Genesis Lesson 20 | 20:1–20:18
Prayerfully read Genesis 20 at least two times and then read the following notes.
Context: Setting the Table
After a stunning introduction, Genesis divides into two unequal halves of five sections each. The first half of the book (2:4–11:26) deals with the history of humanity as a whole, from its creation to the birth of Abram. The second half of the book (11:27–50:26) focuses on the history of the patriarchs. In this eighth installment of the story of Abraham, Sarah is once more placed in danger by the self-protecting lies of her husband.
Content: Reading the Text
This eighth portion of the story of Abraham has a number of connections to the immediately preceding section of the story (chapters 18–19). While we will draw some of these out as we work through the text, seeing them in a list together can be helpful.
1. In both we find men who are willing to sacrifice the honor of a close female relative to protect themselves or other men. (19:8/20:2)
2. A major issue in both sections is the way that sojourners and other strangers are treated. (19:8–9/20:1,11,13)
3. In both we find very similar appeals to the Lord’s justice. (18:25/20:4)
4. Just as Lot is delivered from destruction by Abraham’s intercession, so also is Abimelech. (18:23–33; 19:29/20:17)
5. In both we find serious sexual sin restrained by the miraculous power of God (19:11/20:6,17)
6. Both of these stories take place in regions that were on the borders of the land of Canaan.1
(20:1–7) Sarah is Taken by Abimelech
(20:1) While Sodom was most likely located just past the eastern border of the land of Canaan, Gerar seems to have been located on the western border (Genesis 10:19). Yet though both of them were in regions that were not part of the land that was occupied by the children of Israel, an important point of the story seems to be that it would be a mistake for the Israelites to suspect all foreigners of the debased morals of the men of Sodom.
(20:2a) Though the long range picture given to us in Genesis makes it clear the devastating long-range consequences of Abram and Sarai’s lie in Egypt, it is quite possible that, from his perspective, it had worked out very well. In any case, the spiritual victory of his extraordinary hospitality to the divine messenger and passionate intercession for the righteous of Sodom didn’t keep Abraham from falling back into the very same sin that had marred the beginning of his walk with God.
(20:2b) While there are obviously many similarities between the account of Abraham’s earlier lie in Egypt (Genesis 12:10–20) and the account in the present chapter, there are also a number of differences. The first of these is that, unlike in 12:14, no explicit motivation is given for Abimelech’s “taking” of Sarah.
(20:4) The verb translated here as “come near” is often used as a euphemism for sexual contact (Leviticus 18:14, where it is translated “approach”). The point is that Abimelech had no sexual relations of any kind with Sarah—a vital point to make given the soon-coming birth of Isaac. This explicit denial stands in striking contrast to the silence of chapter 12 on this matter.
(20:6a) Though the Lord agrees with Abimelech that he was ignorant of Sarah’s true identity, he points out that he was the one who withheld Abimelech from sinning against him (see further under verse 17). “The emphasis made here is that Abimelech is not by nature and conviction an individual of high moral principle. It is not any commitment to God that prevents him from sinning. It is the restraints and checks imposed on him by God.”2
(20:6b) Given the way our culture makes light of adultery and other sexual sins, it is important to note that God sees the (potential) adultery of Abimelech as a deadly sin, not just against Abraham and Sarah, but against God himself (see also David’s words in Psalm 51:4). “He now addresses himself, indeed, only to one man; but the warning ought to sound in the ears of all, that adulterers—although they may exult with impunity for a time—shall yet feel that God, who presides over marriage, will take vengeance on them (Hebrews 13:3).3
(20:7) This is the first use in Scripture of the Hebrew word here translated as “prophet.” Despite Abraham’s rather detestable behavior, he remained the one God had chosen to represent him. We who are followers of Jesus remain God’s representatives even when our behavior brings shame to the name of our Master. There will come a day when all of us will stand accountable for those times when our sins and selfish choices placed stumbling blocks in the only path to everlasting life.
(20:8–18) Sarah is Restored by Abimelech
(20:11) With no evidence at all, Abraham assumed that the men of Gerar were of the same moral caliber as the men of Sodom. Even though Abimelech was a pagan king, he had far more morality than Abraham was willing to credit him with. While we must never cease to proclaim that Jesus is the only way to the Father (John 14:6), we must at the same time remember that God gives the goods of his common grace to unbelievers as well as believers (Matthew 5:45). The restraining work of the Spirit ensures that no one is as evil as they could be—which often means that they are not quite as purely evil as we are tempted to assume that they are.
(20:12) As no genealogy is given of Sarah anywhere else, it is at least possible that Abraham’s explanation is a further fabrication on his part.
(20:13a) This verse represents the absolute lowest point of Abraham’s walk with God. The Hebrew noun for “God” is always a plural form in Hebrew. When it refers to the One True God, it is consistently distinguished by the use of a singular verb (Hebrew distinguishes between singular and plural forms much more sharply than does English). However, Abraham uses a plural verb here—exactly the form that a polytheist like Abimelech would use to refer to the actions of the “gods.” If this is not simply a grammatical anomaly, it is a truly shocking concession! Furthermore, the verb translated as “wander” has a strongly negative connotation in every one of its fifty occurrences in the Old Testament—in the prophets it is often used of leading people astray, causing them to wander away from what is good and right. This is hardly an appropriate way to describe God’s work in his life!
(20:13b) “[E]ither Abraham was not being quite truthful in saying this was his usual policy, when he had in fact only once before pretended Sarah was merely his sister, or…he was telling the truth and…wherever he went he misled people about Sarah’s marital status. Neither explanation redounds to Abraham’s credit.”4
(20:14) There is a striking contrast between the gifts of Pharaoh, given while Sarai was still in his harem (12:16), and the gifts of Abimelech, given after Sarah was safely back with Abraham.
(20:15) Whereas Pharaoh drove Abraham out of his land, Abimelech graciously allowed him to stay wherever he wanted.
(20:16) Despite Abimelech’s gracious (and perhaps frightened) generosity, his subtle reference to Abraham as Sarah’s “brother” makes clear his ongoing resentment at the unjust way in which he was hoodwinked. Though the phrase translated, “a covering…with all other” is clearly an idiom of some sort, it is difficult to know exactly what that idiom means. “It is quite likely that some ancient legal formula, not yet discovered, is being used here.”5
(20:17–18) While God had already hinted that he was the one who had kept Abimelech from sinning against him, it is only now made clear how he had done that—by smiting Abimelech and his household with a disease that left them unable to engage in sexual relations. While specific reference is made to the “wombs” of the house of Abimelech, this disease affected the men (20:17) as well and was thus the real reason why Abimelech had not approached Sarah. “Only the restraining providence of God, rather than any moral vigor on Abimelech’s part, deterred Abimelech from sleeping with Sarah.”6
(20:18) “The juxtaposition of Sarah’s pregnancy [21:2] with the outcome of Abraham’s prayer for the Gerarites [20:18] may suggest that the patriarch’s intercession included Sarah.”7
Credo: Believing the Truth
While Abraham’s intercession for the righteous of Sodom and Gomorrah was one of the high points in his walk with God, his renewed betrayal of his wife in Gerar was perhaps the lowest of all. Despite God’s recent repetition of his promises, Abraham once more used his wife as a pawn—endangering her honor for the sake of his own safety. In the face of Abraham’s faithlessness, God remained faithful. Forcibly restraining the lust of Abimelech, he restored an untouched Sarah to her husband. The promises of God could not (and cannot!) be thwarted by the unworthiness of those to whom he made them.
Conduct: Reshaping Our Walk
Discuss the meaning of the text and then walk through the following application questions as you discuss the difference this meaning ought to make in our lives today.
How might we be tempted to abuse God’s grace by returning to sins that we “got away with” in the past?
Examples: Cheating on our tax returns; Inflating our previous accomplishments; Reckless driving etc.
What are some of the ways in which our selfish and sinful conduct could place stumbling blocks in the only path to everlasting life?
Examples: Taking advantage of our co-workers for our own gain; Indulging in petty criticism of other believers to make ourselves look better, etc.
1. list partially based on Hamilton 1995, 58–59 & Sarna 1989, 140
2. Hamilton 1995, 63
3. Calvin 1847, 1.523
4. Wenham 1995, 73
5. Sarna 1989, 144
6. Hamilton 1995, 71
7. Mathews 2005, 249