Faith and Failure

Genesis 12

Copyright © 2005 Jeremy Myers

 I. Faith (12:1-9)

II. Failure (12:10-20)

Abraham is one of the most important men in all of history. Though he lived about 4000 years ago, he is still a prominent figure today. A leading news magazine had him as their cover story article not too long ago. This magazine was primarily interested in why both Israel and the various Arab nations both claim Abram as their forefather, and yet are constantly at war with one another.

Christians also hold up Abraham as our forefather. Not necessarily as our physical descendant, but as our spiritual one. He is the father of faith. It is repeated over and over in the New Testament that He believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness. Christianity, which is all about faith in Jesus Christ, and walking with God by faith, holds up Abraham as an example to live by.

But it's awful hard to live up to that kind of standard. We think of Abraham, or Abram, as this man of great faith who left his family, his home, his possession, and just picked up and left one day when God told him to go. He didn't know where he was going. He didn't know how he would get there. He didn't know how he would feed himself or his family when he got there. But God told Abram to go, and so Abram went.  That, however, is not quite the Abram of the Bible. Was he a man of great faith? Absolutely. But do you want to know what encourages me most about Abram? It's not his faith, but his lack of faith.

I want to walk by faith. I want to trust God in all things, and never doubt, and never fear, and never worry. And I could beat myself up all day about how Abram lived that way, and so I should too. But when we get a real honest picture of Abram's life, his times of great faith and trust in God, are balanced and offset by times of great doubt and disobedience.  Abram was not naturally a man of great faith. Nor did he have some spiritual gift of faith, or some secret to trusting God. No, Abram became a man of great faith because for many years he had very little faith, and even in those times, God continued to keep his promises to Abram.  In Genesis 12 and following, God appears personally to Abram multiple times, each time to develop faith in his life. During these times, God tested Abram. You would think that a man of faith would easily pass all the tests. But think again. In four of these tests, Abram failed miserably.

So here is the difference between a man of faith and a man of fear. Abram was a man of faith not because he never doubted, and not because he never failed. Abram did lots of both. Abram was a man of faith because when he failed, when he fell flat on his face, he got up, brushed himself off, and started over again. That's faith.  A man of fear gives up. A man of fear stays on the ground. A man of fear stops trying. Not Abram. And that is why he is the father of faith. It's not that he has great faith, but that he has a great God. Abram knows that even when he fails, God will not. But this is a lesson that Abram learned over time.

His first lesson is found in Genesis 12. This chapter contains both the faithful obedience of Abram and the doubting failure. It contains a well rounded picture of the father of faith. The beginning of his life of faith is in verses 1-9.

I. Faith (12:1-9)

Abram's walk of faith begins with God's promise.

1Now the Lord had said to Abram:

"Get out of your country,

From your family

And from your fatherís house,

To a land that I will show you.

2 I will make you a great nation;

I will bless you

And make your name great;

And you shall be a blessing.

3 I will bless those who bless you,

And I will curse him who curses you;

And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed."

This is the first time God makes these promises to Abraham.  There are three promises of God here. God promises to make Abram a great nation, to give him a great name, and to bring great blessing upon the earth through Abram. Down in verse 7, there is also the promise of land. Together, these are the promises of God to Abram. These promises are often called the Abrahamic Covenant, and God will repeat it and make it unconditional in Genesis 15.

It is these promises of God, these covenants from God, that Abram's faith is founded upon. Abram was a man of faith because he knew and believed the promises of God. If you want to develop faith, you must know what God has said in His Word, and especially what promises He has made to you. How can you trust the promises if you don't know what the promises are? Romans 10:17 says that faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God.  If you want to be a person of faith, you must be in the Word. You must read the promises, understand the promises, and as the hymn says, you must be "Standing on the Promises."

The promises given to Abram were unconditional promises. This will become much more evident in chapter 15. The Abrahamic covenant did not depend on Abram's faithfulness or the faithfulness of his descendents. There are many who say today that Israel has lost their right to the land, and that they are no longer the chosen nation of God because of their constant sin and rebellion.  But that is making the Abrahamic covenant based upon the works and faithfulness of the people of Israel, rather than on the Word and faithfulness of God. It is true that Abram and many of his descendents did have times of disobedience. Sometimes for hundreds of years. But God always keeps His promises, even when we do not. God has promised that Israel will be a great nation.

Isn't it amazing that though Israel has always been a relatively small nation, and few in number, they are still one of the world powers in military, science and economics? And they will become even greater during the 1000 year reign of Christ which is yet to come.  God also promised that He would make Abram's name great. I have already talked about how Abraham still makes the news today, even though he's been dead for 4000 years. Nobody else in history except for Jesus Christ has that claim to fame. Abraham's name truly is great.

There is also the promise in verse 3 that God will bless those who bless Abram, and curse those who curse him, and that all families on earth will be blessed through him. I am convinced that this is one of the reasons America is the blessed nation that it is today. We have always stood by Israel and supported her. Even though the United States is not living the way God wants us to live, and even though Israel is even now in a condition of rebellion and disobedience, God's promise still stands. He blesses those who bless Israel.

That promise at the end of verse 3 is ultimately fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ. All nations on earth have been blessed through Abram, because it is through Abram's descendents that Jesus Christ came into this world. And when Jesus Christ returns again, and sets up His kingdom on earth, all the nations of the earth will be blessed again.  Abram hears these promises when he is still living in Haran, and so in verses 4 and following, He acts upon the promises and sets out.

4So Abram departed as the Lord had spoken to him, and Lot went with him. And Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. 5Then Abram took Sarai his wife and Lot his brotherís son, and all their possessions that they had gathered, and the people whom they had acquired in Haran, and they departed to go to the land of Canaan. So they came to the land of Canaan.

When Abram left Haran, he took his wife Saria, and his nephew Lot with him. As we learned last time we were in the book of Genesis, Abram probably left his father Terah in Haran. His father had probably had enough of following God who-knows-where, and so wanted to stay in Haran. But Abram can wait no longer for he is now 75 years old. So he sets out with his wife and nephew and all of their possessions.

Can you imagine, at 75 years old, making such a change? Most people, by the time they are 75, are pretty much set in their ways. They are living where they are going to live, and they are comfortable there, and it's hard to get them to change anything. Of course, Abraham lived to be 175, so when he was 75, that would be comparable to someone today being 39 if we figure a 90 year life span.  One of the reasons Abram is a man of faith is because he is willing to follow God anywhere, anytime, even when he's 75 years old. He departed and traveled south to Canaan, until they came to Shechem, which is in the middle, or very center of Canaan.

6Abram passed through the land to the place of Shechem, as far as the terebinth tree of Moreh. And the Canaanites were then in the land. 7Then the Lord appeared to Abram and said, "To your descendants I will give this land." And there he built an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him.

This is the fourth promise of God to Abram. The first three were a great people, a great name, and great blessing. Now we have the promise of Land. The Land is part of the Abrahamic Covenant. God doesn't promise the land to Abram, but to his descendants. This is not only a promise that the land will eventually belong to his descendants, but also that he will have descendants. God is promising to Abraham that he will have descendants, and that God will give them this land.

This promise was almost completely fulfilled when Joshua and the people of Israel entered the land about 600 years later. But the first piece of land was obtained through a purchase made by Abram as a burial plot for his wife (Gen. 23:16-20). Later, his grandson Jacob also bought some land in Shechem, near where Abram received the promise (Gen. 33:19).  Later, it is at the oak tree near Shechem (NIV, NAS, NKJV), possibly the same tree mentioned here, that Jacob and his companions rededicated themselves to God, and got rid of all of their idols and false gods (Gen. 35:4-5). 

600 years later, when the Israelites come to Canaan in conquest, they begin their campaign by gathering at Shechem to remember the covenant, and build another altar to God (Josh. 8:30-35).  After they have defeated their enemies and have gained ownership of the land, Joshua calls the people once again to Shechem to show them that the promises have been kept. He also asks the Israelites to make their own promises to God (Josh. 24) to serve Him and obey Him. So this is what they do.  Just as Abram builds an altar to God at Shechem, so also do the people of Israel 600 years later (Josh. 24:26-27). It is at Shechem where Abram received the promise, and it is at Shechem that the people of Israel received the fulfillment of the promise. It is there that they also made a promise to obey God and serve Him faithfully, just as Abram did.

Imagine worshipping God in a place where 600 years before, your ancestor Abram had also worshipped God. Imagine building an altar to God, possibly using the same stones Abram used. Shechem was a special place for the people of Israel, for it is where God first appeared to Abram in the Promised Land, and where Abram first built an altar to God.  The altar was a symbolic and public way of worshipping God. As long as the altar stood, it was a reminder to all who saw and knew what it meant that God spoke to Abram and promised this land to him.

When God makes promises to you, it is sometimes advisable to set up reminders for yourself. Make an entry in your journal. Put a sticky note on your cupboard. I've got a pinecone on my desk which I have had for over ten years. It is a reminder of a promise God made to me and a promise I made to God. As humans, we have a tendency to forget the promises of God. Altars were a way Abram gave glory to God for these promises. You and I can find similar means to give glory to God and find ways to remember His promises to us.

In verse 8, Abram moves further south and builds another one of these altars.

8And he moved from there to the mountain east of Bethel, and he pitched his tent with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; there he built an altar to the Lord and called on the name of the Lord.

This site becomes important later when Israel does finally begin to receive the land. In the book of Joshua, after the walls of Jericho fall down, the Israelites go to attack Ai. But they are soundly defeated. This is because Achan stole 200 pieces of silver, a wedge of gold and a Babylonian garment from Jericho. After Achan's sin is discovered, and he is put to death, they once again attack Ai, and this time they prevail.  Where Abram worshipped God and called on the name of the Lord, the Israelites also rededicated themselves to God by getting rid of the sin in their midst and then going forth to battle.  Abram's altar and the Israelite's actions between Bethel and Ai are another witness to their dedication to serve and obey God.

9So Abram journeyed, going on still toward the South.

We don't know how long he stayed in each spot, but what we are shown is that Abram has no place to rest, no place to stop and settle down, no place to call home. Though he has found a place that God will give to his descendants, it is not yet his.  He has followed God from Haran to Canaan. God spoke to Abram and promised Him blessings and land. Abram has built two altars to God. Things seem to be going well for Abram. He is making progress on his journey of faith. But now we come in verses 10-20 to a time of failure in Abram's life.

II. Failure (12:10-20)

Though he began with faith, a time of trouble leads to disobedience and doubt. It all begins with a time of famine.

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

I do not know if Abram should have gone to Egypt or not. The way this part of the story reads, it sounds to me like it was a bad decision on Abram's part to go to Egypt.  "Nowhere is Abram directly condemned for his decision to go down to Egypt, but later developments make it clear that his actions did not stem from faith. Abram did not consult God, but acted independently. No altars were built in Egypt to our knowledge, nor are we told that Abram ever called on the name of the Lord there. His request of Sarai [later in the passage] also reflects his spiritual condition. It would thus be safe to say that Abramís faith failed in the face of that famine."

So we can't be certain, but it seems that God wanted Abram to stay in Canaan - even with a famine. Where God guides, He provides. It was not God's intention for Abram to leave Canaan and go to Egypt.  Now a time of testing had come upon Abram. Not a time of plenty, but a time of wanting. A time of famine. Abram faced a choice. Either he could stay in the land that God had called him to, and trust in God to provide, or he could leave the land and trust in man, specifically the Egyptians, to provide.

Abram did what most of us do in times of trouble. Abram trusted in man. Abram stopped believing in God's promises, and left for Egypt. Through this whole chapter, we read of God speaking to Abram to tell him where to go. We read of God appearing to Abram. We read of Abram building altars and calling on the name of the Lord.  We read none of those things here. In a time of trial, Abram ignored the promises of God, and turned to Egypt for help.

This will become a pattern for Israelites. Later, in another famine, Jacob and his entire family moves to Egypt. This eventually leads to the enslavement of the Israelites to the Egyptians.  During the time of the kings, many of them made alliances with Egypt through marriage or treaties rather than trusting in God for help. Many of the prophets warned the people of Israel about turning to Egypt for help rather than turning to God. All of this began when Abram, the man of faith, turned to Egypt rather than turning to God.

This shift in trust leads to another failure. He begins to lie.

11And it came to pass, when he was close to entering Egypt, that he said to Sarai his wife, "Indeed I know that you are a woman of beautiful countenance. 12Therefore it will happen, when the Egyptians see you, that they will say, ĎThis is his wifeí; and they will kill me, but they will let you live. 13Please say you are my sister, that it may be well with me for your sake, and that I may live because of you."

Abram knows that his wife is beautiful, and that Egyptians are notorious for wanting to marry the most beautiful women. If there was a husband in the way, it was okay to murder that husband. So Abram concocts a lie to tell the Egyptians.  He is going to ask his wife to lie for him, so he asks her by beginning with a compliment. Hopefully, we men compliment our wives more often than just when we want something from her. Here, Abram wants Sarai to lie for him.  It really is only a half lie, for Sarai is Abram's half sister (Gen. 20:12). This is how Abram justified his lie. It's a little white lie. What could it hurt?  It is also a pragmatic lie. If Abram tells the truth, he might lose his life.

But notice what this lie does. It not only reveals a lack of trust in God's promises, but it also threatens their fulfillment. In verse 10, Abram begins to trust in the Egyptians to keep him alive, now Abram is trusting in his wife. One pastor says, "Abram was clinging to his wifeís petticoat for protection and blessing, rather than to the promises of God."  Not only this, but his actions were a threat to his wife's purity and the fulfillment of God's promises. God promised descendants to Abram. Inherent in this promise is a promise that Abram would not die until this promise is fulfilled.

"Abram was not wrong in considering the possibility that someone would appreciate his wife as beautiful and desire her for a wife. It was not even wrong to suppose that someone might even kill him to marry her. Abram was wrong to assume that this would happen and that the only way to prevent it was to lie. Nowhere is the promise and the protection of God considered. Sinful deception is therefore begun before any real danger is ever experienced." Abram has stopped trusting in God, and is fearful of a some danger not even encountered yet, and so turns to his own plans to provide his own protection. Notice from verse 12 that Abram only thought the Egyptian men would find Sarai attractive. And it was a common occurrence for men to murder other men just to get their wives.

Abram wanted to avoid being murdered so he decided to use this half truth about Sarai being his sister. In such a situation, Abram, posing as Sarai's brother, could agree to a marriage, but would insist on a long betrothal period. Then, when the famine in Canaan was over, they could just pick up and leave. No harm done. It was the perfect plan.  But as the saying goes, "The best laid plans of mice and men often go astray." In verse 14, things seem to begin just fine.

14So it was, when Abram came into Egypt, that the Egyptians saw the woman, that she was very beautiful.

Abram was right. He had a beautiful wife. The Egyptian men saw her and thought she was beautiful. Many of them are probably thinking of marrying her. So far, Abram's plan was working out just right. But something happens in verse 15 that Abram never counted on.

15The princes of Pharaoh also saw her and commended her to Pharaoh. And the woman was taken to Pharaohís house.

It never entered Abramís mind that Pharaoh might be interested in Sarai. While Abram could put off the plans of other men, Pharaoh would not take no for an answer. He took her into his palace, awaiting the time of the consummation of the union. Part of this involved giving gifts to Abram.

16He treated Abram well for her sake. He had sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male and female servants, female donkeys, and camels.

During this time, Sarai would likely undergo a relatively long period of preparation for her presentation to Pharaoh very similar to the preparation Esther went through before presenting herself to King Ahasuerus (Esther. 2:12-14).  "Can you imagine the lonely, agonizing nights Abram must have spent, wondering what was going on in the palace? Abram had asked Sarai to lie so that it would go well with him (verse 13). And it did go well. Pharaoh sent many gifts to Abram and treated him royally. The only thing which kept Abram from enjoying his treatment was the realization of what it meant. Pharaoh was giving these things to Abram as a dowry. It did go well with Abram, but without Sarai, his wife. Prosperity is never a blessing without the peace which comes from being right with God."

But God is not thwarted by lies, doubt or our mistakes. His promises are not so easily broken by man. He made promises to Abram, and although Abram has stopped trusting in those promises, and is living in sin and deception, God intervenes, not only to protect Sarai and Abram, but also protect the promise.

17But the Lord plagued Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abramís wife. 18And 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, ĎShe is my sisterí? I might have taken her as my wife. Now therefore, here is your wife; take her and go your way."

"Abram was confronted by Pharaoh and soundly rebuked. Abram had no excuse or explanation. So far as we are told, he did not utter a word in his defense. No doubt this was the wise thing to do in the light of Abramís offense. Pharaoh was not one to be challenged or angered unnecessarily.

"The irony of the situation is obvious. Here is a pagan correcting a prophet (cf. 20:7). It was a royal rebuke that Abram would painfully remember. How sad, however, that Abram could not speak, for this no doubt hindered any testimony to his faith in the living God Who had called him. The Christianís conduct does greatly affect his credibility."

20So Pharaoh commanded his men concerning him; and they sent him away, with his wife and all that he had.

We see here the patience of God with Abram, for Abram comes away from his mistake with more blessings and riches than when he came. Abraham becomes richer than he was. This is a curious discipline. You would think that God would discipline Abram in a different way. Rather than make Abram richer because of his lack of trust, you would think God would make Abram poorer.

Well, these extra riches are double-edged. Negatively, this is probably how Abram received Sarai's maidservant Hagar. We will see how Hagar becomes a great stumbling block to Sarai and Abram later in life, for it is through Hagar that Abram makes his greatest mistake ever, and Israel is paying for it even to this day.

But the positive aspect of this blessing is that it shows God's great love and patience with Abram. God is not out to destroy and punish Abram for his lack of trust. No, God is showing Abram love and patience. God is showing Abram longsuffering and kindness. Even when Abram stops trusting in God, and makes bad decisions, God continues to watch over Abram, and even bless him despite those decisions.

"How foolish Abramís fears must have appeared in the light of history. In order to avoid a famine, Abram was forced to face a Pharaoh. The might of Egypt was not employed against him, but was commanded to assure his safe arrival in Canaan. Indeed, Abram left Egypt even richer than he had come. But none of this was the result of Abramís faithless and dishonest actions. It was the product of divine grace and providential care."

I am not saying you should go out and sin to see if God will bless you even though you've sinned. That's not the lesson of this story. Possibly, Abram would have been much more blessed if he had stayed in Canaan. Maybe many of the Canaanites would have left, and Abram would have received some of the land right then. We really don't know what would have happened.

The point of this account is that God remains faithful to us, even when we are faithless. And he can bless us, even when we are wrong. Sometimes He does discipline us, for He disciplines those He loves. But sometimes He wins us over with grace and mercy. He teaches us to be faithful to Him by revealing His faithfulness to us.  This is a step forward in Abram's faith development. He's learned that God is a God of love, not of fear. He's learned that God is a God of blessing, not of destruction. He's learned that God keeps His promises, even when we do not. When our faith fails, God doesn't. Abram has learned that when God promises the end, He also provides the means. You do not accomplish God's will with evil methods.  These are wonderful truths for Abram to have learned, and will aid him as he continues to grow and develop into the father of faith we all know and love.

Are you facing a time of testing? God has called you to something, and all it seems is that he's called you to a famine? Keep trusting. Don't short circuit the test. If you try to bypass the test, God will just make you face a different test in a different way in a different place.  If Abram had been given the choice of tests - a famine or his wife in Pharaoh's harem - we can be sure he would have chosen the famine. And then in the end, Abram had to go back to famine anyway. Of course, he had more animals and servants, but a famine just makes it more difficult to feed them all.  When God puts you in a test, don't try to bypass it. Just pass it. Don't sidestep it. Walk through it. Abram has gone from faith to failure, and now back to faith. We'll see how long it lasts.