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The Covenant with Abimelech

The Promises of God (The Life of Abraham)

Part XV

Series: Genesis: The Foundations of the Faith

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on May 2, 1999

Genesis 21:22-34

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Genesis 21:22-34

The Covenant with Abimelech

If you have your Bibles I'd invite you to turn with me to Genesis, chapter 21 again. We’ll attend the second half of the chapter, beginning in verse 22. Genesis 21, beginning in verse 22. Hagar and Ishmael are long gone. And a lone son now grows in Abraham's house. The Lord in His grace provides a time and a place of stability for Abraham's sojourn. This passage tells us of the long-term settlement of Abraham in the area of Beersheba. And it also tells how God protected Him from those who might have disturbed that peace, disturbed that settlement and disturbed his household.

Tonight as we look at Genesis 21, verses 22 through 34, we see in contrast to chapter 20, Abraham finding that God is indeed the shield that He promised to be. And Abraham proving the value of frankness and clarity, something that he had lacked in his last encounter with Abimelech. So let's hear God's holy word here in Genesis 22:

Genesis 21:22-34

Father, we love Your word, and in this unfamiliar but important section of Your word we ask that You would open our eyes to see truth, truth that would move us to praise, truth that would move us to humility and thanksgiving truth that would move us to obedience. Truth which would again remind us of the glory of Your grace. We ask these things in Jesus' name, Amen.

The land around Beersheba would remain Abraham's chief base for the rest of his sojourn in the land. And it would become the home base for Isaac as well at a later time. This passage tells the story of how Abraham was enabled to settle peacefully there in that region. But in passing the story also teaches us other important lessons about God's covenant grace.

I'd like to look at the passage with you in three parts tonight. If you look at verses 22 through 24 you’ll see the king, Abimelech, the king of Gerar, recognizing God's blessings on Abraham and seeking an alliance with him. So that whole process is described in verses 22 through 24. Then if you look at verses 25 through 31 you will see the actual covenant ritual and the oaths that were taken and the promissory gifts that were given from Abraham to Abimelech to establish this agreement, this relationship which Abimelech had first proposed. And then if you look at verses 32 through 34 you’ll see Abraham offering divine worship to the Lord in thanksgiving for His gracious provision. I'd like to look at these passages with you tonight.

I. A pagan king perceives God's blessings.

First, we’ll begin in 22 through 24. Here a pagan king perceives God's blessings and he proposes an alliance with God's man. And as we look at verses 22 through 24 we are reminded of something that we’ll be reminded of again when we get to Joshua 9 and 10 one day. And in that passage just as this one we see that wise men seek after God's lovingkindness above everything else. Wise men seek for God's loving kindness above everything else. We don't know when, but we learn from this passage that at some point Abraham had moved his tents from Gerah down to Beersheba, which was about twenty-five miles to the southeast. And one gets the impression from this passage that Abimelech exercised control over a vast area south of Gerah as far as Beersheba. And so this passage tells us how Abraham and Abimelech were able to come to an agreement, in fact how they were able to covenant to co-exist peacefully with one another. You can imagine how Abimelech as a king or a prince and Abraham as a great head of a household with much cattle, and much animals, and many people as part of his particular household and group. You can see how these two might have gotten into conflicts over pasturing rights for their animals or over the precious water supplies there in that particular arid region, and so this passage tells us how they came to coexist peacefully.

And the passage, of course, opens in verse 22 with the pagan prince and his military commander not only observing but confessing out loud to Abraham that they recognized that God was with him. It's interesting, isn't it? Abraham's witness to God comes in the form of a non-Israelite seeing God's blessing on him and coming to him and confessing that he sees that blessing. He acknowledges God's presence and God's favor with Abraham. God is with you, Abimelech says to Abraham. That same fact would be noticed about Isaac. Abimelech would see him in Genesis 26, verse 28 and say, Isaac, God is with you, I can see it. It would be noted of Jacob in Genesis 30, verse 27, "God is with you." And again it would be noted of Joseph in Genesis in 39, verse 3, "God is with you." And in light of that acknowledged reality, in light of the fact that Abimelech saw that God was with Abraham, he asked that Abraham would deal with him and with his children and with his descendants after him according to the word is here, kindness.

Look here with me in verse 23: "Now therefore swear to me here by God that you will not deal falsely with me or with my offspring or with my posterity, but according to the kindness that I have shown you, you shall show to me and to the land in which you have sojourned." The word is a technical word. The word which is often translated as lovingkindness in the Old Testament. It is God's chesid, God's covenant love, God's covenant loyalty to His people, and Abimelech is asking that Abraham would show Him that kind of covenant loyalty.

Now let me give you two examples of this kind of loyalty from the scripture. First, turn with me to the book of I Samuel. In I Samuel, chapter 20 we see this loyalty expressed in the story of David and Jonathan. I Samuel, chapter 20, beginning in verse 13. You know that at this point in the life of David he is already crosswise with Saul. Saul is already jealous of him, Saul is already attempting to undercut him, Saul is already fearful of David, jealous of David and so David is in danger. And Jonathan, Saul's son, and presumably Saul's heir, if there was to be an heir to Saul, loves David and David loved Jonathan. And in I Samuel 20, verse 13 we read this: "If it please my father to do you harm, may the Lord do so to Jonathan and more also, if I do not make it known to you and send you away, that you may go in safety. And may the Lord be with you as He has been with my father." Jonathan is saying David I'm ready to risk my life to make sure that you are spared in my father's wrath. Then in verse 14: "If I am still alive, will you not show me the lovingkindness from God that I may not die?" Jonathan says, if I survive this, David, would you show me the lovingkindness of the Lord? Would you spare me if I help you in this way?

And he goes on in verse 15. "You shall not cut off your lovingkindness from my house forever, not even when the Lord cuts off everyone of the enemies of David from the face of the earth." Jonathan is saying when you wipe out all those who oppose you, would you still show your lovingkindness, your covenant love, your covenant loyalty to me? And then we read in verse 16, "And so Jonathan made a covenant with the house of David, saying, ‘May the Lord require it at the hands of David's enemies.’" Jonathan made David vow again because of his love for him and because he loved him as he loved his own life.

This is, of course, a beautiful passage about the relationship between David and Jonathan. But note here the presence of Jonathan's request that David would treat him according to lovingkindness. That he would show him an unswerving covenant loyalty, that he would be faithful to him as a friend, that he would protect him from danger. Abimelech is asking that Abraham would be his friend. That he would show him that kind of covenant loyalty. That he would care for him, that he would not rebel against him, that he would not fight against him, but that they would be in league together.

Now let me give you one other example of the kind of covenant loyalty that we see here in Genesis 21 and in I Samuel 20. Turn forward to II Samuel, chapter 23. II Samuel, chapter 23. This is at the end of David's life. And the word lovingkindness is not found in the passage, but this is a beautiful example of how a person who has lovingkindness or covenant love towards another person might respond. II Samuel 23. In the midst of the list of David's mighty men, beginning in verse 13 we read: "Then three of the thirty chief men went down and came to David in the harvest time to the cave of Adullam, while the troop of the Philistines was camping in the valley of Rephaim. David was then in the stronghold, while the garrison of the Philistines was then in Bethlehem. And David had a craving and said, ‘Oh that someone would give me water to drink from the well of Bethlehem which is by the gate.’ So the three mighty men broke through the camp of the Philistines and drew water from the well of Bethlehem which was by the gate, and took it and brought it to David. Nevertheless, he would not drink it but poured it out to the Lord, and he said, ‘Be it far from me, O Lord, that I should do this. Shall I drink the book of the men who went in jeopardy of their lives?’ Therefore, he would not drink it. These things the three mighty men did." That is the passage which shows you the kind of covenant love and loyalty that those mighty men had for David. David and his men are in the wilderness. The city of David is occupied by the Philistines. Can you imagine his heart? And he's speaking out loud to himself. He's not asking anyone to do this. He's speaking out loud to himself one day and he said what I would give just to have a sip of water from the well of Bethlehem, that city of my birth, the city of my youth which is now occupied by those filthy Philistines. Three of his great warriors overhear him and they say brothers, let us go across the dessert, let us break through the garrisons of the Philistines, let us go into the city, draw water, fight our way back out, mount our horses, ride across the dessert and give our king a sip of water from the well of Bethlehem. These men risked their lives to give David a drink of water. And they come back in with this wine skin full of water and they tell David was they have done and David takes it and pours it out on the ground. Now at that point you’re waiting for them to punch him out. But you see David was not disrespecting what they had done for him. David was saying, I don't deserve this kind of love, this kind of loyalty, and so I am pouring this water out as an offering to the Lord. Only the Lord deserves that kind of love and that kind of loyalty. It was a mark of David's awe at the love and loyalty of these men. Abimelech is coming to Abraham, and he's saying, let us walk in a relationship together where we look out for one another, where we're faithful to one another, and truthful to one another and we are not opposed but live at peace.

You know, looking at this story here in Genesis 21, you have to wonder, did Abimelech have grace? Had his eyes been opened to the saving knowledge of God, the one true God through the testimony of Abraham's life? He certainly perceived that the one true God was with Abraham and like the Gideonites, many years later he perceived as the only way that he would have blessing was if he was in relationship, covenant relationship with Abraham.

Have we availed ourselves of that covenant love of God, that covenant love of God which is only in Christ Jesus? Have we followed after David's example? Do we know that the one place that we need to flee in time of sin and danger is the time, is the place of God's lovingkindness? Turn with me to Psalm 51. Isn't it interesting that in the context of David's grievous sin with Bathsheba and the murder of Uriah, one of his mighty men, David prays this prayer after he has been confronted by his friend, Nathan. Psalm 51, verse 1. "Be gracious to me, O God, according to Your lovingkindness." When David needs forgiveness, he flees to the covenant love of God which is sure and secure and stable and gracious.

And furthermore, let me ask this: Is the grace of God apparent enough in our lives? Whatever the circumstances are that we are a constant living witness to God's presence with us? I don't know exactly what it was that caught Abimelech's eye about Abraham. Maybe it was God giving Abraham that son. That son, Isaac, for whom he had been waiting. Maybe it was the physical prosperity of Abraham and his herds and his people. Maybe it was the grace and the dignity with which Abraham underwent his trials. I don't know, but something in Abraham's experience witnessed to Abimelech that God was with him. Can that be said of us?

You know, it's very interesting if you were to turn all the way to the end of the Old Testament - maybe we ought to do it. Turn all the way to the end of the Old Testament or close to the end of the Old Testament to the book of Zechariah. One of the promises that is made, or one of the statements that is made in the second to last book of the Old Testament; Zechariah right before Malachi. If you’ll turn to Zechariah 8. One of the promises made to the people of God is this, Zechariah 8, verse 23: "Thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘In those days ten men from all the nations will grasp the garment of the Jews saying "Let us go with you for we have heard that God is with you.’" After Zechariah has been talking about the judgments which will be brought against God's people, he reminds them of the faithfulness and the presence of God. And he said, there's going to be a day when ten men from the nations grasp your garments, and they say, you know, we see that God has been with you. And Zechariah is echoing there the words of Genesis 21 and 22 when Abimelech saw that God was with Abraham. Is that grace of God apparent in our own lives? Wise men seek the lovingkindness of God above all else, just as Abimelech sought the kindness, the lovingkindness, the covenant love of Abraham.

II. Covenant and oath.

The second thing I'd like you to see in this passage, you’ll see in verses 25 through 31 where we see the covenant made and the oath taken, and we learn here that the covenant establishes security and stability in the relationship it protects. In verse 25 we see a potential reason why this covenant was necessary. Apparently precious water rights were already in dispute between Abimelech and Abraham. And before this covenant is made, Abraham says, now by the way, Abimelech, you know that some of your people have been interfering with my ownership of the well that I dug in Beersheba. And Abimelech, very apologetically says, well, this is the first I've heard of it. We’ll take care of that right away. And so Abraham openly and frankly expresses his concern. This is, of course, in stark contrast with his previous dealings with Abimelech. He is straightforward, he is clear, he is frank. And Abimelech apologizes.

And what follows in this passage from verse 25 to verse 31 is all part of the ritual formalization of this covenant between Abimelech and Abraham. Sheep and oxen are provided by Abraham to Abimelech. Now Abimelech doesn't bring anything to Abraham. So those are clearly not simply a gift from Abraham to Abimelech. Those are the animals that are to be slain in the covenant-making ceremony just like we saw in Genesis, chapter 15, when Abraham laid the parts of the animals side by side and God walked between the pieces. Then seven lambs are given by Abraham to Abimelech confirming Abimelech's acknowledgment that that well in Beersheba belongs to Abraham. In other words, those lambs are a good-will gift designed to witness Abimelech's agreement that the well belongs to Abraham. It was like earnest money securing Abraham's perpetual rights to that well. And then the place is named by Abraham. In a play on words, he calls this place Beersheba, because the word for seven, as in seven lambs, and the word to swear, as in the oath, come from similar roots. And so he calls the place either the well of the seven or the well of swearing or the well of the oath, Beersheba.

We see here a beautiful example of what a covenant is. The children's Catechism says a covenant is an agreement between two or more persons. And that's exactly what we see happening here between Abraham and Abimelech. A covenant, a mutually binding covenant is being made.

But you know as we see Abraham giving earnest money to establish his ownership of the well, something pops into my mind. A question. What was God's earnest money? What was God's deposit of guaranty in Genesis 15 when he was confirming his promise to Abraham. Well let me suggest the following.

First of all God's earnest was Himself. If you look at Genesis 15, verse 17 you will see that God Himself in the form of the smoking oven and the flaming torch passes between the pieces indicating that he is swearing by himself his faithfulness to the promise. Of course, His earnest is also His word as we learn in Genesis 15, verse 18. There He swears again to Abraham that the land will belong to him. This is confirmed in Genesis 22, verses 16 through 18. We’ll see that next week. The author of Hebrews picks up on it in Hebrews, chapter 6, verses 13 through 20 and says that God confirms the promise with an oath because He could swear by no one greater than Himself. So what is God's earnest? Himself and His word. But we don't stop there. In Genesis 17, verse 10 God gives an earnest to Abraham. What is that earnest? The sacrament. The sign of the covenant. Circumcision is given as a tangible reminder of God's promise as an earnest of the promises that he has been given. And then of course in Ephesians 1, verses 13 and 14 the apostle Paul says that God has given us a deposit on His promise. He has given us an earnest in what? In the Holy Spirit who indwells us and seals us in faith. In all these ways, God confirms His promises to us in the covenant, by Himself, by His word, by His sacrament, by His spirit. And in the sacrament God is saying this. If you do not reject this covenant, but rather embrace it, I will bless you here and hereafter forever. So God in this way confirms the promises that He has made.

The covenant itself, you see, is given to assure us. It is given to establish security and stability in the relationship which we have with God, even as this covenant between Abimelech and Abraham was designed to established security and stability in their relationship.

III. Abraham worships God.

One last thing that we see here in verses 32 through 34. Abraham in response to all this worships God. Divine public worship is offered up here in the land of the Philistines. We see here again that God's people publicly worship the everlasting God in thankfulness, no matter where God has us. The covenant is completed and acknowledged in verse 32 and Abimelech and Phicol take their armies and they move away going back to their land and Abraham in response plants a tree.

Now we know that some of the pagans in Palestine worshiped by planting groves of trees and worshiping gods in those groves of trees. This is not what Abraham is doing. Abraham plants this tamarisk tree, a long-living tree, as a memorial to the agreement, as a memorial to the covenant that he has made with Abimelech. And then we are told he called on the name of the Lord. That is, he worshiped God publicly. We've already seen in Genesis that that phrase "call upon the name of the Lord" is a phrase which indicates the public worship of God. We saw that in Genesis, chapter 12, verse 8 and we saw it again in Genesis 13, verse 4. And he calls God by a particular name. He calls God the everlasting one, El Olam. As Jim Boice says, "Times change and people change and needs change, but God never changes." And it is God the everlasting One, the God the eternal One of whom we sing in Psalm 100. Turn with me to that very familiar Psalm. Psalm 100, verse 5, we read: "For the Lord is good. His lovingkindness is everlasting and his faithfulness to all generations." And so the lovingkindness of the Lord in Psalm 100, verse 5 is said to be everlasting. It's unchanging, it's consistent, it's persistent, it never runs out. Why? Because He is the everlasting one. And because He is the everlasting one, His lovingkindness is everlasting. That's not the only time we see that attribute of God celebrated. Turn with me to the book of Isaiah. Isaiah, chapter 40, verse 28 where the prophet cries out. "Do you not know, have you not heard the everlasting God? The Lord, the Creator of the ends of the earth does not become weary or tired. His understanding is inscrutable. He gives strength to the weary and to him who lacks might, He increases power. Though youths grow weary and tired, and vigorous young men stumble badly, yet those who wait for the Lord will gain new strength. They will mount up with wings like eagles, they will run and not get tired. They will walk and not become weary." Why? Because He is the everlasting one and His favor never runs out.

So Abraham here in the presence of the Philistines worships God. Even in a strange land Abraham has cause to praise God. Do we? I don't know what strange land the Lord has you in tonight, I don't know what trials the Lord has placed you in that makes you feel like a Pilgrim. Yet Abraham gives us an example.

I want you to think for a minute. How would have a Jew responded to the idea of Abraham, the father of the faithful, praising God in the land of the Philistines? I look at this passage and one of the things that I ask myself is, why does Moses tell us that this was in the land of the Philistines? Of course, it may just be historical observations that this area in which Abraham was dwelling is the land that the Philistines later came to occupy. Of course, there may be more significance in that. Moses, the inspired writer, may have been called by God to remind the Israelites that even in this land of opposition, this strange land, this land of their dread and mortal enemies, the Philistines, that their father, Abraham, was ready to lift up his voice and worship God publicly, setting them and us this example. I will bless the Lord at all times. His praise shall continually be in my mouth. Abraham sojourned in the land of the Philistines even as David would hundreds of years later, and while he was there he worshiped God. May the Lord grant us grace to worship God no matter where He calls us to sojourn. Let us pray.

Our Lord and our God, we thank You for the richness of Your word, and we ask that You would bless it to our soul strength and to the praise of Christ in whose name we pray, Amen.

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