Genesis 20:1&2 “Now Abraham moved on from there into the region of the Negev and lived between Kadesh and Shur. For a while he stayed in Gerar, and there Abraham said of his wife Sarah, ‘She is my sister.’ Then Abimelech king of Gerar sent for Sarah and took her.”

Dr. Iain Duguid entitles his chapter on this incident, “Two Steps Forward; One Step Back.” So often that is our Christian life. Grace is effectual in all who believe and so we do make progress, two steps forward, thank God that it is that, but then there is what I can kindly call a ‘hiccup,’ but sometimes is far more serious than a hiccup, and we slam back and are spiritually stationary for a while licking our wounds because of some utter folly on our part. Thank God that we are not where we were forty years ago, but because of remaining sin, and the fear of the world system, and the fiery darts of the evil one there’s many a step back on this journey to glory, but you have to pick yourself up and go on again. You must go on even if it’s just the next two steps. Advance! Establish your next base, and then advance again!

Some reasons why this chapter is in Scripture are for warning and for encouragement. It warns us that we can fall again into the old sins like Abraham did. It encourages us because he was a mighty Christian, and he fell, but he was restored and became useful and obedient to God, so that we shouldn’t think that we’re not Christians at all if we fall again into some disgusting sins that we fell into when we were very immature. We’ve read this chapter and we’ve shaken our heads and said, “Hello! Is this the same Abraham who interceded with God for Sodom? What’s happened to that man? Haven’t we been here before? Didn’t Abraham do this to poor Sarah when they went down to Egypt at a time of famine? As Yogi Berra famously said, “It’s deja vu all over again.” I read this chapter and I say, “Abraham, my father and the father of all who believe, is just like me, ‘Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love.’” Here we see Abraham’s faith falter, but God’s faithfulness doesn’t. The channel of the covenant, Sarah, is preserved by God’s grace. Let’s look at Abraham’s temptation and fall and restoration, and the lessons we can learn from it.


Abraham is restless. The baby he has looked forward to for decades is going to be born within a year, and the days are trickling by so slowly. Abraham gives the orders to move camp and get the herds going, and then, just when they’ve settled in a new area, gives another order to move again to the south, always further and further south, until they arrive in Gerar. This is a little kingdom reigned over by a man named Abimelech, on the very fringes of the Promised Land, just inside the borders, and that always became such a place of danger to the patriarchs. This place was almost in the world, only just inside the borders of God’s kingdom. It seems to me that men, in particular, pass through restless times, and they are dangerous periods, wanting to move on, abandoning their congregation to find another, leaving the extended family to go to a more anonymous place – what perilous times they are, transition times, when men run away. Here is a young man totally frustrated with life on the farm, the predictable father, the unaffectionate elder brother, hearing tales in the get-togethers of the Young Farmers’ Clubs of life in the distant city, thinking of getting his inheritance now and going off to start with a clean sheet, dealing with new relationships, without the chains of a routine and a family holding him accountable for his life. In the next days we will witness the arrival of students some of whom have dutifully gone to church with their families for 18 years but as soon as they arrive here they plan that it will be one Sunday at the church (so that they can tell their parents they went there) and that is it. There will be a peremptory visit to church and after that God is going to be kept out of their lives. No more divine interference, they think. Now they are somewhere new, and they are going to act just like the rest of the students who live in darkness without Jesus Christ.

Abraham went as near to the edge as he could, his communion with God was very thin, but he found in Gerar that he had to deal with new problems, just like the prodigal son in the distant city – because there’s no escaping problems in this life. You take yourself with you and generally you are the problem. Here Abraham again was the real problem, his lack of faith and trust in God. This dwarfed the problem of a powerful man fancying his wife. You could deal with that far easier if you are talking to God about things day by day. That is the sort of problem for which you are glad you have access to your pastor, and the circle of friends in your church. You can bring that problem to the Prayer Meeting, needing the support of your family, saying to them all, “Please pray for us at this time. We’re being harassed.” But you are in deeper trouble if you have cut yourself off from fellowship with God and the people of God and your family. Abraham was on his own, ignoring God, and dealing with this huge problem in some totally sub-Jehovahist way. He reverted to his earlier life, to the unsanctified attitudes he’d brought into the kingdom of God from Ur of the Chaldees, to white lies, and soft plausible deceptions, to the ways which people have cultivated who’ve never trusted in God.

I say, life on the border, between the world and the kingdom of God, is a dangerous place to be living. You think of it, Abraham was unknown. They knew nothing at all about him down south, and they nothing about the beautiful woman who was his companion. There was certainly much that Abraham had that that covetous violent world would want for itself, and it would take if it could. Abraham was in uncharted territory, moving on for a while into the Negev, actually choosing to live between Kadesh and Shur – which was just over the border in Paganville. Then he would return to Gerar and actually he sojourned, that is, lived temporarily in Gerar where Abimelech reigned, traveling within its borders. Abraham is in a place of danger, between a rock and a hard place. He can either live in the Promised Land but in a kind of Principality under the ruthless domination of King Abimelech, or to get away from him he leaves the kingdom of God to dwell in the Negev.

People make problems for themselves – mature Christian people past retirement age – moving to areas far from a gospel pulpit and even from a hospital, and then they call you up and they say to you, “We are in a mess; we have only two alternatives and they are both awful. We don’t know what to do.” They have made the problem for themselves. “Abraham, within a year, you are going to be a father. The Seed of the Woman is going to be born, and now you’ve gone off – at this time in your life – to the deep south to live on the fringes of the Promised Land, moving into the territory of a bandit king called Abimelech, and the only way you can get away from his greed and threats is to leave the land of promise entirely. Abraham, what do you think you’re doing?” I am pointing out to you that all that follows came from one big mistake he made of moving far from familiar places where altars of sacrifice had been erected to the living God. But, of course our mistakes can be over-ruled by grace. The guy who thinks he is coming for the last time to church before sowing his wild oats at University gets convicted and saved in what he planned to be his last visit to church, and his whole life is changed for good.


In Gerar the king Abimelech fancied Sarah and took her into his royal harem. How did that happen? Abraham had told the people of Gerar about Sarah that, “‘She is my sister.’ Then Abimelech king of Gerar sent for Sarah and took her” (v.2). It was an old trick, telling lies about Sarah, calling her his sister. It was rooted in the fear of man, doubting whether God would protect him from those who didn’t fear God. It was a terrible thing to do, putting Sarah in such jeopardy in such a time – the year before the promised child was to be born to her. She is right on the cuff of the fulfillment of the promise. Of course he would have remembered how God had protected her in the past when another king had abducted her – she was a radiantly beautiful woman throughout her life – and so maybe Abraham presumed on God protecting her again. But bare presumption is a sin let alone presumption that’s founded on deceit and self-protection. He fears that his own life is in danger and so he’s actually conceding this, “I am prepared for tyrants to take my wife, but they mustn’t hurt me.” More than that, this was not just one spur of the moment decision made under pressure. We read in verse thirteen that Abraham said to Sarah, “Everywhere we go, say of me, ‘He is my brother.’”

More than that, we find the emotional blackmail of Abraham quite repulsive. See what he also says in that verse; “This is how you can show your love to me . . .” (v.13). In other words, “if you really love me you will tell everyone you are not my wife but my sister.” Who can resist that? We have an enormous impact on one another, especially on those who love us, both for good and evil. We can make it easier for them to live for Jesus or much tougher. We can encourage them to be skeptical and doubting, or we make them love the Lord more deeply. What are you doing in all this mysterious influence we have over one another? You have younger brothers and sisters; is your life encouraging them to trust in the Lord or be indifferent towards him? Are you a millstone around the neck of the people of your congregation or are you a foundation stone?

What about your witness to those around you who never go to church? There is the second greatest of all the commandments, that you are to love your neighbour as yourself. How easily it falls off our lips and enters our ears . . . love your neighbour . . . love your neighbour . . . with the love that hopes all things, believes all things, endures all things; love never fails. Was Abraham loving Abimelech in telling him this terrible lie? Abraham’s calling was like ours, to be a blessing to the people all around him, but here he failed. Here he acted in a self-blessing way. He rubbished the people of the south, saying to himself, “There is surely no fear of God in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife” (v. 11). Abraham’s mistake was not in saying these words to himself. Addressing himself is what he should have done. His words were the problem. God had promised him a child through Sarah. Even though people in Canaan may have been godless, God could still protect him. But if not . . . if he were going to die then what was more important than obedience? Let him preach such things to himself , reminding himself that he and Sarah were absolutely safe through the covenant promises of God..

But beyond displaying all that weakness of trust, Abraham is putting the Seed himself in jeopardy, and this whole story is about the Seed. The Seed will crush the serpent’s head. The Seed will inherit the Promised Land. The Seed is the one in whom all the nations of the earth are going to be blessed. The Seed, at first, will be Isaac, and climactically will be the Lord, Jesus the Messiah, the Son of the living God. The hope of the whole world is resting on the birth of this Seed to Abraham and Sarah in the next twelve months!

Now where is the mother of the Seed? She is in the hall of the mountain king, and she is there because her husband is a Christian wimp. Now we all pause and say to one another, “Sarah was 90 years of age . . . and she was fancied at that age, and taken to be the wife of Abimelech?” What do you say about that? Well, you say that there are very attractive women who are old. You also remember that during the years of the patriarchs men and women lived much longer than they do today because the effects of the fall had not worked through mankind as they were to shorten man’s lifespan throughout the next centuries. You also say that God’s hand was upon Sarah and she was about to become pregnant and bear a child. So there was a youthful glow about her because of what God planned to do in her in the years to come. Think of a woman who lived for a further 37 years after Isaac’s birth. That was Sarah, and that is why it is not incredible that Abimelech was fascinated with this remarkable woman. I guess he never guessed that she was 90, but assumed she was half that age.

So he took her and put her in his harem alongside his other wives. What a place to be! What might happen to her there? There were certainly no Old Testament believers there. What if she contracted a disease there? What if she got pregnant there? God promised that that child would come from Abraham’s body. How is that going to happen if she is in Abimelech’s harem? Will Abraham knock on Abimelech’s door and ask if he can visit his ‘sister’? Will God grant conception in such circumstances? If he should have then Abimelech would have said of Sarah’s son, “Another boy of mine!” So doubt would have been cast on this child from its birth.

We are shocked at the callousness, shallowness and unbelief of Abraham – the father of all who believe! He has had all these experiences of God’s nearness. He has seen Jehovah taking flesh, and Jehovah’s fearful judgments falling on a city. He knows what wonder-working acts of God are yet to happen to him and Sarah, and still he acted like this. It is not a little sin is it? It is not a little grumble in his heart, or an evil thought about Sarah or Abimelech. It is the sort of act that would make us say to one another, “Is he a believer? How can a man of his age and experience pssibly behave like that?” We who stand should take heed lest we fall. We who have known great blessings are not to think that we’ll never act like that. If we think like that then we are making the mistake that Peter made, similarly blessed by the Lord, who was offended when Jesus told him to watch and pray that he might not enter into temptation because soon before the morning he would deny him three times.

What is our problem? Not in rejecting what God says in the Old Testament or the New Testament. Abraham continued to believe in God, that he was powerful and holy. Abraham hadn’t become an atheist; he continued to believe that both he and his Seed was going to be blessed by the Lord. So what was happening? I think that Dr Iain Duguid is right when he says, “It is with the practical application of the promises of God to the details and difficulties of our daily walk. ‘Yes, God has promised X, Y, and Z. I’ve memorized the verses to prove it. Yes, I believe it and proclaim it fervently on Sundays.’ But what about Monday morning, when, in the cold light of day, the situation looks distinctly unpromising? What about those times when obedience just seems too hard and faithfulness to God seems likely to cost too much? Then our memorized texts seem to disappear from our brains in a flash” (Iain M. Duguid, Living in the Gap Between Promise and Reality; the Gospel According to Abraham, P&R, 1999, p.111). Abraham saw Abimelech’s squad of soldiers, each of them prepared to die for his master, and Abraham became a scary cat. So through Abraham’s
deception Sarah ended up abducted and put in Abimelech’s harem. How much simpler to say, “Hands off! She’s my wife.”


Why my triple repetition here? Because it is the Lord God Almighty, the Creator of the heavens and the earth, he who never grows weary but watches over his children so that none can pluck them out of his hand – it is he who intervened! It was not Abraham with a band of mercenaries coming to rescue her. See verse three, “But God . . .” It all seemed desperate, the folly of Abraham had compromised Sarah and all was lost . . . “but God” acted, and Sarah was as safe as if she were surrounded by a legion of angels. “But God came to Abimelech in a dream one night and said to him, ‘You are as good as dead because of the woman you have taken; she is a married woman.’” (v.3). What man is there on the run from God who is not periodically awakened from his sleep at 2 o’clock in the morning and summoned to a divine tribunal, God saying to him, “What are you doing living like this, defying me, turning your back on all you know to be true?”? May he do so more and more, to Aberystwyth sinners, to those in our own families and friends. May the backslider hear the voice of mercy from heaven.

Here we see God coming to Abimelech as the counsel for the prosecution. The king has taken another man’s wife, and that is so serious an offence that God pronounces the death penalty. How ironic all this is. If Abraham had not been distrusting God this sentence would not have been passed, and if God had not been faithful to Abraham this would not have occurred. This sort of thing was happening then, at that time, and it happens now. Men of power and influence fancy some women and then through one way or another they’ll have them, and a husband and children are in tears. But that did not happen here – though not because of Abraham. God did not say, “Right, if that is how it is, if Abraham has been faithless to me I’ll wipe my hands of him and cut him out of my covenant. I’ll rescind all my promises.” God does not say that because he cannot deny himself. His promises to us are yea and Amen and have never been forfeited. They are unilateral; Jehovah will fulfil his promises. God has said this to Abraham, “Those who curse you I will curse,” and when Sarah was taken then the covenant relationship of God and Abraham came into operation. If a man took Abraham’s wife then God knew it and God’s judgment fell on that son of a gun.

Yet God brings all the factors and considerations of a man’s life into play in his works of judgment – a man’s past, a man’s psychological make-up and nurture and body. He doesn’t stamp on the man with a Monty Python footstep from heaven, “Squish!” The Lord is not rushed; he is not temperamental; he does not lose his cool; he weighs everything up especially in his strange work of judgment. Thank God he does that. He first preaches the law to king Abimelech, and then there is a pause. This is the God who had been told of the wickedness of Sodom and he decided he would investigate those reports for himself, close up, with witnesses and he would tell men what he intended to do. Then he would pass a fair and considered judgment. So the Divine Attorney announced to Abimelech in the middle of the night the terrible state of affairs his lust has got him into, and the sentence that hung over him, and then God waited.

The Holy Spirit tells us that Abimelech had not gone near Sarah (v.4.) and so the sin was not nearly so great. There is the intention, but there is also the following action, and the two cannot be equally bad – though both are sinful. The king turned to God and pleaded his case; “‘Lord, will you destroy an innocent nation? Did he not say to me, “She is my sister,” and didn’t she also say, “He is my brother”? I have done this with a clear conscience and clean hands’” (vv. 4&5). Abimelech knows how severe God’s judgments are. He has probably heard of Sodom, and of Gomorrah. All of Gerar was now under the threat of divine judgment for the king’s sin. You immediately think of Abraham pleading for Sodom, “Will you destroy the righteous along with the wicked? Shall not the judge of all the earth do right?” Abimelech had a large family and circle of friends in the town of Gerar and so he cries, “Lord, will you destroy an innocent nation?” Abimelech is like the old righteous Abraham, not the devious Abraham of this chapter, but the one who pleaded with God not to forget that he is a straight God, not one who will punish the innocent or condemn them unjustly. God himself would hate any wicked actions like that. Pagan, lustful Abimelech thinks like that.

Abimelech then tells God that he was lied to by Abraham, and he acted quite innocently on the basis of that lie. “I have done this with a clear conscience and clear hands” (v.5). Will there not be adherents of cults and false religions who will say in the great day, “Lord, we were told by these priests and prophets and tele-evangelists and extraordinary personalities that this is what we were to believe and this is how we were to act, and we did it.” Abimelech could truly plead his integrity of heart – the phrase is used just on one other place in the Bible – and his innocence of hand. He had not touched Sarah. He was claiming, in other words, a genuine righteousness in this area of his life, in his dealings with Abraham’s wife.

Then, and truly amazingly, God speaks and affirms Abimelech’s defence. “Yes, it is exactly as you say, Abimelech; I know you did this with a clear conscience” (v.6). God is fair. God knows all the circumstances. God knows if we have been misled or betrayed. God knew that poor Lot had got inebriated through the enticements of his daughters. In fact Abimelech learned that God had been there keeping him from sinning. Aren’t we glad that at some times of hot temptation the object of our desire was absent, or she was there but we found we had no desire for her at all? It had been removed from us by God. You were going to rob the bank but your car wouldn’t start! This is our intervening God, and he was showing his mercy to Abimelech and he shows his mercy to sinners today, and he will say to men and women in the great day, “You never saw a Bible and never heard of Jesus’ great redemption and I will judge you by what criteria you possessed.” The hearts of unbelieving teachers and lecturers and bosses and police and the powers that be are all accessed by God. Jehovah the Lord of hosts has often kept them from sinning against us or against those whom we care for. We pray for them each Sunday and God has answered our prayers in that way especially, but not until the great day shall we fully know how much we owe to God for looking after us and ours. So God tells Abimelech that he has been restraining him from sinning. God has promised a Seed to these two people, Abraham and Sarah, just this couple, and even Abraham’s foolishness and cowardice and deceit cannot invalidate a promise of God.

However, you must see that restraining grace is not enough. What Abimelech has not done and did not know is not enough to justify him. There are a thousand sins which every person has not committed; there are books of truth that many men have never had the privilege of opening, but like Abimelech they are still sinners by nature. Every man still knows more than he has practiced. The king needed forgiveness and cleansing, and so God tells Abimelech of his special relationship with Abraham and that Abimelech needed to go and speak to Abraham – to the one who had lied to him. I want you to know why I find this wonderfully encouraging. Our childr
en have seen us behaving as badly as we have ever behaved; they were witnesses and you’ve thought that as a result there could be no way your testimony to them about trusting in the Lord Jesus would ever carry any weight in their lives. You have blown it, and let the Lord down. He would call you to account for how you’d behaved. Their blood he would require at your hands. That is what you were thinking, beating your breast, but then to your joy and amazement your children, or your husband, or your brothers or sisters, or your friends, or the people at the office had actually come to you and told you they wanted to come to church with you and learn more of Jesus and his love. They had known how inconsistent your life was but they still felt a need to know the Lord.

“Return the man’s wife” said the Lord, and then he adds, “for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you will live” (v.7). Your family and friends know you pray for them and they want you to go on praying. Abimelech hears the word of God and he doesn’t say, “Abraham is Mr. Facing Both Ways. He speaks out of both sides of his mouth. Can’t you find me a better Jehovahist to speak to than him?” No, early the next morning after his interrupted night’s sleep Abimelech did everything to reverse his abduction of Sarah. He wasn’t like Lot dawdling and finding excuses for not doing what God said. Then we had thought how badly Lot seemed to act in comparison with Abraham. Here we think how badly Abraham looks in comparison with Abimelech who acted promptly doing everything that God had said. He drew all his officials to a special meeting and told them all that had happened, and then a great fear of the Lord fell on them. They only heard of the threatened judgment of God hanging over them and that made them afraid. Abraham saw the results of the judgment of God falling on Sodom but Abraham was not afraid of God’s judging him for his lies.


Here it is threefold because Abimelech interrogates Abraham with three questions (v.9).
i] What have you done to us? What in the world have you, a righteous God-fearing man, done to us – we who have never had the revelation of God that you have had?
ii] How have I wronged you that you have brought such great guilt upon me? How many women, seduced by married Christian men, will say to them, “How have I wronged you that you have brought such great guilt upon me? Don’t you know that you have brought me under the judgment of God?”
iii] What were your reasons for doing this? That is the most humbling question of all because we have to answer something like, “My lust . . . my fear of men . . . I didn’t trust the Lord to keep me.”

Then you read Abraham’s defence, and you can see how far from God he has fallen in a matter of months or even weeks. What weasel words he uses in his attempt to exonerate himself. Abimelech’s three questions expose that Abraham was only thinking about himself. “What’s in it for me?” was first on his mind. Instead of falling before Abimelech with his face in the dust and begging his forgiveness he produces four weasel words of self defence;

i] “I figured you were a nation of murderers.” He assumed they had no fear of God and behaved like animals, while the conduct of king Abimelech in the previous couple of hours proved that he was more God-fearing than Abraham who had failed to protect his wife from this man to save his own skin.
ii] “I was really sort of telling the truth. She is my half sister” (v.12).  Half truth masquerading as a whole truth is a whole lie. Sarah was also Abraham’s wife and had been for over sixty years!
iii] “I say this all the time and everywhere we go” (v.13). In other words, this was not a one-off slip but a constant attitude of deception which made his guilt far worse.
iv] “It’s God’s fault.” It was God who had me wander from my father’s household (v.13). As Bill Baldwin has expounded this awful excuse, “Yessirree, if God hadn’t taken me out of idolatry and appeared to me and promised me the land and the Seed and pledged himself by irrevocable covenant to me personally, and overwhelmed me with riches, and preserved me from judgment and given me exceeding great and precious promises  . . . well, then I obviously wouldn’t have been forced to sin!” How twisted is the backsliding Christian who will find anyone and anything to excuse him for his lamentable behaviour even the gospel itself. So Abraham is taken to the woodshed, as the Americans say, by Abimelech. He is soundly chastened by this unbeliever.


Again it is threefold because there is a triple restitution. Think of it. Abraham evaded responsibility for a sin he did commit but Abimelech took responsibility for a sin he didn’t. He didn’t just return Sarah unharmed.
i] Abimelech gave Abraham sheep, cattle and slaves as restitution for taking Sarah (v.14).
ii] Abimelech gave Abraham permission to travel all over his land (v.15). Remember Abraham and Lot standing on a hill and Abraham making that generous offer to him? Now it is Abimelech in that position and Abraham restored to living in the promised land.
iii] Abimelech gave Abraham a thousand shekels of silver and told Sarah that he was giving it to her ‘brother’ to cover the offense against her before everyone. She was completely vindicated. He pays twenty times the fine bestowed on a man for lying with a virgin – and he hasn’t even touched her, and he doesn’t keep her. It is Abimelech who is the Christlike figure in this story. Don’t we see, because of an earlier grace in a land or in a family, people who claim no personal relationship with God showing remarkable kindness, even laying down their lives for their friends?


So what happens? God looks at these two men, Abraham and Abimelech, and he switches his allegiance from the former to the latter, does he? No. God does not become the God of Abimelech. He doesn’t ditch the loser and start to hook up with this man of integrity. Why? You know why, because he never chose any of us for the reason that we would lead perfect lives. He chose us because he loved us in spite of all that we are. If God stood Abimelech before him and shone right through this king his holy omniscience then Abimelech could not stand. God chose Abraham who didn’t deserve it, and let God down, but God remained faithful even through notorious falls like this. Your salvation doesn’t rest on the greatness of your faith but your faith rests on the greatness of your salvation.

The Lord is good to Abraham even when he deserve God’s rod. God heard Abraham’s prayer again, just as he said he would, and fertility was given to Abimelech’s household. Children were born to the man he feared and lied to because Abraham prayed, but not to Abraham and Sarah! Not yet. See God preaching to Abraham, “Look, I am the one who opens the womb and gives children.” God finally wrote it on Abraham’s heart indelibly. No record of Abraham laughing now, and the very next verse in the Bible – the opening verse of Chapter 21 – says, “Now the Lord was gracious to Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah what he had promised. Sarah became pregnant and bore a son” (Gen. 21:1&2)

Who will fear the rebuke of such a loving God? Children sing Anna B. Warner’s hymn

Jesus loves me when I’m good, when I do the things I should.
Jesus loves me when I’m bad, though sins make him very sad.

The Scripture
s are profitable for correction and rebuke and instruction in righteousness. When it comes to choosing a church do you insist on finding a pulpit which rebukes sin? Do you pray going to church under God’s word, “Deal with me O Lord, and rebuke me for every way I defy you and disbelieve your promises. Correct me and instruct me in righteous living. Rebuke me for living like a sinner when I have been redeemed by your mercy in Jesus Christ my Saviour”? How sweetly God would answer that prayer and what blessing would pour down on this pulpit and this congregation if we all longed for that each Sunday.

13th September 2009  GEOFF THOMAS