“Abram went up from Egypt to the Negev… he went on his journeys from the Negev as far as Bethel, to the place where his tent had been at the beginning, between Bethel and Ai, to the place of the altar which he had made there formerly; and there Abram called on the name of the LORD.” Genesis 13:1-4
Many people today read scripture without asking questions of the text. If we don’t stop to consider the motives of the people we are reading about, we may miss the bigger picture. Genesis 12:1 – 13:4 is a story of reconciliation. I am not sure why those who determined where the chapters should begin and end in the modern bible did not end chapter 12 here, as it brings the early part of our story with Abram full-circle. If we think this portion of the text is about how God calls Abram, he goes to Canaan, takes a little trip down to Egypt and has a run-in with Pharaoh, but then goes on his way, we are missing the story! See my previous postings for more details.
There is spiritual significance to many of the events between the time Abram is called by God in 12:1 and his return to the altar in 13:4. Abram’s decision to go to Egypt in and of itself was not necessarily wrong or sinful. It is true that we don’t know if God intended him to go to Egypt for provision or if God would have provided in Canaan despite the famine. However, Abram’s decision to lie about Sarai being his sister was a sin. Instead of trusting God for protection, Abram feared the Egyptians and sought to protect himself at the expense of the safety of his wife. And like any lie, we see the trouble that ensues culminating in the confrontation with Pharaoh. This seemingly simple lie on Abram’s part could have caused Pharaoh to commit the much greater sin of adultery. It also resulted in unjust gain to Abram.
If we read what Abram did matter-of-factly, or don’t look at what he did as really lying or otherwise doing anything wrong, we miss the significance of the ending of this part of the story: the return to the altar. In fact, the text refers to the place where Abram had his tent “at the beginning”. This is speaking of the spiritual life of Abram and its new beginning with God, as Abram’s actual beginning would be back in Ur of the Chaldeans which is now the past. Some translations even speak of Abram ‘descending’ to Egypt, in contrast to him ascending back to a better spiritual condition after the ordeal.
This interpretation shows us that when when we lie, we must go back to the time and place before we sinned to set things right with God again – back to the place of the altar to call upon the name of the LORD – before we can move forward again spiritually.