SHOULD ABRAHAM HAVE GONE TO EGYPT?
Last time, we began discussing the Torah portion Lech Lecha – God’s call to Abraham and Abraham’s extraordinary obedience. However, as we all know, right after this incredible act of unreserved and complete obedience, just after he arrives in the Land, Abraham goes down to Egypt to escape famine. Humanly speaking, it was a very natural and understandable thing to do: Egypt had the Nile river with its delta, therefore, it was always more fertile and there was always more food there than in the land of Canaan. But what about God’s will? Should Abraham have gone to Egypt?
Personally, I’m not sure that this little trip was approved by the Lord, but the Scriptures say nothing about that. It’s interesting that in Genesis 26:1-2, in a very similar situation, God explicitly tells Isaac not to go to Egypt: Then the Lord appeared to him and said: “Do not go down to Egypt; live in the land of which I shall tell you.” Then in Genesis 46:2-3, God explicitly tells Jacob to go Egypt: So He said, “I am God, the God of your father; do not fear to go down to Egypt, for I will make of you a great nation there.” In Abraham’s case however, God did not say: “Go”, and He did not say: ”Don’t go”. Abraham made his own choice. There is not a word in Scripture to indicate whether God approved or disapproved of his decision.
Maybe the Jewish texts can shed some light on this? If we turn to Jewish tradition, we will find (as it is often the case) two completely different (in fact, opposite) approaches. The first one says that it was ok for Abraham to go to Egypt – he had to provide food for his family. The second claims that he had to stay in the Land no matter what: even though God didn’t explicitly say to him “Don’t ever leave” – God said “go to the Land,” and to obey God meant to stay in the Land. Yes, there was a famine in the Land, but who said that a famine is a legitimate reason to leave? People are facing much more dreadful threats in the Land today. Shouldn’t Abraham have trusted the Lord?
These two approaches are represented by two of the greatest medieval Jewish commentators, Rashi and Ramban. It was Rashi who said that what Abraham did was fine: What do you expect from him, there was a famine in the land, he had to feed his family. And it was Ramban who said: No, God told him to come to the Land, and even though circumstances were tough, he should have been faithful to what God had said.
What do you think – should Abraham have gone to Egypt or not? And why, after all, do we have this episode in the Torah?
For me personally, this whole passage about Abraham going down to Egypt in the second half of Genesis 12 is absolutely precious: not only do we learn from this episode that being obedient to God and abiding in His will doesn’t mean being safe from all difficulties, but we extract a lot of lessons from the different layers of this short story. I will use this example to show you, once again, how the PARDES technique of Jewish hermeneutic can be applied to the text of the Scripture. Some of my readers might remember that I wrote about the PARDES levels some time ago, when I analyzed the story of the Flood using this technique. Some readers might have read my book, Abraham had Two Sons, which is written according to PARDES levels (for those interested in this book, or my other books, here is the link to my page on this blog: https://blog.israelbiblicalstudies.com/julia-blum/. ) So I expect many of you are familiar already with these four levels. We will apply them to our text here – but first, let me explain what PARDES stands for, for those who don’t know its meaning.
In Jewish exegesis, the PARDES method describes four different levels of Biblical interpretation. The term PaRDeS is an acronym formed from the initials of these four levels, which are:
Peshat (פְּשָׁט) – “plain” and “straight”: the direct, literal meaning of Scripture;
Remez (רֶמֶז) – “hints”: the deeper, symbolic meaning, going beyond the literal sense;
Derash (דְּרַשׁ) – from Hebrew root “darash” meaning “to inquire” and “to seek”: the comparative meaning, the meaning obtained from a passage by comparing it to similar passages in the Scripture;
Sod (סוֹד) – “secret”, “mystery”: the meaning of Scripture revealed through inspiration or revelation.
THE PRICELESS LESSONS
We will begin with PESHAT – the literal interpretation of this episode. As for its plain literal meaning, most people would probably agree that this story doesn’t look very nice – and this is the beauty of the Bible, which never tries to embellish, or whitewash the people it describes. I believe this is our main lesson of the PESHAT level: Scripture doesn’t portray Abraham as a flawless hero of faith, as a sort of spiritual superman. Not only does he go down to Egypt, but 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.” What does it mean – that it may be well with me for your sake? The question begs to be asked: Did he hope for financial reward, or was he just trying to save his life? 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, seems to commit an act of incredible cowardice.
For me, however, Abraham’s faith and obedience become even more precious after this story. Now we know, beyond any shadow of doubt – and this is what we see clearly on the PESHAT level – that he is no superman, that he has his own weaknesses and fears, that by nature, he is neither very courageous nor very brave. What made him so special then? He had a unique and amazing faith as the strongest feature of his character, and because of this faith, he became an amazing person, doing incredible things for the Lord – and never using his emotions or fears as an excuse. How was he able to be so unreservedly and completely obedient to God, even when obedience implied uncertainty and a risk to his own life, yet still love his own life and fear for it while he was in Egypt? There is only one possible explanation: His love for God was even bigger and greater than this love for his own life. That is why God called Abraham His friend—greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends—and that is why he became the father of all those who love God more than their own lives.
To be continued …
 Genesis 12:13