Old Wives’ Tales

Genesis 20
I’m sure that many of us have experienced sinning over and over again those sins of which we just cannot seem to get rid. You repent and come back to the Lord, asking his forgiveness, and yet you fall into that same sin just a little while later. Sound familiar? Well, we see that here in the person of Abraham. He has committed this same sin before. The account is in chapter 12. There it is the Egyptian Pharaoh who has the shock of his life. Here it is Abimelech. The point about Abraham is that his faith does not fail where the faith of many a believer fails; it is not in any of the fundamental aspects of the faith, nor in the main and essential characteristics of his walk with God: rather, it is in the practical application of the promises of the covenant and the principles of that walk to some one or other of the details or the difficulties of the ordinary worldly condition. The question we must ask ourselves is this: is God good? Does He really have our best interests at heart? Can God keep His promises without any “help” from me? The problem comes when we see that there is something that we want that God is not going to give to us. What we say is this, “I want something that I don’t think I can get through obedience to God. I need it and God isn’t giving it to me, so I’m just going to take it for myself.” We seem to see that obedience is not going to get us anywhere, and so we short-circuit obedience, and get what we think we want. The problem with that way of thinking, of course, is that when we get what we thought we wanted, it doesn’t turn out at all how we expected it would. That is when we need to remind ourselves that God is good.

Previously, we saw where Lot wound up. We saw, previous to that, how Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed. Now, we see Abraham moving to a different place. Probably the destruction was not something of which Abraham wanted to be constantly reminded, and so he moved. Moving away from his previous place of residence meant that he was in unfamiliar territory. And when Abraham is in unfamiliar territory, he does what we all like to do when we are in unfamiliar territory: go back to our old way of doing things.

Abraham decides to do things the old way by passing off his wife Sarah as his sister. This has the same consequences that it had before: the foreign king decides that he needs another wife in his harem. Only this time, the match was probably not because of her beauty. It does not mention her beauty. Probably Abimelech was looking out for a chance for a political alliance. Abimelech knows that Abraham is powerful; in fact, one of the most powerful of the wandering sheiks in the area. Possibly Abimelech had heard about Abraham’s exploits in saving his nephew Lot from the four marauding kings mentioned in chapter 14. and so, Abimelech didn’t want to pass up this opportunity to cement his own power in the area by having such a man for his brother-in-law.
On Abraham’s part, he is obviously motivated by fear. He (thinks he) knows that there is no fear of God in this land. That, at least, is his flimsy excuse to Abimelech recorded in verse 11. He thinks that he can defend himself and his sister better by posing as a brother, than by acknowledging the truth. The fact that Abraham and Sarah have no children together is a further aid to their deception.

What is interesting here is that, even though Abimelech takes Sarah honestly into his harem (though he most definitely does NOT consummate that “marriage”), God still thinks of Abimelech as a guilty man. At least, that is our first impression upon reading what God says to Abimelech. God says, “You’re as good as dead, since you have taken a married woman into your harem.” We learn here that ignorance of the law is no excuse. It doesn’t matter whether you know what the law is, if you break it, you will pay the consequences. Some of those consequences might be mitigated by the judge, if he knows that you were ignorant. However, you are still a law-breaker. That is why, in the OT, there were sacrifices for sins committed in ignorance. We learn from this also, that God is concerned even about sins committed in ignorance. Jesus’ blood covers even those sins, as well as our sinful nature, the depths of which we have never seen. We are also ignorant of the depth of our depravity. And yet, the new birth of regeneration even reaches the inmost depths of our being.

This is something like a lawsuit going on here. God accuses Abimelech, and Abimelech defends himself. Notice that Abimelech says that if God punishes for this sin, it will be an entire people that suffers (vs. 4). That means that Abimelech is a representative of his people. His public life and private life cannot be separated, like so many politicians seem to want to do today. For Abimelech, the sin of the leader, the representative, is the sin of the nation, as well. And that is not acceptable to him. He must see the matter through with God.

God reveals to Abimelech that He knows that Abimelech did not have any wrong motives. It is God’s omniscience and omnipotence that kept Abimelech from sinning against God Almighty. Notice something else interesting. God says that He prevented Abimelech from sinning against God, not against Abraham or Sarah. God views adultery as a sin against Himself. That is why David prayed the way he did in Psalm 51:4 “against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.” And, of course, David is praying to the Lord. You might think that David had sinned against Uriah the Hittite by stealing his wife, and then killing Uriah by sending him into the heaviest part of the fighting. However, that is not true. What happened there was that David had sinned against God, and God only. That is the same as what happens here. We see then, that the marriage relationship reflects God’s character. More than that, God’s relationship with the church is a marriage. And so, any sin against the marriage relationship is a direct slap in the face of God’s relationship with His people. And in Abimelech’s case, it didn’t matter that Abimelech wasn’t a member of the covenant community. ALL marriages reflect God’s relationship with His people, whether the people know it or not.

God directs Abimelech to return Sarah to Abraham. And then we see that God calls Abraham a prophet. This is the very first time in all of Scripture where the word “prophet” occurs. And it is used in respect to Abraham, who, by the way, was just finishing a particularly insidious sin session! Abraham is a prophet, because he knows God’s will. God talks to Abraham face to face. Abraham is also a priest, since it is the office of a priest to intercede on behalf of the people, an office which we saw Abraham perform with great fervency in chapter 18 on behalf of the hypothetical righteous people of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham is also a king, since he commands troops and leads them into battle, and makes alliances with foreign powers. Abraham is a prophet, a priest, and a king. But Jesus is the better prophet, priest, and king, because Jesus was without sin. And so, Jesus’ work was infinitely more efficacious than Abraham’s work. Jesus’ work was able to save to the uttermost those who were perishing. Notice here that Abimelech will not live unless Abraham intercedes. So also, we cannot live unless Jesus intercedes for us, giving us a new heart, and calling us righteous before the Father in heaven.

Abimelech then starts a lawsuit against Abraham. Notice that he first tells his servants what happened, and they all demonstrate exactly what Abraham thought they didn’t have: the fear of God! In fact, it is Abraham who demonstrates that he fears man more than God by this little charade, whereas it is the Philistines, of all people, who fear God enough to make sure that Sarah is returned! That is what we call ironic. Abimelech blasts Abraham with this charge: “Why did you do this unthinkable thing? Why did you bring this ‘great sin’ upon us?” Abraham must have been somewhat humbled at this point. Abimelech calls it a “great sin.” That language is used in the golden calf incident in Exodus 32. But then, Abimelech is gracious to Abraham. Perhaps Abraham saw something in the land that made him want to conceal his wife’s identity.

Abraham then offers these flimsy excuses, which we have already seen are ridiculous. He says he wasn’t lying. That is false also. Concealing half the truth is not telling the whole truth, and thus, if you don’t prevent someone from taking what you say in a wrong way, you have lied and deceived. That is Satan’s tactic from the very beginning. He concealed the truth that Adam and Eve were already like God. Instead, Satan says that they are not like God, and need to become so. So Satan’s lies are at work even here inside the covenant community!
One question needs to be dealt with here. Why is it that Abraham could have married his half-sister? The answer is that the laws about marriage gradually became more restricted once the gene pool of humanity became more wide-spread. We can even see that in our own day, with marriage between cousins being permitted a hundred years ago, but forbidden now. Marriage was permitted between much more closely related people than it was permitted under the law of Moses, for example.

In Abraham’s explanation we see something fascinating. He says to Sarah, in effect, “If you love me, you will do this.” Abraham was in effect blackmailing Sarah into this deception. Sarah should not have obeyed her covenant head here, since he was asking her to do something out of accordance with God’s law. But we often see this happen, don’t we? We should ask ourselves the question, “Are we being good spiritual leaders in the church, or are we millstones?” Do we lead people astray with our example? Do we fly off the handle at trivial things? Do we gossip? Do we demonstrate a lack of love in our neighborhood? Do we make fun of our spouse in public? Do we lie about our spouse in public? I have heard some real flat ones already in this community. Do we imagine that people are out to get us? Are we just looking for a fight? That is being a millstone. We should not be so.
The last section of chapter 20 is quite remarkable. Abimelech makes full restitution, which involved more than simply returning Sarah to Abraham. He also restored the good name of Sarah and Abraham. That is the point of the animals and slaves, and especially the 1,000 talents of silver. The ordinary bride-price in those days was 50 talents of silver. This is enough money for 20 brides! That is, literally, a “covering for the eyes.” that is, it is such a full restitution, that no one will think that Abimelech violated Sarah. She is publicly declared to be spotless. And finally, we see that Abraham’s intercession works with Abimelech. God had closed all the wombs of Abimelech’s family. This was the Lord’s way of preventing Abimelech from touching Sarah. And we see that Abraham’s intercession works, and he isn’t even righteous in this case! How much more efficacious will be the prayer of a righteous man, as James says!

Abraham was a man who lacked faith in this instance. He had feared man rather than God. He found he needed something that he didn’t think God was going to give him, namely, security and safety. And so, Abraham almost lost the promise that God had given him. God had promised him a son, you will remember. Abraham almost lost it, since if Abimelech had slept with Sarah, then any son born to Sarah would have had doubtful paternity. The punchline of all this is that God is actually good, and will fulfill His promises to us, despite our “help.” God doesn’t need our help. In fact, our “help” often turns out to be more of a hindrance than a help. And yet, God overrules all of that, and brings to earth a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. Alleluia.

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