Question: "Why did God punish Pharaoh for Abram’s lie (Genesis 12:17)?"
Answer: In Genesis 12, Abram and his wife Sarai (their names were later changed to Abraham and Sarah) traveled to Egypt due to a famine in Canaan. Abram instructed his wife to tell people in Egypt that she was his sister instead of his wife. His reason was to protect himself. Because Sarai was so beautiful, Abram feared someone would kill him and take Sarai as his wife. The plan to pass her off as his sister would ensure that Abram would be well received by those he met.
In Egypt, Sarai’s beauty attracted the attention of Pharaoh, the ruler of that country. Sarai was taken into Pharaoh’s house, and many gifts were given to Abram (Genesis 12:16). Genesis 12:17 says, “But the LORD afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife.” This seems puzzling. After all, the king was the victim of Abram and Sarai’s deceit.
The result of this punishment reveals the reason for it. When Pharaoh realized Sarai was Abram’s wife, he summoned Abram and said, “What is this you have done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife? Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her for my wife? Now then, here is your wife; take her, and go” (Genesis 12:18-19). If God had not caused the plagues to come upon Pharaoh and his household, he may not have known anything was wrong. The affliction led to the discovery that Sarai was Abram’s wife. If Pharaoh had kept Sarai, Abram would not have had a son by Sarai in fulfillment of God’s promise to him (Genesis 12:2; 17:19). Abram was wrong to lie, but God graciously intervened in order to keep His covenant with Abram.
In the end, Pharaoh returned Abram’s wife and provided protection for him: “Pharaoh gave men orders concerning him, and they sent him away with his wife and all that he had” (Genesis 12:20). Despite Abram’s wrongdoing, God worked to fulfill His promise. Abram left Egypt with his wife Sarai, the protection of the king, and added prosperity.
This incident is a good example of how God sometimes allows bad things to take place in someone’s life as part of a larger situation. God used the affliction of Pharaoh’s household to bring about good for Abram. We may not always know why bad things happen, but that does not mean they are without purpose. God has a larger purpose behind everything that takes place in life (Jeremiah 29:11). As Paul taught in Romans 8:28, “We know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”
Abram unwisely trusted in his own cunning to preserve his life, and he was caught in a lie. God proved His strength is perfect and that He is the only One with the power to save. Further, we see God has a greater purpose in all things, including suffering. His will is sovereign, and His Name will be glorified.