And Abram journeyed on by stages towards the Negeb.
Now there was a famine in the land. So Abram went down to Egypt to reside there as an alien, for the famine was severe in the land. When he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, ‘I know well 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, so that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared on your account.’ When Abram entered Egypt the Egyptians saw that the woman was very beautiful. When the officials 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 and female slaves, female donkeys, and camels.
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 be gone.’ And Pharaoh gave his men orders concerning him; and they set him on the way, with his wife and all that he had.
So Abram went up from Egypt, he and his wife and all that he had, and Lot with him, into the Negeb.
It isn’t difficult to see why Abram needed to change his name to Abraham after this caper! Or why Sarai needed to become “Sarah.” It also isn’t difficult to see why some critics see the Abrahamic monotheisms as hopelessly patriarchal—Sarai does not get a vote here. And why is it Pharaoh has to pay for Abraham’s lie?
Yes, at first blush this is a damning story for that patriarch of monotheism. Yet, we must remember that the Abraham stories are of varying antiquity. This is a very old story. In it, Abraham is a trickster figure, overcoming another by the sheer gutsiness of his lie, and in the end, Abraham leaves with the booty.
A “newer” version of this story occurs in Genesis 20, where the Pharaoh character becomes King Abimelech and we learn an added twist to Abraham’s lie: “Besides, she is indeed my sister, the daughter of my father but not the daughter of my mother; and she became my wife” (20:12). In both the case of Pharaoh and that of King Abimelech, Abraham fears for his life in the face of great power, and in both cases Abraham leaves with riches. Clearly the stories prefigure the Hebrew exodus from Egypt.
The deeper issue here is the question of what we will do when faced with overwhelming power: when there’s no way over it and no way around it, how do we get through it? It is in those situations that the Trickster incarnates and the best truth to power becomes a lie—in order merely to survive.
Those without sin . . . haven’t been there . . . and are free to pitch the first stone at Abram, foreigner in the desert.