« Prev Chapter 20 Next »



10. Abraham and Sarah at Gerar

Abraham needs to be tried and purified still more before the promise can be realized. He is also to receive still further demonstrations of divine favour. However, the difficulty in which he finds himself is occasioned by Abraham himself. On the very eve of the fulfilment of the long-hoped-for promise, Abraham, largely through his own sins, imperils the precious hope. So once again, as so often in Genesis, the sovereign mercy of God is made to stand forth as supreme, that no flesh may glory before God.

It would be foolish to deny the similarity of this episode with those other episodes recorded in Gen. 12:10 ff. and 26:1 ff. It is equally foolish to claim the identity of the incidents on the ground that they merely represent three different forms of the original event, forms assumed while being transmitted by tradition. Critics seem to forget that life just happens to be so strange a thing that certain incidents may repeat themselves in the course of one life, or that the lives of children often constitute a strange parallel to those of their parents. Besides, there certainly are striking differences between this account and that of 12:10 ff. as well as striking points of similarity. Note the following six points of difference: two different places are involved, Egypt and Philistia; two different monarchs of quite different character; one, idolatrous, the other, one who fears the true God; different circumstances prevail, a famine on the one hand, nomadic migration on the other; different modes of revelation are 2.580employed—the one king surmises the truth, the other receives revelation in a dream; the patriarch’s reaction to the accusation is quite different in the two instances involved—in the first, silence; then in the second instance, a free explanation before a king of sufficient spiritual discernment; lastly, the conclusions of the two episodes are radically different from one another—in the first instance, dismissal from the land; in the second, an invitation to stay in the land. We are compelled, therefore, to reverse the critical verdict: "it is impossible to doubt that the two are variants of the same tradition." We have here two distinct, though similar, events.

If we remember besides that about twenty years had elapsed between the two incidents (cf. 12:4 with 17:1), we can well understand how the memory of the first had paled upon the consciousness of the patriarch. Abraham should not have been so forgetful, but even the patriarchs were frail mortals and poor sinners. In any event, why should a nation perpetuate several forms of an incident that reflects no honor whatsoever upon its first father?

1. And Abraham journeyed from thence to the land of the South Country (Negeb) and dwelt between Kadesh and Shur; he also sojourned in Gerar.

We last met Abraham near Hebron, living amid the terebinths of Mamre (18:1). He "journeys" (literally: "pulls up") to go from thence toward the region called the Negeb, or the South Country; cf. 12:9. There his dwelling place—always shifting because he is a nomad—is in the broad stretch between Kadesh, i. e., Kadesh Barnea (see 14:7) and Shur (see on 16:7). From this region he penetrated northwest some forty or fifty miles till he finally also took up his residence in Gerar, the site now known as Umm Jerar, perhaps ten miles south of Gaza on 2.581the Wadi Sheriah. Here criticism again seeks to discredit the account by seeking to identify the two successive steps in the patriarch’s journeyings, as though the writer had said that Abraham went to the region between Kadesh and Shur and there dwelt in Gerar, though Gerar is not there. We have made the successive steps involved more distinct by translating wayyághor not "and he sojourned" but "he also sojourned." It is even possible that most of Abraham’s herds and flocks may have been scattered over this region of the South Country while he was taking up temporary residence (gûr) in Gerar. On wayyághor cf. G. K. 72 t.

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

The deception of 12:13 is renewed. It is as little pardonable here as there. The expression ‘amar ‘el must here mean "to say of" someone (K. S. 327 g). When Abimelech takes Sarah, that implies, not as the phrase sometimes means, to take in marriage, but only, to take into his harem. The silence of the verse, in that it does not call the king of Gerar, the king of the Philistines, cannot be pressed to the point where it means that the writer holds that he was not king of the Philistines, or even that the Philistines were not yet in the land in those days. Yet by this unfounded claim this passage (attributed to E) is made to clash with 26:1 (attributed to J), and E is claimed to be the more accurate and J is claimed to be in error. "Abimelech" means "my father is king," or "Melech is father."

3. But God came to Abimelech in a dream by night and said to him: Behold, thou art going to die, because of the woman whom thou hast taken; for she is a man’s wife.

2.582There must have been something about Abimelech that set him above the level of the idolatrous Canaanites dwelling in the land, for God deigns to reveal Himself to this man. As we proceed, we observe that Abimelech apparently feared God. Luther reckons him among the believers of his day. Yet Abimelech must have had but a limited knowledge of God, for He that appeared to him is here described only as the Deity, ’elohîm not Ha’elohîm, "the true God." The mode of revelation employed is the "dream" (chalôm), a mode employed for those standing on a lower level of revelation. When critics claim all such passages dealing with dreams for E, like 28:12; Gen. 31:11, 24; 37:5, then Num. 12:6 must also be considered which belongs to J. Besides, 21:12, 14; 22:1 ff., and 46:2, all cited by Skinner, are only assumed to involve dreams. Consequently, such a claim has no solid foundation. The article with layelah is the categorical article.

The Deity informs the king that he has done a deed worthy of death: "thou art going to die," meth, the participle, must point to the future in this connection. This guilty deed of Abimelech is that he has taken a woman who already is a man’s wife (be’ulathba’al="lorded over by a lord," i. e., "governed by a husband"). To take men’s wives from them for one’s self is a deed involving great guilt. This pronouncement of God’s meets Abimelech on the level on which he stands. It expects of him to understand and to honor the sanctity of the marriage bond. It does not make an issue of another act of Abimelech’s, where he adds eligible women to his harem, as though a king had the right to multiply wives to himself. Yet God’s silence does not mean approval.

The difficulty arising in this connection as to the reason for Abimelech’s taking Sarah is increased if one supposes that the king’s reason was that he 2.583was infatuated with Sarah’s beauty. For even when allowance is made for the greater length of the span of life of these days, yet Sarah, being ninety years old (17:17), would have been so far past middle-age as to have lost her charm. A kind of rejuvenation in connection with the impending birth of a son could have made no appreciable difference. Since the text ascribes no reason, we are just as much at liberty to choose the other alternative, namely that the king by marriage sought to create an alliance with this influential nomad and so increase his following. Critics, as usual, reject the second suggestion and adopt the first because of the difficulties which it creates, which seem to make this version of the story of 12:10 appear less credible.

4, 5. But Abimelech had not approached her, and so he said: Lord, wilt thou slay even a righteous people? Did he not say unto me, She is my sister? And she, even she herself said to me, He is my brother. In the integrity of my heart and the innocency of my hands have I done this.

The verb qarabh must here be a pluperfect "had approached" (K. S. 117). Abimelech has extenuating circumstances to point to and so prefixes this plea to his defense, "Wilt thou slay even a righteous people?" First of all, he seems to know that the Deity is not a tribal god but has power over all individuals and all nations alike. Secondly, he has full confidence in God’s justice: God does not punish indiscriminately. When, however, the king speaks of the slaying of the "people," it must be because he recognizes that king and people here constitute a unity in that the people carried out the king’s command willingly and so share in the guilt. Alarmed as he is, the king uses a hyperbole in speaking of those to be punished as "a people." He hardly means to refer to more than those who are directly involved in one way or another. 2.584The meaning, for goy adopted by some, namely "a person" or "one" cannot be substantiated. The question introduced by the interrogative ha here requires a negative answer (K. S. 353 f).

The tacit assumption of Abimelech, that it was, of course, perfectly proper for him to increase the number of women in his harem, or even, for that matter, to have a harem, again is not touched. It may well be that the king still lived in an age that was not yet ready to learn the truth in regard to this matter. At any event, only that part of the issue which directly concerned Abraham is taken in hand by God.

Both of the parties concerned had given Abimelech the assurance that Sarah was Abraham’s sister. The answers quoted by Abimelech put the emphatic word first; he said: "My sister she"; she said: "My brother he." Under these circumstances Abimelech might well claim that the inner motive was unimpeachable ("integrity of heart") and the outward deed entirely proper ("innocency of hands"). In the latter expression the word for "hand," kaph, signifies "the palm of the hand," consequently, not even hidden uncleanness within the hand, —therefore complete innocency. Throughout the king gives the impression of being an entirely worthy and upright character, a man who truly feared God.

6,7. And God said unto him in a dream: I too know that in the innocency of thy heart thou hast done this; and I prevented thee, even I, from sinning against Me; on that account I did not suffer thee to touch her. Now therefore, restore the wife of the man, for he is a prophet, that he may intercede in thy behalf that thou mayest live. But if thou dost not restore her, know that thou shalt most assuredly die, as well as all that belong to thee.

2.585Whatever the nature of a revelation by means of a dream may be, it surely allows for an interchange of thoughts—questions and answers, remarks and responses. He that replies is here called by a more specific name than that of v.3: not ’Elohîm but Ha’elohîm—"the true God." The advance in thought is, that the king first recognized the Deity, but the Deity is the only true God. Between these two designations stands Abimelech’s address "Lord" ’adhonay (v. 4). As such Abimelech had specifically acknowledged Him; that is what He was accounted by Abimelech to be — Lord of all. Such fine discrimination in the use of the divine names shows beyond a doubt that they are all used according to the specific meaning that underlies each.

Now it appears how the announcement of v. 3 was meant—"thou art going to die." God was not predicting an inexorable doom but was declaring what Abimelech in reality had merited and what would of necessity follow if Abimelech failed to give heed to the divine injunction. God recognizes the comparative innocence of the king. In fact, He Himself had so regulated the course of events that Abimelech had been prevented from approaching the mother of the promised seed: some sickness had incapacitated all of his household (v. 18). The sickness referred to was an event that was entirely providential for this very purpose.

These verses are supposed to exhibit "a vacillation." They are said to be "the first faint protest of the moral sense against the hereditary mechanical notion of guilt." Writers who say such things (like Skinner) first impute their misconceptions to the Biblical author and then they censure him. In the first place, no Scriptures, not even the earliest, teach a "mechanical notion of guilt." But there is hereditary sin, for which the sinners involved are also guilty. In 2.586the case before us the rule holds good: sin is sin and involves guilt, even when the perpetrator may have sinned in ignorance. Such ignorance does constitute an extenuating circumstance. God acknowledges that here. Our story is not a protest against anything. It records facts in conformity with all the rest of revealed truth. On chatô’, infinitive construct, see G. K. 75 qq; on neghoa’ G. K. 66 b.

7. The irregularity of which Abimelech is guilty must like all sins be adjusted at once, if such adjustment lies within the power of the one who has sinned. In this instance the offense is aggravated by the nature of the person against whom it is committed: Abraham is "a prophet," a nabhî’. This term is here to be taken in its usual and only meaning—nabhî’ from the root found in the Arabic, nába’a, signifies "the speaker," in the active not the passive sense, i. e., not "the inspired one." Yet "speaker" in the eminent sense of speaking in behalf and in the name of the Deity is definitely the meaning implied (see K. W.). Though we observe no instances in Abraham’s life, where he functions specifically as the organ of revelation, who delivers particular messages in the name of Yahweh, yet he had the truth in his possession and, no doubt, spoke it freely and so functioned as speaker in God’s service. To press the meaning of the word down to the level where it means only a "man of God, whose person and property are inviolable" is a procedure warranted by no Scripture, and so merely an attempt to deflate terms.

Now the work of prophets has also in a special sense always, been to intercede for others (cf. Deut. 9:20; 1 Sam. 7:5; 1 Sam. 12:19, 23; Jer. 7:16). This function Abraham will in this instance employ in Abimelech’s behalf, that he may live. Both clauses introduced by "and" are in this instance final: "and he shall intercede"="that he may intercede"; "and 2.587live" (imperative)="that you may live." Efficacious intercessory prayer was practised from the earliest times. On the other hand, failure to adjust the wrong done will bring with it certain death both of the king and of all who belong to him. These latter persons are included, no doubt, because if the king persists in his wrong course, they that belong to him will have abetted and supported him in his position and so will be almost as guilty as he.

Surely, the word of the psalm in reference to this event covers the case, where God is represented as saying: "Touch not mine anointed ones, and do my prophets no harm" (Psa. 105:15). Charges of partiality on God’s part are quite out of place. He who has mercy for all may surely exercise particular care over those who have served Him with unusual fidelity, especially if they be persons whom He is reserving for special purposes, like Sarah. That such protection is entirely unmerited goes without saying, for His saints too were fallible human beings, as our story demonstrates only too clearly. Since this is the correct Biblical approach to the problem, we must reject the attitude of Procksch, who tries to make an "adventure" out of this experience of Sarah and would have us believe that the purpose of the narrator is to show how high Sarah ranked in her day, namely, as a princess worthy to be taken into a royal harem; and so the whole episode is construed as a kind of glorification of Sarah.

8. So Abimelech arose early in the morning and called all his servants and told all these things in their hearing; and the men were much frightened.

Abimelech gives evidence of prompt obedience. It required a measure of humility to tell these things to his servants; but the servants had also been involved in the misdeed, even as they would have shared the punishment if the evil had not been adjusted. The 2.588servants have their master’s attitude of respect and reverence for God, which here at the news of the danger they had incurred made them to be much afraid.

9, 10. Then Abimelech called Abraham and said unto him: What hast thou done to us? And wherein have I sinned against thee that thou shouldest bring a great sin upon me and upon my kingdom? Thou hast done to me things that should not be done. Ablmelech also said to Abraham: What didst thou meet with that led thee to do this thing?

When Abimelech called Abraham, that must be understood in the sense that he had him summoned, even as v. 2 he did not go personally and take Sarah. By this time, apparently, the situation described v. 18 had developed fully, and everyone may now after the lapse of several days have been aware of grievous irregularities and of an unusual affliction that had befallen the court and its retainers. The blame for all this Abimelech lays at Abraham’s door: "What hast thou done to us?" Besides, the king claims that the wrong was done quite unprovoked and that it amounted to this that Abraham had made innocent persons, even the king practically and his people, to do a great sin. The man who is in a particular sense a friend of God must suffer himself to be rebuked by one who actually stands far below on the scale of spiritual opportunity and advancement. Abraham must be told what should not have been done. The imperfect ye’sû, "is done," readily passes into the meaning "should be done," on the supposition that men usually will be found doing what they should (K. S. 181).

10. Apparently Abraham feels his guilt and says nothing. So Abimelech proceeds to ask what it was that led Abraham to do this thing. The expression 2.589mah ra’îtha, literally, "what didst thou see?" must be meant in some such sense as, "what hast thou encountered?" (B D B). Meek secures a vivid translation but departs entirely from the basic idea when he renders, "What possessed thee?"

11-13. And Abraham said: (I did it) because I thought in no case is there any fear of God in this place; so they will slay me for my wife’s sake. Also for a fact she is my sister, the daughter of my father, however, not the daughter of my mother; and she became my wife. And so, when God made me to wander from my father’s house, that I said to her: This is thy kindness that thou show me: in every place to which we come, say of me: He is my brother.

Abraham’s three excuses are listed in these verses. Abraham lays no special emphasis upon them. He attempts no exculpation. He simply seems to have placed confidence in Abimelech and to have told him exactly what motivated his course of procedure. In the first place, he was afraid that the fear of God had been lost here as practically everywhere else in Canaan. With the respect for God gone, men would hardly respect the rights of their fellow-men. Abraham mentions this first, for he gathered from the king’s words that Abimelech still stands in the fear of God. So this part of the excuse practically amounts to an apology. His words begin elliptically with , which implies the suppression of some initial statement like: I did it, "because," etc.

12. The second excuse indicates that Abraham was really not speaking a verbal untruth when he declared Sarah to be his sister; she was his half-sister. On the earlier levels of the development of the human race such closer relationships of those married were often necessary and so not abhorred as they came to be later. The Mosaic law would not allow such 2.590connections; see Lev. 18:9,11; Lev. 20:17; Deut. 27:22. Whom Terah had first married or perhaps married after he had married Abraham’s mother, we cannot determine. The particle ’akh, "also," in connections such as these must mean "however."

13. The third excuse or explanation reveals a preconcerted arrangement agreed upon already when Abraham’s wanderings first began: for all situations such as these this evasion was to be resorted to by both. This is not commendable, but it is the truth. These things had not been revealed to Pharaoh (Gen. 12:18,20), no doubt because Abraham felt no kinship with Pharaoh, nor did he have the confidence toward Pharaoh that leads to such revelations.

The plural hith’û with the subject ’elohîm is an entirely inoffensive Hebrew construction, where a plural of extent (cf. K. S. 259 c, d) is coupled with a plural verb or a plural adjective (cf. K. S. 260 b) without impairing the singular character of the object involved. Deut. 5:23 may also serve as a parallel, where the plural form of the adjective is coupled with a singular noun which is plural in form. The other explanation that Abraham is adapting himself to the polytheistic standpoint of the king would apparently involve on Abraham’s part practically a denial of his own monotheistic standpoint. Note also the loose way in which wayhî attaches v. 13 to v. 12: "and it came to pass when God made me to wander," where wayhî functions in so secondary a fashion that we ventured to translate it merely: "and so when," etc. (cf. G. K. 111 g).

There is no complaint involved in Abraham’s use of the verb He "caused me to wander." This is a mere statement of fact. He knew that his lot was to be that of a sojourner. He accepted that lot with open eyes. He is here merely referring to a 2.591situation that he himself accepts and which he will reveal to men of kindred mind.

14, 15. And Abimelech took sheep and oxen and men servants and maid servants and gave them to Abraham; he also restored to him Sarah his wife. Abimelech also said: My country is at thy disposal; dwell, where it pleaseth thee.

In addition to restoring Sarah, Abimelech gives tokens of goodwill in the form of generous presents of the type that a nomad could well use. Besides, he gives ample proof of a friendly disposition by inviting Abraham to settle down wherever he pleases. From passages like 26:18 we gather that Abraham stayed sufficiently long in the neighbourhood to necessitate his digging wells. The offer was made in good faith and accepted in good faith. The expression "at thy disposal" reads in Hebrew "before thine eyes"; and the expression, "where it pleases thee" reads, "in that which is good in thine eyes."

16. And unto Sarah he said: Behold, I have given a thousand shekels of silver to thy brother. This will be for thee a covering of the eyes in reference to all those who are with thee; and in all respects thou art justified.

Abimelech is not said in v. 14 to have given Abraham any silver; but here he refers to his gift as something that has been made. Consequently, the thousand shekels of silver may be the value of the gift just confessed and not an additional gift. Considering that thirty pieces was the normal price of a slave, it would seem that he considered what he had bestowed in v. 14 a princely gift. Now in reference to Sarah this gift is to serve the purpose of a kesûth, "a covering of the eyes." Of the half dozen different interpretations offered for this expression the most fitting seems to be "the one that reckons 2.592with the embarrassment that might be caused Sarah when the news of what transpired becomes known and those of her own household cast scornful and embarrassing glances upon Sarah, because she did what made her ridiculous. The effect of this generous gift will be to give a token of the high esteem in which Abimelech nevertheless holds this man and wife. In view of this gift the patriarch’s retinue will feel the occasion for amused looks has fallen away, and so the gift will serve as a very effectual veil (’covering of the eyes’) might in warding off the scoffing glance." The concluding statement confirms this interpretation: "in all respects thou art justified." The idea of covering the eyes of the household of Sarah by covering the faces of all by veils seems less appropriate than to have one woman shield her face against curious glances by dropping her veil.

The supposition that the veil is to shield the king against Sarah’s angry or vengeful glances (Vilmar), is hardly suitable. References to a veil or headdress of coins worn by married women and to be secured by the use of this generous gift are still less in place.

The last word nokha’chath is best regarded as Nifal participle feminine in pause; it gets its person from the preceding "thou" and "thine." Of course, the common segolate participle feminine is involved (K. S. 367 5). Then the words immediately preceding we’eth kol are an accusative of relation (K. S. 288k and 341o) "in respect to all things" or "in all respects." Luther’s translation of the participle can hardly be supported: und das war ihre Strafe—"and that was her punishment"—for this was a gift and not a punishment.

17, 18. And Abraham interceded with God, and God healed Abimelech and his wife and his maids, so that they could bear children. For 2.593Yahweh had completely closed up all the wombs of the house of Abimelech on account of Sarah, Abraham’s wife.

Abraham does what God had ascribed to him as a prophetic function and privilege (v. 7), and as a result of his intercession the disability laid upon the king’s entire household is healed. The very fact that this disability is described as something that was healed (rapha’) suggests that it should be classed as a sickness. This disability could hardly mean that pregnant mothers were prevented from bringing forth their offspring, as some interpret, but rather that conception, particularly the coitus, was rendered impossible. For so v. 18 is to be understood. This was Yahweh’s mode of rendering the mother of the promised seed safe. Note the fine propriety of the use of the term "Yahweh" here: the faithful covenant God in mercy watches over the mother of the child of the covenant. Criticism resorts to the common expedient of calling v. 18 an addition from J, or a redactor’s gloss, and tries to make v. 18 appear out of harmony with v. 17, where in reality it is the essential complement; for v. 17 requires an explanation.


If the customary theme is used for this chapter—the mercy of the Lord, a theme which has thus far appeared with many different variations, then certainly here an opportunity offers itself to show conclusively that mercy is not bestowed according to merit; for here is a case where the total absence of merit stands forth prominently. If the case in hand is to be approached from the moral angle, then it is seen to offer an illustration how even with God’s best saints susceptibility to certain sins is not overcome by a single effort. These men of God, too, had their besetting sins and prevailing weaknesses. The repetition of the fall of Abraham under very similar circumstances, instead of constituting grounds for criticism should rather be regarded as a touch entirely true to life.

« Prev Chapter 20 Next »
VIEWNAME is workSection