An Exegesis of Genesis 20:1-18


Beginning with Abram, YHWH’s covenant with his people has always depended upon him. Though for humanity, YHWH may give stipulations that require obedience and boundaries that require adherence, YHWH is ultimately the one who will ensure that his covenant blessing comes to fruition. Regardless of humanity’s faithfulness or lack thereof, as seen in Abraham and Sarah’s interaction with King Abimelech, YHWH ensures the fulfillment of his redemptive promise through the dedication of another.

Literary Context 

Genesis consists of two major parts.1 The first part, composed of 1:1-11:26, focuses on God establishing the creation on a universal level. The second part, containing 11:27-50:26, focuses on God establishing a covenant with a particular people, localized within the now-established creation. Part two of Genesis can be divided into three sections, each spending time with a specific generation of the people God calls and covenants.2 11:27-25:11 devotes its time to Abraham and Sarah, descendants of Terah. 25:12-35:29 allocates its time to Jacob, descendants of Isaac and Rebekah. Finally, 36:1-50:26 lends attention to Joseph, descendants of Jacob. Focusing on God’s covenant with Abraham and Sarah, part two’s first section (11:27-25:11) can be subdivided into three units. The first unit, 11:27-15:21, pays attention to the call of and covenant with God to Abraham and Abraham’s faltering commitment to God’s covenant and call. The second unit, 16:1-22:19, pays particular attention to the fulfillment of God’s covenant with Abraham through children, descendants of the family, and inheritors of the call and covenant. Finally, the third unit, 22:20-25:11, concludes the focus on Abraham and Sarah, transitioning to their son Isaac whose children will be the second focus of part two of Genesis (25:12-35:29).

20:1-18 lies in the middle of the second unit (16:1-22:19) of Abraham and Sarah’s story. Although a similar tale (12:10-20) has preceded this story, and another will follow in future generations (26:1-16), 20:1-18 serves as a turning point. While Abraham and Sarah’s commitment to the call of and covenant with God wavers yet again, God demonstrates no lack of commitment. Instead, God remains faithful to the couple despite the risk that they take in this passage. Throughout the entirety of Genesis, God demonstrates a commitment to the covenant and creation by preserving Abraham and Sarah’s marriage, providing a place for them to dwell and possessions that will maintain and provide for future generations to come that they would be a blessing to the entire created order.

The main concern of Genesis is the ancestors of Israel.3 With part two of Genesis demonstrating the shift from God’s focus on creation to the covenant people, the first section (11:27-25:11) initiates this endeavor by focusing mainly on Abraham and Sarah. Hendel writes:

The stories of Abraham form a loosely connected cycle organized around two central themes: Abraham’s need for a child and his relationship with Yahweh. These themes concern Abraham’s identity as the ancestor of Israel and the founder of Israélite religion.4

While the bulk of Genesis is dedicated to demonstrating God’s commitment to the covenant people, the story is arguably left unresolved:

When the progress of the Abrahamic blessings/promises within the plot of the book as a whole is considered, it is clear that the resolution of numerous complications lies beyond Genesis.5

Historical Context 

Certainty regarding the specifics of the region in which Abraham and Sarah journey in Genesis 20:1-18 is lacking.6 Many archaeologists place the location northwest of Beersheba, roughly fifteen miles, at a place called Tell Haror.7 Regardless, the area is believed to be a wild, desert-like8 region between Canaan and Egypt.9 Though Egypt could experience flood-induced famines, the inhabitants of this region were often forced to seek refuge in its land because of the Nile River.10 Perhaps Abraham and Sarah followed the lead of many before them who sought resources in Egypt. Or, maybe at this time, the couple resided in a neighboring area just outside the reach of Egypt’s means. In this scenario, Abraham and Sarah are symbolically situated on the verge of their family experiencing the fulfillment of God’s promise to them. Regardless, living as an alien in this period indicates Abraham and Sarah’s lack of independence. Their alien status left them vulnerable. As they relied on God for a place to dwell and provision in light of their covenant, they were to rely on others for a place and provision.11 This theme would become standard for the covenant people of God. As Knauth notes, “Exodus expands this identity to the entire community of Israel as they’ sojourn’ in Egypt at the point of their formation as a nation, making this concept foundational to Israelite self-understanding.”12 Abraham and Sarah meet King Abimelech in this foreign place, a local ruler who presides over the region. This King Abimelech character is likely a different person13 than the one later introduced (26:1-16). When the biblical writer utilizes Abimelech, their intention is a term rather than a name, similar to the Pharaohs, that would later apply to Philistine rulers.14


The passage begins with Abraham and Sarah settling as aliens in Gerar. King Abimelech takes Sarah as his wife since Abraham claimed the two were siblings. God confronts and warns Abimelech to return Sarah to Abraham in his dream. The biblical writer places emphasis on verse 8 by crafting it as line C in the story’s chiastic structure. This climactic verse highlights the fear that  Abimelech and his people have of God in contrast to Abraham and Sarah. As a result, Abimelech scolds Abraham for having lied to him and placing his kingdom in danger. He then returns Sarah to Abraham and makes restitution by giving them a place to dwell and possessions to secure and provide for them. Now welcomed in someone else’s land, Sarah is returned to her husband Abraham along with a wealth of recompense.

Detailed Analysis

As aliens in someone else’s land, Sarah is taken to be a wife of Abimelech (vv. 1-2).

Verses 1 and 2 serve as the chapter’s introduction and line A of the chapter’s chiastic structure. From Sodom and Gomorrah (11:27-29), Abraham and Sarah travel to a foreign land where they will dwell as aliens. Their status as foreigners leaves them susceptible to more powerful groups of people and dependent on the hospitality of the land’s occupants.15 Their vulnerability is made evident when Abraham, in great fear, misrepresents his and Sarah’s relationship. Rather than claiming her as his wife, he presents her as his sister. While the writer doesn’t detail Abraham’s logic in his decision, a previous similar instance documented in Genesis 12:10-20 “…helps to make sense of the second story, while conversely, the second story helps to clarify questions raised [6]by the first.”16 So then, at the time, Abram tells Sarai to refer to herself as his sister when they were to meet the Egyptians. This approach, Abram believed, would defuse any potential violence that the Egyptians may have extended toward him.

As a result, Gerar’s King Abimelech took Sarah to be his wife. The question arises: what are we to make of King Abimelech’s desire to marry Sarah who may be anywhere from her young 50s to her 90s? Waltke and Fredericks postulate that “Sarah’s youthful beauty has been rejuvenated.”17 Similarly, Wenham ponders, “Is something happening to Sarah that will make pregnancy possible? Is she undergoing some rejuvenation?”18 He concludes that the author gives no clear answer. While I appreciate Wenham’s recognition of the text’s ambiguity, I find his proposal similar to that of Waltke and Fredericks too presumptuous. Instead of attempting to fabricate a rejuvenation, Goldingay poses an alternative approach. Sarah may be closer to fifty years old in actuality. She thus could still be quite physically attractive. Goldingay suggests, “perhaps we are to infer that Sarah would be just as good looking in the eyes of Abimelek twenty years after the Egyptian escapade, when she was a mere seventy.” Still, others posit a more appealing theory, where “…leaders use their womenfolk as diplomatic currency or that they value them as management assets….” This theory accommodates Abraham’s vulnerability as an alien in a foreign land. It also provides a reasonable explanation as to why Abimelek would be interested in taking Sarah as a wife despite her age.

God confronts King Abimelech about taking Sarah as a wife (vv. 3-7).

Verses 3 through 7 serve as the chapter’s rising action and line B of said chapter’s chiastic structure. Compared to the previous sister-wife encounter in Egypt, this story has a particular feature. Rather than bringing plagues (12:17), God confronts Abimelech via a dream. In this dream, God reveals that Sarah is Abraham’s wife. Because Abimelech has taken her to be his wife, he has incurred the death penalty. The author then discloses that the two had not engaged in sexual relations. In light of this, Abimelech pleads his case before God. In his appeal, he reiterates Abraham’s claim and adds that Sarah, too, corroborated Abraham’s assertion of the two’s kinship. Abimelech concludes, petitioning his in-culpability in the matter.

God responds, affirming that Abimelech is not guilty, for God had restrained him from engaging in sexual relations with Sarah. God concludes the dream with a command and a warning should he not obey said command, disclosing the result of either choice Abimelech may make. The order is simple: return Sarah to Abraham. If he follows, Abraham, a prophet, will pray for him, and instead of death, his life will be spared. However, should he refuse to obey God’s command, Abimelech is warned that death is inevitable for him and his people, too. The phrase “you shall surely die” both affirms the opening words to Abimelech’s dream (“You are about to die…”) and harkens back to 2:17 where Adam and Eve are warned of the consequences of eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. There, their disobedience led to the death of their ensuing people. Would Abimelech make a similar choice and bring a similar end upon his people, too?

Abimelech and his servants grow in fear (v. 8).

Verse 8serves as the chapter’s climax and line C of said chapter’s chiastic structure. In diligent obedience, Abimelech gathers his servants as soon as he wakes up. Once assembled, he discloses to them his dream. Fear grips everyone. According to Wenham, “This comment shows how unjustified Abraham was to allege that there was no fear of God in this place.”19 Here lies the turning point in the chapter: “Abimelek’s fear is the consequence of all that proceeds and the presupposition of all that follows.”20 

Abimilech confronts Abraham about Sarah, his wife (vv. 9-13).

Verses 9 through 13serve as the chapter’s falling action and line B’ of the chapter’s chiastic structure. As line B’, verses 9-13 mirror verses 3-7. As God confronted Abimelech about taking Abraham’s wife, so Abimelech confronted Abraham about taking his wife. He allows Abraham to answer for his actions and even attempts to hear if he has wronged Abraham.

Here, it is clear that Abimelech is being posed as the antithesis of Pharaoh in chapter 12. While chapter 12 lacks clarity about whether Pharaoh and Sarai engaged in sexual relations, we are assured that Abimelech and Sarah did no such thing (20:5-6). Pharaoh asks why Abraham had done this against him, while Abimelech questions why Abraham brought this against his people. Pharaoh doesn’t allow Abraham to respond, while Abimelech does. Lastly, Pharaoh makes no admission of guilt, while Abimelech partially owns his faults.

Abraham then admits that he misrepresented his and Sarah’s relationship, attributing this decision to his doubt that there would be any God-fearers in Gerar. Ironically, Abraham allows fear of humanity to overshadow his fear of God, while Abimelech and his people possess much fear of Abraham’s God. After confessing his misrepresentation, Abraham tries to justify his actions by disclosing that Sarah and he are half-siblings. While in B, Abimelech trembled before God and humbly inquired of his potential guilt, Abraham in B’ attempts to give a reason for his deception. He concludes by telling Abimelech of the request he made to Sarah. In his words, he adds to the terms in the chapter, seemingly leaving open the possibility that this instance and the instance in chapter 12 may not be the only times that Abraham has had Sarah engage in such a misrepresentation of their relationship. Either that or they are prepared to enact this plan whenever necessary.

Now welcomed in someone else’s land, Sarah is returned to her husband Abraham along with a wealth of recompense (vv. 14-18).

Verses 14 through 18serve as the chapter’s resolution and line A of the chapter’s chiastic structure. Abimelech pays restitution to Abraham by gifting him with livestock and servants and returns Sarah to him. He then allows Abraham to choose any place in his land to make into their home. No longer are they to be aliens or wanders, but they are to be residents of their own land. Abimelech concludes by addressing Sarah. After backhandedly referring to Abraham as her brother, he tells her that in addition to the livestock, servants, and land, he has also gifted Abraham with roughly 167 years worth of silver.21 This payment is not only to be restitution but a symbol of her innocence to any who question her purity. Here, again, Abimelech counters the Pharaoh of Genesis 12. Rather than giving gifts in exchange for taking Sarai, Abimelech extends gifts in recompense for mistakenly taking Sarah and returns her to her husband. Similarly, rather than being expelled from the land by Pharaoh, Abraham and Sarah are gifted land by Abimelech.

Since Abimelech obeyed God’s command, the chapter concludes with him receiving the result of his obedience. Abraham petitions God on behalf of Abimelech. In response, we learn that Abimelech required healing and God did as such, not only for him but for the fertility of his wife and female servants. The writer tells us that, because of Sarah, the Lord had made all the women of Abimelech’s household infertile until now. This revitalization of said women foreshadows Sarah’s coming revitalization in chapter 21, leading to the birth of their son Isaac and the thematic fulfillment of the Abrahamic section of Genesis.22 On a broader level, when observing the Abrahamic section of Genesis (11:27-22:24), this chapter serves as a proper prelude to the final bookend of this section’s grand chiastic structure. As the promise of Isaac (12:1-9) precedes the first sister-wife story (12:10-20), now the second sister-wife story (20:1-18) precedes the fulfillment of said promise regarding Isaac (21:1-22:19).


The primary purpose of this passage is to demonstrate that the fulfillment of God’s redemptive promise is brought about through the faithfulness of another. Up until this chapter, we have seen Abraham’s faith flounder. First, he obeys God’s call to depart from his country (12:1-9), but then, in fear, misrepresents his and Sarai’s relationship to Pharaoh in Egypt (12:10-20). Next, he covenants with YHWH (ch. 15), but then, in doubt of YHWH’s faithfulness to carry out the promise of the covenant, engages in sexual relations with Hagar, his wife’s servant, to take the fulfillment of YHWH’s promise into his own hands (16:1-16). The ebbs and flows of Abraham continue, fluctuating between faithful and fearful, dependent on YHWH and doubtful of YHWH. Now, on the eve of YHWH’s promise being fulfilled through the birth of Isaac (ch. 21), Abraham once again doubts YHWH’s faithfulness. Nevertheless, YHWH will one day provide another (22:1-19), as does YHWH in this instance. Finally, YHWH steps into Abraham’s chaos and provides a means of rectification for King Abimelech.

Theological Reflection

The writer tells the reader much about YHWH. In this passage, YHWH is an initiator, coming to Abimelech in a dream (v. 3). YHWH’s pursuit of Abimelech involves a confrontational warning, demonstrating his corrective nature. Interwoven with this correction is the shepherd nature of YHWH. His shepherding is evident when YHWH keeps Abimelech from engaging in sexual relations with Sarah. Here, too, is YHWH’s faithfulness on full display when by preserving not only the integrity and purity of Abimelech but also of Sarah, Abraham, and the promised seed to come, Isaac (vv. 6-7). Lastly, YHWH is portrayed as a healer when he restores Abimelech, his wife, and her female servants to optimal health (vv. 17-18).

Humanity, as opposed to God, lacks faith. Abraham exhibits humanity’s tendency to fear people rather than YHWH when he refers to Sarah as his sister rather than his wife (vv. 2, 11-13). When confronted by Abimelech, Abraham illustrates humanity’s tendency to downplay and make excuses for their sin (vv. 11-13). It is in Abimelech rather than Abraham that a redemptive possibility for humanity is seen. His conduct and character exemplify humility towards, fear of, and obedience to YHWH (vv. 4-5, 8-10, 14-16). For the Christian, one could see in the Abraham and Abimelech relationship a resemblance to the great exchange made available to us in Jesus. As Abimelech’s humble obedience to YHWH provided a means for Abraham to experience the fulfillment of YHWH’s covenant blessings, so did the humble obedience of Jesus provide a means for us who are in Christ Jesus to share the riches of God’s grace.

Overall, the passage paints a vivid picture of YHWH’s faithfulness and grace concerning humanity. On multiple instances, YHWH could have allowed humanity to reap what they had sown. Instead, in fidelity to his covenant promise, YHWH graciously intervenes. Despite humanity’s frailty, YHWH is faithful still.

Contemporary Application

How does this passage speak to the lives of Jesus’ followers today? First, followers of Jesus can rest assured that God is faithful despite their floundering faith. As God intervened and ensured the fulfillment of the covenantal promise, so God can do so for us in our lives. Though we may waver and wander in our lives, experiencing spiritual droughts while journeying through deserts, our God is faithful still. In his book, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, Timothy Keller writes, “It is not the strength of your faith but the object of your faith that actually saves you. Strong faith in a weak branch is fatally inferior to weak faith in a strong branch.”23 His point introduces us to the second matter of relevance for God’s people today.  If God’s relationship to humanity depended upon people’s faithfulness, it would be understandable to see the author of Genesis describe YHWH turning from Abraham. Up until this point, YHWH has extended much grace toward Abraham during their relationship with each other. Still, YHWH remains faithful. Thus, our relationship with God is not dependent on our faithful obedience but on the faithfulness of God demonstrated in the faithful obedience of Jesus. Though doubts about God and fears of humanity will creep into our minds and hearts, we can be confident that what matters most is that God is faithful. The apostle Paul quoted Jesus to Timothy, “if we are faithless, he remains faithful—for he cannot deny himself.”


1 Turner, L. A. “Genesis, Book of,” In The IVP Bible Dictionary Series: Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch, edited by David W. Baker, and T. Desmond Alexander (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1st edition, 2002).

2 Goldingay, John. Genesis (Baker Commentary on the Old Testament: Pentateuch). Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2020.

3 Turner, L. A. “Genesis, Book of.”

4 Hendel, R.S. “Genesis, Book of,” In Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary: D–G, edited by D.N. Freedman  (Doubleday: Yale University Press, 1992).

5 Turner, L. A. “Genesis, Book of.”

6 Rosen, S.A. , Beit-Arieh, I. , & Negev, A. “Negeb,” In The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary: K–N , edited by D.N. Freedman (Doubleday: Yale University Press, 1992).

7 Walton, John H., Matthews, Victor H., & Chavalas, Mark W. The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament (Downers Grove, IL:  IVP Academic, 2000), 52.

8 Seely, D.R. “Shur, Wilderness Of (Place),” In The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary: O-Sh, edited by D. Freedman, G. Herion, D. Graf, J. Pleins, & A. Beck, (Doubleday: Yale University Press, 1992).

9 Oren, E.D. “Gerar (Place),” In The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary: D–G, edited by D.N. Freedman, (Doubleday: Yale University Press, 1992).

10 Kitchen, K. A. “Egypt, Egyptians,” In The IVP Bible Dictionary Series: Dictionary of the old testament: Pentateuch, edited by D. W. Baker, & T. D. Alexander (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2002).

11 Begg, C.T. “Foreigner,” In The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary: D–G , edited by D.N. Freedman (Doubleday: Yale University Press, 1992).

12 Knauth, R. J. D. “Alien, Foreign Resident.” The IVP Bible Dictionary Series: Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch, edited by David W. Baker, and T. Desmond Alexander (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1st edition, 2002).

13 Jost, F. L. “Abimelech.” The IVP Bible Dictionary Series: Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch, edited by David W. Baker, and T. Desmond Alexander (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1st edition, 2002).

14 Matthews, V.H. , & Halpern, B. “Abimelech (Person),” In The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary: A–C, edited by D.N. Freedman (Doubleday: Yale University Press, 1992).

15 Begg, C.T. “Foreigner.”

16 Goldingay, John. Genesis, 280.

17 Bruce K. Waltke and Cathi J. Fredericks, Genesis: A Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2001), 285.

18 Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 16-50, Word Biblical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2015), 75-76.

19 Wenham, Genesis 16-50, 72.

20 H. Gunkel, Genesis. 9th ed. (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck, 1977), 222, quoted in Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 16-50, Word Biblical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2015), 68.

21 Waltke and Fredericks, Genesis: A Commentary, 287.

22 Hendel, R.S. “Genesis, Book of.”

23 Keller, Timothy. The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. New York, NY: Dutton, 2008.

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