Scarcely had Abraham established himself in Canaan, when a devastating famine broke out--one of the ten God appointed famines for the chastisement of men. The first of them came in the time of Adam, when God cursed the ground for his sake; the second was this one in the time of Abraham; the third compelled Isaac to take up his abode among the Philistines; the ravages of the fourth drove the sons of Jacob into Egypt to buy grain for food; the fifth came in the time of the Judges, when Elimelech and his family had to seek refuge in the land of Moab; the sixth occurred during the reign of David, and it lasted three years; the seventh happened in the day of Elijah, who had sworn that neither rain nor dew should fall upon the earth; the eighth was the one in the time of Elisha, when an ass's head was sold for fourscore pieces of silver; the ninth is the famine that comes upon men piecemeal, from time to time; and the tenth will scourge men before the advent of Messiah, and this last will be "not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord."
The famine in the time of Abraham prevailed only in Canaan, and it had been inflicted upon the land in order to test his faith. He stood this second temptation as he had the first. He murmured not, and he showed no sign of impatience toward God, who had bidden him shortly before to abandon his native land for a land of starvation. The famine compelled him to leave Canaan for a time, and he repaired to Egypt, to become acquainted there with the wisdom of the priests and, if necessary, give them instruction in the truth.
On this journey from Canaan to Egypt, Abraham first observed the beauty of Sarah. Chaste as he was, he had never before looked at her, but now, when they were wading through a stream, he saw the reflection of her beauty in the water like the brilliance of the sun. Wherefore he spoke to her thus, "The Egyptians are very sensual, and I will put thee in a casket that no harm befall me on account of thee." At the Egyptian boundary, the tax collectors asked him about the contents of the casket, and Abraham told them he had barley in it. "No," they said, "it contains wheat." "Very well," replied Abraham, "I am prepared to pay the tax on wheat." The officers then hazarded the guess, "It contains pepper!" Abraham agreed to pay the tax on pepper, and when they charged him with concealing gold in the casket, he did not refuse to pay the tax on gold, and finally on precious stones. Seeing that he demurred to no charge, however high, the tax collectors, made thoroughly suspicious, insisted upon his unfastening the casket and letting them examine the contents. When it was forced open, the whole of Egypt was resplendent with the beauty of Sarah. In comparison with her, all other beauties were like apes compared with men. She excelled Eve herself. The servants of Pharaoh outbid one another in seeking to obtain possession of her, though they were of opinion that so radiant a beauty ought not to remain the property of a private individual. They reported the matter to the king, and Pharaoh sent a powerful armed force to bring Sarah to the palace, and so bewitched was he by her charms that those who had brought him the news of her coming into Egypt were loaded down with bountiful gifts.
Amid tears, Abraham offered up a prayer. He entreated God in these words: "Is this the reward for my confidence in Thee? For the sake of Thy grace and Thy lovingkindness, let not my hope be put to shame." Sarah also implored God, saying: "O God, Thou didst bid my lord Abraham leave his home, the land of his fathers, and journey to Canaan, and Thou didst promise him to do good unto him if he fulfilled Thy commands. And now we have done as Thou didst command us to do. We left our country and our kindred, and we journeyed to a strange land, unto a people which we knew not heretofore. We came hither to save our people from starvation, and now hath this terrible misfortune befallen. O Lord, help me and save me from the hand of this enemy, and for the sake of Thy grace show me good."
An angel appeared unto Sarah while she was in the presence of the king, to whom he was not visible, and he bade her take courage, saying, "Fear naught, Sarah, for God hath heard thy prayer." The king questioned Sarah as to the man in the company of whom she had come to Egypt, and Sarah called Abraham her brother. Pharaoh pledged himself to make Abraham great and powerful, to do for him whatever she wished. He sent much gold and silver to Abraham, and diamonds and pearls, sheep and oxen, and men slaves and women slaves, and he assigned a residence to him within the precincts of the royal palace. In the love he bore Sarah, he wrote out a marriage contract, deeding to her all he owned in the way of gold and silver, and men slaves and women slaves, and the province of Goshen besides, the province occupied in later days by the descendants of Sarah, because it was their property. Most remarkable of all, he gave her his own daughter Hagar as slave, for he preferred to see his daughter the servant of Sarah to reigning as mistress in another harem.
His free-handed generosity availed naught. During the night, when he was about to approach Sarah, an angel appeared armed with a stick, and if Pharaoh but touched Sarah's shoe to remove it from her foot, the angel planted a blow upon his hand, and when he grasped her dress, a second blow followed. At each blow he was about to deal, the angel asked Sarah whether he was to let it descend, and if she bade him give Pharaoh a moment to recover himself, he waited and did as she desired. And another great miracle came to pass. Pharaoh, and his nobles, and his servants, the very walls of his house and his bed were afflicted with leprosy, and he could not indulge his carnal desires. This night in which Pharaoh and his court suffered their well deserved punishment was the night of the fifteenth of Nisan, the same night wherein God visited the Egyptians in a later time in order to redeem Israel, the descendants of Sarah.
Horrified by the plague sent upon him, Pharaoh inquired how he could rid himself thereof. He applied to the priests, from whom he found out the true cause of his affliction, which was corroborated by Sarah. He then sent for Abraham and returned his wife to him, pure and untouched, and excused himself for what had happened, saying that he had had the intention of connecting himself in marriage with him, whom he had thought to be the brother of Sarah. He bestowed rich gifts upon the husband and the wife, and they departed for Canaan, after a three months' sojourn in Egypt.
Arrived in Canaan they sought the same night-shelters at which they had rested before, in order to pay their accounts, and also to teach by their example that it is not proper to seek new quarters unless one is forced to it.
Abraham's sojourn in Egypt was of great service to the inhabitants of the country, because he demonstrated to the wise men of the land how empty and vain their views were, and also he taught them astronomy and astrology, unknown in Egypt before his time.