The Genesis narrator goes to extreme lengths to make sure we understand that YHWH rules all nations. He’s told us the blessing of YHWH’s reign will be restored through Abraham. Since then, he’s told us about Pharaoh, the kings of Shinar, Canaanite kings like Melchizedek, God’s care for Hagar the Egyptian, God bringing justice to Sodom, and God confronting Abimelech the Philistine king. How could anyone miss the emphasis on God’s continuing rule over the nations?
Now Isaac has been born, and we all want to hear the story of the next generation of Abraham’s family. But the narrator is not yet convinced we understand how important the other nations are to God’s rule on the earth. He insists on dragging us back to talk about King Abimelech again.
The problem is whether the nations will see YHWH’s reign through Abraham and Sarah (and their descendants). Do you remember how they shamed their sovereign by lying to Abimelech? He hasn’t forgotten, and he turns up with his forces to make the point that he doesn’t trust them:
Genesis 21:22–23 (ESV)
22 At that time Abimelech and Phicol the commander of his army said to Abraham, “God is with you in all that you do. 23 Now therefore swear to me here by God that you will not deal falsely with me …”
Abimelech wants a legally binding treaty (covenant). And he’s not joking: he’s threatening Abraham by bringing the commander of his forces. Somehow, the power of earthly rulers always seems to come down to military force.
Yet this Philistine king sees another power backing Abraham. It’s not armed forces, but it is forceful: “God is with you in all that you do.” Not since Melchizedek have we heard a foreign king acknowledging God’s authority.
Even when Abraham was way out of line (Genesis 20), YHWH backed him, acting with wisdom to rectify the injustice without disowning Abraham. Abimelech saw that, and understood that the one who rules heaven and earth is working out his plans through Abraham. He can see the power behind Abraham, namely the heavenly ruler. That’s a kingdom story right there! There is hope that God’s kingly authority can be recognized throughout the earth, even though his people are flawed representatives.
In the spirit of reconciliation, Abraham and Abimelech resolve their differences and agree to live in peace (21:25-31). In the same way, Abraham’s descendants must learn to live at peace with their neighbours, even though they represent a very different power.
Having made peace, the two men resume their lives—lives as different as the kingdoms they represent:
Genesis 21:32–33 (ESV)
32 … Then Abimelech and Phicol the commander of his army rose up and returned to the land of the Philistines. 33 Abraham planted a tamarisk tree in Beersheba and called there on the name of the Lord, the Everlasting God.
Abimelech returns to the land he rules, backed by the forces he relies on for justice. Abraham, on the other hand, plants a living memorial to his sovereign. He calls on the authority of YHWH, the one to whom he looks for justice. Abimelech sees himself as a ruler, even though he’s only mortal and is backed by the threat of death (his earthly forces). Abraham acknowledges YHWH as the immortal ruler. The everlasting sovereign never dies, and he knows how to restore justice, even in the face of death. Under YHWH’s rule, Abraham even lives in the land claimed by the Philistines (21:34)!
There’s just no comparison between these two modes of government! While earthly rulers claim power and issue threats with force, the everlasting ruler is our hope.
What others are saying
John Calvin, Commentary on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis, vol. 1 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 557
And because he [Abraham] now lived more securely under the protection of the king, he perhaps wished to bear open testimony, that he received even this as from God. For the same reason, the title of “the everlasting God” seems to be given, as if Abraham would say, that he had not placed his confidence in an earthly king, and was not engaging in any new covenant, by which he would be departing from the everlasting God.
John Goldingay, Genesis for Everyone, Part 2: Chapters 17–50, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 42 (emphasis original):
Abimelech continues to be a foreigner of some insight. … He can see it in the way things work out for Abraham. It implies God has fulfilled the promise to be Abraham’s God. Abimelech is wise enough to want to be associated with that rather than trying to work against it. So another aspect of God’s promise is being fulfilled. Abimelech wants to have a positive relationship with the people where God is at work.
In negotiating that relationship, Abimelech uses two key Old Testament words, commitment and covenant. He uses them not in a theological or religious context but in a political one, which reflects how the Old Testament assumes that the political and the religious interweave.
Read Genesis 21:22-34.