God stands with his flawed people (Genesis 20)

When the people on your team cause a problem for others, whose side do you take? Which matters more: loyalty or justice? There may be a hint in the way God handles us.

We’re reading Genesis as the story of the kingdom of God. As people rebelled against God’s kingship they grasped power for themselves, turning violent. The heavenly sovereign permitted earthly government to avoid anarchy, resulting in nations. To bring the nations back under his authority, God established his own nation through Abraham. But he still takes responsibility for the nations: we just saw him act against the injustice of Sodom, and now we see it again as he acts against a Philistine king.

King Abimelech takes Abraham’s wife. The higher king who takes responsibility over all the kings of he earth confronts Abimelech as he dreams, “You’re a dead man, taking someone else’s wife” (20:3). YHWH has promised to bless those who bless his servant Abraham and to oppose those who oppose him. He is sovereign over all nations.

Abimelech’s defence before the divine court is that he acted in ignorance. Abraham deceived him, presenting Sarah as his sister. It’s true (20:2). Abraham and Sarah used this tactic previously when they feared for their lives (Genesis 12:12). It gained them significant wealth (Genesis 12:16, 20). Abraham’s excuse is that he was afraid again (20:11), but they actually planned to repeat the scam , presumably to gain reparation payments (20:13-16).

Whatever Abraham’s motives, he has put YHWH in a compromised position. In this matter, the earthly king is in the right, while YHWH’s representative is in the wrong. Should God rule in favour of the earthly king, or should he defend his servant Abraham who initiated this deception? This problem keeps cropping up throughout the whole OT narrative as Israel mispresents God, so YHWH’s response to the dilemma is formative.

The heavenly judge acknowledges Abimelech’s point. The Philistine king acted with “integrity of heart” (20:6). He has not knowingly done wrong, but he has done wrong in taking Sarah. The heavenly sovereign therefore offers to lift the death penalty if Abimelech does two things:

  • return Sarah untouched, now he knows she is Abraham’s wife;
  • have Abraham present a plea for clemency.

The first point is an obvious justice issue: the accused must correct the wrong. The second is an astounding resolution for the divine dilemma. The sovereign defends Abraham as his spokesman (a prophet), so he agrees to overturn the death penalty if Abraham presents the request for Abimelech’s life:

Genesis 20:7 (ESV)
Now then, return the man’s wife, for he is a prophet, so that he will pray for you, and you shall live. But if you do not return her, know that you shall surely die, you and all who are yours.

What an astounding judgement! The sovereign has acknowledged that Abimelech had more integrity than Abraham in this matter, while at the same time he stood with his flawed representative. He has proclaimed Abraham to be his spokesman, and put the Philistine king in the position where his future depends on Abraham.

Imagine how encouraging this story must have been for Israel. Throughout their generations, Israel was God’s flawed representative among the nations. Yet YHWH would stand with them. Despite their failures, the future of the nations depended on them. They were the spokesman of the divine ruler, and he called on them to be the house of prayer for all nations.

That’s the point. Genesis 20:7 introduces two new words into the Biblical narrative:

  • prophet (nā·ḇî(ʾ)): one who declares what the heavenly sovereign says.
  • pray (pā·lǎl): to act as an advocate or present a request to the heavenly sovereign.

That’s our purpose. The heavenly sovereign has drawn us into the Abrahamic story, so we are commissioned as mediators between him and the people of earth:

  • speaking for the king to people (prophecy);
  • speaking to the king for people (prayer).

Flawed mediators, yes, but what a calling!

Genesis 20:17 (ESV)
Then Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Abimelech …

What others are saying

John H. Walton, Genesis, NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 495:

Verse 7 contains the first occurrence of the term “prophet” in the Old Testament. God identifies Abraham as one who is capable of intercession on Abimelech’s behalf. The role of prophet was well understood in the ancient Near East—as evidenced by over fifty texts found in the town of Mari (eighteenth  century B.C.) that report various messages given by various prophets. Generally the prophet offered a message from deity, but here Abraham is praying for healing (cf. v. 17). This reflects the broader view of a prophet as one who has powerful connections to deity, such that he can initiate or remove curses.

K. A. Mathews, Genesis 11:27–50:26, New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2005), 254:

Abimelech’s salvation ironically lies with the husband whom he offended; the “nation” (gôy) cannot survive apart from the benevolence of this chosen mediator of God. …

The passage assumes that as a chosen prophet Abraham enjoyed special protection that the king had unwittingly transgressed. … This is the psalmist’s interpretation, which remembered this incident when he praised God for his protective mercies on the Fathers (105:12–15 // 1 Chr 16:22).

John Goldingay, Genesis for Everyone, Part 2: Chapters 17–50, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 36:

We are then rather astonished to find God encouraging the relatively godly Abimelech to get the relatively ungodly Abraham to pray for him, and doing so on the basis of Abraham’s being a prophet. … A prophet is someone admitted to God’s cabinet and free to speak there, and it is this freedom that God invites Abimelech to get Abraham to use. Abraham’s membership of the cabinet was not based on his being a godly person; it is just based on God’s choice of him for that position.

Read Genesis 20.



Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia

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