Abraham (Genesis 20)

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: Patriarchs

  • After the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham decided to move farther south into the town of Gerar, located about halfway between Gaza and Beersheba.
  • Once again, Abraham pretended Sarah was his sister, and she was taken to the palace of Abimelech, king of Gerar.
  • In a dream, God told Abimelech that he was as good as dead because he had taken another man's wife into his harem.
  • Abimelech said he was innocent because he had not so much as touched Sarah.
  • He challenged God, "Will you slay even innocent people?" echoing what Abraham said to God before Sodom was destroyed.
  • God said He had protected Abimelech from sinning against Sarah. He also said that the prophet Abraham would pray for him and he should return Sarah to her husband. If he didn't, he would surely die.
  • Abimelech called Abraham, confronted him about lying, and asked him why he had done it.
  • Abraham said that he had been afraid and thought, "Surely, the fear of God is not in this place."
  • Then he added that Sarah really was his half-sister, the daughter of his father, though not of his mother.
  • When they were leaving Haran, Abraham had told her, "This is how you can show your love to me: everywhere we go, say of me, 'He is my brother.' "
  • Then Abimelech brought cattle and slaves and gave them to Abraham. He also returned Sarah to him.
  • He then invited him to settle wherever he chose, saying, "My land is before you; live wherever you like."
  • He also gave Sarah a thousand shekels of silver to "cover the offense against you." Sarah was completely vindicated.
  • Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Abimelech and his household, so that the women could have children again. They had all been barren because of Sarah's presence there.
  • Does this story sound familiar? It should, because it is essentially the same sequence of events as in chapter 12, but with Pharaoh that time.
  • Scholars have been puzzled about this for centuries.
  • Based on the Documentary Hypothesis, the similarities were explained by having J as the author of the first and E the second.
  • In the last few decades, however, scholars realized that when someone finalized this book, he chose to repeat these stories.
  • In both, the patriarch introduced his wife as his sister, with the result that she was picked up by the ruler of that country as an addition to his harem.
  • In both instances, God intervened, and Sarah was returned to her husband.
  • The Pharaoh was attracted to Sarah's beauty; nothing is said about this in Gerar.
  • Abimelech was adamant that he never touched Sarah while she was with him; Pharaoh made no such claims.
  • The second story happened after Abraham and Sarah had been told that she would bear a son within a year.
  • Going into Abimelech's harem at this time presents a real threat to the promise.
  • Good thing that Abimelech never touched her!
  • Now remember, Sarah was ninety years old, yet this king wanted her. Why?
  • Some scholars argue on the basis of economics.
  • As a resident alien, Abraham takes steps to establish a friendly relationship with the local king and ensure his security through a diplomatic marriage.
  • If true, the plan was ultimately successful because Abimelech provided lavish gifts and invited Abraham to settle wherever he chooses. The king wanted good relations with the patriarch, too.
  • However, both Abraham and Sarah laughed when told she would give birth to a son.
  • But now we have the tale of a woman of ninety years who was taken into the harem of a foreign king. The reason is not given, but let's remember that Pharaoh took her because she was so beautiful.
  • How many of us laughed when we thought about it happening again, now that she was ninety years old?
  • If any of us did, then in that one brief moment, the author has deftly tricked us into responding just as Abraham and Sarah did. We, too, "laughed."
  • And their son will be called, Isaac, meaning, "he laughed," as a forever reminder that all of us were caught laughing at the word of God.

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