When we last saw Abraham in Genesis chapter nineteen, he was looking down over the giant, smoking land area that existed where the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah used to be (see Genesis 19:28). Now the fact that Abraham saw heavy and dense smoke rising up from this disaster tells us that…
- There was a lot of smoke
- It was probably spreading for miles around
This becomes an important detail when you start to think about the way these cities were destroyed. You see, Genesis 19:24 tells us that “…the LORD rained down burning sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah…”
If you’ve ever experienced the smell of sulfur, then you know is that it smells really, really bad- in fact, sulfur smells just like rotten eggs. This meant that the area of Sodom and Gomorrah had now become like a giant factory spewing thick, heavy clouds of bad-smelling smoke. So anyone who lived close enough to see Sodom and Gomorrah (as Abraham did) probably lived close enough to smell it as well.
Because of this, you’d probably want to find another place to live if you were someone in Abraham’s position- and that’s exactly what he did…
“Now Abraham moved on from there into the region of the Negev and lived between Kadesh and Shur. For a while he stayed in Gerar, and there Abraham said of his wife Sarah, ‘She is my sister.’ Then Abimelech king of Gerar sent for Sarah and took her” (Genesis 20:1-2).
So Abraham went to live in a town near the Egyptian border named Gerar. Gerar happened to be an area with a lot of commercial activity and large, well-watered pasturelands. This meant that it was a great place for a businessman with a large herd of animals like Abraham.
Unfortunately, Abraham repeated a mistake that got him into trouble once before: “Abraham told everyone that his wife Sarah was his sister. So King Abimelech of Gerar sent men to take Sarah” (GW). Now remember that Abraham’s wife Sarah was about 90 years old at this time, so what would Abimelech (pronounced “a-bim-el-leck”) want with a 90 year old woman like Sarah?
Well, the answer is that a king in those days had the right to take any woman he wanted into his harem. But harems were not only about having a lot of beautiful women around. Remember that Abraham was one of the richest and most important men in that area. Setting up an alliance with Abraham by “marrying into the family” (so to speak) probably seemed like a smart thing for a king like Abimelech to do.
But Abimilech was about to find out that he hadn’t been given the whole story…
“But God came to Abimelech in a dream one night and said to him, ‘You are as good as dead because of the woman you have taken; she is a married woman'” (Genesis 20:3).
So God basically told Abimelech, “You’re a dead man walking.” The message to Abimelech (and people today) is that God takes marriage very seriously- do not mess around with other people’s spouses.
“Now Abimelech had not gone near her, so he said, ‘Lord, will you destroy an innocent nation? Did he not say to me, ‘She is my sister,’ and didn’t she also say, ‘He is my brother’? I have done this with a clear conscience and clean hands'” (Genesis 20:4-5).
It’s possible that Abimelech had God’s recent judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah in mind when he said, “‘Lord, will you destroy an innocent nation?” If so, then the idea behind Abimelech’s statement is this: “Lord, you destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, but they deserved it- we didn’t do anything wrong.”
So here was God’s response:
“Then God said to him in the dream, ‘Yes, I know you did this with a clear conscience, and so I have kept you from sinning against me. That is why I did not let you touch her'” (Genesis 20:6).
God accepted the fact that Abimelech didn’t knowingly do anything wrong by saying: “Yes, I know you did this with a clear conscience…” But what God didn’t say to Abimelech is almost as important as what He did say. For example, notice that God didn’t say to Abimelech, “Yes, I know that you are innocent…”
You see, someone may have a clear conscience but that doesn’t automatically mean that such a person is innocent. Let’s take Abimelech as an example. Even though Abimilech had a clear conscience, he was still guilty because he did something wrong whether he realized it or not. This is why it can sometimes be a bad idea to simply “let your conscience be your guide.” Your conscience can be a good guide, but only when it’s led and informed by the things that God says in His Word.
Even so, God acknowledged that Abimelech didn’t intentionally do anything wrong- that’s why God protected him from getting into further trouble by saying, “That is why I did not let you touch her.”
So Abimelech needed a fast way to fix this problem- and God is going to graciously provide him with a solution next.
Here’s how God advised Abimelech to undo the damage that he caused by unknowingly taking Abraham’s wife into his harem…
“Now return the man’s wife, for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you will live. But if you do not return her, you may be sure that you and all yours will die” (Genesis 20:7)
Genesis 20:17 represents the first time that the word “prophet” is used in the Bible. A Biblical prophet is someone with the God-given ability to give direction or information about a particular situation or future event. So even though Abraham didn’t trust God the way that he should have in this situation, it’s clear that God still remained faithful to His calling on his life and to the promises that He had given to him earlier.
“Early the next morning Abimelech summoned all his officials, and when he told them all that had happened, they were very much afraid. Then Abimelech called Abraham in and said, ‘What have you done to us? How have I wronged you that you have brought such great guilt upon me and my kingdom? You have done things to me that should not be done.’ And Abimelech asked Abraham, ‘What was your reason for doing this?'” (Genesis 20:8-10).
Unfortunately, this situation didn’t reflect very well on Abraham, and it certainly didn’t reflect very well on his relationship with God. If we could rephrase this whole scene in a more up to date way, we might say that Abimelech’s response to Abraham was, “Abraham- what are you doing?!? What were you thinking?!?”
You see, Abimelech was right when he told Abraham, “You have done things to me that should not be done.” This event from Abraham’s life should also serve as a warning and example for those who claim to follow God today. That’s because Abraham misrepresented God to someone who didn’t know Him and it led to a ripple effect of bad consequences for an entire group of people who didn’t intentionally do anything wrong.
However, God used the person who was wronged (Abimelech) to straighten out one of His followers (Abraham) who had messed up. This means that Abraham put himself in a position where God had to use an outsider to address something wrong in his life. So while Abraham provides us with many good examples to follow in our relationship with God, this is one example from his life that God’s people should definitely seek to avoid.
So how did Abraham respond when Abimelech told him, “You have done things to me that should not be done”? Well, here was Abraham’s explanation…
“Abraham replied, ‘I said to myself, ‘There is surely no fear of God in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife.’ Besides, she really is my sister, the daughter of my father though not of my mother; and she became my wife'” (Genesis 20:11-12).
So when Genesis 20:2 tells us that “Abraham said of his wife Sarah, ‘She is my sister'” it turns out that Abraham was telling a literal half-truth. Sarah was actually Abram’s half-sister since they both had the same father but different mothers. So Abraham was telling the truth to an extent, but there’s no question that he was also trying to deceive these government officials by implying that Sarah was only his sister and nothing more.
“And when God had me wander from my father’s household, I said to her, ‘This is how you can show your love to me: Everywhere we go, say of me, “He is my brother”‘” (Genesis 20:13).
Take note of what Abraham said to Sarah in the verse quoted above This verse tells us that Abraham said to Sarah, “If you really love me, you will tell everyone that I am your brother” (CEV).
In other words, Abraham basically told Sarah…
- If you really love me…
- If you want to prove your love for me…
- If you want to demonstrate the love that you say you have for me…
…then you’ll do what I want you to do.
If this sounds familiar, then it might be due to the fact that guys still use different variations of this line with women today. For example, it’s not unusual for a guy to say, “If you love me, you’ll <fill in the blank>” when he wants to manipulate a woman into doing something that he wants her to do. But in reality, a guy who says this is really saying, “I’m going to try and use your feelings for me to get you to give me what I want.”
Of course, women sometimes say similar things to guys as well. The problem with this is that this is not love- it’s manipulation. The truth is that someone who really loves you is not going to try and manipulate you, and they certainly won’t ask you “to prove your love” by doing something wrong. Unfortunately, that’s what Abraham did here: he pressured Sarah into going along with something that really wasn’t right.
Then Abimelech brought sheep and cattle and male and female slaves and gave them to Abraham, and he returned Sarah his wife to him. And Abimelech said, ‘My land is before you; live wherever you like.” (Genesis 20:14-15).
Since Abraham had a long-standing fear that other men might try to kill him in order to take his wife (see Genesis 12:11-13), he misrepresented his relationship with Sarah to the government officials in the city of Gerar when he told them, “…’She is my sister'” (Genesis 20:2). That one small decision quickly led to a chain reaction of bad consequences.
You see, Abraham’s half-truth led the king of that area to conclude that Sarah was “available” so he went ahead and took Sarah into his harem. But God appeared in a dream to this king named Abimelech to tell him that he had unknowingly taken another man’s wife. Once Abimelech learned the truth from God about this situation, he immediately acted to make things right just as we see in the verse quoted above.
So even though Abraham was supposed to be a person who represented God to others, it seems that Abimelech acted more honorably toward Abraham than Abraham had acted toward him. Since Abraham was the one who was in the wrong, he really should have been the person giving gifts, not the other way around.
“To Sarah he said, ‘I am giving your brother a thousand shekels of silver. This is to cover the offense against you before all who are with you; you are completely vindicated.’ Then Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Abimelech, his wife and his slave girls so they could have children again, for the LORD had closed up every womb in Abimelech’s household because of Abraham’s wife Sarah” (Genesis 20:16-18).
It’s too bad that we don’t have the ability to hear how Abimelelch spoke to Sarah in these verses. Perhaps Abimelech called Sarah into his office and said to her in a somewhat sarcastic tone, “Listen, I’m giving your so-called ‘brother’ a thousand shekels of silver to make up for everything that happened.”
This gift provided by Abimelech would have represented a small fortune in those days. So why did Abimelech give Abraham so much money? Well, this amount was to compensate Sarah for any wrong that she may have suffered. Once Abraham accepted this money, it served as an agreement between Abraham and Abimelech that everything was settled and that Sarah was completely blameless.