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Bible Commentaries
Genesis 20

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes


11. Abraham’s sojourn at Gerar ch. 20

"The stories about the jeopardy of the ancestress in pagan kings’ harems form an inner frame around the Abraham cycle before the transition to the next cycle in Genesis 22:20 to Genesis 25:11. After Abraham’s initial call to the Promised Land to become a great nation, he immediately jeopardizes Sarah in Pharaoh’s harem. Now, immediately before the birth of the promised seed, he jeopardizes the matriarch in Abimelech’s harem." [Note: Waltke, Genesis, p. 284.]

The writer composed chapter 20 as another chiasm with the focal point being Abimelech warning his servants (Genesis 19:8). Two dialogues constitute the main parts of the story: the one between God and Abimelech (Genesis 19:3-7) and the one between Abimelech and Abraham (Genesis 19:9-13).

"The focus of the narrative of chapters 20 and 21 is on the relationship between Abraham and the nations. Abraham’s role is that of a prophetic intercessor, as in the promise ’all peoples on earth will be blessed through you’ (Genesis 12:3). He prayed for the Philistines (Genesis 20:7), and God healed them (Genesis 19:17). In the narrative Abimelech plays the role of a ’righteous Gentile’ with whom Abraham could live in peace and blessing. There is, then, an implied contrast in the narratives between chapters 19 (Lot, the one who pictures the mixed multitude) and 20 (Abimelech, the righteous sojourner)." [Note: Sailhamer, "Genesis," p. 161.]

Abraham misrepresented his relationship with Sarah again (cf. ch. 12). Abimelech took her into his harem as a consequence of the patriarch’s deception. Nevertheless God intervened to preserve Sarah’s purity. He warned Abimelech to restore Sarah to her husband, to make restitution to Abraham, and to ask Abraham the prophet to intercede with God for him.

This chapter records another crisis in the story of God’s providing an heir for Abraham.

"Apparently, shortly after the announcement of a birth one year hence, Sarah is again taken into another man’s harem. The reader is to infer that if there is an heir, he is in danger of being reckoned as Abimelech’s not Abraham’s. But Yahweh intervenes once again and preserves Sarah (20.6b) and restores her to Abraham." [Note: Helyer, p. 84.]

". . . the episode is chiefly one of suspense: on the brink of Isaac’s birth-story here is the very Promise put in jeopardy, traded away for personal safety. If it is ever to be fulfilled, it will owe very little to man. Morally as well as physically, it will clearly have to be achieved by the grace of God." [Note: Kidner, p. 137.]

Abraham naturally moved frequently since he had to find pasture for his flocks and herds (Genesis 19:1). He lived a semi-nomadic life.

". . . his house and family remained at Gerar while he was down in Sinai . . ." [Note: Albright, p. 48.]

"Abimelech" was a title rather than a proper name (cf. Genesis 26:1; Judges 8:31; 2 Samuel 11:21; Psalms 34 title). It meant "royal father" or "the king [Milku, a Canaanite deity mentioned in the Amarna letters] is my father." [Note: Wenham, Genesis 16-50, p. 70. For an explanation of Abraham’s behavior here, see my notes on 12:10-20. D. Garrett, Rethinking Genesis, p. 30, noted several parallels between the three similar events in 12:10-20; 20:1-18; and 26:1, 7-17.]

Dreams were one of the primary means by which God revealed Himself to individuals in the Old Testament along with visions and personal encounters (cf. Genesis 15:1; Numbers 12:6-8). Adultery commonly drew the death penalty in the ancient Near East, which the Mosaic Code later specified (Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 22:22). Abimelech claimed to head a blameless nation (Genesis 19:4), so we expect God to be gracious since Abraham had prayed that the Lord would not destroy the righteous with the wicked (Genesis 18:23-32). God was gracious with Abimelech and his people (Genesis 19:6; cf. Genesis 19:17). In contrast to the Sodomites, they responded to God’s warnings.

Moses identified Abraham here (Genesis 19:7) as a "prophet." This is the first explicit reference to a prophet in the Old Testament. Prophets received direct revelations from God, spoke to others for God, and praised God (1 Chronicles 25:1). Here the role of the prophet includes that of intercessor, as it does elsewhere in Scripture.

Other ancient Near Eastern texts refer to adultery as a "great sin" and a "great crime," reflecting the seriousness of this offense in the eyes of society. [Note: See Anchor Bible Dictionary, 1992 ed., s.v. "Adultery," by E A. Goodfreind.]

"In king Abimelech we meet with a totally different character from that of Pharaoh [ch. 12]. We see in him a heathen imbued with a moral consciousness of right, and open to receive divine revelation, of which there is not the slightest trace in the king of Egypt." [Note: Keil and Delitzsch, 1:242.]

"Like the sailors and the king of Nineveh in the book of Jonah (Genesis 1:16; Genesis 3:6-9), the Philistines responded quickly and decisively to God’s warning. Like Jonah, however, Abraham in this narrative was a reluctant prophet." [Note: Sailhamer, The Pentateuch . . ., p. 175.]

Fear for his safety evidently led Abraham to act as he did even though his previous deception in Egypt had been unsuccessful. Even the repeated promises of God did not drive fear of potential danger from Abraham’s heart. God used a pagan king to rebuke the righteous prophet, who had boldly pleaded for Sodom, when Abraham’s faith failed.

This incident shows God’s faithfulness to Abraham compared to Abraham’s unfaithfulness to God (cf. 2 Timothy 2:13). God’s chosen ones cannot destroy His ultimate plans for them by failing. Abraham learned that Yahweh will maintain His covenant and fulfill His promises in spite of the opposition and interference of influential and powerful individuals.

God requires His people to maintain purity in marriage and to look to Him to provide what He has promised.

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Genesis 20". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/genesis-20.html. 2012.
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