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Sarah Protected

The Promises of God (The Life of Abraham)

Part XIII

Series: Genesis: The Foundations of the Faith

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Apr 18, 1999

Genesis 20:1-18

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Genesis 20:1-18

Sarah Protected

Well, for the last two weeks we have dwelt in the abyss of sin and judgment in Genesis 19 and tonight we climb out. But the view that greets us in Genesis 20 is hard. The father of the faithful when last we saw him was fervently interceding for those who were under judgment and condemnation and then was silently watching in the aftermath of God's judgment against Sodom. But here we find him stumbling again. By way of qualification we should point out that a man of weak faith would not have made it as far as Abraham had made it at this point. A man of lesser trust in the Lord after God's waiting so long, His prolonging of the fulfillment of His promises, may well have abandoned His pledge of the covenant. So tonight we turn to Genesis 20, and we see Abraham's faith falter. But God's faithfulness doesn't. The channel of the covenant, Sarah, is preserved by God's grace. Let's hear God's word here in Genesis 20:

Genesis 20:1-18

Our Lord and our God we stand in wonder and amazement as we see Your hand revealed. And we ask oh Lord, that You would teach us truth tonight from this sad and yet amazing incident in the life of the father of the faithful, and we’ll give You the praise and the glory, for we ask it in Jesus' name, Amen.

Genesis chapters 20 through 23 reflect something of the life and struggles of Abraham in the land of Canaan. And in this passage especially, we see that it is God Himself who will bring about the fulfillment of the promises of the covenant, not really with Abraham's help, but in spite of Abraham's help. And that the Lord is good to Abraham even when he deserves punishment. Let's look together at three or four things in this passage tonight. If we could break the passage down into four parts, we’ll look at it in that form. In verses 1 and 2 we see Abraham's deception of Abimelech described and then in verses 3 through 7 the Lord comes to Abimelech in a dream and reveals to him what has happened and what he must do. In verses 8 through 13 we see Abimelech confronting Abraham with his sin. And then finally in verses 14 through 18 we see the tables turned and Abraham now interceding for Abimelech. And if we could look at those parts of the passage tonight we’ll give attention to the truth of God's word for us.

I. Abraham's deception

First, let's look at verses 1 and 2. Where Abraham's deception of Abimelech is recorded. We’re not told here why Abraham changes his residence. But Candlish suggests that it may well have been connected with what he had witnessed in terms of God's judgment against Sodom. He packs up from that area of the land and he moves to another area. Whatever the case, Abraham's failure of faith here carries its own warning for us. All of us ought to take note and we're going to find later on that this particular failure of faith is connected with a very old habit in Abraham's experience and life. And we see here how habitual sins can war against faith. But more on that later.

I want you to see in verses 1 and 2 as we see Abraham stumble in his faith why Abraham is the perfect poster child for justification by faith for the apostle Paul. The moment we hear Abraham say she is my sister in verse two, we have a little knot in our stomach. We immediately become nervous and the suspense begins. As we see Sarah taken off into the harem of Abimelech, we know that something serious is going on. In fact, this situation is even more serious than the first lapse of Abraham in Egypt, because we know that we're on the verge of a new chapter in which Isaac is going to be born to Abraham. And right now on the cuff of the fulfillment of the promise, Abraham's faith is failing.

Let me just say in passing that Abimelech was apparently a royal title, a dynastic title. We see that name being applied to another king of Gerar in Genesis 26, verse 8 in the time of Isaac. And we see that name applied to Achish, the king of Gath, in I Samuel, chapter 21, verse 10 in the incident where David runs into Achish, and it's repeated again in Psalm 34.

Let me also say in passing that it was apparently in accord with the custom of the time that if an unmarried woman was sojourning in the land of a particular king or prince, then he had the right to claim her with dowry for his harem. And so this custom would have been common and we can see from whence Abraham's scheme may have arisen in the first place. That, of course, does not make it right, but it explains why this would have happened in the first place.

Now let me say again before we go any further that critics often tie into this particular passage and argue that the duplication of this incident, the incident with Pharaoh in Egypt at the end of Genesis 12, and this incident here in Genesis 20 where in both cases Abraham claims that Sarah is his sister and she falls into the hands of men who are not her husband. They charge that the duplication of this incident is an indication that there are two conflicting stories or traditions which the editor, not Moses in their view, pull together and made into a doublet. They are describing the same incident but they come from two different conflicting sources and they've been put into the story of Abraham. There are basically three responses that I want to make to that charge.

First of all, there are numerous differences in this story, in Genesis 20, and the story in Genesis 12, so that it is unlikely that this is a duplication of the same incident. In fact, there are at least ten differences between this story and the story of Genesis 12. Allow me to mention them very briefly. In Genesis 12 of course the story entails Egypt and Pharaoh. In Genesis 20 it's Gerar and Abimelech. In Genesis 12 Pharaoh has to investigate the affliction in his house. In Genesis 20 God reveals it to Abimelech. In Genesis 12 the affliction is unspecified. In Genesis 20 God closes the wombs of the household of Abimelech. In Genesis 12 Pharaoh expels Abraham from the land after the story is over. In Genesis 20 Abimelech allows him to remain and offers him to settle wherever he wishes. In Genesis 12 Pharaoh gave Abraham gifts before it was discovered that Sarah was his wife. In Genesis 20 Abimelech gives Abraham gifts after it is discovered that Sarah is his wife. In Genesis 12 Pharaoh is told of the beauty of Sarah. In Genesis 20, interestingly, a number of years later, Abimelech is not told of the beauty of Sarah. In Genesis 12 Abraham's reasons are not recorded in response to Pharaoh's questions and charges. Here in Genesis 20 Abimelech makes a direct inquiry, and Abraham gives him explanations for why he did what he did. In Genesis 12 we are not told whether Sarah was violated. In Genesis 20 we are specifically told that she was protected. In Genesis 12 Pharaoh does not call his servants together to discuss the situation. In Genesis 20 Abimelech, after he wakes up from his night's sleep, calls all the servants of the household together to explain to them the crisis which is ensued. And in Genesis 12 there is no mention of Abraham interceding for Egypt, whereas in Genesis 20 Abraham's prayer is instrumental in lifting the curse. Needless to say, there are so many differences here it is hard to believe that this could possibly be an accidental description of the same incident.

Secondly, here in Genesis 20, if you’ll go ahead and cast your eyes at verse 13, here in Genesis 20 the explanation for why Abraham would have done this twice is explicitly given. Apparently when Abraham and Sarah were leaving the Ur of the Chaldeans twenty-five years before, he had asked her to agree to covenant with him on a plan. Wherever they wandered into the lands of unfriendly territory, he asked her to do him the kindness, as bizarre as this is to us, he asked her to do him the kindness of claiming to be his sister, of telling a half truth in order to protect him. Now how that would have left Sarah feeling about her importance to Abraham, I don't know. I can guess. But apparently this was a plan that had been concocted many, many years ago. And finally, for the cynical who still can't believe that Abraham would have done this twice, may I remind you of certain high ranking public officials who recently under accusation for one dalliance committed another while the prosecution ensued. For any cynics who don't think this could happen twice, I think that calls into question their concern.

Now, what's the point of the story here. Abraham, the father of the faithful, in difficult circumstances fails to trust in God. And so it's very apparent that Abraham had been declared righteous, not made sinlessly perfect. He had not been transformed into perfect righteousness by the declaration of God. He had been made covenantally righteous. Isn't it interesting how the Bible is utterly realistic even about the heroes of the faith. There is no covering over Abraham's sin here, but a realistic presentation of him in both his strength and in his weakness, in both his faith and in his fear, in his righteousness and in his sin. And so Abraham provides Paul the perfect example of a sinner saved by grace through the promises of God. It is not Abraham's perfect righteousness that commends him to God, though he is a man who has integrity in his time and who consistently trusts in God. But it is his faith which is the instrument of God's declaration of justice on the head of Abraham. And so he is the perfect example for Paul of a sinner saved by grace.

II. Lessons of God's grace.

Secondly, if we look at verses 3 through 7 as God speaks to Abimelech in the dream, we learn the first of three glorious lessons of God's grace. First, God, in his grace here, intervenes on Abraham's behalf. And that reminds us that God in his grace often intervenes on our behalf even when we are the cause of our own problem.

Here in this passage we see Abimelech protesting to God that he didn't know what Abraham had done to him. He uses words like blameless and integrity and innocent and we see here these terms being used in a more narrow sense of those moral terms, just like they will be used later in the Psalms when the Psalmist protests his righteousness or his innocence. What Abimelech is saying is not that he is perfectly righteous, perfectly blameless, perfectly innocent, but that in this circumstance he was unwittingly led into this action and he had no evil intention of the heart in what he did. And so there is a narrow sense in which he is blameless or has acted with integrity or is innocent of the charges.

But the passage, of course, provides a contrast between the relatively righteous behavior of Abimelech, the pagan, and the cowardly behavior of Abraham, the father of the faithful. And yet God says to Abimelech here, Abraham is a prophet. By the way that's the first use of the word prophet in the scriptures. Abraham is called the prophet of the Lord, not because he has the powers to foretell the future, but because Abraham has a special relationship with God, and this is highlighted in his intercession at the end of the chapter. There are relatively few instances, by the way, of messages being given in dreams by the Lord to the Israelites. But often in the Old Testament we find the Lord approaching those who are non-Israelites, whether it be Pharaoh or Nebuchadnezzar or here Abimelech in dreams. Perhaps this is an example of God's kind accommodation to the customs of the nations around him. But whatever the case is, we see here God intervening on Abraham's behalf despite the fact that Abraham has gotten himself into this mess in the first place. Because of God's covenant love, sometimes even when we have brought the problem on ourselves, God spares us the full force of the consequences due. This is simply the faithfulness of the covenant and in this passage Abraham has done nothing to deserve it.

III. Abraham confronted with his sin.

Then we look at verses 8 through 13 where Abimelech confronts Abraham about the sin. And we see here that God not only protects us by His grace, but God by His grace exposes our sin even while we are working hard to conceal it. I really meant what I just said. God, by his grace, exposes our sin even though we are working hard to conceal it. Abimelech is here appointed by God as the messenger to deliver an exposing inquiry of Abraham. He asks three questions to Abraham in order to highlight the wrong that Abraham has done here. God uses Abimelech as an instrument to expose the sin of Abraham so that he will no longer be able to hide behind his explanations and excuses. Abraham is pursued by Abimelech with question after question after question. And these three questions that Abimelech asks Abraham expose that Abraham was only thinking of himself and what he did. He was asking what's in it for me? How can I protect myself by what I do? He wasn't asking the questions what are my actions going to do to this people, to this nation? He wasn't asking the question what do they deserve? How do they deserve to be treated? And he wasn't asking the question what really are the facts in this situation? Maybe I could hold some of them back. Here the heart of Abraham's sin is exposed. And in Abraham's blame shifting and excuses that were disguised as explanations, we see that he was suffering from what our friend, Bebo Elkin, would call Armenian withdrawal. Though he claimed to trust in Almighty God when he was in a dangerous situation, he attempted to take care of himself.

And so Abraham's excuses, though plausible and though his circumstances were dangerous, his actions were wrong because at the heart of them there was an abandonment of faith and trust in a sovereign God who cared for him. Abraham makes three excuses to Abimelech. First, if you look at verse 11. He says I feared the godliness of you Gerarites. Now that's a perfectly plausible excuse. He has just seen the godlessness of Sodom and Gomorrah. Surely it was legitimate for Abraham to fear the godlessness of the other Canaanites. He had seen some godlessness in his time. But he failed to trust in a sovereign God who loved him and had made promises.

Secondly, in verse 12, he says well, after all, she was my sister technically. Half-truth masquerading as a whole truth is a whole lie. Verse 13. He thirdly says, well, we've been doing this for twenty-five years since we left Ur. Notice in passing that he blames his wanderings on God, and that we have here a testimony to the problem of a habitual sin which has separated him from his faith. And so God sends Abraham into the woodshed and Abimelech takes him to task. Jim Boice shares a story and illustration of this. Many of you will remember David Stockman who was the director of Reaganomics at the beginning of the ‘80's. In 1981 David Stockman was sort of feeling his oats and felt free to make criticisms of the President in the public media. The President was none to chuffed about this and called him in for a meeting. And after Stockman came out of that meeting, it was asked well what transpired in this meeting with the President. And Stockman said to the media, "Well, it really wasn't a meeting. The President really took me to the woodshed." That's exactly what happens in this passage. God, in his grace, uses Abimelech to take Abraham to the woodshed. Precisely because He loves us, He will not allow our sin to go unexposed because He wants to separate us from that which will destroy us. And my guess is there are many of us in this room who could give testimony to God's love shown to us in that way, as He refuses to allow our sin to go undetected, lest we cherish that sin and lest we die by that sin. And so God in His grace exposes Abraham's sin and there's a message for us in that, too.

IV. Abraham's intercession for Abimelech.

One last thing as we look at verses 14 through 18 and Abraham's intercession for Abimelech, we see that God in His grace uses us for His glory in spite of ourselves. You know it's really an amazing transaction. After Abraham's behavior in this passage, we read that Abraham prays and God heals because of Sarah. Isn't it extraordinary that Abraham would be used as the instrument of blessing for Abimelech in this passage?

Isn't that an example of God in His grace using us for His glory in spite of ourselves, in spite of our sin? Jim Boice has these beautiful words of comment. "I am especially impressed by the way God showed His grace to Abraham. God did so when He spoke to Abimelech. Moreover, in all the references to Abraham that we have in the remainder of the Bible, never once does God bring up this incident as if to highlight Abraham's failure, not in Romans, not in Galatians, not in Hebrews 11. In that last passage Abraham is praised with a faith which he showed in four situations in leaving Ur for an unknown promised land and staying in the land in spite of great depravation and danger, believing that God could give him a son when he and Sarah were past the age of child bearing and being willing to offer up Isaac, counting that God could raise him from the dead. Not once in all that great survey of Abraham's progress in the life of faith, does God refer to his past sin as if to shame him by the remembrance of it. It was forgiven and gone. It was forgotten. It is good to serve a God like that, a God who remains sovereign even when we doubt His ability to care for us. A God who remains gracious even when we sin. To serve a God like that is the world's greatest joy and opportunity. To know that He is like that is the greatest incentive that you will ever have to not sinning. Let us pray.

Our Lord and our God, You are a God of grace and we praise You for it, in Jesus' name, Amen.

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