’s confronted by the terrible calamity of famine. So we quickly discover that crisis and uncertainty are commonplace — even for the people of God. And are almost always connected to some barren and in-between place — like the desert, or wilderness, or exile. But we also discover early on in Abraham’s story that wilderness is a place of significance, a place of formation for Christian disciples. A place that will return us to what’s most basic and most important. I’m pretty sure this returning means more time in scripture; more time meditating on the lives of people like Abraham; more time “inside” the story of his life — and, of course, more time “inside” the life of Jesus in the New Testament. Perhaps this also means a bit less time doing something else — like allowing ourselves to be deeply shaped by social media, or the news, or simply the times in which we live. Because the times in which we live urge us to practice self-preservation, and self-determination, and self-promotion every bit as much as the times in which Abraham and Sarah lived.
The Negeb — where today’s story began — is very definitely a desert and an in-between place. And it’s in this desert that Abraham’s true character and motives reveal themselves. Later, his character and motives are reshaped as he returns to the Negeb from Egypt. It’s in the Negeb that Abraham becomes recalibrate to the basics. The basics of who God is, the basics of what God’s covenant is all about, and the basics of what it means to walk with this God inside this covenant.
We’re doing something similar, just by going all the way back to Genesis this fall. As we’ll see, there’s more reshaping to come. But today’s episode is a hinge-point in Abraham’s story: because Abraham walks out of the Negeb intending to start over. He intends to trust God differently, more completely than before. He intends to embrace the covenant differently and more completely. In particular, he intends to put both things — trusting God and embracing the covenant — ahead of saving his own skin.