I have long fancied that the Book of Genesis was written in part to discourage the Israelites from the practice of ancestor worship. Although the Patriarchs of the Old Testament are certainly regarded as Heroes of Faith and great men, they had their bad days and Genesis does not always show them at their best. It’s embarrassing enough when, as in the case of David and Bathsheba, a prophet of the Lord comes along to point out their ethical lapses; it’s even worse when they get called out by a heathen.
One such instance --- or three, depending on your point of view – is the story of Abraham and Abimelech. Well, actually Abimelech doesn’t come into it until later. I just like the saying the name Abimelech. The story starts out in Egypt.
A severe famine has hit the land of Canaan. Abraham, still called Abram at this point, has not quite settled down into the land God has promised to him and his descendants, so he takes his family and livestock south to Egypt. We tend to think of Egypt as all desert and pyramids, but the fertile Nile River valley was an important agricultural center of the region in ancient times. This will not be the last time that the people of Israel will go to Egypt fleeing famine, war or political problems. But Abram has a potential problem ahead of himself as well.
As he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai [Sarah], “I know what a beautiful woman you are. When the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me but will let you live. Say you are my sister, so that I will be treated will for your sake and my life will be spared because of you.’ (Genesis 12:11-13 NIV)
Is Abram crazy here? Keep in mind that Sarah would have been in her mid-60s at this point. But ancient Jewish Tradition assures us that, yes, Sarah really was That Hot; even when she was pushing 70. She was the original Matriarch I’d Like to… um… Fool around with.
At least Abram thought so; and he wasn’t alone. The Pharaoh’s flunkies are also impressed by her beauty. Jewish tradition expands on the story to say that Abraham hid Sarah in a box when he entered Egypt, but she was discovered when he tried smuggling her through Customs. The border officials were so struck by her beauty that they tried to out-bid each other for who would get her. Pharaoh hears about her beauty and has Sarai brought to his palace to add to his collection. After all, single chick and all, she’s fair game, right? Oh, and Pharaoh gave favor to the Hot Babe’s brother Abe and gifted him with more livestock, but the fact remained that Abram’s wife is now stuck in the Pharaoh’s harem. I guess he didn’t really think that part of the plan through.
Shortly afterwards, Pharoah’s household is struck by serious diseases. Obviously this must be Divine Punishment for something, but what? Pharaoh puts things together pretty quickly.
So Pharaoh summoned Abram. “What have you done to me?” he said. “Why didn’t you tell me she was your wife? Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her to by my wife? Now then, here is your wife. Take her and go!” (Genesis 12:18-19)
Abram gets booted out of Egypt. He does get to keep all the sheep, cattle, servants and camels that the Pharaoh had given him earlier, but still it departure is not a dignified one and I can’t imagine Sarai was very happy about the whole situation.
Some years pass. Abram has other adventures. He receives a covenant with God and changes his name to Abraham, “father of nations;” and his wife takes the name of Sarah. He lives for a while in the Negev, an arid region south of Canaan and at one point moves to the city of Gerar, just a few miles southeast of the city of Gaza. And when they get to Gerar, Abraham starts worrying again about Sarah fatal beauty.
Once again he tells people that she’s his sister; and once again the local king, a guy named Abimelech, decides to take her for his own.
In this case, God comes to Abimelech in a dream and spells out the situation: “You are as good as dead because of the woman you have taken; she is a married woman.” (Genesis 20:3)
Abimelech freaks. He protests innocence; that he had no idea the chick was already taken. “Did he not say to me, ‘She is my sister,’ and didn’t she also say, ‘His is my brother’? I have done this with a clear conscience and clean hands.” (v.5) Well, today we would observe that he could have asked if Sarah actually wanted to become one of his wives, but she didn’t really have that option at the time. Abraham could have refused to give her to Abimelech if he had more of a spine, but if that were the case he wouldn’t have lied about his wife in the first place.
God is unusually understanding about the whole situation. In the dream, God tells Abimelech that he knows the king did not intend this transgression and that for that reason God saw to it that Abimelech has not yet had the opportunity to bed her. But now God is telling him to give Sarah back. “…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 yours will die.” (v. 7)
Abimelech is pretty angry about the deal. He summons Abraham and asks him what the hell he was thinking of. “How have I wronged you that you have brought such a great guilt upon me and my kingdom?” (v.9)
Abraham replies with what has to be one of the lamest excuses in all of Scripture:
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.’ Besides, she really is my sister, the daughter of my father though not of my mother; and she became my wife. 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,”’”. (Genesis 20:11-13)
Oh, so technically, she really is his half-sister; so technically, he was telling the truth. It all depends on how you define the word “Is”. And the reason Abraham employed this misleading half-truth is because he was sure that Abimelech was immoral. Abraham, you jerk.
Abimelech turns out to have more class than expected. He gifts Abraham with cattle and slaves and grants permission for him to stay wherever he likes on his lands. This is pretty magnanimous of him, but perhaps Abimelech figured that since Abraham was obviously favored by the Divinities, that he ought to be nice to the guy.
Then Abimelech does something really remarkable. He apologizes, not to Abraham, (who doesn’t deserve it), but to Sarah.
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.” (v. 16)
It is unfortunately rare in Scriptures that we see a woman publicly acknowledged to have been wronged and publicly vindicated. And the guy who did it was not prophet or a follower of the God of Abraham, but a heathen king, a guy who, Abraham thought, had no respect for the laws of God. As I said, Abimelech in this story is a much classier guy than Abraham.
As a weird coda, the text mentions that Abraham does pray to God, and the Lord heals Abimelech and his household. Apparently, the Lord had stricken Abimelech, his wife and his slave girls all with infertility because of the Sarah business, but now he fixed that all up. Since Sarah hadn’t been in his household all that long, I’m not sure how Abimelech would have known this was a problem, but in any case, God put it all to rights.
You’d think that would be the end of it. But no.
Many years later, Abraham and Sarah have died, and their son Isaac runs the family business. Once again, famine strikes the land, and as before, Isaac relocates to Gerar. The king at this time is also named Abimelech; possibly the grandson of the previous one. The text describes him as “king of the Philistines”, who ruled the coastal regions of Palestine for much of this period. Presumably Abimelech père was a Philistine too; the earlier story doesn’t say.
Like father, like son. When the men on Gerar notice his wife Rebekah and ask who the cute girl is, he panics and says she is his sister. In Isaac’s behalf, let me say that this does not seem to have been a premeditated fib, as in Abraham’s case, but something Isaac said on the spur of the moment. And fortunately, the king does not right away say, “Hot puppies!” And immediately drag her off to his harem as some other randy kings might.
But some time later, Abimelech happens to look outside his palace window and spot Isaac and Rebekah canoodling, and he figures out the truth. (My NIV translation notes that the word in Hebrew, which the NIV renders as “caressing” and the KJV as “sporting” is a form of the verb “to laugh” or “to mock”, from which Isaac’s own name was derived; so the text is essentially making a pun).
As before, Abimelech rebukes Isaac for misleading him. “One of the men might well have slept with your wife, and you would have brought guilt upon us.” (Genesis 26:10)
What are we to make of these three narratives? I’ve always had the suspicion that the writer who compiled the Book of Genesis found himself with three different versions from different sources of the same story, and didn’t know which ones to throw out, so he included them all. The fact that two of the stories include guys named Abimelech and are set in the town of Gerar, suggests that they are the same story. And after all, you would think that after the first incident in Egypt that Abraham would have known better than to pull the same bonehead stunt a second time.
Or would he? Remember, in the lame-o excuse he gave to Abimelech, Abraham claimed that “… 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,”’”. (Genesis 20:13) This suggests that Abraham was passing his wife off as his sister all the time and that in these two instances it came back to bite him. And if Isaac grew up in a family where Dad was always telling strangers that Mom was his sister, maybe it’s not that surprising that he would do the same.
Nevertheless, whether it’s three stories or just one told three times, the Man of God winds up looking pretty cowardly and the Foreign King with the Harem by comparison looking virtuous and moral.