Covenant Father 10: Abraham and Abimelech - Genesis 20:1-18

Genesis 20 tells the story of Abraham passing his wife Sarah off as his sister when traveling through the land of a pagan king, which repeats the same scenario from Genesis 12. In chapter 20, however, there are a few notable features that stand out: first, this later sojourn starts to fulfill the prophecy of Genesis 15, that Abraham and his family would spend four hundred years being afflicted in a land not their own. Second, God Himself appears to Abimelech in order to protect Abraham and Sarah. By doing this, God thwarts Satan’s efforts to corrupt the covenant promise of an heir for Abraham and Sarah. Third, in the context of Abimelech’s blaming Abraham for his troubles, we find out that Sarah really was Abraham’s sister. Fourth, we see Abimelech making restitution for his sin, and Abraham interceding for him as God’s prophet, healing him and his household from the plague God had used to protect Sarah.

But the biggest question of this passage has to do with Abraham’s deception. Was Abraham righteously protecting himself, or did he tell a sinful and faithless lie? Many people interpret these two episodes in Abraham’s life as driven by faithless fear, and they use Genesis 20 to teach lessons about the flaws of even heroes of the faith. But the text itself doesn’t say any of that. On the contrary, Genesis 20, Genesis 20 paints Abraham as the godly prophet, and Abimelech as the tyrannical sinner.

When we compare Scripture with Scripture, we see that later on in 1 Sam. 16, God uses this same strategy with His prophet Samuel. Samuel is afraid to anoint the son of Jesse because he thinks that Saul will kill him. In response, God instructs him to tell the wicked king something technically true but misleading, in order to save his life. This means that whatever sin Abraham is charged with here in Genesis 20 becomes a charge against God in 1 Samuel 16. And so instead of charging God with sin, we need to stop charging Abraham with sin. Abraham’s deception of Abimelech was not a sinful lie; it was a righteous act of deception.

Now by saying this, does the ninth commandment disappear? Are we free to lie whenever we want to, if we have good motives? Does God not hate lying lips after all? No, no, and no. Abraham’s example does not justify any and all sorts of lying and deception!

Instead, the circumstances in which God presents us with examples of righteous deception follow a consistent pattern, in which we see the following principle: It can be good and right to deceive wicked rulers for covenant purposes when the life of the righteous is at stake. Whom can you justly deceive? The wicked. Why can you justly deceive? For the sake of the covenant. When can you deceive? When life is at stake.

That’s the principle that explains the actions of the Hebrew midwives in Exodus 1, Rahab in Joshua 2, Samuel in 1 Samuel 15. Other examples of deception fail the test: The Gibeonites in Joshua 9 practiced deceit on a faithful ruler, and they weren’t acting for the sake of the covenant, and so they are cursed as a result. Peter’s denials in Matt. 26 were not faithful covenant-based statements made to a wicked ruler, and so later he weeps with remorse over his sin.

And so when we evaluate Abraham, we see that his actions here in chapter 20 as well as in chapter 12 have established a pattern that leads to blessing later in the Bible, where the deceptions and lies of those who don’t follow this pattern lead to curses.

So what do we make of this? First, we need to be very careful that we don’t use the Bible to make absolute statements that the Bible never makes. The Bible does not say that all forms of deception are always wrong in every case, and so neither should we. Second, righteous deception is not a way of life; it is a weapon of holy war. The principles that govern its use are like nuclear launch codes, only to be used in rare emergencies. Pray that you never have to, and pray that God will give you wisdom from heaven if you are ever in a situation where you need to. But when the Nazis come looking for the Jews hidden in your home, that’d be a good time to practice righteous deception.

You and your children may need to be prepared to respond to such wickedness in the future, and so you need to know what weapons you have to resist evil, including holy deception. If and when the Serpent ever strikes at your family, remember how your father Abraham fought back, and how God delivered Abraham and Sarah, just like He promised in His covenant.

Posted on Wednesday, June 14, 2017 by CJ Bowen