Gleanings In Genesis

23. Abraham At Gerar

Genesis 20

In our last chapter we considered at some length the revelation which God made of Himself to Abraham as the Almighty, together with the sevenfold promise which accompanied this revelation, including, as it did, that Abraham and Sarah should be given Isaac in their old age. In Genesis 18 we behold the Lord in full fellowship with the one He thrice terms His "friend," eating at his table, and making known his purpose concerning Sodom; while at the close of the chapter Abraham is seen as an intercessor before God. And now, in Genesis 20, we are to witness a sad and dramatic change. There is a return to the miserable policy which he followed down in Egypt. Afraid that his life may be taken from him on account of his wife, he causes her to pose as his sister, and only through a direct interposition by God is she delivered from the effects of his sin.

"And Abraham journeyed from thence toward the south country and dwelt between Kadesh and Shur, and sojourned in Gerar. And Abraham said of Sarah his wife, She is my sister: and Abimelech, King of Gerar, sent and took Sarah" (Gen. 20:1, 2). The contents of Genesis 20 furnish a striking proof of the Divine inspiration of the Scriptures. No fictitious historian would have recorded this dark blot on the life of such an illustrious personage as Abraham. The tendency of the human heart is ever toward hero worship, and the common custom of biographers is to conceal the defects and blemishes in the careers of the characters which they delineate, and this, had it been followed, would naturally forbid the mention of such a sad fall in the life of one of the most venerated names on the scroll of history. Ah! but herein the Bible differs from all other books. The Holy Spirit has painted the portraits of Scripture characters in the colors of nature and truth. He has given a faithful picture of the human heart such as is common to all mankind.

At first sight it seems incredible that Abraham should have acted as recorded here in Genesis 20, but further reflection will convince any honest Christian that the picture here drawn is only too true to life: "As in water face answereth to face, so the heart of man to man" (Prov. 27:19). The remaining of the old nature in the believer, the occasional manifestations of it in God-dishonoring activities, the awful backslidings which God's children have been subject to in all ages, and the reviewing of our own sad departures from the path of faith and righteousness, are quite enough to explain the deplorable and seemingly unaccountable conduct of the father of all who believe. And if the reader knows nothing of such departures and backslidings let him not boast of his faithfulness and superior piety, rather let him ascribe all glory to the matchless grace of Him that is able to keep us from falling.

Sad indeed, inexpressibly sad, was Abraham's conduct. It was not the fall of a young and inexperienced disciple, but the lapse of one who had long walked the path of faith that here shows himself ready to sacrifice the honor of his wife, and what is worse, give up the one who was the depositary of all the promises. "What then is man, and what hope for him except in God None, surely. And it is to ground us well in this that we are given to see the sad and terrible failures of these honored servants of God. Not to discourage but to lead us to the Source of all comfort and strength. Only in realized weakness do we find this. Only when unable to do without God for a moment do we find what He is for us moment by moment" (F. W. Grant).

What made the matter so much worse in Abraham's ease was that it was not a question of being surprised into a sudden fault. It was the recurrence of an old sin. Long ago he had followed the same wicked course in Egypt, where his duplicity had been discovered and from whence he was banished in disgrace. But the experience profited him not. Some twenty or twenty-five years had passed since then, and in the interval he had built an altar unto the Lord, had vanquished Chedorlaomer, had been blessed by Melchizedek the priest of the Most High God, had repulsed the offer of the King of Sodom to be enriched at his hands, and had received wondrous revelations and promises from God; yet now we see him leaving God out of his reckoning, and ensnared by the fear of man, resorting to the most shameful deception. How then shall we account for this? The explanation is obvious: until the time referred to in Genesis 20 Abraham had not been in circumstances to call into exercise the evil that was in his heart.

"The evil was not fully brought out- not confessed, not got rid of- and the proof of this is, that the moment he again finds himself in circumstances which could act upon his weak point, it is at once made manifest that the weak point is there. The temptation through which he passed in the matter of the King of Sodom was not by any means calculated to touch this peculiar point; nor was anything that occurred to him from the time that he came up out of Egypt until he went down to Gerar calculated to touch it, for had it been touched it would no doubt have exhibited itself.

"We can never know what is in our hearts until circumstances arise to draw it out. Peter did not imagine he could deny his Lord, but when he got into circumstances which were calculated to act upon his peculiar weakness, he showed that his weakness was there.

"It required the protracted period of forty years in the wilderness to teach the children of Israel ‘what was in their hearts' (Deut. 8:2); and it is one of the grand results of the course of discipline through which each child of God passes, to lead him into a more profound knowledge of his own weakness and nothingness. ‘We had the sentence of death in ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves but in God which raiseth the dead' (2 Cor. 1:9). The more we are growing in the sense of our infirmities, the more shall we see our need of clinging more closely to Christ- drawing more largely upon His grace, and entering more fully into the cleansing virtue and value of His atoning blood. The Christian, at the opening of his course never knows his own heart; indeed, he could not bear the full knowledge of it; he would be overwhelmed thereby. ‘The Lord leads us not by the way of the Philistines lest we should see war,' and so be plunged into despair. But He graciously leads us by a circuitous route, in order that our apprehension of His grace may keep pace with our growing self-knowledge" (C. H. M.).

As we have seen, it was stress of circumstances which revealed the state of Abraham's heart, as it is of ours. Though the wording of it might be improved, we thoroughly agree with the sentiment of a preacher who long ago said, "We possess no more religion than what we have in the time of trouble." It is comparatively easy to trust God while everything goes along pleasantly, but the time of disappointment, of loss, of persecution, of bereavement, is the time of testing; and then how often we fail! Here is where the Lord Jesus is in such striking contrast from all others. Stress of circumstances only served to display the perfections of His heart. When He was a hungered, and tempted by Satan to make bread to supply His own need, He lived by every word of God. When He sat by the well, worn with His journey, He was not too weary to speak words of grace and life to the poor Samaritan woman. When the cities in which His mightiest works had been done rejected His message, He meekly submitted, saying "Even so, Father: for so it seemed good in Thy sight" (Matthew 11:23-26). When He was reviled, He reviled not again. And in the supreme crisis, on the cross, His perfections were fully displayed- praying for the forgiveness of His enemies, speaking the word of acceptance to the repentant thief, making provision for His widowed mother, yielding up His spirit into the hands of the Father. Ah! our garments (symbols of conduct, habits, ways) are at best, so much patchwork, but His were "without seam, woven from the top throughout" (John 19:23). Yes, in all things He has the preeminence.

Light is thrown upon Abraham's fall by the thirteenth verse of our chapter- "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." It is to be noted that this arrangement entered into by Abraham with his wife, was made before they left Chaldea. It was therefore something which they brought with them from the place of their birth! In other words, it was that which was attached to the old man and, as we have seen, something which had never been judged. Let us learn then from this, the vileness of the flesh, the utter corruption of the old nature, the hideousness of the old man. Truly there is need for us to "mortify" our members which are on the earth.

Plainly, the evil compact which Abraham made with Sarah was due to the feebleness of his faith in God's power to take care of them. And once more, let not writer or reader sit in pharisaic judgment upon Abraham, but see a picture of himself. Abraham did but illustrate what is all too sadly common among the Lord's people- that which might be termed the inconsistency of faith. How often those who are not afraid to trust God with their souls, are afraid to trust Him with regard to their bodies! How often those who have the full assurance of faith in regard to eternal things, are full of unbelief and fear when it comes to temporal things! We have believed in the Lord and it has been counted unto us for righteousness; yet, how often, like Abraham, in the matter of the practical concerns of our daily life, we too, have more confidence in our own wisdom and scheming than we have in the sufficiency of God.

And how did God act? Did He lose patience with Abraham, and cast off one so fickle and inconsistent? Manifestly Abraham had dishonored the Lord in acting as he did, in setting such an evil example before these heathen (Philistines). Yet, behold the grace of Him with whom we have to do. Instead of casting him off, God interposed and delivered Abraham and his wife from the peril which menaced them. Not only did God not forsake Abraham, but He would not abandon him to his foes. Ah! the gifts and calling of God are "without repentance." And why? Because they are bestowed altogether without respect to any worthiness in the recipient, and hence, because God's gifts are free and we do nothing to merit them, we can do nothing to demerit them.

"The soul that on Jesus hath leaned for repose,
I will not, I will not desert to his foes;
That soul, though all Hell should endeavor to shake,
I'll never, no never, no never forsake."

"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" (Gen. 20:3). This statement may appear very commonplace to the casual reader the mere narration of a detail lacking in importance. But the meditative mind discovers here an exemplification of a truth of profound importance and high value, though one that is now generally lost sight of. We refer to the universality of God's rule; the absolute control which he has over His creatures; the ease with which He can move men to accomplish His will. God has access to all minds and can impress them by a dream, an affliction, or in any way He thinks proper. In the above case God used a dream to instruct Abimelech, to show him the wrong he had unconsciously done, and to point out to him his immediate duty. Abimelech was a Philistine, and, so far as we know to the contrary, a heathen. He knew nothing of the fact that Sarah was the one chosen to be the mother of the Jewish race, and the one from whom, according to the flesh, the Messiah was to come. Appearances seemed to show that Jehovah's purpose was in immediate danger of being foiled. But how simply God dealt with the situation! By means of a dream, nothing more, Sarah is delivered, the seeming hindrances to God's purpose is removed, the situation is saved! What we here desire to emphasize is the perfect ease with which God can move men when He pleases. All this modern talk about man's "freedom" and man's going his own way in defiance of God's secret counsels leaves God out entirely. To say that God wants to influence men but that men will not let Him is to reduce the Almighty to a helpless spectator, full of gracious intentions but lacking in power to make them good. But what saith the Scriptures? Hear them: "The king's heart is in the hand of the Lord, as the rivers of water: He turneth it whithersoever He will" (Prov. 21:1). Yes, and so easily can He turn the king's heart, that when He pleases He needs employ nothing more than a "dream"!

"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" (Gen. 20:6). In these words we have (as so often in Scripture) an apparently incidental statement which throws great light upon a difficult problem and which positively refutes the proud reasoning of the philosophic theologians. How often it has been said that in endowing Adam with the power of choice God was unable to prevent his fall. But how untenable are such theorizings in the face of the above passage! If God could "withhold" Abimelech from sinning against Him, then had He pleased He could have done the same with our first parents. Should it be asked why He did not "withhold" Adam from sinning, the answer must be that He permitted sin to enter that opportunity might be given to display His grace.

"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"(Gen. 20:8, 9). It is important to note that Abimelech recognized fornication as a "great sin." Unquestionably the heathen are aware of the criminality of many of the sinful acts which they commit- "their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the meanwhile accusing or else excusing one another"
(Rom. 2:15).

A brief consideration of one other thought and our space is exhausted. Notice how differently God looked at and spoke of Abraham from Abimelech's words concerning him- "Now therefore restore the man his wife; for he is a prophet, and he shall pray for thee and thou shalt live." All that Abimelech saw in our patriarch was a man guilty of barefaced deception. But God looked at Abraham in Christ, and therefore speaks of him as a "prophet" (one who has His mind), and makes Abimelech debtor to his prayers! This is how God ever vindicates His own before the unbelieving. It was a similar case to what He said through Balaam concerning Israel at a later date "He hath not beheld iniquity in Jacob, neither hath He seen perverseness in Israel" (Num. 23:21). In some such way as this is now being answered on high the charges of the enemy who accuses the brethren before God day and night. Oh! blessed fact, "There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus." Will this encourage careless living? God forbid, "For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law, but under grace."

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