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.
Because Palestinian agriculture was dependent on seasonal rainfall, the region was susceptible to famine in time of drought. By contrast, the Nile gave Egypt a more dependable source of irrigation. Of course, prolonged drought can also affect river levels, but as long as it snows in the mountains or rains upriver, there's a steady source of irrigation.
11 When he was about to enter Egypt, he said to Sarai his wife, “I know that you are a woman beautiful in appearance,
Since Sarah was about 65 at the time, some commentators puzzle at how she was still so alluring. Unfortunately, commentators can be a bit obtuse:
i) Sarah died at 127 (Gen 23:1). So in relation to her overall lifespan, she was only at the midpoint. It's like the difference between dog years and human years. A 15-year-old dog and a 15-year-old boy are the same age, but the dog is elderly while the boy is on the cusp of manhood.
Since the patriarchs and matriarchs lived longer, this raises the question of whether they aged at a steady rate, only more slowly–or whether they remained youthful for a long time, before the aging process accelerated towards the end of life. We don't know.
ii) Also, women with high cheekbones typically retain a more youthful appearance (e.g. Marlene Dietrich, Dolores del Rio, Sophia Loren, Lena Horne). Ninon de Lenclos (1620-1705) was famously alluring into old age.
iii) At the time of writing, most folks had a normal lifespan (Ps 90:20). The youthful longevity of Moses is considered exceptional (Deut 34:7). So Sarah's preservation would have been just as striking to the original audience as it is to a modern reader.
12 and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me, but they will let you live.
As the subsequent narrative bears out, Abraham's fears were well-founded. That's a mitigating factor.
13 Say you are my sister,
Since Sarah was his stepsister, this is true–but deceptive. For she was also his wife.
Incidentally, since the Mosaic law forbad marriage between stepsiblings, this reflects the historical accuracy of the patriarchal account. The narrator didn't retroject later developments into an earlier period.
that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared for your sake.”
A man's sister is eligible in a way that a man's wife is not.
14 When Abram entered Egypt, the Egyptians saw that the woman was very beautiful. 15 And when the princes of Pharaoh saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh. And the woman was taken into Pharaoh's house.
She was so stunning that male admirers couldn't contain themselves. Kings have a habit of abducting any woman who appeals to them. Although Abraham is prescient, he didn't bank of Sarah coming to Pharaoh's attention. That puts him in a bind, for he's in no position to refuse Pharaoh. Only God can extricate the couple from their dire predicament.
16 And for her sake he dealt well with Abram; and he had sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male servants, female servants, female donkeys, and camels.
In effect, a dowry.
Critics claim the reference to donkeys is anachronistic. Keep in mind that the evidence for details like that from 4000 years ago is bound to be haphazard and sparse. Even so, there is corroborative evidence (Kitchen 2003).
17 But the Lord afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram's wife.
This is the real point of the story. Because of God's promise, he miraculously intervenes to protect the matriarch.
18 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? 19 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.” 20 And Pharaoh gave men orders concerning him, and they sent him away with his wife and all that he had.
To some extent, Pharaoh is understandably miffed. He was misled. At the same time, kings typically presume to have the first pick of any woman who catches their fancy. They have multiple wives and mistresses. So Pharaoh is a hypocrite.
Consider, moreover, what Pharaoh would have done to the couple had he not been spooked by Abraham's God! Fear restrained him. He's used to calling the shots. Now, however, God cuts him down to size. Indeed, Pharaoh arranges safe passage for the troublesome couple.
Excursus 1: The ethics of deception
i) Commentators usually judge Abraham harshly for his subterfuge. Perhaps they are right. However, we need to guard against the temptation of judging the account by considerations outside the account. We need to judge the action by the narrator's perspective, rather than superimposing our own scruples on the text. The narrative contains no editorial comment condemning Abraham.
Of course, narrative theology usually teaches by showing rather than telling. So the narrator might obliquely condemn Abraham's behavior. But that needs to be exegeted from the text rather than assumed.
Nothing in this story, or Genesis in general, or the Pentateuch generally, indicates that deception is inherently wrong. Indeed, the Israelites sometimes resort to a ruse de guerre. And Exod 1 seems to commend the deception of the Hebrew midwives.
ii) On the face of it, Abraham is saving his own skin by putting his wife at risk. If so, that's contemptible.
At the same time, that impression is somewhat shortsighted. If Abraham is murdered, then he'd be in no position to protect his wife. Sarah would be truly defenseless at that point. So perhaps he feels that this compromise gives him some leverage. He can procrastinate with suitors, stalling for time until he and Sarah are able to leave.
iii) Some commentators fault Sarah for colluding with Abraham. However, it's unrealistic to think Sarah would defy her husband. She's not a proto-feminist. In a patriarchal culture, this is not a marriage between equals. When Vashti defied her husband, he deposed her (Esther 1).
iv) The main point of the story is how God protects the matriarch when Abraham is at a loss.
Excursus 2: Triplets
Gen 12, 20, and 26 contain striking parallels. What are we to make of that?
i) Undoubtedly the narrator wants the reader to notice the similarities. To compare and contrast these three accounts. These are complementary accounts of independent events (Alexander 1997).
ii) There are significant dissimilarities as well as similarities. So these aren't just variations of the same event.
iii) In terms of the two episodes involving Sarah, similar circumstances produce similar results. A beautiful woman has the same effect on men, regardless of time and place. If she finds herself in the same situation, you can expect a similar outcome. That's not artificial. That's predicable. That's realistic.
Isaac probably learned the same ploy from his father. So that's not coincidental.
iv) Coincidences do happen in real life.
v) In addition, the narrator is recording what they have in common. So that makes them seem more alike. He's not including all of the differential details.
Alexander, T. D. Abraham in the Negev: A Source-Critical Investigation of Genesis 20:1-22:19 (Paternoster 1997), 32-51.
Kitchen, K. On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Eerdmans 2003), 338-39.