Genesis 20: Abraham and Sarah in Gerar

By Mary Jane Chaignot

After the destruction of Sodom, Abraham decides to move farther south into the town of Gerar, located about halfway between Gaza and Beersheba. While there, Abraham once again says, “Sarah is my sister.” So King Abimelech sends for her and takes her into his palace. But God comes to Abimelech in a dream and says, “You are about to die because of the woman whom you have taken; for she is a married woman.” However, because nothing has happened between him and Sarah, the King pleads with the Lord, “…will you destroy an innocent people?...I did this in the integrity of my heart and the innocence of my hands.” He repeats that both Abraham and Sarah have said they were brother and sister.

God listens to Abimelech’s plea and adds, “It was I who kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I did not let you touch her.” God then tells Abimelech to return her to Abraham. God also tells him that Abraham will pray for him. If he doesn’t comply, then Abimelech and his entire household will surely die.

So Abimelech gets up early the next morning and tells his servants everything that has happened. They are all very afraid. Then Abimelech sends for Abraham and confronts him with the lie he has told. He says, “What have you done to us? How have I sinned against you that you have brought such guilt upon me?” He continues berating Abraham by saying, “You have done things to me that ought not to have been done…What were you thinking…?”

Abraham’s only defense is to say that he has been afraid. He has thought, “There is no fear of God at all in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife.” Then, he adds truthfully that she really is his half-sister. They have the same father but different mothers, so he had married her.

Then Abimelech takes sheep, oxen, and male and female slaves and gives them to Abraham, and also to Sarah. He speaks directly to Sarah, saying that he has given Abraham 1000 pieces of silver for her exoneration and vindication. Then Abraham prays, and God heals Abimelech and his household. They are again able to bear children.

Does this story sound familiar? It should because it is very similar to Genesis 12 when Abraham and Sarah go down to Egypt and the Pharaoh takes her into his palace because Abraham says, “She is my sister.” Actually, there is yet another version of this ruse in Gen. 26 involving Isaac, Rebecca, and King Abimelech. How is it that essentially the same story appears three times within the space of fourteen chapters?

Needless to say, it is a question that has puzzled and enticed scholars them for centuries. For a long time, they have studied the similarities in the stories, of which there are many, and have suggested that these are really three versions of the same story. Using the Documentary Theory, the first and third stories result from the work of J, while the second story is derived from E. That explanation satisfactorily allows for both similarities and differences in the stories.

However, the Documentary or Source Theory has lost much of its status over the years. Rather than trying to separate and pull out the various sources that go into a text, scholars have been looking at the final product as a whole and trying to determine how these various elements all fit together. The reality is that someone has given this book its final form and has chosen to repeat these stories. A close reading of them should yield the specific issues the author wishes to highlight. Let’s see how this works with the first two involving Abraham and Sarah.

In both instances, the patriarch introduces his wife as his sister. As a result, each ruler sends for her and brings her into his palace to be part of his harem. In both instances, God intervenes, and Sarah is returned to her husband, along with great riches.

But there are differences, too. The first thing we notice is that the second incident is considerably longer than the first. One takes place in Egypt, the other in Gerar. The Pharaoh expels Abraham out of Egypt; Abimelech allows him to remain and settle wherever he wishes. The Pharaoh rewards Abraham before he finds out the ruse; Abimelech presents him with gifts afterwards in an attempt to offset his offense. Pharaoh is attracted to Sarah’s beauty; nothing is said about this in Gerar. Both accuse Abraham of deceiving them. With Pharaoh, he is silent; with Abimelech, he answers at length.

So what do we make of all this? Scholars have generally focused on Abraham. They have proposed that the second incident presupposes knowledge of the first. His silence with Pharaoh is an admission of wrongdoing. His defense with Abimelech is based on a technical truth and thinking that “the fear of God is not in this place.” Pharaoh throws him out of Egypt; with Abimelech there is a gesture of apology and forgiveness. Furthermore, Abimelech’s offer to Abraham for him to settle wherever he desires furthers a sense of peace and accord between them.

There are, however, additional factors to consider. First of all, both these incidents stand within the larger story of Sarah and Abraham. The first one comes very early in the sequence. Abraham has only recently left his homeland when he is confronted with a severe famine. Something has to be done to safeguard the promise of descendants. Since nothing has been said about Sarah being part of the promises, Sarah is expendable.

The second story, however, comes later, after Abraham and Sarah have been told that she will bear a son within a year. To have Sarah taken into Abimelech’s harem at this time presents a real threat to the promise and heightens the tension in the story. Hence, the author takes great pains to assure readers that Abimelech never touches her. There can be no doubt regarding the paternity of Sarah’s son.

The stories, then, become an integral part of the larger picture, which is the working out of God’s relationship with Abraham. Abraham is saved from the folly of his own efforts through God’s unmitigated mercy and grace. It is God who safeguards the promise by making it impossible for the king to have any contact with Sarah. And it is important to point out that this merciful act of God isn’t just extended to Abraham, but also includes the household of Abimelech, the household of a righteous and just king.

However, if the focus is on Sarah, another possibility arises. These insights come from scholars who are interested in this as a whole story. They look at how plots develop, how pieces fit together. They are quick to point out that in the first story with Pharaoh, much is made of the fact that the Pharaoh is smitten by Sarah’s beauty. Yet, the account with Abimelech is completely silent on this issue. Now to be sure, Sarah is ninety years old; yet this king wants her. Why? Some scholars argue on the basis of economics. Because Abraham is a resident alien in this land, he takes steps to establish friendly relationships with the local king and to ensure his security. One way to do this would have been to initiate a diplomatic marriage between the parties. And maybe that does answer some questions.

But, that again puts the focus on Abraham. Going back to Sarah, let’s recall that when God tells Abraham that Sarah will bear a son, Abraham falls on his face laughing. His son is to be called, Isaac, a name that means, “he laughed.” Likewise, when Sarah is told that she will give birth to a son, she laughs. We, as listeners, wondered about that, wondered how people of faith could respond with laughter to the fulfillment of a promise that God has made so long ago. Had we known that it clearly was laughter of joy, well, that would have been understandable. But laughter of disbelief—that is harder to grasp. We doubted their sincerity and pondered the question, “Can anything be too hard for the Lord?” It felt good to separate from their disbelief.

But here we have the tale of a woman of ninety years who is taken into the harem of a foreign king. The reason is not given, but anyone reading this as a story would remember that Pharaoh takes her the first time because she is so beautiful. How many of us laugh when we think about it happening again, now that she is ninety years old? Is there anything more worthy of laughter than the thought of a king taking this worn out woman into his harem, one that’s noted for beautiful women?

If any of us did, then in that one brief moment, the author has deftly tricked us into responding just as Abraham and Sarah do. We, too, “laughed.” And suddenly, we also see. His name is Isaac, meaning, “he laughed,” as a forever reminder of our being caught laughing at the word of God. Suddenly, that question, “Can anything be too difficult for the Lord?” takes on a new meaning.

Now as a case in point, there are many legitimate authors who argue that since Sarah’s concern about giving birth has to do with the fact that she is well past that time and “worn out,” the blessing for her includes rejuvenation, a complete physical transformation. She is, in fact, restored to her youthful appearance and fully able to give birth and to nurse her child. She could have been, in truth, very beautiful at the age of ninety. If this is the case, then this is a remarkable healing of aging and of all the related issues that are so often associated with it. Before we rush in to discount this, let us not underestimate just how truly extravagant God’s promises can be! For, in reality, there is nothing too hard for God. And the last laugh has been on us.