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Old Testament Study - Genesis 20
Here, we continue our study in Genesis.
Abraham Stumbles Yet Again
1Now Abraham moved on from there into the region of
the Negev and lived between Kadesh and Shur. For a while he stayed in Gerar,
2and there Abraham said of his wife Sarah, "She is my sister."
Then Abimelech king of Gerar sent for Sarah and took her.
3But God came to Abimelech in a dream one night and said to
him, "You are as good as dead because of the woman you have taken;
she is a married woman."
4Now Abimelech had not gone near her, so he said, "Lord,
will you destroy an innocent nation? 5Did he not say to me, `She
is my sister,' and didn't she also say, `He is my brother'? I have done
this with a clear conscience and clean hands."
6Then God said to him in the dream, "Yes, I know you
did this with a clear conscience, and so I have kept you from sinning against
me. That is why I did not let you touch her. 7Now return the
man's wife, for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you will live.
But if you do not return her, you may be sure that you and all yours will
The Bible is true. It relates the true history of its heroes.
We are shown the good side and the bad side of the great prophets of God.
The veracity of the Bible is demonstrated in episodes like this one in Genesis
20. Abraham, though greatly blessed by God, though visited personally by
God, though given magnificent gifts and promises by God, fails God here
miserably. Moreover, Abraham stumbles in the same way he has stumbled before
(see Gen. 12:10ff). He forgets the lessons that he learned the first time.
His stumbling is all the more inexcusable this time because he is now a
mature man of God, whereas in the previous episode, Abraham was (so to speak)
a baby in the faith. We can all relate to Abraham, though. We all know the
familiar feeling of failing our God. Even those of us who are mature in
the faith, find ourselves stumbling into the same old sins over and over.
Our old self is always with us. We can't seem to shake our sinful nature.
Paul depicts our situation: "I do not understand what I do. For
what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I
do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer
I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. I know that nothing good
lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what
is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want
to do; no, the evil I do not want to do--this I keep on doing. Now if I
do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin
living in me that does it. So I find this law at work: When I want to do
good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God's
law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war
against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at
work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from
this body of death? Thanks be to God--through Jesus Christ our Lord!"
Abraham's troubles began when he wandered out of the promised land: "Now
Abraham moved on from there into the region of the Negev and lived between
Kadesh and Shur." Abraham moved south to an area on the way to
Egypt. This is significant. In chapter 12, when Abraham fell in the same
sin, he "went down to Egypt to live there for awhile" (Gen.
12:10). Here in Gen. 20, Abraham moves towards Egypt. In the Bible, Egypt
is a symbol of the world, so symbolically, Abraham stumbles here when he
moves toward the world. We are not told why Abraham left Hebron. Perhaps
he was despondent over the destruction of Sodom and wanted to get away from
that area for a while. Perhaps there were lingering environmental effects
from the destruction of Sodom, such as a smell of sulfur or some such thing.
In any case, he wandered into the world (always a dangerous sojourn), and
did not return untainted.
"For a while he stayed in Gerar, and there Abraham said of his wife
Sarah, `She is my sister.'" Abraham patently lies about his relationship
with Sarah, putting Sarah in jeopardy. As mentioned, Abraham's sin is the
same that he perpetrated many years before in Egypt (see Gen. 12). Abraham's
reason for lying, as explained in the earlier episode is two-fold: he feared
the local inhabitants would kill him to get Sarah (see Gen. 12:12); he wanted
to "be treated well" because of Sarah (Gen. 12:13). The
surprising thing is that Abraham stumbles in his strong points. Abraham
is known as a man of faith, yet he stumbles here in his faith, fearing that
the Canaanites would kill him, lacking faith in God's ability to protect
him. Abraham is also known as one who, though rich, desires heavenly riches
over worldly ones, living in tents as a pilgrim on this earth. Yet, one
of his motives for lying is so that he would be treated well for Sarah's
This is a warning to us: "[I]f you think you are standing firm,
be careful that you don't fall!" (I Cor. 10:12). We need to always
be on guard against temptation, even in our strong points (especially in
our strong points!). Satan often tempts us in our strong points, because
when we stumble in our strong points, we are all the more discouraged. Another
reason this is a warning to us is that if Abraham, the great man of faith
that he was, could stumble when tested, so certainly can we. Abraham was
a great man of faith in Hebron, but among the worldly how did he fare? We
can be great men of prayer, fervent at worship, studied in doctrine, yet
fail miserably in the practical living out of our religion. Untested religion
is unproven religion. We see the true Abraham here because his faith is
challenged. "We possess no more religion than what we have in the time
of trouble. It is comparably easy to trust God while everything goes along
pleasantly, but the time of disappointment, of loss, of persecution, of
bereavement, is the time of testing; and then how often we fail."[Footnote
#1] Christ's example, thus, is all the more strong and impressive. He faced
trouble, temptation and persecution--much more than we will--and yet He
The result of Abraham's lie was that "Abimelech king of Gerar sent
for Sarah and took her." Now, why would Abimelech[Footnote #2]
take Sarah, who was over eighty years old, as his wife? True, Sarah was
rejuvenated by God in preparation for bearing Isaac, and so undoubtedly
did not look her age. Most probably though, the main reason that Abimelech
took her as a wife was not her looks, but in order to set up an alliance
with the very wealthy Abraham (whom he thought was her brother).
However, God intervened[Footnote #3]: "But God came to Abimelech
in a dream one night and said to him, `You are as good as dead because of
the woman you have taken; she is a married woman.'" One lesson
here: don't mess with God's people. He will intervene. Here though, God
seems a little harsh, especially since Abimelech did not know that Sarah
was married. What we must remember, however, is that if Abimelech had consummated
his relationship with Sarah, he could have jeopardized the fulfillment of
God's promise to Abraham. Sarah, at this time, was probably no longer barren
(God had promised that she would bear Isaac within a year, see Gen. 18:14).
If Abimelech had impregnated her, what then? How could she then bear a son
to Abraham? So, it was necessary that God intervene.
This may suggest a spiritual reason as to why Abimelech (and Pharoah, back
in Gen. 12) took Sarah into his harem. Quite possibly, he was prompted in
some way by Satan to do so. Satan certainly knew of the promise to Abraham
regarding his offspring, and so worked to prevent the successful fulfillment
of the promise. What better way than to have someone else take Sarah as
wife. Throughout the Bible, we see Satan working against the fulfillment
of God's promises to His people, especially promises concerning the ancestry
of the Messiah. We see Pharoah destroying the infant sons of the Hebrews
(Ex. 1), numerous assaults on the royal line of David (II Chron. 21:4; 21:17;
22:1; Isa. 36:1), Haman's plans to destroy all of the Israelites (Esth.
3:6), Herod's killing of the children in Bethlehem (Matt. 2:16); etc. All
of these attacks, whose ultimate purpose was to thwart God's plan to save
mankind through the Messiah Jesus Christ, culminated in Satan's temptations
of Christ to give up His ministry and follow Satan (Matt. 4).
Abimelech (who "had not gone near [Sarah]") appealed to
God on the basis of his innocence in the situation. First, he says: "Lord,
will You destroy an innocent nation?" Abimelech was most likely
indirectly referring here to God's destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, as
if to say, "You destroyed Sodom. Will You now destroy an innocent nation?"
If this was a reference to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, then it
seems that it was common knowledge in the whole area that it was God Himself
behind the destruction. Abimelech continues: "Did he not say to
me, `She is my sister,' and didn't she also say, `He is my brother'? I have
done this with a clear conscience and clean hands." Yes, it is
true that Abimelech was innocent in this situation, but since God is holy,
even sins of ignorance are an affront to Him. In the psalms, David prays:
"Forgive my hidden faults" (Ps. 19:12). We need forgiveness
from God even for sins that we are not aware of. The sad thing, of course,
is that Abimelech was nearly led into sin as the result of the sin of a
godly man. No man is an island, and so our sin often ripples causing others
to sin. Our sin can cause others to sin in many different ways. Sometimes,
it leads others into sinful situations (as with Abraham and Abimelech);
sometimes others see us sin and, knowing that we are godly people, think
that what we are doing is OK, and so follow our example; our sins are often
passed on to other members of our family; etc. We must be careful: the effects
of our sin are farreaching, more than we can ever imagine.
God, of course, knew of Abimelech's innocence: "Then God said to
him in the dream, `Yes, I know you did this with a clear conscience, and
so I have kept you from sinning against Me. That is why I did not let you
touch her.'" God, in His grace, intervened to keep Abimelech from
sin. In my life, I have seen God's hand as He prevents me from sinning,
and I praise Him that He cares for me so much that He would intervene and
work to hinder me from stumbling. It is a valuable and effective prayer
to pray: "[L]ead us not into temptation" (Matt. 6:13).
God not only kept Abimelech from sinning, He also gave him the remedy to
the situation: "Now return the man's wife, for he is a prophet,
and he will pray for you and you will live. But if you do not return her,
you may be sure that you and all yours will die." Ironically, this
verse contains the first use of the word "prophet" in the
Bible. Sadly, Abraham the "prophet" was not a very good
witness for God in this situation. We normally don't think of Abraham as
a prophet, but God's labelling him as such aids our understanding of the
word "prophet" as it is used in the Bible. When we think of a
"prophet", we usually think of a person who foretells the future.
In the Bible, however, a prophet is any person who is chosen by God to speak
for Him. Yes, many times this entails foretelling the future, but many times
it entails other things, such as exhortation, encouragement, condemnation,
8Early the next morning Abimelech summoned all his officials,
and when he told them all that had happened, they were very much afraid.
9Then Abimelech called Abraham in and said, "What have you
done to us? How have I wronged you that you have brought such great guilt
upon me and my kingdom? You have done things to me that should not be done."
10And Abimelech asked Abraham, "What was your reason for
11Abraham replied, "I said to myself, `There is surely
no fear of God in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife.'
12Besides, she really is my sister, the daughter of my father
though not of my mother; and she became my wife. 13And when God
caused me to wander from my father's household, I said to her, `This is
how you can show your love to me: Everywhere we go, say of me, "He
is my brother."'"
14Then Abimelech brought sheep and cattle and male and female
slaves and gave them to Abraham, and he returned Sarah his wife to him.
15And Abimelech said, "My land is before you; live wherever
16To Sarah he said, "I am giving your brother a thousand
shekels of silver. This is to cover the offence against you before all who
are with you; you are completely vindicated."
17Then Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Abimelech, his
wife and his slave girls so they could have children again, 18for
the LORD had closed up every womb in Abimelech's household because of Abraham's
The dream deeply affected Abimelech: "Early the next
morning Abimelech summoned all his officials, and when he told them all
that had happened, they were very much afraid." Abimelech did not
waste any time. He rose early and obeyed God's command to return Abraham's
wife. Ironically, in this episode, it is the pagan king who readily listens
to and obeys God. You might say: "Well, yeah, if I had a dream from
God, I would obey, too." But wait. We have much more than a dream:
we have the sure Word of God, the past work of God in our lives, the Spirit
of Christ dwelling in our hearts, and much more. We have little excuse for
not rising early and obeying God.
Abimelech, appropriately, did not return Sarah without giving Abraham an
ear full: "What have you done to us? How have I wronged you that
you have brought such great guilt upon me and my kingdom? You have done
things to me that should not be done. . . What was your reason for doing
this?" It is truly a sad day when a pagan is able to rightly rebuke
a true prophet of God. Abimelech's behavior was commendable: patient, forgiving,
Christlike. Abraham at this point should have repented and asked for forgiveness
from Abimelech and from God. Instead, he attempts to excuse his behavior.
Excuse 1: "Abraham replied, `I said to myself, "There is surely
no fear of God in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife."'"
Abraham's first excuse was that fear led to his lying. This really is
not a very good excuse for Abraham. First, his fear was based on faulty
misconceptions concerning Abimelech and his people. Abraham thought that
"there is surely no fear of God in this place." The response
of Abimelech to the dream that God sent demonstrates that Abimelech indeed
did fear God. Second, Abraham should not have been afraid, but should have
trusted in God for protection. After all, God had just promised him that
Sarah would bear his son within a year. God was not going to let anything
happen to Abraham. God was going to fulfill His promise to Abraham. Abraham
stumbled in his faith. Though he walked with God for so long, he at that
time had a limited view of God and His ability to protect him. "How
often those who are not afraid to trust God with their souls, are afraid
to trust Him with regard to their bodies!"[Footnote #4]
Excuse 2: "Besides, she really is my sister, the daughter of my
father though not of my mother; and she became my wife." Apparently
(unless Abraham is lying here too), Sarah was Abraham's half-sister. So,
he excuses his deceit by saying that he really, technically, did not tell
a lie. This is no excuse, though. By saying, "She is my sister"
and stopping at that, Abraham was effectively saying, "She is not my
wife." By allowing Abimelech to take Sarah without informing him that
she is his wife was deceitful, despite the fact that, technically, Abraham's
tongue did not speak an untruth. We must be careful. We often excuse ourselves,
saying, "Well, technically, I did not sin." God looks at the heart,
though. One is not innocent before God unless his heart can withstand God's
Excuse 3: "And when God caused me to wander from my father's household..."
Here, Abraham implicitly blames God for leading him into this situation
in the first place. The difficulty of our situation is never an excuse for
sin. When we get in a difficult situation, we see it as an excuse to sin,
thinking either that we need to sin to extricate ourselves from the situation
(as Abraham did), or arrogantly thinking that, since our situation is difficult,
we have some sort of extra right to sin. This is not true. God will never
lead us into a situation that will require sin in order to escape. Paul
tells us: "No temptation has seized you except what is common to
man. And God is faithful; He will not let you be tempted beyond what you
can bear. But when you are tempted, He will also provide a way out so that
you can stand up under it" (I Cor. 10:13).
Excuse 4: "And when God caused me to wander from my father's household,
I said to [Sarah], `This is how you can show your love to me: Everywhere
we go, say of me, "He is my brother."'" Abraham planted
the seed for his failure way back when he first departed from Ur. Abraham
long ago preprogrammed himself to fail. He decided that he was going to
fail, and so he did. Abraham's problem here was that he forgot God, but
remembered his former way of life. As Abraham started to walk with God,
he should have abandoned these old, worldly schemes, and turned to God in
his fear. Abraham's excuse here is that, well, this sin began before he
really knew God, so somehow it should be excused. We all have skeletons
from our former way of life that are still hanging on. And when they rear
their heads, rather than turn to the power of Christ to battle them, we
let ourselves be tripped up by them, excusing ourselves by saying: "Well,
that was just part of my old self that I haven't been able to fix yet."
Many times, the problem is that we don't want to fix that part of our life
After Abimelech patiently listened to all of Abraham's excuses, he did something
that many people wonder about: "Then Abimelech brought sheep and
cattle and male and female slaves and gave them to Abraham, and he returned
Sarah his wife to him. And Abimelech said, `My land is before you; live
wherever you like.' To Sarah he said, `I am giving your brother a thousand
shekels of silver. This is to cover the offence against you before all who
are with you; you are completely vindicated.'" Why did Abimelech
reward Abraham for deceiving him? This reflects Abimelech's fear of God.
God Himself told Abimelech that Abraham was His prophet. Abimelech was also
scared by the dream and, thus, thought that he would try to stay on God's
good side by rewarding his prophet. Life is not fair, sometimes. Unfortunately,
sin is often rewarded materially. From this we can learn that material blessing
does not imply sanction from God. Just because someone is rich, it does
not mean that God approves of his life. "Lest riches should be accounted
evil in themselves, God sometimes gives them to the righteous; and lest
they should be considered as the chief good, He frequently bestows them
on the wicked."[Footnote #5]
"Then Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Abimelech, his wife,
and his slave girls so they could have children again." God chooses
to work mainly through the prayers of His people. Although God could have
healed Abimelech and his household at His own will, He chose to have Abraham
pray for this healing (see vs. 7). This also shows us the grace of God:
He still hears our prayers after we sin. Sometimes, after we sin, we think,
"Oh, God won't listen to me for a few days." Perish the thought.
The best thing that we can do after we sin is to get on our knees as soon
as we can, ask for forgiveness, make a clean slate, then get on with our
relationship with God.
Oh Father, we praise You that You hear our prayers, even the prayers of
us sinners. Forgive us for our unfaithfulness; we praise You for Your faithfulness.
Help us, by Your Spirit, to get rid of all the slime that is still clinging
to us from our former way of life. Rather than turning to our old ways of
deliverance, may we turn to You, the Rock of our salvation. We pray these
things in the name of Jesus, Amen.
1. Pink, Gleanings in Genesis, pg. 193-194.
2. The name "Abimelech" was most likely a general name for the
ruler of that part of Canaan (just like "Pharoah" was the general
name for the ruler of Egypt). This is supported by the fact that "Abimelech"
3. This is the first of many times in the Bible that God directly reveals
Himself to someone who is not one of His covenant people. This also happens
to: Pharoah in the time of Joseph, Balaam, Nebuchadnezzar, Pilate's wife,
4. Pink, op. cit., pg. 195.
5. William Secker, cited in Spurgeon, A Treasury of David, Vol. I,
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