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Friday, June 16, 2017


Genesis 20.

It easy with cartoons.  The heroes are good guys who only do good things, and the villains are bad guys who only do bad things.   Reality is more complicated.  Sometimes the “hero” does something bad, something absolutely and deliberately morally wrong when he had the option to do good but he just didn’t.  Sometimes the “villain” is more ethical and honorable than the hero.  In the real world, people are complicated.

Unfortunately, we tend to read the Bible like it isn’t about the real world.  We oversimplify the actions and character of Biblical figures so that they neatly fit into our images of good guys and bad guys.  That may be how we read Scripture, but that isn’t how it’s written.  The Bible speaks reality, and reality ---- is complicated.

For example, Genesis 20 is a story of lies, enticements to sexual sin, and fraud at the highest levels.  It’s also the story of how God took extreme steps to preserve the integrity of an honorable king.

The main figures in Genesis 20 are Abraham, Sarah, and Abimelech.  Abraham and Sarah were the ancestors of the promised line of the Jews out of which would come Moses, and David, the prophets, and Jesus.  Obviously, they’re the heroes.  Abimelech was the pagan king of the early Philistines, a founding father of Goliath’s homeland; he’s the obvious villain.

But.  (If you’ve been following my blog, you had to know there was a but.)

But all the crimes and sins in Genesis 20 were committed by Abraham and Sarah, and the only ethically correct person was the biggest Philistine in the country.  Cause when you tell the truth, the whole truth about the real world ---- it’s complicated.

See what had happened was: Abraham moved his family into the territory of the Philistine city-state Gerar. There, Abraham and Sarah reverted to an old con-game they’d been playing for decades.  Sarah pretended to be Abraham’s sister and not his wife.  Which was half-true but totally a lie.  It’s complicated. (Read the post Crime Doesn’t Pay but it Does Collect Interest to learn more about Abraham’s and Sarah’s crime spree.)  

Sarah was pushing 90, but she was still an extraordinarily beautiful woman, so Abimelech did what kings did in those time ----- he took the beautiful woman to be his wife with, I must add, the full permission of the male head of her household, her older “brother” Abraham the Hebrew. 

But Abimelech never consummated the marriage.  He couldn’t.

Let me explain. 

While Sarah was in Abimelech’s home, the house of Abimelech experienced 100% infertility.    Prior to the advent of modern medical knowledge of the reproductive process, infertility was attributed to women.  e.g., the Lord had closed up all the wombs of the house of Abimelech (Genesis 20:18); but, verse 17 says that the plague of infertility ended when God healed the women in Abimelech’s harem and when God healed Abimelech himself. 

In a dream, God told the king of the Philistines that I also withheld you from sinning against Me; therefore I did not let you touch her (verse 6).

Now how did God keep Abimelech from touching Sarah?  Why did Abimelech need healing, too?

O.K., I’m just going to be blunt.  God made it so Abimelech couldn’t get it up. 

But not to punish the king of the pagan city.  To protect his honor, because Abraham and Sarah had tricked Abimelech.  The Philistine hadn’t done anything wrong. As the Lord him, Yes, I know that you did this in the integrity of your heart” (Genesis 20:6).

When God corrected, Abimelech the pagan immediately took Sarah back to Abraham and made things right.   Now, think about all the times that Abraham and Sarah didn’t stick to God’s plan.  If you need help, remember that Hagar and Ishmael were in Abraham’s camp watching the whole lying scene.

Abraham had lied to his host, deceived the government of the nation of his residency, caused a plague, and basically pimped out his wife.  But, his reasons kinda made sense.  Abraham has a large, rich household including thousands of livestock and  hundreds of armed men (Genesis 14:14).  It was reasonable to worry that the Philistines might take the presence of a beautiful woman as an excuse to kill Abraham’s people and take his stuff, or they might take the offer of a beautiful woman as the perfect offering of peace.  He couldn’t give them Hagar because there was the son who looked like both of them.  For the good of the entire household, Abraham and Sarah agreed to leave Sarah vulnerable to the men of Philistia.  Or out of cowardice.  Or out of faith that God would protect her somehow because God had promised them a child together.  Or some combination of all the above.

It was complicated.

Abimelech wholeheartedly believed in the existence and power of God (Yahweh/Jehovah).  He talked with God, and the Lord regarded him as a man of integrity, a “good” man.  Abimelech pursued righteousness (verse 9) and exercised mercy.  Instead of imprisoning, enslaving, torturing, and or executing Abraham, Sarah, and everyone they knew and loved, Abimelech paid a self-imposed fine for keeping Sarah away from her husband (verse 16), showered Abraham with other gifts, and gave them permanent access to the pastures and campgrounds of Philistia.  Because Abimelech recognized that Abraham was a prophet.  And because Abraham’s God was  a supernatural weapon of mass destruction Who could penetrate Gerar’s security apparatus and infect Abimelech’s people with the biological agent of His choice.  So, Abraham wouldn’t be punished for his crimes.  He would be rewarded.  The king perverted justice, but only because it was in his people’s national interest.   

It was complicated. 

God scared the Philistines, but He didn’t do them any lasting harm.  No one died, and their populations soon resumed it’s natural progression.   While population growth was at zero, the Lord gave Abraham and time to repent and come clean.  When they didn’t God used the good villain to reunite the family of the lying heroes ---- not because Abraham and Sarah deserved the promises God had made, but because God had made them.

God had given Abraham His Word that he and Sarah would have a son.  The word wasn’t that Sarah and Abimelech would have a son.
So shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth; It shall not return to Me void, But it shall accomplish what I please, And it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it (Isaiah 55:11).

The complications people create are undependable.  God is complicated, but He is consistent.  That’s why we can trust the Lord. 

For I am the Lord, I do not change; Therefore you are not consumed, O sons of Jacob. (Malachi 3:6)

The Bible is deep, complex, life-directing, and God-affirming.  If we would accept the complexity of its truth, Christian scholars wouldn’t have to make so many excuses.  You don’t have to manufacture arguments against God’s judgment to have faith in God’s love.  You don’t have to censor verses and chapters to construct a narrative that satisfies a selfish, simple taste for one dimensional characterizations.  You don’t have to embrace atheism or ignore contradictory actions and statements.  Those contradictions aren’t errors or clues to a 3rd century editorial conspiracy.  Those so-called contradictions are evidence that the Bible is the truth and nothing but the truth. 

Because when you tell the truth about human beings, it’s always complicated. 

But when God is part of the story, even the complications make sense.  

---Anderson T. Graves II   is a writer, community organizer and consultant for education, ministry, and rural leadership development.

Rev. Anderson T. Graves II is pastor of Miles Chapel CME Church in Fairfield, Alabama;  executive director of the Substance Abuse Youth Networking Organization (SAYNO);  and director of rural leadership development for the National Institute for Human Development (NIHD).

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