Genesis 20

Here the narrative returns from Lot and the events with the “cities of the Plain” to Abraham and Sarah, who again are travelling and once more – as with the mini-Exodus of Genesis 12 – we find Abraham pretending to a foreign king that Sarah is his sister. From a literary perspective scholars think that this tale comes from the E source (perhaps eighth century BCE) while the earlier chapter is from J (tenth to ninth centuries BCE). If so, such would account for many of the parallelisms we find, but there are differences in nuance and detail despite the overall plot structure being essentially the same. (Summarizing: Abraham lies about his relationship with Sarah, Sarah is brought into the harem of a ruler, God/“God” punishes said ruler for having taken Sarah, the ruler then returns Sarah and gives extra wealth to Abraham to make up for his mistake while also asking Abraham to go and live somewhere else, a richer Abraham and Sarah thus move on.) What I think is provocative here is the treatment that the erstwhile king receives from God/“God”, and in relating that in the manner in which it is, how although the author(s) of this section may purely have been seeking to communicate a straightforward in-group preference rather than deliver a theological lesson of some kind there are nevertheless interesting thoughts on free will that still come through. (We might call such “the spirit in the text”.) In any case, the favoritism is quite palpable; note verses three through seven, and seventeen through eighteen:

20.3-7: “But God came to Abimelech [this is the foreign ruler] in a dream by night and said to him, ‘You are to die because of the woman that you have taken, for she is a married woman.’ Now Abimelech had not approached her. He said, ‘O Lord, will You slay people even though innocent? He himself [referring to Abraham] said to me, “She is my sister!” And she also said, “He is my brother.” When I did this, my heart was blameless and my hands were clean.’ And God said to him in the dream, ‘I knew that you did this with a blameless heart, and so I kept you from sinning against Me. That was why I did not let you touch her. Therefore, restore the man’s wife – since he is a prophet, he will intercede for you – to save your life. If you fail to restore her, know that you shall die, you and all that are yours.’”
20.17-18: “Abraham then prayed to God [this is post-restoration], and God healed Abimelech and his wife and his slave girls, so that they bore children; for the LORD had closed fast every womb of the household of Abimelech because of Sarah, the wife of Abraham.”

This sequence, when written out step by step, appears either unjust or at least questionable: God/“God” informs Abimelech he is going to be killed as divine punishment, Abimelech protests his innocence and God/“God” agrees while declaring it was what kept Abimelech from doing further wrong, God/“God” then tells Abimelech what to do to get out of his trouble but still requires something Abimelech cannot himself do to be saved (i.e. Abraham must intervene for him; but if Abimelech is innocent and completes what God/“God” tells him then why is Abraham’s involvement necessary?), and God/“God” adds that if Abimelech does not follow through both he and his household (and maybe even his livestock) will die. Moreover, there had already been a sort of pre-emptive punishment put in place – whether to assure compliance or not we are left to wonder – namely the fertility problems brought upon Abimelech, his wife, and the uncounted but probably numerous other women associated with him. Their inclusion seems grossly unfair; what had they done?

We may think of some reasons for the story to be told this way: for example, historical realities, socio-cultural worldviews in antiquity, economic factors that were based on concepts of property and ownership wholly other than what we use today; even so there is a strong us-them ethos at play here; and yet hidden beneath that there is also something well worth contemplating. If we move past the simple “Abraham and Sarah get rewarded” scenario (and that Abraham is at fault here has been noted by many commentators over the ages) we find the complex presentation of free will I mentioned earlier. God/“God” tells Abimelech it is going to kill him but Abimelech still has a chance: Return Sarah or you and “all that are yours” will die. Abimelech does not have to restore Sarah to Abraham: he could test God/“God” and see what happens, or he could argue further that God/“God” ought to do something to Abraham as well, or he could simply wait it out. Risky manoeuvers perhaps, but still available options. Intriguing too is the facet that although God/“God” informs Abimelech that Abraham will pray for him and therefore God/“God” will spare his life (only because of Abraham’s extra help and not since Abimelech did what was necessary? again, the logic seems off-kilter, maybe missing), for Abraham too there is a choice in the matter such that the intercession may not have been made. What if it had not? What if Abimelech did his part but Abraham did not? Would God/“God” have killed Abimelech anyway? This is merely one portion of a series of foundational myths and not actual history and so in some ways these queries are moot; but raising them is instructive for how we think about the presentation of this text, and more so they are important for how we consider ourselves as agents within a universe where despite every single element being tightly interlocked there remains plenty of “wiggle room” for randomness and human unpredictability. If nothing else, that is something to take to heart.

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