Abraham tells king Abimelech that Sarah is his sister (Genesis 20:1 – 20:18)
Abraham moved his family, likely in search of better pastures for his herds, to Negev (located between Kadesh and Shur). From Negev he moved to Gerar where he lived for quite some time. Once again, Abraham and Sarah (his wife) told everyone that Sarah was his sister (see here for the first time he told this lie). Abimelech, given his role as the king of Gerar, had the privilege to select whichever woman he wished to add to his collection of wives. Abimelech, thinking that Sarah was not married (because Abraham had told everyone she was his sister), sent for her to add to his concubine.
After some time, God spoke to Abimelech in a dream. God told Abimelech that he was sentenced to death because he had taken a woman into his concubine who was married. Abimelech tried to explain that he had been told that Sarah was Abraham’s sister, not his wife. Even Sarah had told Abimelech that Abraham was her brother and not her husband. Abimelech pleaded with God explaining that he meant nothing wrong and had a clear conscience. God told Abimelech that he understood and instructed Abimelech to send Sarah back home. God explained that if Abimelech refused to return Sarah, he and all of his family would die.
Abimelech explained the dream to his noblemen and they agreed that Sarah should be returned. Abimelech called Abraham to his palace and asked Abraham why he had lied to him. Abraham explained that he was afraid he would be killed by someone trying to take Sarah as his wife. In return for his mistake, Abimelech gave Abraham sheep, cattle, slaves, and one thousand shekels of silver. Abimelech also gave Abraham his choice of any land that he desires.
As we discover at the end of the passage, Abimelech’s wives had been barren and unable to have children. After he returned Sarah to Abraham, God blessed Abimelech and his wives to they could have children again.
What the story means to us today
There are at least two important lessons in this story. Firstly, we see that Abimelech was not allowed to bear children while in possession of another man’s wife. Secondly, we see that God stepped in to inform Abimelech that what he was doing was wrong. From these points we can gather from the story that adultery, having sex with another man’s wife, is considered wrong by God. We can also see that God may speak to us, acting as our conscience, and tell us when we are doing something wrong.
The role switch between good and evil
Another interesting point in the story is the switched role positions between good and evil. Abraham, who we consider the “good guy” turns out to be the person in the wrong while Abimelech, a man that Abraham felt had no “fear of God” turned out to be innocent of all accusations and ended up making the righteous decision. This shows us that good people sometimes do bad things and bad people still have goodness in them.
The difference in white lies and outright lies
In addition, the story clarifies the difference in an undisputable lie and what we may call a “half-truth”. There is no difference. Abraham may have justified the lie in his mind classifying it as a “half-truth” (since Sarah was his half-sister) out of fear for his life. The outcome should make clear that even mild dishonesty or “half-truths” are frowned upon by God.
Additional thoughts and considerations
Abraham told the same lie that he had told the Egyptians. Out of fear for his life, he misinformed the public telling them that his wife, Sarah, was his sister. The reason he was so fearful relates to customs of the day. In these ancient middle-eastern civilizations, it was common for a potential suitor to kill a man in order to take possession of this wife. We know from the Biblical verses that Sarah was a beautiful woman which would have made Abraham a prime target for any male wishing to “steal” Sarah away from him.
The contradiction in the roles of Abraham and Abimelech
There is an odd contradiction between the roles of Abraham and Abimelech. The person we think of as saintly (Abraham) is in reality the one that is telling the lie. While the person that Abraham feels is Godless (Abimelech) is actually a God fearing man who is rightly concerned with doing the right thing. The switch in roles is abrupt and surprising. The person whom we think should be criminal shows a higher sense of honor than the follower of God. In real life we often see these same contradictions as God-fearing Christians participate in immoral activities that they know would be frowned up God.
Why would King Abimelech choose Sarah for a wife?
We know from the story that Sarah was in her elder years with King Abimelech took her which begs the question, what would a king want with an elderly women. Biblical scholars have a few ideas. In ancient times, siblings had some amount of control over the family’s wealth. Since Abraham was a rich man at the time, Abimelech may have sought to add Sarah to his harem in order to lay claim to some of the family’s wealth.
Did Abimelech convince God to spare his life?
God first tells Abimelech that he is “as good as dead” for taking a married woman into his concubine. After Abimelech argues his point, God seems to relent and spares Abimelech’s life. God gives man free will to make choices and suffer consequences (or reap rewards). In this particular case, Abimelech could have rebelled against God in which case he would have surely died. But rather than rebel, Abimelech explained why he made the choice and asked for God’s understanding. God then based his judgement on the choices that he allowed Abimelech to make.
Relation to the story of Isaac
If you confuse this story with the story of Isaac (coming up later in the Bible), don’t despair. The two stories are similar. In Isaac’s story, he also lies about his wife (Rebekah) telling everyone that she is his sister. He also lied about his relationship to his wife out of fear of being killed (because of her beauty). The similarity could be a “like father like son” sort of thing.
The king in Isaac’s story was also named Abimelech who is possibly the same king we see in Abraham’s situation. Alternatively, Abimelech was a common name (meaning “my father is a king”) and could be a title (similar to the title “Pharoh”) and not a personal name.
The Science behind the story
The story notes that Abraham moved to the region of Negev (or Negeb). Negev was located in the southern region of Israel located between the hill country of Judah to the north and the deserts of Zin, Shur, and Paran to the south. It covers nearly half the area of modern Israel. During the winter months, semi-nomadic people grazed their livestock in Negev and migrated north (towards Judah) in the summer months. Later in the Bible, Negev is known as Idumea. Archaeology has found evidence of settlements in the area as far back as 100,000 B.C. The area was connected through several highways. Later we will see that David incorporated it into his kingdom and Solomon established fortresses in the area.
The Bible notes that Negev was located between Kadesh and Shur. Kadesh is the location of a well-known spring and a good source for water in the dry, desert area. There is an alternative location for Kadesh too (so the definitive location has not been determined). Shur means “enclosure” or “wall”. Since we know Shur was located on a well-known route to Egypt, it is probable that the area was named after a wall that Egyptians built to defend their north-east frontier.
The area of Gerar
Gerar is located in the foothills of the Judaean mountains. The exact location has yet to be determined but a couple of archeological digs (Tell Jemmeh and Tell Abu Hureira) have been suggested as possible locations. Neither has been definitively proven though. Abraham and his son Isaac spent much time living in this area and in fact, Isaac may have been born in Gerar.
20 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, 2 and there Abraham said of his wife Sarah, “She is my sister.” Then Abimelek king of Gerar sent for Sarah and took her.
3 But God came to Abimelek 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.”
4 Now Abimelek had not gone near her, so he said, “Lord, will you destroy an innocent nation? 5 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.”
6 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. 7 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 who belong to you will die.”
8 Early the next morning Abimelek summoned all his officials, and when he told them all that had happened, they were very much afraid. 9 Then Abimelek 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 never be done.” 10 And Abimelek asked Abraham, “What was your reason for doing this?”
11 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.’ 12 Besides, she really is my sister, the daughter of my father though not of my mother; and she became my wife. 13 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.” ’ ”
14 Then Abimelek brought sheep and cattle and male and female slaves and gave them to Abraham, and he returned Sarah his wife to him. 15 And Abimelek said, “My land is before you; live wherever you like.”
16 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.”
17 Then Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Abimelek, his wife and his female slaves so they could have children again, 18 for the LORD had kept all the women in Abimelek’s household from conceiving because of Abraham’s wife Sarah.
The New International Version (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011). Ge 20:1–18.