Some people wish the world were simple. That we could easily divide the world up into good people and bad people, and maybe it would be nice if people of our faith were always good, and people outside the faith were always bad. That would be simple wouldn’t it? And wouldn’t it be great is once a person came to faith, they continually walked forward into greater measures of obedience and maturity and never took a step back or failed or let others down, or struggled. That would be a simple world. But that’s not the world the Bible describes. That is not the world we live in. We live in a world of moral complexity, a world in which good people do bad things, and bad people surprise us, a world in which people of faith are also people of deep failing, and a world in which our progress toward maturity often takes great detours. this reality underscores the fact that in the Bible, no one is truly good, but God alone. He is the only hero, the only one who does not fail. Our pride does not like to hear that reminder, but the reality is that sin has affected and infect every part of our being, every aspect of our human experience, and therefore the simple work of right and wrong, good and evil, faith and failing becomes infinitely more complex.
Genesis 20 is one of these reminders. Nearly everything in this chapter challenges our desire to keep morally and humanity in simple little boxes. We don’t know why Abraham leaves Mamre to end up in Gerar. Some think he left out of grief over Lot, whom he assumed was swept away in Sodom. Some think that the destruction of the cities in the valley would have caused environmental damage to the air or soil quality in the region, and so he had to leave for some time for the sake of his herds. Whatever the reason of his departure, we have already observed a pattern in the life of Abraham that is true here as well, Abraham’s proximity to Canaan seems to be tied to Abraham’s spiritual vitality. And we’ll see in this chapter that Abraham is at one of his lowest points spiritually.
Abraham, the man of faith, falls yet again into familiar sin
The first and most obvious thing that jumps out of this story is that Abraham repeats his actions in Genesis 12, in going to a foreign land, and telling the people there that Sarah, his wife, is his sister. The first time, we may have understood - he’s new to this following God thing, he’s still thinking like a Babylonian, God hasn’t specifically told him that Sarah was a part of his call. But this time he’s been walking with God for 30 years, you’d think he’d know better by now. He’s listened to God, expressed his doubts to God, had high points with God. He was literally visited by God only a short while ago and was told that Sarah, his wife, will bear him a son, THE son, the son of the promise. In fact when I fist outlined the book of Genesis I had the order mixed up - I thought he did this after Sarah had already given him the son. Like, ok, I get that - its a jerk thing to do, but maybe I could understand that he thought that Sarah had served her purpose and let her go. But this episode happens less than three months after God tells him explicitly that Sarah will have his son this year. You’d think with that promise, Abraham would be more diligent to protect his wife - which leads me to believe that this is the lowest point in Abraham’s faith, for he is completely ignoring the word of God over him.
So his wife is taken by this man Abimelech. God appears to Abimelech and tells him what is going on and Abimelech confront Abraham. Abraham is called out for his sin by an unbeliever
20:9 Then Abimelech called Abraham and said to him, “What have you done to us? And how have I sinned against you, that you have brought on me and my kingdom a great sin? You have done to me things that ought not to be done.” 10 And Abimelech said to Abraham, “What did you see, that you did this thing?”
Have you ever been called out for your sin by someone who doesn’t share you faith? It’s kind of humiliating. However, the shame in being called out does not compare with how shameful Abraham reacts.
11 Abraham said, “I did it because I thought, ‘There is no fear of God at all in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife.’ 12 Besides, she is indeed my sister, the daughter of my father though not the daughter of my mother, and she became my wife. 3 And when God caused me to wander from my father’s house, I said to her, ‘This is the kindness you must do me: at every place to which we come, say of me, “He is my brother.”’”
He acted out of fear and bias. Abraham admits that he had prejudged the citizens of Gerar and reasoned that he had to take such extreme measures because of how godless they are.
He makes excuses: He says, I wasn’t exactly lying, she’s my half sister. Yeah that’s not how to respond when people call you out for your sin.
He doubles down: He says this is his common practice. Which contradicts what we have seen in Scripture, so either Abraham is lying here and minimizing his sin, or he’s telling the truth, and he’s lied in every city Sarah and him have ravelled, either way, not a good way to respond when confronted. If you mom came to you and said, “I caught you in a lie! How could you lie to me like that?” It doesn’t help to say, “but mom, I lie to every body!”
However, verse 13 contains the most chilling part of Abraham’s spiritual state at this time. Look at how Abraham describes God’s calling him out of Ur: And when God caused me to wander from my father’s house.” Two chilling things here. First, Abraham denies the Lord. Our English translations do not capture the Hebrew well here. Abraham does not say, God caused me to wander. He says, the gods caused me to wander. This is the only time in scripture in which the majesty of the divine, eternal, monotheistic God is reduced to just a member of the pantheon of the gods, and it comes in Abraham’s mouth. Second, the phrase “caused me to wander” suggests an aimlessness - meaning this, Abraham has denied his call. Yes, this chapter is Abraham’s lowest point.
Abimelech, the Canaanite King, possesses out-of-place integrity
Abraham’s words were that there was no fear of God in that place. He’s just seen the wicked cities of the valley destroyed, swept away by God’s judgement. Remember also, Moses is writing to a generation of Israelites who experienced oppression a the hands of the Egyptians and were being prepared to enter into the promised land, displacing the peoples dwelling their as an act of God’s judgement. And so both within the context of the story and the context of the original readers, there would have been a natural tendency to write off all the Canaanites as worthless and terrible monsters. Yet everything in this chapter points to Abimelech as a man of such integrity that he puts Abraham to shame. When God comes to Abimelech in the dream, revealing to him that he has taken another man’s wife as his own, Abimelech asks God a question similar to the questions that were raised by Abraham a few charters earlier: “Lord, will you kill an innocent people?” It’s not that Abimelech is morally perfect, it is that he has not knowingly committed that sin. Indeed, Moses is clear that Abimelech had not touched Sarah. Yes, he took her into his house as a wife, but did not consummate the marriage. The Lord confirms this in verse 6, “Then God said to him in the dream, “Yes, I know that you have done this in the integrity of your heart, and it was I who kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I did not let you touch her.” Now we don’t know exactly how God kept Abimelech from touching Sarah, but it seems that some sort of sickness had overtaken the women of Abimelech’s household so that they could not bear children, and perhaps the sickness was of a sort that prohibited sexual relations. In any case, God warns Abimelch that he must return Sarah to Abraham or it will result in the death of Abimelech and those in his household. Ignorance is not an excuse to continue in sin once the sin has been brought to light.
And so, in complete contrast to Abraham’s expectantion that there would be no fear of God in that place, we read in Gen. 20:8 So Abimelech rose early in the morning and called all his servants and told them all these things. And the men were very much afraid.
At the end of this episode, Abimelech demonstrates his character once more, Gen. 20:14:
Then Abimelech took sheep and oxen, and male servants and female servants, and gave them to Abraham, and returned Sarah his wife to him. 15 And Abimelech said, “Behold, my land is before you; dwell where it pleases you.” 16 To Sarah he said, “Behold, I have given your brother a thousand pieces of silver. It is a sign of your innocence in the eyes of all who are with you, and before everyone you are vindicated.”
Abimelech gives to Abraham an extraordinary amount of money and gifts, even giving him his choice of land on which to dwell, all to vindicate Sarah, and make restitution for having taken her into his home. He is extraordinarily gracious to Abraham and Sarah, only allowing himself one parting dig at Abraham’s character, in saying to Sarah,“Behold, I have given your brother a thousand pieces of silver.” Can you blame him?
And so again, this chapter causes us to wrestle with some realities of God’s working among mankind. Where we see in Abraham how pervasive sin is in us who walk by faith, Abimelech the Canaanite King surprises us with his character and integrity. What Does This Mean to Us?
1. God’s rules apply to everyone equally, believers and unbelievers alike One of the things we see in Genesis is that God is God over all the earth, both over those who follow him and those who do not, and therefore God holds all men accountable to his moral law, no matter where they live or whom they worship. Murder is murder no matter where you are on earth, no matter what label you give it. Adultery is adultery no matter how conditioned the culture is to accept it.
2. There is a light of conscience in all Not only does God hold all man accountable to his rules, he also by his common grace puts within each man an ability to know and affirm what is right and to provoke our moral reasoning. Paul writes of the light of conscience in Romans 2.
Romans 2:14 For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them 16 on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.
3. God restrains sin that man may not carry out all the wickedness of his heart In one of the most revealing parts of this passage, the Lord says, “it was I who kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I did not let you touch her.” Abimelech was unaware of God’s restraining grace, the grace that kept him from sinning against Sarah. It is a work of God’s grace that sin is restrained in the world, that we do not or are not capable of acting out all the wicked designs of our heart. And here is where theologians have made that helpful distinction between total depravity and absolute depravity. Total depravity is the reality that after the fall of Adam and Eve, every aspect of our humanity is touched by and tainted by sin, so that there is nothing that we can do in absolutely purity of heart, and nothing we can do to redeem ourselves out of this condition. This is the biblical record of mankind. However, total depravity is contrasted with absolute depravity, in which every person is as wicked as he or she can possibly be and engages in every possible form of sin.
4. The Integrity of Unbelievers Will At Times Put the Integrity of Believers to Shame
Because of the light of conscience and God’s restraining grace, we should not be surprised when we meet unbelievers of exceptional moral character like Abimelek, even those who put us to shame. God may even use these to prod us toward holiness.
Some of our friends may even say to us something like, “See I don’t need God to be a moral person.” and yet they are ignorant of the sense of morality within them, and the restraints God has placed on them, even in their unbelief.
5. All fall short of God’s glory, there is none righteous
While Abimelek is presents to us as surprising in his character and integrity, yet he is not a perfect man. There are no perfect people in the scripture. He still had multiple wives for himself. He was a slaveholder. Were it not for God’s restraint, he would have taken Sarah to himself. The scritural truth is that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, Jew, Gentile, all have sinned.
6. Only an act of God’s particular grace can save
If we just had Genesis 20, we may find it peculiar that God has Abraham pray for Abimelech at the end of the chapter. Yet it must be set in the story line of the scripture. God tells Abimelech in his dream that Abraham is a prophet - its the first time that the word is used in the scripture, though we have seen Abraham act in prophetic ways a number of times up until this point - having visions of God, interceding for the people of Sodom and Gomorrah. But Abraham is definitely not living up to any sort of standard you would expect from a man of God. And yet, God tells Abimelech that Abraham must pray for him, and so he does, and the women are healed.
Abraham must pray for Abimelech, because Abraham is the one chosen, and an act entirely of God’s grace, before Abraham was a man of faith or failing, he was chosen by God to be the one through whom the nations of the earth would be blessed. This is part of the storyline of humanity recorded in the scripture, that though mankind turns away in their sin, God will bring about the redemption of mankind through the deliverer, Messiah, the son of Abraham, whom God would send to the world.
Thus Abraham is not asked to pray for Abimeleck because of his own righteousness or morality, but because God has chosen him and his wife Sarah to bring about the salvation of all who will call out to the Saviour.