Abraham & Abimelech
Genesis 20. In this chapter we find that unbelief is once again at work in Abraham’s life. He had experienced tremendous blessing in the previous chapters, enjoying several appearances of the Lord and communion with Him. Now Abraham has a relapse into an old weakness. He denies his relationship to Sarah again. Apparently, after the humiliating experience in Egypt (Genesis 12), Abraham had not fully judged the root of the failure. When we do not judge the root of our failures, they are bound to come up again in our lives. Often our greatest failures follow on the heels of our greatest successes. This issue of fearing that he would be killed for his wife was something Abraham struggled with for many years. And because he couldn’t learn his lesson, his son Isaac picked up the same weakness as we find later (Gen. 26:7), although Isaac went a step further in that calling Rebekkah his “sister” wasn’t even a half-truth; it was an outright lie. As parents, failure to judge evil in our own lives can result on our children taking up with the same evil in a more advanced form. In spite of the failures, we seen in this chapter that those of faith possess a certain moral dignity in the sight of God. This is seen in the way God speaks about Abraham to Abimelech, calling him a prophet, etc. In a parallel sense, even when we Christians fail and need to be rebuked, we still stand before God in all the dignity and favor of His Son!
Abraham goes to Gerar and Calls Sarah his Sister (20:1-2)
1 And Abraham departed thence towards the south country, and dwelt between Kadesh and Shur, and sojourned at Gerar. v.1 Abraham Leaves His Place of Communion. We cannot be completely sure why Abraham left his place in Hebron to dwell in the south country. This direction “south” is the same path he took twenty-five years earlier, when led him to Egypt. He does not go all the way to Egypt this time, but he does dwell “between Kadesh and Shur”, which is modern-day Gaza, the land of the Philistines. The Philistines later became a great enemy of Israel. The Philistines are a type of religious flesh; i.e. the tendency within each one of us to carry on an outward form of Godliness, while denying the power thereof (2 Tim. 3:5). They had migrated from Egypt (a type of the world) to Canaan without crossing the Red Sea (a type of the death of Christ). Gerar was like the border of Egypt, and dwelling there is a picture of world-bordering; i.e. living as close as we can to the world without being in it. The path of communion is a blessed path, but often we weary of it, because “the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matt. 26:41), and “all flesh is grass” (Isa. 40:6). Perhaps Abraham grew restless, and wanted to see some new country. Perhaps he was troubled by the recent judgments in Canaan. Yet we read of no word from the Lord for him to move. Note that Gerar is the same place where Isaac later dwelt, had his own failures, and had conflict the Philistines (Gen. 26).
2 And Abraham said of Sarah his wife, She is my sister. And Abimelech the king of Gerar sent and took Sarah. v.2 Denying His True Relationship. This is at least the second time Abraham had denied his relationship with Sarah. We find in v.13 that this was his general practice, wherever they traveled. In vv.11-13, Abraham reveals his motivations for doing this. As we noted in ch.12, what Abraham said was not an outright lie, because we find that Sarah was Abram’s half-sister (v.12). She was his sister, but that was not the highest relationship! Sometimes we can do the same thing with our relationship to Christ. When we get into a fleshly mode of living, we feel the shame of the cross, and might be unwilling to confess Him as our Lord and our Savior (Gal. 5:11). Abimelech1 was a man of the flesh, and he saw a beautiful woman (we gather from v.16 that Sarah was still very attractive in spite of her 89 or 90 years), and took her for himself. He acted in lust, and made a mistake he didn’t know he was making. There may have been other motivations for taking Sarah as well as her beauty, such as alliances. How could Sarah still be beautiful when she had described herself as “old” in ch.18? Several of the Rabbis taught that in order to prepare her body for childbirth, the Lord caused Sarah to be rejuvenated.2 Scripture is silent on the issue. Whether she was rejuvenated, or whether she simply possessed remarkable beauty and fitness, she was still an attractive woman at 90. We might be shocked at how little resistance Abraham put up when Abimelech took Sarah. He was her husband, but he behaved weak and spineless! This is what happens when unbelief takes hold of us: we became afraid without reason.
God Appears to Abimelech (20:3-8)
Sarah, a type of Grace. In Galatians 4 we find that Sarah is a type of grace, in contrast to Hagar who is a type of the law. Applying that typical meaning to this chapter, we can glean some helpful principles. In the following verses we find that God would not let Abimelech touch Sarah. He could admire her, but God would not allow it to go further. If we consider Abimelech as a type of the flesh, we can see how this illustrates the relationship between the flesh and grace. A man in the flesh may admire what grace can do, but it is not possible for them to really understand or enjoy grace for themselves. It is a treasure for faith alone, of which Abraham is a type.
3 But God came to Abimelech in a dream by night, and said to him, Behold, thou art but a dead man, because of the woman that thou hast taken; for she is a man’s wife. v.3 Another man’s wife. God intervened in what could have been a disastrous situation. He appeared to Abimelech in a dream, and warned him that Sarah was another man’s wife. Although Abraham had not protected Sarah, God had not forsaken her. This also shows that marriage is not merely a social construct. Marriage is something that God takes very seriously.
4 But Abimelech had not come near her. And he said, Lord, wilt thou also kill a righteous nation? 5 Did he not say to me, She is my sister? and she, even she said, He is my brother. In the integrity of my heart and in the innocency of my hands have I done this. vv.4-5 Abimelech’s Integrity. The king defended himself, explaining that he was righteous in this matter, because he did not know that Sarah was married. He had it in the mouth of two witnesses that Sarah was Abraham’s sister; “Did he not say to me, She is my sister? and she, even she said, He is my brother.” Husband and wife had agreed together to lie, reminding us of Ananias and Saphira in Acts 5. How sad when, in interactions between believers and the world, the world is more righteous.
6 And God said to him in a dream, I also knew that thou didst this in the integrity of thy heart, and I, too, have withheld thee from sinning against me: therefore have I not suffered thee to touch her. v.6 God’s Sovereignty. Often things man would take credit for under responsibility are later shown to be the decree of God’s sovereignty. God was not ignorant of Abimelech’s integrity. But regardless of the king’s intentions, if he had touched Sarah, the Lord would have smitten him. God says “I too”. Whatever our integrity may be, it is nothing compared to God’s. Sarah was Abraham’s wife, and Abraham was God’s friend. To touch her was to sin against God! “For he that toucheth you toucheth the apple of his eye” (Zech. 2:8). The Lord was now in a covenant relationship with Abraham. In ch.12, Pharaoh took Sarai “as his wife”, which involves touching her. Pharaoh’s house was plagued as a result. But here God would not let Abimelech even touch Sarah, who may very well have been pregnant at this time with Isaac. As a broader principle, this shows that the sin of adultery is not only sin against a fellow man (Prov. 6:27-35), it is also sin against God (Psa. 51:4). Abraham and Sarah did not realize that the Lord was protecting Sarah. Afterwards they may have looked back and realized that the Lord was protecting them, and that apart from His sovereignty, things could have turned out very badly. The same is true with us, in many situations that we find ourselves in through unbelief; because the angels are “all ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation” (Heb. 1:14).
7 And now, restore the man’s wife; for he is a prophet, and will pray for thee, that thou mayest live. And if thou do not restore her, know that thou shalt certainly die, thou and all that is thine. v.7 Abraham a prophet. In this chapter we have Abraham’s settled place of favor in God’s sight, in spite of his failures. God reveals that Abraham is a prophet; i.e. one who had a special channel of communication with God. Abimelech and his people would be spared through the intercession of Abraham! God made sure the king knew that his life depended on it. This is the character of God, acting in defense of His own in respect to the world; “He suffered no man to do them wrong: yea, he reproved kings for their sakes, saying, Touch not mine anointed, and do my prophets no harm” (1 Chron. 16:21-22). We see a similar thing with John the Baptist, when he had his doubts, the Lord rebuked him, but then immediately and vigorously defended John to the crowds, saying, “What went ye out into the wilderness to see? a reed moved about by the wind?” etc. (Matthew 11). In a similar way, our failures as Christians do nothing to change the place of dignity and favor that we have as sons before the Father!
8 And Abimelech rose early in the morning, and called all his servants, and spoke all these words in their ears; and the men were greatly afraid. v.8 Abimelech acts quickly. It is evident that Abimelech believed God, because he “rose early in the morning” to tell what he had heard.
Abimelech reproaches Abraham (20:9-16)
9 And Abimelech called Abraham and said to him, What hast thou done to us? And in what have I sinned against thee, that thou hast brought on me, and on my kingdom, a great sin? Thou hast done to me deeds that ought not to be done. 10 And Abimelech said to Abraham, What hast thou seen that thou hast done this? vv.9-10 Abimelech accuses Abraham. Before restoring Sarah, Abimelech had a few pointed questions for Abraham. What have you done to us? What did I do to deserve this? These were difficult questions, and the brought out the humbling truth from Abraham. So it is with the Church, which has denied her true relationship to Christ, and has sought a place of association with the world for material protection. The world, sad to say, knows better than believers that such an association is wrong.
11 And Abraham said, Because I said, Surely the fear of God is not in this place, and they will kill me for my wife’s sake. 12 But she is also truly my sister, the daughter of my father, but not the daughter of my mother; and she became my wife. 13 And it came to pass when God caused me to wander from my father’s house, that I said to her, Let this be thy kindness which thou shalt shew to me: at every place whither we shall come, say of me, He is my brother. vv.11-13 Abraham explains his actions. The whole truth comes out, in quite a humiliating way, before the Gentile king. The fact that Sarah was Abraham’s half-sister was no excuse for him to omit the fact that she had become his wife. Fear was Abraham’s motive; fear enabled by unbelief. See how unbelief had colored his view of history? God’s calling him was now God causing him to “wander” from his father’s house. Abraham reveals that, from the very beginning, he had a besetting fear that he would be killed by other men for his wife. He struggled with trusting the Lord to preserve her. Instead, through unbelief, Abraham had twice exposed Sarah to serious harm. This humiliation was allowed by God so that Abraham would judge not only the sin, but also the root of the sin.
14 And Abimelech took sheep and oxen, and bondmen and bondwomen, and gave them to Abraham, and restored him Sarah his wife. 15 And Abimelech said, Behold, my land is before thee: dwell where it is good in thine eyes. vv.14-15 Abimelech restores Sarah. As the Lord had commanded him, Abimelech restored Sarah to Abraham, and also gave him many other gifts as a peace offering, including the choice of all his lands.
16 And to Sarah he said, Behold, I have given thy brother a thousand pieces of silver; behold, let that be to thee a covering of the eyes, in respect of all that are with thee, and with all; and she was reproved. v.16 Abimelech reproves Sarah. I admit that it is difficult to know exactly what this verse means. First, it is good to understand that what Abimelech says to Sarah is a reproof to her; “and she was reproved”. Secondly, after learning the Abraham was Sarah’s husband, Abimelech refers to him as “thy brother”, using Sarah’s own words in his rebuke. This shows that there was a level of sharpness in his tone. Third, the “covering of the eyes” is most likely an allusion to a veil, which was often used to guard a woman’s beauty, as in the case of Rebecca (Gen. 24:65). So with these things in mind, we can see that Abimelech was really rebuking both Abraham and Sarah. Abraham should have been a “covering of the eyes” to his wife. He should have been jealous of her beauty, which was intended for him alone. But also, Sarah should have guarded her own beauty. The mistake had cost Abimelech greatly. In a bit of irony, he essentially says “Use this thousand pieces of silver as a veil”, or “here is some money, go buy yourself a covering”, so that her beauty would be guarded from those around her. It was a reproof Sarah needed to hear, and one the Church should hear as well. The Church’s affections belong to Christ alone; we are His bride. We have no business taking up associations with the world – even with the religious world – for protection.3
Abraham prays for Abimelech (20:17-18)
17 And Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Abimelech, and his wife and his handmaids, and they bore children. 18 For Jehovah had fast closed up all the wombs of the house of Abimelech because of Sarah Abraham’s wife. vv.17-18 Abraham prays for Abimelech. As the Lord had said, Abraham prayed for Abimelech, and the fertility of his women were restored. Perhaps this is picture of how the Church, in the Millennium, will be the intermediary channel of blessing to the world. The world during the years of the Church’s failure has existed in a state of death, but under the reign of Christ and His co-heirs, the desert will blossom like a rose!
- The kings of the Philistines were called “Abimelech”, a title meaning “my father is king”. At some points, the kings of Israel were named after this title, and it was not to their credit.
- Rav Chisda. Talmud: Baba Metzia. 87a
- What a veil Abraham had been to his poor wife! He had better buy a veil for her with the thousand pieces of silver. It was a keenly cutting condemnation — a rebuke no doubt addressed to Sarah, but how it must have touched Abraham to the quick! – Kelly, William. Lectures Introductory to the Pentateuch.