That’s exactly what I don’t like about so many Bible stories—they’re unfair."
The Friend who made this comment has a finely tuned moral sense and the story was more than he could abide. Abraham (still called Abram at this point) gets away with lying about his wife, but when Pharaoh adds her to his harem because he thinks she’s unmarried, Abraham’s God Yahweh inflicts plagues on the Egyptians. What kind of God punishes Pharoah’s unintended mistake, but looks the other way in the face of Abraham’s conscious lying and deceit?
The Friend was right; the story is unfair—by today’s standards. What he didn’t see (and the text doesn’t bother to mention) is that this is not a detailed account of an ancient event, but a finely crafted tale intended to demonstrate the importance of the promise God made to Abraham and Sarah. Though old and childless, they would have a son, and this son would be the beginning of a new nation, living secure in its land.
At issue in the story is the way that Abraham and God view this promise. Not only does Abraham fail to trust the promise, he creates a situation that puts it in jeopardy. As the biblical scholar Gerhard von Rad puts it in his book Genesis, "The bearer of the promise [is] himself the greatest enemy of the promise; for its greatest threat comes from him." God, on the other hand, will protect the promise at any cost—even by ignoring Abraham’s failings and sending plagues.
So, did Abraham get a pass for his deceitful behavior in Egypt? Yes. Did Pharaoh get a raw deal? Yes. Well, maybe not quite yes. Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann, in his book, Genesis, describes this story as "the interaction between the ruthless empire (which needs to explain nothing to anyone) and this resource-less man." This description takes on added significance with the probability that the book of Genesis reached its final form during the years of the Babylonian captivity (597-539 B.C.E.) or the subsequent domination of Judea by the Persian empire. Viewed in that light, Abraham’s deception becomes a street-smart survival technique, and Pharaoh’s abduction of Sarah underscores the empire’s ability to dominate and oppress with impunity.
In the story, Pharaoh seems aware of the ancient prohibition against taking someone’s wife—a prohibition he violated, albeit unknowingly—because he knows exactly what to do when "Yahweh afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues." He immediately summons Abraham, not to kill him and thus dissolve the marriage (perhaps, the plagues had given him a taste of what that action might unleash), but to say, "Here is your wife, take her, and be gone."
Despite Abraham’s deception, the Bible views him as a model of faith—and not without reason. Called to leave the security of home and family, he complied unquestioningly (Gen. 12:1-4). Later, as his trust wavered because he was still childless, Yahweh assured Abraham not just of a son but of descendents as numerous as the stars. Abraham "believed Yahweh," the text says (the Hebrew has undertones of "trust"), "and Yahweh reckoned it to him as righteousness" (Gen. 15:6).
But Abraham’s peaks of faithfulness are separated by long valleys of questions, doubts, weakness, and manipulation. The fear that produced the lies to Pharaoh surfaces again and again. If God was expecting stalwart and unwavering trust from Abraham, God was clearly left wondering about the wisdom of this choice. But despite divine misgivings, God continues to assert the promise. And at long last, God’s faithfulness blossoms in the birth of a son to this old and incredulous couple (Gen. 21:1-3).
Too often, this and other stories of Abraham’s foibles are taken as morality tales about deception and trust, or fairness and par-tiality, or weakness and power. They are much more. At root, they are stories about God’s faithfulness to the promise, about how much God can be trusted to keep God’s word. As Gerhard von Rad points out in connection with this story, "If Yahweh did not go astray in his work of sacred history because of the failure and guilt of the recipient of the promise, then his word was really to be believed."
To hang such a heavy message on such spindly stories may seem excessive. But the message endures throughout the Bible: God is faithful to God’s word. Of course, that faithfulness is two-edged. It brings justice (right relationship with God and each other) or judgment (bearing the consequences of rupturing those relationships). The divine predilection is for the former: The promise points to an eventual multitude of people secure in their relationship with God and each other, and modeling to the nations what God envisions creation to be. To reach that end, God is willing to overlook lapses and weaknesses, even denying one’s spouse to save one’s skin.
Still, this is no pushover God, cooing, "There, there, it’s all right!" to every act of disrespect and injustice. Time and again the people of the promise behave as though they know better than God. Called to rely on the promise by trusting that God will care for them, they make alliances with other nations (and gods); shirking their responsibility to care for each another, they turn to victimizing the poor and the powerless. Eventually, lack of trust and caring reaches a point where God’s faithfulness takes the form of compelling them to suffer the consequences of their actions—danger from without and decay from within. As Pharaoh knew instinctively, this is not a God to be trifled with.
The chosen people, understandably, leaned more toward the view that God will overlook these seemingly small acts of deception and irresponsibility. To a degree—some would say an outrageous degree—they were right. Common convictions notwithstanding, the Bible is mostly about leniency and forgiveness. Notions of a divine taskmaster with a nonnegotiable plan are contradicted by the times God changes plans to accommodate the people, or, as in the case of the golden calf incident, is persuaded to revoke a decision already made (Exod. 32:7-14). Notions of a divine dyspeptic eager to snare anyone who steps out of line are equally refuted by a God whose primary wish is to "speak tenderly" to the people, encouraging their development and consoling them in their pain (Isa. 40:1-2; 41:8-10).
The little story about God’s faithfulness in the face of Abraham’s deceit, Sarah’s complicity, and Pharaoh’s lust is but a short stretch in a long and bumpy road. Traveling that road are a God who refuses to let go of a promise, and an elderly couple who struggle—not always successfully—to maintain their grip.
For Abraham and Sarah the road ends well. Their faith, though shaky at times, ultimately assures God that this couple—called long ago to leave everything and journey to they knew not where—was the right choice.
So the promise comes to pass, and in their son Isaac the journey continues. Ahead are many twists and turns, surprises and disappointments, even times when, for the sake of the promise, "unfair" events occur. But all along, the promise does not waver and God’s faithfulness endures.