Genesis 20
Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
Ch. 20. Abraham and Sarah at the Court of Abimelech at Gerar (E)

The incident recorded in this chap. resembles in its general features that recorded of Abraham in Egypt, Genesis 12:10-20, and that recorded of Isaac at Gerar, Genesis 26:6-11. In each case the patriarch, fearing for his own life, represents his wife to be his sister. The foreign prince desires to make the patriarch’s wife one of his own harem. He is prevented from so doing. The truth is divulged. The patriarch’s wife is restored, and the patriarch himself is enriched by gifts or by compensation. In each case the heathen prince acts honourably. As compared with J’s story in Genesis 12:10-20, it has been claimed by Stanley Cook that “E’s story of Abraham at Gerar in Genesis 20:1-17 displays a great advance in morality; the sin of adultery is condemned in the most emphatic terms, and it is regarded as a capital offence. The stress here laid upon the iniquity marks a stage in ethics comparable only with the Decalogue, where adultery is prohibited, and with the Deuteronomic code (Genesis 22:22), where also the penalty is death (stoning; cf. Ezekiel 16:40; Ezekiel 23:47; John 8:5)1[19].” But it is very doubtful whether E and J can be so widely separated. Admission to the harem was not marriage.

[19] Laws of Moses and Code of Hammurabi, p. 106.

This chapter is the first continuous narrative taken from E, the Elohist or Ephraimitic source of the prophetic narrative. In its vivid narrative E resembles J. But it possesses its own distinctive features of language and style. See Introduction.

The fulfilment of the promise is again postponed, while the narrative records a last peril to faith and honour.

And Abraham journeyed from thence toward the south country, and dwelled between Kadesh and Shur, and sojourned in Gerar.
1. from thence] This passage is evidently derived from some distinct source. As it ignores the previous section dealing with Lot, and the last reference to Abraham is in Genesis 18:33, when he is at Mamre, the precise meaning of “from thence” must remain obscure.

the South] See note on Genesis 12:9.

between Kadesh and Shur] For these places, see Genesis 14:7, Genesis 16:7.

he sojourned in Gerar] This causes a difficulty. Gerar is the court of the king Abimelech. In Genesis 26:1, Abimelech is king of the Philistines. Gerar has, therefore, been identified with a spot a few miles south of Gaza (Umm Gerar). This, however, is hardly a place of sojourn “between Kadesh and Shur.” Either, therefore, there is a lacuna between the two clauses of this verse, representing a journey from the Negeb into the Philistine region; or Gerar may be a place S.W. of Kadesh (Wady Gerur), whose king happened to have the same name as the Philistine king of Gerar in chap. 26. Of these alternatives the former is the more probable.

And Abraham said of Sarah his wife, She is my sister: and Abimelech king of Gerar sent, and took Sarah.
2. She is my sister] See notes on Genesis 12:13. It seems almost incredible that, after the event recorded in Genesis 12:13-20, Abraham should once again have displayed the same faults of cowardice and dissimulation. Sarah also is advanced in years; and, in Genesis 18:10-14, had received the promise of a son. The narrative most probably is a duplicate of the tradition of Genesis 12:13-20. Its present position, between the promise of a son in Genesis 18:10-14, and its fulfilment in chap. 21, becomes intelligible on the supposition of its derivation from an independent source, not connected with chap. 18.

Abimelech] i.e. “my father is Melech.” This is probably a name compounded with that of a Canaanite deity, Milk (= Molech in the English Bible).

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.
3. God came … in a dream] Scholars have noticed that E frequently describes Divine interposition by means of a dream. Cf. Genesis 20:6, Genesis 31:11; Genesis 31:24, Genesis 37:5; Genesis 37:9, Genesis 40:5 ff., Genesis 41:1 ff., Genesis 46:2.

art but a dead man] i.e. “shalt die.” This sentence is not literally fulfilled. Cf. Genesis 2:17.

But Abimelech had not come near her: and he said, Lord, wilt thou slay also a righteous nation?
4. a righteous nation] Abimelech appeals to the instinct of justice, that God will not punish the innocent, as if they were guilty. Cf. Genesis 18:23.

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.
5. integrity] Heb. “perfectness.” Cf. Genesis 6:9.

innocency of my hands] Cf. Psalm 26:6.

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.
6. from sinning against me] The violation of moral law is sin against God.

suffered I thee not] The explanation of this sentence is supplied in Genesis 20:17.

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.
7. for he is a prophet] Abraham is here given the title of “prophet,” or “nâbî” (the first occurrence of it in Scripture). The prophet—the one who utters or pours forth—is one who is in intimate relations with God, moved by His Spirit, protected by His Power. From 1 Samuel 9:9 we learn the nabi was in old times called roeh, or Seer. To call Abraham a “prophet” (nâbî) is, therefore, an anachronism, indicating the atmosphere of the monarchical period. The prophet was one who was privileged to have intercourse with God, and was bound to communicate “the word” to his own kith and kin (Genesis 18:19). He was their representative, their intercessor, their spokesman. He who has the vision, rô’eh, must declare the message, nâbî.

A comment on this passage is supplied by Psalm 105:14-15, “he suffered no man to do them wrong … and do my prophets no harm.” Perhaps the prophets of Israel traced their “guild” back to Abraham as their founder, as well as to Moses, their greatest leader (Deuteronomy 34:10).

pray] i.e. intercede. For the efficacy of a “prophet’s” intercession, cf. Deuteronomy 9:20; 1 Samuel 7:5; 1 Samuel 12:19; 1 Samuel 12:23; Jeremiah 7:16.

Therefore Abimelech rose early in the morning, and called all his servants, and told all these things in their ears: and the men were sore afraid.
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.
9. What hast thou done unto us] Syriac Peshitto “what have I done unto thee,” which suits the second clause rather better.

deeds … that ought not to be done] Cf. Genesis 34:7; 2 Samuel 13:12. The moral standard of the heathen king here stands higher than that of Abraham the prophet. There were at Gerar, presumably, no written laws; but the custom of the people, with which was bound up its religion, was more powerful than law. The Code of Hammurabi reflects the moral standard of the most civilized community of the time.

And Abimelech said unto Abraham, What sawest thou, that thou hast done this thing?
10. What sawest thou] i.e. “what hadst thou in view?” An unusual use of the verb “to see.” Cf. Psalm 66:18, “if I regard (lit. ‘see’) iniquity in my heart.” Some scholars prefer, by a slight alteration of the text, the reading, “what didst thou fear?” yarêtha for ra’îtha (Bacher).

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.
11. Because I thought] Lit. “I said”: see note on Genesis 18:17.

Surely the fear of God] Abraham’s defence is that he assumed a heathen people did not fear God; and, therefore, would not be afraid of any Divine retribution, if they took the life of a stranger (gêr). The stranger had no rights; his God would not be known. He would have no “avenger of blood.” See note on Genesis 4:15.

See the same idea underlying Joseph’s words, “for I fear God”(Genesis 42:18).

they will slay me] He does not explain, why he feared that he would be slain for his wife’s sake. Obviously it is for the reason mentioned in Genesis 12:12. Sarah’s youth and beauty are assumed: the murder of the stranger would enable the inhabitants of Gerar to seize her. For this murder there would be no redress; and, therefore, there would be little compunction.

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.
12. she is indeed my sister] See Genesis 11:29, Genesis 12:19. The marriage with a half-sister was evidently permitted in David’s time (cf. 2 Samuel 13:13); and it was practised in the days of Ezekiel (Ezekiel 22:11), though forbidden by the laws of Leviticus 18:9; Leviticus 18:9; Leviticus 18:11; Leviticus 20:17; Deuteronomy 27:22. It is said to have been permitted in Phoenicia and Egypt.

Abraham’s excuse is based upon a half truth. Sarah may have been truly his sister; but this statement was no moral justification for his suppression of the fact that she was his wife. The further excuse in Genesis 20:13, that as he travelled about he always practised this mental reservation concerning Sarah, scarcely adds dignity to his line of defence.

And it came to pass, when God caused me to wander from my father's house, that I said unto her, This is thy kindness which thou shalt shew unto me; at every place whither we shall come, say of me, He is my brother.
13. God caused me to wander] Referring to Genesis 12:1. The Hebrew student will notice that the verb “caused me to wander” is in the plural, although, as a rule in the O.T., the word “God” (Elohim) is treated as sing. But it is sometimes the case that the plural is used, as here and in Genesis 31:53, Joshua 24:19, when an Israelite speaks to heathen, or else heathen are speaking of God, e.g. 1 Samuel 4:8; 1 Kings 19:2; 1 Kings 20:10. For an exception, see Genesis 35:7. Here the Massoretic note adds “holy,” in order to call attention to the unusual construction.

And Abimelech took sheep, and oxen, and menservants, and womenservants, and gave them unto Abraham, and restored him Sarah his wife.
14. And Abimelech took] Abimelech’s gift is intended to compensate Abraham for injury to his honour. The head of the household is regarded as embodying the rights of all who belong to him. The LXX and Heb. Sam. insert “a thousand pieces of silver and” before “sheep and oxen.” This is due to a misunderstanding of Genesis 20:16.

And Abimelech said, Behold, my land is before thee: dwell where it pleaseth thee.
15. my land is before thee] Cf. Genesis 13:9, Genesis 34:10.

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.
16. I have given thy brother] Abimelech emphasizes the word which Sarah had used (Genesis 20:5), and which freed his conscience from any blame. By the sarcastic use of the word “brother,” Abimelech implies that compensation for wrong done to her is due to Abraham as one of her family, not as her husband.

a thousand pieces of silver] Lit. “1000 silver.” The word shekel, meaning “a weight,” is omitted. Money in the patriarchal times was reckoned by weight: there were no stamped coins. The standard weight was supplied, as a rule, by metal, generally silver. Hence the word “silver” is in Hebrew often used for “money”; and the word shekel, or weight, is equivalent to “a piece of money.” See note on Genesis 23:16. 1000 shekels of silver would be worth about £137. 10s., reckoning a shekel = 2 Samuel 9 d. But the purchasing value of silver varies. A slave in Exodus 21:32 is worth 30 shekels.

it is for thee a covering of the eyes] R.V. marg. he (= A.V.) is unsuitable and improbable. “A covering of the eyes” is a metaphor for a gift, which will have the effect of appeasing indignation and of causing the offended person to forget, or be blind to, the offence. Cf. Genesis 32:20, “I will appease him,” lit. “cover his face”; 1 Samuel 12:3, “of whose hand have I taken a ransom to blind mine eyes therewith”; Job 9:24, “he covereth the faces of the judges.” There is no need to suppose that there is any reference to a woman’s veil (Genesis 24:65), as if the money paid was to be in lieu of lost modesty, symbolized by the veil.

to all that are with thee] i.e. those of her family will recognize that full amends have been made. LXX καὶ πάσαις ταῖς μετὰ σοῦ introducing a special reference to Sarah’s personal attendants.

in respect of all] R.V. marg. before all men. The text in the original is very doubtful. The meaning is fairly clear. Sarah is righted, and her honour saved; but whether the translation should be “and in respect of all that has happened,” or “and in regard to all men, thou art put right,” remains uncertain.

LXX καὶ πάντα ἀλήθευσον = “and in all things observe truth,” furnishes a good moral, but a fantastic rendering. Lat. quocunque perrexeris: mementoque te deprehensam is no translation of our text.

So Abraham prayed unto God: and God healed Abimelech, and his wife, and his maidservants; and they bare children.
17. Abraham prayed] See note on Genesis 20:7. This verse explains Genesis 20:4.

Barrenness was regarded as the sign of Divine displeasure, which might be averted by prayer and intercession: cf. Genesis 25:21, Genesis 30:2; Genesis 30:22; 1 Samuel 1:10. See note on Genesis 12:17.

For the LORD had fast closed up all the wombs of the house of Abimelech, because of Sarah Abraham's wife.
18. For the Lord] An editorial addition, explanatory of Genesis 20:17. “Jehovah” is here used for the only time in this narrative.

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