Well, last week in chapter 19 we were alarmed at the sins of Sodom and the sins of Lot. We were sobered by the judgment of God poured out on the wicked. And we were amazed at God’s mercy to Lot through the pleading of Abraham. Today we continue in Genesis and as we do so we’ll again be alarmed, sobered, and amazed, but this time we’ll be amazed at Abraham’s sin. Sins that for Abraham would have brought him back to his former years in chapter 12 as he came into Egypt, where he lied about Sarah the first time. Today in chapter 20 he does it again.
Two headings today, see first…
Lies and Scary Dreams (v1-7)
First, just v1-2, “From there Abraham journeyed toward the territory of the Negeb and lived between Kadesh and Shur; and he sojourned in Gerar. And Abraham said of Sarah his wife, “She is my sister.” And Abimelech king of Gerar sent and took Sarah.”
In v1 Abraham is on the move. He’s heading out of Mamre, where he was throughout all of chapter 18-19, and goes toward Gerar. This time no fearful famine is driving him to relocate as was the case in chapter 12, he’s simply doing what a sojourner does, traveling around. So while v1 shows him heading out off and traveling around Gerar, v2 gives us a kind of abrupt stop. Out of nowhere we find ourselves in the middle of a conversation between Abraham and a king named Abimelech. Abimelech is a Canaanite name meaning ‘My father is king.’ The reference to father in his name could either be referring to a god the people of Gerar worshiped, or it could be his own father who was king before him. There actually are historical documents dating around this time that mention a king with this name. Whether or not it is this individual is hard to tell, it might be, or might not be, Abimelech was a common enough name, we’ll meet a few more Abimelech’s later on Scripture.
Nonetheless the Abimelech here in v2 is the king of Gerar, and though we do not get the precise details of how this situation came about, it’s implied that during Abraham’s travels he came across Abimelech. Perhaps they entered into Gerar itself and had got into this conflict there, or perhaps Abimelech heard of Abraham’s presence near Gerar and sent out his servants to go searching for them, or perhaps it happened another way. However it occurred, it says Abimelech sent for Sarah in order to take her for his own. v2 then reads as a kind of quick summary statement that thrusts us right into the middle of the conflict, leaving the rest of the chapter to describe how it’s all resolved. I think the quickness of v1-2 is simply due to the fact that Abraham and Sarah had been in this situation before. Back in chapter 12 it all seemed so meticulously planned out. Abraham took Sarah aside and explained the both the what (I’m going to lie about you) and the why (his own fear) of his lying about her. Here in this chapter it seems more like a spontaneous event because they’ve done this before. We’ll even learn later on in v13 that this is a pattern of theirs.
So see what’s happened. First, we’re amazed and aghast to see Abraham return to his old pattern of lying about Sarah, saying she is his sister and not his wife. Second, this creates the possibility that happens, another king takes Sarah for his own. And third, the covenant promise has been put in jeopardy once again. I mean, have we not seen him grow throughout the past 8 chapters? We followed him for near 30 years and we have seen him mature and grow and come to know God deeper. But here he resembles his old self and returns to former patterns, a well-worn rut in his soul, or we could just call it what it is, besetting sins.
We know what this is don’t we? If any of you park in the field out by Tanglewood you see a well-worn path right in the middle. Andrew and I come in and go out that way almost every day as we come and go from work. And over the past few years as we’ve done this more and more the grass is become pushed down, the ground has even begun to even out some, and now a clear path is easy to see. In the same way, in our souls we all have ruts, channels, patterns, and habits we return to time and time again. Some of these are great habits and serve us well, but some of them are not. These paths have become our own go to sins, or besetting sins. Now, it is true that all of us are tempted by many sins. But it is also true that all of us are not tempted with all sins. It seems, at least up to the present moment, that the temptation to gamble has been left out of my makeup. This doesn’t make me better than others who do struggle with this, it just means I’m tempted with other sins. Sins usually having to do with pride and the need to feel respected to unhealthy degrees. What is it for you? What are your go to, besetting sins? Your well-worn paths of disobedience you naturally slide down into and have to fight to get out of regularly? Well, as much as you might struggle with these sins, as harmful as they are, and as foolish as they are, see how God deals with Abraham here and be encouraged.
We see Abraham’s go to sins right here in v2. A fear induced lying deception bent toward self-preservation. He faces something, grows afraid, and lies to protect himself, even though what ends up happening is that he harms himself and others every time. He did this back in chapter 12 the first time, and now we see it once again. He’s not alone in this. Both the OT and the NT are full examples of great sinners who have been saved by God who can still be great sinners at times. Did we not just see Lot act enormously wicked in chapter 19? We did. And yet the NT calls him not only righteous, but godly. Lesson? This kind of inner civil war between our old nature and new nature was normal for Abraham, just as it is normal for us. If it weren’t for God and His grace He only knows what we would become.
So that’s v1-2, the scene has been set and were in the midst of conflict. What happens next? In v3 God sends a dream to Abimelech and in this dream he and God talk. Hear it for yourself in v3-7, “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.” 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.” 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. 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.”
Many have claimed to have had a dream or vision from God but I don’t know anyone who’s claimed to have this dream! Can you imagine it? God comes to you in a dream and says, ‘You’re a dead man!’ God of course doesn’t just say that. He adds the reason why, because Abimelech’s taken Sarah, who is the wife of another man. This then prompts Abimelech to defend himself in v4-5 where he claims his innocence. He fully admits that both Abraham and Sarah said this to him, ‘She is my sister’, and ‘He is my brother.’ He then asks God (like Abraham did in chapter 18) if God would kill the innocent. God responds in v6-7 acknowledging the same, that Abimelech did do this in innocence. Even so, God doesn’t just say it’s alright or fine to keep her since he didn’t know, not at all. God also says if he doesn’t return her to Abraham the prophet and have him pray for you, he and all in his house will die. But lest you think Abimelech is more upright than he was did notice that small detail God said in the end of v6? “…it was I who kept you from sinning against Me.” Two things are taught in this phrase. First, it shows us who Abimelech is. He would’ve taken Sarah as another wife and slept with her if God had not stopped him. And second, it shows us once again who God is. As their God, he stops Abimelech from taking Sarah in this way, and by doing so God ensures His covenant with Abraham remains. In other words, if Sarah gets pregnant by Abimelech and has a son while also having received the promise that she and Abraham will have a son, they and we are left guessing if the promise is still there. But God was God to His people here, defending and protecting them, see it? Even despite their own sin and mess and dumb choices, He ensured the covenant remained. So I say again, as much as you might struggle with your go to sins, as harmful as they are to you and to others, and as foolish as they are, God always protects and defends His covenant people.
Humiliation and Healing (v8-18)
“So Abimelech rose early in the morning and called all his servants and told them all these things. And the men were very much afraid. Then Abimelech called Abraham and said to him, “What have you done to us? And how have I sinned against you, that you have brought on me and my kingdom a great sin? You have done to me things that ought not to be done.” And Abimelech said to Abraham, “What did you see, that you did this thing?” 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.’ Besides, she is indeed my sister, the daughter of my father though not the daughter of my mother, and she became my wife. 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.”’” Then Abimelech took sheep and oxen, and male servants and female servants, and gave them to Abraham, and returned Sarah his wife to him. And Abimelech said, “Behold, my land is before you; dwell where it pleases you.” 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.” 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.
Right away here in v8 we see Abimelech sharing the conversation he just had with God in his dream, and the result was that they all were very afraid. Sure they don’t quite know who this God is, they probably think this is just one of many, but that they feared greatly is a sign of wisdom, for the fear of the Lord is where wisdom begins. In his fear he goes out, much like Pharaoh did in the end of chapter 12, in search of Abraham, to find him, and ask him questions. He finds him and begins the conversation. Question one is in v9, “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.” Question two in v10, “What did you see, that you did this thing?” Both questions are understandable, certainly, and are aiming at finding out the reason why Abraham did these things. On one hand Abimelech wants to know what he and his people had done to Abraham to deserve such poor treatment, and on the other hand Abimelech desires to know what Abraham had seen or learned of his people to act so dishonestly to them.
Beginning in v11 Abraham doesn’t answer these questions, no, instead he offers excuses. His first excuse is all about fear. He says he acted like this because he believed there was no fear of God in Gerar, and he also says he was afraid for his life because of Sarah. Well, from what we’ve seen so far Abimelech and his house do fear God. Sure, they don’t have any real content to that, but when the dream came upon their king and he told them of this God, they all feared greatly., which led him to bring Sarah back to him. Abraham has clearly misread the situation here. His second excuse is a half-truth. Abraham freely admits that Sarah is his sister, the daughter of his father by a different woman than his mother. This is true. But it isn’t the whole truth is it? She was also his wife, and this is what he didn’t tell Abimelech. So he gave a half-truth in order to hide the whole truth. Which still makes it lying. Then in v13 he almost blames God saying God made him a wanderer and because of that he has to say this about his wife in every place we go. And in this he even calls this general policy of theirs, a kindness! Abraham shows himself a fool here in two ways. First he shows himself to be a man of little faith in God. Since God made him a wanderer, you’d think he would trust God to care for him in his wandering. And second, he shows himself to think very lowly of others, so lowly of others that he believed it was common practice for those in Gerar to kidnap the wives of others. All in all, he doesn’t come out looking very good.
Yet, see how Abimelech responds? In v14 he gives all manner of gifts to Abraham, as a kind of restitution for wrong done even though he wasn’t in know. In v15 he allows Abraham to stay in Gerar and pick whatever land he desires. In v16 he gives 1,000 pieces of silver to vindicate Sarah’s innocence from any wrongdoing. This is especially significant, given that the common bride price in those days was at most 50 pieces. We see in this the contrast here between the folly of Abraham and the generosity of Abimelech. It could not be more stark, which makes me think…this would’ve been simply humiliating for Abraham. What does he do? He prays for Abimelech and all in his house in v17, and when he prays God heals the household. Healed from what? v18 tells us, that Abimelech’s wife and his female slaves became barren because of Abimelech taking Sarah.
Once again see the ironic ending. When Sarah, a barren woman, is among Abimelech’s house all his women become barren, and when Sarah leaves and Abraham prays for them, all their wombs are opened, though Sarah’s remains closed. For now…
Though this chapter is certainly not as well-known as the chapters surrounding it, it still teaches us much about ourselves and about God.
About ourselves, we learn not just that we’re sinful people, but that we tend to sin in patterns. These are our well-worn ruts, our besetting sins, that plague us again and again. We should not only be aware of these patterns in us, we should be seeking to cut off these patterns and fill these ruts so they stop being so repetitive in our lives. How do we fight our besetting sins? We need to be humbled by these our sinful patterns, humbled enough to ask for help. Ask those nearest to you, ‘What do you think my go to sins are?’ And after asking, you really need to hear what they have to say, and learn from it. And of course, we don’t stop there. We need to ask God for help. To come and dam up these rutted out channels in our souls so that we’ll not keep up the same old patterns. After all, God is able, and God can fill these ruts. Have you asked him?
So we learn much about ourselves here, but we also learn about God, we learn of His mercy. That despite us, despite our repeated foolish choices God still uses us, still blesses us, and often blesses others through us. Church, God’s purposes for His people are not tied to our performance. Isn’t that freeing? God is great in mercy over us. That’s evident in Abraham’s life here, and evident in our life as well. There’s only one Person in all history who God did not use despite themselves, the Lord Jesus. Tempted in all like we are, yet without sin, and yet He paid for all our sins on the cross, canceling them all and clearing us of all guilt. This gospel is indeed scandalous. So when we find ourselves tempted, we must look to Christ! For only by looking to Christ will we grow in Christ.
 Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 16-50, WBC (Waco, Texas: Zondervan, 2000), 70.
 Victor P. Hamilton, Genesis 18-50, NICOT (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1995), 59.
 Ibid., 60.
 John D. Currid, Genesis 1:1-25:18, EP Study Commentary (Holywell, UK: Evangelical Press, 2015), 366.
 Wenham, Genesis 16-50, 72.
 Wenham, 73.
 Bruce K. Waltke, Genesis (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Academic, 2001), 287.
 R. Kent Hughes, Genesis, Preaching the Word (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2004), 289.
 Waltke, Genesis, 288.
 Gospel Transformation Study Bible, notes on Gen. 20:1-18, page 30.