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Bible Commentaries
Genesis 20

Utley's You Can Understand the BibleUtley Commentary


Genesis 20:0


Abraham's TreacheryAbraham and AbimelechAbraham and Sarah in GerarAbraham and AbimelechAbraham at Gerar
Genesis 20:1-7Genesis 20:1-7Genesis 20:1-7Genesis 20:1-3Genesis 20:1-7
Genesis 20:4-5
Genesis 20:6-7
Genesis 20:8-18Genesis 20:8-13Genesis 20:8-18Genesis 20:8-10Genesis 20:8-13
Genesis 20:11-13
Genesis 20:14-16 Genesis 20:14-16Genesis 20:14-18
Genesis 20:17-18 Genesis 20:17-18

READING CYCLE THREE (see Guide to Good Bible Reading)


This is a study guide commentary, which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

Read the chapter in one sitting. Identify the subjects. Compare your subject divisions with the five translations above. Paragraphing is not inspired, but it is the key to following the original author's intent, which is the heart of interpretation. Every paragraph has one and only one subject.

1. First paragraph

2. Second paragraph

3. Third paragraph

4. Etc.


A. It is amazing in light of the promises of chapter 18 that Abraham could fall to such a self-seeking, fearful level as he had earlier in chapter 12. It is another specific literary device to show that the promise is completely of God and not of man.

Just think for a moment of all the problems related to the promise of a son and descendants to Abraham.

1. a barren wife

2. wife taken by Pharaoh (Genesis 12:0)

3. wife taken by Abimelech (Genesis 20:0)

4. the sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22:0)

Abraham had to cling to the promises of YHWH amidst a life of uncontrollable circumstances. Abraham "believed" God (Genesis 15:6)!

B. This chapter reveals to us that there were many righteous men in Canaan in Abraham's day.

1. Melchizedek of the city of Salem

2. Abimelech, the king of the Philistines

This may explain why, in the prophecy to Abraham in Genesis 15:13-16, the sin of the Amorite (a collective term for the people of Canaan) was not yet complete. Abimelech is seen in this chapter as spiritually superior to Abraham!

C. The necessity of Abraham's intercessory prayer to YHWH on behalf of Abimelech shows the unique and privileged position of Abraham as YHWH's chosen one. See Special Topic: Intercessory Prayer.

Verses 1-7

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: Genesis 20:1-7 1Now Abraham journeyed from there toward the land of the Negev, and settled between Kadesh and Shur; then he sojourned in Gerar. 2Abraham said of Sarah his wife, "She is my sister." So Abimelech king of Gerar sent and took Sarah. 3But God came to Abimelech in a dream of the night, and said to him, "Behold, you are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is married." 4Now Abimelech had not come near her; and he said, "Lord, will You slay a nation, even though blameless? 5Did he not himself say to me, 'She is my sister'? And she herself said, 'He is my brother.' In the integrity of my heart and the innocence of my hands I have done this." 6Then God said to him in the dream, "Yes, I know that in the integrity of your heart you have done this, and I also kept you from sinning against Me; therefore I did not let you touch her. 7Now 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 shall surely die, you and all who are yours."

Genesis 20:1 "Abraham journeyed from there" Abraham left his campsite at the oaks of Mamre (cf. Genesis 18:1) or Hebron (cf. Genesis 13:18). Abraham lived a nomadic life, as did Job (same time frame).

"the Negev" This refers to "the south country" (BDB 616), which was a semi-arid desert, including the city of Beersheba to the south. This same area is mentioned in Genesis 13:1. The Patriarchs, Abraham, and Isaac spent most of their time in this general area.

"Kadesh" This oasis was also known as Kadesh-barnea (cf. Genesis 14:7; Genesis 16:14), which is about 50 miles south of Beersheba. It is interesting that the term Kadesh (BDB 873 II, means "sacred") is related to the Hebrew word for "holy," which is kadosh (BDB 871).

"Shur" The term (BDB 1004 III) means "wall," possibly referring to the line of Egyptian fortresses (cf. 1 Samuel 15:7; 1 Samuel 27:8). This is referred to in Genesis 16:7 as the place where the angel of the Lord spoke with Hagar. We do not know where it is located geographically, but it is obviously south of Beersheba on the road to Egypt (cf. Genesis 18:25).

"then he sojourned in Gerar" There is obviously a two-stage migration recorded here, for Gerar is north of Kadesh. The first VERB in Genesis 20:1 "journeyed" (BDB 652, KB 704) literally means "to pull up tent pegs," but this one, "sojourned" (BDB 157, KB 184), implies a long stay (cf. Genesis 12:10; Genesis 21:23-24; Genesis 26:3; Genesis 32:6; Genesis 35:27; Genesis 47:4). This was an area that would later be a stronghold of the Philistines (cf. Genesis 10:19). We learn from later history that it was near Gaza, one of the five major walled cities of the Philistines.

Genesis 20:2 "She is my sister" This is the same thing that happened in Genesis 12:17-18 with the Pharaoh in Egypt. It will happen to Isaac and Rebekah in Genesis 26:1ff. The only explanation we have concerning this is in Genesis 20:13, where it seemed to be the normal operating procedures for Abraham and Sarah after they left Ur of the Chaldeans. It is quite possible that they were truly half-brother and sister (cf. Genesis 20:12), but it is also possible that Abraham simply adopted her in a ceremony that we learn from the Nuzi Tablets which describe Hurrian culture.

"So Abimelech the king of Gerar sent and took Sarah" Does this mean that Sarah was still physically attractive? This is entirely possible, based on Genesis 12:14. Some say that God rejuvenated her body to allow her to conceive and that she became beautiful again. Other commentators have assumed that, because she was almost ninety years, this was only a cultural way of sealing the friendship covenant between Abraham and Abimelech.

Genesis 20:3 "God came to Abimelech in a dream" Abimelech (BDB 4) is a title for the leader of a country, such as Pharaoh, Caesar, or Czar. It apparently means "father is king" or "the king is my father." We see this general name for the kings of the Philistines found in the introduction to Psalms 34:0.

The fact that God appeared to him in a dream, as he did to Laban in Genesis 31:34, shows something of this man's relationship to God. This can specifically be seen where he calls God Adonai (Genesis 20:4) and shows that he may have had some understanding of the covenant God (YHWH), as did Melchizedek (Genesis 14:0), another non-covenant person.

Genesis 20:4-6 We see here the discussion between God and Abimelech where Abimelech reminds God that he acted innocently, without knowing all of the facts. The metaphor in Genesis 20:5, "innocence of my hands"(CONSTRUCT BDB 667 and BDB 496), refers to a Hebrew idiom of open-handedness, i.e., "nothing to hide." It is parallel with "in the integrity of my heart" (CONSTRUCT BDB 1070 and BDB 523, cf. 1 Kings 9:4; Psalms 7:8; Psalms 101:2). In Genesis 20:6 God said that He kept him from sinning (cf. 1 Samuel 25:39; Job 33:18; also note Psalms 19:13).

Apparently this refers to some kind of disease which fell upon Abimelech and his family (cf. Genesis 20:17-18; Genesis 12:17). I think that it is important to see that God was actively involved in His world in the care of a non-covenant member. This can also be seen in His dealings with Hagar and Ishmael. This should be a great encouragement to all human beings (cf. Ezekiel 18:23, Ezekiel 18:32; John 3:16; Romans 11:32; 1 Timothy 2:4; 1 Timothy 4:10; Titus 2:11; 2 Peter 3:9; 1 John 2:1; 1 John 4:14).

Genesis 20:4 "Lord, will You slay a nation, even though blameless? This shows the same understanding of God's justice that Abraham had in Genesis 18:23. Apparently the king saw his death as a prelude to the destruction of the entire tribe (a plague, cf. Genesis 20:17). He asserts (by the use of the term "blameless" or "righteous," BDB 843) that he had committed no act of sexual consummation toward Sarah and that he was acting out of ignorance, not known sin. From this verse it is obvious that adultery was considered a serious violation of God's standards even in this early stage of history (cf. Genesis 12:17-19; Genesis 26:7-11) because it affected inheritance rights.


Genesis 20:7 The VERBAL forms are striking in this message from God given to Abimelech in a dream.

1. "restore the man's wife," BDB 996, KB 1427, Hiphil IMPERATIVE, interestingly this is the same VERB used so often in the OT for "repent."

2. "he will pray for you," BDB 813, KB 933, Qal IMPERFECT (possibly used in a JUSSIVE sense). Note God's forgiveness depended on Abraham's intercessory prayer (much like Job 42:8). This highlights the special status of Abraham!

3. "you will live," BDB 310, KB 309, Qal IMPERATIVE

4. "if you do not restore her," Hiphil PARTICIPLE (see #1)

5. "know," BDB 393, KB 390, Qal IMPERATIVE

6. "you shall surely die," the INFINITIVE ABSOLUTE and IMPERFECT VERB of the same root (BDB 559, KB 562) denote intensity. Sin is associated with "death" (Genesis 2:17; Exodus 10:17; Numbers 18:22).

"he is a prophet" This is the first use of this term in the Bible and the only occurrence in Genesis. The term "prophet" (BDB 611) refers to one who receives and gives God's revelation (cf. Numbers 12:6). However, in this context it seems to be connected with intercessory prayer (cf. Genesis 20:7, Genesis 20:17). This is possible because of other biblical references (cf. 1 Samuel 7:5, 1 Samuel 7:12:19, 23; Job 42:8; Jeremiah 7:16; Jeremiah 11:14; Jeremiah 14:11; Jeremiah 27:18). Some say that it refers to passing on the revelation of God to his children (cf. Genesis 18:19).


"you and all who are yours" Again we have the emphasis on corporality, which is so common in the OT (cf. Genesis 17:27; Genesis 19:12). We do not really see an individual element until Ezekiel 18:0 and Jeremiah 31:31-34, which will characterize the New Covenant.

Verses 8-18

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: Genesis 20:8-18 8So Abimelech arose early in the morning and called all his servants and told all these things in their hearing; and the men were greatly frightened. 9Then Abimelech called Abraham and said to him, "What have you done to us? And how have I sinned against you, that you have brought on me and on my kingdom a great sin? You have done to me things that ought not to be done." 10And Abimelech said to Abraham, "What have you encountered, that you have done this thing?" 11Abraham said, "Because I thought, surely there is no fear of God in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife. 12Besides, she actually is my sister, the daughter of my father, but not the daughter of my mother, and she became my wife; 13and it came about, when God caused me to wander from my father's house, that I said to her, 'This is the kindness which you will show to me: everywhere we go, say of me, "He is my brother."'" 14Abimelech then took sheep and oxen and male and female servants, and gave them to Abraham, and restored his wife Sarah to him. 15Abimelech said, "Behold, my land is before you; settle wherever you please." 16To Sarah he said, "Behold, I have given your brother a thousand pieces of silver; behold, it is your vindication before all who are with you, and before all men you are cleared." 17Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Abimelech and his wife and his maids, so that they bore children. 18For the LORD had closed fast all the wombs of the household of Abimelech because of Sarah, Abraham's wife.

Genesis 20:8 "arose early in the morning" This is a Hebrew idiom of the urgency and immediacy (cf. Genesis 21:14; Genesis 22:3) of responding to God's expressed will.

"and the men were greatly frightened" Not only is the faith of Abimelech seen in Genesis 20:4-6, but the faith of his entire family is expressed in this verse. It makes Abraham's statement in verse Genesis 20:11a ironical.

Genesis 20:9-10 Through a series of three questions Abimelech really shows the inappropriate activity of Abraham, as Pharaoh had done earlier in chapter 12.

Genesis 20:10 "encountered" Some see this as a prophetic vision, but most scholars take this to mean "What have you encountered in the past that has caused you to act this way?"

Genesis 20:11-12 Abraham gives three explanations about why he acted as he had. All three of them seem rather inappropriate. The fear or death is also recorded in Genesis 12:12 and with Isaac in Genesis 26:7.

Genesis 20:13 "when God caused me to wander" In English it almost seems that he is implying that it is God's fault that he acted this way. It reminds us of how Adam blamed God (cf. Genesis 3:12). However, it is uncertain if we can understand this in this way. What is certain is that the name Elohim, which is used here, is followed by the PLURAL VERB (BDB 1073, KB 1766, Hiphil PERFECT PLURAL), which is highly unusual when referring to the monotheistic Israelite Deity, (see Special Topic: Monotheism). Some say that he is getting down on the polytheistic level of Abimelech (S. R. Driver). However, Abimelech seems to be knowledgeable of the one true God also. The rabbis say this PLURAL, though rare, is not uncommon when referring to God (cf Genesis 1:26; Genesis 11:7; Genesis 35:7; 2 Samuel 7:23). The Church often interprets these OT PLURALS as an incipient form of the doctrine of the Trinity.


"this is the kindness which you will show me: everywhere we go" This seems to show that Abraham and Sarah had made an agreement about this brother and sister ruse from the time that they left Ur of the Chaldeans.

Genesis 20:14 This exactly repeats what Pharaoh did for Abraham in Genesis 12:16.

It is these doublets that have caused modern western scholars to question a single author for the Pentateuch. The different names for Deity and these doublets caused them to theorize several authors/editors (see Dr. Utley's discussion of this in the introduction [Authorship] of his commentary on Genesis 1-11, available free online at www.freebiblecommentary.org). Also note the good brief discussion in Hard Sayings of the Bible, pp. 118-120.

Genesis 20:16 "a thousand pieces of silver" Most translations assume that the term "shekel" should appear here because it was the normal term for "weight of valuable metal" in the Ancient Near East (see Special Topic: Ancient Near East Weights and Volumes). There are several other texts where it is assumed but not stated (cf. Genesis 37:28; Judges 17:2, Judges 17:3, Judges 17:4, Judges 17:10).

NASB, NKJV,"your vindication" NRSV“exoneration" TEV“that you are innocent" NJB“you have been completely vindicated"

It is uncertain whether or not there are two separate gifts given by Abimelech, one to Abraham (Genesis 20:14) and one to Sarah (Genesis 20:16), or simply one gift, the monetary value of which is recorded in this verse. I personally believe that there are two separate gifts. The phrase, "your vindication" is literally "for you a covering of the eyes" (CONSTRUCT BDB 492 & 744), which is a Hebrew idiom to show that Sarah was completely innocent and was compensated for the embarrassment.

Genesis 20:17 "God healed Abimelech" We do not know the exact disease that came upon Abimelech and his family, but it caused the birth of children to be impossible. Apparently this was one way that God protected Abimelech from having relations with Sarah. Also, from Genesis 20:17 and 18, we see that barrenness was considered a divine curse. This is one reason that Abraham had such a hard time believing God's words of grace when Sarah was barren.

Genesis 20:18 "the LORD closed fast all the wombs" This is the INFINITIVE ABSOLUTE and PERFECT VERB of the same root (BDB 783 &870), which intensifies the action of the VERB.

This clause is the only place in chapter 20 where the covenant name for Deity, YHWH, is used. In context (Genesis 20:17) it is parallel with Elohim. The Samaritan Pentateuch and some LXX manuscripts have Elohim.


This is a study guide commentary, which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

These discussion questions are provided to help you think through the major issues of this section of the book. They are meant to be thought-provoking, not definitive.

1. Why did Abraham represent Sarah as his sister?

2. How do you explain this being done twice to Sarah and once to Rebekah?

3. Why is Sarah's protection so theologically significant?

Bibliographical Information
Utley. Dr. Robert. "Commentary on Genesis 20". "Utley's You Can Understand the Bible". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ubc/genesis-20.html. 2021.
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