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Bible Commentaries
Genesis 20

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries


This whole chapter deals with another incident in the lives of Abraham and Sarah in which Sarah was represented by both of them as being the sister of Abraham and not his wife. It appears here that this subterfuge was a definite characteristic of the modus operandi adopted by the patriarch as a maneuver which both of them doubtless considered to be a protective device, designed to prevent Abraham from being killed by someone who coveted his beautiful wife. From the human standpoint, it worked.

Furthermore, it was one of the factors contributing to Abraham’s tremendous wealth. It should be noted, however, that the special providence of God’s intervention was required in each of the Biblical incidents in order to prevent frustration of the divine purpose regarding the seed of Abraham (and Sarah). That Abraham was wrong in both these episodes is certain. It also appears as a possibility that there might have been some question of whether or not Abraham would continue in God’s way until the fruition of the glorious promises concerning him. Certainly, Abraham appears here as one falling short of what God expected of him. It should also be noted that this passing his wife off as his sister was something deliberately planned by them from the very first, leaving the possibility of numerous other instances of this not reported in the Bible.

The greatest significance should be attached to the interference God interposed in order to protect the vehicles through whom the promise for all mankind would be realized. This also sheds light on the question of how Pharaoh learned that Sarah was Abram’s wife. It is not at all unlikely that God’s treatment of Pharaoh, both in the matter of the dream, and in the prevention of his touching Sarah, was similar to that seen here in the case of Abimelech.

We confidently reject the unproved speculative assertions of alleged scholars to the effect that, “It is impossible to doubt that the two accounts (here and in that recorded in Genesis 12:10-20) are variants of the same tradition.”(F1) These episodes are far more dissimilar than similar. In fact, about the ONLY correspondence between them lies in the fact of Abraham’s passing off his wife as his sister. They occurred at different periods of the patriarch’s life, involved different kings, of different countries, resulted in different treatment of Abraham, were marked by different forms of restraint upon the royal intentions, were distinguished by different forms of rebuke to Abraham, and different responses from Abraham; one event took place in Egypt, the other in Gerar, a city of the Philistines; in one Abraham was expelled from the country, and in the other he was kindly treated and invited to remain; one ruler did not believe in the true God, the other did; in one episode, Abraham did not pray for the king; but in the other he did so, resulting in the restoration of perfect health for the beneficiaries of his prayers; in one, Sarah’s beauty resulted in Pharaoh’s taking her, and in the other, it was the desire to form alliance with Abraham that seems to have been the reason. How could anyone ever believe that these are variant accounts of the SAME episode?

Furthermore, this chapter is exactly where it belongs in the first book of Moses, and is not displaced chronologically. Efforts to move it around in the Book of Genesis do not derive from any solid evidence, but from the intention of trying to make it some kind of variant. “We see no reason for insisting that Genesis is not in its proper chronological position.”(F2)

There are the best reasons why this deplorable episode from the life of Abraham SHOULD appear exactly here. The Mosaic narrative, at this point, stands poised to relate the birth of the promised “seed” of Abraham, through whom all the families of the earth would be blessed. And it was imperative that the wonder of God’s amazing grace should not appear as being the result of merit or sinlessness on Abraham’s part. As Willis noted: God wanted to make it clear that, “It was not because of Abraham’s righteousness or faith that he gave him a son, but out of God’s own mercy and love.”(F3) The current theory that Abraham was possessed of some glorious kind of “saving faith” at this period of his life is contradicted and destroyed by the events of this chapter. Abraham’s faith, as evidenced here, was weak and inadequate, inexcusable doubt and fear having, for a while, taken possession of him. And yet, Abraham was the best human specimen available. And God would see to it that His promise through Him would, in time, be fulfilled.

Verse 1

“And Abraham journeyed from thence toward the land of the South, and dwelt between Kadesh and Shur; and he sojourned in Gerar.”

“From thence” does not refer to the cave of Lot and his two daughters, but to the residence of Abraham at Mamre. This Biblical example of picking up antecedents removed from the immediate context is common, and the appearance of it here is no excuse for alleging “a variant source” for these words.

“And he sojourned in Gerar” The abbreviated narrative here actually means that while Abraham was in the area near the border of Egypt (Kadesh and Shur), that he also made an excursion northward to the Philistine city of Gerar in the south portion of Canaan. T. C. Mitchell of the British Museum assures us that this was:

“A Philistine city, identified with Tell Abu Hureira, a mound about 11 miles southeast of Gaza. It was populated during every period of the Bronze and Iron Ages, with indications of a prosperous period during the Middle Bronze Age, the age of the patriarchs.”(F4)

Speculations as to why Abraham decided to leave Mamre include the following:

(1) He was apprehensive for the safety of that part of the world which had just seen the destruction of the cities of the Plain.

(2) He was just naturally a wanderer.

(3) He was seeking better pastures for his flocks and herds.

(4) He sought to avoid any conflict with the changed populations in the vicinity of Mamre. Of course, no one really knows, but Aalders pointed out that, “The Hittites about this time made deep inroads into southern Canaan, which may have included the area around Hebron.”(F5) Such an emergency might have led to Abraham’s migration.

Verses 2-3

“And Abraham said of Sarah his wife, She is my sister: and Abimelech sent, and took Sarah. But God came to Abimelech in a dream of the night, and said to him, Behold, thou art but a dead man, because of the woman thou hast taken; for she is a man’s wife.”

This was not merely the second offense of Abraham after this manner, but it was just another outcropping of what had been a regular procedure by him and Sarah throughout the many years of their wanderings, as indicated by Genesis 20:13. The inference may easily be made that this device, wicked and sinful thought that it was, had been employed frequently, and that most of the times, they had found it to be effective. Certain special circumstances resulted in the utmost embarrassment to them, both in Egypt, and here. In fact, the most obvious reason why Abraham resorted to this subterfuge again would seem to lie in the fact that the special circumstances, present twenty years previously in the episode with Pharaoh, no longer prevailed. Sarah, at the time of this event was 90 years old, and her beauty had probably long since disappeared. The additional factor that led to the trouble here was most likely the intention of Abimelech to use the marriage device as a means of political and military strengthening of his little kingdom. The most practical way, according to the custom of the times, to unite himself with a powerful nomadic chieftain such as Abraham, was to marry into his family. Therefore, he sent and took Sarah. One may only marvel at the lack of discernment which can lead scholars to affirm this passage as a variant of the other episode, using such an argument as this: “Sarah is here conceived of as a young woman, capable of inspiring passion in the king.”(F6) There is absolutely nothing in this narrative that can justify such a remark!

“Abimelech” was a common Philistine designation, having significance, not as a personal name, but as a title used by Philistine kings. Incidentally, there are three ancient kingly titles that all have the same meaning:

Abimelech, meaning “Father-king,” (Philistine),

Padi-shah, meaning “Father-king,” (Persian),

Pharaoh, meaning “Father-king,” (Egyptian).(F7)

“God came to Abimelech in a dream” That such a thing as this occurred was made possible by Abimelech’s believing in God, which did not seem be the case in the incident involving Pharaoh. God did two things at once to thwart any frustration of the divine plan for Abraham and Sarah:

(1) he struck the royal household with a drastic illness that made the begetting of children impossible, in fact preventing sexual intercourse altogether, and

(2) he alerted Abimelech to the divine prohibition against his touching Sarah.

Verses 4-6

“Now Abimelech had not come near her: and he said, Lord, wilt thou slay even a righteous nation? Said he not himself unto me, She is my sister? and she, even she herself said, He is my brother: in the integrity of my heart and the innocency of my hands have I done this. And God said unto him in the dream, Yea, I know that in the integrity of thy heart hast thou done this, and I also withheld thee from sinning against me: therefore suffered I thee not to touch her.”

It is important to note that Abimelech had also heard of the destruction of the whole nation of the Sodomites and feared that the same thing might befall his people. How otherwise can we account for his use of the word “nation” in his petition? Note also that he believed in the true God as having control over the nations, not merely one nation, and that he considered that God to be righteous and fair in his treatment of men.

Another thing of particular interest is the fact that God had struck an entire household (a very great one) with a serious and potentially fatal disease for the specific purpose of preventing a sin against his purpose. A similar instance is the sudden death of Herod recorded in Acts 12.

The “integrity” and “innocence” of Abimelech are restricted in meaning to his conduct and intentions toward Sarah. Abimelech was better than some men, but there is no hint here of his being sinless.

Verses 7-9

“Now therefore restore the man’s wife; for he is a prophet, and he shall pray for thee, and thou shalt live: and if thou restore her not, know thou that thou shalt die, thou, and all that are thine.”

“For he is a prophet” “This is the first time that the word prophet appears in the Scripture,”(F8) and we are unwilling to assign any lesser meaning of this term here than the meaning usually understood in the term throughout the Bible. The critical allegation that “prophet” was a term that did not appear until the times of Samuel is ridiculous in the light of what is revealed here. God Himself used the term in a revelation to Abimelech long centuries before Samuel ever lived. There was a period during which the word prophet seems to have fallen into disuse, and it was revived in the times of Samuel.(F9) Of course, the radical critical scholars would like to prove that none of the Pentateuch existed before the times of Samuel, but such views should be rejected as sheer nonsense.

Whitelaw listed the function of a prophet as being (1) that of announcing the will of God to men, and (2) that of interceding with God on behalf of men.(F10) Not only did Abraham exercise the office of prophet in the intercessory prayer for Sodom, but he also did the same here in his intercession with God on behalf of Abimelech and his household. The record also states that he would “command his children after him” (Genesis 18:19), which he could not have done without communicating the will of God to his posterity. Dummelow summed up Abraham’s status as truly a prophet in these words: “A prophet is one to whom God reveals his will, and who in turn declares it to men; and thus one who can mediate between God and man, as in this case (the case of Abraham).”(F11)

Verses 8-10

“And Abimelech rose early in the morning, and called all his servants, and told these things in their ears: and the men were sore afraid. Then Abimelech called Abraham, and said unto him, What hast thou done unto us? and wherein have I sinned against thee, that thou hast brought on me and on my kingdom a great sin? thou hast done deeds unto me that ought not to be done. And Abimelech said unto Abraham, What sawest thou, that thou hast done this thing?”

Here Abraham received a just rebuke from a man far less favored than himself in spiritual matters. The great patriarch here appears in a sorry light. Some have attempted to justify his conduct on the basis that he truly trusted God’s promise and that he knew God would therefore extricate him from any unpleasant or impossible situation in which he involved himself, but such a purpose on his part would have been even worse, namely, presumptuous sin.

“What sawest thou” The meaning of this is ambiguous and uncertain. Unger thought he meant, “Did you see any of my people committing adultery or murder?”(F12) Speiser translated it, “What did you … (fore)see?”(F13) and gave the meaning as, “What … was your purpose?”

Verses 11-13

“And Abraham said, Because I thought, surely the fear of God is not in this place; and they will slay me for my wife’s sake. And moreover she is indeed my sister, the daughter of my father, but not the daughter of my mother; and she became my wife: and it came to pass, when God caused me to wander from my father’s house, that I said unto her, This is thy kindness which thou shalt show unto me: at every place whither we shall come, say of me, He is my brother.”

Abraham here offered a three-fold excuse:

(1) He feared for his safety that men might kill him for the sake of his wife. Note that this was the object of the device at the time it was initiated. Abraham did not here allege that to have been the root of his fear in this instance.

(2) He had not actually told a falsehood, since Sarah was indeed his half-sister. Still it was a lie, spoken with intent to deceive.

(3) It was a habit of long standing, doubtless practiced over and over again throughout many years, and the indication in this is that Abraham was merely pleading that, “I, or we, always do this when we are traveling in strange territory.” Inherent in such an admission is that Abraham had totally failed to learn the lesson he should have learned on that other occasion in Egypt when such a habit had involved him in serious trouble.

Speculation as to why Abraham had not offered a similar defense of his actions in the presence of Pharaoh, with accompanying allegations of “some other source” attempting to present Abraham in a little better light, are pointless in the light of Pharaoh’s commanding Abraham to be removed from his kingdom in the same breath with the inquiry as to why Abraham had lied to him, thus giving no opportunity to reply. The issue was already settled, as was not the case here.

Verses 14-16

“And Abimelech took sheep and oxen, and man-servants, and women-servants, and gave them unto Abraham, and restored Sarah his wife. And Abimelech said, Behold, my land is before thee: dwell where it pleaseth thee. And unto Sarah he said, Behold, I have given thy brother a thousand pieces of silver: behold, it is for thee a covering of the eyes to all that are with thee; and in respect of all thou art righted.”

What a marvelous difference in the treatment of Abraham here as compared to what Pharaoh did to him. He was invited to remain in the country, loaded with rich gifts, and given permission to occupy any part of the king’s dominion that he might have been pleased to occupy. Since the price of a slave was about 30 pieces of silver, a thousand pieces would have been the equivalent of 30 or 35 maid-servants and men-servants. Scholars differ on whether the thousand pieces of silver was a recapitulation of the value of the other gifts, or if it was “in addition” to them. It makes no difference; any way it could be figured, the endowment was a very substantial one. Abimelech did this because he believed in God and was most anxious that God should find no cause of condemnation in him regarding his taking Sarah. The king also evidently requested that Abraham should intercede with God on his behalf and in behalf of the people, but it is not specifically mentioned that the king made such a request.

Verses 17-18

“And Abraham prayed unto God: and God healed Abimelech, and his wife, and his maid-servants; and they bare children. For Jehovah had fast closed up the wombs of the house of Abimelech, because of Sarah, Abraham’s wife.”

We are not told the nature of the illness with which God had afflicted the household of Abimelech, but Willis’ comment is excellent: “God had smitten him with a serious disease which prevented him (and all the afflicted) from having sexual relations.”(F14)

“And God healed Abimelech” The word here rendered “healed” is a comprehensive word. “It means restored full health, not healed.”(F15)

Again we return to the thought already expressed, that the purpose of this unhappy incident included in the sacred narrative hard by the birth scene of the promised Isaac has the function of stressing that, wonderful as Abraham was, he was not the Saviour. Abraham, like all men, required deliverance and forgiveness from his sins, and such a precious blessing as that could only come, in time, through the salvation and redemption to be revealed in the Christ of the Ages. Abraham would continue to grow in faith and the knowledge of God, and God would not fail to bless and protect him until the divine purpose should be fully realized according to the infinite wisdom of God.

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Genesis 20". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/genesis-20.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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