Genesis 20

Genesis 20:1 Abraham journeyed from thence toward the south country
By this time, Abraham was a wealthy man. He was living, probably in tents, in the plains of Mamre with many servants, flocks, and money. “Location, location, location” is the mantra of the real estate agent. Well, Abraham’s neighborhood had just gone up in smoke (Gen 19:28). Fire and brimstone had destroyed not only Sodom and Gomorrah but the cities of the plain. Those were neighboring cities for Abraham. Now he could not trade with them nor obtain supplies. He didn’t want to live in a barren wasteland anymore.
Abraham could have found fault with the Lord. God had promised Abraham and his posterity all that land, but the Lord had just burned it all up. Who wants miles and miles of scorched earth and ash? Characteristically, Abraham doesn’t complain.
But Abraham didn’t like moving. Every time he did, Sarah’s beauty became problematic. Besides that, sexual sin was a rampant problem in the cities which were destroyed. Abraham may not have known yet about Lot’s narrow escape from the Sodomites but he certainly knew the sins of the people. What if the people of the south were the same way? If he moves again, he is afraid Sarah will be the object of the king’s desire—and he is right.
Gerar is a city on the way to Egypt and “was located toward the southern end of Canaan not far from the Mediterranean coast.” (Biblica: The Bible Atlas, Barry J. Beitzel, ed. [Australia: Global Book Publishing, 2006], 114) Isaac later finds his wife Rebekah in Gerar and like his father meets Abimelech there (Gen. 26).
Genesis 20:2 Abraham said of Sarah his wife, She is my sister
Here we go again. Abraham is afraid of being killed because of Sarah’s beauty. Killing a man for his wife must have been a well-known problem in Abraham’s day. So Abraham does the same thing he did when he travelled to Egypt (Gen. 12:10-20); he says Sarah is his sister. This is not a lie (Gen. 20:13); it is not “bearing false witness,” but it is certainly deceptive. If we are to follow the works of Abraham, we better not use deception unless our life is on the line. Gerar and Egypt were the same story. And what a trial this must have been for Sarah!
“Women of Sarai's day considered travel the one thing most fatal to beauty; yet when Sarai arrived in Egypt, her still-radiant beauty was enough to cause a minor sensation. It was a matter of course in those days for a prince to help himself to any handsome woman who caught his eye, and to kill her husband if the husband objected. Knowing that Sarai's beauty would endanger Abram, the Lord suggested that he conceal his real relationship to her. (See Abraham 2:22-25)
“Being so directed, Sarai agreed to call herself Abram's sister. It was a partial truth, as Sarai was indeed Abram's half-sister. They shared the same father.” (Jerrie W. Hurd, Our Sisters in the Bible [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1983], 8)
Genesis 20:3 God came to Abimelech in a dream… Behold, thou art but a dead man
When your father or your spouse comes to you and says, “You’re dead,” you know you are in big trouble. How frightening would it be if the Lord came to you and told you, “You’re dead!”?
Italicized words in the King James Bible are words added by the translators to make the Hebrew sentence work. In this case, the translators took “behold, thou a dead man” and translated it as “behold thou art but a dead man.” They could have translated it in our vernacular, “Behold, you’re dead!”
The message is not lost on Abimilech. He knows he is in big trouble. When he wakes up in the morning it is with great fear and trepidation. He makes things right as quickly as he can.
Genesis 20:4 Lord, wilt thou slay also a righteous nation?
Abimelech is more righteous than Pharaoh of Egypt. He is righteous enough to fear God. He was righteous enough to survive the fire and brimstone that destroyed Sodom. And he is righteous enough to understand that God destroys the wicked not the righteous. This phrase from his dream indicates that he knew exactly why the neighboring cities had been destroyed. He was just afraid that his people would be next, but he felt justified in calling his own nation “righteous.” His plea is, “I am innocent and so are my people. Don’t kill us!” From what we can tell, Abimelech was a good man and a wise king.
Genesis 20:7 Now therefore restore the man his wife; for he is a prophet
Perhaps the most important message of this chapter is that the Lord protects his prophets. He protects his people. Abraham was not left alone as he travelled into strange lands. When he went to Egypt, Sarah was protected from the advances of Pharaoh. Because he was a wicked man, he was afflicted multiple times with great plagues before he got the message (see commentary for Gen. 12:17). With Abimelech a dream was enough, but either way, the Lord would not let these men harm Sarah or Abraham.
We too should have faith enough to trust in the Lord’s power. When we travel into strange lands both literally and figuratively, we will be protected if we keep His commandments and exercise faith in His power to save.
Howard W. Hunter
I promise you tonight in the name of the Lord whose servant I am that God will always protect and care for his people. We will have our difficulties the way every generation and people have had difficulties… But with the gospel of Jesus Christ you have every hope and promise and reassurance. The Lord has power over his Saints and will always prepare places of peace, defense, and safety for his people. (The Teachings of Howard W. Hunter, edited by Clyde J. Williams [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1997], 201)
Genesis 20:12 she is the daughter of my father, but not the daughter of my mother
Abraham married his half-sister? That is strange. The Joseph Smith Translation doesn’t make any change here. Interestingly, Gen. 11: 29-31 refers to Sarai as Terah’s “daughter-in-law” not his daughter! Was she both? The historian Josephus says that Sarai was Abraham’s niece not his half-sister (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book I, 12:1). Either way, the relationship seems too close for comfort by our standards.
Genesis 20:13 I said unto her, This is thy kindness which thou shalt shew unto me… say of me, He is my brother
This seems to have been the plan all along. Whenever Sarah’s beauty threatened Abraham’s safety in strange lands, she was to say, “he is my brother.” The Book of Abraham tells us that the idea was the Lord’s; Abraham was on the way to Egypt when the Lord suggested that he tell the Egyptians that Sarah was his sister (Abr. 2:21-25). Abraham doesn’t relate the story quite that way to Abimelech perhaps because he didn’t think Abimelech would believe that God would condone such deceit or perhaps he thought Abimelech too faithless to believe that God would speak to any man.
There are those times when the rules are broken in special circumstances. Nephi didn’t want to kill Laban but God commanded it. Prophets should not intentionally deceive but God commanded it (Abr. 2:21-15).
Joseph Smith
That which is wrong under one circumstance, may be, and often is, right under another.
God said, "Thou shalt not kill;" at another time He said, "Thou shalt utterly destroy." This is the principle on which the government of heaven is conducted—by revelation adapted to the circumstances in which the children of the kingdom are placed. Whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is, although we may not see the reason thereof till long after the events transpire. (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 256)
Genesis 20:15 Abimelech said, Behold, my land is before thee: dwell where it pleaseth thee
Genesis 19 and 20 teach the world a lesson on how to treat holy men of God. Does the Lord hold people accountable for how they treat his servants? The answer is intuitive but consider the stark contrast.
We have four groups to examine:
  • First, the Sodomites were the most wicked. They held holy messengers in disdain—literally as sex objects—hoping to abuse them in the most evil and depraved way. God destroyed them (Gen. 19).
  • Second, Lot welcomed them and their message. He was obedient but still required some hand-holding (Gen. 19:16). He was saved from imminent destruction.
  • Third, Lot’s wife was as hospitable as her husband, but when it came time for the rubber to meet the road, she had misgivings. She couldn’t keep her eye single to God’s glory and after “looking back” was made an example to subsequent generations.
  • Fourth, we have Abimelech. His response to Abraham as a prophet is interesting. Of course he had the advantage of the dream in which he was told that Abraham was a man of God. But still, he was a righteous man—a king without an heir. He was not accustomed to prophets and if anything, he saw nothing prophetic about Abraham. He seemed to be nothing but a deceitful traveler.
Abimelech’s personal experience with the Prophet Abraham was not a good one. The first impression was lacking by any measure, and we can sense his frustration in the limited narrative. Yet, how did he respond? Did he complain to God that no man could be a prophet who behaved in such a way? Did he second guess his dream and question the prophet’s mantle? He did not! He blessed Abraham, gave him sheep, oxen, and servants. Abraham was already wealthy and needed none of these things but Abimelech was paying his respects, even if he had personal reason to doubt.
When faced with prophetic imperfections, Abimelech was a prophet-protector not a prophet-rejecter. He was an Amulek not a Zeezrom (Alma 8-11). We should follow his example in looking past the imperfections of the prophets of God. Certainly, we have our own, for all sin and “come short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23; 1 Jn. 1:7).
Joseph Smith
Many persons think a prophet must be a great deal better than anybody else… I am not, God judges men according to the use they make of the light which he gives them. (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 303)
Joseph Smith
I am subject to like passions as other men, like the prophets of olden times.
Notwithstanding my weaknesses, I am under the necessity of bearing the infirmities of others, who, when they get into difficulty, hang on to me tenaciously to get them out, and wish me to cover their faults. On the other hand, the same characters, when they discover a weakness in Brother Joseph, endeavor to blast his reputation, and publish it to all the world, and thereby aid my enemies in destroying the Saints. Although the law is given through me to the Church, I cannot be borne with a moment by such men. They are ready to destroy me for the least foible, and publish my imaginary failings from Dan to Beersheba, though they are too ignorant of the things of God, which have been revealed to me, to judge of my actions, motives or conduct, in any correct manner whatever.
The only principle upon which they judge me is by comparing my acts with the foolish traditions of their fathers and nonsensical teachings of hireling priests, whose object and aim were to keep the people in ignorance for the sake of filthy lucre; or as the prophet says, to feed themselves, not the flock. Men often come to me with their troubles, and seek my will, crying, Oh, Brother Joseph, help me! help me! But when I am in trouble, few of them sympathize with me, or extend to me relief. (History of the Church, 5:516-517)
Genesis 20:16 he is to thee a covering of the eyes
Abimelech blames Abraham for the whole misunderstanding. He suggests to Sarah that Abraham is “a covering of the eyes,” or a blindfold. His complaint to Sarah is, “Your husband makes you blind. If you could see, you would have known that I am not a wicked man. If you were perceptive, you would have seen that I am a man of kindness and hospitality. You didn’t need to fear me. You didn’t need to listen to Abraham and deceive me.”
Indeed, Sarah was placed in precarious situations on multiple occasions. How did she feel about it? One apocryphal source tells us:
“And Sarai said to Abram: My judgment and my humiliation, my insult and the beginning of my affliction, are delivered into your hand. I forsook my country, the house of my birth, and the house of my father and I have come with you with faith. I went in with you before kings of the earth and before Pharaoh king of Egypt and before Abimilech king of Gerar and I said: ‘He is my brother,’ so that they might not kill you. And when I saw that I did not bear I took Hagar the Egyptian, my maid, and gave her to you as wife, and I said: ‘She will bear children and I will rear (them). Perhaps I too will get children through her.’ But when she saw she had conceived my honor was of little value in her sight. And now let the Lord be revealed and let him judge between me and you, and let him spread his peace between me and you, and let the earth be filled from us and we will not need the son of Hagar the Egyptian, who belongs to the children of the sons of the people who gave you into the furnace of fire of the Chaldeans.” (Tvedtnes, Hauglid, & Gee, Traditions About the Early Life of Abraham [Provo: FARMS, 2001], 69)
Genesis 20:17 So Abraham prayed unto God: and God healed Abimelech, and his wife
A king without an heir! It is a Shakespearean tragedy in the making. What Abimelech most desired was the blessing he received for treating the prophet Abraham with kindness. God healed him just as he will heal us if we are faithful. The message of the Old Testament is also a message of healing, for God rewards those who obey his word and honor his prophets.
God healed Abimelech; God healed his wife; He can heal us as well.
Bruce C. Hafen
Jesus is the Great Healer, and his Atonement is the heart of our theology. No therapist can match that healing power. When is the power of the Master Healer accessible to us? Should we be surprised to discover that the Atonement—the core doctrine of the gospel—applies to the core problems of our mortal lives—all of them?
… the grace of Christ, unlocked by his atoning sacrifice, [heals] us from the wounds of our sins and all our other "infirmities." (See Alma 7:12.) As we repent of our conscious sins, accept the gospel, and do all else in our power to do, we enter into a holy relationship with our Savior based on the two-way covenants made possible by his Atonement. Through our covenant relationship with him, he heals us in at least four distinct ways:
  1. He satisfies the eternal law of justice, paying for our sins, so long as we repent of them.
  2. His influence interacts with our righteous yearnings and our repentance to change our hearts until we desire goodness continually.
  3. He bridges any chasm that separates and estranges us from God, thereby healing our feelings of shame, bitterness, and worthlessness. Many causes can create this sense of alienation—unintentional mistakes or undeserved discouragement and confusion, as well as sin. Regardless of whether his sheep run away or lose their way or are stolen away, the Good Shepherd will search for them when they are lost, pick them up, and carry them home, making them "at one" with him and his Father. That is the work of the great "at-one-ment."
  4. Once we have done all we can do to make restitution, the Savior will help to compensate for the harm we may have done, or the harms done to us, repairing and restoring our spiritual and psychic losses, whether caused by sin or other factors.
…ultimately, the gospel of Jesus Christ was not given us primarily to prevent our pain. The gospel was given us to heal our pain. That is the promise of the scriptures: the Atonement not only heals us—it can sanctify our trying experiences to our growth. (Bruce C. Hafen and Marie K. Hafen, The Belonging: The Atonement and Relationships with God and Family Heart [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1994], 82, 90)