Abraham: Tried by Fire
The Apostle James encourages us to rejoice in our trials. Abram’s life shows us how.

God tested Abram.

No matter how severe, Abram faithfully surrendered to God’s exhaustive examination. He willingly walked through every white-hot fire God stirred up.

Even his journey from Haran to Canaan began with difficulty. Paul tells us, “By faith Abraham, when he was called to go out into a place which he should after receive for an inheritance, obeyed; and he went out, not knowing whither he went” (Hebrews 11:8). How deeply have you thought about this scripture—especially the last part? Abram left Haran with no knowledge of his final destination. He knew he was going to Canaan—not where in Canaan.

How would you react if God suddenly appeared to you one night and told you to pack up all your possessions (including your wife, children and pets), put everyone and everything in a vehicle and go to an unfriendly country close to yours—and that is all you are told? Imagine God saying, “Start traveling, and keep traveling: further information to be given later.” We can all agree that would be a lot of pressure. Abram accepted these kinds of demands for the rest of his life.

All of us must learn to meet our trials as Abram did. Why? God incredibly blessed Abram spiritually, and often physically, after each test. Moses gives us only short and widely spaced biographical sketches of this man. Genesis 12 through 25, only 14 chapters, seem hardly enough space to cover 100 years of Abram’s life (compare Genesis 12:4 with Genesis 25:7). This means that the history given to us carries vital significance. A deep study of these chapters uncovers that Moses, who authored Genesis, shined a spotlight on Abram’s difficult tests, the extraordinary God-spoken promises given him, and the many blessings God showered upon him. These themes tie together the frugally presented scenes of Abram’s life.

All of it is written down for our benefit. The lesson we must get from Abram’s life is: God richly blesses those who bear fruit through trials and tests. How wonderfully positive! Let’s look at this amazing history of the father of all those who are undergoing trials.

Obedience Brings Blessings

Leaving Haran as a far distant memory, Abram traveled into Canaan exactly as God directed. He stopped first at Sichem, better known to us as Shechem (Genesis 12:6). God met with him in this place. There is very little detail given about their meeting. Of course, any personal encounter with God is spectacular. Clearly, this awesome supernatural Being was very pleased with Abram’s obedience. Is this a valid conclusion? Abram stops at Shechem. God comes into view and immediately adds another promise to an already fantastic list.

Remember, the Eternal God had already promised Abram that he would become a great nation. God also promised to give him a great name, or international fame. In addition, he was to receive great personal wealth. Ultimately, Abram would become a blessing to all nations (Genesis 12:2-3). Now, the unexplored land of Canaan would become the homeland of Abram’s descendents (verse 7). Surely, this was an astounding promise for a childless man who had completely forsaken his native land. The promise of land (which also meant tangible national wealth) made the promise of superior national status even more real.

Abram’s journey may have been difficult, but God’s pledge—the inheritance of the most incredible land available—was a huge reward. The journey was worth every bit of hardship.

Reading between the lines, this verse also tells us that God most likely gave Abram instructions about how to live a godly way of life. Is this a valid possibility? Study Abram’s actions immediately after God’s visit. Abram built an altar to honor the Eternal. The Eternal personally appeared to him and, through a promise, revealed true knowledge to him. Without hesitation or delay, Abram expressed his deep appreciation by a sacrifice. Think on this fact: Abram had to be taught how to sacrifice properly.

Moses does not tell us how long Abram stayed in Shechem. Yet what Moses does tell us should amaze us.

Championing God’s Name

Abram moved south to Bethel (Genesis 12:8). We know even less about this layover. However, Moses shows that Abram built an altar and called upon the name of the Eternal. We should not read over this verse too quickly. It is a one-verse wonder. We are actually told a lot. Abram became an altar builder. Constructing places to worship became a habit. It became Abram’s custom to build altars and worship God in spirit and in truth (John 4:24).

Please note: He did this openly, in front of the Canaanites. Many scholars have taught the false notion that these two cities were uninhabited places at the time of Abram. Archaeology has proved otherwise. Shechem and Bethel were well-established, peopled cities (see Gleason Archer, A Survey of Old Testament Introduction). By openly worshiping God at Bethel, Abram demonstrated to Canaan that his religion was different. By sacrificing God’s way, he introduced the true God to these pagan peoples.

Where it says Abraham “called upon the name of the Lord,” the Hebrew word qara, translated as called, proves this out. It means to properly address by name. Gesenius’ Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon provides an extensive explanation of this word. A prime sense of the word is to cry out for aid with a loud voice. On the journey, Abram was learning to build a relationship with God. He was learning to wholly rely on and trust in God. As he built altars, the exhibition of his devotion—even crying out for help when necessary—let the Canaanites know that the Eternal was God. There was none else. Abram used his nomadic life as a campaign for God. Abram brought fame to the Eternal’s name.

It is important to recognize that Shechem and Bethel become extremely important holy places for the future nation of Israel. Shechem is located between Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Ebal. The patriarch Jacob lived there for a short time (Genesis 37). Joshua built a huge altar there and required the 12 tribes to assemble on the mountains and rehearse the blessings and curses related to the keeping or breaking of the Ten Commandments. Jacob’s dream of the ladder reaching from the Earth to God’s throne was experienced at Bethel. Essentially, Moses records that Israel’s history at Shechem and Bethel began with Abram.

Land of Famine

Abram pulled up stakes, put Bethel at his back and set his face toward the southern interior of Canaan. At this point, the trek grew seriously difficult. What may have been interesting travel became a fight for survival. As Abram looked forward to his next stopover, God walloped Canaan with a severe famine (Genesis 12:10).

National famine is always punishment for national sin (e.g., 1 Kings 8:37-40). God could no longer ignore the heinous sins of Canaan. Even though Abram was growing in his bond with God, he had to suffer with the Canaanites—at least temporarily. This could all seem so unfair—and does to the carnal mind. Looking at things negatively, the land of promise became the country of want and privation.

God was searching Abram’s heart. So was the devil. We can be sure that Satan set out a plan to shatter Abram’s growing faith. We know from the rest of the story that Abram survived the trial by famine. How? He had to come to see things differently than all other humans. He got the big picture, which is God’s perspective. Do we? When we are tried, do we work to see the big picture—or do we think and act like all other human beings? Abram was being put through intensive training. As the progenitor of Israel, he had to learn how sin impacts a nation. Experience is always the effective teacher. Abram’s tests always led to good results because he patiently endured and worked through them.

To survive the famine, Abram’s germ of a nation decided to flee to Egypt to eat. Going to Egypt for food was a recurring event for the earliest Israelites. Of course, Bible history shows the fruits of doing so are not always good. Yet God has always used Egypt to His advantage. The spiritual lesson is constant: Egypt is a type for sin! It was no different for Abram. God flushed to the surface some of his deep-rooted sins while he was in Egypt.

As the company approached the Egyptian border, Abram feared for his life. However, instead of looking to and trusting in God for safety, he worked things out his own way. By doing so, he put his family in danger far worse than any physical famine. The next several verses confirm that Abram had entered into a spiritual famine as well.

Abram the Schemer

Here was Abram’s plan for his own protection. He told Sarai: “Behold now, I know that thou art a fair woman to look upon: Therefore it shall come to pass, when the Egyptians shall see thee, that they shall say, This is his wife: and they will kill me, but they will save thee alive. Say, I pray thee, thou art my sister: that it may be well with me for thy sake; and my soul shall live because of thee” (Genesis 12:11-13). The full implications of this plan for Sarai’s life are shocking. Abram focused on himself—not on his wife. This plan was certainly not faith-based. Nowhere do we see that the Eternal was ever considered in Abram’s arrangements. Where is Abram the altar-builder? Verse 10 gives us the insight into what was taking place in Abram’s life.

Read carefully Genesis 12:9-10. Verse 9 is the introductory verse to a new section of history. It shows that Abram and company were continuously on the move. This would be tough. Those who have to travel much will say honestly that there is no real glory in such a life. The excitement of seeing new places wears off quickly. Frankly, constant travel is a grueling way to live. Now, add to that the strain of no food for you or the livestock, and the weight of the demands can be close to unbearable. This experience severely clouded Abram’s right thinking. He made the decision to go to Egypt. Abram walked the path of self-reliance.

Study verse 10 thoroughly. Abram was not directed by God to go to Egypt. The verse states clearly “Abram went down into Egypt.” The verse does not say God led Abram to Egypt. The expression went down tells us all. The words went and down are the same Hebrew word yarad. The word means to descend, literally to go downward. Figuratively, the word means to fall. Causatively, the word means to bring down. The word can be translated cast down. These verses show that Abram was in a spiritual slump. His faith was weakening. His bond to God was being tested. We should not be surprised!

Moses does not sketch out Abram’s thinking at the time. It is safe to speculate that he was most likely getting a little worn down from the pressure of being tested. He was most likely growing weary of the trials. He surely wanted to escape the famine. Yet there is no evidence he sought God in the matter. The Bible is full of examples showing God could have provided all of his needs—right where he was! Yet Abram chose a different way.

In Pharaoh’s Clutches

How bad was Abram’s decision? In Abram’s defense, when he suffered hunger, he did not go back to his homeland Babylon. Paul shows us that when he left his homeland he was committed to never return (Hebrews 11:15). According to the letter of God’s command, Abram remained obedient.

Yet while not returning to Babylon was good, going into Egypt was spiritually treacherous. The truth about Egypt’s sexually degenerate society was internationally known. Even Egyptian religion was based on sex worship. Joseph was exposed to it with Potiphar’s wife (Genesis 39). Leviticus 18 describes in graphic detail what was going on in Egypt and Canaan; in this chapter, God had to clearly explain how Egyptian customs violated the Seventh Commandment.

Abram knew how bad it was, which is why he devised the plan he did. He was well aware that he could be murdered so his wife could be taken and enslaved sexually. Considering his own safety first, he misrepresented the truth about his wife, claiming Sarai was merely his sister. He entreated her to go along with the ruse. What a risk he took with his wife! He may have spared his own life, but he put Sarai in grave danger. Meditate on this situation. There was even a high probability that the plan may not have worked. Abram still could have been killed and Sarai could have been imprisoned in Egypt for life.

As the story plays out, we learn that Sarai fell into Pharaoh’s clutches. The Gentile king was entranced by her beauty. He desired to have her as his own. He took Sarai into his house. Of course, he more than likely pampered her, but we can be sure she never felt secure. Pharaoh must have eagerly anticipated his time with Sarai. He showered Abram with sheep, oxen, donkeys and servants—huge wealth. Yet, Abram lost the treasure of his life: his wife!

What went through Abram’s mind seeing his wife taken away? He could not have been happy or at ease. Can we see that Abram compounded his own trial? In addition, he became the source of a serious trial for his wife. Did he have a plan to get her back? What lie could he spin to get his wife out of this crisis? Abram had to recognize that he was caught in a spiraling vortex sucking him down deeper by the day.

God Protected Sarai

What was going through Sarai’s mind? It doesn’t take a highly developed imagination to figure out how Sarai must have felt. But God was with her. Moses wrote: “And the Lord plagued Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai Abram’s wife” (Genesis 12:17). Abram didn’t give full consideration to his wife, yet God did! The Eternal defended and preserved Sarai by sending severe plagues on Pharaoh and his whole house. So, Abram’s plan also brought suffering into the lives of the unsuspecting Egyptians.

This tiny bit of history from Abram’s life teaches us a big lesson. Once we start down the path of sin, our problems go from bad to worse. Abram had to learn this lesson.

The big irony here is that this man of God had to be rebuked by Pharaoh. Study verses 18 and 19. Hearing Pharaoh’s grievance against him had to be humiliating for Abram. Taking correction from a righteous man is hard. However, getting it from a carnal king would be extra painful. As we continue his history, we’ll find that Abram didn’t take the correction well. He fell into the same trap later. That is the way with all of us. There are some lessons that take a long time to learn. There are sins we struggle to overcome. However, Abram was making good progress.

God’s Benefits

Here’s the bottom line. God turned the whole situation to the benefit of everyone, even to the Egyptians. Sarai was not violated. Abram was not murdered. Even Pharaoh seems to have learned the sanctity of marriage (verses 18-19). However, Pharaoh did thrust Abram and his group of followers out of Egypt. Wouldn’t you?

This slice of Abram’s history ends on a strong positive note. Moses wrote: “And Abram went up out of Egypt, he, and his wife, and all that he had, and Lot with him, into the south. And Abram was very rich in cattle, in silver, and in gold. And he went on his journeys from the south even to Bethel, unto the place where his tent had been at the beginning, between Bethel and Hai; Unto the place of the altar, which he had made there at the first: and there Abram called on the name of the Lord” (Genesis 13:1-4).

Abram returned to Canaan—to Bethel—where he had a real beginning with God. Abram returned to the altar he had built. He sacrificed. He reestablished his contact with God by calling upon His name. It is obvious that the Eternal was still very pleased with Abram. He left Egypt wealthier than when he arrived.