Genesis 20 is a very interesting chapter. This morning I was struck by verse 20 as I was listening to Max McLean read it to me in the car.
Basically Abraham decides to pitch his tents for a while at the edge of Philistine territory in the region of Gerar. When they arrived, Abram arranged to repeat his usual scheme (see Genesis 12) of telling the story that Sarai was his sister instead of his wife. Apparently, Sarai was still quite the woman because she caught the eye of the king who took her into his harem.
Before anything hinky could go on, God speaks to Abimalek (said king) and tells him that he “is as good as dead” (Genesis 20:3, NIV) because he had taken her as his wife even through she was married to Abram. In a very interesting interchange, Abimalek asserts his own righteousness saying that he acted on a clear conscience because Sarai had told him she wasn’t his wife but his sister. God responds saying that He knew that and for that reason kept him from sinning by sleeping with her; and then adds,
Now return the man’s wife, for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you will live. But if you do not return her, you may be sure that you and all who belong to you will die (Genesis 20:7, NIV).
What is interesting to me is how God defended and intervened on Abram and Sarai’s behalf. The “morally upright” person in this story is not the patriarch and matriarch of Israel, but Abimalek! Abram and Sarai lied and deceived their hosts rationalizing that deception was necessary if they were going to stay safe. They are the cause of Abimalek’s problem. God doesn’t apologize for Abram or put him in a bad light, on the contrary, he says he is a prophet who He both speaks to and listens to, and if Abram prays for him, God would relent and let Abimalek live. By the end of the chapter, Abimalek not only returns Sarai to Abram, but pays him 1000 shekels of silver, sheep and cattle, male and female servants, and an open invitation to live anywhere in his country they wanted. In short, Abram sins, nearly gets an innocent man killed and ends up gaining materially and financially and continues to enjoy God’s blessings and favor.
I think this story illustrates a very important fact for us. And that is: that God’s love and willingness to protect and provide and lead us is not based on our being “good.” It is all grace. If obedience was what merited God’s divine protection, he and Sarai both would have lost it when they lied. Remember, this was not a one time thing or a quick thing. They had done it before with Pharaoh in Genesis 12; and in both cases it went on long enough and deep enough for Sarai to get married off. This was no simple little white lie or half-truth, no matter what Abram says. They blew it big, but God stood up for them anyway. They sinned consciously and deliberately (unlike Abimalek who sinned unintentionally and ignorantly) and God chose to call him His prophet and to listen to his prayers on Abilmalek’s behalf. God’s commitment to him was not because he was righteous but inspite of the fact he was not.
You cannot earn God’s favor. You cannot make Him love you. You’re not that good. Not even close. And, in the spirit of full disclosure, neither am I. So, as strange and backwards and against the grain it may seem that God acted in this way towards Abram and Sarai, I am glad He did. Because it tells me that while He wants and even expects my obedience, His acceptance of me and love for me is not based in my obedience; but only in His grace, only because He chooses to love me–fully knowing the mess that I am.