GENESIS 20:1-18

AUGUST 17, 2008


Did you hear the story of the little boy who paid a visit to Santa?  He had been planning for the trip for days and he had come prepared.  He had a written list of items, with his name and address and zip code at the top of the list, so that Santa could easily find his home and remember his requests.  On the list which he presented to Santa were things like a bicycle, a train, a bat and ball, and a computer game.

Santa was impressed.  He said, “Thanks for the list.  I’ll check it between now and Christmas to see whether you’ve been a good boy.”

Quickly, as soon as Santa said that, the little boy reached over, took back the list, and said, “Never mind.  I’ll settle for the bicycle.”

If our hero, Abraham, had sat on Santa’s lap this morning, he would have had to scratch some things off his list as well.  In our passage for today, Abraham hardly acts like a hero of faith.

This story, or one similar to it, appears three times in the Book of Genesis.  In fact, turn with me back in time to Genesis 12:10.  Let’s go back 24 years in time to Genesis 12.  Do you have that in front of you?  Genesis 12:10?  Listen to these words – and remember this event takes place 24 years before the event recorded in the 20th chapter:


Now there was a famine in the land.  So Abram went down to Egypt to reside there as an alien, for the famine was severe in the land.  When he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife, “I know well that you are a woman beautiful in appearance; and when Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife’; then they will kill me, but they will let you live.  Say you are my sister, so that it may go will with me because of you, and that my life may be spared on your account.”  When Abram entered Egypt the Egyptians saw that the woman was very beautiful.  When the officials of Pharaoh saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh.  And the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house.  And for her sake he dealt well with Abram; and he had sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male and female slaved, female donkeys, and camels.

But the Lord afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife.  So Pharaoh called Abram, and said, “What is this you have done to me?  Why did you not tell me that she was your wife?  Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her for my wife: Now then, here is your wife, take her, and be gone.”  And Pharaoh gave his men orders concerning him; and they set him on the way, with his wife and all that he had.


A similar story takes place in chapter 26, this time with Abraham’s son, Isaac, and his wife, Rebekah – as if Isaac is a chip off the old block doing the same questionable thing with his wife that his dad did with his – and because this story, or a version of it, appears three times in the Book of Genesis, in chapters 12, 20 and 26, some biblical scholars question the historicity of it.  They call into question whether, in fact, this event took place three different times, or if it happened only once, contending that somewhere in the telling of the story, before it was recorded in written form, that it got mixed up.  The details got confused with some storytellers having this take place with Abraham and Sarah and others with Isaac and Rebekah, and others saying the story took place in Egypt and others in the land of Canaan.  Thus, they call into question the reliability of any one story.

And they are probably right, but who’s to say for sure this did not happen three different times, in two locals and with two different sets of spouses.  One of the things I appreciate about the Bible is that the biblical writers do not white-wash our heroes of faith.  The biblical writers portray them as they really were, sometimes faithful, others times faithless, sometimes truthful, other time bold-face liars, sometimes kind and gentle, other times mean-spirited and cruel.  I appreciate that because it gives me a lot of hope.  After all, I do a lot of dumb things, and I often do the same dumb things more than once.  I don’t always learn from my mistakes – sometimes I have to repeat mistakes before I finally get it right – and it’s good to know that biblical heroes do dumb, stupid things as well, and in this case, at least with Abraham, he did the same stupid thing twice.

You know, when our children were growing up I often wondered why they loved to hear Trudy and I tell of the times from our childhood when we really blew it.  When they were younger they loved to hear me tell of the time I broke my mother’s bed using it as a trampoline.  They howled when I told them about the time I locked myself in my sister’s high chair when I was in the sixth grade, and the doubled over with hysterics when I told them about the time I accidently broke a window while vacuuming, how I bent over and accidently stuck my rear end through the glass.  They also loved to hear Trudy talk about her down slip she received and my failing algebra in the 9th grade.

Somehow, in the recounting of our childhood failures they received a little hope – hope that they could blow it too and still turn out OK, like mom and dad, and that’s what happens to me when I read account’s like this in the Bible – I get the sense that I still might make it too.

So in our story for today, we see the father of our faith who, unlike the father of our country, did not hesitate to tell a lie, and he passes his wife off as his sister for a second time in order to save his own skin. 

Now as we unpack this story, let me point out four interesting facts.  First, I find it very interesting that at the age of 89 Sarah is still quite a looker.  She could still fan a flame and she gets King Abimelech’s fire going to the point that he has to have her.  Remember the old Beatles song – “Will you still love me, will you still need me when I’m sixty-four?”  That song captured the fear of many, that as we age, we may no longer be as attractive as we were before.  We may not be as handsome or as beautiful, and it’s a dream of many, at least in our culture, to remain physically attractive for as long as we can.  The truth is though, that as we age we usually inspire more respect than lust.  I think of the sentiment written by a woman which goes,


When I was young and miserable and pretty and poor, I’d wish

What all girls wish: to have a husband,

A house and children.  Now that I’m old my wish is womanish;

That the boy putting the groceries in my car

Will see me.  It bewilders me that he doesn’t see me.


Well, King Abimelech certainly saw Sarah, and this story challenges the silly notion in our society that age diminishes attractiveness.  I’m glad the Bible reminds us of senior sex-pots like Sarah whose age enhanced her beauty.

Second, I find it interesting Abraham felt like he had a corner on God.  When questioned by Abimelech, Abraham said,


I did it because I thought, “There is no fear of God at all in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife.”


But the truth was, Abimelech had a great fear of God and Abraham feared other things more than God.  And who acted with the most integrity in this story?  It’s not Abraham, it is the pagan King Abimelech – in fact God even affirms Abimelech’s integrity –  and herein we find an all too common occurrence.  Far too many times the people of the world act more honorably than people of faith.

Have you ever been in a similar situation as that of Abraham, where you are embarrassed when your non-believing friends seemed more generous, kind, and forgiving than you?  I think of a fellow pastor who visited one of his parishioners at his office and this parishioner gathered some of his other Christian co-workers together for a brown bag lunch.  They were talking about being a witness for Christ in the office and these people were chagrined that the manager of their office, who is not a Christian, seems to be the finest person in the office.  He out cares and out loves all of them.

One man summarized it this way.  He said,


It is common to find people of the world whose honor and integrity is a shame to every Christian; and common enough to find persons of religious feeling and aspiration, of whom that same world is compelled to say that whenever they are tried there is always a something found wanting.


I hope when people of the world see us, see us under pressure, see us under stress, that we do not come up wanting.         

Third, I find it interesting that Sarah agreed to this plan.  Let me tell you, I opened a can of worms two Sundays ago when I demoted Sarah as a hero of faith.  Actually, I did not demote her, our pew Bible demoted her, and I was only agreeing with the demotion, but let me say something on Sarah’s behalf.  She must have really loved her husband to put up with these shenanigans.  When called on the carpet by Abimelech, listen to Abraham’s response once again,


I did it because I thought, There is no fear of God at all in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife.  Besides, she is indeed my sister, the daughter of my father but not the daughter of my mother; and she became my wife.  And when God caused me to wander (By the way his wandering to Gerar was likely due to a drought and they needed to move closer to the coastal plain to find adequate grazing land), I said to her, ‘This is the kindness you must do to me: at every place to which we come, say of me, He is my brother.’”


Do you remember the story of the woman who accompanied her husband to the doctor’s office?  After the examination, the doctor took the wife aside and said, “Unless you do the following things, your husband will surely die.  Here’s what you need to do.  Every morning make sure he gets a good healthy breakfast.  Have him come home for lunch every day so you can feed him a well-balanced meal.  Make sure you feed him a good, hot dinner every night and don’t overburden him with any household chores.  Also, keep the house spotless and clean so he doesn’t get exposed to any unnecessary germs.”

On the way home, the husband asked the wife what the doctor had told her.  She replied, “You’re going to die.”

We expect Sarah to say something similar to Abraham after he tells her to leave out the fact that we are husband and wife and only say that we are brother and sister.  We expect her to say, “Forget it, Abraham, you are going to die,” but she doesn’t say that.  She is willing to sacrifice her body, and really her hopes and dreams, to save her husband’s life.

In my book, Abraham would never be nominated as husband of the year.  Twice, he pawns off his own wife in order to save his own life.  And one other time, he seemed just a little too eager to sleep with Sarah’s maidservant so that he could have a natural heir.  Yet, despite those things, Sarah continues to love and adore Abraham, just as God continues to love and adore you and me.

And that leads me to the fourth and final interesting aspect of this story.  I find it interesting that God continues with Plan A (Abraham) instead of switching to Plan B (a person of faith with less chinks in his armor).  Folks, this story makes it very, very clear that Abraham is God’s chosen one, not by Abraham’s words – after all, he lies here – and not even by Abraham’s faith which is feeble here, but only by God’s incredible grace.

In Sue Miller’s novel Family Pictures, the heroine remembers her mother loving her autistic older brother no matter how out-of-bounds his behavior might be and that’s how it was with God and Abraham.  No matter how out of bounds his behavior might be, God continued to love him.  And you know what?  No matter how out of bounds your behavior is God will continue to love you.  It’s God’s grace.

Years ago a king was out hunting.  While hunting he noticed a lot of people on the river’s edge.  They saw a man caught in the rapids, and he was headed for the waterfall and certain death.  They recognized the man as a convicted criminal. They laughed that justice would now be done even though the city and state didn’t have to kill him.  Nature would take care of the man for them.  Much to their surprise, the king ran to the edge of the river bank and dove in and fought the rapids and pushed the man ashore till he could grab hold of a rock.  The rapids then carried the king over the falls and ended his life.  The people were angry at this convicted criminal who had been saved at the expense of the life of the king.  They said to him, “You’d better be different now because you are the man for whom the king died.”

Well, it changed his life.  That death turned him around and he became a model citizen.  Everywhere he went the people would say, “You are the one for whom the king died.”

So are you – you are the one for whom the King died –  and just as God’s grace eventually changed Abraham, may it also change us.