Abraham and Abimelech: three lessons on the heart.

October 14, 2014.

When you read through the Old Testament, it is interesting to find out that there are things in there that, well, you just wouldn’t expect to be in a book that reveals the word of God to us. Typically, if you were looking at a book that was devised by a human mind to convey and persuade others to a religion that one has come up with on their own, you would see a perfect, or almost perfect, picture painted of the, let’s call them “good guys.” It bears out in history that most histories written by the people at the time embellish, at the very least, the strengths and mighty works of their kings and people. However, reading through the bible, you find that this just isn’t the case. Sure, there are many accomplishments that are talked about and the word of God is throughout, but you tend to see a real story about real people with real mistakes, and not small ones at that. I find this fascinating.

That’s not what I want to talk about today, though. I say this to introduce one of these stories that one might not expect to find, yet one that tells so much about the character of God. In the book of Genesis, Abraham is a major figure. He is called out of his homeland by God to go into a land that God promises to give to his offspring. God tells Abraham that he is going to be the father of many, such a true statement as today three of the worlds dominate religions claim Abraham as their father (not father as in the sense of God, but as in the sense of we trace our heritage back to him). Abraham is somewhat of a hero in the biblical narrative and one might expect him to have little, if any, flaws. However this is not the case, as Abraham indeed messes up on a number of occasions. He laughs when God tells him He is going to allow his wife Sarah to conceive (she was 90 years old), he takes Hagar his servant as a wife by the advise of Sarah to raise up children after him, not trusting God’s promise but offering the child by Hagar to be the heir, and upon two occasions at least he tells the exact same lie to two different rulers. It is this last lapse in judgment that I want to focus on, yet not from Abraham’s point of view, but from King Abimelech’s point of view, the second ruler that Abraham lied to.

The background to the story is Abraham and his wife Sarah are sojourning in the land of the Philistines and the run across Abimelech, King of Gerar. Sarah is a very beautiful woman, and it would seem that in those days, when a beautiful woman came before a King and he wanted to have her for a wife, if she was married, the King would simply have the husband killed. Abraham was very afraid of this, so he tells Sarah to say that she is his sister. What’s interesting is that this is not the first time Abraham has had this idea. When they journeyed into Egypt, he told Sarah to say the same thing (though it was only a half-lie, so to speak, because Sarah was indeed Abraham’s half sister, the daughter of his father but not his mother), and Pharaoh indeed took Sarah as a wife. God made it clear to Pharaoh that he had taken another man’s wife, and Pharaoh rebukes Abraham for it. You would think he would have learned the lesson that God did not want him to give Sarah away (and even before that, it is hard for me to fathom if I were married, letting my wife be taken by another man just because I was afraid. That does not set well with me). In the case of Pharaoh it works out that Pharaoh sends Abraham and Sarah away, but not without much spoils, probably to make a peace offering with the God of Abraham. Just a few chapters later, though, we find Abraham making the same mistake out of fear.

From there Abraham journeyed toward the territory of the Negeb and lived between Kadesh and Shur; and he sojourned in Gerar. And Abraham said of Sarah his wife, “She is my sister.” And Abimelech king of Gerar sent and took Sarah. But God came to Abimelech in a dream by night and said to him, “Behold, you are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is a man’s wife.” Now Abimelech had not approached her. So he said, “Lord, will you kill an innocent people? Did he not himself say to me, ‘She is my sister’? And she herself said, ‘He is my brother.’ In the integrity of my heart and the innocence of my hands I have done this.” Then God said to him in the dream, “Yes, I know that you have done this in the integrity of your heart, and it was I who kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I did not let you touch her. Now then, return the man’s wife, for he is a prophet, so that he will pray for you, and you shall live. But if you do not return her, know that you shall surely die, you and all who are yours.”
(Genesis 20:1-7)

It does indeed seem odd that Abraham would do this twice, but what I believe to be the most revealing and relevant part of this story that we can make application about today is the conversation between Abimelech and God. Just like He did with Pharaoh, God makes it clear to Abimelech that he has taken another man’s wife and that God was not happy with this. But listen to the defense of Abimelech. “No, Lord, I didn’t know! I was lied too! You know my heart, Lord, and you know that I did not do this on purpose.” God agrees, and says that’s why He has given him the opportunity to make things right. I think there are at least three good lessons we can learn from this story.

1. God judges the heart.

This is a concept that comes up over and over in the bible and it is one that can be very beneficial or very detrimental. One one hand, God judges the heart, not the outward appearance. We do not have to be considered “saved” by other people to actually be in the right relationship with God (though we should indeed bear the fruits of salvation). On the other hand, God judges the heart, not the outward appearance. It doesn’t matter how good we look in the eyes of man if we are not obeying God from the heart. You could have the testimony from every single person on this earth that you should be saved, but unless you God judges thusly, all the testimony in the world could not save you.

We tend to judge by appearance rather than by the heart, mainly because it is often very difficult for us to see what is actually in someone else’s heart. I do believe that we can get a good idea of what is in the heart of another if we spend enough time with them, but I don’t think we will ever be able to search it out fully. God, however, is not man. He does search the heart. When God told Samuel to anoint the next King over Israel after He had rejected Saul for his transgression, Samuel tries to judge by appearance and God corrects him:

When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord‘s anointed is before him.” But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lordlooks on the heart.” Then Jesse called Abinadab and made him pass before Samuel. And he said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.”
(I Samuel 16:6-8)

Eventually, after all of the sons of Eliab who were considered worthy to be anointed king were shown to Samuel, Eliab says, “well, I do have one more son… but he’s keeping the sheep.” This son was David, the future king. Why? Because he was a man after God’s own heart. God knows the heart of all men and He is able to judge it righteously.

For a further point that I think relates to this well, there is a story in I Kings 14 about the condemnation of the house of Jeroboam and the loss of a life of a child first, so that he would not see the destruction of his father’s household because there was something good found in him. I will let you read it and contemplate. It is very interesting to me.

2. Ignorance is not a free pass for sin.

There is often a debate of whether or not ignorance is a valid excuse to sin. I don’t really want to get into that argument, as it has many faucets and complexities that I don’t think we are fully able to answer. But I do think we can learn a little on the subject from this story. When Abimelech (and Pharaoh for that matter) took Sarah as a wife, God was not pleased. Just because the two rulers had been lied to and they didn’t know they were in the wrong didn’t change God’s stance. God does seem to be more direct with Abimelech, though (possibly only because it is recorded in more detail), and we will see what I think is a caveat to this in the next point, but for now we see that sin was sin, regardless of ignorance. Now, how God judges that sin is up to Him, and I dare not speak for God on that matter. In this story and the one with Pharaoh, God would not tolerate it.

This is further seen in the last statement that God makes to Abimelech. After having told him that he was in the wrong, and even after Abimelech admitting his innocence, implying that he wouldn’t have taken Sarah if he had known she was Abraham’s wife, God tells him “Now then, return the man’s wife, for he is a prophet, so that he will pray for you, and you shall live. But if you do not return her, know that you shall surely die, you and all who are yours.” Abraham had to pray for Abimelech for his life! Further, if Abimelech didn’t comply, then there would be dire consequences. I believe this goes to show that God doesn’t play around when it comes to sin.

3. God will lead you out of sin if you are truly seeking to avoid it.

We see that sin was still sin in the eyes of God (or at least the first step towards sin), even if it was done in ignorance; however, I think there is another lesson to be learned here. Yes, God was not happy with Abimelech, but after Abimelech says that his heart was innocent, God agrees and says that He has kept Abimelech from touching her. God says: “Yes, I know that you have done this in the integrity of your heart, and it was I who kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I did not let you touch her.”

Remember how we said that God judges the heart? This is precisely what he did here. Abimelech says that his heart is innocent, and God says that he did this in the integrity of his heart. Therefore, since Abimelech didn’t know that Sarah was Abraham’s wife, and if he had, he would not have taken her, God protected Abimelech from laying with her. God did not allow Abimelech to commit this sin before He warned him. Then He gave Abimelech the opportunity to avoid this sin, an opportunity that Abimelech gladly took.

God judges the heart. If it is truly in your heart not to sin, I believe God will keep you away from sinning in ignorance, in one way or another. Many times when we sin, we know exactly what we are doing. This is different than what happened in this story. Abimelech and Pharaoh honestly didn’t know. Thus God kept them from sin.

Now, this is not to say that ignorant sin is impossible. I believe it is very possible. Just because you don’t know something is a sin doesn’t give you a free pass, as we discussed above. What I’m saying is if God has judged your heart to truly be trying to avoid sin and live for Him, then I think He will protect you. The problem is our hearts are not often truly trying to avoid sin when we claim ignorance. It is much to easy to justify our actions by ignorance, and I don’t think justification is a sufficient way to plead innocence before God. But He does promise us this:

“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.”
(Matthew 7:7-8)

Promise. Signed God. If we are truly seeking Him, we will find Him. Let us all devote our lives to seek Him and His glory.

Suggested Daily Reading: Genesis 12, 20, I Kings 14, Matthew 7.

The Lord guide you.


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