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Genesis 20:1-18 – Abraham, Sarah, and Abimelech


This story provides a second look at Abraham’s betrayal of his wife Sarah (see 12:10-20). Once again he falls short. Even with all the positive things that have happened between him and God, including promises in great number (see chaps. 12-20), his relationship with God seems stuck in neutral (at best!). This time, an outsider (a Canaanite!) named Abimelech calls him to account: “You have done things that ought not be done…What were you thinking of, that you did this thing?” (20:9-10). As often, actions of outsiders may be more in tune with God’s will than those of insiders.


When Abimelech takes Sarah with Abraham’s permission, God abruptly enters into the situation to protect her, speaking to Abimelech in a dream (20:6-7). After God informs him that Sarah is really Abraham’s wife, Abimelech confronts Abraham (20:9-10). In response, Abraham seeks to justify his actions, with an elaborate series of reasons, which may or may not be true (20:11-13). He even blames God (20:13)! But, even given Abraham’s intricate rationalization of his behavior, Abimelech refuses to respond in kind. He maximizes Sarah’s welfare, restores her honor, and loads them up with gifts.

Perhaps uncomfortably to us, this text shows that God is present and active among such outsiders to the faith. God engages “non-Christians” in dialogue and uses them to be teachers of the community of faith. We are invited to see that many of the good things in our daily life have been generated by the wisdom and common sense of the Abimelechs of this world. They can even become our confessors, speaking a sharp prophetic word to us.

We pray for ears to hear God’s word to us spoken through unchosen people. Such individuals may gift us with much wisdom and insight for our life’s way and model for us what it means to live a life of courage. We may learn to be compassionate from those people among us for whom Jesus is a stranger.

As we ponder our sins against our neighbor—not least the outsiders among us—and ponder our massive attempts to justify our behaviors, we need to listen to how God may be speaking to us through them, including words such as these: “You have done things that ought not be done; what were you thinking of that you did these things?”

Genesis 20:1-18

Abraham and Sarah at Gerar

20From there Abraham journeyed towards the region of the Negeb, and settled between Kadesh and Shur. While residing in Gerar as an alien, 2Abraham said of his wife Sarah, ‘She is my sister.’ And King Abimelech of Gerar sent and took Sarah. 3But God came to Abimelech in a dream by night, and said to him, ‘You are about to die because of the woman whom you have taken; for she is a married woman.’ 4Now Abimelech had not approached her; so he said, ‘Lord, will you destroy an innocent people? 5Did he not himself say to me, “She is my sister”? And she herself said, “He is my brother.” I did this in the integrity of my heart and the innocence of my hands.’ 6Then God said to him in the dream, ‘Yes, I know that you did this in the integrity of your heart; furthermore it was I who kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I did not let you touch her. 7Now then, return the man’s wife; for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you shall live. But if you do not restore her, know that you shall surely die, you and all that are yours.’

So Abimelech rose early in the morning, and called all his servants and told them all these things; and the men were very much afraid. 9Then Abimelech called Abraham, and said to him, ‘What have you done to us? How have I sinned against you, that you have brought such great guilt on me and my kingdom? You have done things to me that ought not to be done.’ 10And Abimelech said to Abraham, ‘What were you thinking of, that you did this thing?’ 11Abraham said, ‘I did it because I thought, There is no fear of God at all in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife. 12Besides, she is indeed my sister, the daughter of my father but not the daughter of my mother; and she became my wife. 13And when God caused me to wander from my father’s house, I said to her, “This is the kindness you must do me: at every place to which we come, say of me, He is my brother.” 14Then Abimelech took sheep and oxen, and male and female slaves, and gave them to Abraham, and restored his wife Sarah to him. 15Abimelech said, ‘My land is before you; settle where it pleases you.’ 16To Sarah he said, ‘Look, I have given your brother a thousand pieces of silver; it is your exoneration before all who are with you; you are completely vindicated.’ 17Then Abraham prayed to God; and God healed Abimelech, and also healed his wife and female slaves so that they bore children. 18For the Lord had closed fast all the wombs of the house of Abimelech because of Sarah, Abraham’s wife.

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