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Deeper Commentary

20:1 Abraham travelled from there toward the land of the South, and lived between Kadesh and Shur. He lived as a foreigner in Gerar- Locating where these places were is not as simple as looking at a "map of Abraham's journeys". The idea may well be that Gerar was "between Kadesh and Shur", the two clauses being in parallel; although that is not how the locations are presented on most maps. In this case, "lived" [Heb. 'settled down'] is parallel with the different Hebrew word translated "lived as a foreigner", or better 'lived temporarily', 'lived as one passing through'. In this case, a powerful lesson emerges: that no matter how stable our living place may appear, even if we lived in the house we were born in all our lives, it is still a passing through, as a foreigner, just temporarily- because the true permanence is yet to come, when the promises to Abraham are fulfilled. See on Gen. 21:34.

20:2 Abraham said about Sarah his wife, She is my sister. Abimelech king of Gerar sent and took Sarah- Gerar was the very place where Isaac also lied about his wife. Abraham had previously been rebuked for doing the very same thing in Gen. 12; but he failed to learn the lesson. Indeed this time he excuses himself by saying that he regularly did this (:13). Abraham like Lot is presented as a man of consistently weak faith and behaviour; and yet he believed God at His word, that he would really be saved, and showed that in the stellar act of obedience in being prepared to offer Isaac. He believed, and demonstrated that faith by that work; but much of the rest of his life isn't presented as being very full of faith. And in this sense he is indeed the father of the faithful- we who likewise are weak, so weak; and yet cling on to God's promise of final salvation, and with a gun at our head, act accordingly.

Abraham's behaviour at this point is particularly awful because Sarah was surely pregnant with the child of promise. Her rejuvenation had made her physically attractive to Abimelech despite her age. At Gen. 17:21 there were 12 months to the birth of Isaac ("My covenant I establish with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you at this set time next year"). By Gen. 18:10, there were 9 months to the birth of Isaac: "I will certainly return to you when the season comes round. Behold, Sarah your wife will have a son". And immediately this incident in Gerar is over, Sarah gives birth (Gen. 21:2). It is natural for all of creation to be protective of the pregnant mother of your child. But Abraham says he fears dying for her. He presents as deeply faithless and selfish. “They will kill me and let you live” (Gen. 12:12) matches his concern here that he not die for his wife. He had clearly not learnt the lesson. If she, as a pregnant woman, was accepted into another man's harem, the consequences for her and the child could have been fatal. For the king would have slept with her and then discovered she was pregnant with another man's child. However it could be that they weren't aware Sarah was pregnant, and lacked the faith to believe she was. In which case, after they realized she had been pregnant at this time, they would have marvelled the more at God's grace.

Abraham is presented as absolutely selfish. Just as in Gen. 12:13 he asks her to lie about their marriage "that it may go well with me because of you". And yet God allowed that to happen: "And it went well with Abram because of her" (Gen. 12:16). Like unbelieving Israel in Egypt, he came up out of Egypt with great wealth. And Abraham at this point also receives great material blessing (:14,16). Just as did Isaac when he lied about his wife, also in Gerar. This all gives the lie to the idea that people get blessed when they are good, and lack of material blessing is due to sin. God's goodness rather is intended to lead to repentance. 

As in Gen. 12, Abraham's fear and deceit is all an outcome of his lack of faith in the promises given to him. And yet Abraham is held up as an example of faith in those promises. Sarah conceived by faith, and Abraham believed the promise that she would. But now they both appear to have collapsed in faith. Either that, or their much lauded "faith" was accompanied with unbelief at the same time. We see here a radically different definition of faith than that which is presented in standard 'religion'. Faith means somehow holding on to trust in God's promise, despite ups and downs, indeed very low moments of loss of that faith. With the exception of the Lord Jesus, human faith / trust in God is not total, nor is faith absolute. It goes up and down over time, and unbelief can exist at the same time as belief; "I believe, help my unbelief" is our cry. It was however by faith that Sarah conceived and bore a child: "Through faith also Sara herself received strength to conceive seed, and was delivered of a child when she was past age, because she judged him faithful who had promised" (Heb. 11:11). And yet her behaviour here, and that of Abraham, seems to lack much faith. Perhaps after the salvation from Abimelech by grace, their faith became very strong at the time Isaac was born. Or it could be that despite their surface level fear and unbelief, they also had a strong faith- and God focused upon that.

20:3 But God came to Abimelech in a dream of the night, and said to him, Behold, you are a dead man, because of the woman whom you have taken. For she is a man’s wife- God told Abimelech that he would surely die, with evident allusion to God’s judgment of Adam; no conditions were stated. But later, it became apparent that the death penalty was conditional upon his not releasing Sarah (:7). Prophetic statements are made in the Bible without the conditions being mentioned; more prophecy is conditional than we might imagine at first encounter with the Bible text.

Abimelech was "a dead man" for taking Sarah, as if although he was alive, for that sin he was in God's eyes condemned and dead. But that verdict for that case was changed by his change of the situation. The unfaithful now walk naked (Rev. 3:17); but they will do so in the final condemnation of Rev. 16:15. They can walk naked now and repent, clothe themselves so as to cover the nakedness of condemnation which they now have; but not then.

20:4 Now Abimelech had not come near her- Repeatedly, the surrounding pagan world is portrayed as being of more integrity than the Abraham family. The conclusion is that the people of God believe in His grace, but sadly aren't necessarily good people; although they ought to be.

He said, Lord, will you kill even a righteous nation?- This was precisely the reasoning of Abraham with God in chapter 18. "Righteous" is the same Hebrew word used by Abraham in Gen. 18:23. Maybe Abimelech had heard of this and was influenced by it, even though he must've thought Abraham was good at his theory but hardly walked the talk in practice. We too must see beyond the hypocrisy of others and be prepared to accept that even they have something to teach us. Or perhaps the similarity is in order to demonstrate the parallels between Abraham and Abimelech; in order to point up the fact that Abraham was not much better than the surrounding chieftains, apart from the fact that he believed in God's grace to save him. And that made all the difference. Abimelech is reasoning that the sinner here is Abraham and / or Sarah; and he like Abraham is interceding for his people as Abraham mediated for Lot. And Abimelech's prayer was heard; Abraham was not destroyed because of Abimelech's intercession. Just as Lot was not destroyed because of Abraham's intercession. The whole incident serves to teach Abraham that despite his peak of faith, devotion and intercession for Lot, he himself is a sinner in need of mediation.

20:5 Didn’t he tell me, ‘She is my sister?’ She, even she herself, said, ‘He is my brother’. In the integrity of my heart and the innocence of my hands have I done this- Despite this innocence, he was but "a dead man" because of his intentions to commit a sin of ignorance (:3). We see here how sensitive God is to human sin; even the intention to sin in ignorance nets death. This gives backdrop and perspective to the vast extent of His grace in forgiving and saving sinful man. And we see too how God still notices and measures sin even amongst Gentiles [cp. the sin of the Amorites reaching a certain point].

20:6 God said to him in the dream, Yes, I know that in the integrity of your heart you have done this, and I also withheld you from sinning against me. Therefore I didn’t allow you to touch her- God will strengthen the heart / spirit of those who try to be strong (Ps. 27:14; 31:24). He can even, somehow, withhold men from sinning, and keep us from falling (Ps. 19:13; 1 Sam. 25:39 s.w.; Jude 24). We should therefore have no essential objection to the idea of the Lord granting us His Spirit, in the sense of His thinking, His heart / mind. For the gift of the Spirit, the blessing to Abraham, is not just forgiveness, but to turn us away from our iniquities (Acts 3:25,6).

20:7 Now therefore, restore the man’s wife. For he is a prophet, and he will pray for you, and you will live. If you don’t restore her, know for sure that you will die, you, and all who are yours- There seems here to be a connection between prayer and God's word being within us- for exactly because Abraham was a prophet, therefore he could pray for Abimelech. Faith comes from our appreciation of the word (Rom. 10:17), and faith is the basis of answered prayer (Mt. 21:22)- to the point that we believe we have received the answer the moment we pray (as in Ps. 56:9). God cried to Israel in the prophetic word, but they would not hear; and so when they cried to Him, He also did not hear (Zech. 7:13). If the Lord's words dwell in us, we will ask what we will, and it will be done. Yet only if we ask according to God's will can we receive our requests (Jn. 15:7 cp. 1 Jn. 5:14). The implication is that if the word dwells in us, our will becomes that of the Father, and therefore our requests, our innermost desires, are according to His will, and are therefore granted. Therefore the word was what directed and motivated David's regular daily prayers (Ps. 119:164); they weren't standard repetitions of the same praises or requests, but a reflection of his Biblical meditation. He asks God to hear his prayers because He keeps God’s word (Ps. 119:145,173).

The language is alluded to in Job 42:10, where Job prays for his friends and they are saved; and later in the Pentateuch we will read of Moses praying for Pharaoh, and having the possibility of obtaining forgiveness for him. Forgiveness is likewise predicated upon the faith and intercession of third parties in Mk. 2:5. This opens up the vista of huge and constant work for us all in praying for others.

"And all who are yours" may seem extreme, a kind of guilt by association. But that principle isn't supported in the Bible. They would've died because they knew Sarah was Abraham's wife, and hadn't spoken out against their master in this matter. Keeping silent about wrongdoing is therefore seen by God as making us culpable for the wrong being done. We think of the price paid by John the Baptist for speaking out against Herod's wrongdoing.

20:8 Abimelech rose early in the morning, and called all his servants, and told all these things in their ear. The men were very scared- As noted on :7, their knowledge of the proposed wrongdoing made them culpable if they didn't speak out against the King if he still went ahead and did it.

20:9 Then Abimelech called Abraham, and said to him, What have you done to us?- This question is always used to elicit confession of sin (note Gen. 3:13; 4:10). It is found in the wife-sister incidents in Gen. 12:18 ["Pharaoh called Abram and said, What is this that you have done to me? Why didn’t you tell me that she was your wife?"] and Gen. 26:10 ["Abimelech said, What is this you have done to us? One of the people might easily have lain with your wife, and you would have brought guilt on us!"]. The similarities between the incidents is clearly intentional, in order to demonstrate how the family of faith simply didn't repent and keep repeating the same moral failures- and yet were accepted because of their faith.

How have I sinned against you, that you have brought on me and on my kingdom a great sin? You have done things to me that ought not to be done!- Abimelech noted that he was "a dead man" (:3) already, and therefore he was guilty of a great sin already- the sin of intending to commit a sin of ignorance. He fully accepted God's standards of judgment and morality in a way which Abraham did not; for he had now multiple times (:13) led Sarah and her suitors into potential sin. Abimelech did this just once, and in ignorance, and is truly penitent and sensitive to God's view of the matter; but Abraham was not. This is the more commendable when we realize that the pagan gods and idols knew nothing of this kind of sensitivity to potential sin.

20:10 Abimelech said to Abraham, What did you see, that you have done this thing?- Abimelech is angry that Abraham has led him into sin (:9 also), and he focuses upon that, rather than the more obvious comment that Abraham was hardly a good husband to Sarah. The Lord likewise taught that one aspect of sexual failure is that it can cause others in some cases to commit adultery (Mt. 5:32).

20:11 Abraham said, Because I thought, ‘Surely the fear of God is not in this place. They will kill me for my wife’s sake’- As noted above, all Abimelech says shows that he did in fact fear God. So the record presents Abraham as wrong and spiritually inferior to Abimelech on some points. And in fact Abraham is saved thanks to Abimelech's intercession for him. Abraham's words appear to be purposefully recorded in such a way as to beg the observation that according to the New Testament, the husband should die for his wife's sake. Abraham is consistently presented as weak and with the fear that comes from lack of faith.

20:12 Besides, she is indeed my sister, the daughter of my father, but not the daughter of my mother; and she became my wife- "Iscah" in Gen. 11:29 is understood by some as another name for Sarah, seeing that she and Abram had the same fathers. The question remains as to why she is given a different name there; and yet if she isn't Sarah, then we wonder why one woman should be singled out for mention, when hardly any other women apart from Sarah are mentioned in the genealogies of Gen. 10 and 11. Such behaviour was condemned under the law of Moses; but we are presented with a man who was in an ongoing situation which broke the law, who attained a righteousness greater than the law. Never was there any hint that Abram should have ended his marriage to Sarah because she was his half sister; and this may have significance for those who consider that marital failure must be put right by separation from current partners.

God clearly and simply promised to make a great nation out of him. But there was a time when his faith in this wavered, and he lied about his wife Sarah, exposing her to great risk, because he feared losing his life more than his wife. She was his half sister (Gen. 20:12), and so he said she was his sister, not his wife... we are left to imagine the complicated thought processes and contorted reasoning that took place within him before finally doing this. He could justify it, apparently. But he would have been better holding to a simple faith in God’s clear statements.

Gen. 20:12,13 could be translated as meaning that Abraham married Sarah at the time he left Ur: “She [Sarah] is indeed my sister, the daughter of my father, but not the daughter of my mother; and she became my wife when it happened that God caused me to wander from my father’s house; at that time, I said to her, ‘This is your kindness which you shall show to me. Everywhere that we go, say of me, He is my brother’”. In this case we see that Abraham didn’t at all leave his family- he married his half sister! In doing so he was repeating the behaviour of his brother in marrying close family relatives-  Nahor married his brother Haran’s daughter (Gen. 11:29). They left Ur and went to live in Haran- and it’s surely not coincidence that they had a brother of the same name, Haran. Surely there was a connection between the man and the city- and that’s where they went to live. This was hardly the individuation from family members which God had required of Abraham.

20:13 It happened, when God caused me to wander from my father’s house, that I said to her, ‘This is your kindness which you shall show to me. Everywhere that we go, say of me, He is my brother’- Abraham's weak attitude to leaving Ur is reflected much later too, when he tells Abimelech that "the gods caused me to wander from my father's house" (Gen. 20:13). The Hebrew ta'ah ("wander") has the idea of wandering aimlessly (Gen. 21:14; 37:15) and even sinning (Is. 53:6). It wasn't a very nice term to use about God's providence. That seems to me to be a believer in a moment of weakness speaking about his faith in very worldly terms, as one pagan to another. He doesn't see his leaving of his father's house as obedience to Divine command and promise; but rather he portrays that response as his being somehow manipulated by the gods, picked up and taken out of the situation. See on Gen. 11:31. The LXX has "when God brought me forth out of the house of my father"; even in this case, we see the emphasis upon God bringing him out to separation from his relatives, rather than his obedience to the call to do so. By saying this, he would be growing closer to appreciating grace; that God caused him to be obedient when he of himself was not. This is the same work of the Spirit which continues in our days. The Gentile believers are in this sense 'made obedient' by the Spirit's work (Rom. 15:18; 1 Pet. 1:2). Truly our salvation is not of works of obedience, lest any man should boast (Eph. 2:9).

Abraham's comment that God caused him to go astray from his father's house would likely have been understood by those who first heard it as a negative reference to God- for the word "gone astray" is used of a lost sheep (Jer. 50:6; Ez. 34:4,16; Ps. 119:176); and it was understood that "A bad shepherd causes a sheep to go astray from the flock because he is careless". Perhaps God recognized Abraham's failure by instructing His people to confess every year that "An Aramean gone astray was my father" (Dt. 26:5). I take this to be a reference to Abraham and not Jacob; for it seems that the people of Aram migrated to Ur, and that Abraham having settled in Padan Aram, Abraham could also for that reason be called an Aramean. So Israel were asked to remember that their forefather Abraham had gone astray both literally and spiritually; and thus Abraham's God was a God of grace, and was thereby their God too.

Our own calling out of this world is likewise a matter of God’s grace; He wishes to save us, and leads us out of situations and into new ones, when we ourselves ought to have made the moves of our own volition. He makes us wander from our father’s house (Gen. 20:13). This is all part of the “blessing” to Abraham, which involves turning us away from sin (Acts 3:25,26). God was the one who brought about Abraham’s obedience. "From thence [Haran]... God removed him into (Canaan)" (Acts 7:4 R.V.).

"This righteousness thou shalt perform to me" (LXX) sounds as if Abraham kidded himself and Sarah that lying was a form of righteousness. And so often in the heat of moments we too are tempted to justify wrong behaviour as being necessary for the cause of righteousness.

Abraham is commended for being a wanderer and sojourner; but this meant he was constantly in new situations. And according to his own words here, he lied each time about his wife. But righteousness was imputed to him, and God focuses upon the positive, as we should with others.

We learn here that Abraham's lying about Sarah had been habitual and frequent; and he had refused to learn the lesson from the incident of Gen. 12 when he lied about Sarah in Egypt. Dishonesty is presented as a characteristic of Abraham and his family. In this light we come to consider his statements as he takes Isaac to be slain: “You stay here with the ass. The boy and I will go up there; we will worship and we will return to you” (Gen. 22:5). He fully intended to sacrifice Isaac. So Abraham expected to return to the servants without Isaac, but he says “we will return” in order to cover his intention of killing Isaac. He lied- rather than having faith that Isaac would be killed by him and then immediately resurrected. And yet he also believed, and his obedience and trust that somehow things would work out is commended and noted by God. He likewise effectively lied to Isaac in answering the question “But where is the sheep for the burnt offering?” (Gen. 22:7).  It was by God's gracious hand that these white lies became prophetic.

All through, we see God eager to detect the faith and spirituality in His people which lay beneath their failures. We should be comforted by this, and view His people likewise. Sarah is commended for obeying Abraham (1 Pet. 3:5,6), and yet her obedience to his commands is only recorded in Genesis in the context of obeying his command to lie. In order to pander to the weakness of his faith and his selfishness. But that obedience is seen by God as commendable. Likewise her mockery of the Angelic promise of pregnancy included the phrase "my lord..." about Abraham; and this too is read so positively. She is a pattern for us in our submission to Jesus as Lord / kurios; when we too are far from totally respectful to Him as we should be. And in fact, contrary to the idealized vision of 1 Pet. 3:5,6, it is all actually the other way around- Abraham hearkens to Sarah, he is submissively obedient to her, to do the wrong things: "Abraham hearkened to the voice of Sarah" (Gen.  16:2) and sleeps with her servant Hagar; he obeys her command to cast Hagar out into the desert (Gen. 16:6), and the Angel confirms this: "Whatever Sarah says to you, obey her voice" (Gen. 21:12).

We can better understand how Abraham and Sarah are held up as examples of sinners to whom righteousness is imputed, by grace but through their faith, however weak that faith was at times, and despite its coexistence with unbelief and unspirituality.

20:14 Abimelech took sheep and cattle, male servants and female servants, and gave them to Abraham, and restored Sarah his wife, to him- Abraham ought to have apologized to Abimelech. But instead Abimelech gives him a present. We see here an example of grace; and how the unbelieving world is favourably contrasted with the family of faith at this time. The same happened in chapter 12. This is all the spirit of going the second mile, offering the undergarment if someone takes your jacket. It leaves us with the upper hand.

20:15 Abimelech said, Behold, my land is before you. Dwell where it pleases you- We would rather expect Abimelech to consider Abraham a hypocrite and leave the area. But rather he seems to want a man of the true God living amongst him; he wasn't fazed by personal hypocrisy, but saw through to the higher truths.

20:16 To Sarah he said, Behold, I have given your brother a thousand pieces of silver- As happened in Genesis 12, and with Isaac when he repeats this sin, the sin is followed by material blessing. This for all time ends the myth that God gives material blessing as a kind of 'well done' for good behaviour. He at times pour out His grace at our weakest moments, as often seen in the lives of the Abraham family. The sum was large- a way of redeeming himself by atonement money from the sin of taking another man's wife. Silver was associated with cleansing properties. It was a 'covering of the eyes' in the sense that in the eyes of the world, he was now exonerated. Again we see the pagan world revealed as being more conscionable than the family of faith.

Or it could be that Abimelech considered that the infertility of his women to have been the result of the 'evil eye' of Sarah, as such beliefs were common- that an evil person looking at someone could impart a curse. But his gift of 1000 pieces of silver would cover her evil eye, so she would not do this again and his women would become fertile again.

Behold, it is for you an adorning of the eyes before all that are with you. In front of all you are reproved- Sarah was “reproved” by King Abimelech for going along with Abraham’s lie about her not being his wife. And yet Kings were reproved for her sake, and were not allowed to do anything harmful to her (Ps. 105:14)! And Abraham reproves Abimelech later- for something Abimelech claimed he had not done (Gen. 21:25). The repeat of the word “reprove” is surely meant to indicate that here is an example of Abraham and Sarah being counted righteous because of their faith- when clearly they were not wholly righteous. Abraham, the man who had to be reproved, was used by God to reprove the man who had reproved him… it would have sounded very hypocritical to Abraham’s neighbours. Yet the point was, that God saw him as being righteous. See on Gen. 26:11.

Concerning not outwardly "adorning", the Greek text in in 1 Pet. 3:4-6 is alluding to the Septuagint of Gen. 20:16, which says that Abimelech told Sarah that he had given Abraham many silver pieces "that these may therefore be for thee to adorn thy countenance"; or in another version of the LXX, "those shall be to thee for the price of thy countenance", as if to say 'this is the cost of being a pretty woman'; the suggestion would be that it was the payment for whoredom, although she had not slept with him. Thus Abimelech is speaking sarcastically (note how he calls Abraham "your brother", referring to Sarah and Abraham's family relationship). It was a custom for married women to wear their silver pieces on their face (cp. Lk. 15:8). Presumably she had taken these off, in order to appear single and sexually available. Abimelech is saying: "I've given your so-called 'brother' Abraham 1000 silver pieces, so just make sure you wear them in future and don't lead any more men into sin". And what does the Spirit comment? "Thus she was reproved". Her willingness to pretend she was single and not refusing the sexual advances of Abimelech can only be seen in a negative light from the Genesis record. She lacked continued faith in the promises of a seed, and she disregarded God's marriage principles for the sake of an all too convenient 'obedience' to her husband. It may have been that she regarded her inability to have children as partly his fault (cp. the deadness of Abraham's body, Rom. 4:19). The thing is, she had already shown enough faith to conceive (Heb. 11:11), and presumably the effect of this was seen in the physical rejuvenation of her body, which made her so attractive to men, although she was 90 years old. Both Sarah and Abraham had shown faith, she was living with her own body as the constant reminder of God's faithfulness, and yet in the incident with Abimelech she wavered and had to be reproved. Yet she is seen in a positive light by the Spirit; her lack of wearing ornaments, even though it was to show she was single, is commended; as is her obedience to her husband, even though she was reproved for this. The point is, like all of us, her motives were probably mixed. She did want to be truly obedient to Abraham, she did want to have a meek spirit rather than outward adorning. Her wrong motives surfaced, and were rebuked. But God saw deep inside her heart, and saw the good motives, and drags them out and holds them up as an example.

"And speak the truth in all things" (LXX) would be a well deserved and stinging rebuke to her; for even today in Semitic cultures, to call someone a liar to their face is an insult.

20:17 Abraham prayed to God. God healed Abimelech, and his wife, and his female servants, and they bore children- See on Gen. 45:5. This is the language of Job praying for his friends; see on :7. Abraham's weakness leads Abimelech's wives to become barren; yet through the faith and prayer of an undoubtedly spiritually weak Abraham, their fertility is restored. Again, God was teaching Abraham through circumstances. It could also be reasoned from Gen. 20:6 that God weakened Abimelech's body so that he had no sexual desire for Sarah- and again, this was to teach Abraham the impotent old man that virility and conception is a gift which God can give and take at ease. The wonderful thing is that all these lessons were taught to Abraham through the incident of lying about and betraying his wife, which shows the weakness of his faith in God's promises. The way God works with and through human weakness is awesome.

20:18 For Yahweh had closed up tight all the wombs of the house of Abimelech, because of Sarah, Abraham’s wife- Time and again Biblical history demonstrates that sins of silence and omission are just as fatal as sins of public, physical commission. Sarah omitted to say that Abraham was her husband; and was reproved. Abraham’s lie about Sarah and unfaithfulness to his marriage covenant with her became a source of God’s blessing and the curing of  Abimelech’s wife from infertility (I read her infertility as a state that existed prior to the incident with Abraham). The righteousness of God becomes available to us exactly because we have sinned and come short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23,24). God works out His plan of salvation actually through man’s disobedience rather than his obedience. As Paul puts it again, we are concluded in unbelief, that God may have mercy (Rom. 11:32). It was and is the spirit of Joseph, when he comforted his brothers: “Now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life” (Gen. 45:5). And again, speaking about the sin of Israel in rejecting Christ: “Their trespass means riches for the [Gentile] world” (Rom. 11:12).