Abraham’s Tragic Flaw

Genesis 20

Alan Lewis
Elon, North Carolina
June 2015

We have been studying the life of Abraham.  Our topic today is Abraham’s tragic flaw.  One thing about the Bible is that it is brutally honest.  For the last two weeks, we have been studying Sodom and Gomorrah.  We looked at why God destroyed those cities.  The chapter describes the incredible depravity of the city.  It was a sin that was open and public.  There was no repentance.  it was a sin that was widespread.

Everyone in town was involved in it.  It involved not only abusing people but angels.  Even after the gang of thugs that surrounded by Lot’s house and were completely blinded, that did not stop them from trying to sin.  They still attempted to reach for the door handle to get into Lot’s house.

The end of the chapter is even more graphic.  It records incest.  It records Lot’s daughters raping him while he is drunk.  Critics say that the Bible is an immoral book.  Why would the Bible record something not fit for the pulpit or for innocent children to read?  Many atheists argue that the Bible contains all kinds of moral atrocities.  They say that the Bible is a bloody book.

Are they right? In one sense the critics are correct.  The Bible is a bloody book because it is a factual representation of the nature of man.  It gives us an accurate portrait of man.  Man is a bloody creature.  The very first baby born on the planet was a murderer.  Cain killed Abel.

The Bible is an honest book.  It gives us a true history of events.  It records man as he actually is.  The Bible is not a politically correct book.  Those who are politically correct try to sugarcoat everything.  They want to make things more appealing, more acceptable and easier to swallow.

The PC crowd does not want to hurt anyone’s feelings.  The result is that you cannot say what is really going on.  The Obama administration has removed the words “Islamic Terror” from the FBI and Homeland Security, because some might find that offensive.  The Bible was not written to be inoffensive.  In fact, Jesus said some things deliberately to offend people.

Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law” (Matthew 10:34-35 ESV).

In one sense, the critics are completely wrong.  The Bible does not approve everything it records.  Just because it mentions many violent acts does not mean that it sanctions violence.  God says “The Lord examines the righteous, but the wicked, those who love violence, he hates with a passion” (Psalm 11:7 NIV).

Just because it mentions homosexuality, rape or incest does not mean that it approves of it or endorses it. I Thessalonians 4:3 says “It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality” (NIV).  In fact not only are we to avoid it, Paul says that we are to flee from it (I Corinthians 6:18).  We are not just supposed to resist it and fight it; we are to run from it.  He says in Ephesians 5:3 that among Christians “there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality or of any kind of impurity” (NIV)

The Bible is also honest in another way.  It doesn’t try to hide the flaws of the saints.  That is why I am glad there are no books of the Bible about me.  Now Abraham had many strengths.  He is one of the greatest characters in the Bible.  He is called the friend of God three times in the Bible.

He is called the father of all who believe.  Those who have faith are called the children of Abraham.  He was justified by God.  We saw that in Genesis 15.  He had power with God in prayer. We saw that in Genesis 18. He showed incredible hospitality to complete strangers.  In this chapter, we learn something else about Abraham that we did not know.

Abraham was a prophet.  Abraham is the first man in the Bible called a prophet.  He is not just a patriarch.  He is a prophet.  The first time the word “prophet” occurs in the Bible is Genesis 20:7.  He had a special relationship with God that others did not have.  He revealed things to him that he did not reveal to anyone else.  Abraham was a great role model in many ways but what we learn in Genesis 20 is that Abraham was not perfect.  He was saved but he was not sinless.

Abraham had a weakness.  Everyone has a weakness for something.  It is called a sin nature.  We are all born sinners and when we got saved we did not become all of the sudden perfect.  That sin nature stays with us until we die.  No matter how spiritual we are, we never reach a state of sinless perfection.

If you do not believe that I am a sinner, all you have to do is to ask my wife. The best Christian you know are sinners.  The most mature Christians and the godliest saints have struggles with sin.  That includes missionaries and pastors.  This chapter is proof.  Abraham is called a prophet in this chapter and he sins.  Preachers are not perfect either.  They sin.  Even the Apostle Paul said, “Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me” (Romans 7:21).  Apostles struggled with sin.  In fact, one of them was greedy.

There are some holiness groups which teach that you can reach a state of perfection in this life.  I know because I have talked to them.  The Bible doesn’t teach that.  I John 1:8 says “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (NIV)  We all have a weakness. Samson had this incredible physical strength but he was morally weak.  He had a weakness for was women but not just any women.

He only liked pagan women.  He only dated Philistines, not Hebrew women.  For others, their short temper may be their weakness or they may have difficulty controlling their tongue.  They have trouble with profanity.  For others, it might be an addiction.  Abraham’s weakness was not greed or gluttony or lust, it was deception.  He had trouble telling the truth.

As we come to Genesis 20, we see three things.  We see the sin of Abraham.  We also see the intervention of God.  We also see the rebuke of Abimelek.  Let’s look at these one by one.

The Sin of Abraham

Let’s look at Abraham’s sin and why he did it?  How did it begin?  He moved to a new place and that led to a new temptation.  We find that at the end of the last chapter.  In the last chapter, two angels went into Sodom, rescued Lot and his family and the whole city was wiped off the map.  It was completely obliterated, along with all of the plants.  Nothing survived.  Fire fell from heaven.

“Early the next morning Abraham got up and returned to the place where he had stood before the Lord. He looked down toward Sodom and Gomorrah, toward all the land of the plain, and he saw dense smoke rising from the land, like smoke from a furnace” (19:27-28).

Abraham made a deal with God that he would not destroy the city if there were ten righteous people in the city.  God agreed.  Abraham looks up and sees a big puff of smoke and realizes that there were not ten righteous people in the city.  He probably thinks that his nephew Lot has been killed, along with everyone else.  Then he decided to move.

“Now Abraham moved on from there into the region of the Negev and lived between Kadesh and Shur. For a while he stayed in Gerar” (20:1).  Why did he want to move?  The text does not say.  One possibility is that there was air pollution after the destruction of these cities which may have affected pasture land for the animals.  Sulpher stinks but we do not know for sure.

It wasn’t a sin for him to move.  He didn’t go out of the Promise Land, like he did before when he went to Egypt.  He just went to Gerar.  It was in the south of the Promised Land. He moved from Hebron to Gerar.  Hebron was in the mountains of Judea.

Hebron is about 20 miles south of Jerusalem.  It is a Palestinian city today.  It is in the West Bank.  It is a Muslim (Sunni) area.  It is a Hamas stronghold.  Abraham had lived in this area for about twenty years.  After Sodom is destroyed, he decided to move to Gerar.  Gerar is in Canaan.  It was a Philistine town at the time.  It is forty or fifty miles southwest of Hebron.

We do not know why he moved but we know where he moved and what he did afterwards.  Afterwards, he practiced deception. “There Abraham said of his wife Sarah, “She is my sister.” Then Abimelek king of Gerar sent for Sarah and took her” (20:2).  He lies about his wife and says that she is his sister. Abraham had a problem.  Apparently, he was married to the most beautiful woman in the world at that time.  That caused a big problem.

Every time he went somewhere, people wanted his wife and some would even kill him for her.  It was a mixed blessing.  She was so beautiful that even in her nineties, she was still desirable.  Imagine that, a ninety year old beauty queen.  Abraham goes to a new place and lies about his marital status.  Strangers were not always treated very well in the ancient world.  We saw that in Sodom, so he lied.

Characteristics of Abraham’s Sin

This was his standard traveling practice.  Sarah was in on the deception.  It was not just a lie, it was a conspiracy.   Notice what Abraham said in Genesis 20:13.  “And when God had me wander from my father’s household, I said to her, ‘This is how you can show your love to me: Everywhere we go, say of me, “He is my brother”’ (NIV).

1) This sin was intentional.

It was not accidental.  It was planned.  This was a deliberate sin.  How do we know?  It went all the way back to when they lived in Ur.  This is what they would say when they went into a new place.

2) This sin was repetitive.

This was not the first time that Abraham had done this.  I wouldn’t call this a habitual sin but it was a repeated sin.  Abraham becomes a repeat offender.  History is repeating itself.  What Abraham does in this chapter, he did twenty-five years earlier.  In Genesis 12, he was seventy-five (12:4).  Now, he is almost one hundred (21:5).  In Genesis 12, he traveled to Egypt and lied to the Egyptian Pharaoh about his wife.  Now in Genesis 20, he travels to Gerar and lies to King Abimelek about his wife.

3) This sin was manipulative

Abraham manipulated his wife.  It is bad enough if you sin.It is much worse if you get others to sin for you. He said, This is how you can show your love to me: Everywhere we go, say of me, “He is my brother.”’ He said, in essence, “If you really love me, you will do this”.   Sarah did it. Sarah is pictured in the NT as a model of a submissive wife but this is a little too submissive.  A wife should never follow her husband if he asks her to sin and that is exactly what Abraham did.

You say what is the big deal about lying?  It doesn’t seem that serious.  It would not be that big of a deal today.  He just stretched the truth a little.  Politicians do that all of the time.  It seems like a little white lie.  Well, this was actually a very big deal for three reasons.

1. This lie put his wife in danger.

Abraham’s plan caused his wife to sin.  It caused her to lie and it would have caused her to commit adultery.  Abraham acts very selfish.  He sacrifices his wife to protect his life, instead of giving up his life for his wife.  He becomes a complete coward.  It doesn’t make a lot of sense.  He got an army together and went to war against four kings.  He was the underdog and he won.  He showed incredible valor on the battlefield and then becomes a complete coward when he goes to Gerar.

2. This lie put Abimelech in danger.

Abimelek was wronged by Abraham.  It put him in danger and everyone else in his household was affected by this lie.  It caused Abimelek to take Sarah into his harem.  It would have caused him to sin if God did not step in.  That little white lie almost got Abimelek killed. God told him “You are a dead man”.  Sarah is a married woman”.  That got his attention.  Those are words that you do not ever want to hear from God.  You don’t want God made at you and you do not want Him giving you a death sentence.  He got up early the nexct morning.

Why did God say this?  Adultery is serious business.  Breaking the marriage vow is a big deal.  Today, it is socially accepted and even glamorized by Hollywood.  Adultery was a capital offense in the OT.  Deuteronomy 22:22 says, “If a man is found sleeping with another man’s wife, both the man who slept with her and the woman must die. You must purge the evil from Israel” (NIV)

God said that he was a dead man, even though he was not aware he had even done anything wrong.  God called him a dead man, even though his conscience was clear.  What does that tell you?  What do we learn from that?  Your conscience can be completely clear and you are still a dead man in God’s eyes.  Ignorance of the law is no excuse in a human courtroom and is no excuse in the divine courtroom.  Sin is sin.

3. This lie put the promises of God in danger.

This lie did not just affect Abraham, Sarah, Abimelek and Abimelek’s whole house.  It affected the Abrahamic Covenant.  It affected the promises of God.  That is why this was so serious.  God had promised Abraham offspring.  He promised that he would have so many descendants, he would not be able to count them all.  The Messiah would be one of his descendants.  The most important event of Abraham’s life was about to take place right before Abraham pulled this stunt.

At the very moment that God is ready to fulfill that promise, Abraham puts the whole thing in jeopardy by giving his wife off to another man.  God told them that Sarah would have a son in about a year (17:21; 18:10).  That means that she would have to conceive in the next three months.  During this time, he gives Sarah to Abimelech to be his wife.

The Intervention of God

God had to physically intervene in the situation.  God does two things here.  First, he spoke to Abimelek.  The irony here is that Abraham is the prophet but the one who God speaks to in this chapter is not Abraham.  It is Abimelek.  God speaks to Abimelek in a dream and says “you are a dead man.” God intervened in this situation first by speaking to Abimelek.

Second, he kept Abimelech from sinning.  Then God said to him in the dream, “Yes, I know you did this with a clear conscience, and so I have kept you from sinning against me. That is why I did not let you touch her” (20:6).  Sarah was under God’s protection.  God physically restrained Abimelek.  Somehow He kept Abimelech from having sex with Sarah.  How he did this? We are not told.  Did he make Abimelek sick or give him an STD?  We don’t know.

What we do know is that God kept Abimelek from sinning.  This is a completely radical concept.  It is a very interesting topic.  I don’t have time to go into great detail here.  We have free will but God is completely sovereign over our free will.  When we have desires to do God’s will, He plants those desires in us. “For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him” (Philippians 2:13 NIV).

The men who crucified Jesus wanted to crucify him and yet the death of Jesus was part of God’s plan from eternity past.  God is sovereign over the worst act committed on the planet by sinful man – crucifying the Messiah.  God can even keep us from committing certain sins (cf. Jude 24). C.H. Spurgeon used to say “God does not allow his children to sin successfully.” Provers 19:21 says, “Many are the plans in a person’s heart, but it is the LORD’s purpose that prevails.”

The Rebuke of Abimelek

Then Abimelek called Abraham in and said, “Then Abimelech called Abraham and said to him, “What have you done to us? And how have I sinned against you, that you have brought on me and my kingdom a great sin? You have done to me things that ought not to be done. And Abimelech said to Abraham, “What did you see, that you did this thing?” (20:9-10)

Notice the three questions he asks him here. He calls what Abraham did not only a sin but a GREAT SIN.  Abraham is rebuked by Abimelek.  This is embarrassing.  Here an old saint is rebuked by a pagan king.  The patriarch is chewed out by a pagan and the criticism is justified.  It is pretty bad when the unsaved have to rebuke us because of the way we live (cf. Romans 2:21-23).  It is embarrassing when they live better than we do.  We are supposed to be the light of the world.

In fact, Abimelek looks better in this chapter than Abraham.  He has more integrity.  The pagan here looks better than the patriarch.  He is more honest and transparent.  He is more moral.  Abraham is the man of God,  He is the prophet and Abimelek is the pagan king and yet in this chapter they switch roles.  Abimelek looks like the saint and Abraham looks like the heathen in this chapter.  Abraham was the prophet but Abimelek got the revelation from God.  He was the one who God spoke to in this chapter.

Abraham lies to Abimelek and almost gets him killed and Abimelek returns good for evil.  He gives him things (20:14) and gives him a chance to live in his land (20:15).  He doesn’t kick him out of the country.  He could have said, “Get out of my sight.  I don’t want to see you again”.  Something rather strange happens in this chapter.  God rebukes Abimelek for his sin but he never rebukes Abraham for his sin.  In fact, he defended Abraham and yet Abraham’s sin was worse.

Abimelek sinned in ignorance.  He didn’t know he was doing anything wrong.  Two people told them that they were not married (Abraham and Sarah).  He heard it from two sources. Abraham knew what he was doing.  Why didn’t God rebuke Abraham?  In fact, God stood up for Abraham here.  Why didn’t he rebuke Abraham?  He doesn’t need to rebuke him.  Abimelek does it for him.  God speaks to Abraham through Abimelek.  He speaks to him through a pagan king.

What was Abraham’s response?  Does he say, “I am very sorry.  You are absolutely right.  I should not have done what I did. It put you and your family in grave danger?”  No. When confronted, he doesn’t repent.  He tries to justify it “Well, she is really my sister” He rationalizes and tries to justify his sin.  It is very difficult to admit you are wrong when you are caught in a lie.  It is a pride issue.

If you have been watching this news this week, there is a story about a woman who has been telling people that she was black for years.  She works for the head of the NAACP chapter in Spokane, Washington.  Her parents came out and said that she is white.  The media confronted her and asked her if she was an African-American.  She said, “I do not understand the question”.  It is too hard for her to say “No.  I have been lying to people for years”.

Abraham does not repent.  He rationalizes his behavior.  He said, “There is surely no fear of God in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife.” (20:11)  Abraham was the one who did not fear God.  If he did, he would not have lied in the first place.  Why did he do it?  He believed in the ends justifies the means philosophy.  That got him in trouble in chapter 16 with Hagar and it got him in trouble in Genesis 12 and 20 with lying.

Notice how the chapter ends. “Then Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Abimelek, his wife and his female slaves so they could have children again, for the Lord had kept all the women in Abimelek’s household from conceiving because of Abraham’s wife Sarah” (20:17-18)

This is the first time the word “pray” occurs in the Bible, but not the first prayer in the Bible. Abraham prays for Abimelek.  Abraham becomes the intercessor.  He prays for someone else.  He prayed for Sodom in Genesis 18.  You would expect Abimelek to pray for Abraham, rather than Abraham praying for Abimelek but he was a heathen king and probably did not know how to pray to the true God.  Abraham prays for Abimelek and his family.

Notice what he prayed for.  He prayed that the women in Abimelek’s household could have children, because God had prevented that from taking place.  The irony is that Abraham’s own wife was also infertile and has been infertile all of her life.  He was asking God to give Abimelek something that he wanted in his own family.  In the very next chapter, he gets it.  Isaac is born.  We will look at the birth of Isaac next week.

4 Responses to Abraham’s Tragic Flaw

  1. hdp says:

    thank you for all the hard work you put into this and thankkyou for the references

  2. Gabriel says:

    Abraham did not sin by saying she was his sister though because she was his half sister: Genesis 20:12 Also, God blessed him through his wisdom for speaking that way by giving him the gifts of Egypt, to which, even Pharoah didnt seem to care for the loss, if he had he would have taken the things back. Even God had used deception for the sake of righteousness as seen through Balaam and the account in 1 Kings 22.

  3. Lynn says:

    Thanks, Alan for all your hard work, it helped me in my preparation for the young people at my church. Also for the very accessible language throughout which all people can read.(so many people don’t think of that)
    That’s an area very close to my heart because I’ve worked with people with ‘learning difficulties’ in my native Scotland for many years.

    • admin says:

      Glad the website is of some use to you. I teach students with learning disabilities as well in the US. May God bless your passion for young people in your church.

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