Biblical Portraits: Abraham (2)

     A Famine in the Land

Did Abraham receive any reward for obeying God so unreservedly? If we look at the circumstances of his life after he arrived in the Land in full obedience to God’s commandment, we find only ‘unseen’ rewards—those seen by faith alone. When the LORD appeared unto Abraham, and said: “Unto thy seed will I give this land,”  he and his family were living in tents and were still complete foreigners and newcomers in that land. How I love this interplay of visible and invisible in the Word of God! The whole Bible is about the contrast between things that are seen and things that are not seen. Again and again, it teaches us to live by faith, to be certain of the things not seen, teaching us through the stories and the people we read about. The story of Abraham is probably the first story in the Tanach where this contrast is so obvious: In the invisible realm, Abraham is chosen by God for His plan and His covenant; he will be the father of a nation and of nations and one day, he will possess this Land. In the visible realm, however, he lives in tents, he made his home in the Promised Land like a stranger in a foreign country, and even that wasn’t the worst of it. To make matters worse, there was a famine in the land:  And there was a famine in the land; and Abraham went down into Egypt to sojourn there; for the famine was sore in the land.[1]

    And so Abraham, being 75 years old, obeyed God and did something not many of us would be able to: when called to go, he… obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going.[2]  He probably expected some sort of reward for this incredible obedience, for this truly outstanding action—or perhaps at least his wife did. Instead, the very first thing that greeted them upon their arrival was a famine. With all due respect to the biblical matriarch, I can imagine that Sarah asked her husband more than once: “Why? Please remind me exactly why we came here? Why did we leave our settled, comfortable lives in Haran and come here to live in tents, to wander from place to place, and now to starve?” Abraham had had a personal revelation, a personal call from God, and a strong faith; Sarah didn’t have any of that, and so for her, I can imagine that these hardships that ‘rewarded’ their unprecedented move, would have seemed quite unreasonable, even unfair. One has to have a real relationship with God to be able to live by faith and be certain of the things not seen. Sarah needed to experience God’s love first; only then would she be able to live her life out of love for Him. In all honesty, I believe that this is the main reason God allowed the appalling and highly distasteful Egyptian episode to be part of Abraham’s story—for Sarah’s sake.

Fearing for His Life…

In our next series—Sarah’s Biblical Portrait—we will see the Egyptian story through Sarah’s eyes as the story of God’s might and faithfulness. In our current chapter, however, we are looking only at Abraham’s perspective, and all we see is a story of human weakness and unfaithfulness. For me personally, however, the whole passage about Abraham going down to Egypt in the second half of Genesis 12 is absolutely precious because it teaches us several valuable lessons. First, we learn that being obedient to God and abiding in His will doesn’t mean being safe from all difficulties. Abraham did an incredible thing by leaving behind everything and venturing to a new land at the advanced age of 75, yet the first thing he encountered in the land, instead of reward and blessing, was this famine.

How many times—too many to count—have I been comforted by these verses? When you do something that God calls you to do, expecting reward and blessing and open doors, but instead find yourself in a very difficult situation, what a comfort then to know that you are not alone! Abraham experienced this same thing, so we really are in good company!

This passage teaches even more, however. Scripture doesn’t portray Abraham as a flawless hero of faith, a sort of spiritual superman, and this is the beauty of the Bible, which never tries to embellish the people it describes. Right after this incredible act of unreserved and complete obedience, just when he arrives in the Land, Abraham goes down to Egypt to escape the famine. I am not even sure that this little trip was approved by the Lord in the first place, but Scripture says nothing about that. Yet while in Egypt, out of fear for his life, he does something that it is very difficult for us to justify or understand, let alone imagine somebody actually doing it: He passes off his wife as his sister. “Please say you are my sister, that it may be well with me for your sake, and that I may live because of you.”[3]

In the very beginning of chapter 12, Abraham is willing and able to leave everything and everybody behind in order to obey God, yet just a few verses later, the very same man who just committed an act of incredible courage commits an act of incredible cowardice. For me, however, Abraham’s faith and Abraham’s obedience become even more precious after this story. Now we know, beyond a shadow of doubt, that he is no superman, that he had weaknesses and fears, that he is neither very courageous nor brave by nature. Quite probably, this going down to Egypt and lying about his wife exposed Abram’s lack of trust, which needed to be dealt with. It’s not occasionally that, after his Egyptian experience, we find him “between Beth-El and Hai”[4]. In English, these names mean nothing, but in Hebrew this text is very profound and reflects Abraham’s spiritual journey:  Bethel means “House of God,” and Ai or Hai means “Heap of Ruins”!  Abraham was between “House of God” … and “Heap of ruins”!   

People sometimes ask, “Was it God’s will that Abram went down to Egypt?”
Probably, God’s perfect will was for Abram to trust Him, however this “going down” became part of “going up”. The Hebrew word for “blessing” braha (( ברכה , has a very profound etymology; the traditional explanation is that it is connected to the root berech (ברך), which means “knee”: one has to kneel in order to get a blessing. One needs some humility in order to be blessed; one needs to be able to recognize and admit that he is not self- sufficient, that he needs His help, that he needs His blessing. I think Abraham would never have reached those heights of obedience and trusting the Lord that he is famous and loved for, if he had not gone through this painful “heap of ruins” experience.  




[1] Gen. 12:10

[2] Hebrews 11:8

[3] Genesis 12:13

[4] Gen.13:3                                                                                         

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About the author

Julia BlumJulia is a teacher and an author of several books on biblical topics. She teaches two biblical courses at the Israel Institute of Biblical Studies, “Discovering the Hebrew Bible” and “Jewish Background of the New Testament”, and writes Hebrew insights for these courses.

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  1. Marge Schwartz

    Actually, Sarah was Abraham’s (half) sister.

    1. Julia Blum

      Of course she was, – but she also was his wife, and he “forgot” to mention it because he feared for his life.

  2. Charles Packwood

    Hebraiac perspectives are awesome!!! Thank you.

    1. Julia Blum

      Thank you Charles, I agree absolutely: the things in the Scriptures that one can see in Hebrew are awesome indeed! So glad you are enjoying it!

  3. Nick

    Amen Julia! The “seen and the unseen”. Animals readily recognize the “seen” things of this world. Only humans can recognize as real those things “unseen”. This is our plight and source of greatest pleasure. Thanks for your work!

    1. Julia Blum

      Thank you Nick! I am always blessed by your faithfulness and your comments!