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Bible Studies

Genesis 20 - Abraham Goes to Gerar


Between chapter 18 and 20 of Genesis is 1 year - a very special year: 1. Abraham is promised that he and Sarah will have a son of their own within a year, 2. Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed, 3. Lot commits incest with his daughters and then in chapter 20 Abraham decides to move south, away from Mamre. He had already done so 20 years earlier. This then brought them into a famine and he had to move on to Egypt, where the Pharaoh thought he could take Abram's sister Sarah as a wife - she was very attractive. Abram got a great treasure for her, but it was against God's will and Pharaoh had to give her back to Abram - untouched. In the later history of Israel, as well as that of Abraham, reliance on Egypt is something that brings problems. Hagar was also an Egyptian. The family Abrams was then led out of Egypt by Pharaoh's troops and they settled near the oak groves at Mamre. Fear of the Egyptians was the reason why Pharaoh could 'take over' Sarah from Abram - after all, she was his sister and not his wife, right? Abram had not learned any lesson from this outrage - indeed, he could do it again. And so we come to chapter 20.

Scripture reading Genesis 20:

1Abraham left that place and traveled to the Negev. He settled in the city of Gerar, between Kadesh and Shur. While in Gerar,
Comments: Possibly because of Ch. 13:17 ('pass through the land') Abraham decides to leave his dwelling place at Mamre. He goes south, to the Negev, on its western side. There, on the southern border of the Philistine area, he settles as a stranger in Gerar.

2Abraham told people that Sarah was his sister. King Abimelech of Gerar heard this. Abimelech wanted Sarah, so he sent some servants to take her. 3But one night God spoke to Abimelech in a dream and said, “You will die. The woman you took is married.”
Comments: The earlier trip to Egypt caused a lot of trouble with Pharaoh. And on this trip south, Abraham doesn't even have to go that far and the fear hits him again and he decides to repeat the trick of Egypt - this time for Abimelech, king of Gerar. They play the game again as if Sarah were his sister and not his wife. And this while God had promised Abraham that she would bear his son - so they would survive everything! Why this fear? Note - this all takes place chronologically, so Sara was well into her 90s here!!! Apparently she was still very attractive to Abimelech. Unlike with Pharaoh, Abimelech did not give Abraham treasures in exchange for Sarah....

3But one night God spoke to Abimelech in a dream and said, “You will die. The woman you took is married.”
Comments: Just as with Pharaoh with Sarah at the time, God will not leave it at that. He will come to His purpose and fulfil His promise. He speaks to Abimelech in a dream and not in a very subtle way. A Hebrew-English translation reads: 'you are as good as dead' instead of 'you are going to die'.

4But Abimelech had not yet slept with Sarah, so he said, “Lord, I am not guilty. Would you kill an innocent man? 5Abraham himself told me, ‘This woman is my sister,’ and she also said, ‘This man is my brother.’ I am innocent. I did not know what I was doing.”
Comments: This made a deep impression on Abimelech, who tried to defend himself against God. After all, he did everything in good faith and considers himself innocent ('tsadik' (Hebrew) = righteous) in this matter.

6Then God said to Abimelech in a dream, “Yes, I know that you are innocent and that you did not know what you were doing. I saved you. I did not allow you to sin against me. I was the one who did not allow you to sleep with her.
Comments: God accepts and confirms what Abimelech puts forward in his defence and He also indicates that He Himself made sure that Abimelech would not touch her. So God restrained Abimelech.

7So give Abraham his wife again. He is a prophet. He will pray for you, and you will live. But if you don’t give Sarah back to him, I promise that you will die. And all your family will die with you.”
Comments: Abimelech is then instructed to bring Sarah back to Abraham, 'for he is a prophet'. So here we see that God regards Abraham as 'in His service': after all, a prophet had to pass on God's words. The reverse also takes place: Abraham had to pray for Abimelech, so that God would spare him. Abimelech had to swallow that if he did not carry out God's command, he and all that was his would die. Job had to do something similar to Abraham: Job 42:7-9 - he too had to play a similar mediating role between his friends and God. Job was also a prophet in his day.

8So very early the next morning, Abimelech called all his servants and told them about the dream. The servants were very afraid.
Comments: Abimelech did not delay. After the dream in which this conversation with God took place, he got up early in the morning, called his house together and told them what had happened to him that night. His hearers were terrified by God's words to Abimelech.

9Then Abimelech called Abraham and said to him, “Why have you done this to us? What wrong did I do to you? Why did you lie and say that she was your sister? You brought great trouble to my kingdom. You should not have done this to me. 10What were you afraid of? Why did you do this to me?”
Comments: Abimelech called Abraham to himself and rebuked him. He rightly reproached Abraham for having put Abimelech and his kingdom in danger without reason.

11Then Abraham said, “I thought no one in this place respected God. I thought someone would kill me to get Sarah.
Comments: When asked why, Abraham had little to say other than that he was afraid they would kill him because of Sarah.

12She is my wife, but she is also my sister. She is the daughter of my father but not the daughter of my mother. 13God led me away from my father’s house. He led me to wander to many different places. When that happened, I told Sarah, ‘Do something for me. Wherever we go, tell people you are my sister.’”
Comments: He defends himself by saying that Sarah is really his sister from the same father, but a different mother. Just as in the case of Pharaoh, she should call him her brother so that they would spare him if they wanted to take her away. At the moment of fear, Abraham does not think about God's promise! How human Abraham is here - how much we can emulate him, but God remains faithful - fantastic!!!

14So Abimelech gave Sarah back to Abraham. Abimelech also gave Abraham some sheep, cattle, and slaves.
Comments: Now, after this confession of Abraham's guilt, he receives a tremendous blessing from Abimelech, besides receiving Sarah back.

15And Abimelech said, “Look all around you. This is my land. You may live any place you want.”
Comments: Unlike Pharaoh, who expelled Abram from his land, Abimelech is not hateful and even offers Abraham a free settlement in his entire land.

16Abimelech said to Sarah, “I gave your brother Abraham 1000 pieces of silver. I did this to show that I am very sorry. I want everyone to see that I did the right thing.”
Comments: In reparation for having taken Sara, 'her brother' is given 1,000 pieces of silver to forget what happened - all of them in their retinue as well.

17-18The Lord made all the women in Abimelech’s family not able to have children. God did this because Abimelech had taken Sarah, Abraham’s wife. But Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Abimelech, his wife, and his servant girls.
Comments: Abraham then fulfils his prophetic task and prays to God to release Abimelech's house from the lock on all the wombs - because of Sarah! See also: 16Pharaoh was kind to Abram because he thought Abram was Sarai’s brother. He gave Abram sheep, cattle, donkeys, camels, and men and women servants.


Thus ends this chapter, but typically begins the next one, with the opening of Sarah's womb. God extended His blessing beyond the house of Abimelech! The whole chapter is very special because of:

  • The replay of the adventure at Pharaoh's

  • The journey to the South which, again, is not without its ups and downs

  • The parallel with Noah's mediating role

  • The parallel with the prophetic task that Israel also fulfils for the world in the Peace Kingdom

  • The assassination of a man of God by a 'heathen

  • The unbelief, doubt or fear of a man so close to God that God calls him His friend

  • As again and again in Scripture, it is not man who is so good that God draws near to him, but faith and God's mercy that He looks to man and justifies him; so also we are now justified by faith in Jesus Christ, and in Him we can come so close to the God of Israel.