Abraham’s promised son is only months away but in the meantime an event takes place that shows some lessons are not learned easily. In this second instance of Abraham lying about Sarah for the sake of his own safety, we see the patriarch through whom God will bless the world being faithless, forgetful, and fraudulent, while God responds with only faithfulness and mercy. No matter who is involved, the story throughout the Bible is always the same – selfish and sinful man interacting with perfectly faithful God.
Probably for the sake of pastureland, Abraham travels away from the oaks of Mamre and heads southwest to Gerar. There, showing that the lessons of Egypt are long forgotten, he tells the king of Gerar – Abimelech – that Sarah is his sister. As a result, Abimelech promptly takes Sarah into his harem as his wife.
Several things are worth mentioning here. First, Sarah is 89 or 90 years old (it has been 20+ years since the last time this happened in Egypt). One of two things is true. Either Sarah has amazing beauty that has not declined over time (the fact that later Abraham will claim that he came up with the sister ruse because of her looks argues for a woman of extraordinary beauty that apparently everyone notices), or Abimelech takes her as a wife for the sake of an alliance with the rich and powerful Abraham (note that nothing is said about Sarah’s beauty in this text as opposed to it figuring prominently in the Egypt narrative – 12:14).
Second, do not lose sight of where this occurs in the Abraham story. Since his trip to Egypt he has defeated the four kings of the east, heard a promise from God Himself that Isaac’s birth is only months away (it is supposed to happen within the year) and witnessed the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and God’s protection of Lot. He also knows what happened as a result of using the same lie in Egypt (and how God had to bail him out). He has seen God’s faithfulness and power up close and personally. He knows God protected Lot in the midst of fire and brimstone falling on his home town. So to worry about his safety at this point is nothing short of incredible. By lying to Abimelech Abraham essentially says that God cannot protect him in a strange land and he once again needs to take matters into his own hands. In light of all that’s happened His unfaithfulness and forgetfulness are staggering.
His actions also call into question whether he actually believes God’s promise about Isaac. Remember that he fell down laughing when God said he and Sarah would conceive – 17:17. And Sarah had a similar response when the strangers predicted her pregnancy on their way to Sodom – 18:12. So perhaps neither of them believes it even now. That would explain why they are willing to risk Sarah being taken into the harem and having relations with Abimelech. Their thoughtlessness and short-sightedness are almost incomprehensible. They are months from a goal they’ve had their whole married lives (probably well over 70 years). And they are willing to throw it all away on a harebrained scheme that has absolutely no chance of ending well. [Just as we discussed when we studied the same scenario in Egypt – what does Abraham think will be the end result of his plan? How can it possibly end with Sarah untouched and still married to him?]
God does not wait to see how things end up. Abraham acted on his own but God does not allow the plan to run its course. He visits Abimelech in a dream and states very simply what the situation is. He tells the king, “Behold, you are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is married.” Nothing hard to understand here and nothing veiled. God does not speak in a parable or make it hard for Abimelech to catch His meaning. If Sarah stays in his house he dies.
Abimelech not surprisingly is a little alarmed. He has not touched Sarah and had no idea she is married. The only reason he took Sarah was because Abraham said she was his sister. He is innocent – Abraham deceived him. He explains all this to God and then asks, “Lord, will You slay a nation, even though blameless?” His question is very similar to what Abraham asked God when he found out Sodom was about to be destroyed (18:23). In both cases the question appeals to God’s justice. Will God judge the innocent? Also – notice Abimelech’s actual question. He doesn’t ask about himself – he asks about an innocent nation. He seems to know that God’s threat is more far-reaching than just his own safety.
God tells Abimelech that He does in fact know he is innocent. But then He adds that the reason Abimelech hasn’t touched Sarah is because God didn’t let him. Abimelech is blameless in taking Sarah into his house because Abraham deceived him, but his innocence in behavior toward her only exists because God intervened. He didn’t touch Sarah because God decided he wouldn’t touch Sarah. Later it will come out that God has afflicted Abimelech physically. This is likely the cause of his leaving Sarah alone. [Which again brings up Sarah’s age and physical condition. Apparently Abimelech would have engaged in relations with her apart from God’s intervention. If that is the case, then presumably at 90 she remains physically appealing to a younger man (Abimelech is fathering children so it follows that he is much younger than Sarah), even though she has described herself as worn out (18:12 – ESV). Sarah is a remarkable woman.]
God uses an interesting phrase in His words to Abimelech. He says, “I also kept you from sinning against Me.” He does not say that Abimelech would have sinned against Abraham by sleeping with Sarah. The sin would have been against God. God states what is essentially true of all sin. A sinful act may be against someone or it may not. But it is ALWAYS ultimately against God. Remember David’s words after his sin with Bathsheba – against You, You only I have sinned (Ps 51:4). He destroyed a family, murdered a man and put his entire kingdom at risk, but his real sin was against God. All sin is a declaration of independence from God. All sin is directly opposed to God.
God ends his message to Abimelech with a way out. He tells the king to restore Sarah to Abraham because Abraham is a prophet (first use of the word in the Bible – Abraham is a prophet in the sense that he can intervene for others – as he is about to do) and he will pray for Abimelech’s life. If the king does not restore Sarah, however, then he will die and all his household with him (which goes along with Abimelech’s complaint about an innocent nation).
Abimelech wastes no time complying with God’s command. Early the next morning he calls all of his servants together and tells them what happened with his dream. This frightens the whole household. He then calls for Abraham and asks him why he deceived them. He asks Abraham if he has done anything to him to cause Abraham to bring “on me and my kingdom a great sin.” Notice his use of the word sin. Abraham is about to claim that no one in Gerar fears God. Yet they apparently consider adultery a great sin and they certainly take God’s warning to heart. Perhaps Abraham is the one who does not fear God enough right now.
Abraham answers the king and tells him that he feared for his life because of Sarah. He says that he didn’t think anyone feared God in Gerar (nice condescending insult) so he had to protect himself from those who would kill him for his wife. He also explains that it was not a total lie because Sarah is in fact his half-sister. They have the same father. And since that is the case, he asked her years ago – when God caused me to wander from my father’s house – to claim that Abraham is her brother whenever they entered a strange land. This way he would never lose his life on account of someone desiring her so much they would kill her husband to get her (this points again to her remarkable beauty that apparently ages very well and also to Abraham’s selfishness in asking her to go along with this).
One of the things that is striking about Abraham’s explanation is his lack of regret. He does not apologize at all for his deceit. He rationalizes it – “she really IS my sister” – and explains it as if his behavior was entirely reasonable. There is no sense of repentance or sorrow and no appeal to the king or God for forgiveness. He seems cavalier about all that his plan has brought about (even after God has so clearly intervened on his behalf).
Abimelech does not respond to Abraham’s explanation, but he does give Abraham a large gift. He takes sheep and oxen and male and female servants and gives them to Abraham along with Sarah (every time Abraham lies about Sarah he gets richer – 12:16 – thus it may be hard to fault him for repeating the scheme). He also offers Abraham the chance to settle in his land (interesting that he wants Abraham to stay whereas Pharaoh under the same circumstances threw him out – 12:20).
The king then tells Sarah that he has restored her to her husband along with her reputation. He tells her he has given 1000 pieces of silver (hard to know how much this is, but it apparently is a large amount as Jacob will later buy land for only 100 pieces (shekels) – 33:19 – and Joseph will be sold for 20 – 37:28) to your brother (it is not clear if he means this as a dig or simply thinks of Abraham as her brother more than her husband) as a symbol of her vindication. He did not touch her and she has done nothing wrong and the payment proves it. She is innocent and untouched and therefore fully her husband’s. And – more importantly for the sake of the ongoing narrative – there is no way that anyone other than her husband could be the father of her upcoming child.
As a result of the restoration Abraham does pray for Abimelech as God said he would. He prays and God heals Abimelech (this points to how God kept him from touching Sarah – He likely made it impossible for him to have relations at all) and opens the wombs of Abimelech’s wife and his maids (interesting to consider if Sarah finds it ironic that Abraham can successfully pray for the fertility of someone else while his wife is 90 and barren). That God had closed the wombs of all the women in the king’s household is confusing from a time perspective. How long would Sarah have to have been there for anyone to notice that the women were unable to become pregnant? Perhaps what this means is that God struck the house with infertility and regardless of what effect it had it would have gone on as long as Sarah was there.
Lessons from Genesis 20
Man is forgetful. Abraham forgets all that God has done for him as soon as he sees the danger in Gerar. It is as if all the events of the last 25 years since God called him to Canaan did not occur. So he consequently takes matters into his own hands and puts everything he has lived for at risk. As believers it is critical that we have good memories. It is why God commanded Israel to build monuments and hold festivals. It is why Jesus commanded the church to observe communion. We must remember all the times God has been faithful to us so we have confidence in Him when trials and uncertainty come. Forgetting answers to prayer, protection from harm, provision during lean times, the miracle of the gospel – all lead to a self-centered and self-reliant perspective. It also leads to sin. The longer we serve God the more He will come alongside us and the longer and more vibrant our memories must be. We must build our own monuments to His faithfulness to ensure we don’t forget.
Man is nearsighted. Abraham does not consult God when he comes to Gerar. He simply sees danger and acts to preserve himself. Apart from God we don’t see well. Apart from God we only see what is very close and what affects us directly. We can’t see past problems or see them from the vantage of higher ground. With God’s help we can start to see things as He sees them. Or at least realize He sees them much differently than we do. We must pray through tough times so God can reveal to us the horses and chariots of fire that surround us (II Kings 6:17).
God is faithful and merciful. It is amazing that there is nothing in the story about God responding to Abraham’s deceit at all. He doesn’t take any punitive action and even tells Abimelech his only hope is to have Abraham pray for him. He sees Abraham’s faithlessness and lack of trust and responds only in faithfulness and mercy. He intervenes to protect Sarah and completely bails Abraham out of what could have been a tragic turn of events. And He even enables Abraham to profit materially from the scheme. God’s mercy cannot be overstated. It is one of the facets of our heavenly Father’s nature that the Enemy most wants us to forget. God LOVES His children and wants only what is best for them. And He proved on the cross the lengths He is willing to go to ensure they get it. To tie this in with the first point about memory, we must never forget that it is not justice and retribution that follow us all the days of our life but goodness and mercy (Ps 23:6).