1 From there Abraham journeyed toward the territory of the Negeb and lived between Kadesh and Shur; and he sojourned in Gerar. 2 And Abraham said of Sarah his wife, “She is my sister.” And Abimelech king of Gerar sent and took Sarah. 3 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.” 4 Now Abimelech had not approached her. So he said, “Lord, will you kill an innocent people? 5 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.” 6 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. 7 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.”
8 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. 9 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.” 10 And Abimelech said to Abraham, “What did you see, that you did this thing?” 11 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.’ 12 Besides, she is indeed my sister, the daughter of my father though not the daughter of my mother, and she became my wife. 13 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.”’”
14 Then Abimelech took sheep and oxen, and male servants and female servants, and gave them to Abraham, and returned Sarah his wife to him. 15 And Abimelech said, “Behold, my land is before you; dwell where it pleases you.” 16 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.” 17 Then Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Abimelech, and also healed his wife and female slaves so that they bore children. 18 For the Lord had closed all the wombs of the house of Abimelech because of Sarah, Abraham’s wife. – Genesis 20:1-18 ESV
With the opening of chapter 20, Moses returns the focus of his narrative to Abraham. And, despite God’s repeated acts of faithfulness and His assurances that Sarah will bear Abraham a child, we find Abraham has reverted to his old ways. This story bears a striking resemblance to the one found in chapter 12. In the early days of his time in Canaan, a famine plagued the land. So, this prompted Abraham to seek refuge in Egypt. But when he arrived in the land of the Pharoahs, he feared that Sarah’s beauty would attract the interest of the Egyptians, so he came up with a plan.
When he was about to enter Egypt, he said to Sarai his wife, “I know that you are a woman beautiful in appearance, and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me, but they will let you live. Say you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared for your sake.” – Genesis 12:11-13 ESV
Abraham’s fears were justified because the Pharaoh himself found Sarah attractive, and he offered Abraham a bride price to make her a part of his harem. But while Abraham’s plan had been successful in sparing his own life, he had put Sarah in a very uncomfortable predicament. And it was only by the grace of God that she was spared humiliation at the hands of Pharaoh. The Almighty intervened and delivered Sarah back to Abraham. It had been a close call, but a valuable lesson was learned. Or so you would think.
Fast forward to chapter 20 and we find Abraham reliving one of his least flattering moments. He has journeyed from Hebron to Gerar and, once again, he has decided to spread the rumor among the inhabitants that Sarah is his sister. As before, he is telling a half-truth. Sarah is Abraham’s half-sister. But she is also his wife and the woman through whom God has promised to deliver a son. Yet, everywhere Abraham went, he declared of Sarah, “She is my sister” (Genesis 20:2 ESV). It seems likely that the motivation behind this charade was the same as it had been in Egypt. Abraham was out to protect his own skin. Because he was a stranger entering into potentially hostile territory, he feared that his wife’s beauty would attract the interest of the locals. If they discovered she was Abraham’s wife, they might decide to kill Abraham so that they might have a legal claim on her as a widow. Even in the pagan cultures of Canaan, marriage was a respected institution.
But what is amazing to consider is that Sarah is 90-years-old. We would find it difficult to imagine that anyone would find a woman of that age particularly attractive. But Sarah must have been striking, even at her advanced age, because the story goes on to say that Abimelech, the king of Gerar, took Sarah. The woman whom God had chosen to bear the offspring of Abraham was now relegated to the role of a concubine in the harem of a pagan king. Abraham’s plan had backfired again, producing a potentially devastating outcome.
Yet, just as before, God intervened. He came to Sarah’s rescue and turned Abraham’s ill-conceived and ill-fated ploy into a blessing instead of a curse. Nothing was going to prevent God’s sovereign plan from taking place.
Abimelech, oblivious to the truth concerning Sarah, received a disturbing vision from God, in which he was told, “you are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is a man’s wife” (Genesis 20:3 ESV). As proof of God’s providence and His divine protection of Sarah, Moses reveals that Abimelech had not laid a hand on her. And the panicked king pleads his innocence before God.
“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.” – Genesis 20:4-5 ESV
How could he have known that Sarah was Abraham’s wife? He had been lied to and, therefore, had done nothing wrong. He had not intended to take another man’s wife.
This entire exchange is fascinating because, as a pagan, Abimelech would have had no prior knowledge of Yahweh, the God of Abraham. This was likely his first encounter with the Almighty, but he knew that he was dealing with a divine being of great power. And God let Abimelech know just how omnipotent and omniscient He was. He revealed to the frightened monarch that He was fully aware of what had happened and had actually prevented Abimelech from doing any harm to Sarah.
“Yes, I know you are innocent. That’s why I kept you from sinning against me, and why I did not let you touch her.” – Genesis 20:6 NLT
Abraham had lied. Abimelech had lusted. But God had the last say. He was in full control of the entire situation and had been divinely orchestrating the outcome. A fearful and faithless Abraham and a lustful and godless king would not prevent God from accomplishing His plan. This story illustrates the truth of the proverb: “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the LORD that will stand” (Proverbs 19:21 ESV). This same thought is expressed in Proverbs 16:9: “The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps.”
If anyone is guilty in this story, it is Abraham. He knew that God had promised to give him a son through Sarah, and he should have understood that God would not allow anything to prevent that promise from being fulfilled. No harm was going to come to Abraham or Sarah. But Abraham was still having a difficult time believing that God was powerful enough to pull off this unlikely miracle. God had set the date for Sarah’s delivery and even provided a name for the son she would bear, but Abraham was still operating in fear and displaying a lack of faith. But God continued to display patience to Abraham, and even referred to him as His prophet. He commanded Abimelech to do the right thing and return Sarah to her husband.
“Now return the woman to her husband, and he will pray for you, for he is a prophet. Then you will live. But if you don’t return her to him, you can be sure that you and all your people will die.” – Genesis 20:7 NLT
As soon as Abimelech woke up from his disturbing nightmare, he shared the Lord’s message with his servants. Then he ordered Abraham to be brought into his presence and proceeded to vent his well-justified frustration.
“What crime have I committed that deserves treatment like this, making me and my kingdom guilty of this great sin? No one should ever do what you have done! Whatever possessed you to do such a thing?” – Genesis 20:9-10 NLT
Abimelech was livid and rightfully so. Abraham’s deception had almost resulted in the annihilation of Abimelech and his people. This man’s little half-truth could have resulted in the deaths of many innocent people. But, rather than apologize, Abraham attempted to justify his actions and even blamed his behavior on his circumstances.
“I thought, ‘This is a godless place. They will want my wife and will kill me to get her.’ And she really is my sister, for we both have the same father, but different mothers. And I married her. When God called me to leave my father’s home and to travel from place to place, I told her, ‘Do me a favor. Wherever we go, tell the people that I am your brother.’” – Genesis 20:11-13 NLT
Abraham reveals that this strategy had been in place since the very beginning. He had implemented it in Egypt and had continued to use it wherever he went. This seems to be an admission that Abraham had been lying about Sarah the entire time he had been in Canaan. He had displayed a habit of deception that had been motivated by doubt and fear. Only on two occasions did Abraham’s lie produce negative consequences. But even those “close calls” did not stop him from relying on deceit rather than trusting in God.
Yet, despite Abraham’s revealing admission, God chose to bless him. Not only did God return Sarah unharmed, but He also directed Abimelech to give Abraham “some of his sheep and goats, cattle, and male and female servants” (Genesis 20:14 NLT). Not only that, he offered Abraham his choice of land in Gerar and provided him with 1,000 pieces of silver as a form of compensation for the indignity shown to Sarah.
This pagan king showed great discernment and integrity. And his behavior stands in stark contrast to the “righteous prophet” of Yahweh. As a prophet of God, Abraham should have been a source of light in the darkness of Gerar, but instead, he had almost brought down the wrath of God on the unsuspecting citizens of that community.
Verses 17-18 reveal an interesting detail about this story. It appears that God had struck all the women of Gerar with barrenness. When Abimelech had taken Sarah as his concubine, he had inadvertently and unknowingly doomed his city to a future of fruitlessness. The disability that had plagued Sarah her entire adult life was visited upon the women of Gerar. Moses makes it clear that “the Lord had closed all the wombs of the house of Abimelech because of Sarah, Abraham’s wife” (Genesis 20:18 ESV). And it wasn’t until the doubtful and deceptive Abraham prayed for them, that God lifted the curse.
Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Abimelech, and also healed his wife and female slaves so that they bore children. – Genesis 20:17 ESV
Think about the irony of that moment. The man who had continually doubted God’s ability to provide him a son through his barren wife was praying for God to heal the barren women of Gerar. And God heard and answered that prayer. What a powerful lesson this must have been for Abraham and Sarah. God has just rejuvenated the wombs of an entire city of barren women. So, could He not do the same for Sarah? And, as the next chapter will reveal, that is exactly what God was preparing to do.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.