21. Don’t Ever Say Never (Genesis 20:1-18)
Many Christians are concerned about their “testimony” before the world, but perhaps for the wrong reasons. While it is important for Christians to live a life which is consistent with the will and the Word of God (cf. Romans 6:1ff; Ephesians 4:1ff; Colossians 3:1ff, I Peter 1:13ff), we sometimes misapply this truth so as to avoid our responsibilities. For example, I know that others, like myself, are inclined to keep silent about our faith in Jesus Christ because we fear that our testimony has been so poor others will not want to trust in Christ. Since the message of our life fails to conform to that of our lips, we keep silent about our faith in Christ.
While we should strive to live in such a way as to create an interest in that which makes us unique as Christians (Matthew 5:13-16; Colossians 4:5-6; I Peter 3:13ff), our failures do not necessarily prevent others from being drawn to Jesus Christ as their Savior. I know of a man in our church who was saved through the testimony of a drunken sailor. My friend, then an unbeliever, rebuked a drunken Christian for his conduct. The drunk protested that even though a discredit to his Lord, he was nonetheless eternally saved and secure. My friend could not imagine how such a thing could be so. Because of the certainty of this drunken Christian about his spiritual security, my friend studied the Scriptures for himself to see if this could be true. As a result, he was saved as well, to some degree through the “testimony” of the drunken sailor.
While this kind of conduct as a Christian is in no way recommended or smiled upon, the Bible indicates that even at very low points in our Christian experience God can use His saints to draw others to Himself. Such was the case in the life of Abraham as described in Genesis 20.
God had disclosed to Abraham that he would be the father of a son born through Sarah (17:15-19; 18:10). Abraham, upon hearing of the coming destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, interceded for the cities on behalf of the righteous who dwelt in them (18:22ff). God assured him that if only ten righteous could be found, the cities would be spared (18:32). While the righteous were not to be found and the cities were not spared, Lot and his daughters were delivered from destruction (chapter 19). The devastation of Sodom and Gomorrah took place under the watchful eye of Abraham, looking on from afar (19:27-29).
Chapters 17-19 of Genesis have depicted a high point in the life of the patriarch. Here is the man of faith and intercession we expect to find in the pages of holy writ. The man in chapter 20 is a far cry from our expectations for a patriarch and a prophet. He is a man compared to whom Abimelech looks saintly. In spite of this sad state of affairs, the grace of God is seen for the marvel it is, not so much in spite of Abraham’s failure of faith as because of it. Abraham is an unwilling witness to the wonderful grace of God Who saves and sanctifies men and women in spite of themselves.
Abimelech Is Restrained
For an unspecified reason185 Abraham left Mamre, wandering southward near Kadesh and then northwest to Gerar, not far from the Mediterranean Sea in the land of the Philistines.186 At Gerar, Abraham repeated a sin committed very early in his life as a follower of God (cf. 12:10ff). Once again, he passed off his wife Sarah as his sister, which resulted in her being taken into the harem of Abimelech,187 king of Gerar.188
Liberal critics hasten to classify chapters 12, 20, and 26 as three different accounts of the same event. Such a position cannot be taken seriously : the text is considered reliable. The similarities are striking and purposely underscored. Nevertheless, the differences between chapters 12 and 20 are significant. Some of these are:
Time: Early in Christian Life
Time: Late in Christian Life
Abraham’s response to rebuke: Silence
Abraham’s response to rebuke: Excuses
Result: Abraham left Egypt
Result: Abraham stayed in Gerar
We have every reason to conclude that there are three events, similar in some details but decidedly different in many particulars. The similarities are intended to be instructive. Even mature saints are plagued with the sins of younger days (chapter 20), and “the sins of the fathers” surely are visited on the sons (as in chapter 26).
The situation here is far more critical than in chapter 12. First, God has clearly revealed to Abraham and Sarah that together they will bear a son through whom the covenant promises will be realized. More than this, the conception of the child must be near at hand, for he was said to have been born within the space of a year (17:21; 18:10). Human reasoning would have considered the dangers in chapter 20 to be minimal since Sarah was long past the childbearing age (17:17; 18:11,13). But the eye of faith would have seen the matter in an entirely different light. Was Abraham’s faith at a low ebb? It must be so.
Abimelech was restrained by God in a two-fold fashion. First, God warned him in the strongest terms: “Behold, you are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is married” (Genesis 20:3).
It becomes clear that death will only follow if Abimelech’s actions are not reversed and Sarah returned, untouched, to Abraham. God told Abimelech he was as good as dead if he did not act decisively and according to God’s directions.
Secondly, Abimelech and all of his household were physically restrained from sinning against Sarah, even if they had wished to:
Then God said to him in the dream, ‘Yes, I know that in the integrity of your heart you have done this, and I also kept you from sinning against Me; therefore I did not let you touch her. Now therefore restore the man’s wife, for he is a prophet and he will pray for you, and you will live. But if you do not restore her, know that you shall surely die, you and all who are yours.… And Abraham prayed to God; and God healed Abimelech and his wife and his maids, so that they bore children. For the Lord had closed fast all the wombs of the household of Abimelech because of Sarah, Abraham’s wife (Genesis 20:6-7, 17-18).
By means of some undisclosed physical malady, no one in the royal household was able to conceive. Further, it seems that sexual activity was prohibited altogether. This would ensure Sarah’s purity, as well as prevent the birth of a child by Abimelech. The revelation Abimelech received in the dream thus explained the reason for the plague which had fallen upon his household. This also sheds light on the great fear of the male servants in Abimelech’s household. They, too, suffered from this affliction which prohibited normal sexual activity. In a culture that placed a high value on many offspring and virility, the situation would have been taken as critical. And so it was.
While the imminent danger for Abimelech and his household is emphasized, so also is his innocence:
Now Abimelech had not come near her; and he said, ‘Lord, wilt Thou slay a nation, even though blameless? 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’ (Genesis 20:4-5).
Abimelech, unlike Abraham, was guiltless in this matter. His actions were based upon purity of motive and upon the untrue statements of Abraham and Sarah.189 God acknowledged the innocence of the king but made it clear that apart from divine intervention he would have committed a grave offense. The way Abimelech handled this matter now would determine his destiny. To delay or disobey meant certain death.
Strange as it may seem, Abimelech stood head and shoulders above Abraham in this passage. We must admit that there is no sin into which the Christian cannot fall in times of disobedience and unbelief. At such times, unbelievers may put the Christian to shame by their integrity and morality (cf. I Corinthians 5:1ff).
The wonder of this passage is not the fact that Abraham could regress so far in his Christian growth and maturity. From my own experience I am ashamed to admit that this is entirely believable. While the faithlessness of Abraham comes as no surprise, the faithfulness of God to Abraham at this time of failure is amazing.
Had I been God, the last thing I would have considered would be to reveal my relationship to Abraham. Even if my own character demanded that I remain faithful to my promises, I would not have disclosed to Abimelech that Abraham was a believer, albeit a carnal one. And yet God disclosed the fact that Abraham was the object of His special care. More than this, Abraham was identified as a prophet (verse 7).190 He was God’s representative and the intermediary through whom Abimelech must be healed.
This must have left Abimelech shaking his head. How could Abraham be a man of God at the same time he was a liar? Abimelech, however, was not given any opportunity to take punitive action in spite of the problems Abraham’s disobedience had brought upon the king’s household. Abraham was the source of Abimelech’s suffering, it was true, but he was also the solution. Abimelech and Abraham both found themselves in a very awkward position.
Abraham Is Rebuked
Abimelech wasted no time making matters right before God. He arose early in the morning and reported the substance of his dream to those of his household. Because they were affected along with Abimelech, they greatly feared (verse 8). They would see to it that the king’s orders were followed to the letter.
After informing his servants, Abimelech summoned Abraham. It was not a pleasant situation, and Abraham was sternly rebuked for his deception:
What have you done to us? And how have I sinned against you, that you have brought on me and on my kingdom a great sin? You have done to me things that ought not to be done (Genesis 20:9).
Abimelech had been wronged by Abraham. He had not only done what was wrong in the eyes of God, but also in the eyes of pagans. Abraham, who was to be a source of blessing (12:2,3), had become a proverbial pain in the neck to those in whose land he sojourned.
Twenty-five years before this, Abraham had committed a nearly identical sin. In that case, we do not know how Pharaoh learned the truth, nor are any of Abraham’s excuses recorded. Pharaoh seemed interested only in getting Abraham as far from his presence as possible. Abimelech did not ask Abraham to leave, perhaps out of fear of what God might do for such lack of hospitality. Abraham’s excuses, weak as they are, are reported to us:
And Abraham said, “Because I thought, surely there is no fear of God in this place; and they will kill me because of my wife. Besides, she actually is my sister, the daughter of my father, but not the daughter of my mother, and she became my wife; and it came about, when God caused me to wander from my father’s house, that I said to her, ‘This is the kindness which you will show to me: everywhere we go, say of me, “He is my brother”’” (Genesis 20:11-13).
Three reasons are stated for Abraham’s deception, but none of them satisfactorily explain his actions in Gerar. First, Abraham acted out of fear. He feared that because of Sarah’s beauty he would be killed, and she would be taken as a wife by violence. This fear was based upon a faulty theological premise: God is only able to act when men are willing to obey. God could save Abraham only in a place where He was known and feared by men. The inference is that where ungodly men are, God’s hand is shortened and unable to save.
Such theology was due more to unbelief than to ignorance. It was the same fear Abraham had twenty-five years before. According to Abraham’s theology, God could not save him from the hand of Pharaoh either, but He did! Abraham failed because of unbelief, not because he was uninformed.
Incidentally, this unbelief had to disregard specific revelation, for shortly before this incident God had twice told Abraham that Sarah would become pregnant and bear a child within the year (17:19,21; 18:10). Could Abraham willingly encourage Sarah to go to bed with Abimelech, believing that she soon was to become pregnant and have a child? I think not. If Sarah was thought to be “over the hill” and unable to have children, her becoming a part of the king’s harem might not be taken so seriously. Abraham might have thought the laugh would be on Abimelech for taking as his wife a woman who was old enough to be his mother.
One more observation must be made concerning Abraham’s fears for his own safety. His conduct differs little from that of Lot in Sodom and Gomorrah. Lot, by inviting the two strangers under his roof, assured them of protection. Rather than break this commitment, he was willing to sacrifice the purity of his two virgin daughters and give them over to the men outside his door. Abraham, fearing for his own safety, was willing to give over his wife to the king (or any other citizen of Gerar) to protect himself from harm.
The second reason for Abraham’s deception is even less satisfactory. His statement, though a lie, was technically factual. Sarah was, indeed, his sister, the daughter of his father, but not his mother (verse 12). Facts can be and often are used in such a way as to convey falsehood. Statistics are sometimes employed in this way: You have your head in the freezer and your feet in the oven, but, on the average, you are comfortable. His sister, indeed. She was his wife. Abraham tried to defend himself by technicalities but not by truthfulness.
The third reason I have labeled “tradition.” When all else fails to justify the way we have acted, we can always fall back on these well worn words: “But we’ve always done it that way before.” That’s what Abraham was saying in substance. His actions before Abimelech were not to be taken personally—they were merely company policy. This policy had been established many years ago. Why should it be set aside after so many years?
Having looked at each of the three lines of Abraham’s defense, let us consider his arguments as a whole. There is absolutely no indication of acceptance of responsibility for sin, nor of sorrow or repentance. While his arguments fail to satisfy us, as they did not impress Abimelech, they did seem to satisfy Abraham.
This observation did not come to me immediately. In fact, one of my friends suggested it to me after I delivered this message in the first service. But he is absolutely right. Abraham here is like one of our children who is caught dead to rights. They are sorry they are caught but not repentant for the wrong they have done.
It also explains the repetition of this sin by Abraham and, later, by his son Isaac. Abraham never said to himself, “I’ll never do that again,” either in Egypt or in Gerar. In both cases Abraham escaped with his wife’s purity and with a sizeable profit to boot. So far as I can tell, Abraham never saw his deceptiveness as a sin. Consequently, it kept cropping up in later generations.
I do not think that Abimelech was impressed with Abraham’s explanation. Nevertheless, God had severely cautioned him, and he knew that Abraham was the only one who could intercede for him to remove the plague which prohibited the bearing of children. Because of this, restitution was made.
First, Sarah was given back to her husband Abraham along with sheep, oxen, and servants (verse 14). Then, to Abraham the invitation was extended for him to settle in the land wherever he chose (verse 15). Finally, a thousand pieces of silver were given to Abraham as a symbol of Sarah’s vindication (verse 16). Her return to Abraham, therefore, was not because she was found to be unacceptable or undesirable.191
Abimelech Is Restored
What a humbling experience it must have been for Abraham to intercede on behalf of Abimelech. A deep sense of unworthiness must have (or at least should have) come over him. It was surely not his righteousness which was the basis for divine healing. As a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ, I must confess to you that I frequently experience feelings of inadequacy and unworthiness. Prophets, my friends, are not necessarily more pious, and neither are preachers! The greatest danger that those in positions of prominence or power face is that they begin to believe that their usefulness is based upon their faithfulness and deeper spirituality. Any time that we are used of God, it is solely because of the grace of God.
While this was a tragic time in the life of God’s chosen, it was necessary, for it prepared the way for the following chapter in which the promised child is given. God’s promise to Abraham was kept because God is faithful, not because Abraham was faithful. “Every good and perfect gift,” in the words of Scripture, “cometh from above” (James 1:17). Such was the case with Isaac.
When Abraham prayed, the wombs of Abimelech’s household were opened so that they once again bore children. So Sarah’s womb was to be opened as well. The promised son was soon to be born.
Abraham’s failure, to be sure, occurred in a culture and time that is foreign to Christians today. In spite of this, his problems were no different than ours (cf. James 5:17), and the principles found in Genesis 20 are as true today as they were centuries ago. God has not changed, and neither have men. Take a few moments to consider the lessons we can learn from this incident in the life of Abraham.
(1) The fallibility of the saints. I know there are those who teach sinless perfectionism, but I cannot fathom why. The old man, while positionally dead, is very much alive and well for the time being. While we should be living out the victorious life of Romans 8, most of us find ourselves continually in chapter 7. Such was true of Abraham, the friend of God, also.
Privileged position does not preclude failure. Abraham was God’s elect, God’s chosen, but he still floundered and failed. Abraham was God’s prophet, but that did not make him more pious than others. Abraham prospered both in Egypt and in Gerar, but it was not because he attained a higher level of spirituality. The most dangerous doctrine for the Christian is that which suggests that Christians can be above temptation and failure in their Christian lives, even after years of service or in a privileged position.
(2) Our disobedience is often camouflaged by excuses transparent to all but ourselves. Abraham’s three excuses are easily seen to be a sham, and yet variations on these three themes serve as justification for much wrong that we do.
The first is situational ethics, which is a system of ethics based upon the denial of either the existence of God or His ability to act in man’s behalf. Situationalism always posits a dilemma in which there is no alternative other than a sinful act. In such cases we are forced to decide on the basis of the lesser of two evils.
First Corinthians 10:13 dogmatically asserts that the premise on which situationalism is based is wrong. It teaches that God never places the Christian in a circumstance where he or she must sin. The outcome which we dread is always a figment of our fearful imagination, and not of reality. Abraham feared that someone would kill him to take away his wife. It never happened, nor was there any reported situation where this was even a remote possibility. Faith in a God Who is sovereign in every situation keeps us from flirting with sinful acts which allegedly will deliver us from emergency situations—ones in which godliness must be put on the shelf.
The second is dealing in technicalities rather than truth. The information Abraham gave to Abimelech was totally factual (verse 12). Sarah was his sister. But what Abraham failed to report made it all a lie. She was his wife, as well as his sister.
How often we allow people to draw the wrong conclusions or impressions by withholding evidence. We want to give the impression we are spiritual when we are not. We try to appear happy when our heart is breaking. We try to look sophisticated when we are desperate and despondent. Faith is facing up to reality and dealing openly with others, even when the truth may appear to put us in jeopardy or may make us vulnerable.
The third, and very common, excuse is that of tradition. “We’ve always done it that way.” That was Abraham’s excuse. All that it indicates is our persistence in sin. As my uncle used to say of someone who always had a good word for everyone, “She would say of the Devil, ‘He’s persistent.’” Tradition is not wrong, but neither does it make any practice right.
(3) Our failures will not keep a person from coming to faith in our Lord. While Abraham was not eager to talk about his faith to Abimelech, God was not reluctant to own Abraham as a person and a prophet. Why didn’t God keep His relationship to Abraham quiet? Wouldn’t the poor testimony of Abraham drive Abimelech away from God?
We would have expected Abimelech to respond to Abraham’s sin as many do today: “The church is full of hypocrites. If that’s what Christianity is, I don’t want any part of it.” Such excuses are no better than Abraham’s.
Abraham’s failure provided Abimelech with the best reason in the world to be a believer in his God: the God of Abraham was a God of grace, not of works. Abraham’s God not only saved him apart from works (cf. Genesis 15:6; Romans 4) but kept him apart from works. Abraham’s faith was in a God Whose gifts and blessings are not based upon our faithfulness but His. Men and women are not looking for a fair-weather religion but one that assures them of salvation regardless of their spiritual condition at the moment. The kind of faith Abraham had is the kind which men desire, one that works even when we don’t.
(4) The grace of God and the eternal security of the believer. That brings us to our final point: the Christian is eternally secure regardless of failures in faith. Backsliding is never encouraged, never winked at, and never without painful consequences according to Scripture. Nevertheless, backsliding will never cost the Christian his salvation. The salvation which God offers to men is eternal. If anyone should have lost his salvation, it was Abraham, but he remained a child of God.
What a background chapter 20 sets for chapter 21. We would have expected Isaac to have been conceived at a high point in Abraham and Sarah’s lives, but it was not so. We would at least have expected Abraham’s unbelief to have been exposed and finally conquered in chapter 20, but it did not happen. In fact, Abraham never even acknowledged the sinfulness of his actions.
God blessed Abraham, He gave him wealth (Genesis 12:16,20; 13:1-2, 20:14-16) and the son He had promised (Genesis 21:1ff). He also gave him a privileged position (Genesis 20:7, 17-18). All those blessings were gifts of God’s grace, not rewards for Abraham’s good works. By the end of Genesis 20 we must conclude, in the words of Kidner:
After his spiritual exertions Abraham’s relapse into faithless scheming, as at other moments of anticlimax (see on 12:10ff and on chapter 16), carries its own warning. But the episode is chiefly one of suspense: on the brink of Isaac’s birth-story here is the very Promise put in jeopardy, traded away for personal safety. If it is ever to be fulfilled, it will have to be achieved by the grace of God.192
185 While no reasons for Abraham’s moves are given, I would think that chapter 19 supplies us with a strong suggestion for Abraham’s departure from Mamre. Somehow the devastation of the cities of the valley must have had some effect on Abraham’s ability to raise his great herds of cattle. It is likely that the availability of both grass and water may have affected his other moves as well.
186 The critics have pounced upon the mention of the Philistines in 21:32. This is impossible and thus in error because the Philistines were not in the land until after Moses, their dominion of Palestine being around 1175 B.C. It would appear that the problem is best explained by viewing these early Philistines as those of an early wave of migrants who paved the way for the later, more hostile immigrants identified biblically as Philistines. For a lengthy discussion of this problem, cf. Harold G. Stigers, A Commentary of Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), pp. 181-182. Kidner concisely summarizes:
“The Philistines arrived in Palestine in force in the early twelfth century; Abimelech’s group will have been early forerunners, perhaps in the course of trade.” Derek Kidner, Genesis (Chicago: Inter-Varsity Press, 1967), p. 142.
187 Abimelech is thought to be a title of office, like Pharaoh, and not the given name of a person. It is difficult to know for certain whether Abimelech is a moral pagan or a true believer in the God of Abraham.
188 Some marvel at the fact that Sarah could still be so attractive at the age of 90 that she would be desirable as a wife (or concubine). We must remember that the life span of men and women was longer then than now. Abraham lived to the age of 175 (25:7), Sarah to 127 (23:1). Also, in order to bear the child the normal aging process must have been retarded. The text leaves the impression that Abraham feared for his safety because of Sarah’s beauty. I believe we should be willing to accept this at face value. This does not mean that other reasons for taking Sarah could not have been present. Abraham was a man of wealth and power. Alliances were made by means of marriages, and thus Abimelech’s reasons for marrying Sarah may have been numerous.
189 Some have suggested that Sarah had no guilt in affirming Abraham’s lies as the truth. It is said that Sarah was merely being submissive and that Abraham bore his guilt and Sarah’s also. I see no biblical evidence for such claims. Sarah was commended in Scripture for her submissive obedience. The reference of Peter to Sarah, however, is not to her lie in Genesis 20 but to her reverence toward her husband in chapter 18 (verse 12). Here, late in life and at a time when the promise of a child seemed incredible, she still referred to Abraham with deep respect, evidenced by the word ‘lord’: “And Sarah laughed to herself, saying, ‘After I have become old, shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?’” (Genesis 18:12). Furthermore, Peter, while commending Sarah’s obedience, carefully defined the kind of obedience which is acceptable and pleasing to God: “Thus Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord, and you have become her children if you do what is right without being frightened by any fear.” Abraham’s lie and Sarah’s participation in it was based upon fear, and Moses made it clear that it was not right, even in the eyes of a pagan. While Sarah’s obedient spirit may be commended, her lie is not. We must always obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29). Submission is the obedience we give when, in our judgment, the action is unwise; it is not participating in what we know from God’s Word to be wrong. In the biblical chain-of-command God’s revealed will is supreme, and it overrules all other levels of authority if they are in direct conflict.
190 While Abraham does not fit the usual conception of a biblical prophet, it is a fitting designation. He did, consistent with the Hebrew word, nabhi, serve as a speaker or spokesman for God (cf. Exodus 4:16, 7:1). Furthermore, a prophet often interceded for others (cf. Deuteronomy 9:20; I Samuel 7:5). In both of these senses Abraham was a prophet, although he did not foretell the future.
“Herein are described the results of the incident presented in vv. 1-7. In v. 16 there is the peculiar circumstance of the money, which may be a value paraphrase of the value of the animals and slaves given to Abraham, stated in a judicial manner. The giving of the animals is, in effect, a pecuniary settlement to guarantee that no legal recourse may be had by Abraham against Abimelech at any future time.” Stigers, Genesis, p. 180. In his usual concise style Kidner summarizes: “In offering the compensation Abimelech owned his error (though the term ‘thy brother’ re-emphasized his innocence), and in accepting it Abraham acknowledged the matter settled.” Kidner, Genesis, p. 139.