The Folly of Taking Matters Into Our Own Hands

Genesis 12:10-20 Now there was a famine in the land. So Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there, for the famine was severe in the land. 11 When he was about to enter Egypt, he said to Sarai his wife, “I know that you are a woman beautiful in appearance, 12 and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me, but they will let you live. 13 Say you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared for your sake.” 14 When Abram entered Egypt, the Egyptians saw that the woman was very beautiful. 15 And when the princes of Pharaoh saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh. And the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house. 16 And for her sake he dealt well with Abram; and he had sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male servants, female servants, female donkeys, and camels.

17 But the LORD afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife. 18 So Pharaoh called Abram and said, “What is this you have done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife? 19 Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her for my wife? Now then, here is your wife; take her, and go.” 20 And Pharaoh gave men orders concerning him, and they sent him away with his wife and all that he had.

INTRODUCTION

We saw last week (in 12:1-9) that the major promise of the OT was given to Abram…

Genesis 12:1-3 Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2 And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

The main questions going forward in Genesis and the entire OT, then, concern the fulfillment of that promise. Would it happen? If so, when and how? Abram obeyed God initially, but would that continue? Could Abram botch the promise or would God be faithful no matter what? With those questions ringing in our ears we’re left wondering what would happen next.

The main point of this passage and sermon is that God’s promises never fail. Though Abram took matters into his own hands—even in the way of deception and abandonment—God preserved Abram, his wife Sarai, and His promise to Abram. God remained faithful even when Abram didn’t. To help you see all of this in our text for this morning we’ll consider a pair of problems that Abram faced along with his “solutions” to those problems. Then we’ll contrast that with God’s unwavering faithfulness. Would you pray with me then that God would help us trust in Him more and more even as Genesis helps us to see His faithfulness more and more? And would you pray with me that the Spirit would be pleased to help us see the folly of taking matters into our own hands?

ABRAM’S PROBLEMS AND FAITHLESS “SOLUTIONS” (10-16)

The last section of Genesis ended with Abram worshiping God and continuing on to the land God had promised to him—it ended in Abram’s obedience and praise. As we’ve seen several times before in Genesis, everything seems like it was going just as God intended. God had made awesome promises and His chosen representative was living by faith in those promises. But as we’ve also seen several times already in Genesis, it didn’t take long before Abram encountered a problem—a test of his faith.

Abram’s First Problem (10)

We don’t know for sure how much time passed between 12:9 and 12:10, but evidently it was enough for a severe famine to take hold.

10 Now there was a famine in the land…the famine was severe in the land.

Before we get to Abram’s solution to this problem, I’d like to invite you to really try to put yourself into his shoes. That is, if we’re really going to appreciate the heart of this story and the great grace of God that it reveals, we need to honestly put ourselves into it.

From what we’re told, God spoke to Abram and made a great promise to him. Sometime later, after Abram’s initial obedience, God appeared to Abram to encourage and further direct him. And some time after that the events of our passage took place. All of that happens in just a few verses in Genesis. God’s words to Abram are, from our vantage point, mere inches apart.

While we don’t know the exact timeline, we do know that there is actually a good deal of time between all of this (perhaps more than a year). Thus, while we might imagine God speaking regularly to Abram, the fact is that Abram experienced the vast majority of his life without any direct words from God (just two to this point).

As is often the case for you and me, most of Abram’s decisions had to be made based on what God had already revealed to him. And again like us, most of his decisions were probably pretty simple and straight forward; it was relatively easy to discern what God wanted from him most situations in light of His past revelations. Every so often, however, there came along a decision that wasn’t so simple or easy. In v.10, we find such a situation.

A severe famine had fallen on the land. There’s no record of God speaking directly to Abram about what He meant Abram to do, and so Abram was forced to make a choice. The text implies that without some type of divine intervention (which was not directly promised), to stay in the Negeb would likely have meant starvation for Abram and his family. As a husband and father that’s a hard place to be in. What’s more, perhaps Abram truly believed that it was his responsibility to do what he needed to do to stay alive in order that God’s promise might stand.

We will see from this text that Abram made a wrong decision, and yet with even a moment’s humble consideration, it’s not hard to understand the uncertainty Abram faced as he contemplated his response to the famine. So, without the benefit of hindsight, what do you think you would have done? What did he do?

Abram’s First “Solution” (10)

Abram’s solution to his first problem was to leave the land God had promised him and go to Egypt.

10 Now there was a famine in the land. So Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there, for the famine was severe in the land.

Evidently Egypt wasn’t as affected by the famine as was the Negeb and so it seemed good to Abram to head there for food for a time. The problem, of course, was that Abram served the God of all creation, the God who owned every grain of wheat and every drop of rain, but he felt like his only place of refuge was in a land that rejected God as the one true God; a pagan and idolatrous nation. There is no indication that Abram sought the will of God or in any way acted in faith. The picture in this text is of a man who decided to rely on his own wisdom and perspective. The main problem at this point, then, was not Egypt, but Abram’s failure to seek God first in this matter. The problem was that Abram foolishly took things into his own hands.

Again, as we’ll soon see clearly in this text, this was not the choice God meant Abram to make. And yet once again it’s not hard to imagine ourselves doing exactly what he did. In fact, that Abram “went down to Egypt to sojourn there” means that he never intended to stay there. He always meant to leave. He wasn’t forsaking God’s call on his life, he was—it seems—merely trying to preserve it until God gave him further instructions.

Abram’s Second Problem (11-12)

Well, as is always the case, wandering from God’s will led Abram further from God’s will. We cannot make ungodly choices and avoid problems. And we cannot rely on worldly wisdom and expect things to go well. There is one path that leads to joyful fellowship with God …the path of faithful obedience. Every other path—and there are countless numbers of them—lead to frustration, difficulty, and death (Proverbs 14:12). Having forsaken God’s path, then, Abram found himself almost immediately confronted with a second problem; as is always the case.

It turns out that Abram’s wife was staggeringly beautiful (even at 65 years old) and he knew it. She must have been truly remarkable for Abram to know that bringing her into a foreign land would draw the attention of people in power.

11 When he was about to enter Egypt, he said to Sarai his wife, “I know that you are a woman beautiful in appearance, 12 and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me, but they will let you live.”

Having faithlessly led his family to an ungodly land, Abram rightly surmised that he would encounter sin. He knew that a man with a wife as pretty as his would be in a dangerous spot; for the men of Egypt would want her for themselves. As her husband, Abram’s life was in danger.

Again, before we look at Abram’s “solution” to this dilemma, let’s stare directly at two truths this second problem presents us with. First, Abram was right (as we’ll soon see) that given his choice to go to Egypt to avoid death he would be presented with a second life and death choice. We know that Abram made a bad choice, but once again, we’re wrong to look on him with prideful contempt. We’re meant to see ourselves in what Abram did, not what we might have done with thousands of years of hindsight. As with the first problem, it is only when we do so that we are in a place to rightly appreciate the grace of God that came to Abram and that comes to us in Jesus.

The second truth that we must not allow ourselves to miss here is that while Abram likely felt like he was caught between a rock and a hard place, it was a rock and a hard place that his faithlessness had created. We can often make sinful choice after sinful choice and then find ourselves feeling like victims when our series of sinful choices leaves us with no good options.

The fact of the matter is this, Grace: Once we’ve made one sinful choice there are only two possible responses: 1) Repentance (which might have hard immediate consequences but is the only way back to the path of life), or 2) Continued disobedience (which might in the short-term help us to avoid some of the painful consequences of repentance, but will inevitably lead to much greater problems down the road). Those were Abram’s only two choices just as they are our only two choices. So what would Abram do here? Would he repent or further compound his sin and suffering?

Abram’s Second “Solution” (13-16)

He chose the second door. He chose continued disobedience.

13 Say you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared for your sake.

He called on Sarai to deceive the Egyptians, presumably under the belief that they would see a husband as an adversary but a brother as a friend. As a husband he was in danger, but as a brother he stood to gain.

Well, it seems that Abram was right in his assessment of the effect of his wife’s beauty on the Egyptians for…

14 When Abram entered Egypt, the Egyptians saw that the woman was very beautiful. 15 …when the princes of Pharaoh saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh. And the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house.

Rather than repent of his initial act of faithlessness he committed another. He lied about his wife and abandoned her (for how long and in exactly what manner we’re not told). Further, he did so the text says that it “may go well with me…and that my life may be spared.” Abram intentionally deceived the Egyptians and abandoned his wife for the sake of his own benefit. He lied and handed his wife over to another man in order that he might live and flourish.

If you’ve read about Abram (or at least know his story), you know that there’s a bit more to all of this still. Later in Genesis he pulled the same stunt with a man named Abimelech, the king of a city called Gerar. Fearing again for his life, Abram (then Abraham) again tried to pass off Sarai (then Sarah) as his sister. When King Abimelech found out about Abram’s trickery he confronted Abram (just as Pharaoh is about to do). Abram replied…

Genesis 20:12-13 … she is indeed my sister, the daughter of my father though not the daughter of my mother, and she became my wife. 13 And when God caused me to wander from my father’s house, I said to her, ‘This is the kindness you must do me: at every place to which we come, say of me, He is my brother.'”

In Abram’s reply to Abimelech we find out two important things…First we find out that Abram was not technically lying in calling Sarai his sister. And second we find out that this was some kind of planned and repeated trick of his to keep from getting into trouble.

Well, just as Abram was right about how the Egyptians would respond to Sarai’s beauty, he was also spot on in his assessment of how they would respond to him in light of his “sister”. It seems that his scheme “worked”.

16 And for her sake he dealt well with Abram; and he had sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male servants, female servants, female donkeys, and camels.

Abram’s life as well as Sarai’s was preserved. Abram even got rich in the process. On the surface it appears that taking matters into his own hands paid off (as long as you don’t mind acting faithlessly, lying, and giving your wife to another man—and it doesn’t seem that Abram minded doing any of those things).

All of this forces upon us a number of questions: Why would Abram do this? Why would he take things into his own hands in such a faithless manner? How could he be so indifferent to his wife being taken into the home of another? What did Sarai think about all of this? Where was God in all of this? Why would He allow such things to take place and seemingly reward them on top?

The text gives us a few hints, but to be clear, it is almost entirely unconcerned with these things. The main point of the text is simply that they happened. We do not find any kind of clear moral explanation or justification.

And yet, we cannot miss the larger lesson here, Grace. It is never a good idea to take matters into our own hands. Faithlessness and worldly wisdom always lead to suffering. It is always folly to take matters into our own hands. We see this clearly in Abram’s life here and we see it clearly in our own lives. God’s will, as revealed in His word, must always be our guide—even when it goes entirely against the wisdom of this world (remember what God called Abram to do with his son of promise?). Of course (as many of us are finding out in spades as we try to make godly decisions during this pandemic), even with the Spirit and the Word it’s not always easy to know if you’re taking matters into your own hands or actually doing the will of God, which makes the cross even more awesome.

A quick note to the ladies…it must be hard to see Sarai treated as she was. We all wonder what she was thinking and how she understood the choices her husband was making on her behalf. We also wonder why God would allow such a thing (He didn’t in chapter 20…maybe not here either?). We’re not told the answer to those things, but we are told that Peter wrote 1 Peter 3:1-2 with her silent obedience in mind, “Wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct.” We know that because just a few verses later he also wrote, “For this is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to make themselves beautiful. They were submissive to their own husbands, 6 like Sarah, who obeyed Abraham and called him her master. You are her daughters if you do what is right and do not give way to fear” (1 Peter 3:5-6).

Again, I don’t claim to understand exactly how Sarai should have acted in the situation, but evidently at least some aspect of what she did was godly. That’s a pretty counter cultural perspective on womanhood. There’s certainly more to the story, but there’s not less. We ought to grieve, then, that her husband’s faithless, selfish, and ungodly behavior put her in such an awful place, but we ought to rejoice that in this situation, unlike Abram, Sarai acted in a manner pleasing to God even thought it led to suffering. Where Abram is shown to fearfully take matters into his own hands, Sarai is shown to fearlessly leave them in God’s.

Well, how does God respond when His people act like this? What would God do? Where was He in all of this? The last few verses of this section answer that question for us.

GOD’S FAITHFUL SOLUTION (17-20)

God called Abram to live a life of humble and joyful submission to God and fellowship with God. In this passage we see that Abram didn’t do that—at least not perfectly. The amazing thing to see in the last few verses is the way in which God responded to Abram’s acts of faithlessness. Abram left the land God sent him to, lied about his wife, and gave his wife over to another man…

17 But the LORD afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife. 18 So Pharaoh called Abram and said, “What is this you have done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife? 19 Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her for my wife? Now then, here is your wife; take her, and go.” 20 And Pharaoh gave men orders concerning him, and they sent him away with his wife and all that he had.

There are a few things to see here. First, God held Pharaoh accountable (by sending “great plagues”) for his sin even though Pharaoh sinned without knowing it. What’s more, somehow Pharaoh knew that it was God who was holding him accountable. I don’t know what percent of the sins we commit we don’t even know about but I’m inclined to think it’s much higher than we’d guess. Whether committed in ignorance or full knowledge, however, we see here that God is never indifferent to sin, and sin always has consequences.

Second, Pharaoh, who did not call on the name of the LORD, acted (in some ways anyway) with more integrity than did Abram (and later King David, who killed to get his beautiful woman). As soon as he figured out that Sarai was another man’s wife, he returned her to Abram and sent them both off with the spoils of his land. Insodoing Pharaoh acknowledged the moral wrongness of adultery.

Third, even though Abram may have thought himself as acting in such a way as to protect God’s promise and his wife, it turns out that the promise and his wife actually needed to be protected from Abram. Believing ourselves to be acting in righteousness is not the same thing as actually acting in righteousness.

And forth, in spite of all of this, gloriously, we see that God was already beginning to fulfill His promise to Abram even in Abram’s faithless acts. Back in the previous section (12:1-9) we read a series of “I wills” from God.

1 go to the land I will show you…2 …I will make of you a great nation…I will bless you and make your name great… 3 I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse… 7 …”To your offspring I will give this land.”

In this passage many of these begin to come to pass. God said He would make Abram’s name great and here he stood before the king of Egypt and prevailed as one under the protection of God. Similarly God said that He would bless Abram and at Pharaoh’s expense Abram grew in wealth (“sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male servants, female servants, female donkeys, and camels”—at that time these things were the definition of wealth). And God promised that those who dishonored Abram would be dishonored by God; and here we find God sending a plague on Pharaoh’s house for taking Abram’s wife as his own.

All of this comes together to help us see that our only hope is not our faithfulness, but God’s. If everything rested on our ability to be and remain perfect—or even simply on our ability to trust God—we’d be entirely doomed. In that way, this passage helps us to see (even if somewhat dimly) what the NT makes crystal clear: God will provide a way for us to come back to Him and He will hold onto us throughout the entire way. Again, the great news of the gospel—which we catch glimpses of in this passage—is that God would make a way for us perfectly and completely in the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. Our God is an awesome God! His grace is amazing grace!

CONCLUSION

And so, Grace, see the folly of taking matters into your own hands—even when not doing so seems entirely reckless (Abram acted with common sense and was blessed but wrong; while Sarai acted against common sense and was mistreated but right). Likewise, Grace, see in this passage the inescapable need for a greater faithfulness than our own. Abram had been faithful, but here he faltered. And then let your mind follow the straight line from this passage and these truths to the only truly Faithful One, Jesus Christ. Look to Him, trust in Him, and rely on Him to be for you and do in you all the faithfulness that God requires of you.

Where Abram’s actions could/should have cost him his life and the promise of God, God’s actions—as they always do—intervened to make certain that which He promised.