The Patriarch as Tyrant 2

“say you are my sister, so that I will be treated well for your sake and my life will be spared because of you.”
Gen 12:13

Some more reflections on events in Genesis 12, remember the story? The great Patriarch flees down to Egypt because of famine and effectively gives his wife to the Pharoah in order to save his own life. After Pharoah’s household is struck down with some mystery disease (one midrash claims it was some form of disease, perhaps an std, which made sex difficult, but maybe this stems more from a desire to absolve Abraham and spare Sarai any more humiliation) he finds out about Abraham’s deception and sends him and his wife on his way. Incidentally, Abraham leaves even richer than he arrived – profiting from his deception.

There’s a couple more very uncomfortable things in this passage. Firstly the latter comment above. Abraham profits from his deception, leaving Egypt with far more than he arrived with. In fact, he displays an uncanny ability to accumulate stuff, even though he never did actually possess any of the land he was promised. After having gone down into Egypt (12:10), he now comes up out of Egypt with a fortune (12:20-13:2). Of course this is pointing forward to the experience of his descendents who do precisely the same, and leave the presence of the Pharoah effectively being paid to go (Exo 12:33-36). Should we not feel a little uncomfortable though?

Even more so when we consider the fact that notwithstanding Pharoah’s arrogant acquisitiveness in taking Abraham’s wife (regardless of the fact that he thought she was his sister) that the text says that the Lord afflicted Pharoah and his household with serious diseases (12:17). Isn’t this just a little unfair? It was Abraham’s deceit after all.

I think we should acknowledge the fact that the text says it and doesn’t hide the complexity of it. The fact is that the consequences of the selfish, sinful acts of an individual can rarely be confined to that individual alone. I mention elsewhere in a discussion about Noah that the text points out that because the earth was filled with the violence of human beings God was going to destroy ‘both them and the earth with them’ (6:13). It wasn’t possible to limit the consequences just to the perpetrators, and so the earth suffered too – and boy do we know all about that in our day.

Likewise here, Abraham acts violently towards his wife, and she suffers, and the Pharoah and his household suffers. Our discomfort is only heightened by the fact that Abraham prospers. But such is the way of the world and it doesn’t do to pretend it is otherwise. It is at this point that Christians are pointed to the eschatological truth of an ultimate judgment, otherwise the universe is fundamentally unjust.

Thanks to my breakfast conversation partners

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