This is Part 9 of 20 in a series about the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible. In it we will explore the context of the book, specifically its relationship to the Egyptian culture of its day.
Click here to read the entire series.
I hope you've enjoyed a few short weeks, because this one is going to be LONG. As we get closer now to Moses' time, we reach the seventh saga that he has received about the prehistory of Israel's enslavement to Egypt. Here, we will learn the story of Abram, the patriarch of the Jewish faith.
Abram - an overview of his story
As we begin our story, we do not know much of Abram's "starting place" before the events. We do know that he appeared to worship the God of Adam, which would have placed him at odds with the moon god worshippers of Ur. However, remember that at this point we are several centuries away from the development of the Jewish religion: Abram has no Law, no Ten Commandments, no temple, no tabernacle, no priesthood to learn from, nothing. He knows virtually nothing of God. God has been silent for most of history after the Fall, only getting involved a few times during thousands (perhaps tens of thousands) of years of human history.
So when we say that Abram was a believer in God, we do not know what he knew of God at all. As we shall see later, there is at least some priesthood worshipping the One True God, but archaeological evidence suggests that YHWH was not a major diety at this time in the Middle East. Certainly, He was not widely worshipped in Abram's Ur.
Abram is sometimes called a nomadic shepherd, but that is not quite fair: like many wealthy flockowners of his age, he was neither nomadic nor settled down. Rather, Abram moved his massive flocks around all the time, likely along major trade routes, stopping for years at a time near various cities to sell and trade.
When you read, therefore, that Abram took his family and moved around, do not accidentally see this as a small caravan. This was a major undertaking. We see that at the time the Saga of Abram begins, Abram is living in Haran (12:4) along with Lot, their families, many possessions, and "people they had acquired." We do not know how large exactly this group was, but we do know that later they had to separate by miles because of their livestock becoming too crowded (Gen 14), and that when bad times arrive Abram had a standing army of 318 men to call upon (14:14). I see no way to conclude that Abram's party was less than several thousand men, women, and children, and many thousands of livestock. This was not just a family, but a major tribe of people.
Recall that Moses received this Saga for a theological purpose. The ancient world did not use biographers like we do today; Moses cared not for recording everything in Abram's life, but rathe for telling a theological story using the events of Abram's life. He has a specific purpose with what he records and in which way. I submit that Moses, under guidance of the Spirit, has three specific purposes in recording this Saga:
1. God called Abram to Canaan, but he had to go through Egypt to get there.
(Moses' point to the Hebrews: we are leaving Egypt to get to Canaan, just as Abram did.)
2. God and Abram had a covenant which made Abram's descendents blessed by God
(Moses' point to the Hebrews: God made a covenant with Abram and we are going to abide by it and receive blessings.)
3. Abram finished out his life as a wealthy leader in Canaan
(Moses' point to the Hebrews: Abram was a given land in Canaan and promised all of the land, so we have an historic right to the land.)
Moses is recording Abram's life in order to demonstrate to his readers (who, recall, had just escaped Egypt and gone to Canaan) that their experiences are part of God's plan, and that God had always promised that land to them. The stories shown here were not simply happenstance, but are an attempt to prove a very specific point. Let us go through each of these points now.
1. God called Abram to Canaan, via Egypt (Gen 12)
At some point between being born and age 75, Abram moved to the city of Haran with their family patriarch, Terah. Terah had originally planned to go to the land of Canaan, but settled in Haran in the north and remained there until Terah's death (11:31-32). At some point afterward, God called Abram to go forth into the land of Canaan and took the entire tribe with him--Abram now being the patriarch of the tribe (Gen 12:1-4). They traveled southwest toward the Mediterranean, passing to Shechem.
It is here--before the Abramic Covenant--that God tells Abram that the land of Canaan is given to him (12:7). And yes, there are other people there already (12:6). God promises to Abram that, even though there are local people living there, He (as sovereign of the universe) will one day be handing this land over to Abram's descendants. So the readers of Moses are being explicitly told that the land of Canaan is their rightful inheritance from God via Abram.
As Abram entered Canaan, he found an area largely void of political power. Canaan was populated by descendents of Ham (recall that Canaan was the name of his cursed son) and the area has many very ancient fortresses. However it appears that by 2200-2000 BC, the area was in a power vacuum, with the majority of urban power had disintegrated. Smaller local feudal, agricultural societies developed ruled by local "kings" who had very limited wealth and power. The instant Abram entered Canaan, he was likely one of the most powerful people in the region.
Abram built an altar to God east of Bethel and lived there for some time (12:8). However, eventually a famine hits the area (12:10), and Abram's tribe appears to be in need. The famine is the primary reason that they leave Canaan--and they head (very logically) to the biggest, most stable empire and economy in the world: Egypt.
Abram in Egypt
Now comes a rather confusing section for many--Abram trying to deceive the Egyptians by pretending that his wife was in fact his sister. What is going on with this passage of Scripture (12:11-20)?
First, we need to understand where Abram got the idea, and then why he chooses to use the deception. Recall that in chapter 11, Terah (Abram's father) had a brother named Haran. Haran had two daughters, Iscah and Milcah. Iscah is another name for Sarai, as has been noted by Jewish commentators for thousands of years. So Iscah/Sarai is the neice of Terah, and the first cousin of Abram. However, in the Ancient Near East women could not own or inherit property, and if their husbands died (particularly if wealthy) it was of great risk. When Haran died, then, it would have been customary for Terah to marry Haran's widow; and therefore Iscah would have become the adopted sister of Abram, though first cousins by blood. (Indeed, it may well be this event which led to Terah moving to the city of Haran in the first place, and the "people they had aquired in Haran" from 12:5 were in fact these newly-merged tribes after Terah's brother died.)
That said, why did Abram fear? Well, at this time life was not all that good for women. They were often traded like slaves, and (as mentioned a few weeks ago) the dress of Egypt left little to the imagination. Abram was going to move his huge tribe into Egypt and attempt to negotiate a business deal where they could use Egyptian lands to graze. His fear appears to be that the Egyptians, seeing his very attractive wife, would require her as part of the deal.
(This was not an unlikely scenario, by the way. One ancient Egyptian story, called "The Story of the Two Brothers," is now on display at the British Museum. In the story the Pharaoh uses his army to murder the husband of a beautiful woman and take him to herself, and this is written as a positive story in the Egyptian tale. The Egyptians saw Pharaoh as God's vizier and therefore capable of having whatever he wanted.)
So what was Abram's plan here? I think we see it--and it doesn't make Abram look all that good here.
Abram's plan is simple: if he shows up with Sarai as his wife, they will try to buy Sarai as part of the deal. So instead, he will pretend that Sarai is his sister--and, therefore, available. Sarai will be bait which allows the negotiations to continue.
That is, after all, exactly what happens. When Abram arrives he lies about Sarai's availability. She goes to live in Pharaoh's house (12:15)! Don't miss this--the Pharaoh believed that Sarai was available to either become his queen or his mistress. The Bible tells us that this was the only reason that he made a deal with Abram to protect the tribe from famine (12:16).
This is not me guessing either: we are specifically told by the text that Abram implied that his beautiful wife was unmarried (and thus a virgin), and she went to live in Pharaoh's house, and "for her sake [Pharaoh] dealt well with Abram" (12:14-16). In other words, Abram knew that he had nothing to offer the Egyptians which would be worth the tribe's survival during the famine. He believed that negotiating with Pharaoh would end up with his throat slit, Sarai taken as a mistress to Pharaoh, and his tribe left to starve on Egypt's borders. So Abram implies that Sarai is for sale as part of the deal, thus providing an honorable path for Pharaoh to buy her--and, therefore, buying safety for the tribe.
So make no mistake--Abram was a savvy businessman, although not the best husband in the world. If God does not intervene, I think this story has only one logical end: Pharaoh marries Sarai and Abram eventually leaves. Think about it, there is no other way out. If Abram pulls Sarai back later, Egypt would simply wipe out his tribe. As we will find out later, Sarai is not all that hung up on monogamy and is practical to a fault (like her husband), and she seems to go along willingly with this plan.
God later inflicts Pharaoh's house with a plague, and somehow Pharaoh figures out (12:18) that the cause is Sarai is Abram's wife. But then in verse 19, notice what we find out--the plagues happened AFTER Pharaoh "took her for my wife" (12:19). I see no conclusion here other than the fact that Sarai in fact went through with the plan. She married Pharaoh and became his queen, and somehow plagues started happening. He figured out that it was because of his new foreign wife, and was angry with Abram.
Since Abram had lied, it invalidated the covenant and Pharaoh kicked Abram's tribe out of the country of Egypt during the famine (12:20).
What do we learn from this passage?
People far too often miss the purpose of this passage. Why were we told this? Because it shows a theological point that Moses wanted to make to his readers. Abram's rightful land was Canaan, but when famine struck he did not trust God to provide. Instead, he came down to Egypt and hoped the Egyptians would save him. The Egyptians did so, but the intermingling of God's people and the Egyptians angered God. He sent plagues on the Pharaoh's house, causing Abram to have to leave and go back to the land God promised him.
Sound familiar? Because we're going to see the same thing happen again in a later saga. Abram's descendents failed to learn from his lack of trust in God, and went back again to Egypt and tried the same thing. Then even after Moses led them out of Egypt, they would complain and bicker and wish yet a third time for Egypt to save them instead of God.
While we miss some of the above with a careless reading of the text, Moses clearly here is showing that Abram was supposed to live in Canaan, came to Egypt to escape famine, was willing to sell his wife to obtain material wealth, and God used plagues to drive him back to Canaan. The message to Moses' readers is pretty clear: there's no going back to Egypt. That has been tried and it always ends in slavery and plagues and exile. Our land is Canaan, and only there will God bless us.
2. God and Abram had a covenant which made Abram's descendents blessed by God (Gen 13-22)
Abram apparently decides to settle down in the area God provided. Now Abram and his nephew Lot are the two leaders of this tribe. Abram is Terah's son, Lot was Haran's son (Iscah/Sarai's brother). So Lot was Abram's nephew and adoptive brother (from when Terah married Haran's widow). When Lot came of age, then, he would have received Haran's full inheritance, being his only son. So Abram was the patriarch of his tribe, and Lot's tribe traveled with him but was Lot's to lead.
Their exile from Egypt quickly turned into bickering in Canaan, as the two tribes had too much livestock to survive on the land; in addition, the local Canaanites in the region were already struggling with famine even before Abram and Lot moved in with their two tribes (13:5-7).
So Abram seeks peace with Lot, letting Lot decide which part of Canaan to take. Lot chooses the Jordan Valley on the east, which was beautiful and vibrant. Lot makes the city of Sodom his headquarters, which is likely at the south end of the Dead Sea (the "Salt Sea", on the map from the time).
The Lord reminds Abram of his promise that this land--though inhabited--would be his, and filled with his offspring (13:12-18). Thus Abram chooses Hebron as his new home, some 20 miles south of the city of Jerusalem, then simply called "Salem," a modest city-state with some Egyptian ties. So while Abram stayed in the center of Canaan, Lot went to the outer edges of the land, near the kings of the Moabites, Ammorites, and others who lived across the Dead Sea.
This turns out to be unfortunate for Lot. A major land war breaks out in his region, with half of the kings on one side and half on the other (14:1-4). Lot, living in Sodom, through in with the King of Sodom, but as the (several year long) war went, on Sodom was sacked and Lot taken hostage (14:5-12). An escapee knew about the wealthy uncle of Lot and went to Abram, who was still living near Hebron with some Amorites who were his allies.
At this point Abram has little choice but to get involved. Not only were his kinsmen defeated and captured, but his allies the Amorites had also been defeated by the same army (14:7). So Abram gathers his security force--318 men born and raised in his tribe to be his soldiers. They travel and, in a surprise night raid, completely wipe out the foes.
Abram was apparently as clever a general as he was a businessman, and completely destroyed his enemy. He kept no hostage. (I think of Abram a bit like Liam Neeson in Taken here for some reason.) He saved Lot and gathered up all of the possessions and spoils of war--which, by the way, are all rightfully his now.
He returns south and is greeted by two key people: the King of Sodom, and a man named Melchizedek, king of Salem.
Now some modern Christians have gotten a bit mixed up on Melchizedek, seeing his as a pre-Incarnate Christ. Where this came from I cannot find--it is hinted at nowhere in Scripture or in history. Jews and Christians have always held that Melchizedek was a priest-king of the (at this time) small city-state of Salem, which would later become Jerusalem. He was the only ancient priest we know of who actively worshipped the God of Adam, though there were probably others. He was seen as an archtype of Christ, just as Moses was: in other words, Melchizedek is supposed to remind us that there were High Priests to God throughout history, and Jesus is our new High Priest.
At any rate, what we have here is the King of Sodom and the King of Salem (who worships God).
Melchizedek pronounces a blessing on Abram for having had such a miraculous rescue campaign. Then, Abram gives a tenth of everything to Melchizedek (14:19-20). Some mistakenly see this as a pre-Law tithe, but this is not true! The tenth that Abram gives is not a tithe from his own possessions--it is 10% of the King of Sodom's possessions that Abram just rescued. Abram, as the conquerer, was due a tithe (10%) of the returned goods to Sodom. Instead of taking what he earned, he gave this to the priest-king of Salem to use as he sees fit. In other words, Abram was refusing the honor due to him as the conquering king of the area, and instead confirming that Melchizedek was the proper king of the area. That is, it is the King of Salem who deserves the tithe from war, not Abram. This is, essentially, Abram humbly refusing to exert authority in light of his recent conquest. He simply wants things to go back the way they were.
The other 90% of things belong to the King of Sodom. But he tells Abram to only return his people and keep all of the possessions (14:21)--in this case, to make Abram a subject of him. To accept, Abram cleverly notes, would mean that the King of Sodom had authority over Abram and had paid him for rescuing his people (14:22). Instead Abram merely asks that his allies be given their share for helping him, and everything else to be returned to its rightful owner.
So here we see Abram again as a shrewd politician. He has the ability here as conquerer to completely change the political landscape--either by becoming a vassal of the King of Sodom, or by becoming the rule of Salem. Instead, he supports Melchizedek the priest-king's authority, and refuses to bow to the King of Sodom--while also ensuring that his allies receive some money. Thus Abram and his tribes remain independent and wealthy, and his family's honor is avenged by the freeing of Lot...but Abram expands his list of allies to include Sodom and Salem now as well.
Thus Abram has allies all around him, the blessing of God, and a new reputation as a lethal commander of military.
Interesting, then, that the very next thing the Bible says is a vision from God: "Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward will be very great." God reminds Abram of His commitment, and also reminds him that God has his back. (No need to rely on your shrewd politics! God is in control.)
The Heir of Abram
So at this point, Moses' readers see Abram clearly as a major political player in the region of Canaan and having a legimate, divinely-given protection and ownership there. So how then do we get from Abram to the children of Israel at Moses' time?
Well it begins when God specifically tells Abram--again--that he will give birth to an heir and that heir will father a mighty family (Gen 15). However, Sarai and Abram get impatient. As we saw earlier, they are not all that concerned with monogamy (having once sold Sarai into a mistress relationship with Egypt), and here Sarai decides to take things into her own hands. She convinces Abram to take Hagar, Sarai's servant, as a mistress. (Hagar is an Egyptian, probably obtained by Sarai during her time serving as Pharaoh's mistress; how ironic now that Sarai will force her into a similar situation.)
But when Hagar gets pregnant, Sarai gets jealous and blames Abram for listening to her. (Women.) Abram reminds Sarai that she is in control of her own servant, and Sarai treats her so harshly that Hagar flees. Hagar is protected by God in the desert, however, and convinced to return to Abram's household. She gives birth to a son, Ishmael--who will be the father of the Arab peoples, as we find out later. (Gen 16).
In Genesis 17, God formally makes the covenant with Abram, changing his name to Abraham. The covenant is dealt with in deatil in a prior article here, and I will not rehash it in this. In short, the sons of Abraham were to be circumcised (a fairly common coming-of-age ritual in Egypt and a sign of being special). God promises that Sarai will be renamed Sarah and give birth to many. The key requirement of Abram is circumcision of every male in his tribe (which he does), and God's promise is to give him a legitimate heir. (Gen 17).
As witness to this covenant, three men show up. Abram rushes to show them hospitality. As we will later find out in the story, one of these men is YHWH Himself, God taking flesh. (This is actually an interesting story, and maybe I will write a separate post on this tomorrow.) The other two are angels. The three appear in order to prophesy on God's behalf that Abraham and Sarah will have children within a year. Though Sarah does not believe it, she too hears this prophesy (Gen 18:1-15). When we read that she and Abraham were talking to God about all of this, it was literally to one of the three men. The men leave Abraham's hospitality and travel south to Sodom, Abraham going with them on their way as a guide. It is during this trip that God reveals to Abraham his plan to wipe out Sodom and Gomorrah because of their wickedness (18:16-33). Abraham negotiates with God--always the businessman!--and gets God to agree that if there are even 10 good men in the city of Sodom he would not destroy it. Abraham, satisfied, returns home.
The two angels arrive (without God) at Sodom one evening, and Lot seeks to show them similar hospitality to Abram. He offers them to stay in his home, but they say they will sleep outside (polite refusal). Lot insists, however, and invites them into his home--and thus, under his protection (19:1-3). However, that night a mob of men from Sodom arrive outside the house. Indeed, it appears to be every man in the city, young and old--Moses tells us that very specifically in 19:4, probably to demonstrate that God did not break his promise to Abraham for there were not in fact 10 good people there. They ask for the men to be given to them so that the visitors can be raped, but Lot refuses, calling the act wicked (19:5-7).
It certainly appears as though Lot knew this would happen, no? The sins of Sodom were so depraved that in the last chapter God planned to wipe them out, agreeing to spare the city only if at least ten men were good. (And Abraham felt it necessary to negotiate all the way down to 10 men, meaning that he did not have much faith that there were very many good men therein.) Lot meanwhile, being apparently the only non-deviant in the city, is waiting by the gate for arrivals and refuses to allow visitors to be out in public.
Lot goes outside and offers the mob his virgin daughters to rape instead (another grimace-inducing example of how Abraham's generation viewed women). This infuriates the mob, who point out that Lot is a pilgrim in their city, not their judge. They tried to grab Lot and threatened to do even worse to him, but the men in Lot's house were able to pull him in to safety (19:8-9).
The angels strike the men of Sodom blind, and take Lot and his family out as a sign of God's mercy to them (19:10-16). His wife, however, tried to turn back and ends up becoming a pillar of salt; the rest of the family escapes safely (19:17-26).
Now the point of this story is sometimes missed because we get into the details and argue whether the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah was the lack of hospitality, the homosexuality, or the attempted rape. That misses the point though.
The point of this story is not about Sodom and Gomorrah at all. Do not miss the context of this story. It is sandwiched right between God's covenant to Abraham and God's fulfillment of this covenant. So what is the point of thist story?
The point was shown in chapter 18 and in 19:27-29, where we are explicitly shown that Abraham is an allowable mediator between God and his family. Recall that ancient suzerain covenants require a mediator between the soverign and the vassals, and Moses includes these stories here to prove that God views Abraham as an acceptable mediator. Abraham is allowed to negotiate with God--something no one else is allowed to do. And even though Sodom and Gomorrah still failed to pass the "10 good men" test, on Abraham's behalf God saves his family.
The point is clearly that Abraham is God's chosen mediator of the covenant, and that God will save Abraham's family as a result. This is obviously a clear message that the readers of Moses--as descendents of Abraham--will find helpful.
After the Sodom and Gomorrah debacle, we find out that Lot's children think they are the last people on earth, get their father drunk, and sleep with him. Thus they both became pregnant and fathered tribes out of this sin as well--the Moabites and Ammonites (19:30-38).
Abraham uproots and moves his tribe southwest, closer to the Mediterranean, to an area called Gerar. The local king Abimelech sees Sarah and Abraham and Sarah again use the "she's my sister, here you have her" strategy of alliance-making. Abimelech takes Sarah as his wife as well (20:1-2), but before he can sin against her God intervenes (20:3-8). Abimelech, rather than simply exile Abraham (as Pharaoh had done), talks to Abraham and learns that Abraham--fearing the pagans in Gerar--thought he would be killed and her stolen. (To which I say: YOU chose to move here, dummy! If you think murder and rape are the most likely result of moving to an area...then don't do it!)
Abimelech decides to become an ally with Abraham in spite of the deception, and God blessed them all because of it (20:9-18). It is while living in the lands of Abimelech that Abraham and Sarah become pregnant and Isaac is born. With Isaac's arrival, Sarah decides to cast out Hagar and Ishmael (and thus remove any fear of a fight over who was the proper heir of Abraham). Ishmael moves to Paran in southern Israel, marries an Egyptian woman, and Muslims view him as the rightful heir of Abraham--and their ancestor. Abraham and Abimelech continue their allegiance even when some well disputes arise, and Abraham lives in this Canaanite-Philistine controlled land for many years (Gen 21).
The final story of the covenant between Abraham and God is the binding of Isaac, which I covered in its own post here. As this post is quite long already, I will not repeat it here, but it is worth a read.
Abraham after this event moves his family to Beersheba, south of Hebron and east of Gerar, possibly still in the lands of Abimelech. There his tribe continues to grow (Gen 22).
3. Abram finished out his life as a wealthy leader in Canaan (Gen 23-25:11)
Sarah eventually died and was buried in Hebron, and the Hittites who ruled the area acknowledge that Abraham is a prince among them and can bury whereever he wishes, and they insist it be for free (Gen 23). Abraham, nearing his own old age, fears that his steward will marry Isaac to a local Canaanite (probably to gain an alliance). So he makes him swear to find a Mesopotamian woman from his homeland instead. They find Rebekah, a member of Abraham's tribe, in the city of Nahor (an alternative name of Haran, where his father Terah took them to live). Rebekah and Isaac fall in love and are married, which is a comfort to Isaac shortly after the death of his mother (Gen 24).
Abraham marries again, to a woman named Keturah, and has at least six other children. He died and was buried with Sarah in the land of the Hittites. God blessed Isaac to settle at Beer-lahai-roi, a well in the Negeb in south Canaan (Gen 25:1-11).
All of these events seek to show that Abraham finished his life in Canaan, and was accepted as a rightful "prince" by the local rulers at the time.
Abraham's life is full of many great stories and studies which can help us in our lives. He is the father of our faith, after all, and figures prominently in New Testament theology as well. Likewise, the promise between God and Abraham raises interesting political questions regarding whether modern-day Israel retains rights to the land, and what we as Christians should do to support them.
None of that, however, was the primary purpose. Don't get so caught in the details that you lose the "big picture" God is trying to show us here. Why did God's spirit give Moses this Saga to record? The primary reasons are theological, and of great value to Moses' audience--the Jews escaping Egypt.
The life of Abraham shows the Jews that their rightful land was Canaan, not Egypt. It shows that trying to escape famine by allying with Egypt is not God's plan for His people--He wants them to remain in Canaan, which is their inheritance. Also, this Saga clearly shows that Abraham is a rightful mediator to make a covenant with God, and that their claims on the land in Canaan were legitimate and legal.
Make no mistake--this is critical to Moses' people. They fled slavery in Egypt which--though terrible--was preferable to some when compared to the frightening task of conquering a land filled with violent pagans. They were supposed to go from slave to wanderer to conquering nation in just the span of a generation. This requires a lot of faith in God (a God who, at this point, has not even established an official method of worshipping Him!), and a necessary belief that going to Canaan is in fact God's plan and their rightful inheritance.