Genesis 20

This verse by verse Bible study on Genesis is an inductive verse by verse study with extensive reflections, teaching points, cross-references, and applications. They are the personal study of notes of a very good doctor friend of mine. His native tongue is Mandarin, but his English is amazing as you will see below. It is refreshing to take a look at this important book of Genesis through the eyes of a believer from another culture. Without further adieu: The Scribblings According to David.

Genesis 20 Inductive Bible Study

An Unlikely Man of Faith (IX)

Outline

vv.1-7     A Plot Replayed

vv.8-13    A Strife Resolved

vv.14-18   A Name Restored

Textual Summary

After the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham journeyed to Gerar, where he for self-protection told the half-truth again about Sarah’s identity, after which the matriarch was taken by King Abimelech into his harem. However, God prevented Abimelech from approaching Sarah and vindicated his innocence and integrity. Abimelech then rebuked Abraham, returned Sarah to the patriarch, and restored her reputation by showing lavish generosity to them.

Interpretative Challenges

Why did Abimelech take an elderly woman into his harem?
Sarah must have still been a beautiful and attractive woman at the age of 90, probably no less than when she was at the age of 65 (Gen. 12:14). However, the real reason was probably quite something else other than that Abimelech suddenly “had a crush” on Sarah upon seeing her.

In ancient times, having many wives, on the one hand, signified a king’s power and wealth, and on the other, solidified diplomatic bonds with other kings and powerful people (through political marriages). Although Abraham was new to the region of Gerar, his wealth and influence would quickly be known by the local people (from the size of his family, amounts of his properties, etc.). Maybe that’s why Abimelech was prompted to marry his sister in order to establish reciprocal relations with him.

Was Abimelech a believer? If not, how could he commune with God? And was he to blame in this?
There is no mention about Abimelech’s personal faith or religious practice in this passage. It is therefore relatively safe to conclude that Abimelech was but a pagan king albeit having a limited knowledge of Yahweh. He was not exactly “communing” with God the same as a believer (like Abraham) prayed to God. In fact, it was God who appeared to him (v.3). In the Bible, besides Abimilech, God had also appeared to other pagan rulers like pharaoh (Gen. 41:1) and Nebuchadnezzar (Dan. 2:1).

From a mere secular standpoint, Abimelech was a righteous man. Taking Sarah into his harem was done in ignorance: his conscience was clear. “In the integrity of my heart and the innocence of my hands I have done this” (v.5), was his defense, to which God vindicated by replying him, “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” (v.6). Matthew Henry commented, “If our consciences witness, that, however we may have been cheated into a snare, we have not knowingly sinned against God, it will be our rejoicing in the day of evil. It is matter of comfort to those who are honest, that God knows their honesty, and will acknowledge it. It is a great mercy to be hindered from committing sin; of this God must have the glory. But if we have ignorantly done wrong, that will not excuse us, if we knowingly persist in it. He that does wrong, whoever he is, prince or peasant, shall certainly receive for the wrong which he has done, unless he repent, and, if possible, make restitution.”

Another interesting footnote: the name Abimelech means “my father is king”, and the Abimelech in Gen. XX was mostly likely the father (or grandfather) of another Abimelech encountered by Isaac in Gen. XXVI (Gen. 26:1). Or it could be the title for king of the Philistines (Ps. 34).

What is a prophet (v.7)?
“… he is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you will live” (Gen. 20:7). This is the first time the Hebrew word for “prophet” is used in Scripture. Quoting from the MacArthur Study Bible, “Here it identified Abraham as recognized by God to speak to Him on behalf of Abimelech. Usually it is used to describe, not one who speaks to God on behalf of someone, but one who speaks to someone on behalf of God.” Quite different from the ministry of a prophet (see the excerpt from Easton’s Bible Dictionary at the appendix), the office of someone who intercedes to God on behalf of man belongs primarily to a priest.

One of the hallmarks of the charismatic movement is their presumptuous doctrine and outlandish practice of prophecy/prophet. In fact, many within the charismatic circles claim to be modern-day “prophets” (e.g. the Kansas City Prophets, Benny Hinn, etc.). And after multiple failures in making accurate predictions, they even came up with the idea of “fallible prophecies/prophets”. Therefore, it is prudent for Christians to know what the Bible says about true prophets and to cultivate necessary discernment on this matter.

Compelling cases against charismatic practice of prophecy/prophet have already been made in one of the keynote seminars in the recent Strange Fire conference (A Word from the Lord? – Evaluating the Modern Gift of Prophecy by Nathan Busenitz) and in chapter 6 of MacArthur’s new book under the same title Strange Fire.

The following is some brief notes I took from Busenitz’ seminar:

Prophet, in its original Greek term, means, “to speak in the place of”. Therefore, a prophet of God is a spokesperson of God. Prophecy, then, means new and fresh revelation from God, and is different from preaching, which is the exposition of what God has already revealed.

The key question to ask is, when a person claims to have received new revelation from God, what criteria can we use to discern whether or not they are really speaking for God? Or, simply put, how can we recognize a false prophet?

There are three biblical criteria of telling a true prophet from a false one:

Doctrinal Orthodoxy – God’s true prophets proclaim doctrines that are right and true. (cf. Deut. 13:1-5, 2 Pet. 2:1)
Moral Integrity – God’s true prophets are characterized by personal holiness. (cf. Jer. 23:14-16, Matt. 7:20; 2 Pet. 2:2-3)
Predictive Accuracy – God’s true prophets foretell future events with 100% accuracy. (cf. Deut. 18:20-22; Eze. 13:3-9)

How long had Sarah been in Abimelech’s harem?
Scripture does not explicitly say how long, but it must be long enough to cause Abimelech to have observed the abnormal phenomenon of extensive sterility that swept across his house after Sarah was taken into his harem. (By the way, this is one of many places in Scripture that shows us the sovereignty of God in terms of His rule over the fertility/sterility of people). But we also know that no more than one year had eclipsed between Gen. XVIII (when God promised Abraham a son would be born through Sarah next year) and Gen. XXI (where Isaac was born). Therefore we could reach to the conclusion that the short story in Gen. XX must have happened during this one year.

What if Abimilech did approach Sarah?
Even though more for political rather than sexual reasons Abimelech had put Sarah into his harem, there was still a great chance that Abimelech would have put Sarah into his bed. And that would have overthrown God’s covenantal faithfulness. The promise of a seed to Abraham through Sarah, and eventually of the Messiah through Him every nation is blessed, was therefore placed in grave danger. As the ESV Study Bible comments, “Abimelech’s action place in jeopardy the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham that Sarah will bear him a son.” Perhaps, in the invisible supernatural world behind this, the devil was “checking” God, just as when he used Haman, Herod, Judas and Pilate as his pawns to thwart God’s Plan.

However, we believe the God of the Bible is the sovereign ruler of the universe, and His plan can never be thwarted. In Isa. 14:24, the Scripture says, “The Lord of hosts has sworn saying, ‘Surely, just as I have intended so it has happened, and just as I have planned so it will stand’”. And also in Isa. 46:8-11 God spoke, “Remember this, and be assured; recall it to mind, you transgressors. Remember the former things long past, for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is no one like Me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things which have not been done, saying, ‘My purpose will be established, and I will accomplish all My good pleasure’; calling a bird of prey from the east, the man of My purpose from a far country. Truly I have spoken; truly I will bring it to pass. I have planned it, surely I will do it.”

One pastor says, “when the devil says ‘check’, God always says ‘checkmate’.” It is not spiritually wholesome merely to look around; we must look up.

Why would Abimelech give them generous gifts in the end?
Starkly contrasted Abraham’s self-serving deception, Abimelech manifested commendable generosity to Abraham. This was done not to compensate for his guilt or as a gesture of sincere apology, but to honor God of Abraham, for Abimelech was innocent and thus under no obligation to make retribution to Abraham and Sarah. His generosity should be understood more as a tribute to God, who graciously prevented him from unknowingly committing sin and vindicated him in this matter.

Abimelech also sought to restore the honor of Sarah (“behold, it is your vindication before all who are with you, and before all men you are cleared”, v.16), which would probably suffered greatly already. Nevertheless, when Abimelech said to Sarah, “Behold, I have given your brother…” (v.16), he was addressing Abraham exactly per Abraham’s half-truth. Should that be a subtle rebuke, no less powerful than the “What hast thou done?” (v.9) before?

The JFB commentary, in contrasting Abraham and Abimelech, put it this way, “In what a humiliating plight does the patriarch now appear– he, a servant of the true God, rebuked by a heathen prince. Who would not rather be in the place of Abimelech than of the honored but sadly offending patriarch! What a dignified attitude is that of the king– calmly and justly reproving the sin of the patriarch, but respecting his person and heaping coals of fire on his head by the liberal presents made to him.”

Why did Abraham suddenly become such a man of little faith?
It is not hard for any diligent Bible student to realize that Gen. XX is Gen. XII all over again. It was the exact same lie that Abraham told over two decades ago. Apparently, a simple “She is my sister” would not suffice to explain why an attractive woman being 90 years old was still without any children. Abraham must have deliberately lied about her marital status in order to send her to Abimelech’s harem. Perhaps Abraham told Abimelech, “No, no, no, she’s still single. That’s why she had no children.”

The JFB Commentary says, “Fear of the people among whom he was, tempted him to equivocate. His conduct was highly culpable. It was deceit, deliberate and premeditated– there was no sudden pressure upon him– it was the second offense of the kind (cf. Gen. 12:13) — it was a distrust of God every way surprising, and it was calculated to produce injurious effects on the heathen around. Its mischievous tendency was not long in being developed.” And Matthew Henry commented, “See here much to blame, even in the father of the faithful. Mark his distrust of God, his undue care about life, his intent to deceive. He also threw temptation in the way of others, caused affliction to them, exposed himself and Sarah to just rebukes, and yet attempted an excuse. These things are written for our warning, not for us to imitate. Even Abraham hath not whereof to glory. He cannot be justified by his works, but must be indebted for justification, to that righteousness which is upon all and unto all them that believe. We must not condemn all as hypocrites who fall into sin, if they do not continue in it. But let the unhumbled and impenitent take heed that they do not sin on, thinking that grace may abound.”

But perhaps there was another side to Abraham’s significant shrinkage in faith. For someone who is actively and proactively pursuing God, he will not wake up one morning and suddenly decided to turn away from God. The path to disbelief, rebellion and apostasy is more of a gradual process; a drifting away that only seems subtle and harmless in the beginning, from which the author of Hebrews endeavors to warn us, “For this reason we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away from it” (Heb. 2:1). So, now, the question becomes, after the Covenant renewed, after the Circumcision performed, after the name changed, and after the audacious Great Bargain, how did Abraham get here?

The reason, I would speculate, lies in these two verses from the previous chapter, “Now Abraham arose early in the morning and went to the place where he had stood before the Lord; and he looked down toward Sodom and Gomorrah, and toward all the land of the valley, and he saw, and behold, the smoke of the land ascended like the smoke of a furnace” (Gen. 19:27-28). Here, Abraham was watching Sodom and Gomorrah went down in flames. Scripture did not record any personal encounter after the Great Bargain, so we would assume that Abraham had no clue whether Lot was among the casualties in the Judgment. He probably thought so. Can you imagine how he felt?

“Lord, were there not even 10 righteous people in town? Oh, Lot, my poor nephew…”

Upon seeing only part of the picture and assuming the worst had happened, the patriarch’s faith might have become severely dampened. In a word, he was then crippled by sight, not walking by faith. And every true Christian may testify what this shall bring to his walk with the Lord. Of course, most certainly I am not suggesting what Abraham did in the next chapter was a direct result of this. But somehow I do think that it could be the beginning point of his temporal “drifting away” in faith, leading up to the Gen. XX event. The spiritual application, then, is for us to be vigilant in guarding our hearts, lest those minutest circumstances in life dictate our faith (or lack thereof) of God.

Lessons and Reflections

Failure may still occur after many victories.
As mentioned above, Gen. XX is Gen. XII all over again. Abraham went to a place full of pagans, was afraid that he would be killed, told half-truth about his wife in order to send her to the harem of the most powerful guy in town, and was eventually exposed of his deception. The two shameful events were remarkably similar, if not identical, even though much had happened in between to build up Abraham’s faith. One of the obvious lessons for us, then, is that failure may still occur after many victories.

Scripture is full of exhortations to be always on the lookout.

“Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed that he does not fall. No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it.” (1 Cor. 10:12-13)

“Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. But resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same experiences of suffering are being accomplished by your brethren who are in the world. After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen and establish you.” (1 Pet. 5:8-10)

When Jesus taught us how to pray, one of the elements in that model of prayer is “And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil” (Matt. 6:13). But we must not forget the frequency of such request, which is mentioned two verses earlier: “Give us this day our daily bread” (Matt. 6:11, emphasis mine). In other words, just as we should be asking God for daily provision, we should in the same manner ask God for daily protection, for indeed there is only one way to live: one day at a time. And no matter how many victories you have won in the past, each day you should arm yourself with the same vigilance.

Failure may still occur after many victories, if we are not on the qui vive. And may that if never turn into a when.

It’s a folly to rationalize our sin by saying people around us have no fear of God.
In Abraham’s defense, he said, “Because I thought, surely there is no fear of God in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife” (v.11). Of course, we know that it is an unsubstantiated and unnecessary assumption. But do we realize that it is perhaps the most convenient excuse a believer could find to rationalize his disobedience?

A believer who happens to be a businessman may say, “surely there is no fear of God in this place”, and go on bribing the government officials.

A believer who happens to be an accountant may say, “surely there is no fear of God in this place”, and go on falsifying financial records.

A believer who happens to be a physician may say, “surely there is no fear of God in this place”, and go on receiving kickbacks and red envelops.

On and on the list goes. There is another variant, which is more popular, yet conveys basically the same idea: “I have to do it because everybody is doing it”. It is as if wielding these magical words we can literally live however ways we want without any spiritual (and physical) consequences whatsoever. Do you really have to?

But let us not remember that the call to Christian living is a call to non-conformity to the world, a contra mundum kind of lifestyle, and it is a point that can never be overstated: “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2).

What folly it is to discard God’s command to do the right thing and disregard God’s power that strengthens us and provides for us all things we need to do it! Such an excuse has in its core either a disdain for God’s righteousness, or a disbelief in God’s faithfulness, or both. Is that temptation which overtakes you uncommon to man? Is God unfaithful in letting you be tempted beyond what you are able? And does God not provide a way out so that you can stand up under it, whenever you are tested?

Let us not slip into that snare in our thinking. We don’t have to follow the world’s pattern, even if everybody else is doing it. May we have the fortitude to walk in the path of righteousness even though there is no fear in this place.

Personal Applications

Examine my heart to see if there is any dissatisfaction or complaint of the Lord that would drift me away.
Make no excuse when I behaved in an earthbound manner. Confess that sin rather than rationalize it.
Learn to walk by faith, not by sight.

Appendix

Excerpt from the Easton’s Bible Dictionary

PROPHET

(Heb. nabi, from a root meaning “to bubble forth, as from a fountain,” hence “to utter”, comp. Ps. 45:1). This Hebrew word is the first and the most generally used for a prophet. In the time of Samuel another word, ro’eh, “seer”, began to be used (1 Sam. 9:9). It occurs seven times in reference to Samuel. Afterwards another word, hozeh, “seer” (2 Sam. 24:11), was employed. In 1 Ch. 29:29 all these three words are used:”Samuel the seer (ro’eh), Nathan the prophet (nabi ‘), Gad the seer” (hozeh). In Josh. 13:22 Balaam is called (Heb.) a kosem “diviner,” a word used only of a false prophet.

The “prophet” proclaimed the message given to him, as the “seer” beheld the vision of God. (See Num. 12:6, 8.) Thus a prophet was a spokesman for God; he spake in God’s name and by his authority (Ex. 7:1). He is the mouth by which God speaks to men (Jer. 1:9; Isa. 51:16), and hence what the prophet says is not of man but of God (2 Pet. 1:20, 21; comp. Heb. 3:7; Acts 4:25; 28:25). Prophets were the immediate organs of God for the communication of his mind and will to men (Deut. 18:18, 19). The whole Word of God may in this general sense be spoken of as prophetic, inasmuch as it was written by men who received the revelation they communicated from God, no matter what its nature might be. The foretelling of future events was not a necessary but only an incidental part of the prophetic office. The great task assigned to the prophets whom God raised up among the people was “to correct moral and religious abuses, to proclaim the great moral and religious truths which are connected with the character of God, and which lie at the foundation of his government.”

Any one being a spokesman for God to man might thus be called a prophet. Thus Enoch, Abraham, and the patriarchs, as bearers of God’s message (Gen. 20:7; Ex. 7:1; Ps. 105:15), as also Moses (Deut. 18:15; 34:10; Hos. 12:13), are ranked among the prophets. The seventy elders of Israel (Num. 11:16- 29), “when the spirit rested upon them, prophesied;” Asaph and Jeduthun “prophesied with a harp” (1 Chr. 25:3). Miriam and Deborah were prophetesses (Ex. 15:20; Judg. 4:4). The title thus has a general application to all who have messages from God to men.

But while the prophetic gift was thus exercised from the beginning, the prophetical order as such began with Samuel. Colleges, “schools of the prophets”, were instituted for the training of prophets, who were constituted, a distinct order (1 Sam. 19:18- 24; 2 Kings 2:3, 15; 4:38), which continued to the close of the Old Testament. Such “schools” were established at Ramah, Bethel, Gilgal, Gibeah, and Jericho. The “sons” or “disciples” of the prophets were young men (2 Kings 5:22; 9:1, 4) who lived together at these different “schools” (4:38- 41). These young men were taught not only the rudiments of secular knowledge, but they were brought up to exercise the office of prophet, “to preach pure morality and the heart- felt worship of Jehovah, and to act along and co- ordinately with the priesthood and monarchy in guiding the state aright and checking all attempts at illegality and tyranny.”

In New Testament times the prophetical office was continued. Our Lord is frequently spoken of as a prophet (Luke 13:33; 24:19). He was and is the great Prophet of the Church. There was also in the Church a distinct order of prophets (1 Cor. 12:28; Eph. 2:20; 3:5), who made new revelations from God. They differed from the “teacher,” whose office it was to impart truths already revealed.

Of the Old Testament prophets there are sixteen, whose prophecies form part of the inspired canon. These are divided into four groups:

(1.) The prophets of the northern kingdom (Israel), viz., Hosea, Amos, Joel, Jonah.

(2.) The prophets of Judah, viz., Isaiah, Jeremiah, Obadiah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah.

(3.) The prophets of Captivity, viz., Ezekiel and Daniel.

(4.) The prophets of the Restoration, viz., Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi.

Study Genesis 21

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