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Bible Commentaries
Genesis 20

Coke's Commentary on the Holy BibleCoke's Commentary



Sarah is taken from Abraham by Abimelech, king of Gerar, whom God threatens with death, unless he restore her. Abimelech restores her, excusing himself to God, because he believed her to be the sister, not the wife of Abraham.

Verse 1

Genesis 20:1. Journeyed from thence toward, &c.— Not able to endure the melancholy prospect, which the desolated cities afforded, whence too, probably, a noxious stench might arise, Abraham removed from his usual place of abode at Mamre, towards those parts in the south of Palestine, which lie near to AEgypt; and having continued some time in the country between Kadesh and Shur, he at length took up his abode at Gerar, the metropolis of Palestine, which city appears to have been situated in the angle where the south and west sides of Canaan met.

Verse 2

Genesis 20:2. Abraham said of Sarah his wife, She is my sister It appears from Gen 20:13 that it was mutually agreed between Abraham and Sarah to pass for brother and sister, in the strange places and courts whither they should happen to come; so that it is no wonder to find the same incident repeated. See ch. Genesis 12:13. And it also appears from Gen 12:12 that they thought this device justifiable, as they were indeed brother and sister by the father's side; so that they told the truth, but not the whole truth, as they were more than brother and sister, namely, husband and wife: and it appears from Gen 12:11 as well as from ch. Genesis 12:12. that Abraham's reason for concealing his marriage was the fear of being murdered on account of his wife, who was remarkably handsome. Now this conduct of the patriarch's has been variously represented, some severely condemning, others, in a great measure, justifying it. That Abraham was a truly good man there can be no doubt; but that the best of men are not without their defects, is equally certain; nor does it at all affect the credit of the sacred writings, that the faults of the best men are recorded in them; nay, rather it affords an argument for their authenticity; nor does it at all concern us to vindicate the actions of good men, which appear culpable.

Men certainly have a right to conceal their sentiments, upon several occasions, by a prudent silence; but whenever they make use of words, and pretend thereby to discover their thoughts, they impose upon their hearers, if they do not really express what they pretend: and in this the very formality of lying consists; namely, "in a settled intention to deceive." For whatever is said, (to use Bishop Smalridge's words,) whether in itself it be true or false, whether it agrees with the thoughts of the speaker or not, yet if it plainly tends to deceive the hearer, if he who says it perceives the tendency, and accordingly uses it to this end, however disguised it is, under whatever form it is expressed, it is, to all intents and purposes, a lie.

Abimblech—sent and took Not by force and violence, as appears from Genesis 12:5-6. It is evident that the beauty of Sarah had been preserved in an extraordinary manner: and possibly as her fruitfulness was now miraculously restored, with that her native beauty might be increased; and possibly it might not be her beauty only which might induce Abimelech to take her. Let it be observed, there is not the least mention of this: motives of interest might have their weight, and the king might be inclined to take to his wife on that account, the sister of a man so powerful, and so regarded of heaven, as Abraham was known to be: it is plain, that he did not scruple to enter into covenant with him, which shews a regard for his alliance. See ch. Genesis 21:22, &c.

Abimelech signifies, my father is king, or a king my father; a proper name for king; and it appears to have been common to the kings of Palestine, as Pharaoh was to those of AEgypt.

REFLECTIONS.—Abraham's removal is here mentioned, and his sojourning among the Philistines. Note; Where-ever we are in this world, we must remember we are but sojourners, as all our fathers were. We have here,

1. A repetition of his former equivocation. Observe, It is a sad thing to be overtaken by sin; it is worse to relapse into it; but still the backslider may return. Let none presume they cannot fall; let none fallen, who have any desire to return, sink into despair.

2. The danger to which Sarah is again exposed. When unbelieving fear comes upon us, the evils we should otherwise avoid frequently come upon us also.
Alas! how frail and weak is man! especially in that which most nearly concerns him, TRUST IN GOD. Though Abraham had before experienced, in the case of Pharaoh, how able God was to protect the chastity of his wife from all violence, and from all power whatsoever, yet he cannot rest in trusting to it on a like occasion, but must have recourse again to his own wisdom. In truth, this distrust of God's power and help was not only Abraham's frailty in the present instance, but is indeed the deplorable weakness of human nature. The nation of the Jews are a sufficient evidence of this: though they saw so many wonderful and astonishing exertions of God's power, and how able he was to do every thing, yet in every fresh difficulty they were doubting or distrusting his ability to save them: though they had seen him divide the sea to let them go through, making the waters to stand on a heap; though they had seen him cleave the hard rocks in the wilderness, to give them water to drink, so that it gushed out like rivers; yet soon after, when, they were distressed for provision, they could think lightly of the power of God, and say, Shall God prepare a table in the wilderness? He smote the stony rock indeed that the water gushed out, and the streams flowed withal; but can he give bread also, or provide flesh for his people? And this is too much the disposition of Christians in general; for there are few but in the course of their lives have seen such extraordinary instances of God's power and providential interposition, as might convince them that he can do every thing, and is a sure help to all who put their trust in him; and yet in the next difficulty or trouble their hearts have failed them, they have been cast down as if there was no help in their God, and as if his hand was shortened that it could not save.

Verse 3

Genesis 20:3. But God came to Abimelech, &c.— It is hence evident, as well as from other instances, that the Canaanites, in Abraham's time, were not all corrupted in religion. Abimelech and his servants appear to have been worshippers of the true God, see Gen 20:8 as they were evidently regarded by God, who thus interposed for their welfare. God never left himself without witnesses; nor, though peculiarly kind to Abraham, was he a stranger to other nations. He spake to them in dreams and in visions, see Job 4:13; Job 33:14-15. and by other means manifested his power and Godhead; so that they who forsook his worship were without excuse.

Thou art but a dead man That is, if thou perform not what I enjoin, if thou restore not the wife to her husband. It is obvious hence to remark (and from ch. 12:) how detestable and destructive the sin of adultery has been ever judged from the beginning of time, and indeed in all nations. Thou art but a dead man—for she is a man's wife!

Verses 4-5

Genesis 20:4-5. Lord, wilt thou slay also, &c.— Abimelech here deprecates the Divine wrath, and enters into a justification of his conduct; declaring that both Abraham and Sarah had united in attesting that Sarah was the sister of Abraham; and that he had not the least apprehension or design of committing so atrocious a crime, as that of taking away a man's wife, and defiling his bed; in the integrity of my heart, and the innocency of my hands, have I done this: a plea which the Almighty graciously admits, assuring Abimelech, that he knew this to be the case; yea, I know that thou didst this in the integrity of thy heart, without any knowledge of the connection, and consequently without any design to violate the marriage-bed: And (not for) I also withheld thee from sinning against me: therefore, &c. Observe hence, that immoral actions derive their chief turpitude from being offences against God: adultery is a sin against God; from which God withheld Abimelech, because of the integrity of his heart. It cannot however be reasonably inferred from this, that concubinage or polygamy is justifiable in the sight of God: but only that it was no crime in Abimelech; it was at most but a fault of ignorance, which is not inconsistent with integrity, since neither his own conscience condemned it, nor any law which he knew: so that he acted uprightly, in so far as he did nothing but what he judged lawful and right, according to the best of his knowledge.

Verse 6

Genesis 20:6. I also withheld thee It is not from God that there is sin, but it is from him that there is not more sin, either by his influence on men's minds, checking their inclination to sin, or by his providence taking away the opportunity.

Verse 7

Genesis 20:7. For he is a prophet, and shall pray for thee, &c.— This is the first place in Scripture where the word prophet occurs; and Abraham is the first to whom that appellation is given. It is evident, as Houbigant remarks, that, as it is added, he shall pray for thee, the word prophet contains the idea of a person acceptable to God, who can ask and obtain favours for men. In Exodus 7:1 a prophet is a person who speaks for another as his interpreter, as his mouth. The foretelling of future things does not appear to have been yet contained in the word. The Greek προφητης, a prophet, signifies immediately one that speaks for another: and the Hebrew נביא nabi, signifies a person who speaks something in an eminent and extraordinary manner. As prophets, or those who spoke for and as commissioned by God, foretold future events in his name, hence the word prophet came to imply not only a person who has familiar intercourse with God, and who is authorised to declare his will, and who by his prayers could obtain special blessings for others, but also a discloser of future events. Jeremiah 14:11; Jeremiah 15:1; Jeremiah 27:18. Psalms 99:6.

REFLECTIONS.—God again interposes to save Sarah from imminent danger. We have,

1. His appearance to Abimelech, to warn him of his danger in a dream. Why may not dreams sometimes be still monitory? He informs him he is a dead man if he touch her. Note; Every sin hath these wages. The sinner is already dead in the eye of God's law.

2. Abimelech's plea; ignorance, and in this case innocence. It is a blessed plea, to have the testimony of a good conscience. God will not slay the righteous.
3. God's acceptance of it, and injunction. He, who knew his heart, was satisfied of his integrity. Observe, God's approbation is a counterbalance against every unjust suspicion of the world. And God it was, who had withheld him. Learn hence, that we are all wonderfully indebted to God's restraining grace: how much worse else had we been than we are? But he must send her back, or die, for she is a prophet's wife, whose prayers should be accepted for him. Note; (1.) God's prophets have his peculiar care. (2.) The king upon the throne is as much exposed to the Divine wrath by sin, as the meanest. Let kings remember, they have the same law to be judged by as their subjects.

Verse 8

Genesis 20:8. Abimelech rose early, &c.— There is a strong appearance of piety in this conduct of Abimelech; who, as well as his servants, that is, his council and the people of his court, seems to have had a due reverence for the Almighty, and a becoming fear for his awful admonitions. He expostulates seriously with Abraham, as a man who dreaded to commit sin, and incur the Divine displeasure: what have I done, that, Gen 20:9 thou hast brought on me, and on my kingdom, a great sin? i.e.. that thou wouldst have involved me and my kingdom in the enormous guilt of adultery: a crime so universally allowed abominable, that the very involuntary act, without the criminal intention, was thought enough to bring calamity and ruin on a whole kingdom. Perhaps also they might call to mind the burning of Sodom and Gomorrah, which they had lately heard of, and might fear that some such calamity might befal them.

Verse 10

Genesis 20:10. And Abimelech said unto Abraham, &c.— Continuing his discourse to him, he desires to know what he had observed either in him or his people, which gave him any reason to conclude that they were given up to evil desires, and would stop at nothing to gratify them.

Verse 11

Genesis 20:11. I thought, surely the fear of God is not in this place And, consequently, there can be no regard to moral laws and righteousness; of which the fear of God is the only sure foundation. Observe here, how different the reasoning of Abraham is from that of our deists and moralists, who put the fear of God out of the question; and deduce all their morality from mere human sources. Without piety there can be no true morality. This has been the sentiment of the wisest men in all ages: "If piety towards the Supreme was once taken away," says Cicero, "there would be an end of all fidelity, a dissolution of the bonds of human society, and even of justice itself, that most excellent of all virtues." De Nat. Deor. Lib. I.

Note; How liable to be mistaken are the best of men. Such instances as the above, in such men as Abraham, are the strongest comments on those passages of the word of God, which require us not to judge from conjecture or appearances. No human conduct is to be judged of, even by the thoughts of an Abraham or from appearance, but from real evidence; and no man is to be condemned till it be known what he has to say in his own defence: a careful regard to this scriptural rule, in common life, would prevent many bitter pangs of sorrow in the minds of men, who are so often hearing of their sentence before they even know themselves to be accused.

Verse 12

Genesis 20:12. And yet indeed she is my sister It appears as plain as words can make it from this verse, that Sarah was indeed the sister of Abraham, born of a different mother, but of the same father: and one would wonder whence it comes to pass, that some expositors are so industrious to justify an opinion which this verse so plainly contradicts, that Sarah is the same person with Ischah, the daughter of Haran, mentioned ch. Genesis 11:29. Abraham is dealing here with Abimelech in the fairest and openest manner, and justifying himself as far as he could: but what justification would it be, to say Sarah is indeed, as I have called her, my sister, i.e.. my near relation, the daughter of my brother Haran? It is to be remembered, that he says she is the daughter of my father, not of my mother, to shew the lawful-ness of his marriage with her, which was allowed in those times with sisters by the father's side, but not with uterine sisters.

Verse 13

Genesis 20:13. When God caused, &c.— It is observable here, that the noun and verb are both in the plural, When the Elohim they caused me to wander, another striking proof of the doctrine of the Sacred Trinity.

REFLECTIONS.—We have here,

1. Abimelech's care and haste to get rid of Sarah: he warns his servants, and trembles himself. When sin is in the case, we cannot be too solicitous to be rid of it.
2. His serious reproof of Abraham: a great sin, which would have involved his kingdom in ruin, brought on him by Abraham's suspicious fear and dissimulation, without any provocation. Note; (1.) Adultery is among the greatest of sins. (2.) Kings shall rue for it. (3.) Their people are often involved in their punishment. (4.) The greatest injury any man can do us, is to lead us into sin. (5.) Uncharitable suspicions are very injurious to ourselves, and oftentimes the cause of greater evil to others.

3. Abraham's weak excuse. His fears of the place favoured of censoriousness: his fears of his wife bespoke his unbelief. Note; (1.) We are too apt to conclude they have no religion, who are not exactly in our way of thinking: But we are often mistaken to our shame; their practice reproves us. (2.) Equivocations generally lead us into scrapes; but truth will never shame its author.

Verse 14

Genesis 20:14. Gave them to Abraham, &c.— It is manifest, from this transaction, and the similar one recorded in ch. 12: that Abraham was desirous to pass for Sarah's brother, from the single motive of preserving his life; they will slay me for my wife's sake: and to preserve my life, said he, this is the kindness which thou shalt shew me, &c. So that the infidel objections of those who would insinuate, that the patriarch acted upon mercenary views, are of no weight. The presents, which Pharaoh and Abimelech gave him, were voluntary acknowledgments of their unintentional offence against him, and of his interceding with God for them: oblations of gratitude for their recovery from the sore plagues wherewith God had afflicted them, and a kind of commutation of the injury and affront which they had shewn to persons so highly favoured of God, that, at what time they went from one nation to another, from one kingdom to another people, he suffered no man to do them wrong, but reproved even kings for their sakes. Psalms 105:13-14.

Verse 16

Genesis 20:16. Behold, I have given thy brother, &c.— There is nothing in the Hebrew for pieces, and therefore nothing certain can be determined as to the quantity of this silver. The opinions of expositors are various respecting this difficult passage. The authors of the Universal History appear to me to have given a just translation of this passage, though contrary to our own: "Behold, I have given thy brother a thousand pieces of silver, or thirty of silver money, and behold it (this present) may serve to buy thee a veil to cover thy eyes, before all those with whom thou shalt converse for the future, as well as before all those who shall be with thee:" thus she was reproved. For a veil was worn in token of subjection to the husband, and that the wife's chastity might be thereby preserved from the insults and snares of others.

Verse 17

Genesis 20:17. So Abraham prayed, &c.— See Gen 20:7 and God accepted his prayer: and the punishment, which he had graciously inflicted on Abimelech to deter him from guilt, was removed. Hence we learn, that affliction from the hand of Heaven is often so far from an evil, that it is the greatest good. The disease inflicted on Abimelech and his house was a mean of preventing him from a defilement of the marriage-bed, see Gen 20:6 and perhaps it might serve to other good and instructive purposes.

REFLECTIONS.—Abraham's unreasonable fears are farther rebuked by Abimelech's kindness.

1. He restores Sarah, and with her makes a noble present, as a reparation of his mistake: and he adds a warning to Sarah against the like prevarication. Note; (1.) When we find a good man, he is worth making our friend. (2.) Let Sarah's daughters remember, their eyes and their affections should be covered to all but their own husbands.

2. We have Abraham's return for Abimelech's favours. He prayed for him, and God healed the family. Note; The prayers of God's people for us, are the best returns they can make us.

Bibliographical Information
Coke, Thomas. "Commentary on Genesis 20". Coke's Commentary on the Holy Bible. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/tcc/genesis-20.html. 1801-1803.
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