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Abraham’s Prayer and Abimelek’s Household: Genesis 20:18

“And Abraham prayed to God and God healed Abimelek and his wives and his handmaidens and they bore children because Yahweh had completely worked restraint throughout all the wombs in the house of Abimelek over this thing of Sarah, the wife of Abraham.”

(Genesis 20:18)

 

As we discussed in the passages above, God protects his own, and here he not only preserved the chastity of Sarah, but he also closed wombs of all of the people under the spiritual authority of Abimelek. What is striking about this is that it helps set a timetable for how long Sarah was in the house of Abimelek, for the barrenness of the women could not have been known were there not a sizable enough period of time for the young women to realize that they were not unable to get pregnant. At the very least, that places Sarah in Abimelek’s house for a month but more likely than not, as people sometimes don’t notice their pregnancy right away, it was a period of several months to a year before it would be utterly confirmed that no one who lived under Abilelek’s authority.

Often we do not see the timetable of events in scripture. Often one chapter ends and there are several years that pass before the beginning of the following chapter begins. More importantly for us is that sometimes we can be impatient with God’s timing on events. We want everything and we want it “now!” Thankfully, God does not exist to satisfy our whims—how many things we have prayed for we have been thankful that have not come to pass! We exist to serve God. That is the beginning and the end of our role here on earth—we shall serve him by seeking His glory over and above that of this world. It is in that glory we will find our peace and joy—it will be found nowhere else. At the same time, we will also experience that glory only in God’s timing and not in our own. Sarah was confident in her preservation and rescue. Shall we also not be the same? How many times has God preserved us in our own experience of this world already? He will continue to preserve his people.

 

 

Blood Atonement: Genesis 20:16

“And to Sarah he said, ‘Behold, I have given a thousand pieces of silver to your brother. Behold it is for you a covering of the eyes to all that are with you and to all that you may be found to be in the right.’”

(Genesis 20:16)

 

In many cases, this is the kind of passage we might be tempted to pass over as simply Abimelek giving an additional peace offering to Abraham for having taken Sarah as his wife. And we might as well have glossed over the passage save for one word: tOwsV;k (kesoth). Literally, this means “covering” and in its most basic sense refers to the clothing that one would cover their body with, like a robe or a cloak. Yet, in ancient cultures, clothing also served to indicate your status in society as well as your status before God. In the ultimate sense, it reflects the work of atonement, hence after Adam and Eve have sinned, God kills an animal and makes for them clothes to wear, not simply for protection from the elements, but a sign of the work of atonement that has been promised in Christ.

Abimelek understands that he is making atonement for his sin and the silver offered is a sign that Sarah committed no sin. The principle is that there is a cost incurred when the law is broken. Just as with the civil law today, when an infraction occurs, there are fines typically attached to the infraction. If we drive too fast, we pay a speeding ticket; the worse the infraction, the more serious the fine. The seriousness of breaking a law is related proportionally to whose law is broken. Thus, breaking a county ordinance is typically not as serious as breaking a state law and breaking a state law is not as serious as breaking a federal law. In turn, most people are less concerned about being in the county jail than in the federal penitentiary. When we break the law of God, we are not offending a local, state, federal, or even an international body—we are offending the creator of the universe and his perfect, righteous character. He is infinite and thus breaking his law is an infinite offense. Thus, the fine is far greater than a few thousand silver pieces—the fine, the punishment matches the infinite greatness of the one we have offended: God himself!

Since the wages of sin is death, the payment that must be exacted for our infraction of the law of God is eternal death—eternal death not just for our sins as a whole, but eternal death for each and every sin we have committed. In the Old Testament, substitutes were offered for the sins of the people, but the blood of rams and goats could only serve as a reminder of the horror of our own sinful state. Animals died, but they were neither perfect nor infinite, and thus could not effectively stand in our place to pay the debt we owe. For thousands of years, blood flowed from the altars of the people. All to no lasting avail.

Yet, God himself provided a better substitute in his Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus was fully man, thus could identify with us and effectively take our place and he was fully God, which means he was without sin and infinite, thus able to pay an infinite debt. He owed God nothing, but chose to pay God everything in substitute for our sin. And thus, just as Abimelek, after making a payment of atonement for Sarah declares her to be righteous before all who would judge, so too, does Jesus Christ declare us to be righteous before his Father, the one who judges us according to his perfect law. While the atonement is more than a payment for sin incurred, said payment is a very important aspect of what it is that Jesus is doing, praise be to the Lord!

Loved ones, do not miss these shadows that God has blessed us with here in the Old Testament. We often read through these narratives without making much note of what God is pointing us toward, yet the Holy Spirit has seen fit to have these encounters recorded for all time to be both a word of instruction and encouragement for us—to not take time to notice that encouragement, misses much of what God has given us. Jesus indeed has made a covering for us, not from silver or gold nor from the blood of animals, but instead from his own blood. Let us never take for granted this remarkable gift and let us celebrate and share that gift with others, telling them about the Good News of what God has wrought for sinful man.

 

Dwelling where it is good to do so…: Genesis 20:14-15

“And Abimelek took a flock, cattle, servants, and maidservants and gave them to Abraham. And he returned Sarah, his wife, to him. And Abimelek said, ‘My land is before your face; you shall dwell where it seems good to your eye.”

(Genesis 20:14-15)

 

Here we find a very interesting event. Not only do we have a repeat of the basic event that Abraham experienced when he left the king of Egypt (with the abundance of gifts), but this time Abraham is welcomed to stay in the land rather than run out of the territory. It seems that Abimelek understands, despite the event that has transpired, that God is with Abraham and he recognizes Abraham’s presence in the land as something that is beneficial to the region and land. Indeed, in Abimelek’s action, we find the promise that God gave to Abraham that the nations shall be blessed in him (Genesis 12:2-3).

What I find is most interesting, though, is the nature of the invitation that Abimelek has made. God has already given the land to Abraham, yet Abimelek is essentially inviting Abraham to take a portion of what God has already given to him as an inheritance. How this pattern has continued through history. God has given Christians this world for care and dominion, yet so often unbelieving authorities have felt magnanimous in giving us privileges and rights within their specific territories. Indeed, we have been called to be under the authority of the rulers of our lands, but if these rulers are not acknowledging God’s ultimate authority, they are trying to usurp for themselves that which was never given to them in the first place.

Abimelek refers to Canaan as “my land.” Abraham has an equal right to claim exactly the same thing of the region, yet Abraham waits on God’s timing to inherit the land. We too are being led by Jesus to a promised land, yet we will not dwell within it until the creation of the new heavens and the new earth. For now, though, we press forward speaking to all who will hear and telling them of the truth of the real owner and master of the land. Indeed, about 400 years after the death of Abraham, Israel would enter this land as a nation and would bring judgment upon the enemies of God with a sword. When our Lord returns, those who are the enemies of God will once again face judgment, but this time not with the sword, but with the fires of Hell. In Joshua’s day, there were some Canaanites left in the land; when Jesus returns, judgment will be absolute and complete. In that day, there will be no magnanimous discussing of terms—absolute judgment will reign. Let us tell those around us as to who they must serve if they will be spared the wrath of God poured out upon their heads!

 

Abraham’s Fear: Genesis 20:11

“And Abraham said, ‘It was because I said, ‘no one fears God in this place and they will slay me over the thing of my wife.’’”

(Genesis 20:11)

 

“For this reason, I remind you to rekindle the gift of God which is in you through the laying on of my hands. For God did not give you a spirit of cowardice, but of power, love, and self-control.”

(2 Timothy 1:6-7)

 

How often believers fall into the trap of fear. How sad it is when those who should know no fear of the things that can destroy the flesh of this world succumb to the terrors that it seems to present. Even here, Abraham, the “father of the faithful” (Romans 4:11), falls prey (once again) to the fear of what will happen if Abimelek finds out that Sarah is his wife, not his sister. And rather than trusting God, he falls back into his old sin of half-truths to try and cover himself.

As Christians, though, fear is not a character trait that should mark us. We have a God who is Lord of all of the heavens and who reigns sovereignly over his creation. We are in his hands and not under the power of the hands of our enemies. What confidence that should give to us, what boldness we should have as we share the Gospel of truth with our neighbors, friends, and co-workers. We, of all people, should be going out and sharing our faith; yet how often we adopt a fortress mindset and retreat our Christianity behind the walls of our church buildings. How sad it is that Christians who know the power of God in their lives can then doubt that power so greatly that they become timid and fearful and do not speak the truth into the lives of those around them.

Loved ones, love God. And whether the people in our communities love and fear God should not stop you from sharing the Gospel. What is the worst they will do? Make fun of you? Try and ridicule you? Was not our Lord ridiculed and made fun of for our sake? Will they attack you and harm you? Was not our Lord beaten for your sins and for mine? Will they kill you? Indeed, they may, but why fear those who can only harm the flesh when the God of heaven has the power to destroy both flesh and spirit? Loved ones, there is nothing to fear… go, make disciples of all men by seeing them baptized in the church and teaching them to obey all that Jesus commanded. There is nothing to fear from men.

Shall I, for fear of feeble man,
The Spirit’s course in me restrain?
Or, undismayed, in deed and word
Be a true witness for my Lord?

-Johann Winkler


 

The Confrontation: Genesis 20:9-10

“Then Abimelek called for Abraham and said to him, ‘What have you done to us? How have I sinned towards you that you have introduced this great sin upon me and upon my kingdom? Works which should not have been done, you have worked upon me.’ Abimelek said to Abraham, “What did you see that you did this thing?”

(Genesis 20:9-10)

 

The thing that interests me the most about this confrontation is that Abimelek does right what most Christians that I interact with seem to do wrong. When Abimelek realizes that Abraham has deceived him in this way, Abimelek does not throw a temper tantrum nor does he badmouth Abraham behind his back. Abimelek also does not try to “get even” as is so often done. Instead, Abimelek confronts Abraham and asks him what the purpose of this deception was as well as asking Abraham what he had done to make Abraham act like this.

Jesus, in Matthew 18:15-20 gives us instructions as to how we are to resolve conflicts, and in doing so, Jesus begins by instructing us to go directly to the person and speak to them about what took place with the intention of restoring the relationship that was broken. Abimelek does just that. There is no question that he is upset, but he makes the choice to go and confront Abraham in his sin. How often it is that confessing Christians are unwilling to do what this pagan is willing to do. How often it is that some of the worst back-biters are those who fill the pews of churches on Sunday mornings. How sad it is that confessing Christians so often set a poorer model than do unbelievers when we should be the ones who set the bar for the culture. We who know the love and forgiveness of God should be the first to model that love and forgiveness to the culture.

Loved ones, how is it that you respond to an offense done against you? It matters not whether we are comfortable in doing so, this is the command of Jesus we are talking about! Jesus says that if you love him you will obey him (John 14:15). Obedience forces us into places and situations which will stretch us as they are often God’s tool to sanctify us. Before you gripe and complain about one who has offended you, begin by asking yourself what you might have done to cause the person to offend you (as we see Abimelek doing) and second, ask yourself how you have offended God. As God has forgiven you, forgive the offending brother and go to him in grace seeking to restore him from his sin. They say that blood is thicker than water—the blood of Christ, though, is thicker than all.

 

Fearing Retribution: Genesis 20:8

“And Abimelek went early in the morning and called to all of his servants and he spoke of all the these things in their ears. The men were very afraid.”

(Genesis 20:8)

 

Abimelek is appropriately afraid of the threat that is given and rushes to tell his servants what has taken place during the night. The Hebrew verb that describes Abimelek telling the servants is in what is called the Piel stem, which typically indicates an intense, repeated action. One can almost imagine Abimelek, agitated and fearful, rushing down to tell his servants that they needed to get Sarah back to Abraham. There is almost a comical element to the picture in question as the king sheds all of his royal stateliness and rushes to tell his servants of what took place. The language of telling it to them “in their ears” is an idiom that reflects his making sure that everyone in his household was aware of what had taken place. Here is a man of power that has been rattled in a way that he likely has never been rattled before.

Our God indeed knows how to raise up kings but also to lay them low, humbling them into the dust (Ezekiel 17:24). Such is the way in this world that he governs by his providence. And such is still the way of God in this world. How often, both in ancient and in modern times that God has brought down kings to humble them as well as raised up peasants to positions of great influence. He is God and it is His right to do so. How pompous we get sometimes, though, thinking we are of great power and influence in this world of His.

Loved ones, take this message to heart, for none of us are free from the temptation toward pride and presumption. It matters not whether we are the pastor or president, a committee chairman in church or Chairman of the Board of a Fortune 500 company; God will drop us to our knees if we allow pride to swell in our breasts. God is not only preserving Sarah in this event, but he is also putting the powerful in their place before him. God continues to humble the proud and to lift up the humble so that His hand can be seen in the history of mankind. The key for us is to submit to that hand of providence and to the word he has given us as a guide. Then indeed, we may live faithfully before our almighty God.

 

Abraham the Prophet: Genesis 20:7

“Now, return the wife of this man, for he is a prophet and he will pray on your behalf so you will live. And if you do not return her, know that you will surely die—you and all who are yours.”

(Genesis 20:7)

 

What I find fascinating about this encounter is that even though the event took place as a result of Abraham’s lie, it is Abimelek that is threatened by God. As before, God turns this event on its head to benefit Abraham and to better situate Abraham in terms of the promise. In Egypt, Abraham was given the wealth of the kings to leave; here, he is given flocks and 1,000 pieces of silver as well as an invitation to remain on the land and God opened the wombs of those in Abimelek’s house which had been closed as Gods judgment while Sarah resided in Abimelek’s household.

Yet notice that even though the sin is Abimelek’s, his whole household pays the price and suffers judgement. And, had Abimelek not returned Sarah to Abraham, God threatens to destroy his entire household. Once again the principle of Federal Headship is illustrated by this point. Those who are under the authority of the head of the household are held guilty of his sin. The good news about Federal Headship, of course, is that those who have faith in Jesus Christ have their Federal Head in him and thus, we are no longer condemned by the sin of our forebears, but stand in the righteousness of Christ. That is good and joyful news!

Beloved, as we reflect upon these narratives, do not miss the theological principles that are contained within; God is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow, thus we ought to expect that he would interact with us as his people in essentially the same way today as he did more than 4,000 years ago when Abraham was walking in Canaan. Our God redeems and he does so through working faith in the lives of those he calls his own. We should never cease to be thankful for this grace.

Soar we now where Christ hath led, Alleluia!
Following our exalted Head, Alleluia!
Made like Him, like Him we rise, Alleluia!
Ours the cross, the grave, the skies, Alleluia!

-Charles Wesley


 

Pleading Your Innocence: Genesis 20:5-6

“‘Did he not say to me, ‘She is my sister.’ And she also said herself, ‘He is my brother.’ In the purity of my heart and the guiltlessness of my hands, I did this.’ And God said to him in the dream, ‘I know that in the purity of your heart you have done this and I spared you. Also, I kept you from sinning against me. Therefore, I did not let you touch her.’”

(Genesis 20:5-6)

 

As Abimelek pleads his innocence, notice God’s response: “I kept you from sinning against me.” The sole reason that Abimelek can stand before God and say that he never touched or defiled Sarah is because of God’s restraining hand. In our natural element, sin will be our primary pursuit, but we are not as bad as we could be because God places his hand upon our lives and governs all of us in this world to bring about his good ends. This takes place in the life of both the believer and the unbeliever, though as the believer is indwelt by the Holy Spirit, God moves in us not simply to restrain our sin, but to transform us into the image of his Son, Jesus Christ.

Not only is this passage a reminder that God is sovereign over the actions of unbelievers, but it is a passage that reminds us that God will preserve the lives of his own until he brings about his desired ends through us. It has been said that we are immortal until God is done with his plans in our lives. There is a certain degree of truth to this, and while this ought to cause us to live boldly for the Gospel, this does not give us license to live recklessly. It is God who knows the number of our days and the things he has planned for us to contribute to his Kingdom.

Another interesting point comes out in this passage for those who hold to a free-will theism, for how could Abimelek’s will be totally free if God is restraining his hand from doing what he otherwise wanted to do (he would not have taken Sarah as his wife if he never meant touch her). Clearly, God’s will brings about a change in Abimelek’s will and action, thus Abimelek behaves in a way that is consistent with God’s design. Typical Wesleyans would argue that man has the ultimate freedom to govern his own actions; the Bible presents a different picture here, that of God ultimately governing the people of the earth.

A number of years ago, I was confronted by a man who confronted me about my lifting every prayer before the Lord, both great and small. He contended that God had enough to do with governing the big things that go on in the world (wars, catastrophes, etc…) and that my prayers for healing or help were just distractions from God’s primary work. Beloved, such a view is not consistent with what the Bible teaches about the character of an infinite God who bids us to lay every care before his throne (1 Peter 5:7). He is the great governor over all of his creation, even numbering the hairs of our head (Matthew 10:30). Both great and small, God governs us and hears the prayers of those who know him and are called according to his purposes. It is good to be a child of the King. May we trust in His hand of protection and give Him glory for all he is and for all he has done.

 

Destroying a Righteous Nation: Genesis 20:4

“Abimelek had not come near to her, and he said, “Lord, will you kill a nation that is also righteous?’”

(Genesis 20:4)

 

Abimelek is making an interesting statement as well as having a deep theological insight. The recognition that he makes is that if God brings judgment against him as king over the people, then the people also will suffer. In the previous verse, God’s judgment is to say, “you are dead…” Most of the standard English translations floating around seem to translate this statement as “you are a dead man…” They infer from the context that individual judgment is given for an individual crime. Yet, God says, “you are dead” and Abimelek’s response is to understand that accusation as a sign of God’s judgment against his nation.

The principle at work is what is called the principle of Federal Headship. He who has authority over the nation both brings blessings and cursings upon the nation. When the head acts faithfully, the nation is blessed; when the head acts sinfully, the nation is cursed and suffers. Hence, when David disobeys God and conducts a census, 70,000 people of the land suffer and die from the pestilence that God sends in judgment (2 Samuel 24:10-17).

In an ultimate sense, this principle is demonstrated in Adam and in Christ. Adam sinned and as a result the whole of the human race has suffered the effects of the fall (as well as creation itself). Yet, through the one man, Christ, redemption is brought to all that are under his federal headship. All mankind are physically descended from Adam, thus we have all inherited his sin. Those whom God has elected from the beginning of time, who will come to Christ in faith, are those who, in faith, are put under the federal headship of Christ and thus given life.

There is typically a part of us that wants to say that this principle is not fair, and in a sense, that is right. This principle is not fair in the most basic sense of the term. What would be perfectly fair is that we would be judged according to our actions and condemned to eternal damnation—each and every one of us. Yet, God in his mercy chose to be unfair to some so that grace may be demonstrated. Thus, to those whose names are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life, salvation is offered not because of us or because of our name, but because of our Great Federal Head, Jesus Christ.

All hail the power of Jesus’ name!

Let angels prostrate fall;

bring forth the royal diadem,

and crown him Lord of all.

Bring forth the royal diadem,

and crown him Lord of all.

-Edward Perronet


 

‘You are a dead man!’: Genesis 20:3

“And God went in to Abimelek in a dream by night saying to him, ‘Behold, you are dead over the woman you took for she is married to a husband.’”

(Genesis 20:3)

 

Just as God did before, once again he protects the purity of Sarah. God ensures that the woman who will be the vessel of his promised child will have that child with her husband, Abraham, and not through a surrogate, whether Egyptian or Canaanite. Once again, the God of heaven demonstrates that he is the great shepherd over his people, protecting them from the harm that would come from the logical end of Abraham’s sin.

A question might be asked as to why Sarah submitted to her husband. She certainly saw the folly of his initial sin and to see it repeated seems a bit odd. Some may suggest that she was trusting in God’s deliverance. One also may suggest that she could have shared Abraham’s fears and thus entered into his sin willingly. We have already seen the sin of Sarah when she tried to take God’s promise into her own hands by giving her servant Hagar to Abraham as a wife. The child, Ishmael, came into the world as a result of this sin and the world has seen no end of grief as a result of these Ishmaelite children, those we now know as Arabian Muslims. How our sins so often come and haunt us.

Anyway, Abimelek (many of our Bibles wrongly transliterate his name as “Abimelech”) tries to take Sarah as a wife, likely because of Abraham’s wealth and wanting to build an alliance and thus secure Abraham’s allegiance. This was a common practice in ancient times, yet Sarah is not simply a sister, but indeed is the wife of Abraham. In this, all bets are off and God intervenes.

Loved ones, the God we worship today is the same God who protected Sarah. Now, sometimes he chooses not to protect his own in the way he protected Sarah, but he has promised to protect nonetheless and to carry each of us through whatever trial or trauma that we may face in this fallen world. God is a good God and though we often have to walk through hellish experiences in this life, we should be comforted in knowing that his hand always remains on us. Be at peace, his hand will guide and protect still today.

 

‘She is my Sister’: Genesis 20:2

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

(Genesis 20:2)

 

Uh, Abraham, haven’t we been through this once before when you were back in Egypt? What happened to honoring, cherishing, shepherding, and protecting your wife? How is it that the man who led 318 men against four armies has now succumbed to his old fears? This repetition is such that it has caused many Bible scholars to treat this as the same story as was told in Genesis 12, just in Canaan and not Egypt. They assume that the Bible is not a historical document and they assume that the stories are just a compilation of folk stories that have been sloppily combined by editors and redactors.

The reality is that those scholars that think that this is but a retelling of the Egypt story betrays their lack of understanding of Hebrew narrative and their lack of understanding of sin. This is certainly the same sin as Abraham had committed back when he was in Egypt—and we will find out later in the chapter that the sin was committed for the same motivations—he was afraid for his life, though this time Abraham justifies (or tries to) his sin. The nature of sin is just that, though. It comes back, often over and over, until it is deliberately put to death. The style of the Hebrew narrative is such that the text is intentionally written in such a way that the connections between this sinful event in Abraham’s life can be seen for the repeated sin it is. Moses (who authored the text of Genesis) is making it crystal clear that this man of faith is a man who still struggles against sin. One of the remarkable things about the Bible is that you find all of the saints portrayed in all of their weaknesses; it is a reminder that God is the great protagonist and not man.

Such is no different in life. God is still the hero of the story and we are still the bumbling and sinning fools. God patiently rebukes us and preserves us though we deserve judgment. And despite our failings, He delivers us from our enemies. This chapter is preeminently about God and his faithfulness despite the failings of Abraham. Yet, that is the theme of God’s hand in all of our lives. How far short we fall of the mark, yet God consistently and faithfully guides us along the pathway, slowly conforming us into his image for his glory. Men love to bask in their glory, yet how paltry the feign glory of man is compared to magnificent glory of God. We, like children, are excited about the little plastic baubles that we may earn in this world, yet in God’s hands are genuine gold, silver, and pearls. Abraham is indeed the father of the faithful (Romans 4:16), but it is God who made him so.