Real Bible Studies: Genesis, Abraham and Abimelek 

After the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the bible is pretty much done with Lot and his nameless daughters, until their descendants, the Moabites and Ammonites start hassling the tribes of Israel many generations later. One wonders why Lot didn’t just drop in on his uncle, given the special relationship Abraham seems to have with YHWH, or why Abraham didn’t bother checking on Lot, since he knew in advance the cities would most likely be destroyed. Maybe Lot went back to live with his grandfather, since Genesis implied Terah might still be alive at the time. In any event, Lot’s family disappears without a trace and the action shifts back to Abraham, where we find him up to his old tricks.

Genesis 20 tells us Abraham has moved to the Negev, where he’s once again telling everyone that Sarah is his sister. Abimelek, king of Gerar sends for her, intending to take her as a wife or concubine. YHWH communicates with Abimelek in a dream, letting him know he’s in big trouble because he took Abraham’s wife, and Abimelek pleads ignorance, since Abraham told everyone she was his sister. This situation raises a couple of questions.

First, hasn’t Genesis made a point of letting us know Sarah is well beyond the age when women can have children? Since offspring were the desired outcome of marriages in this era, why would Abimelek consider Sarah a viable mate? The last report we had on Abraham’s age was ninety-nine at the time of the covenant of circumcision. Granted, Genesis has stated that Sarah was very attractive, but, if we assume she’s close in age to Abraham, that would put her in her eighties or nineties, at least. Since a king could have his choice of any woman, it makes no sense he’d choose someone so advanced in age who’s unable to give him heirs.

Second, what is up with Abraham always telling people his wife is his sister? He did this in Egypt, causing all sorts of problems for the Pharaoh, who “punished” Abraham by giving him livestock and letting him graze them wherever he wanted. This tendency apparently runs in the family because in Genesis 26, Isaac pulls the exact same stunt with the exact same king, Abimelek, now identified as king of the Philistines. Abimelek had apparently wised up by then and didn’t try to take Rebekah as a wife. It’s like the person who wrote Genesis just kept using the same story over and over, or used multiple versions of the same legend without bothering to vary the details significantly. The only device used more often is that of a woman being unable to conceive until some mysterious stranger visits, even after YHWH has declared that the woman will become pregnant, which is pretty much the story of every woman in the Old Testament, with the exception of Ruth, Tamar, and a few others.

After getting the 4-1-1 from YHWH, Abimelek goes to Abraham demanding to know why he misrepresented his relationship with Sarah. Abraham clarifies, and tells Abimelek that, in fact, Sarah is his father’s daughter by another mother. This sort of relationship will be forbidden in Leviticus 18 but since it hasn’t yet been written in Abraham’s time and, since Abraham has a special relationship with YHWH, this appears to make everything okay. I guess since the world was only a few hundred years old at this point and still recovering from being wiped out in the flood, YHWH decided not to be too stringent on the rules, though there seems to be lots more people around who are far more diverse than one might expect after such a calamity, especially with just a handful of people left to repopulate the world. Maybe living for eight or nine hundred years had its advantages.

It’s never explained why everyone but Abraham gets in trouble for him misrepresenting his relationship with Sarah, since he’s the one being deceitful. Sarah gets carted off to some king’s harem; the king’s household suffers, and Abraham makes out like a bandit with herds of sheep and cattle along with sweet deals on grazing rights. Being a patriarch apparently comes with loads of perks, not least of which is having a direct hotline to the supreme being.

Not only does Abraham always get away with telling people Sarah is his sister, he always greatly benefits from it. Genesis tells us that, just like Pharaoh, Abimelek gives Abraham herds of livestock, and lets Abraham graze his flocks wherever he wants, as well as giving him a thousand shekels just for his troubles. YHWH also instructs Abimelek to have Abraham pray for him, since Abraham is a prophet, which he does, thus allowing all the women in Abimelek’s household to once again conceive children. Exactly how any of this is relevant to the story of the children of Israel is anyone’s guess. It’s likely that Genesis, like Judges, also started out as a hodgepodge of oral myths and legends about Abraham which an early writer cobbled together to form a coherent narrative, before a later editor embellished it considerably to add to the Hebrew bible. Since there’s hardly any mention of Abraham and his covenant in Judges, the source material may have originated with different tribes which was combined by a later editor who added material to connect them. 

Scholars have theorized that the Torah, that is, the first five books of the bible, was formed from combining several different texts, the so-called “documentary hypothesis”. Richard Elliott Friedman in his work, The Hidden Book of the Bible, takes this a step further by attempting to recreate the Jahwist or Yahwist text, which he says includes material from Joshua and Judges, too. Friedman’s recreation begins with the story of creation in Genesis 2, and includes the stories of Abraham, Isaac and their descendants.

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