The covenant promise had been restated in 12:6, with the first direct reference to the actual land that God had intended in the first promise. And it wasn’t Egypt. The text also leads us to understand that Abraham has some sort of a religious experience and worships God between Bethel and Ai.
And yet at the first sign of lack he emigrates. He leaves the land of the promise for the land the engineer, and in so doing he takes to himself the task of engineering his own security. Seeking only self-preservation and he effectively sells Sarai to secure his own safety.
So many times I’ve heard this story referred to and preached but only as a bump in the road that leads inexorably to Abraham’s sainthood. This was a challenge to faith in which he didn’t cover himself in glory but thankfully he learned from the disobedience.
Never once have I heard this story from the perspective of Sarai. What did it feel like to be chattel? To be involved in an abusive relationship where one’s personal integrity could be traded so callously? What was it like to be utterly at the whim of someone more powerful who was not slow to exercise that power in self-interest?
In order to get around the moral difficulties this passage poses, I’ve heard all sorts of explanations for what ‘taken into (Pharoah’s) palace’ (Gen 12:15) means. Even some of the commentators explain it as ‘she was introduced’ to Pharoah – like Pharoah had a garden party and Sarai’s reward for trading her virtue was an invite to meet a powerful man.
The word ‘taken’ is often used in the context of marriage and of all that follows, and though it is not explicit in the passage surely this is the intent. Pharaoh had sex with Sarai. Sarai was forced into an adulterous relationship by her husband, but who is really being unfaithful here?
Abraham’s moral cowardice is staggering, and it begins when he packs up and leaves the Promised Land, and the ‘going down’ to Egypt describes a moral and ethical descent to terrible depths.
And Sarai’s helplessness and powerlessness is heartbreaking.
Then we’ve got to cope with something else in the story. Abraham profits hugely from his deception.
Not only that, but Pharoah’s household suffers terrible diseases. (Pharoah does too, but then we might argue that he also exercises power callously, taking a woman just because he could. But at least he thought she was unmarried.)
Where is the justice in the story?
Abraham emerges embarrassed but with greatly enhanced material wealth. Nothing is said about Sarai (though Jewish tradition fills in a little bit, adding that whilst in Pharaoh’s harem she met Hagar – but more of that later).
What was it like in their bed the first night out of Egypt and heading back to famine-ravaged Canaan? What ground did the conversation cover? How was Sarai’s spirit damaged by the experience of being bought and sold by wealthy men? Can it go some way towards explaining her later behaviour towards Abraham?
There are a lot more layers to this story than might be realised. And they’re real layers. It’s not the first time a man used a women to his own ends. Not the first time spouses were faithless. And the reality is also that when this kind of things happens the consequences are not confined to the principal characters. Many innocent people suffer the impact of my faithlessness, my inability to hold to a covenant.