Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
And Abraham journeyed from thence toward the south country, and dwelled between Kadesh and Shur, and sojourned in Gerar.XX.
ABRAHAM’S DENIAL OF HIS WIFE AT GERAR.
(1) Abraham journeyed from thence.—That is, from Mamre, where he had so long halted, and which seems to have continued to be one of his homes. As he had been commanded to traverse the whole land (Genesis 13:17-18), we need seek no reasons for his removal. It was the rule of his life to move from place to place, both on account of his cattle, and also because by so doing he was taking possession of the country. There were, nevertheless, certain places which were his head-quarters, such as Bethel, Mamre, and Beer-sheba.
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.—Twenty years before, Abraham had acted in the same way in Egypt, and Pharaoh had rebuked him, but sent him away with large presents. We learn from this chapter, Genesis 20:13, that the false representation which twice brought them into trouble was habitual with the two; nor does Abraham ever seem conscious that he was acting in it wrongfully. To us it seems cowardly, in one who had so many men trained to battle, thus to expose his wife to danger; and to have recourse to deceit, at the very time when such abundant revelations were being made to him, also shows an apparent want of faith in God. But Holy Scripture neither represents its heroes as perfect, nor does it raise them disproportionately above the level of their own times. Its distinguishing feature rather is that it ever insists upon a perpetual progress upwards, and urges men onward to be better and holier than those that went before. Abraham was not on the same high spiritual level as a Christian ought to be who has the perfect example of Christ as his pattern, and the gift of the Holy Ghost for his aid; and the fact that God rescued him and Sarah from all danger in Egypt may have seemed to him a warrant that in future difficulties he would have the same Divine protection. Human conduct is ever strangely chequered, but we have a wholesome lesson in the fact, that it was Abraham’s politic device which twice entangled him in actual danger.
Abimelech (called in Genesis 26:1, king of the Philistines, where see Note) . . . took Sarah.—She was now ninety years of age, and naturally her beauty must have faded. Some, however, think that with the promise of a son her youth had been renewed, while others suppose that the purpose uppermost in the mind of Abimelech was political, and that what he really desired was an alliance with the powerful sheik who had entered his territories.
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 (Elohim) came . . . —From the use of this title of the Deity it has been said that this narrative is an Elohistic form of the Jehovistic narrative in·Genesis 12:10-20. But we have seen that even in the History of the Fall, where the writer in so remarkable a manner styles the Deity Jehovah-Elohim, he nevertheless restricts Eve and the serpent in their conversation to the name Elohim. With the same care in the application of the names, it is necessarily Elohim who appears to a heathen king; and had the title Jehovah been used it would have been a violation of the narrator’s rule. Moreover, the sole reason for calling that narrative Jehovistic is that in Genesis 12:17 it is Jehovah who plagues Pharaoh for Sarah’s sake. But equally here, Genesis 20:18, it is Jehovah who protects Sarah from Abimelech; in both cases it being the covenant- God, who saves his people from injury.
Thou art but a dead man.—Heb., thou diest, or art dying. Abimelech was already suffering from the malady spoken of in Genesis 20:17, when Elohim appeared to him and warned him that death would be the result of perseverance in retaining Sarah. It was this malady which was the cause of the abstention spoken of in Genesis 20:4; Genesis 20:6.
But Abimelech had not come near her: and he said, Lord, wilt thou slay also a righteous nation?(4) A righteous nation.—Knobel has pointed out that there is an allusion here to the fate of Sodom. Though the malady was confined to Abimelech and his household, yet he sees destruction threatening his whole people, who, compared with the inhabitants of the Ciccar cities, were righteous. There is indirect proof: of the truth of Abimelech’s assertion in the fact that death (see Genesis 20:3) is acquiesced in as the fitting punishment for adultery.
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) In the integrity of my heart . . . —Not only does Abimelech assert this, but Elohim (see Genesis 20:6) admits the plea. And yet this Philistine king indulges in polygamy, and claims the right of taking the female relatives of any one passing through his territory to add them to his harem. But the words mean no more than that he was not consciously violating any of his own rules of morality, and thus illustrate the Gospel principle that men will be punished not by an absolute decree, but equitably, according to their knowledge (Luke 12:47-48). Abimelech was doing wrong, and was suffering punishment, but the punishment was remedial, and for his advancement in right-knowing and right-doing. It is thus by means of revelation that men have attained to a proper understanding of the moral law. Though often called “the law of Nature,” yet Nature does not give it, but only acknowledges it when given. The inner light is but a faint and inconstant glimmering, but Christ is the true light; for only by Him does the law of Nature become a clear-rule for human guidance (John 1:9; Romans 2:14-15; Matthew 6:23).
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) He is a prophet.—This is not said as an aggravation of Abimelech’s sin, but as an encouragement to him to restore Sarah. It is therefore rightly joined with the words “He shall pray for thee.” For the word prophet is used here in its old sense of spokesman (comp. Exod. Genesis 7:1, with Genesis 4:16), and especially of such an one as mediates between God and man. There was a true feeling that God in His own nature is beyond the reach of man (Job 9:32-33; Job 16:21; 1Timothy 6:16); and this in heathen nations led to men peopling their heavens with a multitude of minor deities. In Israel, after the founding of the prophetic schools by Samuel, the prophets became an order, whose office it was partly to enliven the services of the Temple with sacred minstrelsy (1Chronicles 25:1), but chiefly to be God’s spokesmen, both declaring His will to Jew and Gentile ( Jeremiah 1:5), and also maintaining religion and holiness by earnest preaching and other such means. In this way they were forerunners, and even representatives, of Christ, who is the one true and only Mediator between God and man. Not only Abraham, therefore, but the patriarchs generally are called “Christs and prophets (Psalm 105:15), as being speakers for God to man, and for man to God, until the true Christ and prophet came. Abimelech, moreover, is thus taught that he does not himself hold a near relation to God, but requires some one to speak for him; perhaps, too, he would gather from it that he had need of fuller instruction, and that he ought to try to attain to a higher level, and that Abraham would become a prophet to him in its other sense of being a teacher. (For the prophet as an intercessor, see Exodus 8:28-29; Deuteronomy 9:19-20; 1Samuel 7:5; 1Samuel 12:19; 1Samuel 12:23; 1Kings 13:6; Job 42:8.)
And Abimelech said unto Abraham, What sawest thou, that thou hast done this thing?(10) What sawest thou?—Some modern commentators explain the Hebrew as meaning, What purpose hadst thou? What didst thou look for? But the old rendering is probably right. Abimelech first denies by indignant questions that he had been guilty of any wrong towards Abraham, and then asks what he had seen in the conduct of himself and people to justify such mistrust of them. Throughout, the king speaks as a man conscious that his citizens so respected the rights of a stranger and of marriage, that Sarah would have been perfectly safe had Abraham openly said that she was his wife.
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) Surely the fear of God . . . —Abraham’s general condemnation of the people had some excuse in the widespread depravity of the nations in Canaan, but was nevertheless unjust. Even as regards these nations, they were not utterly corrupt (Genesis 15:16), and both in Egypt and in Gerar the standard of morality was higher than Abraham supposed. His difficulty was the result of his own imperfect faith; but the fact that this artifice was arranged between man and wife when starting on their long wanderings, proves that they rather over-rated than under-rated the risks that lay before them. The expedient was indeed a sorry one, and shows that Abraham’s faith was not yet that of a martyr; but it also shows that both of them felt that Abraham might have to save his life by a means almost as bad as death. And thus, after all, it was no common-place faith, but one as firm at root as it was sorely tried and exercised.
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) Not the daughter of my mother.—This disproves the notion that Sarah was the same as Iscah (Genesis 11:29); for as Iscah was Terah’s granddaughter, the distinction between the identity of the father and the diversity of the mother would in her case be unmeaning. Sarah was apparently Abraham’s half-sister, being Terah’s daughter by another wife; and we gather from her calling her child Sarai—that is, princely (see Genesis 17:15)—that she was not a concubine, but belonged to some noble race.
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) When God caused me to wander.—According to rule, Elohim is construed with a verb singular for the true God, but with a verb plural for false gods. Here the verb is plural, and the same construction occurs in Genesis 35:7; Exodus 22:9; 2Samuel 7:22 (but singular in 1Chronicles 17:20); and Psalm 58:11 : moreover, in Joshua 24:19, Elohim is joined with an adjective (holy) in the plural. These exceptions may either be relics of a less strict use of the name Elohim, or they may be errors of copyists, misled by the ordinary rules of grammar. This latter view is confirmed by the fact that the Samaritan Pentateuch, both here and in Genesis 35:7, has the singular.
At every place.—The fact of this compact between Abraham and Sarah having been made so long before, would convince Abimelech that their conduct was not occasioned by anything which they had seen at Gerar (comp. Genesis 20:10).
And Abimelech took sheep, and oxen, and menservants, and womenservants, and gave them unto Abraham, and restored him Sarah his wife.(14) Abimelech. . . . gave them unto Abraham.—Pharaoh’s presents were given when he took Sarah, and though he did not exact them back, yet he bade Abraham “go his way” in displeasure. More generously, the Philistine gives presents on restoring Sarah, and grants her husband permission to dwell in his land wherever it pleased him. He also acknowledges thereby that he had done Abraham a wrong.
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) A thousand pieces of silver.—Heb., a thousand of silver. This was the total value of Abimelech’s present, and not an additional gift. A thousand shekels would be about £125, a large sum at a time when silver was scarce and dear.
He is to thee a covering of the eyes.—This speech of Abimelech is full of difficulty. It begins with a touch of irony in calling Abraham “thy brother.” Next, if the pronoun is translated in the masculine, he, the meaning would be that Abraham ought to have been Sarah’s protector, but had failed in this duty; but, more probably, it is neuter, and refers to the gift. The “covering of the eyes” may mean a veil to protect her from the wanton desires of others, or to conceal her shame at the wrong done to her. Finally, the verb rendered “reproved” is equivocal, and should rather be translated righted. It may also be the third person singular feminine, as in our version, or the second person, in which case it is part of Abimelech’s speech. The clause “and with all” must then be taken with this verb, and the whole be rendered, and in everything thou art even righted. The correct rendering probably is, “And unto Sarah he said, Behold, I have given thy brother (a gift worth) a thousand (pieces) of silver: behold, it shall be to thee for a covering of the eyes to all that are with thee (that is,—so large a compensation for the wrong done thee in taking thee from thy husband, will be a proof to all thy friends and attendants that thou hast not been disgraced, but treated with honour); and in respect of all that has happened thou art thus righted.”
So Abraham prayed unto God: and God healed Abimelech, and his wife, and his maidservants; and they bare children.(17) Abraham prayed . . . —As Abimelech had now made very liberal compensation, it became the duty of Abraham to intercede for him. The malady seems to have been one confined to Abimelech, as its object was to protect Sarah; but in some way it so affected the whole household as to produce general barrenness.
Maidservants.—Not the word rendered women-servants in Genesis 20:14, but one specially used of concubines.