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Abimelech, the king of Gerar, had an appreciative eye for handsome women. True, this trait brought him briefly to grief on one occasion, but they say he learned from the experience.
The incident began when some newcomers, Abraham and Sarah, settled in the neighborhood. When Sarah was introduced as Abraham’s sister, poor Abimelech at one glance felt himself going all gooey inside. At the sight of this beautiful, apparently unmarried woman, the king’s ardently smitten heart started to flutter like a leaf in the breeze. With a single look at the lady (a look that sober minds judged, nonetheless, injudiciously long), Abimelech found his knees shaky and his throat dry. This lovely Sarah was surely meant for him, the king had no doubt.
And, being the king, Abimelech was accustomed to getting what he wanted. Indeed, royal courting and romancing were uncomplicated in those days; Abimelech simply sent over to Abraham’s place and had Sarah removed to the royal palace. It all happened very fast. In fact, the story so far is contained in just one Bible verse (Gen. 20:2).
Now in the considerations that follow, let us be temperate with Abimelech. He was, after all, a man in love, and men thus stricken have been known to act precipitously once in a while. Let us be gentle with him.
Nonetheless, let us also be frank. Abimelech should have known that this was not a smart move. Certain features of the case, if he had thought on them, might have prompted the king to a greater and more salutary caution.
Not least among these was the fact that lovely Sarah was 90 years old at the time (17:17), and Abimelech should have given that circumstance the reflection it deserved. This was not good. This was not smooth. Please understand, no matter how well preserved and retentive of her youth the lady may be, the abrupt abduction of a 90-year-old woman for amorous purposes is generally considered very bad form. Honestly, among gentlemen at least, it simply isn’t done. And when it is done, let me tell you, most of the time the thing just doesn’t work out.
Second, Abimelech was wrong to take at face value the assertion, “She is my sister.” That was one of Abraham’s old tricks to avoid getting his throat slit by other men who, it appears, were forever falling in love with his unusually attractive wife. Years before, when he and Sarah were visiting Egypt, the pharaoh down there had been similarly smitten with her. Not only had Abraham on that occasion saved his own life by recourse to his she-is-my-sister routine, but also the pharaoh gave Abraham lots of nice presents to honor him. Then, when the whole thing blew up in the pharaoh’s face, Abraham still got to keep the presents (12:11–20). That is to say, the ruse paid off.
Abraham, if questioned further about Sarah’s being his sister, could always point out that “sister” in Hebrew really means “female relative,” and Sarah was a blood relative—his half-sister, in fact (20:12). Obviously, this convenient arrangement was useful for throwing would-be rivals into confusion, nor did Abraham much scruple on the matter. Although we are never told Sarah’s views about it, we do know that she tended to appreciate the humor and irony of things (18:11–12).
Anyway, to return to our story, Abimelech thought Sarah definitely the woman of his dreams. These dreams, however, turned sour right away: “But God came to Abimelech in a dream by night, and said to him, ‘Indeed, you are a dead man because the woman you have taken is a man’s wife’” (20:3). Abimelech argued his innocence, a point the Lord conceded, and in the morning Sarah was returned, untouched, to her husband. Both of them were rebuked for the deception, but Abimelech still loaded them down with more presents (20:4–16).
As I remarked earlier, Abimelech learned from the experience. Some years later, Isaac, the son of Abraham and Sarah, came to settle at Gerar with his beautiful wife Rebekah. Once again, Isaac tried to pass Rebekah off as his “sister”; she was, in fact, a cousin. This time, however, chary Abimelech did not bite. He simply kept a watchful eye on the couple, until one day he “looked through a window, and saw, and there was Isaac showing endearment to Rebekah his wife” (26:6–8). “Aha, I knew it,” thought he to himself, “I just knew it; you just can’t be too careful these days.”