Commentary on Genesis 12:10-20

Last updated: June 13, 2009

English Translation (ESV)

10Now there was a famine in the land. So Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there, for the famine was severe in the land. 11When he was about to enter Egypt, he said to Sarai his wife, “I know that you are a woman beautiful in appearance, 12and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me, but they will let you live. 13Say you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared for your sake.” 14When Abram entered Egypt, the Egyptians saw that the woman was very beautiful. 15And when the princes of Pharaoh saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh. And the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house. 16And for her sake he dealt well with Abram; and he had sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male servants, female servants, female donkeys, and camels.

17But the LORD afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife. 18So Pharaoh called Abram and said, “What is this you have done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife? 19Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her for my wife? Now then, here is your wife; take her, and go.” 20And Pharaoh gave men orders concerning him, and they sent him away with his wife and all that he had.

Notes

10 Now there was a famine in the land. So Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there, for the famine was severe in the land.

Isaac and Jacob were also forced to migrate because of famine (26:1; 42:5; 47:11-13). Egypt’s Nile River provided a stable agricultural environment relative to Canaan, which was entirely dependent on rainfall1.

11-13 When he was about to enter Egypt, he said to Sarai his wife, “I know that you are a woman beautiful in appearance, and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me, but they will let you live. Say you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared for your sake.”

It is unclear in what sense Sarai, a 65 year old woman (12:4; 17:17), was beautiful, but we need not assume only physical beauty was in mind2. Abram’s plan contained a kernel of truth for Sarai was his half-sister (20:12). It is commonly assumed that Abram was willing to sacrifice his wife’s honor in order to save his life, but it is also possible that Abram “hoped that by claiming to be Sarai’s brother he could fend off suitors by promises of marriage without actually giving her away”3 (Laban [24:55] and Dinah’s brothers [34:13-17] attempted to delay their sisters’ marriages).

In the ancient Near East there was a well-known sociolegal institution of “fratriarchy” that existed over a long period of time. Where there is no father, the brother assumes legal guardianship of his sister, particularly with respect to obligations and responsibilities in arranging marriage on her behalf. Therefore, whoever wished to take Sarai to wife would have to negotiate with her “brother.” In this way, Abram could gain time to plan escape. Of course, this went awry when the Egyptian turned out to be Pharaoh himself.4

Sarai’s silence implies she consented to the plan.

14-16 When Abram entered Egypt, the Egyptians saw that the woman was very beautiful. And when the princes of Pharaoh saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh. And the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house. And for her sake he dealt well with Abram; and he had sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male servants, female servants, female donkeys, and camels.

Abram’s suspicions of the Egyptians were at least partially correct; they did find Sarai beautiful and they did treat Abram kindly on her behalf. Some scholars believe the reference to camels is an anachronism while others do not5.

17 But the LORD afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife.

Sarai is a catalyst for good and evil. Abram prospers because of her while Pharaoh suffers because of her. Pharaoh is punished despite being ignorant of the marriage between Abram and Sarai.

18-19 So Pharaoh called Abram and said, “What is this you have done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife? Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her for my wife? Now then, here is your wife; take her, and go.”

We are not told how Pharaoh learned of the ruse. Perhaps he interrogated Sarai after the plague. His questions imply that he knew adultery was wrong. Pharaoh’s command for Abram to “go” parallels God’s command in 12:1 for Abram to “go” to Canaan. Abram’s silence implies that he acknowledged his guilt.

20 And Pharaoh gave men orders concerning him, and they sent him away with his wife and all that he had.

The phrase “sent him away” echoes Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the garden (3:23) and a later Pharaoh’s release of the Israelites (Exodus 6:1; 11:1; 12:33).

Bibliography

Mathews, Kenneth A. Genesis 11:27-50:26. The New American Commentary Volume 1B. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2005.

Sarna, Nahum M. JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis. 1st ed. Jewish Publication Society of America, 1989.

Walton, John H. Genesis. The NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001.

Wenham, Gordon J. Genesis 1-15. Word Biblical Commentary Volume 1. Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1987.

1Mathews, Genesis 11:27-50:26, 127.

2Wenham, Genesis 1-15, 288; Walton, Genesis, 396-397.

3Wenham, Genesis 1-15, 288.

4Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, 95.

5Ibid., 96.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s