After the harrowing events of chapter 19, we rejoin Abraham in Genesis 20. In this chapter, Abraham journeys to the south to an area between the places of Kadesh and Shur. Kadesh and Shur are in a larger place which is referred to Gerar, and Gerar has a king named Abimelech. We are not told why Abraham decides to travel south, and can only conjecture that it may have been for better grazeland for his animals, or to put distance between him and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.
When Abraham arrives there, he reuses the same tactic he used in Egypt (Genesis 12:10-20) of saying that Sarah was his sister and not his wife. This was an attempt to avoid violence and save his life. Abraham again feared that as Sarah’s husband he would be killed as she was taken by a powerful man. In Egypt, the fear revolved around her great beauty being the thing that made her attractive to powerful men, but in this instance, so many years later, Sarah is beyond her child-bearing years and Abraham may have thought that she would be desired because of her great wealth.
Abraham’s suspicions were well-founded because Abimelech does indeed take Sarah in verse 2. God then comes to Abimelech in a dream and explains to him who Sarah really is, making it once again evident how special Abraham and Sarah were to God. Abimelech’s death was imminent because he took Sarah captive. But then Abimelech protests that he actually fears and respects the power of God, and he describes his nation as righteous as well. As Abimelech describes his innocence, God reveals to him that He actually prevented Abimelech from touching Sarah. In this act of mercy upon Abimelech, God shows His omniscience, omnipotence and desire for righteousness to prevail.
God tells Abimelech to restore Sarah to Abraham. Abimelech does this, but not before publicly asking Abraham why he would bring the threat of godly punishment to him and his nation. In verse 11, Abraham provides his explanation: “…Because I thought, surely the fear of God is not in this place; and they will kill me on account of my wife.” It is true that Abimelech feared God at the end of this chapter, but his reputation at the outset seems to have been one of ignorance, indifference or disobedience to the power of God.
Abimelech hears Abraham’s explanation for the half-truth and completes the restoration of Sarah to Abraham with extravagant gifts. God then restores Abimelech’s family to resume procreation because we also find out at the end of the chapter that God had “closed up all the wombs of the house of Abimelech because of Sarah, Abraham’s wife.” No real explanation is provided for God’s doing this other than the implication that it was punishment for Sarah being taken.
What can we take from this chapter? There are a couple of pertinent lessons for us in the modern age:
- In verse 6, we learned that God’s grace kept Abimelech from sin. We should pray for the same thing for ourselves and for our loved ones. We need to pray for the strength to resist temptation and that God can, according to His will, prevent us from soiling our spirits through sin. Praying for the strength to resist is very important, but there is also the answered prayer where God can help us to avoid the temptation altogether.
- In this chapter, God is grandly showing his faith in Abraham to the powerful men of the earth and He does not find it necessary to complete His will forcibly or violently (which He definitely does in other parts of the Bible), but in the end all is done peacably. Abimelech is convinced of the greater power of the one true God. God used the threat of death (verse 7), and the outcome glorified God and favored Abraham and his family. How can we look for ways to glorify God? Abraham may have acted out of fear, but his faith in God kept him safe and also convinced Abimelech that he was not the most powerful entity in the land.