40. Genesis 20

III. A. 2. continued

d) The Silence (Genesis 20)

Once God had made a covenant with Abram, you would think that everything would get more intense between them, that God would communicate more intimately and frequently than previously, and that perhaps there would be a miracle or two as God began to fulfill some of His promises. The opposite was the case. Once the Covenant was sealed there followed a period of about fourteen years of complete silence, silence while Abram contrived to have a son with Hagar, and then silence for a dozen or more years beyond that. After Abram’s initial believing God’s promise and God crediting it to him as righteousness, God seemed to vanish from Abram’s life, seemed to forget His promise, and an old man became an older man waiting on God to do something, anything.

It is potentially a disappointing experience to get a spectacular vision and look at the stars and believe wild promises from a God who increasingly seemed very long on promises and short on results. And sure enough, it was followed by a longer period of inaction and silence than any Abram had experienced before. Abram believed God, but how long could he continue to believe God in the face of such silence? It appears to be a pattern: God withdraws into silence just when we expect Him to be most vocal. Just when He issues a call or announces some new program or policy or hope, just when we finally make what feels like a sure connection with Him, then He disappears as if He had never been. And so, in the course of time, Ishmael was born and grew and God remained silent.

The incident with Abimelech in Genesis 20 is out of sequence. Chronologically, the visit with Abimelech occurred after the birth of Ishmael  but before the birth of Isaac, before the circumcision, before the destruction of Sodom. Genesis 20:17,18 reads: “And Abraham prayed to God; and God healed Abimelech and his wife and his maids, so that they bore children. For the Lord had closed fast all the wombs of the household of Abimelech because of Sarah, Abraham’s wife.” This implies the passage of a fair amount of time with Abimelech; they would not have noticed that God had closed all the wombs for many months, maybe even years, more time at any rate than the single year between the circumcision and Isaac’s birth, more time than it would take for Sarah’s condition, if she were pregnant, to become noticeable. The only way to take the account in chapter 20 at face value is to assume that it occurred between chapters 16 and 17, after the time Abraham was 86 years old and Ishmael was born, but before the time Abraham was 99 years old and the rite of circumcision was required.

Putting the events in Gerar in their correct chronological sequence would have interrupted the story of Abraham’s children, and so the story was moved to a more convenient place in the narrative. The fact that the names were changed to Abraham and Sarah in this chapter does not indicate that the events in chapter 20 occurred after the events in chapter 19; moving the story to this location in the narrative required the anachronistic using of the new names so as to make the account flow smoothly. After all, Genesis does not ever claim to be a chronological account and so there is no need for us to try to make it one. There were good literary reasons for rearranging the events, reasons that do no damage to the meaning of the material or the integrity of Scripture.

During those thirteen years after the birth of Ishmael, Abram left Hebron, went to the Negev, then toward Shur retracing more or less the route that Hagar had taken the previous year. Perhaps Abram went that way because he wanted to see Beer-lahai-roi for himself. There is no reason given for his transfer to Gerar but he stayed there for what must have been several years. Gerar was something of a prosperous city in Abram’s time, though as the centuries passed it played an increasingly minor role in that land. Outside of Genesis, it is mentioned only once more in Scripture in I Chronicles 14:16 under the name of Gezer. After leaving Gerar Abram returned to Hebron once again for his fifth meeting with God.

Genesis 21:32 later describes Abimelech as returning “to the land of the Philistines”, which might be taken as suggesting he was a Philistine. However this time period, in the mid-twenty-first century, was before the Philistines moved into the area, at least in significant numbers. Perhaps the people of Gerar were the first Philistines in the area, the only ones to arrive for several more centuries, but it is more likely that when the oral tradition was written down centuries later, the writer added “the land of the Philistines” to identify for contemporary readers the geographical location referred to. It is the same thing modern historians may do when they write about colonial American events at locations whose place names have changed. In short, Gerar was probably not a Philistine city at this time.

This was the second time, at least the second recorded time, that Abram had asked Sarai to keep their marriage a secret, but he admitted to Abimelech that he had planned with her to compromise herself in this way even before he had left Haran to go to Canaan. After the conflicts with Hagar it must have been particularly painful to Sarai to go through this same humiliation again, and yet she did. Why she did it, as strong willed as she was, can be easily explained. The simplest explanation is that she had a genuine and deep affection for Abram that inclined her to go along with his wishes when it would have been better to object. Just as it is frequently the tendency of husbands to be too harsh and controlling of their wives, it is frequently the tendency of wives to be too willing to justify their husband’s errors.

The account of this second deception details more exactly how God intervened to rescue Sarah. This time He must have been protecting her over a long period of time. However it was that He kept her from Abimelech during what was probably three years or more, the time finally came for direct action to get her out of there, and so God appeared to Abimelech in a dream. It is interesting that Abimelech seemed to understand God’s character and power as well as Abram, and perhaps better. God made it clear to Abimelech that He had preserved Sarah from him not only for her sake and Abram’s sake, but also for Abimelech’s sake, preventing him from sinning unwittingly. Again, God’s treatment of Abimelech and Abimelech’s response to his dream shows that God had been active among these pagans to keep Himself remembered to some extent. Certainly the reaction of Abimelech’s servants in verse 8 shows that they took God Most High very seriously. There would at least have been the witness of Melchizedek, from whom they could have learned something about God Most High.

The interaction between God and Abimelech deserves careful attention. The opening of the dialogue implies that the local pagan standard of morality demanded death for adultery, and this was the case throughout the ancient Middle East. God’s words in the vision when He made the Covenant said that the iniquity of the Amorites had not become complete.  It was a prophecy of the degeneracy that was to accelerate when the Canaanites arrived in the land centuries later, corrupting all around them. At this point the pagans in Gerar had a relatively modern view of sexual ethics in marriage, except for the polygamy. But to a modern person, God’s first statement to Abimelech seems out of line. How could an unintentional act deserve death? Abimelech naturally protested his innocence: both Abram and Sarai had misled him in the matter. Can an act still be a sin when it is done in a state of deception; can it still be a sin to the point that it demands death? In the case of Eve, I argued that the answer was no, but now in the case of Abimelech, as harsh as it may seem, I will argue that the answer is yes. So I must explain what distinguishes the two cases.

Throughout the Scripture, and after the Fall when sin and death ruled the world, God drew boundaries for His own purposes; and the crossing of those boundaries meant death regardless of whether the trespass was intentional or not. To the ancients, even to Abimelech, such boundaries were not unheard of. They knew that there were certain places, certain objects, certain people, which were holy, set apart, reserved for God (or the gods) alone and for those He favored. Even pagan fairy tales and myths develop this concept. There were places to which it was death for a mortal to stray even by accident. Abimelech would have known the concept. God was now telling him that the marriage of Abram and Sarai was one of those places, protected, sacred, holy, forbidden. This was the couple ordained to have a son, ordained to have a son when all possibility of a son and all hope for a son was gone, ordained to have a son to bear the Covenant of Revelation and to bear God’s blessing to the whole of Creation. Abimelech was in danger of stumbling inadvertently into the Holy of Holies of God’s revelation and God stopped him. This was what God meant by answering yes, that even though Abram and Sarai had deceived him, even though he was innocent, it was his life, and the life of his people, that was demanded. God was speaking Abimelech’s language. In so doing, He was revealing something to Abimelech, if he happened to be listening. From this point on, Abimelech, and any of his people who were involved, knew there was something holy about Abram and Sarai.

Furthermore, straying into forbidden territory, even inadvertently, is not merely a question of bad luck; it is a sin. God’s answer to Abimelech made it clear; God had prevented him, over a long period of time, from sinning. We usually think of sin as deliberate, willful rebellion against God and His commandments. However, sin goes much deeper than that. Willful disobedience is sin, of course, but the problem of sin is really a problem of who we are and not of what we do nor even of what we choose to do. We can obey, and we can obey to the letter, and the state of sin goes on undiminished. It is possible to be in sin, to be under the penalty of death from sin, and to be entirely unaware that there is any problem. Neither salvation nor damnation is a matter of what one knows or doesn’t know. Abimelech experienced God’s grace in the only way any of us experience it: he was rescued from a certain death he didn’t even know was coming.

Note again that sin behaved in a covenantal way. If Abimelech had refused to restore Sarai, not only would he have died but also all of his family would have died. In verse 4 Abimelech indicated that He understood the threat of death as hovering over his whole nation, and in his own view there was nothing unjust about his people suffering for his sin. He lived in a culture of covenants and he understood the system. But God was gracious to Abimelech and to his people and prevented him from coming anywhere near Sarai. God does not delight in the death of anyone, but is always watching for ways to circumvent it.

The deception of Abimelech was a much more serious mistake than the deceiving of Pharaoh had been. By deceiving Abimelech in regard to Sarai, Abram had put the central Covenant promise at risk. God had promised a son to Abram through Sarai, and it would not do for there to be any suspicion that the child to come was Abimelech’s. Abram had been very reckless to deceive Abimelech about Sarai; the deception could have seriously compromised God’s plan and revelation if God were not so completely in control. This consideration makes it all the clearer that chapter 20 occurred immediately after chapter 16: this episode in Abram’s life was well over before Sarai got pregnant and there was never any question that Abram was the father.

Though Abram was at fault here, though Abimelech and his people had not sinned in this matter, nonetheless God would not heal the people of the land until Abram had interceded for them. It was the responsibility of the Covenant bearer to intercede for those with whom he interacted, particularly if he was the cause of their problem. By making the Covenant with Abram, God had made him into a priest to the world, a representative of God to the world, and his foolishness did not disqualify him from his priestly duties.

At no point did God rebuke Abram, either for deceiving Abimelech or for risking the Covenant. God was biased in favor of His son, Abram, and chose to overlook his sin. The embarrassment of confessing to Abimelech was some punishment, but punishment was never the issue. God never spent time looking for ways to punish sin; He was looking for ways to avoid punishment.

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