Abraham and Abimelech: Part 1
January 22, 2023 Speaker: Brian Wilbur Series: The Book of Genesis
Topic: The Grace of God Passage: Genesis 20:1–18
ABRAHAM AND ABIMELECH: PART 1
An Exposition of Genesis 20:1-18
By Pastor Brian Wilbur
Date: January 22, 2023
Series: The Book of Genesis
Note: Scripture quotations are from The ESV Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version), copyright 2001 by Crossway. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
THE SCRIPTURAL TEXT
Holy Scripture says,
1 From there Abraham journeyed toward the territory of the Negeb and lived between Kadesh and Shur; and he sojourned in Gerar. 2 And Abraham said of Sarah his wife, “She is my sister.” And Abimelech king of Gerar sent and took Sarah. 3 But God came to Abimelech in a dream by 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.” 4 Now Abimelech had not approached her. So he said, “Lord, will you kill an innocent people? 5 Did he not himself say to me, ‘She is my sister’? And she herself said, ‘He is my brother.’ In the integrity of my heart and the innocence of my hands I have done this.” 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. 7 Now then, return the man's wife, for he is a prophet, so that he will pray for you, and you shall live. But if you do not return her, know that you shall surely die, you and all who are yours.”
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. 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?” 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. (Genesis 20:1-18)
As we turn our attention to Genesis 20, we have come now to the 35th sermon in our series on the Book of Genesis. I am very pleased with how the church family is receiving this series. As the first book of the Bible, Genesis lays an indispensable foundation upon which we ought to develop our minds and our manner of life.
One of the great things about the Bible is that it doesn’t hide people’s flaws. Although Abraham worships God and walks with God, Abraham is not a perfect man. This side of heaven, people who have a right relationship with the Father are still beset by various shortcomings and weaknesses – and Abraham is no exception.
When we read Genesis 20:1-18, many of us recall Genesis 12:10-20. Do you remember? Abraham sojourned in Egypt. He instructed Sarah to tell people that she was Abraham’s brother (and to leave out the important bit about being Abraham’s wife). Pharaoh took Sarah into her house as his wife. Because this whole thing was wrongheaded, the Lord brought affliction on Pharaoh and Pharaoh’s house. As the truth became known, Pharaoh was not pleased with Abraham: “What is this you have done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife?” (Genesis 12:18) Thereafter, Pharaoh returned Sarah to Abraham, and then Abraham and Sarah were sent away.
So, a very similar thing happens in Genesis 20, and Genesis 20 informs us that Abraham and Sarah may have played this game on a regular basis: “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.”’” (Genesis 20:13) In other words: This is the kindness you must do me; at every place to which we come, mislead people about the nature of our relationship. Pay attention: when the kindness that someone else requests of you would require you to be an agent of misinformation, you’d better slow down and think critically about the requested course of action.
In any case, what Genesis 20 shows is that Abraham is demonstrating the same immaturity that he had demonstrated in Egypt twenty years earlier. Bad old habits die hard. Sometimes we unlearn foolishness at an astonishingly slow pace. But although the follies and foibles stick to us, God remains faithful to those whom He has chosen. God’s faithfulness shined upon Abraham and Sarah down in Egypt, and God’s faithfulness is still shining upon Abraham and Sarah in Gerar.
Now let’s walk through the passage, and then we’ll conclude with some important practical reflections.
Abraham Misrepresents His Relationship to Sarah in Gerar (v. 1-2a)
First, Abraham misrepresents his relationship to Sarah in Gerar. From Genesis 13:18 all the way into Genesis 18:1, Abraham had been living “by the oaks of Mamre” (Genesis 13:18, Genesis 18:1) near Hebron (Genesis 13:18). From his dwelling place in Mamre, Abraham had looked down into the valley and seen the smoke rising from the land of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19:27-28). Shortly thereafter, Abraham decided to journey to the south (the Negeb, Kadesh and Shur) and ended up dwelling in Gerar.
As Abraham entered into this unfamiliar part of the world, he was once again afraid that if the locals found out that Sarah was his wife, then they might kill him in order to get her. Therefore, Abraham misled the locals and identified Sarah as his sister. Although she technically was his sister, this doesn’t change the fact that Abraham’s intent was to mislead people into the mistaken notion that Sarah was not his wife. Abraham deceived the people of Gerar and their king.
Abimelech Takes Sarah Into His House (v. 2b)
In light of the misinformation spread by Abraham, “Abimelech king of Gerar” proceeded to take Sarah into his house. As I said in the sermon four months ago in the earlier passage in Genesis 12, Abraham’s wife has no business being in another man’s house as an object of romantic interest. As it is, Abraham bears responsibility for giving the impression that Sarah was not spoken for. Abraham bears responsibility for not seeking to protect his wife’s purity as well as the integrity of their marriage. As we leave verse 2, we have a big problem: the patriarch’s wife, through whom the promised seed is to be born, has entered the harem of a pagan king.
God Confronts Abimelech (v. 3-8)
Having lied about his relationship with Sarah and now having his wife’s compromising circumstance shaped by that lie, Abraham is not in a good position to fix the problem and protect Sarah. But God has no such limitations. So, as we come to verses 3-7, God confronts Abimelech with utmost seriousness:
“But God came to Abimelech in a dream by 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.”” (v. 3)
The fact that Abimelech misunderstood Sarah’s relationship to Abraham doesn’t change the fact that it was objectively wrong for him take another man’s wife into his house. Abimelech’s action violated the marriage covenant between Abraham and Sarah, and that makes Abimelech an adulterer – even though he did not have physical relationships with Sarah, as the beginning of verse 4 makes clear. Objectively, Abimelech is in violation of God’s law, and God’s law prescribes death for the sin of adultery. Genesis 20:3 reflects the Scriptural teaching that the marriage covenant must be held in high regard by all human beings.
At this point, Abimelech asserts his innocence:
“Now Abimelech had not approached her. So he said, “Lord, will you kill an innocent people? Did he not himself say to me, ‘She is my sister’? And she herself said, ‘He is my brother.’ In the integrity of my heart and the innocence of my hands I have done this.”” (v. 4-5)
Abimelech asserts his innocence on the basis of the fact that he had acted honorably in view of the information that was available to him. Abimelech didn’t know that Sarah was Abraham’s wife. Moreover, Abimelech had been informed by both Abraham and Sarah that they were siblings. In this sense, Abimelech maintains that he had conducted himself with integrity at the heart level and that his action was not blameworthy.
God’s answer comes 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.”” (v. 6)
God grants Abimelech’s point and affirms that Abimelech had indeed taken Sarah with integrity of heart. Objectively speaking, the action of taking another man’s wife into your house with romantic intentions lacks integrity. But in terms of heart attitude, Abimelech was not knowingly acting in opposition to another man’s marriage. Then God makes it clear to Abimelech that the fundamental reason why Abimelech didn’t get to the point of having physical relations with Sarah is because God kept Abimelech from doing so: “it was I who kept you from sinning against me” and “I did not let you touch her”. God so governed Abimelech’s mindset, desires, and actions that he prevented Abimelech from committing physical adultery. Abimelech had committed adultery in a formal sense, but he hadn’t committed adultery in a physical sense.
Verses 3-6 teach us some important lessons. One lesson is that although we bear responsibility for the sins that we commit in ignorance, sins committed in ignorance are not nearly as bad as sins committed with eyes wide open. If Abimelech had known that Sarah was Abraham’s wife, and had still taken Sarah into his house, then that would have been a highhanded sin. When you sin in ignorance, you are still sinning in the sense that you are objectively violating God’s law, but your heart may not be intending to violate God’s law – and in that sense it may be said that your misdeed was “done… in the integrity of your heart”. If you assume that the speed limit is 55 mph, when it is actually 35 mph, you are breaking the law – but you might not be intending to break it. If you know that the speed limit is 35 mph but drive 55 mph anyway, then you are knowingly and deliberately breaking the law. Of course, taking a man’s wife is of greater moral consequence than driving across town. When you commit sins with eyes wide open, you are much more blameworthy than when you sin in ignorance. Abimelech sinned in ignorance, and God kept him from compounding it with the sin of physical adultery.
Another lesson here is that sin must ultimately be understood in relationship to God. If Abimelech had gotten to the point of having physical relations with Sarah, then he would have been sinning against Sarah and against Abraham and against their marriage. But did you notice what God said when He said that He prevented Abimelech from touching Sarah? God told Abimelech, “[It] was I who kept you from sinning against me” (italics added). When David confessed his grievous sin, he said to the Lord: “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight” (Psalm 51:4). Of course, David had sinned against Bathsheba, against Uriah, and against Joab. But what we learn from Psalm 51:4 and from Genesis 20:6 is that sin is ultimately against God. Sin is not defined as an offense against a human being; sin is not defined as an offense against the feelings and opinions of men. Instead, sin is defined as an offense against the Holy One whose standards and laws are perfect and unchanging.
As we come to verse 7, what we will see is that even though Abimelech has acted with integrity in terms of his own motivation, nevertheless the fact remains that Sarah being in his house is objectively wrong and he needs to fix it. So, in verse 7, God tells Abimelech what he must do:
“Now then, return the man’s wife, for he is a prophet, so that he will pray for you, and you shall live. But if you do not return her, know that you shall surely die, you and all who are yours.” (v. 7)
The command and promise are clear: return Sarah to Abraham, and you will live. The warning for disobedience is equally clear: if you don’t return Sarah, then you and the members of your house will die. This simple command, promise, and warning in verse 7 is a small echo of a great truth that recurs throughout the entire Bible: obedience is the way to life, and disobedience is the way to death.
Verse 7 also tells us that God’s plan is for Abraham, upon Abimelech’s obedience, to pray for Abimelech – and God will work through Abraham’s intercession to bring healing, renewal, and life to Abimelech and Abimelech’s house.
God’s confrontation of Abimelech had an alarming and sobering effect upon Him. Abimelech didn’t blow it off or suppress it. He took the rebuke and warning with utter seriousness. Verse 8 summarizes the effect that the divine revelation had upon Abimelech: “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.” Although Abimelech had acted with integrity at the heart level, his misdeed had put himself, his kingship, and his kingdom in grave danger. Since Abimelech’s misdeed was a matter of public record, it makes sense that he communicated the problem to “all his servants” – although sharing it required some humility and courage, which demonstrates the seriousness with which he took the Word of God. The matter was indeed an urgent one, and the mood was fearful and gloomy, “the men [being] very much afraid.”
Now the lingering question is: what is Abimelech going to do?
Abimelech Confronts Abraham (v. 9-13)
After God’s confrontation of Abimelech, Abimelech decided to confront Abraham in verses 9-13. Abimelech is rightly upset at Abraham because Abraham mistreated him. Abimelech’s unjust relationship with Sarah was based on Abraham’s unjust speech. If someone else’s lie has facilitated your own plunge into unrighteousness, even though you’re still responsible for fixing the unrighteousness that you have done, you’re not going to be happy with the liar who set you up.
Abimelech’s confrontation of Abraham begins in verse 9: “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.” Then Abimelech adds in verse 10: “What did you see, that you did this thing?” Abimelech is pleading his own innocence toward Abraham. If Abimelech had previously sinned against Abraham, then Abraham’s lie might have been a form of retaliation. But Abimelech certain regards himself as not guilty of any previous sin against Abraham.
Abimelech’s final question – “What did you see, that you did this thing?” – is more open-ended. Abraham more or less answers the “[what] did you see” question in verse 11: “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.’” In other words, Abraham saw danger. He looked upon the city of Gerar as a place characterized by ungodliness and by a willingness to murder a male sojourner in order to get the man’s wife. Perhaps Abraham thought that the city of Gerar was just as corrupt and unprincipled as Sodom and Gomorrah. The bottom line is that Abraham saw trouble – he perceived grave danger and a threat to his own life. This is why Abraham did what he did – he sacrificed the truth, he sacrificed the integrity of his marriage, and he risked the purity of his wife, in order to protect his own skin.
In verses 12-13, we find out that Abraham’s “She is my sister” ruse was a standard operating procedure that he had established with Sarah for their visitations to new places. In verse 12, we find out that Abraham’s “She is my sister” routine was technically true: “Besides, she is indeed my sister, the daughter of my father though not the daughter of my mother, and she became my wife.” (v. 12) God’s law would eventually forbid conjugal unions between a man and his half-sister (see Leviticus 18:9), but that law was not yet in effect. Abraham decided to take advantage of their status as siblings in their travels: “And when God caused me to wander from my father’s house, I said to her, ‘This is the kindness you must do to me: at every place to which we come, say of me, “He is my brother.”’” (v. 13) Although Abraham and Sarah could truthfully identify themselves as being brother and sister to each other, the problem is that they were deliberately intending to create the impression that they were not husband and wife to each other. Therein lies the deception – and in both Egypt and Gerar this deceptive half-truth led to a great crisis.
Abimelech Returns Sarah and Publicly Vindicates Her (v. 14-16)
I doubt that Abimelech was all that satisfied with Abraham’s answer, but he knew that his primary responsibility was not to hammer out all the details with Abraham, but to obey God’s Word. And in this case, obeying God involved his relationship with Abraham and Sarah. So, Abimelech proceeds to demonstrate largehearted obedience to God. I say ‘largehearted’ because what Abimelech does in verses 14-16 is not a stingy and minimalistic act of outward obedience. Abimelech doesn’t say, ‘Take Sarah, pray for me, and then get out of here.’ Abimelech does much more, thus showing that his obedience was hearty and willing.
First, “Abimelech took sheep and oxen, and male servants and female servants, and gave them to Abraham, and returned Sarah his wife to him.” (v. 14) Objectively, Abimelech had dishonored Abraham and Sarah and their marriage by taking Sarah. Now Abimelech not only returns Sarah, but honors Abraham and enriches them both.
Second, Abimelech shows hospitality to Abraham: “Behold, my land is before you; dwell where it pleases you.” (v. 15) Abimelech’s generous offer of land to Abraham, in conjunction with his generous gift of livestock and servants to Abraham, may be viewed from three perspectives:
- From the perspective that Abraham had mistreated Abimelech by deceiving him, Abimelech’s generosity is an act of grace to someone who didn’t deserve it.
- From the perspective that Abimelech had violated Abraham’s marriage to Sarah, Abimelech’s generosity is a righteous act of restitution and goodwill.
- Most importantly, from the perspective of God’s command to Abimelech and God’s revelation that Abraham is a prophet of the living God and that God appointed Abraham to intercede for Abimelech’s well-being (see v. 7), Abimelech’s generosity is an act of trust and obedience and devotion to God. Abimelech is willing to do it God’s way, even though it costs him pride and possessions.
Third, Abimelech honors and vindicates Sarah: “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.”” (v. 16) “[A] thousand pieces of silver” is not a mere pittance. In Exodus 21, the economic value of a slave was reckoned to be “thirty shekels of silver” (Exodus 21:32). By way of comparison, the woman Sarah and the vindication of her innocence was priceless – and the surpassing gift of an abundance of silver testified to her worth.
In the context of Genesis 20, do you understand why Sarah’s public vindication was so important? Do you understand why it was so important for people to know that no physical adultery took place between Abimelech and Sarah? Do you remember the time period during which this took place?
In Genesis 18 the Lord told Abraham and Sarah that they would have a son in about a year’s time. From the time of that promise in Genesis 18:14, the twelve- month clock was ticking on the promise. At the beginning of Genesis 21, Sarah gave birth to Isaac, Abraham’s son. Now given that the duration of a typical pregnancy is about nine months, we know that Sarah conceived Isaac approximately nine months before Genesis 21. This means that the events of Genesis 20 took place in close proximity to the time that Sarah conceived Isaac. We can be confident that when Abimelech took Sarah into his house, Sarah wasn’t showing any signs of pregnancy. It is possible that she was super early in pregnancy and didn’t show any signs of it. It is also possible that she wasn’t pregnant yet, but was about to become pregnant very soon. Either way, Sarah’s brief time in Abimelech’s house would look very suspicious given that her conception of Isaac was imminent, if it hadn’t happened already. Therefore, it was really important for people to know and understand that no physical relations had taken place between Abimelech and Sarah. The child Isaac who was either already growing inside her or was about to be conceived, was Abraham’s son, not Abimelech’s son.
By the way, the proximity in time of Isaac’s conception to the events of Genesis 20 make Abraham’s actions all the more wrongheaded. What is Abraham thinking to let his possibly pregnant or soon-to-be pregnant wife be thought of as an unmarried woman who can be taken into another man’s house?
Be that as it may, Abimelech acts so as to publicly honor and vindicate Sarah “before everyone”.
God Heals Abimelech through Abraham’s Intercession (v. 17-18)
Finally, God’s plan for Abraham to pray for a repentant Abimelech comes to fruition in verses 17-18:
“Then Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Abimelech, and also healed his wife and female slaves so that they bore children. For the LORD had closed all the wombs of the house of Abimelech because of Sarah, Abraham’s wife.” (v. 17-18)
The prophet Abraham prays, the pagan king Abimelech gets healed, and the Lord reopens the wombs of the women in the pagan king’s house.
PRACTICAL REFLECTIONS ON THE TEXT
What are we supposed to take away from this passage? There are some wonderful takeaways from this passage. But when I say that there are some wonderful takeaways, I don’t mean that there are three neat-and-tidy applications wrapped up in a red bow. Scripture is worth far more than “a thousand pieces of silver”, but silver extraction takes work. Think about it: Genesis 20 describes a unique historical event – it is highly unlikely that you’ll ever find yourself in comparable situation. The single command in the passage (“return the man’s wife”) is tailored very specifically to Abimelech’s circumstance. How can this passage nourish and sustain our spiritual walk? By directing our attention to three important areas.
God is faithful: bank on it
First, God is faithful: bank on it. God has made lavish promises to Abraham in Genesis 12-18, including the promise of having a son by Sarah in the near future. God has every intention of seeing to it that His promises come to fruition. His faithfulness is not only the expression of His good character, but also the expression of His authoritative governance of the entire world. It is possible to imagine people who have good character, but who are so limited in terms of their authority and power, that they cannot see to it that the good they wish to be done will, in fact, be done. In the course of human history, there have been good generals and good soldiers who meant well and gave their all, but their side lost. God, however, has no such limitations. He is able to override the foolish actions of His people. He is able to reveal Himself to a pagan king. He is able to keep a powerful man like Abimelech from sinning. He is able to rescue His people out of the troubling circumstances that they got themselves into. He is able to weave a beautiful tapestry of grace from the raw material of sin-laden people.
If Sarah had not yet conceived Isaac when she went into Abimelech’s house, and if she had then spent an extended time in Abimelech’s house, that would have – humanly speaking – thrown a wrench into the plan. But God sees to it that the wrench flying in mid-air doesn’t land in the center of the plan. God guards Abraham and Sarah’s marriage. God protects the purity of Sarah’s womb. God preserves the plan to get Isaac into the world at the appointed time, so that eventually Jesus will get into the world at the appointed time, so that there is a perfect sacrifice to bring forgiveness and restoration for the Abrahams and Abimelechs of the world.
When I say that we should bank on God’s faithfulness, I don’t mean that we should presume upon it. Jesus banked on the Father’s faithfulness, and this meant not deliberately throwing Himself off the temple in order to create conditions that would have required the Father to undertake a dramatic rescue operation (see Matthew 4:5-7). We shouldn’t think up ways to imitate or surpass Abraham’s foolishness, with a cavalier confidence that God will override it. So, don’t be presumptuous. Don’t deliberately test God to see if He will get you out of the mess that you want to make. However, the truth of the matter is that we are weak human beings who often stumble into foolish schemes. Before, during, and after your folly, remember that for those of us who belong to the Father through faith in Jesus Christ, our folly is not the end of the story. God will cause His promises and purposes to hold sway in our lives. God will get His Abrahams and Sarahs where He intends for them to be, and He is more than able to get us there through the detours and wrong turns of our own making.
God is faithful: bank on it.
Life is messy: don’t pretend otherwise
Second, life is messy: don’t pretend otherwise. If you don’t see the uncomfortable messiness of this passage, let me point it out to you. Abraham told Abimelech that “[there] is no fear of God at all in this place” (v. 11), and yet at least in the specific circumstance of Genesis 20, Abraham’s perception seems unfounded. And not only that, but one wonders to what degree Abraham feared God as he journeyed into Gerar. Abraham fears man (“they will kill me because of my wife”) and is willing to practice deception and put Sarah at risk in order to protect himself. Abraham’s fear of God and trust in God are not shining brightly at this particular moment. On the other hand, Abimelech’s response to the revelation that he received is to fear God. Abimelech feared God and turned away from the evil that he had stumbled into. Abimelech feared God and obeyed the command that he received from God. Even prior to the divine revelation that he received, God confirms that Abimelech had acted “in the integrity of [his] heart” (v. 6). One would be hard-pressed to say that Abraham had acted in the integrity of his heart in the ruse that put Sarah at risk. The prophet – for Abraham is called a prophet (v. 7) – the prophet deceives and endangers others. In Genesis 18, the Lord revealed that He chose Abraham so “that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice” (Genesis 18:19), and yet in Genesis 20:9 Abimelech is giving Abraham a little mini-lecture on righteousness. The prophet has gotten careless, but the pagan king is rebuked by God and responds with repentance. Abraham doesn’t publicly honor Sarah when he allows her to be escorted into Abimelech’s house. But when Abimelech returns Sarah, Abimelech publicly honors and vindicates Sarah. Do you see the uncomfortable messiness of all this? But there’s more.
God stands by His flawed prophet, protecting and preserving him. God publicly identifies with His flawed prophet: far from disowning Abraham, God declares Abraham to be a prophet. God will not abandon His covenant partner. Moreover, God makes the prayer of His flawed prophet the means of healing for Abimelech and Abimelech’s household.
Aren’t you glad that God stands by His flawed church, protecting and preserving us? Aren’t you glad that God identifies with His flawed church: far from disowning us, God declares us to be His people. And yes, God makes our prayer and our evangelism the means of bringing salvation to the world.
I am not at all suggesting that Abimelech’s overall life was more righteous than Abraham’s. Genesis 20 is just a snapshot. But it is a real and uncomfortable snapshot. And my point in sharing it is to humble us. We ought to be humbled that sometimes the people who ought to know better do poorly, and the people who know less than we do show us up. My point, please note well, is not that Abraham needs to learn from Abimelech, or that the church needs to learn from the world. That really isn’t the point I’m driving at. The point I’m driving at is that Abraham really needs to learn from the Lord, and the church really needs to learn from the Lord, so that we have in our everyday practice the riches that God wants us to share with the world.
In the end, God treats Abraham far better than Abraham deserves to be treated, and God treats Abimelech far better than Abimelech deserves to be treated. No sinner deserves to be kept from additional sinning. No sinner deserves to be restored and healed. No sinner deserves to be spared the consequences of his own foolishness. No sinner deserves to be a means of bringing blessing to another sinner. And yet, God pours out His grace on sinners – on Abraham, on Sarah, on Abimelech – in Genesis 20. Don’t walk away from this passage without a fresh glimpse of the mercies of God.
God has some beautiful surprises: lean into them
Third, God has some beautiful surprises: lean into them. What I specifically have in mind is the beautiful surprise of a healed relationship that emerged out of the messiness. Genesis 20 is not a manual on relationships, but it does give us some brilliant rays of light for grace-shaped relationships that we must not miss.
What are the odds of a man giving up his wife to another man through an act of deception, and that other man believing the deception and taking that man’s wife for himself – what are the odds of those two men entering into a gracious relationship with one another? I mean the whole thing is just really messed up. It would have been so easy for the relationship between Abraham and Abimelech to have been stained with shame and regret and fear and anger for the rest of their lives. But that’s not how it played out. Instead, as both men submitted to God, they were brought into meaningful and gracious relationship with each other. And, as it turns out, the lessons here might be very timely for some people sitting in this sanctuary this morning.
It is helpful to see the beautiful surprise of a healed relationship both from Abimelech’s perspective and from Abraham’s perspective.
First, put yourself in Abimelech’s position. For Abimelech, submitting to God meant honoring two people – Abraham and Sarah – who had lied to him and had put his life and his kingdom on the edge of disaster. Think about it: someone lied to you, someone misled you, someone prompted you to take what you thought was a reasonable action but it proved to be disastrous, someone put you in a compromising position. And then God impresses upon you that need to demonstrate goodwill to this person – in fact, God impresses upon you that your well-being depends upon demonstrating goodwill to someone who has hurt you. Although we don’t live through the unique circumstances of Genesis 20 every day, we do walk through the minefields of complaints and grievances on an everyday basis. And our Lord’s teaching is clear: our well-being depends, in part, on demonstrating goodwill to the people who have hurt us. We confess this truth every time we pray: “and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). Do we forgive our debtors? Do we let love cover a multitude of injurious sins? In terms of Genesis 20, the fact of the matter is that God treats His chosen servant Abraham with an abundance of mercy. When Abimelech ends up treating Abraham with an abundance of mercy, Abimelech is, in some small but real way, reflecting God’s mercy to Abraham. In this moment, Abimelech is not far from the kingdom of God, for he is learning to be merciful to the people that God is merciful to. Are you learning to be merciful to the people that God is merciful to?
The beautiful surprise of a healed relationship can also be explored by putting yourself in Abraham’s position. Think about it: you’re the spiritual adult in the room, you’re the prophet, you’re the man or woman of God, and you’ve just pursued a course of action that has brought trouble into someone else’s life. How embarrassing! How shameful! Part of you would prefer to just run away and hide. But God doesn’t let you cut and run. Instead, as His representative you must stand before the person that you have injured, you must humbly receive their repentance, and you must pray for them. Really? Yes, really. Your prayer is key for bringing healing to the person that you hurt. Do you see the beauty here? At the beginning of Chapter 20, Abraham becomes a source of trouble for Abimelech. But at the end of Chapter 20, Abraham becomes a source of healing for Abimelech. And thus, in a painfully roundabout way, the call upon Abraham to a blessing to “all the families of the earth” (Genesis 12:3) gets enacted upon Abimelech’s family in the city of Gerar. Think practically here. A husband brings trouble to his wife, but his prayer is going to be key to his wife’s healing. Parents bring trouble to their children, but their prayer is going to be key to their children’s healing. Pastors and elders bring trouble upon the congregation, but their prayer is going to be key to the congregation’s healing. Too many people run away, hide in shame, and conclude that there’s no point in praying because they’ve blown it. But that perspective is not the fruit of grace. Grace leads people who blow it to humble themselves before the Lord, and then to offer up meaningful prayer for the people they’ve hurt. O fragile ones, clothe yourselves in the grace of God, take up the mantle of intercessory prayer, and pray effectual prayers for other people – starting with the ones that you’ve hurt, lied to, and offended. First and foremost, do this as an act of devotion to the Lord. But upon doing so, don’t be surprised when a broken relationship starts to move toward becoming a beautiful relationship. Looking ahead, in Genesis 21 Abraham and Abimelech will make a goodwill treaty with each other.
God has some beautiful surprises in store: lean into them. Life is messy: don’t pretend otherwise. God is faithful: always bank on it.
More in The Book of Genesis
March 19, 2023Passing the Baton: Part 2
March 12, 2023Passing the Baton: Part 1
March 5, 2023The Triumph of Abraham's Offspring