The stories of Abraham and Sarah are stories of journeys. From God’s initial communication to Avram, Lekh Lekha – go forth – his life consists of one journey after another.
The initial destination, “to a land that I will show you,” with its ambiguity, gives us a pretty good idea of what is to follow. Avram will continually set out into the unknown, never knowing how exactly things will turn out, but confident and faithful in God’s promise to him. This is why Avram is held up as the paradigm of the man of faith.
As soon as he receives the oppening message from God, Avram sets out with his entire household and all of his belongings to go to the land of Canaan. Let’s pay attention to the journey. He starts off in Shechem, which is in the northern part of the Promised land. There he builds an altar, and God promises the land to him and his offspring.
Avram turns south and builds another altar between Beit El and Ai. This is in the middle of the land that has been promised. He keeps traveling south toward the Negev. He has now traversed the entire land from north to south.
Not a terrible idea, by the way. If someone promised me a giant inheritance, I’d want to check it out also.
Then comes the surprise. “There was a famine in the land.” Surely this is not something that Avram anticipated. Without hesitating, he picks up his household again and leaves the land to which God has just led him.
He continues south, to Egypt. Before crossing the border, Avram turns to his wife.
I know what a beautiful woman you are. If the Egyptians see you, and think, ‘She is his wife,’ they will kill me and let you live. Please say that you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that I may remain alive thanks to you.
They arrive in Egypt, and indeed, the Egyptians notice Sarai’s beauty. They even praise her to Pharaoh, who has her brought into the palace. Again, just as Avram predicted, it goes well for him because of her. He becomes quite wealthy.
Meanwhile, back in the palace, Pharaoh and his household are struck with mighty plagues. He seems to understand that this is due to the fact that she is a married woman, after all. So he summons Avram to the palace to scold him.
What is this you have done to me! Why did you not tell me that she was your wife? Now here is your wife. Take her and leave!”
Men are assigned to oversee Avram, and he is escorted out of the country along with all of his possessions. Basically, he is deported. But he gets to keep his stuff. Avram then reverses his earlier journey. He goes up into the Negev with all of his wealth and then proceeds in stages to Beit El, where he worships again at the altar he had built previously.
What are we to make of this story, of Avram’s dishonesty?
The commentator Ramban is critical of Avram, claiming that he sinned twice. First, in leaving the Promised Land in the first place. Despite the famine, he should have had faith in God’s promise and ability to protect him. His second sin was lying to the Egyptians about being Sarai’s brother. He should have had faith in God’s ability to protect him. Instead, he sent his wife into a potentially dangerous situation
From a certain, modern perspective, we might call Avram a pimp. After all, under his instructions, Sarai is taken into the palace and Avram ends up making bank. And of course, neither the Torah nor the commentaries take into account Sarai’s perspective.
Because of these two sins, Ramban says, Avram’s journey is replicated by his descendants in the future. Think about the parallels. A plague drives the children of Jacob down to Egypt, where they eventually remain for four hundred years and become the Israelite nation. There, the Pharaoh issues a decree to kill all male children and, according to a midrash, bring all the girls into the Egyptian homes. To rescue the Israelites, God sends plagues against the Egyptians. Finally, when the Israelites leave to return to the Promised Land, they take great wealth from the Egyptians. According to Ramban, all of these events are punishment for Avram’s lack of faith in God’s ability to protect him.
A different commentator, Radak, suggests the opposite. This is indeed a test of Avram’s faith, one that he passes with flying colors. Avram received a promise that God will take care of him. Even though events immediately take a downward turn, i.e. a plague strikes the land that he is supposedly going to inherit, he stays the course. Avram accepts everything that happens to him with love, never questioning God’s inentions or methods. To Radak, Avram’s commitment to stay the course is a demonstration of his great faith.
So who is right? Is Avram a sinner, or a man of faith?
According to Professor Nahum Sarna, they are both missing the point. To understand what happened, we need to consider the values of the Ancient Near East. By the way, these are still values that are held in some parts of the world.
In the ancient world, a brother had authority and responsibility for an unmarried sister. If the Egyptians think Sarai is Abraham’s sister, they will likely come to two conclusions: 1. we better not touch her. 2. If she is available for marriage, we will have to negotiate a marriage contract with Avram.
Let’s imagine the scenario playing out. An Egyptian sees the beautiful Sarai. Thinking she’s single, he approaches Avram to seek marriage. Avram now has options. He can say no to the proposal. Or, he can pretend to negotiate, stalling while he and his household prepare their escape. Now imagine if they had been honest about being husband and wife. Remember, Avram is a foreigner. An Egyptian could readily kill Avram and simply take his now widowed wife, who no longer has the protection of any male figure. From this perspective, Avram made the best possible choice, a calculated gamble that he could stay alive, keep Sarai safe, and save his household until the famine ends back in Canaan.
Avram’s problem is that he fails to consider the possibility that Pharaoh himself will be the one to notice Sarai’s beauty. As we know from later events, normal rules do not apply to Pharaohs.
This sets the stage for the showdown between God and Pharaoh which, as Ramban astutely notes, presages the future showdown when Avram and Sarai’s descendants are rescued from Egypt and brought, at long last, to the Promised Land in final fulfillment of God’s promise.