Were the Plagues on Pharaoh Because of Abram and Sarai Unfair?

by Dr. Elizabeth Mitchell on May 20, 2011
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Why did God punish Pharaoh because of Abraham's deception? Is this not unjust? Elizabeth Mitchell, MD, explains the reasons for the plagues.

Hi there!

A question was posed to me the other day about Genesis 12:10–20. The question was: why did God punish Pharaoh because of Abraham’s deception? Is this not unjust?

I’ve searched the net and have been unable to find a satisfactory apologetic answer to this. I would love to be able to answer the above question with a firm answer.

Thank you and God bless!
WP (Cape Town, South Africa)

The account of Abraham’s first trip to Egypt is full of lessons for us. We see not only God’s gracious ability to fulfill His purposes and promises in spite of the failures of His own people but also a lesson on the subject of suffering.

Abraham had just arrived in Canaan as per God’s instructions, and God had promised to make him into a great nation through whom the Savior would come to bless the whole world. On the heels of this great promise, a famine strikes, and nomadic Abraham packs up to seek better pasture in Egypt, leaving the land God has promised him.

Many believe Abraham was demonstrating failure to trust God’s promise by this move, but admittedly, God had not forbidden Abraham from traveling there. Nevertheless, Abraham’s behavior upon arrival in Egypt revealed his spiritual immaturity and resulted in unpleasant consequences for other people (Pharaoh’s court) as well as a lousy testimony.

Abraham’s behavior upon arrival in Egypt revealed his spiritual immaturity.

The passage in Genesis 12:10–20 contains the Bible’s first mention of Egypt as a nation—the ancient name of Egypt is Mizraim, one of Noah’s grandsons, and this name appears in Genesis 10:6 and 13. Egypt figures significantly in much of the Bible’s history. At times, God warned people not to seek security and prosperity by going down to Egypt. For example, Solomon sought a political alliance with Egypt—a lucrative trading partner, and a source for an abundance of fine military horses—and married an Egyptian princess, violating several of God’s commands. Eventually, Solomon built pagan high places in Israel, advancing idolatry in God’s nation.

Political power struggles in the Middle East often included alliances with Egypt. For example, Rabshakeh the Assyrian warned Hezekiah (2 Kings 18:24) not to expect Egyptian help. Later, God used the arrival of Tirhakah (apparently king of both Cush and Egypt) to discomfit the Assyrian invaders (2 Kings 19:7-9 and Isaiah 37:7-9). On the other hand, attempted alliances with Egypt led to disastrous consequences for several kings in both the Northern and the Southern Kingdoms.

Sometimes, people fled to Egypt for safety and prospered, such as Hadad the Edomite, who fled from Solomon to Egypt and ended up marrying the pharaoh’s sister-in-law (1 Kings 11). Others, such as the remnant of Judean refugees who kidnapped Jeremiah after Nebuchadnezzar’s conquest of Judah, fled to Egypt in direct disobedience to God’s command and suffered for it. Nebuchadnezzar soon continued on to Egypt and destroyed them there.

At other times, God actually sent people to Egypt for shelter or training, such as when Joseph, sold into Egyptian slavery by his brothers, matured into a godly and wise young man. There, he was able to help both Egypt and his own family during another famine. God also sent Mary and Joseph with baby Jesus to Egypt to protect them from Herod’s massacre.

In view of these observations about Egypt’s role in the Bible, we should not make a blanket statement claiming “going to Egypt” is always a metaphor for adopting worldly ways. Nevertheless, we should remember that we live in a world full of temptations to which our fleshly natures may succumb. Furthermore, trusting in sneaky deceitful remedies for our problems is not God’s way and tends to backfire. Abraham went where God had not commanded him to go and, fearing the consequences, misled the Egyptians. In so doing, he ruined his testimony before a pagan royal court and caused those people to suffer.

Abraham was married to his half-sister, Sarai, who, at age sixty-five, was still apparently beautiful. To protect himself, Abraham persuaded Sarah to lie about her marriage to him and pretend to be his sister. Unprotected by her husband, Sarah was whisked off to Pharaoh’s harem. In exchange, Pharaoh showered Abraham with riches.1 Since Abraham didn’t properly protect Sarah, who was the promised mother of a new nation that would bless the whole world, God had to step in to keep her away from Pharaoh’s bed.

God protected Sarah by sending “great plagues” on Pharaoh and his house. The Hebrew words translated as “plagues” can refer to sores or wounds and does not require them to be deadly. Sarah was kept safe and it seems Pharaoh eventually put two and two together and figured out that the timing and scope of this disease was somehow associated with Abraham’s arrival and that Sarah was Abraham’s wife. Pharaoh graciously let Abraham keep all the stuff he had acquired in Egypt and summarily sent him away.

These plagues on Pharaoh and his house were not so much a punishment as a message.

These plagues on Pharaoh and his house were not so much a punishment as a message, but they are definitely an example of the sins of one person causing others to suffer. Our cursed world is full of examples of innocents suffering for the sins of others. (We could also make the case that the practice of grabbing all the pretty single women for a ruler’s harem is not exactly an innocent practice, victimizing and demeaning women, but it was the cultural norm.) Drunk drivers, abusive parents, pregnant women on cocaine, thieves, rapists, and murderers are but a few examples of people who cause the innocent to suffer. At least in this case, the suffering was apparently non-lethal and had a clearly-defined purpose.

In John 9, the disciples asked Jesus if a man born blind was being punished for his own sins or the sins of his parents, making the false assumption that disease was always a punishment for specific sins. Jesus disabused them of their misconception, pointing out that this particular man’s lifetime of blindness had a great purpose: Jesus was about to heal his blindness and ultimately save his soul. God would get all the glory. The world is cursed because of sin, and sin causes much suffering and even some specific diseases, but Jesus would not allow the disciples to generalize about specific sinful causes for specific handicaps.

God’s purpose in these plagues wasn’t to unfairly punish Pharaoh and his court but to protect Sarah and to force Abraham to own up to the truth. Abraham’s actions served as a poor testimony of God before this pagan king, but God would not allow His long-range plans for sending the Savior through Abraham and Sarah’s descendents to be foiled by Abraham’s cowardice or Pharaoh’s lustful appetite. Pharaoh got to see that Abraham’s God was indeed powerful, a good lesson for any pagan. Pharaoh also saw that the God of Abraham didn’t let him get away with his lie.

Unfortunately, Abraham didn’t learn from the episode and pulled the same stunt in Genesis 20 with Abimelech, king of Gerar; God caused temporary barrenness in that royal house and spoke to that king in a dream. Like father, like son—Abraham’s son Isaac, likely knowing his father’s weakness, tried the same foolish scheme (Genesis 26:7–11). Every time, the liar was embarrassed, and a chance for a believer’s good testimony was lost. Yet God consistently acted to keep His messianic promises despite the failures of His own people.

In the New Testament, Paul reveals that the things in the Old Testament are preserved for our examples (1 Corinthians 10:1–11). In this instance we learn a lot of lessons from Abraham’s immature example. Abraham believed and trusted God, but he had a long way to go in learning to walk in that faith. When he failed, he damaged God’s reputation among unbelievers.

Suffering came into this world at the Fall of Adam and Eve and has been with us ever since. Thus the cause of suffering is ultimately sin. Often the specific sins we commit cause others to suffer. Is that fair? Not really, but it is not unexpected. And sometimes the bad decisions we make, such as the one Pharaoh made on the basis of incorrect information, result in more suffering. Is that fair? Fair or not, it is not unexpected. And in this particular case, the transient suffering God specifically sent to the Egyptian court kept a human deception, combined with a bankrupt cultural practice, from voiding God’s promise to Abraham and His plan for the messianic line.

We can be thankful that nothing Satan or man could do was able to get in the way of God’s plan of the Savior. And we should be reminded that God won’t necessarily bail believers out of our difficulties when we try to do a good thing using sinful ways.


  1. Incidentally, these riches apparently included the slave Hagar, whose presence would later give Abraham and Sarah yet another opportunity to fail to trust God by trying to have a child of promise via concubinage. Their moral failure produced a son, Ishmael, who became a great man and was loved by Abraham but suffered exile along with his mother. The literal man Ishmael became a metaphor for the fruitless works of the flesh described in Galatians 4.


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