Genesis 20–21. The Wages of Fear and the Triumph of Grace.
Key Notes: A lie repeated. God rescued Abraham and Sarah from a mess. Ishmael had to leave. Sexuality.
In this lesson, we see Abraham and Sarah behaving like ordinary mortals, repeating a dangerous mistake. God had to intervene with a Philistine king to prevent a disaster.
Gen.20:1–2 Abraham went to live in or near Gerar, a Philistine city (21:34), ruled by Abimelech. Abraham said that Sarah was his sister and she was promptly carried off to Abimelech's Philistine harem. We can only marvel that Abraham would make the same foolish mistake twice. And the timing could not have been worse, because God had promised Sarah a son within the next year. We are also impressed by the beauty of a 90-year-old woman, considered a good catch for a harem.
20:3 But unlike the previous abduction by Pharaoh (Gen.12:15), this time God intervened directly by appearing to Abimelech in a dream: "Behold, you are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is a man's wife." (20:3). "I did not let you touch her." (20:6)
20:4–7 Abimelech responded to God in righteous indignation and denied wrong-doing. He addressed God as "Lord", indicating that God was known to him. God said that He would not let Abimelech sin against Him. Abimelech must restore Sarah and beg Abraham ("he is a prophet") to pray for his forgiveness and salvation. Not only Abimelech, but his whole family was in jeopardy. [God loves Philistines.]
20:8–10 Abimelech told his people the next morning and they were suitably frightened. He called on Abraham and denounced him for lying and putting him and his kingdom in jeopardy.
20:11–13 In explanation Abraham said "I did it because I thought there is no fear of God at all in this place and they will kill me because of my wife." [But plainly there was fear of God in this place.] It had been his policy since "God caused me to wander from my father's house" that they would agree to call each other brother and sister.
20:14–18 Abimelech restored Sarah and paid compensation--sheep, oxen, servants and 1000 pieces of silver. He was sarcastic to Sarah about "her brother" and her being "vindicated". But Abraham prayed for him and he and his household were healed of infertility. And that would appear to be the end of it.
Gen.21:1–2. Presently, as God had promised, Isaac was conceived, carried to term and born without significant trouble, to a really elderly primipara. Note the repeated phrase, "as He had said", as He had promised", "at the time God had spoken to him". This birth was a miracle of God's direct and long-range planning.
21:3–5 The child was named Isaac, according to instructions from God (Gen.17:21), and circumcised on the eighth day. Abraham was 100 years old.
21:6–7 Sarah enjoyed her baby and apparently was the center of a happy group of women. Isaac’s name means “laughter”.
21:8–13 When Isaac was weaned, Abraham made a big party. Ishmael was not amused: no one had made a big party for him. He mocked Isaac. Sarah was furious and demanded that Abraham evict "the slave woman and her son." Although Abraham was upset, God intervened and advised Abraham to do as Sarah had said.
21:14 We are dismayed that Abraham would send his concubine and first-born son off with a bottle of water and a loaf of bread. No mules or camels, no servants, no money and no destination. They were let go to wander in the desert. This is the second time Hagar was evicted--and rescued by God.
21:15–21 In a few days they were exhausted and Ishmael was near death from thirst. God heard Ishmael crying. The angel of God called encouragement to Hagar from heaven and pointed her to a well. God was with Ishmael and he became an archer. Hagar found him a wife from Egypt, her homeland. [God loves Ishmaelites.]
21:22–24 Surprisingly, Abimelech reemerged to seek a covenant of peace with Abraham. He acknowledged that God is with him and he wanted Abraham to act with loyalty and faith toward him and his posterity. It is remarkable that Abimelech attached himself to Abraham after the previous mess, and it shows his spiritual insight.
21:25–32 At once a matter of water rights had to be settled. Abimelech’s men had occupied one of Abraham’s wells. Seven ewe lambs were set aside by Abraham as a token of the settlement. The well was called Beer-sheba, "the well of seven", and so it is to this day.
21:33 Abraham planted a flowering tree, putting down roots there, and called upon the name of God, El Olam, the Everlasting God. He had seen the permanence of God’s provision for his family.
The birth of Isaac comes like an anticlimax after the debacle of the previous chapter and the following expulsion of Ishmael. It is nonetheless the climax of Abraham's life, the result of 25 years of waiting for a promise to be fulfilled.
Shortly after his successful intercession with the the Lord for the righteous in Sodom, Abraham lapsed into a gross error. We see it also in Elijah (IK.19:1–3), Hezekiah (IIK.20:12–19), Uzziah (IIChron.26:16–21), even David. (IISam.10:15–11:2). After a pinnacle, there is often a downfall. Fear was not always the motive; pride was the impulse for Hezekiah, Uzziah, and David. We must watch over those in leadership to try to prevent disasters which may be even greater than the previous successes.
Abraham lied about Sarah because of fear for his life. Instead of risking his life for her (Eph.5:25), he asked her to risk her life or at least her independent life for him. But God had promised him a great nation, and blessing and protection. Abraham could not make the connection that the promise of God was a shield against his vulnerability. (Gen.15:1).He trusted God for his offspring, but not for his own life.
Abimelech sounds like a believer. Abraham's sin makes him look pathetic, and yet God used him as an intercessor again. Abraham was the man of faith. God did not chide him. The rebuke was punishment enough.
The promises to Abraham had been given seven times:
1) You will become a great nation; a blessing to all nations. (Abraham was 75 years old. )12:2
2) Canaan will be the homeland to Abraham's descendents. 12:7
3) Abraham's son will be his heir. His offspring would be as the stars in number. 15:4
4) Israel will be in exile 400 years, out of Canaan. (Abraham was 86 years old.) 15:13
5) Sarah will have a child named Isaac.17:19
6) In the Spring Sarah will have the child. (Abraham was now 100 years old.)‘:14
7) “In Isaac your descendents will be named.” 21:12
This is a story of faith and patience.
"In hope he believed against hope."
"He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead because he was 100 years old, or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah's womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised." (Rom.4:18–21)
The grace of God took hold of a great man, warts and all.
It is also a delicate story about sexuality, about an aged couple and their baby. It involves:
An old man and his beautiful, infertile, post-menopausal wife,
A surrogate mother,
Circumcision of males.
God uses this family constellation to teach us about faith and justification and salvation. It must have been funny; they all laughed over a baby. But plainly God cares about our sexuality as well as our salvation. Marriage was established by God (Gen.2:24) and its consequences are a part of His work. The stories of Jacob, Ruth, Hannah (ISam.1–3) and even David and Bathsheba (IISam.11) show the sovereign power of God ruling and over-rulling in the sexual relationships between men and women. Trust Him for your marriage.
God's grace is for us. Our fears are great and they grow as we mature: money, health, family, politics, religion, and the future press in on us. But Jesus has promised to be with us through it all and to the end.