When the Faithful Are Faithless (Genesis 20:1-18)
In Genesis 12, God promised Abraham that he would give him offspring and make him into a great nation. Since then, many obstacles have threatened to stand in the way of that promise. Some were circumstantial, such as Sarah’s barrenness (11:30) and eventually her age (18:11). Others were moral, like the incidents in Egypt (12:10-20) and the one with Hagar (16:1-16). On the eve of Isaac’s birth, another moral failure from Abraham threatens the fulfillment of God’s promise.
God is faithful to his promises, even when we are faithless.
Reading Genesis 20 may stir up déjà vu. That’s because it bears several similarities to Genesis 12:10-20. Once again, we find Abraham traveling to a new area and trying to pass Sarah off as his sister instead of his wife to save his own life.
But there are differences as well, most significantly the timing. In Genesis 12, Sarah was barren and the fulfillment of God’s promise of children was a long way off. We as the readers had just read about God’s promise to Abraham to bless him and make him into a great nation. In Genesis 20, Sarah’s been promised a son within the year, an event that happens in the very next chapter. So near the finish line of waiting on God’s promise of a child, Abraham again puts the promise in jeopardy.
It would be easy to judge Abraham for trying this again, but we need to remember that “irrational fears do not just go away”. Under pressure, we all have familiar sins that are comfortable to retreat to. For Abraham, this meant that when he found God’s promises too hard to believe, he tried to take matters into his own hands.
In Genesis 12, we weren’t told how Pharaoh discovered that Sarah was Abraham’s wife. But here we see how Abimelech finds out. After taking Sarah into his house (vv. 1-2), God appears to him in a dream (vv. 3-7), threatening to kill him and “all who are yours” if Sarah’s not returned to Abraham. Like Abraham did back in Genesis 18:16-33, Abimelech – a pagan king – asks God to judge with justice and not destroy the innocent. God acknowledges Abimelech’s innocence and then lets him know that he himself restrained Abimelech from sleeping with her: “it was I who kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I did not let you touch her.”
The “I did not let you touch her” comment is important. If Sarah had stayed even one night with Abimelech, there would always be the question of whether Abraham was Isaac’s father. So close to Isaac’s birth (Genesis 21:1-2), God’s comment assures us that he is, as promised, the son of Sarah and Abraham.
Abimelech takes immediate action, informing his servants of what God had told him and bringing Abraham before him. It’s clear that Abraham was only thinking about himself, not about the ways he had sinned against Sarah or put Abimelech and his whole kingdom in danger (v. 9). And when confronted, he makes excuses. He blames his actions on his circumstances (v. 11); he uses half-truths (v. 12); and like Adam before him, he even blames God for what’s happened (v. 13; see 3:12).
Nevertheless, Abimelech is kind to Abraham, lavishing numerous possessions on him and Sarah. And as instructed by God in the dream (v. 7), Abraham prays for Abimelech and his kingdom of Gerar (vv. 17-18). Despite another moral failure from Abraham, God intervenes to protect the promise made to him and Sarah, and he uses Abraham to be a blessing to others.
It’s also interesting to see what Abraham prays for. While we don’t know how much time has passed between the beginning and end of this chapter, it’s been at least long enough for Gerar to notice that its women could no longer become pregnant (v. 18). And so, the chapter ends on a note of irony: Abraham praying for God to remove the barrenness of Gerar’s women, which invites us as readers to ask, “When will God do this for Sarah?”
- Under pressure, Abraham reverted to taking matters into his own hands. What sins from your past are you prone to return to? When are you prone to return to them?
- Abraham acted the way he did despite God’s promise that Isaac would come within a year (Genesis 18:10). What promises of God are you tempted to forget? How might the sins you struggle with be a symptom of unbelief?
- Do you ever feel like your sin disqualifies you from serving God and being a blessing to others? How can this chapter encourage you in those moments?
2 Timothy 2:13 – “if we are faithless, he remains faithful – for he cannot deny himself.”
 Joyce Baldwin, The Message of Genesis 12-50, p. 82