Abram in Egypt – Immediately after Abram settled in Canaan, God forced him to undergo a new trial. Famine compelled him to leave the Land and move to Egypt. There Sarai was put at risk – but Hashem saved her from Pharaoh, and she returned safely to Canaan with her family. There, at the very same altar that he had built in Bethel before going to Egypt, Abraham proclaimed the Name of Hashem demonstrating that, though sorely tried, his faith in God was undiminished.
The Midrash comments that God said to Abraham: ‘Go forth and tread out a path for your children.’ Thus you find that whatever is written in connection with Abraham foreshadowed the future.
Abraham went down to Egypt to sustain himself during a famine, the Egyptians oppressed him and attempted to rob him of his wife for which God punished them with great plagues; Abraham was then loaded with gifts and Pharaoh even ordered his men to see that he left the country safely.
Similarly, his descendants went down to Egypt because of a famine; the Egyptians oppressed them with the intention of eventually taking their wives from them, this being the purpose of Pharaoh’s edict to spare the daughters (Exodus 1:22). They were to be spared for immoral purposes. However, it is clearly implied from Scripture and explained by the Sages that Israel maintained its morality. But God avenged them by inflicting great plagues, and He brought them forth with great wealth, as the Egyptians finally pressed them to leave the country.
12:10 “There was famine in the land..” – This was one of the ten trials; it was the first famine that had ever occurred since Creation, and its purpose was to test whether Abraham would protest God’s justice. For Abraham had followed God’s command scrupulously: he left his father, his relatives, and his native land and went to Canaan where he had received God’s blessings. Yet, scarcely upon his arrival there, he was forced to leave it. One might have expected him to doubt God; but instead he went down to Egypt to sojourn there. Egypt was not affected by famines because it is irrigated by the Nile and its fertility is not dependent upon rain water.
12:11 As they drew nearer to their destination, certain realizations and apprehensions surfaced in Abraham’s mind. As Sforno notes, Egypt was known for its immorality. Abarbanel points out that Abraham was only a sojourner, and at the mercy of the Egyptians who might lust after his wife and do away with him.
Ramban suggests that Abraham grew fearful because they were approaching a royal city where it was the custom to bring a very beautiful woman to the king and, if he was pleased with her, to slay her husband through some contrived charge.
12:12 “then they will kill me,” – The commentators ask: If both murder and adultery are prohibited, is it not out of place to think that the Egyptians would commit the crime of murder in order to avoid the crime of adultery? Why wouldn’t they spare Abraham and simply take Sarah away from him? The commentators explain that Abraham was convinced that the immoral Egyptians would rationalize and decide that it is better to murder once, thereby freeing a woman from her husband, then it was to let him live and commit countless acts of adultery with his still married wife. Abraham further feared that if they murdered him, she would remain without a protector. Therefore, at all costs, he must remain alive.
“they will keep you alive.” – A euphemism!! They will keep you alive for a fate worse than death (Hirsch).
12:13 “Please say that you are my sister,” – Was she then his sister? She was his brother’s daughter (11:29). But a man often calls his kinswoman ‘sister’. (Midrash haGadol)
Ramban suggests that it would seem from the literal meaning of the verses that Sarah did not consent to describe herself as Abraham’s sister, but that it was Abraham who gave the information (verse 19). She was taken to Pharaoh without being asked about her relationship to Abraham, and she offered no information. Therefore, when her identity was discovered, Pharaoh blamed only Abraham for the deception. But Pharaoh directed no accusation against Sarah, for it was proper that she not contradict her husband, but instead remain silent.
Abraham’s choice of deception instead of fighting to protect Sarah was not a resignation of his responsibility for her safety. On the contrary, he knew full well that were he to be killed defending her – as would have been a virtual certainly – then her own plight would have been hopeless. She would have been at the mercy of the depraved Egyptians.
12:14 “with Abram’s coming to Egypt..” – Note that only Abraham is mentioned as coming into Egypt. In a verse where Sarah is clearly of prime concern and she certainly should have been mentioned along with Abraham, unlike many of the previous verses where it sufficed to mention Abraham alone as the head of the family, Rashi cites the tradition that Abraham had hidden Sarah in a trunk. She was discovered when it was opened by the customs officials to assess the duty to be paid.
Rashi’s explanation is based on the Midrash: Where was Sarah? He had locked her in a chest. When he came to the customs house the officer demanded that Abraham pay the custom duties. Abraham agreed. ‘You carry garments in that box’, he said. ‘Then I will pay the duty on garments’, Abraham replied: ‘You are carrying silks’, he asserted. ‘I will pay on silks’, Abraham replied. But the officer grew suspicious and insisted that Abraham open the chest so he could personally inspect the contents. As soon as he opened it the land of Egypt was irradiated with her beauty. Sefer haYashar notes that putting Sarah into the chest was Abraham’s additional scheme in addition to his brother-sister plan, to minimize Sarah’s exposure at all cost.
12:15 Midrash Tanchuma records that when Abraham saw his wife being taken he wept and prayed and so did Sarah. God answered that nothing would befall either of them, and further, He would make an example of Pharaoh and his household (verse 17).
12:16 “He treated Abram well for her sake,” – The Talmud derives a moral lesson from the word – for her sake – indicating that prosperity in the home as well as the blessings of home life are dependent upon the wife. It homiletically perceives God (not Pharaoh) as the implied subject and source of the goodness described on account of his wife, as it is written: “and he dealt well with Abram for her sake.”
Later Abraham vehemently refused to accept anything from the king of Sodom (14:23, even though he rightfully deserved a reward for having come to the Sodomite king’s aid), while here he accepted many valuable gifts from Pharaoh. This apparent inconsistency must be viewed in the context of Abraham’s claim that Sarah was his sister and the implication that he would allow her to marry a suitable person. Had he refused gifts, he would have aroused Pharaoh’s suspicions. (Hoffman)
“…slaves and maidservants..” – Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korchah wrote: Because of Pharaoh’s love fore Sarah he wrote her a document giving her his wealth – in silver, gold, manservants, and land. He also gave her the land of Goshen as a possession. Therefore, the children of Israel later dwelt in the land of Goshen (47:27), which belonged to our mother Sarah. He also gave her Hagar, his daughter from a concubine, as her handmaid.
As the Midrash (45:1) comments: When Pharaoh saw what was done on Sarah’s behalf to his own house (next verse), he took his daughter and gave her to Sarah, saying: ‘Better let my daughter be a handmaid in this house than a mistress in another house.’
12:17 “Hashem afflicted Pharaoh..” – Rashi explains that Pharaoh was smitten with the plague of raathan (a debilitating skin disease) which makes cohabitation impossible. This plague assured that Sarah’s chastity would be safeguarded from Pharaoh. The others in his household were afflicted with other plagues and according to the Midrash, Sarah herself was the only one in the palace complex not afflicted. This is what led Pharaoh to question whether Sarah was indeed unmarried.
The night that Pharaoh was afflicted (with a plague that forced him to free Sarah) was (what would later be) the night of Passover. This paralleled how God would later greatly afflict the Egyptians to force them to free the children of Israel.
(This, then, is yet another example of ‘whatever happened to the Patriarchs is an indication of what would happen to their children’.)
..because of Sarai, the wife of Abram.” – The literal Hebrew translation of ‘because of’ is ‘by the word of’. This follows the Midrash which interprets ‘by the word of Sarai’ as: ‘by the prayer of Sarai’ or ‘by the order of Sarai’.
All of that night Sarah lay prostrate on her face crying, ‘Sovereign of the Universe! Abraham went forth from his land on Your assurance while I went forth with blind faith: Abraham is without this prison while I am within!’ God answered her, ‘Whatever I do, I do for your sake and all will declare “It is because of Sarai, Abram’s wife”.’
Rav Levi said: That entire night an angel stood, whip in hand. When she ordered, ‘Strike!’ (i.e. inflict him) he struck, and when she ordered, ‘Desist!’, he desisted. Why was Pharaoh punished? Because she had told him she was a married woman, yet he would not leave her. Furthermore, the Zohar adds that with each blow the angel said, ‘this is because of Sarai who is Abram’s wife!’ On learning that she was indeed Abram’s wife, Pharaoh immediately called for Abram.
“..wife of Abram” – This verse comes to teach us that although Sarah gave the others the impression she was Abraham’s sister, to Pharaoh (as noted above) she revealed the truth thinking that the king would never stoop so low as to defile her if she told him she was a married woman. But she was wrong; he would not heed her, saying that she was telling him this merely to put him off. Therefore, God punished him with a debilitating skin disease which prevented any contact between the two.
12:18 Pharaoh pondered upon this strange and sudden outbreak of disease, which coincided with the time Sarah was taken to his house. He suspected that Sarah was telling him the truth and the plague was indeed associated with her so he called Abraham and accused him. He was not certain she was his wife but he made the accusations in order to draw the truth from Abraham (Ramban).
12:19 So, why did Abraham not answer Pharaoh – as he later did to Abimelech under similar circumstances (20:11,12) – and justify his actions by expressing his fears and explaining that, as his niece, she could truthfully be called his ‘sister’?
Abraham knew that he should not run the risk of further provoking the king’s anger by engaging him in conversation. He did as the king told him: he took his wife and possessions and departed. Compare this to the exchange in Chapter 20 where Abimelech conversed with Abraham and did not immediately permit him to leave. There, Abraham did respond to the king.
Furthermore, Pharaoh’s order to ‘take her and go’ presents a striking parallel: As pointed out several times, the entire episode of Abraham in Egypt – when a successor of Pharaoh would say to Moses and Aaron (Exodus 12:32) ‘take..and go’.
12:20 “..and all that was his.” – Pharaoh let them leave with all their property intact. He did not even suggest that Abraham had taken the gifts under false pretenses and should therefore return them.
That he did not do so was one of the greatest miracles of the entire incident (Ramban).
It was thus God’s providential Mercy that not only did Pharaoh not punish Abraham, or even take back his gifts, but that Pharaoh was so afraid of incurring further punishment from God, that he even had his men escort Abraham and Sarah lest anyone molest them (Malbim). It was also at this time that Pharaoh gave Hagar to Sarah as a maidservant.
Abarbanel summaries that among the moral lessons to be learned from the entire incident is that there are many plans in a man’s heart, but it is the purpose of Hashem that shall prevail (Proverbs 19:21. Witness the course of events: Abraham planned to escape a famine by fleeing to Egypt and save his wife with his scheme. But events did not work out quite as he had planned, and in a short time he found himself back in Canaan, sustained for the balance of the famine by the generosity of God “Whose eye is upon those who fear Him, upon those who hope in His loving kindness’ (Proverbs 33:18..