Of all the things that I find difficult about the Christian life, at the top of the list would have to be my battle with sin – especially repeating sins. There are particular sins that I struggled with as a new Christian that I thought I would eventually overcome once I attained more maturity. But as the years went by, I found myself continually dogged by those same sins. Even today they still hound me. They harass, stalk and pursue me.
I’m sure you have your own besetting sins that you have to deal with. Perhaps it’s an inordinate desire for something – a craving you just can’t beat. Perhaps you have a tendency to hold grudges against people or you have an anger issue or a sharp tongue that often gets the best of you. Whatever it is, you know it is a weak spot in your defence against the enemy and you find yourself repeating it again and again.
Setting the Scene
Here in Genesis chapter 20, we have Abraham falling into a besetting sin. He’s doing the same foolish thing he did in chapter 12: he passes his wife Sarah off as his sister in order to save his own skin, putting not only his wife’s purity at risk but also God’s plan at risk as well. And just like with Pharaoh in Egypt, it’s only because of God’s swift intervention that Abraham’s ruse is discovered, preventing Sarah from ending up in Abimelech’s bed and becoming pregnant by another man.
The similarity of this event with that in chapter 12 is uncanny. In fact, some liberal scholars say these accounts are actually the same story and some not-too-smart editor didn’t pick that up. Well, liberal scholars aren’t always as clever as they think they are. You see, the author is showing us what the life of the real Abraham is like. He’s not perfect. He’s flawed – just like us. And God continually steps in to prevent him from making a mess of things and then blesses him when he doesn’t deserve it. And that gives us all hope does it not?
I. Abraham’s deception (1-2)
For reasons that are not explained, Abraham heads south through the Negev, the region one would travel to go to Egypt. He stops at Gerar which is a Philistine city located between Beersheba and Gaza (Gen 21:32, 34). And it’s here that Abraham follows the same ruse he used in chapter 12:
“Abraham said about his wife Sarah, “She is my sister.” So King Abimelech of Gerar had Sarah brought to him.”
Why does he do this? For the same reason that he did it back in chapter 12: FEAR. Fear is the opposite of faith. And when Abimelech confronts him about his deception, he says “I did this because I thought there is no fear of God in this place” (verse 11). He doesn’t know that; he just imagines that. That’s how fear gets the best of us; we imagine things that aren’t true. We tell ourselves lies. Then he tries to rationalize his sin.
“Besides, she really is my sister, the daughter of my father though not the daughter of my mother, and she became my wife.” (Gen 20:12)
This was a terrible thing for Abraham to do, to put Sarah in jeopardy at such a time, a year before the promised child was to arrive. He fears his own life is in danger, but he has no problem endangering his wife. Furthermore, he uses emotional blackmail on her. He says to Abimelech:
“So when God had me wander from my father’s house, I said to her: Show your loyalty to me wherever we go and say about me, ‘He’s my brother.’” (Gen 20:13)
In other words, “If you really love me, Sarah, you will tell everyone you are not my wife but my sister.”
We are shocked by the selfishness, shallowness and faithlessness of Abraham. But when it comes down to it, we can be just as selfish, just as shallow and just as faithless. No doubt you’ve heard of John Newton – the one who wrote “Amazing Grace.” Newton was formerly a slave trader who did many terrible things. He experienced the love of God in Christ to forgive him of his past. If anyone understood the grace of God, he did. In a letter he wrote to a friend, he shares his ongoing struggle with sin:
“Alas, my dear friend, you know not what a poor, unprofitable, unfaithful creature I am! If you knew the evils which I feel within and the snares and difficulties which beset me from without, you would pity me indeed. Indwelling sin presses me downwards. When I would do good, evil is present with me. There is much darkness in my understanding, much perverseness in my will, much disorder in my affections, much folly and madness in my imagination. In short, I am a riddle to myself, a heap of inconsistency.”
Do you ever feel that? I know I do. Sometimes, after speaking harshly to my wife or dredging up some sordid memory of the past, I feel a deep loathing of myself. It can send me to despair. That’s when I need to preach the gospel to myself. I need to say with Paul, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24–25) I need to take heart that God’s grace is greater than my sin and Christ’s blood is powerful enough to wash me from every stain.
II. God’s intervention (3-7)
Abimelech is taken by Sarah’s extraordinary beauty and takes her into his harem. What he doesn’t know is that he has just put himself in the crosshairs of Abraham’s God. God confronts Abimelech in a dream:
“You are about to die because of the woman you have taken, for she is a married woman.” (Gen 20:3)
Now that’s the kind of dream that will wake you up real fast! God suddenly has the king’s undivided attention. He says to God,
“Lord, would you destroy a nation even though it is innocent? Didn’t he himself say to me, ‘She is my sister’? And she herself said, ‘He is my brother.’ I did this with a clear conscience and clean hands.” (Gen 20:4–5)
Abimelech hadn’t yet touched Sarah. And even if he had, it was with a clear conscience because he didn’t know any better. Now watch how God responds:
“Then God said to him in the dream, “Yes, I know that you did this with a clear conscience. I have also kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I have not let you touch her.” (Gen 20:6)
This is a striking example of human responsibility and divine sovereignty working concurrently. Abimelech is fully responsible for his actions. God will hold him to account for everything he does. Yet God is fully in control. He won’t allow Abimelech to do anything that might thwart his divine plan. And his plan is Sarah will give birth to the promised son through Abraham.
God sometimes keeps us from sinning. Did you know that? He doesn’t always do this. Sometimes God just abandons someone and says, “Listen, if you’re going to go down that path, go down that path. I’ll let you.” But he does not tend to do that with believers; he preserves them, and he prevents them from falling into further sin. God grace is at work in you my friend, preventing you from doing many foolish things, even when you don’t even see it.
Well, after all of this Abimelech – like Pharoah in chapter 12, is feeling a bit miffed. He’s about to take Abraham to task and confront him.
III. Abimelech’s confrontation (8-17)
We pick up the story again in verse 8:
“Early in the morning Abimelech got up, called all his servants together, and personally told them all these things, and the men were terrified.” (Genesis 20:8)
OK remember now – Abraham had this thing in his head that there was no fear of God in this place. But Abimelech has shown he fears God and so do his servants when he tells them about the dream. Do you see the irony in all this? If anyone in this story is said not to fear God, it’s Abraham himself.
“Then Abimelech called Abraham in and said to him, “What have you done to us? How did I sin against you that you have brought such enormous guilt on me and on my kingdom? You have done things to me that should never be done.” (Gen 20:9)
Abraham is getting a right spanking – by a Philistine King who is proving to be more righteous than Abraham himself. Abraham goes on the defensive and tries to rationalize his sin, but it all sounds so weak. He failed to trust God, he imagined all kinds of things that weren’t true, he saw threats where there weren’t any, and he puts his wife as well as God’s plan at great risk. And to cap it all off, he says in verse 13 this was his go-to strategy wherever he went!
Abraham sometimes acts with great faith and courage, trusting in God and turning away from the world. But at other times he reacts in fear, sin and self-protection and he manipulates others to get what he wants. He really is just like us.
That brings us now to the final act of this drama:
IV. Abraham’s intercession (18-20)
God’s instruction to Abimelech was that he must return Sarah to her husband and ask Abraham if he will pray for him so that he does not die. “For he is a prophet,” the Lord says (verse 7). Don’t you find that remarkable? Abraham is still God’s chosen means to be a blessing to the nations. He is still God’s man for the hour – even though he sinned and deceived and acted cowardly.
Abimelech, recognizing this, showers him with gifts – flocks and herds and animals and 1000 shekels (or pieces) of silver. That is a considerable amount of money. Abraham prays for Abimelech and his family and God responds to the prayer by restoring the Philistine women’s ability to have children.
Do you know what really gets me in this passage? It’s not Abraham’s failure. I experience that all too frequently. Nor is it Abimelech’s godly response. We all know that people outside the church can often act better than those inside. It’s the mind-blowing grace of God. God shows grace to Abimelech by warning him in a dream and keeping him from sinning. He shows grace to Sarah by protecting her from being violated. And he shows grace to Abraham by confronting him with his sin and restoring his position of patriarch.
God preserves his people, in spite of their sins, in spite of their failures, and in spite of the many setbacks. In spite of it all, God preserves us and restores us. He continues the work of grace in our hearts so that we continue to believe.
That’s God’s amazing grace!
This post is based on a message from a series on the life of Abraham. You can listen to that message here.