Abraham: The Prophet

Genesis 20:1-18

William D. Dennison

Perhaps a large group of young children would read this story and say in mockery to Abraham, "Liar, liar, pants on fire!" Such a response can be expected from children, but adults who read this passage are also captured by Abraham and Sarah's "lie" to Abimelech. Everyone seems perplexed by their ethical conduct. Why would they "lie" about Sarah being Abraham's sister when she was his wife? Well, there are many possible reasons. Let me share two.

The "Lie"

In the first place, perhaps they reasoned, "It worked once, why can't it work again?"—a good pragmatic reason to try it once more. After coming from Ur of the Chaldees, Abram and Sarai moved into the southern part of Canaan, the Negev (Gen. 12:9). When famine hit the land, they went into Egypt. On that occasion, Abram told the Egyptians and Pharaoh that Sarai was his sister (12:19). When the Egyptians hear of this, Pharaoh brings Sarai into his palace (12:15); he then gives Abram many gifts. The Lord, in turn, brings a great plague on Pharaoh's house. Thereby, Pharaoh discovered the deception of Abram and kicked him out of Egypt (12:20). Now, just as they had been surrounded by foreigners in Egypt, they are in the presence of foreigners again—Abimelech and his people (Gen. 20). Since their "lie" worked once, why not use the same scheme again? In fact, it worked so well in Egypt that Abram made out like a bandit; he received sheep, oxen, donkeys, camels and male and female servants from Pharaoh (12:16). Also, in spite of their "lie," the Lord came to their aid by punishing the Egyptians with plagues. So there seems to be a good reason why Abraham and Sarah thought that such a "lie" was a safe means of protection for their lives as they faced Abimelech. However, even in light of their success in Egypt, perhaps the aforementioned explanation is not the best interpretation of Abraham and Sarah's action with respect to Abimelech. Perhaps one should go in another direction.

In the second place, permit me to suggest that God may be using their "lie" in order to show us their weak faith, and in so doing God provides encouragement to our faith. In the infant stage of their faith when God brought them out of Ur of the Chaldees, God protected them in their weak faith for the sake of the covenant of promise in Sarai. But now, in Genesis 20, Sarah, who is past the age of bearing children, and Abraham who is old, both have laughed at the prospect of bringing forth a child of the promise. Now they are in the midst of these foreigners in Gerar and they take steps to preserve their lives so they can eventually see their child. Hence, the questions arise: do they really trust in God's promises? Are they really children of faith? They do not seem to be the best models for us. Fear entices them. They deceive and "lie" in order to save their own skin so that they can live in the surrounding country and see the birth of their child. Are you not sympathetic with them? Would we not take the same action? Does it not seem odd, or even impossible, for the child of the promise to be born after the time for child bearing? Well, even if it seems impossible, is it not a natural human reaction to do everything you can to preserve the day of that child's coming? So, perhaps God is showing us that a weak faith can be seen in all believers, and that we must remain strong and go forward in spite of our weakness. Trust in the Lord and he will exalt you!

Are these explanations, therefore, the best reason for explaining why Abraham and Sarah "lied" to Abimelech? Indeed, they may seem to provide some insight into the text: it seems possible that Abraham and Sarah used the "lie" to preserve their lives, and it does seem that God is preserving the covenant in spite of their human weakness. Let us look more closely at Abraham and Sarah's use of the "lie" to preserve their lives: one could argue that their action is justified, or one could even argue that their action is not a "lie" at all.

Justified Action?

How could one argue that their action is justified? One could argue on the basis of the cultural surroundings they faced. It seems that the practice of heathen kings of the time was to take the wife of another man, add her to his bounty, and then kill the husband. On the other hand, if one is a sister, he may add her to his bounty, but not kill the brother (20:11). Abraham and Sarah tried to take advantage of this practice. Abraham said of his wife, Sarah, "She is my sister" (20:2). They knew exactly what they were doing (20:11-13). In fact, this was their routine (12:11-13); they made a pact with each other as soon as they left their father Terah's home that such action would be their routine (20:13). Did you catch that?—"Their father Terah's home." You see, in reality Abraham and Sarah had the same father (Terah), but they did not have the same mother. So technically, Sarah is Abraham's half-sister, and hence Abraham says to Abimelech "Sarah is my sister" (20:12). So one could argue that Abraham is not lying at all since Sarah is a half-sister or stepsister. Perhaps we should say that Abraham and Sarah are dealing in "half-truths" or "white lies."

Oh Church of Jesus Christ, are you hung up on these ethical issues with respect to Abraham and Sarah? If you are, then you are going outside the text. The text is not concerned about justifying Abraham and Sarah's actions in light of the cultural surroundings; it is not concerned about the ethical question of whether Abraham and Sarah are engaged in half-truths. Simply put, the text is not concerned whether Abraham and Sarah used a "lie" to preserve their lives. How do I know that? Because nowhere in the text does God directly confront or condemn Abraham and Sarah's moral activity. In fact, the person whose activity is directly confronted and condemned is Abimelech! How is this fair? How can Abimelech be blamed for his action? After all, Abimelech is told that Sarah is Abraham's sister, and yet, he is judged for taking another man's wife! How would he know? What kind of God would hold such an action accountable? In fact, contrary to our human sentiments, God comes to Abimelech (not Abraham!) in a dream and confronts him. God says to him: "You are as good as dead because of the woman you have taken; she is a married woman" (vs. 3). In response to the Lord, Abimelech cries out that he is innocent—that he has a clear conscience and clean hands (vs. 4, 5). Hence, we see the just response of the Lord by acknowledging that Abimelech has a clear conscience, and for this reason God himself kept him from sinning against the Lord (vs. 6)! But even so, something odd appears in the text: Abimelech is still within the grasp of God's judgment! He must return Sarah to Abraham, and have Abraham pray for him so that he will live and not die, because Abraham is a prophet (vs. 7)!

The Covenant to the Nations

Perhaps now, the meaning of this text begins to reveal itself to us. Perhaps, we are getting the picture! Indeed, God is preserving his covenant oath to Abraham and Sarah in the face of Abimelech, and yet there is not any indication in the text that the central idea of the passage is that the Lord is encouraging us in the weakness (or sin) of Abraham's faith. Oh people of God, Abraham is being confronted with the oath of God's own covenantal word as it is sovereignly declared, sovereignly established, and sovereignly executed by his providential hand. The covenant which God has made with Abraham not only looks forward to a day in the future when it will be fulfilled and consummated, but God provides a glimpse of the future completion of his covenant to Abraham in his own life. Abraham will experience the fulfillment of God's covenant, although the fulfillment of the covenant will be reflected dimly before him.

We must keep in mind that in the process of revelation, we are in the era of the patriarchs, many years prior to the formation of Israel as a separate and distinct nation. The patriarch, Abraham, lives as an alien and stranger in Canaan as the nations encompass him. At the same time, God has promised that the nations will be blessed through him. But how will the nations be blessed through him? It will be through the seed of the covenant, i.e., the seed of redemption coming forth from Abraham and Sarah.

You recall the covenantal oath of our God: "I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you" (12:2-3). And when God changed Abram's name, he said, "No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I will have made you a father of many nations" (17:5). God will enable Abraham to taste the temporal fulfillment of this covenantal oath to him in his confrontation with Abimelech and his family. In this incident, we will see the essential story of redemption for the nations—in their father, Abraham.

But the drama played out in the midst of the nations is not a smooth narrative. As Abraham bears the name that means "father of many nations" (17:5), he is immediately confronted with Sodom and Gomorrah. Will Abraham truly see the nations blessed? In fact, in the context of God's own covenant oath to Abraham, God questions whether he should allow Abraham to see what he is about to do to Sodom and Gomorrah (18:17). Even in light of that situation, God reassures him that the nations will be blessed in Abraham, but not Sodom and Gomorrah (18:18). But for the sake of the righteous, Abraham, the prophet of the Lord in the midst of these nations, attempts a priestly intercession for the whole city—the home of his nephew Lot and his family. He attempts to intercede from fifty to ten righteous people. But Abraham cannot intercede since there do not exist ten righteous people in Sodom, and their sin is exceedingly grievous against the Lord (18:20). The judgment of God is now upon them, and thus, these people of the nations are lost forever!

Herein lies the challenge of God to Abraham's faith. The Prophet, Abraham, has failed to intercede for Sodom and Gomorrah. By this I mean that the prophetic voice of the Lord's servant did not witness repentance and restoration on the part of the wretched sinners living in those cities. Abraham, whose name now embodies the covenant promise of the Lord—"father of many nations"—does not see the people of this nation come to the living and true God. In fact, they have been utterly consumed and extinguished by the "wrath of God." After what he has just witnessed, can Abraham truly affirm that he is the father of many nations? Herein lies the true test of faith for this prophet among the nations.

Abraham and Sarah in Gerar

Eventually, God places Abraham and Sarah in Gerar, in the presence of Abimelech. And remember, God is the principal actor here. It is God who really protects Abraham and the purity of Sarah. It is God who holds Abimelech accountable for Sarah. For in this event, God will unfold the blessings and the reality of his covenant to Abraham, i.e., that his covenantal name bears God's truthful word in that Abraham is the "father of many nations!" Abimelech, king of the nation Gerar, behold the prophet of the Lord before you! Abimelech, you are as good as dead; indeed, you are as good as dead, if he does not pray for you. Abimelech, you and your household need the priestly intercessory prayer of this prophet or else you will see the extinguishing wrath of Almighty God, since no more children will come from your household (20:18). In this case, however, Abraham's intercessory prayer is effectual! Abraham prayed to God for Abimelech, and God healed Abimelech, his wife, and his slave girls so they could have children—their lifeline is restored! This nation, this king, and his family are restored through Abraham's prayer. The sovereign Lord enables Abraham to see the fulfillment of the covenant promise made to him in his own lifetime—"father of many nations."

We must keep in mind, however, that the execution of God's sovereign covenant of grace is only through the seed of the promise. Those who are direct descendants of Abraham can only be blessed as they participate in the blessings of his seed. Likewise, the nations can only be blessed as they participate in the blessings of Abraham's seed. Because that seed is to come forth from Abraham and Sarah, and because the Gentile king Abimelech's restoration is dependent upon the promised seed of the covenant, God would not allow Abimelech to even touch Sarah (20:6). More specifically, it is in Abraham's son, his seed, that the nations will be blessed. Yet the Scriptures do not interpret Abraham's "seed" to be Isaac as the one who will save the nations; rather the apostle Paul points out that the "seed" (singular) is Jesus Christ —the one who will covenantally bless the nations (Gal. 3:16)

Even so, before the arrival of Isaac and the coming of Jesus Christ, Abraham represents the federal headship of the covenant that bears his name; he is essentially the seed of the promise that bears his name. Healing and restoration to this king, Abimelech, and his household, who were born in sin, are experienced through the priestly, prophetic Word from the initial propagator of the seed, Abraham. We must remember, however, that the effectual work of God in Abraham is only possible because of the presence of Christ in Abraham, i.e., the presence of Christ as the true healer of the nations, as the true Redeemer of the sins of the world and as the true Prophet who offers up intercessory prayers for his people—the one in whom the promised seed of redemption is consummated through death and resurrection—the one who enables those who are as good as dead to live!!

Oh yes, even in this event Abimelech is confronted with the future messianic words of Psalm 2, as that messianic revelation is embodied in Abraham:

Therefore, you kings, be wise;

be warned, you rulers of the earth.

Serve the Lord with fear

and rejoice with trembling

Kiss the Son [Christ in Abraham], lest he

be angry and you be destroyed in your way

for his wrath can flare up in a moment.

Blessed are all who take refuge in him.

—Psalm 2:10-12

In essence, Abimelech kissed the Son, the Christ, as he embraced the effectual prayer of Abraham, and hence restoration comes for himself and his household.

Oh people of God, Abraham witnessed before his own eyes the faithfulness of God's covenantal love for him in this historical event in the land of Gerar. As the Church of Jesus Christ, who understand the story in the fullness of God's revelation in his Son, do we not understand the continuing promise and task of the Church—that the prophetic word of preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ must go forth; that the intercessory prayer of Jesus Christ on behalf of the Church, and by the Church must be offered (Jn. 17:20-26). Only through the intercessory prayer and work of the Mediator can Abimelech and the nations share in the heavenly Jerusalem, the freedom of the gospel found in Jesus Christ, the wealth and riches of the inheritance of the covenant (Gal. 4:30). Are we a Church that is praying in earnest that the "full number of the Gentiles has come in" (Rom. 11:25)? We must! The healing of the nations is our continual prayer! Witnessing the addition to the elect is our constant joy! For we know this—that anyone who is added to the Kingdom of heaven is an alien and stranger on the earth, "looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God" (Heb. 11:10, 13-16; 1 Pet. 1:17)—the heavenly Jerusalem. And those who are there—those who even now dwell in that city realize that they have experienced the effect of going from death to life—life in covenant with God through the death and resurrection of our Jesus!—our Savior!

Covenant College

Lookout Mountain, Georgia