The children’s poem Casey at the Bat is no doubt a favorite of many. It begins like this. “The outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Mudville Nine that day, the score stood four to two with but one more inning to play…” fast-forwarding a bit… “Then from 5,000 throats and more there rose a lusty yell; it rumbled through the valley, it rattled in the dell; it knocked upon the mountain and recoiled upon the flat, for Casey, mighty Casey, was advancing to the bat. There was ease in Casey’s manner as he stepped into his place; there was pride in Casey’s bearing and a smile on Casey’s face. And when, responding to the cheers, he lightly doffed his hat, no stranger in the crowd could doubt ’twas Casey at the bat…” The poem goes on with Casey letting the first two pitches go by without even paying attention to them, but at the third pitch the poem ends like this, “And now the pitcher holds the ball, and now he lets it go, and now the air is shattered by the force of Casey’s blow. Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright; the band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light, and somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout; but there is no joy in Mudville—for mighty Casey has struck out.”
What Mighty Casey experienced at the plate and what all those fans in Mudville experienced as they watched him strikeout, is similar to the disappointment many experience as we witness Abram falter in the end of Genesis 12. Abram the ‘man of faith’ heard God’s call and was obedient to go into an unknown land. Yet here in this text Abram doesn’t stand out as a heroic figure of faith, instead he’s overcome by fear, and in his fear he makes a very foolish decision that ignores God and puts his wife in jeopardy. There are two headings in our passage to work through. First see v10-13…
Famine & Fear (v10-13)
“Now here was a famine in the land. So Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there, for the famine was severe in the land. 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.”
This is the first of two moments where Abram lies about his wife being his sister to protect himself. He does it here in Gen. 12, and he will do it again in chapter 20. And the same lie is then told by Isaac regarding his wife Rebekah in chapter 26. There are certainly many similarities between each one of these occasions, but they each have their own unique context and contribution to make in the overall structure and flow of Genesis. Notice this first instance begins with a famine. Recall that in v1-9 Abram was called by God to go out from Ur and Haran into the land God will show him. He obeys that call and he goes into the land of Canaan, and travels throughout it, worshiping all the way. Yet a severe famine arose in Canaan.
Now, famines often indicate God’s judgment in OT narrative, where God brings famine onto a land or nation for sins they’ve committed. Is that what we’re to glean here? It might be the case, but we’re not told that, we’re just old that a severe famine arose in the land so Abram left for Egypt. Some do interpret this as the beginning of Abram’s downfall because instead of trusting God and staying in the land God has called him to, he leaves and goes to Egypt. That could be what’s going on. The word sojourn in v10 is also translated elsewhere as dwell, which gives the startling impression that Abram is leaving Canaan for good, and going to settle in Egypt. But Egypt isn’t at Abram’s time quite yet the evil it would become in Moses’ day. We need to remember that Abram wasn’t led by God back then as we are today, with the clarity of Scripture. He had to feel his way forward guided largely by the circumstances he encountered. So we should take that into consideration when making conclusions here. It might even have seemed to Abram that Egypt’s nearness was God’s provision to him during this famine. All in all, I don’t think it’s clear to us if this move to Egypt was in itself a good or bad thing, but what is clear in v10 is that Abram doesn’t seek God’s guidance during the famine at all. He seems to rely on his own wisdom for making this decision to leave and go to Egypt. All it took was the first touch of famine for Abram the man of faith to become Abram the man of fear.
This is what we see moving ahead in v11-13. As he and his family were nearing Egypt Abram stopped said to Sarai, “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.”
Before we throw him under the bus, Abram is correct about two things here. First, Sarai is indeed a beautiful woman. Yes, she is 65 years old here, but Abram knows she can easily turn the head of kings, as if she had a legendary Helen of Troy kind of beauty to her. Ironically enough, in the next incident where Abram lies about her being his wife, he mentions nothing of her beauty. She is 89 then in chapter 20 when Abram lies about her for the second time, and she’s 65 here…so apparently in the Patriarchal era women could endanger the lives of their husbands by being knockout beautiful until they were nearing 90 years old. Some do mention that it might have been the difference in longevity that caused her beauty to linger until 65 years old, that their 60’s back then were something like our 30’s now, that might be true, but it might not. To Abram, Sarai is noticeably beautiful enough to put him in danger.
Which brings us to the second thing Abram is correct about. He’s correct about the nature of kings concerning great beauty. As a sojourner and stranger in a strange land Abram would’ve been more vulnerable to being taken advantage of by the locals. We’re not told a reason why Abram would have been afraid of the Egyptians in the text, but it’s often been found to be true throughout history that immigrants aren’t well treated, especially by those in positions of power. And he has reason to fear those in power anyway, they often just took what they wanted and didn’t care about the consequences. Chief example we might remember is David’s treatment of Bathsheba and her husband Uriah. When the female in question is beautiful and highly desired, siblings are tolerable, spouses are not.
Abram is right about these things. And because of these things he desires to lie to the Egyptians about Sarai being his wife, and plans to portray her as his sister to protect himself. Throughout the narrative Sarai isn’t shy to voice her opinion, so what does her silence on Abram’s plan tell us? That she agreed with it? What are we to make of this? Well, attempt after attempt has been made to exonerate or free Abram of any guilt by saying this was merely a cultural custom in this time, to publicly treat a wife as a sister in order to achieve some other goal. Others say Abram was choosing the lesser of two evils. Still others say we ought not impose our modern notion of morality onto Abram in his own historical moment. I personally do wonder if Abram was driven by a technicality. We learn in chapter 20 that Sarai is his half-sister. So was he really lying to the Egyptians here when he said she is his sister? Did he justify it like that? Or, was Abram concealing the whole truth by telling a half truth, and banking on this technicality to save him in Egypt?
I don’t think there’s a way to explain this away. It’s all wrong here. In all his planning and devising it never occurs to Abram that this strategy might just create another problem. It could open the door to someone noticing Sarai’s beauty, believing her to be single and available, only to then take her for their own. It does seem Abram’s just concerned about Abram here. Self-preservation drives him, so he puts his own interests above his wife’s, not only exposing her to great danger, but he seemingly puts God’s promise to him in jeopardy. Simply put, he sins greatly in this. He’s wrong to fear for his own life. He is wrong to treat Sarai like this. And he is wrong to lie to the Egyptians about her. Has God not promised to make him into a great nation? Has God not promised to give him the land he has just left? Has God not appeared to him? Indeed He has! He once took God at His Word in great faith, now he’s driven by great fear, such that the circumstances in front of him seem to block or cloud his view of God above him.
Let’s see what happens next…
In & Out of Egypt (v14-20)
“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.”
We’ll pick back up in a moment…
So they arrive in Egypt and what Abram didn’t plan for, happens. The Egyptians notice Sarai’s beauty, the princes of Pharaoh notice her beauty, and so they went back to Pharaoh and praise her beauty. Naturally then, Pharaoh desires to have her for his own. So the ominous words in v15 come across our ears, Sarai “was taken into Pharaoh’s house.” This phrase is ominous because it means Sarai was not just living in Pharaoh’s palace, but was part of his harem. This of course means Sarai was now part a group that lived at the beck and call of Pharaoh, to entertain him, to please him, to do as he commands. That is what Abram’s wise plan brings about, and now Sarai must endure this. What was Abram doing during this? Look at v16. Because of how wonderfully pleased Pharaoh was with Sarai, he gave Abram all kinds of extravagant gifts, “…sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male servants, female servants, female donkeys, and camels.” This might seem like a normal list of kingly ancient near eastern gifts, but two of them stand out. Historians note that due to their easily controllable nature female donkeys were preferred over male donkeys for traveling, but not just anyone could afford a female donkey, they were expensive. So, they became something of a status symbol for the rich and famous during this time. As was the camel. Historians also note that the camel was a newly domesticated animal during Abram’s time, which made it a luxury only the mega wealthy could afford. Both of these, female donkeys and camels, were given to Abram by Pharaoh for the sake of Sarai.
This all could be seen as a blessing, that Abram has come into wealth, and a lavish wealth at that! But that Abram acquired it all from a lie makes all these gifts ill-gotten gain. Which will end up causing Abram nothing but trouble in chapter 13 because the land is not big enough to contain the possessions of both Abram and Lot.
Now pick back up in v17-20, “But the LORD afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife. 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.” And Pharaoh gave men orders concerning him, and they sent him away with his wife and all that he had.”
While Sarai was enduring life among Pharaoh’s harem, and while Abram is enjoying the lifestyle of the rich and the famous, Pharaoh is also enduring something unexpected. God afflicts Pharaoh and his household with great plagues for taking Sarai. We don’t know how Pharaoh eventually came to know these plagues came onto them because he had taken Sarai, and that she was actually Abram’s wife, but it’s clear that he comes to know it. So Pharaoh comes to Abram with questions: “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?” Understandable questions certainly. And to them Abram responds with silence, indicating a surprising morality present in Pharaoh and startling guilt in Abram. But by afflicting Pharaoh’s and his house God has saved the day, intervening to both save Sarai and secure His promises. So chapter 12 ends with Abram and Sarai being cast out of Egypt with all the wealth they’ve gained in this ordeal.
This incident teaches us many great lessons. Here’s three of them. We learn about patterns, we learn about ourselves, and we learn about God.
Regarding patterns, we must look back and look forward. Looking back, this incident is eerily similar to Eden. Sin occurs, questions come, and the family cast out, just like what happens here. Perhaps even greater to see, looking forward, is that this incident is eerily similar to the Exodus. God sends a famine, His people end up in Egypt, Sarai is held hostage much like Israel’s enslavement, God strikes Pharaoh’s house with plagues as He did to all of Egypt later on, and both Abram and Israel depart from Egypt with great wealth. Lesson? Despite the circumstances and events, God takes care of His people.
Regarding ourselves, we must think of Abram. We see ourselves in him don’t we? Abram grew hungry, didn’t seek the Lord, feared for his life, left the land of promise, fled to Egypt for safety, put his wife in danger, his marriage in danger, he built no altars, he doesn’t worship, he brings curse not blessing to others, and he received a rebuke from a pagan king. In Abram we see ourselves and learn of our faithlessness. About our natural bent away from faith toward fear. About the sins that are actually possible for us if we’re put in the right circumstance. About how we can always find a logical reason to sin when we’re tempted. About our eagerness to trust in our own understanding and turn to our own devices instead of turning to the Lord. About how quickly we can place our own needs above the needs of others in the name of self-preservation. It has always been the case that God has blessed His people despite His people. And that as grievous and tragic as our many sins are, God seems especially pleased to use such people time and time again.
And my oh my Church, regarding God, we must see His faithfulness here. About His work to keep the promises He’s made. About His work to save us from our own sinful folly. About His work to secure His promises! Despite how faithless God’s people can be, God is always faithful. We see that clearly in this section of Genesis. The great promise is made to Abram in chapter 12. Then the promise is threatened in the end chapter 12 by famine and Pharaoh in Egypt, the promise is threatened in chapter 13 by a conflict between Abram and Lot, and the promise is threatened in chapter 14 by an alliance of kings who make war on Abram. Yet in view of all of this, God’s promise remains sure, which is then what we see in chapter 15 as the covenant is established.
From all of this we ought to be of good cheer. Much sin is revealed in us here. Sin in ourselves, sin in marriages, sin in families, sin in the Church…great disappointment after such great promise. We may fail, but God does not. His promises last. For in the fullness of time, despite sin piling on sin from the creation of the world, God in faithfulness would bring Abraham’s Descendant to us…and in Him, in Christ, we are saved forevermore.
God we praise You for this passage. Free us more and more from sin and fear, and give us grace to walk by faith all our days…
 James Montgomery Boice, Genesis 12-36 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1985), 473.
 Bruce K. Waltke, Genesis (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Academic, 2001), 213.
 Derek Kidner, Genesis (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2008), 126–127.
 Ibid., 127.
 Victor P. Hamilton, Genesis 1-17, NICOT (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1990), 380–381.
 R. Kent Hughes, Genesis, Preaching the Word (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2004), 191.
 Hamilton, Genesis 1-17, 382.
 John D. Currid, Genesis 1:1-25:18, EP Study Commentary (Holywell, UK: Evangelical Press, 2015), 262–263.
 Waltke, Genesis, 213.
 Hughes, Genesis, 192.
 One wonders if Hagar was included among the female servants given by Pharaoh.
 Hamilton, Genesis 1-17, 385.
 Currid, Genesis 1:1-25:18, 265.