Genesis (Part 83)

Welcome back to my study/review of Genesis. If you missed the previous parts of this study, you can find them HERE.

Genesis: 20:8-18

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. 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?” 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. 13 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.”’”

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.” 17 Then Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Abimelech, and also healed his wife and female slaves so that they bore children. 18 For the Lord had closed all the wombs of the house of Abimelech because of Sarah, Abraham’s wife.

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There is a tendency sometimes when reading this chapter in Genesis to portray Abraham as being in the wrong while simultaneously portraying Abimelech as innocent. But let’s look once more at verse 2.

And Abraham said of Sarah his wife, “She is my sister.” And Abimelech king of Gerar sent and took Sarah. 

Let’s not lose sight of the fact that Abimelech kidnaps Sarah. From chabad.org:

Sarah was abducted yet again, shortly after the destruction of Sodom and its sister cities, when Abraham and Sarah sojourned in Gerar.6 This time Abraham didn’t ask permission from Sarah; he simply introduced himself as her brother to Abimelech of Gerar, king of the Philistines.

Consequently, Abimelech took Sarah into his chambers that night. G‑d then appeared to him in a dream and threatened that if he did not let Sarah go, he would die, and he and his servants were smitten with plagues. Abimelech was frightened, and confronted Abraham as to why he deceived him, to which Abraham responded, “I thought that surely there is no fear of G‑d in this place.” Abimelech then presented cattle and slaves to Abraham, released Sarah, and pleaded with Abraham to pray to G‑d to remove the plague from among his people.

Let’s look more carefully now at the verses. In Verse 8, from The Pulpit Commentary:

Therefore Abimelech rose early in the morning, and called all his servants, and told all these things in their ears: and the men were sore afraid.

Verse 8 – Therefore Abimelech rose early in the morning, – an evidence of the terror into which’ he had been cast by the Divine communication, and of his earnest desire to carry out the Divine instructions – and called all his servants, and told all these things in their ears: – confessed his fault, explained his danger, and affirmed his intention to repair his error; a proof of the humility of this God-fearing king (Lange) – and the men were sere afraid. It spoke well for the king’s household that they received the communication with seriousness.

It is interesting that the commentary here refers to Abimelech as God-fearing. In this case, the fear seems to have begun when God told the King that he is a dead man in his dream the night before. I think sometimes in having an appreciating for Abimelech’s responsiveness to the dream that we forget that he kidnapped Abraham’s sister.

In verse 2, we are told that he “took” Sarah.

took = לָקַח lâqach, law-kakh’; a primitive root; to take (in the widest variety of applications):—accept, bring, buy, carry away, drawn, fetch, get, infold, × many, mingle, place, receive(-ing), reserve, seize, send for, take (away, -ing, up), use, win.

The Pulpit Commentary continues in Verse 9:

Then Abimelech called Abraham, and said unto him, What hast thou done unto us? and what have I offended thee, that thou hast brought on me and on my kingdom a great sin? thou hast done deeds unto me that ought not to be done.Verse 9. – Then Abimelech called Abraham, and said unto him (in the presence of his people), What hast thou done unto us? – identifying himself once more with his people, as he had already done in responding to God (Ver. 4) – and what have I offended thee (thus modestly allowing that he may himself have unwittingly occasioned the sin of Abraham), that thou hast brought on me and on my kingdom a great sin? The gravamen of Abimelech’s accusation was that Abraham had led him and his to offend against God, and so to lay themselves open to the penalties of wrong-doing. Thou hast done deeds unto me that ought not to be done. Literally, deeds which ought not to be done thou hast done with me (cf. Genesis 34:7Leviticus 4:2, 13vide Glass, ‘Philol. Tract., 1. 3. t. 3. 100. 6.). The king’s words were unquestionably designed to convey a severe reproach.

Abimelech condemns Abraham for the wrath of God which only visited him because he “took” Sarah from Abraham. Perhaps there is something to learn here in the way that God views and cares for women. “It was only his sister!” does not seem to be a complete defense.

Abimelech continues on with his self-righteous defense in Verse 10. From Ellicottt’s Bible Commentary:

(10) What sawest thou?—Some modern commentators explain the Hebrew as meaning, What purpose hadst thou? What didst thou look for? But the old rendering is probably right. Abimelech first denies by indignant questions that he had been guilty of any wrong towards Abraham, and then asks what he had seen in the conduct of himself and people to justify such mistrust of them. Throughout, the king speaks as a man conscious that his citizens so respected the rights of a stranger and of marriage, that Sarah would have been perfectly safe had Abraham openly said that she was his wife.

Note again that the King says he respected the rights of a stranger and of marriage but we really only see his “righteousness” after he has been visited by an angry God in his dreams. Was it customary for the righteous to kidnap a man’s sister? Would Abraham have kidnapped a sojourning Philistine’s sister had they traveled through his lands?

Starting in verse 11, Abraham begins his explanation. It does not quite work as an apology. However, it is *my* belief that an apology was not warranted. From Ellicott:

(11) Surely the fear of God . . . —Abraham’s general condemnation of the people had some excuse in the widespread depravity of the nations in Canaan, but was nevertheless unjust. Even as regards these nations, they were not utterly corrupt (Genesis 15:16), and both in Egypt and in Gerar the standard of morality was higher than Abraham supposed. His difficulty was the result of his own imperfect faith; but the fact that this artifice was arranged between man and wife when starting on their long wanderings, proves that they rather over-rated than under-rated the risks that lay before them. The expedient was indeed a sorry one, and shows that Abraham’s faith was not yet that of a martyr; but it also shows that both of them felt that Abraham might have to save his life by a means almost as bad as death. And thus, after all, it was no common-place faith, but one as firm at root as it was sorely tried and exercised.

The commentaries for both this section and the trip into Egypt take for granted that Abraham would have been safe in their travels while being open about the fact that Sarah is his wife. We do not know this. The “God-fearing” Kings in these lands only show themselves as such *after* they have been first rebuked by God. We also do not read anywhere a condemnation from God to Abraham for this ploy.

Further, it also stands to reason that Abraham likely knows quite a lot about the people in the lands to which he travels.

Nevertheless, the belief that Abraham was acting in the wrong is pervasive. I want to give voice to that opinion. Here is a take on that from David Guzik’s Commentary:

a. Surely the fear of God is not in the place: This was Abraham’s excuse for his sinful deception by saying, but the real problem was that the fear of God wasn’t in Abraham. If he really respected the LORD, His commandments, His promises, and His protection, then Abraham would have never trusted in his own efforts to keep his family together.

b. Indeed she is truly my sister: This is another attempt to justify his lie, by saying it is really the truth. But a half-truth, said with intent to deceive, is always a whole lie.

c. When God called me to wander from my father’s house: This is an indirect way of blaming God for the problem. Abraham claims that God sent him out on this dangerous journey upon which Abraham had to protect himself.

i. “There is a terrible meaning in this verb wander which Abraham uses. The Hebrew word occurs exactly fifty times in Scripture and never in a good sense. It is used of animals going astray, of a drunken man reeling, or staggering, of sinful seduction, of a prophet’s lies causing the people to err, of the path of a lying heart. Six other words are translated wander, any one of which Abraham might have used, but he used the worst word available.” (Barnhouse)

ii. “Abraham should have said: ‘Forgive me, Abimelech, for dishonoring both you and my God. My selfish cowardice overwhelmed me, and I denied my God by fearing that He who called me could not take care of me. He is not as your gods of wood and stone. He is the God of glory. He is the living God, the Creator, the most High God, possessor of heaven and earth. He told me He would be my shield and my exceeding great reward, and supplier of all my needs … In sinning against Him, I sinned against you. Forgive me, Abimelech.'” (Barnhouse)

I want to respond to some of this: a.) We do not see God condemning Abraham’s ploy at any point, b.) the half-truth may not have been intended to deceived; it may have been intended to suss out what kind of man the King is… in both cases (here and in Egypt), the King is the kind of man who kidnaps one’s sister, c.) I think this assertion is potentially unfair. It may simply be a honest recitation of the facts. And again, we do not know God’s opinion regarding Abraham’s ploy,

Of course, my defense of Abraham may be misplaced. It just seems to me that a tendency exists to *want* a condemnation of Abraham in these two scenarios and both of those condemnations rest upon the notion that kidnapping a man’s sister is… an okay thing to do.

The text certainly treats Abimelech as the one who acted in the wrong. From Guzik:

a. Abimelech took sheep, oxen, and male and female servants, and gave them to Abraham: In showing such generosity to Abraham, Abimelech is essentially heaping coals of fire on Abraham’s head (Romans 12:20). Abraham should have been giving gifts to Abimelech, because he was in the wrong.

i. Also, it is interesting to see Abraham accepts these gifts, when he had refused gifts from a pagan king previously (Genesis 14:21-24), because he wanted no one to think a man had made him rich. Here, because of Abraham’s compromise, he finds it hard to reclaim the same high moral ground.

b. I have given your brother a thousand pieces of silver: We can imagine the irony in Abimelech’s voice when he refers to Abraham as Sarah’s brother.

c. Thus she was reproved: The ancient Hebrew word for reproved is “yakach.” It has the idea of “set right,” so it is debatable as if Sarah was “set right” by Abimelech’s rebuke, or if she was “found to be right” because of her humble submission in this occasion. In a sense, both are true.

The interpretation in the comments above is that Abraham was in the wrong, or compromised, and thus accepted gifts from Abimelech. An alternative reading of the previous verses might be, though, that Abimelech was in the wrong for taking Sarah in the manner that he did – whether she be wife or sister. Perhaps this is also why Abraham was willing this time to take the gifts.

Interpret that however you wish and I am open to either. I just speak more loudly in Abraham’s defense here because it seems as though the commentaries are not presenting a defense.

The section of verses ends with Abraham praying to God and the curse on Abimelech and his people being lifted. With that in mind, I want to return to the article from chabad.org that I linked to earlier.

Shortly after this, a miracle occurred, and at the age of 90 Sarah conceived and gave birth to Isaac.

The famous biblical commentator Rashi explains: “Scripture places this section after the preceding one to teach you that whoever prays for mercy on behalf of another, when he himself is in need of the very thing for which he prays on the other’s behalf, will himself first receive a favorable response from G‑d.”

And so, it was because of the abduction, and Abraham’s prayers on behalf of Abimelech and his people to be healed from the plague, that Sarah was ultimately healed from her barren state and conceived a child.

This story demonstrates the power of selflessness. Abraham surely had every right to be incensed by Abimelech’s actions and refuse to pray for him. Nevertheless, he put his emotions aside and pleaded to G‑d on his behalf, which led to Sarah’s greatest wish, of having a child, coming true.

I am grateful for this chabad article inasmuch as I never previously put together this incident and the one that follows as being related. It is surely not a coincidence that Sarah gets with child immediately after this section (whether you view that as a narrative choice by the author of Genesis or a cause and effect related to Abraham’s choices here.)

From Ellicott:

(17) Abraham prayed . . . —As Abimelech had now made very liberal compensation, it became the duty of Abraham to intercede for him. The malady seems to have been one confined to Abimelech, as its object was to protect Sarah; but in some way it so affected the whole household as to produce general barrenness.

Maidservants.—Not the word rendered women-servants in Genesis 20:14, but one specially used of concubines.

We need not put a lot of imagination into all of this but somehow Abimelech’s household became barren, overnight, and however that came to pass everyone knew about it right away. Or, alternatively, perhaps this section of verses occurred over weeks rather than a short time.

With all of that now done, the stage is set for Isaac’s birth in the next chapter.

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