After focusing on Lot and the events at Sodom in Genesis 19 last week, we move again to Abraham. Strangely, despite moving back to Abraham, we are not really concerned with the promise of Isaac. Genesis 20 instead deals with an incident involving Abraham and Abimelek that is reminiscent of the incident that takes place in Egypt in Genesis 12.
What we see here is Abraham moving on from the trees of Mamre to Gerar. When relocated Abraham once again tells Sarah to pretend to be his sister. The position of this scheme is rather interesting. We see Abraham imploring God to show mercy to Sodom a couple chapters ago, with Brueggemann even going as for to say that Abraham was trying to teach God. Yet, here we have Abraham lying and scheming because he was afraid that Abimelek would not fear God.
Due to this lie, Sarah is taken in by Abimelek. This is strange in itself because we’re seeing Sarah as being rather advanced in age, at least if we take the story as chronological. That Abimelek is taking her in as a potential wife/concubine is a bit odd, but that’s not really where I want to focus. I’m wanting to focus on Abraham’s fear.
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen it. We saw it in the similar incident in Genesis 12. Abraham feared these outside figures more than he trusted in God. The schemes that he hatched not placed Sarah in risky situations both times, since she’s taken in by the Pharaoh in Egypt and Abimelek here. Here though we also see that Abraham’s lie places Abimelek in danger as well.
What is particularly interesting here is that God speaks to Abimelek warning him about what he has done. Abimelek responds in earnest and is found innocent by God. When Abimelek confronts Abraham about it, Abraham gives a rather weak excuse that basically boils down to the idea that he was afraid of Abimelek and his people. This fear led Abraham to lie, or at least half-lie as Abraham was trying to spin it.
What we see is a rather strange role reversal in this story. Abraham is supposed to be the righteous one, yet Abimelek is acting much more righteous than Abraham. Brueggemann says that “Here Abimelek models faith lacking in Abraham, the father of faith.” It’s a strange irony.
Yet, I wonder if that irony doesn’t play out far too often in our own lives. I think we’ve all known fear. Fear is something I wrote about not too long ago. Yet, fear is a terrible motivator. It motivates us to do things like Abraham in this passage, to lie, twist, or hide the truth. It makes us look at others with suspicious eyes worried that they will hurt us or are out to get us in some way.
The trouble I often have in sorting through this is that often our reactions made in fear are due to the wounds people have given us in the past. We are often afraid of how people will respond when we say, act, or do something because we’ve been hurt before or seen other people hurt before. Our reasons for being wary are often not entirely unfounded.
We’ve all been burned by people we’ve trusted, whether parent, pastor, teacher, or even friends. We can look at statistics regarding abuse and sexual abuse and understand that there are people who are deserving of fear. I don’t think we should live life in a perpetual naivety thinking that everyone is friendly and will never ever hurt you. Yet I also think there is a danger of fearing everyone as well.
I think when fear is the first reaction to every person we meet we turn them into an enemy. We may not even know much about them, like Abraham and Abimelek, but we make assumptions and turn them into enemies who are out to get us. I think that this can look many ways.
We fear other parents who may look down on or disagree with our ways of parenting, so we go in with defenses raised and treat them as we would enemies.
We fear people who may look different than us because for some reason we think that looking different and coming from a different culture is a reason for viewing someone as an enemy.
We fear fellow Christians, no matter where they fall on the spectrum, because we worry we will face judgment and condemnation when we disagree. So we keep everything close, don’t share our own thoughts, and in our own way look down on them.
We fear people who aren’t Christian because we worry they’ll hate us or deride us for our faith. So we attack and make generalizations about them so we never have to worry about anyone like that getting too close.
We can fear pretty much anyone. If we let those fears take control than everyone around us can be turned into an enemy and I’m not sure we’re meant to look at those around us like that. In all honesty though, I’m not exactly sure how to approach people.
There is a dual reality underneath this whole incident. One can’t hide the fact that there are people who will attack, harm and judge us for little to no reason. They may be Christians or non-Christians; co-workers or strangers; they may even be people particularly close to us like family and friends. We have a reason to be wary, not every person is trustworthy, and simply being naive about that isn’t the answer.
Yet, at the same time if we begin to fear everyone we run across, we isolate ourselves and take a pretty harsh stance on the people around us. Not only that, but we may miss relationships that are positive for both us and the other person involved. We may even fall in the trap of Abraham, where our fear becomes great enough that we begin to lie and twist the truth because we are afraid of those around us.
This puts us in tension. Not letting fear or complete naivety control us. To understand that there may be people out there who will hurt us, but being careful that we don’t hurt others or shut them out due to our own fear. It’s a tricky balance to strike, but I do think it is a balance that reflects reality.