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Bible Commentaries
Genesis 20

Pett's Commentary on the BiblePett's Commentary

Verses 1-18

Abraham and Abimelech (Genesis 20:1-18 ).

Genesis 20:1

‘And Abraham journeyed from there towards the land of the South, and dwelt between Kadesh and Shur, and he sojourned in Gerar.’

He had been established many years by the Oaks of Mamre but now he moves on, although he would later return to the area. There Sarah died and was buried (Genesis 23:19), and he himself was buried there (Genesis 25:9). Isaac later returns there (Genesis 35:27) and Jacob was also buried there (Genesis 50:13).

We do not know why Abraham moved on. Perhaps the area of Mamre was suffering from a period of drought, or the arrival of larger groups made it wiser to do so. Or it may be that the catastrophe of the cities of the Plain constrained him to such a move, giving him a feeling that he no longer wanted to be near so terrible a place. It may even be that the catastrophe had rendered the animal feedstuff around unpalatable. Whatever may be the case he now returns to the Negev, spending time there between Kadesh and Shur in the far South, before settling for a time in Gerar, which was probably about 10 miles South East of Gaza. If this identification is correct evidence of Gerar’s prosperity at this time has been unearthed.

The movements show that he was seeking a new place to settle and may suggest he was finding it difficult. Not everyone wanted such a family tribe on their doorsteps. ‘He sojourned in Gerar’. He feels this is the right place but is probably wary of what the local reaction will be. He had previously had a treaty arrangement with the King of Salem. But there is no mention yet of that here.

Genesis 20:2

‘And Abraham said of Sarah his wife, “She is my sister”. And Abimelech, King of Gerar, sent and took Sarah.” ’

This incident compares with that in Genesis 12:10-20, but apart from the claim that Sarah is Abraham’s sister, which was his constant practise (Genesis 20:12-13) and the ‘taking of Sarah’ there are no similarities at all between the accounts. Both fit adequately into their particular backgrounds, and the whole tenors of the stories are different. This story is indeed leading up to the covenant between Abraham and Abimelech and is the necessary preparation for it (Genesis 20:15-16).

Sarah was an outstandingly beautiful woman, and, even though she has now matured, the bloom of childbearing is on her and there are unquestionably some women who have something about them which gives them an attraction far beyond the norm at all ages. Sarah was clearly one of them. The beauty and attractiveness of a tribeswoman may well have been very different from that of Philistine women. So if Abraham did persist in describing her as his sister when they moved about the surprise is that there were only two such incidents known. Men will move mountains for an alluring woman.

The whole account reads superficially as though it happened over a few days but Genesis 20:17-18 suggest a somewhat longer time span. The event did not take place immediately. The King had had time to observe Sarah as she moved about and had clearly built up a passion for her.

“Sent and took Sarah.” He may well have waited until Abraham was well away supervising the oversight of his flocks and herds, so that the arrival of men from the local king was unopposed. It is difficult to accept that Abraham would have stood idly by. This was not the Pharaoh of Egypt.

There is about the phrase a suggestion of the typical arrogance of a man who has a high opinion of his own importance. Such behaviour towards women was not uncommon. Indeed he may well have thought that Abraham would be pleased to learn that his matured sister was to marry ‘royalty’, although such men do not usually consider other people’s feelings.

That his intentions were honourable comes out in that he does not violate Sarah. He keeps her safely in preparation for the wedding to come.

Genesis 20:3

‘But God came to Abimelech in a dream of the night and said to him, “Behold, you are but a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken. For she is a man’s wife.” ’

The use of ‘God’ in this passage rather than Yahweh is noteworthy. It arises from the fact that the main action between God and Abimelech is personal, and to Abimelech Yahweh is not God. Nor would God approach Abimelech as ‘Yahweh’, the covenant God. But Abimelech accepts that his dream comes from a divine being. Later however we are assured that we are to see here the activity of Yahweh (20:18).

“In a dream of the night”. This a fairly common method by which God communicates with outsiders. Compare Genesis 31:24; Genesis 41:25; Job 33:15-16. When outsiders receive dreams from God it is always as God and not as Yahweh. Only his prophets receive dreams from Yahweh (Genesis 15:12; Numbers 12:6).

Abimelech’s real crime is that he has taken a woman for the purpose of making her his wife without due enquiry. It is true that he was misled, but his peremptory action prevented him from learning the truth. And unfortunately for him the woman in question was under the direct protection of Yahweh. But no man of ancient times would fail to see that what he had done, however accidentally, was a crime.

Genesis 20:4-5

‘Now Abimelech had not come near her, and he said, “Lord, will you slay even a righteous nation? Did he not himself say to 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 I have done this”.’

He addresses God as ‘Lord’, an address of deference, not as Yahweh. ‘Even a righteous nation’. The king equates himself with his people. To slay the king is to devastate the people. However there may be in this a reference to the fact, brought out in verse 19, that the conception of children had mysteriously dried up, which if it continued would certainly destroy the ‘nation’. But he considers the grounds for these things are unfair for they are ‘righteous’ (i.e. blameless in this case). He claims he has acted in all innocency. He did not view his peremptory action as anything but his right.

Genesis 20:6-7

‘And God said to him in the dream, “Yes, I know that in the integrity of your heart you have done this, and I also withheld you from sinning against me. That is why I did not allow you to touch her. Now therefore, restore the man’s wife, for he is a prophet. And he will pray for you and you will live. But, if you do not restore her, know that you will surely die, you and all who are yours”.’

God acknowledges that at least he has not deliberately violated a man’s wife. But even to have done it ‘innocently’ would have been a crime against Yahweh because of whose she is. He must learn to be careful when dealing with the chosen of Yahweh.

Indeed Yahweh’s goodness is brought out in that He had prevented the occurrence of what would have been unforgivable. None must forget that Yahweh watches over His own.

“He is a prophet”. Compare on Genesis 15:0 where Abraham is first revealed as a prophet. As a prophet his prayer will be effective. Note that God does not see Abimelech as totally innocent. He needs to be prayed for by the one who has been offended against. And that Abraham is a ‘prophet’ would give Abimelech pause for thought. Prophets were highly regarded and feared.

“He will pray for you.” Powerful prayer was the evidence of a true prophet who, in special circumstances, alone could prevail with God (Number 12:13; 21:7; Deuteronomy 9:26; 1 Samuel 12:19). We gather from the passage that God is seeking to impress on Abimelech the importance of treating Abraham rightly. It may be that the atmosphere of the time is making it difficult for Abraham with his fearsome band to find somewhere to finally settle. Thus God is preparing the way for their permanent acceptance.

Verse 8

‘And Abimelech rose early in the morning and called all his servants, and told all these things in their ears. And they were deeply afraid.’

That Abimelech is deeply moved by his dream comes out in his reaction. He immediately speaks to his advisers. And they too are afraid, for the intervention of the supernatural in quite this way was contrary to the tenor of their lives. Especially when they learn that they are dealing with an acknowledged ‘prophet’.

Genesis 20:9-10

‘Then Abimelech called Abraham and said to him, “What have you done to us? And in what way have I sinned against you that you have brought on me and my kingdom a great sin. You have done things to me that ought not to be done.” And Abimelech said to Abraham, “What did you see that you have done this thing?”

Abimelech’s fear stands out clearly. He feels that this great prophet is finding occasion against them. ‘What have you done to us? --- What did you see?’ In his conscience stricken state, moved by his unearthly dream, he believes that this has all happened because of some prior plan and he wants to find out what failure in them has brought it about - ‘in what way have I sinned against you?’ This is beyond just an angry man wanting to know why someone has lied to him. He is deeply concerned, almost terrified.

Genesis 20:11-13

‘And Abraham said, “Because I thought, surely the fear of God is not in this place and they will kill me for the sake of my wife. 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 so it was that when God caused me to wander from my father’s house I said to her, ‘This is the kindness that you will show me. At every place where we shall come say of me - he is my brother”.’

Abraham is slightly nonplussed, but he seeks to explain the situation. He had thought there was no fear of God here, but as events have proved he was totally wrong, and he has the grace to admit it. The fact was that because his wife was so appealing to men he had used a smoke screen in order to protect himself.

This verse explains a permanent plan not a one off situation. Wherever he went he had said that Sarah was his sister. It had only failed once and that because he had been dealing with an unusual country in Egypt. Now, of course it had brought trouble on him again. The narrative seems to suggest that he was at the least unwise.

Abimelech is totally relieved to find that there is no supernatural plot against him and immediately agrees to enter into a covenant with Abraham and his family tribe. He is still shaken and will do anything to appease this prophet of God. (He is more terrified of the prophet than of the soldier). So God uses this failure of Abraham’s to ensure his future well being.

Genesis 20:14-16

‘And Abimelech took sheep and oxen, and menservants and womenservants and gave them to Abraham, and he restored to him Sarah his wife. And Abimelech said, “Look, the land is in front of you, dwell wherever it pleases you.” And to Sarah he said, “See I have given your brother a thousand pieces of silver, behold it is for you a covering of the eyes to all that are with you and before all men you are righted”.’

There are three factors here. The two prices to be paid to remedy the sin that has been committed, and the promise of permanent land for them to dwell in. The first is dealt with by the gift to Abraham as the offended party of cattle and slaves, the second by a gift on behalf of Sarah to ‘her brother’ of a thousand silver pieces. This gift is seen as evidence before men that Sarah is blameless and still pure. Had she been soiled she would not have had this value. It was an ancient custom that the acceptance of a gift demonstrated the vindication of the giver.

The third aspect is the guarantee of land to Abraham and his family tribe, together with their herds and flocks, wherever they choose (on free land, of course). They are welcomed and guaranteed that they will not be driven away.

We note the inclusion of the fact that Abraham is Sarah’s brother. This may be because the compensation has to be given to a close blood relative. But the stated acceptance of the fact may also have been considered necessary in order to stress to all who read the covenant that Abraham’s integrity has been accepted by the king. That Abimelech was ‘innocent’ has also previously been made clear. So both parties are vindicated. This is a necessary part of the covenant.

Genesis 20:17

‘And Abraham prayed to God and God healed Abimelech and his wife and his maidservants, and they bore children.’

Abraham now fulfils his part of the covenant. He uses his powers as a prophet to remove the ‘curse’ that is on Abimelech’s house. But nothing has been said in the narrative about this situation. This indicates the authenticity of the account. A later writer would have introduced this earlier, but in a covenant between two parties such matters must be handled delicately. To have mentioned this in the main body may have been seen as a slur on the king. But it has to be mentioned here, very delicately, because it is part of the covenant.

Genesis 20:18

‘For Yahweh had fast closed up all the wombs of the house of Abimelech because of Sarah, Abraham’s wife.’

The final explanation, put much more bluntly, is given in the name of Yahweh. This may well be an added explanatory comment and not part of the original covenant document. The latter, being between Abraham and an outsider had to speak of ‘God’ so as to suit both parties, but the comment makes clear that this God is Yahweh. It may have been added on in Abraham’s copy of the covenant, but more likely it is added by the person who brought this covenant and the following one together.

Bibliographical Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Genesis 20". "Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/pet/genesis-20.html. 2013.
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