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B'resheet/Genesis 12:16 ... and he had flocks, herds and donkeys, and slaves and maidservants, and female donkeys and camels.
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Because Pharaoh wanted to have Sarai, Avram's wife - whom he had passed off as his sister - for himself, Pharaoh showered gifts upon Avram. This verse tells us that Pharaoh was good to Avram and, according to theRadak, Pharoah gave him these and other items. Nahum Sarna points out that the first half of the verse, "and it went well with him" is an exact fulfillment of Avram's desire three verses earlier when he asked Sarai, "Please say that you are my sister, that it may go well with me" (v. 13, JPS). It is also paralleled in the promise Jeremiah gave King Zedekiah about surrendering to the Babylonians: "Obey now the voice of the L-RD in what I say to you, and it shall be well with you, and your life shall be spared" (Jeremiah 38:20, ESV). Avram was anticipating that one of the ordinary Egyptian leaders would take Sarai, after killing Avram as her husband, but ended up with rather more than he expected. The Sforno comments that these gifts were an afterthought because it was Pharaoh who had taken Sarai. The custom for the ordinary people was to negotiate the dowry and effectively "buy" the bride, but Pharaoh exercised his authority to "take" her and then compensated Avram afterwards.
RabbiHirsch uses the ordering of the list of gifts to show that Pharaoh was trying every means to win Avram's favour. The steward Eliezer is later to describe Avraham's possessions as "sheep and cattle, silver and gold, man servants and maid servants, camels and asses" (B'resheet 24:35), while two generations later, Ya'akov's wealth is cast as "large flocks, female servants and male servants, and camels and donkeys" (30:43, ESV). Hirsch says that "sheep and cattle are productive, real property, requiring care and attention so that servants are a necessity. Camels and asses are not productive property, but have to be had as beasts of burden so come last." He maintains that the disordered confusion shows that Pharaoh gave Avram some of this, then some of that, then some of the other in no particular sequence, hoping that Avram would finally approve Sarai becoming Pharaoh's wife, while Avram could only accept the gifts mutely, daring neither to say yes or no.
Sarna also points out that the presence of the camel in the list raises something of a problem. Although the camel is present in other lists in both the Avraham and Ya'akov narratives, the Bible seems to be the only ancient document of its age that talks about the camel as a domesticated animal. The Old Babylonian and Mari texts from Mesopotamia are both silent about camels and they do not appear in Egyptian records and art until the Persian period. It seems that the camel was not widely domesticated either for travel or as a beast of burden until the 12th century BCE, a long time after the patriarchal period. To find them here suggests significant wealth, in perhaps the same way as an imported sports car might be today, possessing an unusual mode of transport. It also speaks loudly of Sarai's perceived value, that she should be worth this extravagant parade of gifts.
G-d spoke very clearly through the prophet Isaiah about the way He values His people. First, He reassures them that He will be with them through their trials: "But now thus says the L-RD, He who created you, O Jacob, He who formed you, O Israel: Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are Mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you" (Isaiah 43:1-2, ESV). G-d knows His people by name; because He has called them, they are His, they belong to Him. He goes on to speak of the way He values the people: "For I am the L-RD your G-d, the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour. I give Egypt as your ransom, Cush and Seba in exchange for you. Because you are precious in My eyes, and honored, and I love you, I give men in return for you, peoples in exchange for your life" (vv. 3-4, ESV). This is extraordinary: G-d is giving up other people groups in exchange for His chosen people, Israel. He values them so much that whole countries are exchanged as a ransom, life for life. G-d is going to gather His people from all over the earth, wherever they are, those who are called by His name: "Fear not, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you. I will say to the north, Give up, and to the south, Do not withhold; bring My sons from afar and My daughters from the end of the earth, everyone who is called by My name, whom I created for My glory, whom I formed and made" (vv. 5-7, ESV).
In the context of the Ancient Near East, this could be argued on the basis of righteousness. Israel, despite their many sins, are portrayed as being righteous, while the nations worship idols, so are portrayed as wicked. The wisdom books then make an exchange both simple and logical: "The righteous is delivered from trouble, but the wicked takes his place" (Proverbs 11:8, NASB) and "The wicked is a ransom for the righteous, and the treacherous is in the place of the upright" (21:8, NASB). This seems, though, to override G-d's justice: there clearly were times of rampant sin in Israel and they were judged firmly by G-d. Equally, there were some righteous people among the nations - compassionate and merciful people who acted rightly towards the poor and disadvantaged - were they not to be saved. On what basis, then does G-d act? Can we see a precedent that applies today?
The Bible makes a number of statements that help us understand. Speaking of the Israelites, after declaring that they are a holy people, chosen and set apart from all the nations, Moshe tells them, "The L-RD did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any of the peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but because the L-RD loved you and kept the oath which He swore to your forefathers" (D'varim 7:7-8, NASB). The L-rd acts because of His love and His oath or covenant; He promised that He would act, so He does. He promises the people, "I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have drawn you with lovingkindness. Again I will build you, and you shall be rebuilt, O virgin of Israel! Again you shall take up your tambourines, and go forth to the dances of the merrymakers. Again you shall plant vineyards on the hills of Samaria; the planters shall plant and shall enjoy them. For there shall be a day when watchmen on the hills of Ephraim shall call out, 'Arise, and let us go up to Zion, to the L-RD our G-d'" (Jeremiah 31:3-6, NASB). The promises of restoration are predicated on relationship and G-d's love for His people: "I have loved you ... therefore". "In those days Judah shall be saved, and Jerusalem shall dwell in safety; and this is the name by which she shall be called: the L-RD is our righteousness" (Jeremiah 33:16, NASB).
Do we know and love G-d? Rav Sha'ul seems clear: "But if one loves G-d, one is known by Him" (1 Corinthians 8:3, ESV). Writing to Timothy he underlines this: "Nevertheless, the firm foundation of G-d stands, having this seal, 'The Lord knows those who are His'" (2 Timothy 2:19, NASB). G-d knows who belongs to Him and has relationship with Him? Yeshua explains how: "the Father Himself loves you, because you have loved Me, and have believed that I came forth from the Father" (John 16:27, NASB) - on the basis of faith. We believe that Yeshua is the Messiah, sent by G-d and love Him by obeying His voice and building our lives around His commands.
Once established in relationship, the certainty of G-d's salvation, goodness towards us and promises of restoration follow: "[Yeshua] gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself a people for His own possession" (Titus 2:14, NASB); "He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things?" (Romans 8:32, NASB). We are called by the name of Yeshua, brought near to the covenants of promise (Ephesians 2:12-13) and beneficiaries of G-d's covenant love. This is a great and precious truth and a foundation for our faith.
Further Study: Isaiah 44:21-23; Luke 1:68-75
Application: The sure and steady promises of the Hebrew Scriptures, speaking of G-d's covenant faithfulness and trustworthiness are available for you today. Take them to the L-rd and ask Him to confirm them in your heart today.
© Jonathan Allen, 2011
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