Commentary on Genesis 20

Last updated: July 29, 2009

English Translation (ESV)

1From there Abraham journeyed toward the territory of the Negeb and lived between Kadesh and Shur; and he sojourned in Gerar. 2And Abraham said of Sarah his wife, “She is my sister.” And Abimelech king of Gerar sent and took Sarah. 3But God came to Abimelech in a dream by night and said to him, “Behold, you are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is a man’s wife.” 4Now Abimelech had not approached her. So he said, “Lord, will you kill an innocent people? 5Did he not himself say to me, ‘She is my sister’? And she herself said, ‘He is my brother.’ In the integrity of my heart and the innocence of my hands I have done this.” 6Then God said to him in the dream, “Yes, I know that you have done this in the integrity of your heart, and it was I who kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I did not let you touch her. 7Now then, return the man’s wife, for he is a prophet, so that he will pray for you, and you shall live. But if you do not return her, know that you shall surely die, you and all who are yours.”

8So Abimelech rose early in the morning and called all his servants and told them all these things. And the men were very much afraid. 9Then Abimelech called Abraham and said to him, “What have you done to us? And how have I sinned against you, that you have brought on me and my kingdom a great sin? You have done to me things that ought not to be done.” 10And Abimelech said to Abraham, “What did you see, that you did this thing?” 11Abraham said, “I did it because I thought, There is no fear of God at all in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife. 12Besides, she is indeed my sister, the daughter of my father though not the daughter of my mother, and she became my wife. 13And when God caused me to wander from my father’s house, I said to her, ‘This is the kindness you must do me: at every place to which we come, say of me, He is my brother.'”

14Then Abimelech took sheep and oxen, and male servants and female servants, and gave them to Abraham, and returned Sarah his wife to him. 15And Abimelech said, “Behold, my land is before you; dwell where it pleases you.” 16To Sarah he said, “Behold, I have given your brother a thousand pieces of silver. It is a sign of your innocence in the eyes of all who are with you, and before everyone you are vindicated.” 17Then Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Abimelech, and also healed his wife and female slaves so that they bore children. 18For the LORD had closed all the wombs of the house of Abimelech because of Sarah, Abraham’s wife.

Notes

1 From there Abraham journeyed toward the territory of the Negeb and lived between Kadesh and Shur; and he sojourned in Gerar.

Abraham was traveling from Mamre (18:1). He lived for a time between Kadesh and Shur and then traveled to Gerar, which was on the southeastern border of Canaan (10:19).

2 And Abraham said of Sarah his wife, “She is my sister.” And Abimelech king of Gerar sent and took Sarah.

Abimelech” means “my father is king” and may be a throne name for the Gerarites (the name recurs in chapter 26 when Isaac tries the same deception).1 Unlike in 12:10-20, Sarah is not said to be beautiful at the age of ninety (17:17). Perhaps Abimelech’s goal was to create an alliance with Abraham.

4 Now Abimelech had not approached her. So he said, “Lord, will you kill an innocent people?

The fact that Abimelech did not approach Sarah means he was not Isaac’s father. Abimelech assumed, apparently correctly (vv 7-9), that God’s judgment would fall on his people and not just himself. Like Abraham in chapters 18-19, he appeals to God’s justice.

6 Then God said to him in the dream, “Yes, I know that you have done this in the integrity of your heart, and it was I who kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I did not let you touch her.

The precise means by which God kept Abimelech from sinning are uncertain but verses 7 and 17-18 suggest some kind of plague had befallen his household. Adultery was viewed not merely as a sin against the husband but also as a sin against God.

7 Now then, return the man’s wife, for he is a prophet, so that he will pray for you, and you shall live. But if you do not return her, know that you shall surely die, you and all who are yours.”

Abraham is the first and only man in Genesis to be called a prophet. Presumably Abraham’s prayer would relieve Abimelech of some kind of disease.

8 So Abimelech rose early in the morning and called all his servants and told them all these things. And the men were very much afraid.

Abimelech responds promptly (“early in the morning”). These actions show that Abraham was unjustified in thinking that the fear of God was not in Gerar (v 11).

9 Then Abimelech called Abraham and said to him, “What have you done to us? And how have I sinned against you, that you have brought on me and my kingdom a great sin? You have done to me things that ought not to be done.”

In 12:18 Pharaoh was concerned for himself, while here Abimelech is concerned for his kingdom. Pharaoh had asked why Abraham had lied whereas Abimelech shows his moral conscience by asking how he has sinned against Abraham.

11 Abraham said, “I did it because I thought, There is no fear of God at all in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife.

Abraham’s fears were unfounded.

12 Besides, she is indeed my sister, the daughter of my father though not the daughter of my mother, and she became my wife.

Later biblical law banned the union of brother and sister (Leviticus 18:9, 11; 20:17; Deuteronomy 27:22). This points to the antiquity of the account.

13 And when God caused me to wander from my father’s house, I said to her, ‘This is the kindness you must do me: at every place to which we come, say of me, He is my brother.'”

Abimelech’s polytheism may explain why the patriarch uses the plural verb ‘wander’ (hitu) with God (Elohim) rather than the customary singular. If this is not a simple grammatical accommodation, Abraham reaches an all-time religious low by granting such a concession to the pagan king.”2 Abraham’s practice of calling Sarah his sister explains why there are two such stories in Genesis (12:10-20; 20:1-18) and why Isaac adopts the same practice (ch. 26).

14 Then Abimelech took sheep and oxen, and male servants and female servants, and gave them to Abraham, and returned Sarah his wife to him.

This verse recalls the gifts given by Pharaoh (12:16).

15 And Abimelech said, “Behold, my land is before you; dwell where it pleases you.”

This offer is in marked contrast to Pharaoh sending Abraham away (12:20). Of course, Abimelech does want to be healed (v 17).

16 To Sarah he said, “Behold, I have given your brother a thousand pieces of silver. It is a sign of your innocence in the eyes of all who are with you, and before everyone you are vindicated.”

Abimelech’s use of “brother” instead of “husband” suggests he still resented Abraham’s behavior. A thousand shekels of silver was an enormous sum. The Hebrew behind “it is a sign of your innocence in the eyes of all” literally means “it is a covering of eyes for all.” It probably means those with Sarah are figuratively deprived from seeing her shame.3

18 For the LORD had closed all the wombs of the house of Abimelech because of Sarah, Abraham’s wife.

It was God, not Abraham, who healed and afflicted the house of Abimelech. The verb describing the closing of the wombs is the same verb used by Sarah in 16:2 to describe her own condition. Will Sarah’s fertility also be restored?

Bibliography

Mathews, Kenneth A. Genesis 11:27-50:26. The New American Commentary Volume 1B. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2005.

Wenham, Gordon J. Genesis 16-50. Word Biblical Commentary 2. Thomas Nelson, 1994.

1Mathews, Genesis 11:27-50:26, 251.

2Ibid., 257-258.

3Wenham, Genesis 16-50, 74.

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