Story 33: Abraham and Abimelech and the Power of Repentance

Genesis 20

After the mighty hand of God came in judgment on the plains of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham moved his clan to a place called Negev.  While he was there, he explained to the people that Sarah was his sister.  Once again, as he had in Egypt, Abraham feared that men would treat him badly when they saw the beauty of his wife (see Story 21).  Once again, he put her at risk.  Though Abraham was unfaithful, God would stand in resolute faithfulness to His covenant promises.  The chaos created by humanity because of our weakness cannot thwart the strength of God in our history.

Abraham’s fears were not without reason.  Sarah was a woman of great beauty.  When the king of the city of Gerar saw Sarah, he wanted her to be his own.  And why not?  She was the sister of the wealthy traveler who had come to his region to live.  He did not understand that he was in danger of committing a great sin.

The Lord came to King Abimelech and warned him in a dream.  He said, “‘You are as good as dead because of the woman you have taken; she is a married woman.’”

Abimelech hadn’t touched Sarah, so he asked God, “‘Lord, will you destroy an innocent nation?  Did he not say to me, “She is my sister,” and didn’t she also say, “He is my brother”?  I have done this with a clear conscience and clean hands.’”

God replied, “‘Yes, I know you did this with a clear conscience.  That is why I did not let you touch her.  Now return the man’s wife, for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you will live.  But if you do not return her, you may be sure that you and all yours will die.’”

Wow.  Isn’t it interesting that God protected Abimelech from sin?  Isn’t it fascinating that it was because he knew Abimelech was innocent in his heart?  God understands the complexities of life in a very messed up and complex human world.  He gets the confusion of life around us.  We don’t see a harsh, legalist God here.  He stakes his judgment on the condition of our hearts and the nature of our intentions.

What would Abimelech do now?

The Bible makes sure we know that the very next morning, bright and early, Abimelech brought together all of his officials and told them about his dream.  He didn’t wait a few days.  He didn’t forget or disregard the voice of God because it came in the form of the dream.  And when he told his officials, he explained in in a way that made them take it seriously, too.  It filled them with fear.  They each had a reverence for this God who had come to their king.  Their counsel led Abimelech to take action.

Abimelech called for Abraham and asked, “‘What have you done to us?  How have I wronged you that you have brought such great guilt upon me and my kingdom?  You have done things to me that should not be done.’”

Abimelech and his people had a high and godly view of marriage.  The thought of violating the marriage covenant between Abraham and Sarah was horrifying.  How could Abraham have been so quick to give his wife away?

When we look at the role Abraham plays in human history, it is stunning.  Abraham was the great patriarch, the first man with whom God made His mighty covenant to change the world.  He would be described in the word of God as the great man of faith.  He would be famous for his faith for thousands of years across three of the world’s major religions.  In fact, he could be said to be the first founder of all three.  He was father of Judaism, which is the parent faith of Christianity, and Islam.  Yet in this story, as a normal man facing peril, he is righteously rebuked by a common tribal king for his lack of faith.

Abraham explained to Abimelech that he didn’t think Abimelech’s people feared the LORD.  He said that he was afraid that they would kill him so they could get to Sarah.  He told how he asked Sarah to show her love to him by telling everyone that he was her brother.

This was partly true.   Sarah was the daughter of Abraham’s father, but they had different mothers.  In those days, marriage within a family was a way of protecting and providing for their children.

In a way, Abraham was admitting that he had lacked faith.  He didn’t trust that God would watch over and protect him.  He tried to find his own way to save his life…even though it might cost Sarah greatly.  Once again, he had put the covenant at risk.  Sarah was to be the mother of God’s priestly nation, but here she was, living in the home of a foreign king.

Abimelech returned Sarah to Abraham.  In some ways, he was more protective of Sarah than Abraham had been.  Then he gave Abraham sheep and cattle, male and female slaves, and he offered Abraham his first choice of his lands.  He could live wherever he wanted in Gerah.  And for Sarah, he gave a thousand shekels of silver to Abraham for the offense of taking his wife into his harem.  That was an extravagant amount of wealth.    It would pay a hundred laborers to work for an entire year.  Sarah was well vindicated for this terrible violation of her safety and dignity.

How greatly Abraham had misjudged Abimelech, as well as God.  Abimelech and his men feared the LORD and listened when God came in a dream.   They responded immediately with repentant obedience and went out of their way to lavishly make things right.

It interesting to compare how different these people were from the people of Sodom and Gomorrah (see Story 23 and Story 32).  There is a reason that these stories are put right next to each other in scripture.  We are meant to compare them and look at the way God responded to each.  The comparison is meant to highlight important things about what draws God’s judgment or favor…it is meant to display the goodness of His ways when dealing with a wayward race and to teach us how we are to come to Him for right relationship.

The nation of Sodom (which was probably more like what we would consider a large village in our time) had become so corrupt that when two strangers came to visit their city, the men of the city laid siege to the home where they were staying and demanded their right to rape them.  Imagine the horrors…the violence, abuse, and toxic immorality…of such a place.  What these men did not understand was that these two visitors were actually the angels of God.  They had come to warn Abraham’s nephew to leave the city before they brought God’s fiery and cleansing judgment against the despicable culture that had plunged the entire community in utter, irreversible bondage.

But this wasn’t Abraham’s first encounter with the people of Sodom and Gomorrah.  In fact, he had already saved their lives.  When Abraham rescued the people of Sodom and Gomorrah after they had been defeated by a foreign army, they tried to demand that he give them the booty from the war.  According to the rules of that time, the booty belonged to Abraham.  Though he was in no danger of captivity himself, he risked his life and the life of his men to rescue these ungrateful people, and the booty was proper reward.  It was a form of despicable ungratefulness to try to get it back.

The hardness of their hearts was already so complete that when God brought them a savior, they had no vision for repentance.  They could have seen the higher ways of Abraham and the strength it gave him to conquer kings.  They could have witnessed the honorable and godly relationship between Abraham and Melchizedek, the great priest of Salem, and been humbled by their dignity.  When God intervened, they could have been changed, but they weren’t, and it led to their total destruction.

Abilmelech and his officials did not make that mistake.  When God showed up, they repented.  They honored the God of Abraham, altered their behavior, and were saved from judgment.

Just as the Lord said, Abraham prayed for Abimelech and his household.  God had placed some form of curse on them, and his wife and the women of his slave girls could not have children.  God heard Abraham’s pray and the household of Abimelech was healed.  In the process, God restored not only Abimelech’s people, but the dignity and position of Abraham as the man of God’s choosing.

The faith of Abraham had failed.  When we see the heart of this godly man in the middle of his fears, it is easier to understand that he was very much a normal human.  All of the great, courageous acts and steadfast, ongoing faithfulness was done by a man who feared death and longed for peace.  His failure in this story highlights the fact that in all of the other stories, Abraham was having to make decisions in the quietness of his heart…he was having to choose faith instead of fear.

God knew about all of those hundreds of silent decisions to choose to trust Him, and He had grace and protection for Abraham when he failed.

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