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Genesis 20 presents to us a story with multiple interpretations, each with their own specific focus, and therefore implications. In this passage, we see Abraham pretending that his wife is his sister, and God intervening twice. But what is the purpose of this passage?
Genesis (‘beginnings’), tells the story of how God’s chosen people, the Israelites, came to be. We come to chapter 20 having journeyed from the initial call of Abram to leave his father’s house, and set out “for the land I will show you” (Ch 12), through the famine in Egypt (12:10), the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Ch 19), and finally into Gerar (Ch 20), which is thought to be on the southeastern border of Canaan.1 Throughout this journey, God has been slowly ‘establishing a covenant‘ with Abram (Ch15, Ch17), and gives Abram his new name, Abraham (17:5).
In chapter 20, we see Abraham’s encounter with Abimelech, who has been deceived by both Abraham and Sarah, and is informed of the deception by God in a night dream. This encounter with Abimelech echoes similar stories in chapter 12 and 26, and introduces to the reader another ‘obstacle’ to the fulfillment of the Abramic covenant. Importantly, the paternity of Isaac is at stake here, and is alluded to in verses 17 & 18.
It is uncertain as to whether this King’s name actually was Abimelech, as this name can also be translated “my father is King”, “my father is MLK”, and “my father is mulku/milku”. Thus it has been suggested that this was instead a title, rather than a name. However, other historical documents also record a King of Tyre named Abimilki during a similar time period, and it has been suggested that these may be the same King.
Looking a little deeper into the history, we find that this passage is found in the Tôledôt [account of] Terah (Abraham’s father), although some scholars contend that the Tôledôt are instead colophon’s (conclusions), making this passage fit within the account of Ishmael. Derek Kidner addresses this issue, and points out that the use of Tôledôt as a conclusion does not make grammatical sense when it is used in Ruth 4:18. Furthermore, the usage of Tôledôt in Genesis is followed by “an account of what issued from the point just named”, (e.g. – ‘This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created’).
Genesis 20 also is the second of the three ‘wife-sister narratives’ in Genesis, a subject of much source-critic speculation. It is contended that the repetition of a story with such a similar plot must be oral variants on the same incident. However many commentators disagree with this contention, specifically on the grounds of verse 2 (“She is my sister”). Van Seters argues that this verse presupposes the account in Chapter 12, which explain Abraham’s motives.
It is unclear who authored this passage, however it is generally accepted that Moses had some role to play, either in an editorial or an authorial function. Traditional source criticism ascribes this passage to the Elohist (E), although they argue that v18 has been edited later due to a different name used for God (“The Lord”, as opposed to “God”), however this is now disputed.
The actual original meaning of this text is also under much discussion, and no single consensus has been reached. Most commentators do agree that this passage is one of many passages demonstrating God’s providence and protection despite many obstacles, whilst simultaneously showing yet another example of how Abraham doubts God ability and takes things into his own hands. However what is disputed is Abimelech’s role in this narrative. Two options are possible. Either, this story is intended to demonstrate that Abimelech is a morally earnest, upright leader, although pagan, illustrating the fact that godly people do exist outside of Israel; alternatively, the Abimelech story is intended as comic relief, and Abimelech is portrayed as a fool. These views will be discussed here.
Wenham argues that the striking thing about Abimelech in this text is his piety and earnest righteousness. In fact, as the narrative continues, it becomes increasingly clear that Abraham’s surmise “There is surely no fear of God in this place” is quite misplaced. Abimelech’s reaction to the revelation in the dream is one of true repentance (“Early the next morning”) , and also of genuine horror (“you have brought on me and on my kingdom a great sin?”). His moral earnestness is also shown is his questioning of Abraham (“How have I sinned against you?”) as well as his repentance being evidenced in the giving of plentiful gifts (e.g. – 1000 shekels of silver was more than the average lifetime wage). Wenham compares this reaction of Abimelech’s to that of Pharaoh in Ch 12, demonstrating that Abimelech’s reaction is intended to generate sympathy towards him. In particular, Wenham points to the fact that Pharaoh did not take any blame, did not let Abraham explain himself, and expelled Abraham immediately (cf Abimelech’s response).
In addition, Wenham argues that the use of the word “nation” (גּוֹי גּוֹי (gowy)) instead of ‘Man’ in verse 4 is the correct translation, based on the earlier question, “what have you done to us?”, indicating that Abimelech bears the weight of the nation on his shoulders.
Finally, Wenham argues that the hinge point of this passage is v8, (the summoning of the officials) based on a chiasmatic structure, and thus “Abimelech’s fear is the consequence of all that precedes, and the presupposition of all that follows”.
In contrast, Tzvi Novick argues for a different interpretation, whereby Abimelech becomes the fool of the story. This is based primarily on two main pillars – firstly, (as with Wenham) a comparison between Pharaoh and Abimelech, and secondly, on what Novick claims is the central verses in the passage (verses 17 and 18).
For Novick, verses 17 & 18 reveal the real surprise, and also the real plot, of this narrative. In this view, when we place these verses as the centre of the passage, Abimelech’s “righteousness” vanishes, for we suddenly realise that it was not moral restraint, nor perhaps even lack of opportunity, that has retained his innocence, but rather, an intervention of God. Of critical importance here is the understanding of the phrase “closed fast the wombs”. Many commentators, regardless of their view on Abimelech, agree that this phrase is likely to mean sexual dysfunction of some form, most notably because Abimelech himself requires healing too. Thus Novick concludes that the real plot here, is that upon taking Sarah into his harem, Abimelech is struck with impotency, thus barring intercourse. However, unlike Pharaoh, who instantly realises the reason for his malady, Abimelech does not. Thus God also comes to Abimelech in a dream. Central to Novick’s case here is the idea that Abimelech is intended not as a righteous example, but instead as a comic figure, and this becomes evident here. Novick contends that embarrassed by his impotency, Abimelech tries to cover it up, first to God (by protesting his lack of knowledge, rather than his lack of deed), and secondly to Abraham. Novick draws support for this view from the fact that Abimelech speaks to Abraham as if he had committed ‘a great sin’ (“You have brought so great a guilt/sin upon me and my kingdom?”). Novick also posits that the gifts given to Abraham were to continue the charade that some wrong did occur. Thus verses 17 & 18 suddenly become the punch line of the whole joke – just when Abimelech thinks that his secret is safe, the narrator, unable to contain himself, blurts out the truth. Novick also cements this interpretation by arguing that the setting, Gerar, is conducive to comedy, as opposed to Egypt which is “fraught with national-historical import”.
This passage takes the form of a narrative, as evidenced by the string of facts and events connected by a plot, yielding a ‘story’, and has a characteristic Narrative-Dialogue-Narrative-Dialogue pattern. There is disagreement as to whether this passage is intended as a historical record, or rather is intended to illustrate some critical points of Abraham, Sarah, or Abimelech. However it is important to not to reduce the passage to moralistic examples, and make it about mankind. Ultimately, the bible is about God.
In many respects, the contemporary significance of such a contested passage will depend on the readers interpretation of the story. A number of possible interpretations were mentioned here, although only two were discussed in depth, and there are no doubt others.
In my opinion however, regardless of the reader interprets the main character’s actions, there is a central point to this text: Even though to us it may look like a disaster, God has a plan, and keeps his promises.
Indeed, we must not lose sight of the fact that, as Walton reminds us, the covenant with Abram is a revelatory covenant. As the Word of God (incarnate and Scripture) is God’s self revelation of himself to mankind, so too, God uses the covenant with Abram to reveal himself to Abram, and then also, to us. Walton puts this nicely:
“Since people had distanced themselves from God and knowledge of God had become distorted and corrupted, reclamation was necessary and required God to reveal himself to people. The chosen instrument for this self revelation was a covenant made with one elect individual, Abram. This covenant was made through many difficult circumstances and overcame many stumbling blocks. In the process the faith of Abram and his family was strengthened, evidenced, and demonstrated, and the faithfulness and sovereignty of God was maintained as many of the promises of the covenant were brought to reality.”
Byers, G. ‘Tyre and the Tell El-Amarna Tablets’. Bible and Spade 15; 4 (2002).
Hirsch, E.G., Bacher, W., et al. ‘Sarah (Sarai)‘. In The Jewish Encyclopedia. Edited by. I. Singer, C. Adler, et al. New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1901–1906.
Keil, C.F. and Delitzsch, F. Commentary on the Old Testament, 10 vols. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975.
Kidner, D. Genesis : An introduction and commentary. Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries. London: The Tyndale Press, 1967.
Moran, W.L.. The Armana Letters. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.
Novick, T. ‘Almost, at Times, the Fool’ : Abimelech and Genesis 20. Prooftexts 24.3 (2004): 277-290
Walton, J.H. Genesis. The NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001.
Wenham, G. Genesis 16-50. Word Biblical Commentary. 2 vols. Dallas: Word Books, 1994.
“Abimelech”, Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abimelech