Genesis 20

The Word Made Fresh

1Abraham moved from Mamre’s oak grove to the Negev and camped between Kadesh and Shur in Gerar. While he was there 2he said of Sarah his wife, “She is my sister.” Abimelech, king of Gerar, sent for her and took her as his own. 3But God appeared to Abimelech in a dream and said, “You are as good as dead. The woman you took is married.”

4Abimelech had not touched her, though. He said, “Lord, would you kill people who are innocent? 5The man himself told me she is his sister. She herself said, ‘He is my brother.’ I did this in all honesty. I’m an innocent man!”

6God said, “Yes, I know you made an honest mistake. In fact, I’m the one who kept you from touching her. 7Now send the man back his wife. He is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you shall live. But if you don’t send her back you will die for certain, you and everyone who belongs to you.”

8Early the next morning Abimelech arose and summoned all his servants and told them what had happened, and they were very afraid. 9Then Abimelech called Abraham and said, “What have you done? What have I done to you to make you want to bring such guilt upon me and my kingdom? What you did should never happen.” 10Then he said, “What could you have been thinking to make you do such a thing?”

10“I did it,” said Abraham, “because I thought there is no fear of God in this place and they might kill me and take my wife. 12Besides, she is my sister, too, the daughter of my father but not of my mother, and she did become my wife. 13So when God made me leave my father’s house I said to her, ‘You must do me this favor; wherever we go, tell them I am your brother.’”

14So Abimelech gave Abraham sheep and oxen and male and female slaves, and returned Sarah to him. 15He said to Abraham, “All the land you see is mine, but live wherever you please.” 16And to Sarah he said, “I have given your ‘brother’ a thousand silver coins as proof of your innocence. Everyone in your family group will know you bear no guilt.”

17Then Abraham prayed to God and God healed Abimelech and his wife and his female slaves so that they could have children, 18for the LORD had closed the wombs of all the women in Abimelech’s house because of Abraham’s wife Sarah.

Commentary

1-7: Abraham and Sarah settle in the territory of king Abimelech. They tell everybody they are brother and sister. We’ve heard this before, in Egypt. Abimelech takes Sarah into his harem, but this is where the story differs from the earlier one (see chapter 12). This time God speaks directly to Abimelech rather than sending plagues as he had done in Egypt. And this time it is made abundantly clear that Abimelech did not have sexual relations with Sarah. Perhaps the reason this is emphasized is because in the next chapter Sarah will give birth to a baby boy, and it is necessary to make clear that this baby boy will be Abraham’s.

8-18: Abimelech confronts Abraham with the deception, and now we learn that Abraham and Sarah are half-siblings who share the same father! Abimelech gives Abraham sheep, oxen, and slaves to make amends, and Abraham in turn prays for Abimelech, and we learn that over the course of the story, which must have taken some time, at least months, no children were conceived in Abimelech’s kingdom, but Abraham’s prayer puts things back to normal.

Takeaway

Abraham’s treatment of his wife is indefensible and gives us pause, but God seems to be concerned with Abimelech’s behavior and not Abraham’s. God is still training humanity in moral behavior. What Abraham does here will be denounced when we come to the Ten Commandments in Exodus, and the extensive legal revision found in Leviticus.