We’ve certainly seen plenty of action during the time period covered by the first eleven chapters of the book of Genesis. For example, chapters one to three started with the creation of the universe and continued on through Adam and Eve’s transgression in the Garden of Eden. This word “transgression” refers to a failure to meet the requirements of a law or obligation (1) and that’s exactly what happened when Adam and Eve deliberately chose to do something that God warned them not to do.
That one small decision eventually led to a chain reaction of really bad things. In fact, everything got so bad that by the time we get to Genesis chapter six, it says that, “The LORD saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time. The LORD was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain” (Genesis 6:5-6). That ultimately led to God’s decision to wipe out everybody on Earth and reboot the planet with a man named Noah.
Genesis chapter eleven then tells us about a later attempt to create a totally humanistic society that completely eliminated God. We saw a record of that effort when we read how a group of people got together and said,“‘…Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth'” (Genesis 11:4).
God responded to that challenge by saying, “‘Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other'” (Genesis 11:7). Later on we’re told, “That is why it was called Babel–because there the LORD confused the language of the whole world. From there the LORD scattered them over the face of the whole earth” (Genesis 11:7-9). So there’s been a lot of history covered throughout the first eleven chapters of Genesis and by the time we get Genesis chapter twelve, a little over 400 years has passed since this attempt to build the Tower of Babel.
But starting in Genesis chapter twelve, things are going to slow down a lot. While the first eleven chapters of Genesis cover a time period of about 2000 years, the final thirty-nine chapters will cover a time period of only about 350 years. And instead of concentrating on the big historical events that we’ve seen so far, the remainder of Genesis is going to focus a lot more on individual people and the events that take place in their lives.
(1) The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition Copyright © 1992 by Houghton Mifflin Company.
We’ve already seen a preview of this “personality-based” focus right at the end of Genesis chapter eleven where we read this…
“This is the account of Terah. Terah became the father of Abram, Nahor and Haran. And Haran became the father of Lot. While his father Terah was still alive, Haran died in Ur of the Chaldeans, in the land of his birth. Abram and Nahor both married. The name of Abram’s wife was Sarai, and the name of Nahor’s wife was Milcah; she was the daughter of Haran, the father of both Milcah and Iscah.
Now Sarai was barren; she had no children. Terah took his son Abram, his grandson Lot son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of his son Abram, and together they set out from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to Canaan. But when they came to Haran, they settled there. Terah lived 205 years, and he died in Haran” (Genesis 11:27-32).
If you read through the verses that come right before the passage quoted above, you’ll find that that it contains a genealogy with a dozen names that are listed one right after another. But this rapid list of names suddenly comes to a standstill in verse 27 to concentrate on one particular family- a man named Terah and his sons.
This background information is important because there are three people in this family who are going to become very significant later on: Abram, his wife Sarai, and Abram’s nephew Lot.
“The LORD had said to Abram, ‘Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you'” (Genesis 12:1-3).
“Abram” is probably better known to us today as “Abraham” but his name won’t be changed to Abraham until we get to Genesis chapter seventeen. Anyway, Genesis 12:1 tells us that God appeared to Abram and told him, “Leave your country, your family, and your relatives and go to the land that I will show you” (CEV).
“Home” for Abram at that time was a place called “Ur of the Chaldees” or “Ur of the Chaldeans.” Ur was a town that was located about 160 miles (257 km) from the Persian Gulf and about 220 miles (354 km) southeast of the city of Baghdad in the modern-day country of Iraq.
However, God has booked some new travel arrangements for Abram- and for Abram, these travel plans were stamped, “Destination: Unknown.”
Take a close look at the instructions that God gave to Abram in this verse: “I want you to leave your home and your family and I’ll tell you where to go.” How do you think that you would respond if God said something like this to you?
Can you imagine what Abram’s friends and relatives said to him while he was getting his gear together…
Q: So I see that you’re packing up all your stuff, Abram- are you going on vacation?
A: Not exactly
Q: So where’re you going?
A: Don’t know
Q: How long will you be gone?
A: Don’t know
Q: How are you going to get there?
A: Don’t know
Q: Well, if you don’t know where you’re going, and you don’t know how long you’ll be gone, and you don’t know how you’re going to get there, then how will you know when you arrive?
A: God’s going to tell me
Q: You’re weird man
So what Abram did would be like a modern-day person packing up all their stuff in a car, filling up the fuel tank, and then pulling out on the road and driving without a set destination. In fact, Hebrews 11:8 says that Abram,”… went out, not knowing where he was going.”
While it’s true that Abram didn’t start out with a set of GPS coordinates and turn-by-turn directions to guide him on this journey, the reality is that he actually started with something better- Abram began with a promise from God…
That first promise –“I will make you into a great nation”– came true later on in the Bible when the nation of Israel was established. We’ll also find out later that God fulfilled His second promise to Abram by giving him many spiritual and material blessings as well. .
Then there was God’s promise to “make your name great.” While there may not be many things that Christians, Muslims, and Jewish people can agree on, one thing that they do agree on is the fact that Abram was a great man, thus fulfilling another promise that God made to him.
Finally, perhaps the greatest fulfillment of God’s promise to make Abram a blessing was that God eventually brought Jesus the Savior through his family lineage (see Matthew 1:1-17).
A large portion of Genesis is dedicated to the events of Abram’s life, and there are many other Old and New Testament references to him as well. He is well known in the Scriptures as a man of tremendous faith, but this is not to say that Abram was a perfect person. For instance, take a look at how Abram followed God’s directions in Genesis chapter 12…
“So Abram left, as the LORD had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he set out from Haran. He took his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, all the possessions they had accumulated and the people they had acquired in Haran, and they set out for the land of Canaan, and they arrived there” (Genesis 12:4-5).
That doesn’t sound too unusual, right? Well, the problem is that Genesis 12:1 says that God originally told Abram to pack up and leave everyone else behind. Since a husband and wife are seen by God as a single unit (see Genesis 2:23 and Matthew 19:6), we can say that God’s directive to Abram also included his wife Sarai as well. So Abram seems OK so far according to the Scripture quoted above.
But then Abram’s nephew Lot apparently decided that he wanted to go along with them too. Then Abram made the decision to take along all the stuff that they had collected while living in Haran. Then he ended up taking all of the people who worked for him there as well.
This is a long way from God’s original directive to “…Leave your native country, your relatives, and your father’s family…” that we saw earlier. So we can say that Abram did do what God told him, but it’s also clear that he didn’t follow God’s instructions perfectly either.
“Abram traveled through the land as far as the site of the great tree of Moreh at Shechem. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. The LORD appeared to Abram and said, ‘To your offspring I will give this land.’ So he built an altar there to the LORD, who had appeared to him. From there he went on toward the hills east of Bethel and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east. There he built an altar to the LORD and called on the name of the LORD. Then Abram set out and continued toward the Negev” (Genesis 12:6-9).
So Abram set out on this trip to an unknown destination. He traveled approximately 350 miles (563 km) to the town of Shechem, and then about 20 miles (32 km) further to an area near the town of Bethel (a name that means “house of God”). After staying there for a short time, Abram was on the move once again. This nomadic lifestyle may help to explain what Abram did next…
“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” (Genesis 12:10).
Now it may be easy to criticize Abram for taking this side trip to Egypt. For example, we might say that since God told Abram to go to the land of Canaan, then he should have stayed in that area and asked God to provide for him during this famine. While its tough to argue with that logic, it’s also difficult to say that what Abram did was wrong. Keep in mind that this famine was very bad and it’s not like Abram was going to live in Egypt forever- it was just a temporary stay because the food shortage was so severe.
However, we can say that Abram definitely did make a bad move once he got to the Egyptian border…
“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'” (Genesis 12:11-12).
Do you know how old Abram’s wife Sarai was at this time? Well, we know from Genesis chapter 17 that Sarai was 10 years younger than Abram (see Genesis 17:1 and 17:17). We also know from Genesis 12:4 that Abram was about 75 years old at this time. This means that Sarai was about 65 years old at the time when she and Abram were about to enter the nation of Egypt.
Now doesn’t it seem strange that Abram was concerned about the possibility that someone in Egypt might try to kill him in order to get to his 65 year old wife? Well, ordinarily that would be true, but don’t forget that life spans were still generally longer for people back then. While people didn’t live for centuries during this time period like we saw earlier in the book of Genesis, they did generally live much longer lives than people usually do today.
For example, Sarai lived to be 127 years old (Genesis 23:1) so this means that she was right around the middle of her life at this time. If we assume that an average person lives to be about 70 years old today, then at this point in her life, Sarai would be comparable to an attractive lady in her mid-30’s today. In fact, Sarai was so good-looking that Abram seemed to be afraid that someone will actually try to kill him in order to marry her.
So Genesis 12:12 tells us that Abram is so concerned that his wife’s beauty might end up getting him killed that he comes up with an idea…
“Say you are my sister, so that I will be treated well for your sake and my life will be spared because of you” (Genesis 12:13).
How would this help Abram? Well, it was a custom during this time for a man to negotiate a payment (called a dowry) with the father or brother of a woman that he wanted to marry. If everyone believed that Abram was Sarai’s brother instead of her husband, then there would be no reason for anyone to want to murder him in order to marry her. And if someone did show an interest in Sarai, Abram could then try to drag out the dowry negotiations long enough until the famine was over and then quietly slip over the border with his wife and head back home.
To make things even more complicated, this story about Sarai being Abram’s sister is actually a partial truth because Sarai was in fact Abram’s half-sister. As it turns out, Abram and Sarai both had the same father but different mothers according to Genesis 20:12. So Abram’s story was true to a certain extent, but there’s no question that he also wanted to try and fool anyone who might show an interest in killing him in order to marry his wife.
Anyway, Abram was right to be concerned about his good-looking wife because she immediately began to attract the attention of his new neighbors once they arrived…
“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” (Genesis 12:14-16).
This is the very first mention of one of the most important titles in the Old Testament- Pharaoh. Just as there have been many people with the title of “President,” “King,” or “Prime Minister” in today, there were also many individuals who held the position of “Pharaoh” during the Old Testament period.
This title “Pharaoh” served to identify the kings of Egypt until around 323 BC. The word Pharaoh means “great house” and it was used in the same way that we might use the term “your honor” or “your majesty” today. In addition to this title, each Pharaoh also had a personal name as well, like Neco, Rameses, and Tutankhamun (or “King Tut”) just to name a few.
The Pharaoh was a very important individual in Egyptian society during the Old Testament period. The people of Egypt believed that their leader was someone who had descended from the gods and because of this, they treated the Pharaoh as if he was a god.
This belief meant that a Pharaoh had total control over the people who lived in Egypt at that time. The Pharaoh had the right to take away someone’s property, put someone in prison, or issue a death sentence for anyone he wanted. So you can understand why Abram would be concerned about someone with that much power. And sure enough,“…when Pharaoh’s officials saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh, and she was taken into his palace” (Genesis 12:15).
So Sarai was taken off to join the harem, just as Abram feared- but God had other plans…
“But the LORD inflicted serious diseases on Pharaoh and his household because of Abram’s wife Sarai” (Genesis 12:17).
Even though Pharaoh and his officials had not done anything knowingly wrong, they still paid a heavy price for Abram’s deception. Because of this, Abram’s choice to mislead Pharaoh lead to a ripple effect of consequences that he did not expect…
“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” (Genesis 12:18-20).
Abram did not represent God accurately in this situation and it almost sounds as if Pharaoh more disgusted with Abram than anything else- Abram deceived him and Pharaoh had to take the punishment because of it. The only thing left for Pharaoh was to basically say, “Take your wife and all your stuff and get out!”
Unfortunately, this is what can happen when someone claims to follow God but makes choices that conflict with that claim. The lesson for us is that we should be careful in the way that we represent God to other people. It’s important for Christians to give people the right example to follow and not provide an opportunity for others to lose respect for God. This is one reason why the New Testament book of Philippians tells us to, “…conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” (Philippians 1:27 NAS).