Reading Genesis 20, we might be excused for feeling a sense of déjà vu. We have already encountered a story in which Abraham leaves Canaan for a foreign land, pretends that Sarah is his sister, Sarah is taken by the ruler, the ruler is plagued by God, the truth is revealed, Abraham is given many gifts by the ruler, and the plagues cease. In fact, not only do we find stories with this pattern in Genesis 12 and 20, we find a further one in Genesis 26, with Isaac and Rebekah in Gerar.
The repetition of this story has suggested to some that traditional material has become attached to the patriarchs in three different ways in different sources and, rather than exclude one of the sources, given the importance of the tradition, all have been included. We should not presume that the repetition of this narrative is merely some concession to ambiguity in the attribution of traditional material within the sources, however. The sacred history of Scripture does not see the same virtue in discreteness and novelty in events that our histories generally do. In fact, much of the history of Scripture is characterized by repetition with variation and biblical authors seem to go to lengths to avoid a sense of discreteness and highlight fundamental themes with new variations.
While these three stories are usually related together by commentators, my argument within these posts is that we must go much further than this, and relate these three stories, and many more besides, to a greater story of Exodus, a story that is repeated in various forms on dozens of occasions in Scripture. Scriptural history is symphonic, and Exodus is arguably its central theme. If you have trained your ear to hear it, you can hear its presence throughout the biblical text.
Readings of the book of Genesis that are driven by the sensibilities of modern historians or which are looking for moral examples for Christians can struggle with such seemingly repetitive narratives. However, such repetitive texts are the meat and drink of typological readings of sacred history. They serve as indicators of the integrity and unity of sacred history. They manifest the relationships between various characters and events, the meaning of certain occurrences. More importantly, they enable us to find our own identity within the narrative, as through the life and worship of the people of God we become part of the same symphony. This will be an overarching theme of all of these studies, one which will become increasingly prominent as we near its completion.
These themes are not bald repetitions, but undergo significant development, as we shall see as we look through this passage. The theme and its various elements fill out and gradually come to the foreground. By the time that we arrive at the Exodus from Egypt, it will be very familiar to us.
Timeframe and Geography
It would appear that Abraham went to Gerar almost immediately after the destruction of the cities of the plain. Directly prior to their destruction, YHWH had promised that Sarah would have a son that time next year (18:10). As Sarah conceived after the events of chapter 20 (cf. 21:1-2), those events would seem to have occurred in the intervening three months. We may presume that Abimelech took Sarah not much more than a few weeks after the destruction of the cities. The fact that the events from Genesis 17:1—21:7 occur within such a compressed timeframe is noteworthy. It underlines the relatedness of the events and also heightens the sense of drama associated with the transition that is occurring.
Once again we see Abraham travelling towards the south. This time he doesn’t go to Egypt, but goes to Gerar, to the land of the Philistines. The Philistines have already been related to the Egyptians in the book of Genesis. In Genesis 10:13-14 we are told Mizraim (Egypt) begot Casluhim, from whom came the Philistines. As we shall see as this series progresses, a number of the most important biblical exoduses occur within Philistine territory. Philistia was not one of the lands promised to Israel in Genesis 15:18-21, but was foreign territory. As we shall see, both Abraham and Isaac spend a significant amount of time living in this foreign territory and outside of the land of Canaan.
Sarah and Abimelech
Abraham employs the same tactic that he employed in Egypt, reasoning that, even though the fear of God was not in Gerar, the Philistines would at least have regard for custom, where the brother was to be respected as the woman’s guardian. Abraham assumed that he, his people, and Sarah would be safer if he pretended to be Sarah’s brother, rather than her husband. However, once again, the plan failed, as Abimelech sent and took Sarah, rather than dealing with Abraham, as he should have done.
In this case, though, things work out rather differently. God appeared to Abimelech in a dream by night, proclaiming a death sentence upon him for taking another man’s wife (v.3). Abimelech protested his innocence, pointing out that both Abraham and Sarah had told him that she was Abraham’s sister. God declared that he had preserved Abimelech from sinning against him, knowing that – even though he may have been in the wrong in his treatment of Abraham – it was not his intention to take another man’s wife. This preservation of Abimelech from sin provides quite a contrast to the later Exodus, where YHWH progressively hardens Pharaoh’s heart, so that his final judgment will be more decisive. Abimlech had to restore Sarah to Abraham, or God would take his life, and the life of his people. God also instructed Abimelech to ask Abraham to pray for him, so that he would live.
Abimelech tells all of his servants this dream and they are all very afraid. He then summons Abraham, accusing him of bringing a great sin upon him and his kingdom. While Abimelech was inadvertently guilty of taking another man’s wife, Abraham was hardly to blame, as Abimelech had unwittingly brought the situation upon himself by the lesser fault of failing to deal justly with Abraham as a brother of Sarah. Once again we see the unjust ruler accusing the righteous person of sin. If Abimelech and his men had truly feared God, they wouldn’t have mistreated Abraham and Sarah as they did, taking Sarah without either of their consent.
Despite his initial accusatory question, however, Abimelech seems to accept Abraham’s explanation of his actions in the matter, as his subsequent actions seem to make plain. Abimelech takes sheep, oxen, and male and female servants and gives them to Abraham, restoring Sarah to him also. In contrast to Pharaoh in 12:19-20, Abimelech invites Abraham to stay wherever he wishes in his land, much as Pharaoh offers Jacob and his people the best of the land of Egypt in 47:6. Abimelech also declares to Sarah that he has given a thousand pieces of silver to her ‘brother’ as a ‘covering of the eyes’ (v.16), making recompense for the fault, so that it may no longer be seen. The gift of the money vindicated Sarah of any charge of sexual impropriety and affirmed the authority of her protector, which Abimelech had violated.
Abimelech seems to have suffered some sort of illness as a result of his taking of Sarah, perhaps involving impotence, and his wife and maidservants have their wombs opened so that they can bear children again (unless we are to see Abimelech’s illness as that of his wife and maidservants alone, rather than something that he suffers personally). Since there is no more than a three month time period in which this story could take place, we are left to speculate on what exactly was involved in the closing of the wombs and the degree to which it had come to the attention of the people. James Jordan suggests the possibility that the women of Abimelech’s household wouldn’t have been able to deliver their babies at the point of giving birth (cf. Isaiah 66:9), and not merely that they weren’t becoming pregnant.
The power with which YHWH acts on behalf of Abraham is once again emphasized within this exodus narrative. However, to this emphasis is added one upon the power with which YHWH acts through Abraham the prophet. Rather than restoring Abimelech and his household automatically, God determines that Abraham has to pray for Abimelech. The power that Abraham’s prophetic prayer has with YHWH is highlighted here. YHWH wills to act by means of his servant Abraham’s prayer, not immediately.
Directly following the opening of the wombs of Abimelech’s household, Sarah’s womb is opened and she conceives and bears Isaac. As we shall see, the relationship between these two events is highly significant.
The Exodus in Gerar
In the events of this chapter, we see a series of prominent exodus themes. There is a journey into a foreign land, one associated with Egypt. There is an attack upon the bride and the seed by an unjust or serpent-like ruler (about which more in a moment). There is the use of deception against the ruler by Abraham and Sarah. There is a divine intervention in a dream (a theme that will recur on a few occasions in later studies). There are divine judgments or plagues upon the ruler (the closing of the wombs). There is the accusation of the righteous by the unjust ruler. Finally, there is the giving of spoils, most particularly of male and female servants.
A number of details merit especial attention here. The first is the importance of the theme of the attack upon the woman and the seed in this context. The threat to the woman was a theme in the previous narrative of exodus from Egypt, but here we see that this threat is also a more direct threat upon the seed. YHWH had only just promised to Sarah that she would have a child that time next year. From the beginning of Genesis we learn that the seed of the woman is the one who will defeat the serpent, and that there is a particular enmity between the serpent and the woman and her seed for this reason (Genesis 3:15). Throughout the Scriptures, we see serpent figures going to great lengths to prevent the woman from giving birth to the promised seed, or seeking to destroy the seed immediately after it is born (e.g. Exodus 1:15-22; Matthew 2:16-18; Revelation 12:4).
While Abimelech obviously knows nothing of YHWH’s promise to Sarah, we should see his action in terms of this pattern. Incidentally, it is within such narratives that we might see the first hints of a shadowy agency of the serpent, manipulating human agents behind the scenes, possibly implying that Genesis has a rather more developed concept of ‘Satanic’ power at work in the world than surface readings might give it credit for. The frequent subtle allusions to the Fall narrative at various points all hint at evil forces at work in the world that transcend the human protagonists, forces that are only fleetingly sighted, as if out of the corners of our eyes.
The second thing to observe is that, within this passage the exodus theme of new birth comes to the forefront, both in the closing of the wombs of Abimelech’s household, and in Sarah’s conception immediately after the wombs of Abimelech’s household are opened. The connection between exodus and new birth, already something that we have remarked upon, will be a prominent motif on a number of further occasions in these studies. While women have been in the background of these narratives, typically the victims of other people’s actions, as time progresses their role will become the prominent one, as their frontline covenant work of bearing the seed and outwitting the serpent comes to the fore.
A third detail that merits closer attention is Abraham’s new role. Abraham is no longer just the priest establishing new worship, nor the ruler over a people and military leader, but is now chiefly presented to us as the prophetic figure, who has power with God, a man whose words and prayers can build up or tear kingdoms. God no longer merely acts on his behalf, but acts through Abraham.
The Conversion of Abimelech
The actions of Abimelech within this chapter suggest that a real change occurs in his attitude, or at least in his narrative role. At the outset, he seems to be playing the standard serpent role. There seemed to be no fear of God in the land when Abraham first arrived (v.11), but after hearing of Abimelech’s vision of God, Abimelech’s servants are described as being ‘very afraid’ (v.8). Through his vision and his conversation with Abraham, Abraham moves to being one who supports the prophet. Formerly facing a terrible curse on account of his treatment of Abraham and Sarah, he responds, not by seeking to remove Abraham from his land and cease dealings with him, but to be blessed with him, as he treats Abraham with righteousness and kindness (cf. 12:3).
Abraham does not leave Philistia at this point, as he had left other lands beforehand, but remains there for a long time (21:34). The relationship between Abraham and Abimelech is akin to the relationship between Joseph and Pharaoh or between Daniel and the various rulers he served under. These parallels are not accidental. As we have already seen, Abraham’s life progresses from a priestly stage, to a kingly stage, before entering into a prophetic stage, each stage involving an expanded scope of influence. We see the same expansion of influence in the lives of the patriarchs, reaching its climax in Joseph’s rise to rule in Egypt, where Joseph’s prophetic wisdom is sought by a foreign ruler, who acknowledges the power of Israel’s God.
In the life of the nation of Israel the same pattern pertains. The earlier history of Israel is one dominated by the priesthood, leading to the establishment of the kingdom. The later history of Israel is a prophetic one, where its influence is scattered throughout the world, rising to positions of great influence within the mighty empires of the day. While the priestly era is dominated by the relationship with YHWH and the internal relations of the nation, the kingly era by relations with immediate neighbours, in the prophetic era the word of YHWH goes out into the world, into the very heart of the greatest empires of the day.
The Covenant with Abimelech
In 21:22-34 we read of events leading up to a more formal relationship between Abraham and Abimelech. Abimelech recognizes that God is with Abraham in all that Abraham does (cf. Genesis 26:28; 39:23) and asks Abraham to make an oath to him that he and his descendants will treat Abimelech’s land with the same kindness as Abimelech has treated Abraham, an oath that Abraham willingly makes (21:22-24).
Following this event, there is a troubling of their relationship, as Abimelech’s men seize one of Abraham’s wells, in an action not authorized by Abimelech himself. In response to this event, Abraham and Abimelech make a treaty. Abimelech restores the well and makes a covenant with Abraham. Abraham gives sheep and oxen to Abimelech, implying a stronger and more permanent relationship between the two of them. They then make a covenant at Beersheba, and Abraham establishes true worship there (21:31-33).
There are echoes of the events of the previous chapter that we should hear in the events surrounding the well. Peter Leithart remarks:
As Larry Lyke notes, “Following the events of chapter 20, it is hard to miss the significance of Abraham’s complaint that Abimelech has taken his ‘well.’ The juxtaposition of these texts is as close as our text comes to making explicit the association of women and wells in our narratives.” Reinforcing this is the fact that the well is named Beer-sheba, the well of the oath or the well of seven – a reference to the seven ewes that Abraham gives to Abimelech: “The association of the well of Beer-sheba with sheep connects this passage to the betrothal scenes. This all suggests that the cultural and literary competence that informs these texts strongly links women, wells, and sheep – all symbols of fertility.”
Abimelech’s men stealing Abraham’s well is analogous to Abimelech’s taking of Sarah. Throughout Genesis and beyond we see the association between women, sheep, water, and wells (Genesis 24:15-21; 29:1-10; 38:12-14; in my previous post I referenced Nathan’s symbolic representation of Bathsheba as a ewe lamb – 2 Samuel 12:3). For instance, in Exodus 2:16, we see Moses encountering the seven daughters of Reuel or Jethro, the priest of Midian, at a well, where they are trying to water their flocks (I suspect that some echo of the seven ewes of Beersheba should be seen here). A struggle over or at wells needs to be related to the threat to the woman, being an extension of and allusion to that particular motif. The relationship between these things will also be important to keep in mind when we study the account of Isaac’s sojourn among the Philistines in Genesis 26.
The Opening of the Wombs
It is important to notice that Sarah’s womb is opened at the same time as the wombs of the women of Abimelech’s household. In his typically perceptive piece, Jordan suggests that a relationship is here being drawn between the healing of the Gentiles and the birth of the promised seed. It is no coincidence that the birth of the promised seed follows after the development of the exodus theme to one leading to conversion, rather than judgment or destruction, and that it follows after Abraham’s prophetic prayer. Jordan writes:
Recall that the whole purpose of calling Abram in the first place was so that he could be father to many nations, so that he could be a priest and evangelist to the gentiles. In the fulfillment of God’s plan, we often see salvation and blessing come first to the Hebrews/Israelites/Jews, and then also to the Gentiles. But we also see instances of salvation and blessing not coming to the Jews until after it comes to the Gentiles, as in the case of Joseph. The book of Romans reflects on both of these sequences, telling us in chapter 1 that the gospel is “for the Jew first and also for the Greek,” and then also telling us in chapter 11 that the Gentiles are saved first, and then the salvation of Israel comes.
In fact, Romans 11:15 is quite specific: When Israel is saved after the Gentiles, it is “life from the dead.” This phrase does not appear in a vacuum, because Paul has already said that God “gives life to the dead” when discussing the opening of Sarah’s womb (Romans 4:17, 19).
Far from being a mere stolid rehearsal of a tradition praising the beauty of the patriarchs’ wives or a tale with a moralistic import, Genesis 20-21 is an account of deep typological and redemptive historical import. The serpent figure is converted, not destroyed, and the righteous are given a greater power and influence in the wider world, ministering to peoples outside of the land of Canaan. It is a story of the blessing of the Gentiles and the opening of the wombs, so that Israel’s fullness can come.