Abraham In Egypt (lech Lecha -2)

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?

FOUR LEVELS

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.”[1] 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 …

[1] Genesis 12:13

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. Sheila Gapinske

    Julia, you inspire us to dig deeper and ask questions which leads us to greater intimacy with the Lord. Thank you for sharing about the levels of Jewish hermenutics. I have never heard of this before.

  2. Dominic Pop

    I,m a bit confused?Genesis 17:3-4 The lord changed his name from Abram to Abraham.After that did not Joseph(Yoseph) when his brother,s threw him into a pit? He later found favor with Pharou and became a powerful man in Egypt? Wasn’t,t it later (In His success that he had Abraham and his brother,s) come to EgyptGenisis 42?

    1. Julia Blum

      Your confusion is easily solved, Dominic. It was Jacob, Joseph’s father, and his 11 sons, Joseph’s brothers, that came to Egypt – not Abraham of course. The story of Joseph and his family (and their coming to Egypt) is told in Genesis 37-47.

  3. Margaret Hurford

    Hello Julia,
    Thank you for this week question regarding Abram’s trip to Egypt. It stirs up thinking, refection and even self- examination.
    Every time I read this story and hear…” and Abram went down to Egypt ” I can not help but to think that it speaks in symbolic way of Abram’s spiritual descend, put it simply lack of faith.
    I think the famine in the land to which God sent him may be one of those test of faith. What will Abram do ? He decides to go to Egypt and it seems that God is allowing it. And I wonder why ? after all God could speak to Abram like He did in case of Isaac and tell him not to go to Egypt.
    And now a bit of my own personal revelation. Once I heard the Spirit say this to me…” how will you know God as your deliverer unless you find yourself in dire situation ?…. how will you know Him as your healer unless you are sick ? ” and we can apply the same logic to different predicaments we face in our lives.

    But going back to Abram, his going down to Egypt and dwelling there gave God opportunity to deliver him from the messy situation he created for his whole family. And what about Sarai ? God showed Himself as her great protector, something Abram failed to do.
    I am sure that this experience helped both to see the hand of God upon their lives and somehow knew Him better as the result of it.

    And one more thought from me if I may.
    As I read about how the LORD plagued Pharaoh and his house, how Abram was send away from Egypt and how he left being rich in livestock, gold and silver all this echo the story of the great exodus of the children of Israel.
    I just wonder if this whole story about Abram in Egypt is just a prelude of greater things to come.
    Shalom to all readers
    Margaret

    1. Dominic Pop

      Great thinking,However You don,t seem to mention (Joseph)/

    2. Julia Blum

      Dear Margaret, thank you so much for your comment. It’s amazing how you touched all the topics- levels -layers of this story that I am going to discuss in my next two posts. Nevertheless, I hope you will still find something interesting and new in these articles, I am really looking forward to your comments after you will read them. Blessings!

  4. Dorothy Healy

    As you say Julia, “we extract a lot of lessons from the different layers of this short story,” and I think we need the four levels of understanding to unpack this story adequately. But, right from the beginning, even on the Peshat level, let us not forget that, just because Abraham responded so bravely to God’s call to leave his land, family, etc., does not mean that he had a full understanding of what faith meant and how to walk in faith. Let’s get this into perspective. Abraham, as far as we are aware, was the first human being to leave all behind, and personally follow the call of the one true God. This was a totally new paradigm. We can’t even compare him to Isaac or to Jacob. How trite it is to say “this story doesn’t look very nice”. We can be too ready to judge Biblical characters according to the norms of the society in which we live. If we fully understand the culture in which it took place, we might better be able to make an informed decision on this, but from our perspective, here and now, we are not able to make an informed decision.

    Like Abraham, each and every one of us, when we decided to follow Jesus – to respond to the call – had our own weaknesses and fears. They were not wiped out in a single stroke. Our faith grows as we learn to hear from God, and trust in Him. Abraham was no different – he did not rise to the fullness of faith until he came to his final test – the Aqeda. Indeed he was a prototype for each and every one of us. We’ve all been ‘down to Egypt’ in our own ways. Our prayer should be that our faith will continue the upward journey, just as Abraham’s did. May our love for God become such that we are able to lay down what we most cherish, for His sake, should we be called to do so.

    I believe that Abraham’s journey to Egypt was a necessary part of his faith journey. A valuable lesson we also get from this story is that, “when God is for us who can be against us.?” (12:17-18)

    1. Dominic Pop

      Great Thinking,Great faith. I love logic and science. GOD CREATED science!!!

    2. Julia Blum

      Thank you so much Dorothy, for your thoughtful comment. Yes, you are right, “we’ve all been down to Egypt”, this is exactly the main point of my article: to show that this story has many different layers – and that PARDES exegesis helps us see these different layers. And even if “it doesn’t look so nice” on the Peshat level – the deeper levels, going beyond the literal sense, show us some deeper truth and significance of this controversial journey.

  5. William A.Bullard Jr.

    Something that draws me to Avraham is the same something that draws me to the Prophet Moshe’ both of their characters are markedly different from Noach, haShem’s yes man [good man that he was all he did was to say “yes”]. Both Moshe’ and Avraham argued and wheedled with haShem sometimes as though they were bargaining for horses at market. Moshe’ even gets angry and put off with haShem and taunts him with [th the effect] “…well how do you think Egypt and Babylon etc., wil;l take it when they learn you led a bunch of folks out to the desert only to kill them because you didn’t come through on your promise…” who but “friends” would talk that way and I think that it is ‘friendship” that is at the core of the redemptive vision. haShema nd Avraham were friends

    1. Julia Blum

      Very interesting observation, William. In some Jewish commentaries we find the same distinction between Abraham and Noah: Abraham was arguing with God, they say, trying to intercede for the people – while Noah didn’t even try, we don’t hear any single word from him interceding for the people around him . That’s why, they say, Noah’ righteousness was really limited: that’s why he is described as “righteous in his generation”.

  6. Kyle Alexander

    Wow…that was deep!

    1. Beth

      Love this for many reasons. Firstly, we have here not only Abram being judged, but also Hashem. And Hashem is the main focus, He is laying the foundation for His Word. Don’t look at the wrongs of man. Look at the greatness of Hashem. Secondly, there is the principle of ascending and descending. You cannot remain in the heights of glory, you have to descend into the humility valleys, where there is also food. If Abram did only right how would we have learnt about the weaknesses of man? And when we are weak we have the blessing of Hashem’s strength and love. Hagar is a good example of that. I will leave you with 2 Timothy 3:16,17. Blessed be the Name of the LORD.

      1. Julia Blum

        So beautifully said, Beth. I just finished working on my next post , and part of it goes very much along the same lines. I hope you will enjoy it.

        1. Beth

          Thanks Julia. I am looking forward to your next post. When we keep our eyes on the LORD only, we have a lot of peace. God bless.