And Abraham journeyed from thence toward the south country, and dwelled between Kadesh and Shur, and sojourned in Gerar.
Abraham pulls out (naca`) and heads south (negeb). Why? Is he upset over Sodom? Is it another famine* Or just the usual wanderings of a nomad? We don’t know, but like last time he seems to be trusting in deception rather than God:
And Abraham said of Sarah his wife, She [is] my sister: and Abimelech king of Gerar sent, and took Sarah.
Sigh. Clearly Abraham didn’t learn anything, or at least the right lesson, last time. One gets the distinct impression he didn’t consult Sarah about this before settling in Gerar (G@rar).To be sure, the king (melek) didn’t scruple to ask whether Sarah wanted to come, he just sent and took (shalach laqach); which says something both about his character, as well as the fact that Sarah is still quite a babe despite her age!
Again, God demonstrates that He is watching out for Sarah, even if Abraham wasn’t:
But God came to Abimelech in a dream by night, and said to him, Behold, thou [art but] a dead man, for the woman which thou hast taken; for she [is] a man’s wife.
I suppose according to the law of that time kings were allowed to take any maiden they wanted, but not wives. Though I suspect Abimelech wouldn’t have been the first to get rid of an inconvenient husband, based both on Abraham’s fear and the realities of human history. Then again, Abimelech seems to have some sense of propriety:
But Abimelech had not come near her: and he said, Lord, wilt thou slay also a righteous nation?
A fascinating phrase — slay righteous nation (harag tsaddiyq gowy) — which echoes Abraham’s plea for Sodom. Even overlooking Abimelech’s hyperbole of equating himself with his kingdom, its a powerful image. He follows up by defending himself further:
Said he not unto me, She [is] my sister? and she, even she herself said, He [is] my brother: in the integrity of my heart and innocency of my hands have I done this.
Sigh. Once again, we are confronted by the distinction between blameless and lawful vs. moral. If something is considered lawful, perhaps a man can do wrong without acting against his integrity. Forcibly taking a wife was after all the norm in many traditional cultures, even if its now merely ceremonial; perhaps more reflecting the reluctance of a family to part with a daughter, rather than just insensitivity to the feelings of the girl herself.
What’s more interesting to me is God’s response:
And God said unto him in a dream, Yea, I know that thou didst this in the integrity of thy heart; for I also withheld thee from sinning against me: therefore suffered I thee not to touch her.
So, ignorance of the facts is not in itself an excuse, but it does inspire God to be merciful, and prevent one from greater wrong. However, at best it buys him a chance for redemption:
Now therefore restore the man [his] wife; for he [is] a prophet, and he shall pray for thee, and thou shalt live: and if thou restore [her] not, know thou that thou shalt surely die, thou, and all that [are] thine.
Which he takes:
Then Abimelech called Abraham, and said unto him, What hast thou done unto us? and what have I offended thee, that thou hast brought on me and on my kingdom a great sin? thou hast done deeds unto me that ought not to be done.
Clearly, he is deeply offended; one can hardly blame him for being upset under the circumstances. Nighttime visits from a foreign deity can do that to any man!
And Abimelech said unto Abraham, What sawest thou, that thou hast done this thing?
A fascinating question. Was it asked in exasperation, anger, or curiosity? Abraham at least doesn’t take it rhetorically:
And Abraham said, Because I thought, Surely the fear of God [is] not in this place; and they will slay me for my wife’s sake.
Ouch! Is he being courageous, critical, or just scared into honesty? Though he’s quick to temporize:
And yet indeed [she is] my sister; she [is] the daughter of my father, but not the daughter of my mother; and she became my wife.
That seems a cop out. Using a half-truth to twist people’s view of a situation is still deception.
And yet again, we are treated to the unpleasant spectacle of Abraham being rewarding for his deceit:
And Abimelech took sheep, and oxen, and menservants, and womenservants, and gave [them] unto Abraham, and restored him Sarah his wife.
Though, unlike Egypt, he isn’t told to completely leave town:
And Abimelech said, Behold, my land [is] before thee: dwell where it pleaseth thee.
Also unlike Egypt, someone actually takes notice of Sarah’s feelings:
And unto Sarah he said, Behold, I have given thy brother a thousand [pieces] of silver: behold, he [is] to thee a covering of the eyes, unto all that [are] with thee, and with all [other]: thus she was reproved.
So Abraham prayed unto God: and God healed Abimelech, and his wife, and his maidservants; and they bare [children]. For the LORD had fast closed up all the wombs of the house of Abimelech, because of Sarah Abraham’s wife.
Interestingly, it is Abraham’s intercession (palal) that did it. Amazingly, this chapter is the first place we see that word, and it is literally used of praying for one’s enemies.
So what does it all mean? Well, given the sequence and some of the parallels, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that this ties into the story of Sodom, as well as reinforces the lesson of Egypt. In both cases, God discusses Abraham’s obligation to bless nations, and he initially fails to do so. Yet, I like to think that Abraham is slowly learning something. In this case, he ends up praying for the restoration of the man he wronged (and who wronged him).
Its easy to look back and be disgusted with the chauvinism and callousness of their society. Then again, I doubt they’d have a much higher opinion of our ways of choosing and treating mates. The deeper point, I suspect, is what God is trying to teach Abraham, despite his many cowardices and lies. That God is sovereign, and that He values Sarah’s honor even if Abraham doesn’t. That fear of God is not just some abstract concept that only Hebrews know, but based on a vital reality that is actively at work even in unlikely places.
And, let’s be honest: do we really believe God will watch out for us if we do the right thing, and thus we don’t need to pretend or cut corners to keep ourselves safe?
God, I confess that I am no better than Abraham. I am full of fears, and the prejudices of my society, and too often concerned with my own skin rather than honoring either my wife or my adversaries. Teach me to fear you, and to believe that you will enforce your justice even on those who do not know you. Grant me the courage and strength to be an intercessor, rather than a troublemaker. Make me a source of blessing, rather than curses, to the nations around me — even those who treat me badly. Amen.
It is probably worth noting that my own engagement was a quixotic blend of both Indian and American customs, so I have a rather unusual perspective on cultural mate selection practices.