Abraham is a hero of Judaism and Christianity, admired by Jews and Christians alike for his faith and obedience to God. God’s own opinion of Abraham is totally complimentary, saying of him in Genesis 26:5 Abraham obeyed me keeping, my commands, my decrees and instructions.
But a reading of the Abrahamic narratives shows that Abraham made morally hazardous decisions as he learned and refined his outstanding faith. In this post I want to explore the moral decisions of Abraham and God’s reactions to them. A question that may be asked is Did Abraham Sin ? And if the answer to that question is Yes, Abraham sinned then on what basis is God justified in his opinion of Abraham that Abraham obeyed me, keeping my commands, my decrees and instructions.
Abram Fails To Acknowledge Sarai As His Wife In Egypt
The Abrahamic narratives get properly underway in Genesis 12 where in the first verses of that chapter God’s promises of covenental blessing, manifold descendants and a promised land are made. But quite soon after Abraham’s arrival in Canaan a famine besets the land and Abraham decides to take refuge in Egypt.
Before entering Egypt, Abram instructs Sarai to conceal their marriage relationship and to acknowledge only that she is his sister. This is a half-truth. Sarai is indeed Abram’s half-sister, but Abram instructs Sarai to conceal the full truth of their relationship, which is that they are also married. The motivation for Abraham’s instruction is that his life will be spared and that he will be treated well if Pharoah can be kept unaware that he is Sarai’s husband, since otherwise Pharoah will kill Sarai in order to take her as his own wife due to Sarai’s beauty. The record of this event is in Genesis 12:10-19
Abram conceals the true nature of his relationship with Sarai. Is this a sin ?
Pharoah duly hears about Sarai and his agents deliver Sarai to Pharoah who pays Abram an impressively Pharoah-sized bride price. God then punishes Pharoah afflicting his household house with serious diseases. (v.17) Abram on the other hand becomes massively enriched with Pharoah’s sheep, cattle, male and female donkeys and camels as well as being given numbers of male and female servants.
But why didn’t Abram get into trouble with God ? Did he actually do anything wrong by concealing the full truth about Sarai. If Abram did sin, why didn’t God say or do anything about it ? Does the Lord actually validate Abram’s deceitfulness ?
Abram Fails To Acknowledge Sarai As His Wife Again.
Some time after this, Abraham again fails to acknowledge the full truth of his relationship with Sarai, this time when dwelling in the region of Gerar, ruled by King Abimelek (See Genesis 20:6-18). Abram again comes out again massively enriched and the Pagan King again rebuked by God and his nation beset with diseases and infertility amongst the women.
Since God blesses Abram and rebukes the pagan kings one might be led to assume that Abram’s deceptiveness is morally acceptable to God. How then can we justify Abram ?
First, some have said that Abram’s lack of candour with Pharoah and Abimelek is a justifiable Survival Strategy. After all, to protect oneself against powerful despotic rulers such as Pharoah requires unusual lines of defence, even lying. This argumentsdoes not stand up to inspection. Abram reveals to Abimelek that he (Abram) devised this self-protective line of defence of having Sarai conceal their marriage well in advance of entering Egypt or even Canaan (Gen. 20:13) well before any theat from despotic kings emerged. In any case, Abram admits it was not just King Abimelek he was scared of, but the entire nation of Gerar, which he perceived as dangerous and godless (Gen. 20:11).
Secondly, some say that Abram was using a Righteous Lie which is to say, a lie which serves a greater truth, such as the lie that Rahab the prostitute employed to protect the lives of Moses’ spies against the police force of Jericho.
Thirdly some note that under the then ruling cultural system of Fratriarchy (same as Laban, Rebekah’s Brother Gen 24:15, 28) the brother was recognised as head of family and so was empowered to negotiate a bride price. Perhaps Abram was justified in utilising a strategy of using bride-price negotiations as a mechanism so as to try and stall Abimelek and Pharoah and so buy time to make a get away ? In this view Abram was just unlucky that Pharoah and Abimelek were determined to acquire Sarai and would not accept a protracted bride-price negotation.
Fourth, some note that Abram responsible for a household of people, not just himself and Sarai. Abram had a whole household of people acquired in Harran en-route to Canaan. This household depended on Abram for survival, thus Abram was justified in using practically any means possible to keep himself alive and in a position to defend them, including deception.
Fifth, some note that God instructed Abimelek to ask Abram to pray (intercede) for the healing of Abimelek’s household and so assert that this proves that Abimelek had sinned and that therefore Abram had done nothing wrong.
Despite these apologetics for Abram, I think the Bible shows us that Abram sinned. To discover this, lets look at the record of Abram and the King Of Gerar, as this passage provides the most detail of the two Abram Abandons Sarai passages
Proof That Abram Sinned
Abram’s rationale for his deception of Abimelek, that he, Abram, was amongst a godless people is not supported by the text. On the contrary, both Pharoah and Abimelech act honourably, displaying knowledge of right and wrong
In Genesis 20:9-10 Abimelek tells God that he is ‘innocent’ and has a ‘clear conscience’. The Lord agrees with Abimelek, and tells Abimelek that he, the Lord, has acted in mercy to prevent Abimelek from sinning, this mercy taking the form of illness and fertility blighting his household in order to alert Abimelek to a situation in his household of whih the Lord disapproved. Abimelek tells Abram to his face that ‘You (Abram) have done things to me that should never be done’
Abram does not dispute Abimelek’s assessment. He just tries to rationalize his behavior.
Abram displays Blameshifting in recounting his rationale to Abimelek, implying its all God’s fault, apparently, that this has happened, not Abram’s: ‘God caused me to wander from my Father’s house’; 20:13
On releasing Sarai to Abram, Abimelech is drily scathing. He says I have given your brother 1000 pieces of silver.i.e as compensation for wronging him and you. Pharoah was likewise blunt, dismissive and contemptuous of Abram. He is certain that he has been wronged and that Abram is at fault.
What Is The Real Point Of Abram and His Abandonment Of Sarai ?
Actually, Abraham’s sin or lack of it is not central to the narrative.
In fact, the most important person in these narrative is Sarai, not Abram at all. God has promised that He will make Abram into a great nation. But God is going to do that in a way that maximizes His own glory by doing it through miraculous birth. That’s why Sarai is the more important than Abram in the Abandonment narratives. Notice that Abram wants his life to be spared for Sarai’s sake 12:13, Pharaoh treats Abram well for Sarai’s sake 12:16; The Lord afflicts Pharoah for Sarai’s sake 12:17)
The barrenness of Sarai is linked to Messianic promises regarding the Messiah coming from the ‘Seed Of a Woman’, the promise of which God gave to Eve in Genesis 3:15 : The unusual phrase ‘seed of woman’ is a pointer to the miraculous Virgin Birth. Seed is usually associated with men, not women.
Sarai is barren. She is a type of Mary. The Son Of Promise comes through a miraculous birth.
More exactly, Abram and Sarai are the chosen vessels through whom the Messianic line will be propogated. God will insist on doing this miraculously through the barren Sarai. Abram is important only because God has chosen Him. This choice is not in any way because of any intrinsic qualities of Abram. God has simply chosen to love and bless Abram and has promised this blessing unconditionally. Therefore Abram and Sarai, no other couple, will produce the progeny.
Therefore God can allow no doubt as to the parentage of Sarai’s child. It cannot come through Pharoah or Gerar. The promised child must come through Sarai and by Abram so that God’s promises are proven to be fulfilled by God. This is a matter of God’s character and faithfulness. Not Abram’s.
Hence Sarai must be returned to Abram. This is what God engineers, protects, instigates and maintains.
Covenental Promises Made To Abraham
The actions of God in these Sarai Abandoned narratives demonstrate His faithfulness to those promises, not His validation of any supposed sinlessness of Abram
God promised Abraham that I will Bless You (12:2) and Your name will be great (12:3)
In Genesis 20:7 God tells Abimelek that Abraham will pray for you and you will live for he is a prophet. That intercession is not due to any sin of Abimelek, but is the action of God uplifting Abraham in the sight of the Kings of the region, naming him as a Prophet and so making Abram’s name great. God defends Abram, effectively telling the Kings of the region. You don’t mess with Abram. He is my man, my chosen instrument. Wealth, military might and skill, spiritual power, The Hand Of God is on Abram.
Most importantly these Sarai Abandonment narratives show that the fulfillment of God’s promises does not depend on man’s effort or skill or goodness, but solely on God’s Goodness, Faithfulness and Character.
Whether or not Abram has commits any sin is not germane to the success of God’s mission or to validate his choice of this or that person to bring about His plans. God chooses to be personally faithful in bringing His own promises to pass.
Harmony With Other Patriarchal Narratives
God sovereignly and providentially acts through misguided, ethically perilous acts of humanity even in His chosen family to realize His promises. We see this repeatedly in the Patriarchal narratives. Isaac, Jacob and Judah all provide examples of how God works his will through tragically flawed and imperfect human vessels.
God makes His promises, His people imperil them, but the Lord rescues them and us.
Even the great Abraham is imperfect.
God is the hero of every story in scripture and of all our own personal stories.
My Personal Favourite Is Isaac
Isaac ignored what He knew to be God’s will to pass the Covenental Blessings of Yahwah to Jacob. Isaac planned to pass those blessings to Esau in defiance of the prophecy given to Rebekah regarding Jacob when he was born ‘the older will serve the younger’ (Gen 26:23).
Jacob lies to Isaac and says ‘I am Esau your firstborn’ (Genesis 27:19), Isaac delivers the blessing saying ‘Be Lord over your brothers’ and then to his great shock the real Esau comes into his tent. The Hebrew charad means to shudder with terror’. Scripture says Isaac trembled violently ‘Who was that, then ?’ .
God was in that very room living and active and Isaac was caught red-handed trying to monkey around with the Lord’s promises. The Lord had personally acted to defend his covenant.
As for Judah, well he breaks his vow to Tamar, and has no compunction about sleeping with shrine prostitutes and plotting murder, and yet the line of the Messiah goes through him.
In view of the above, Does the Lord tolerate sin: No – Moses (Would have killed him), Jacob, Judah
Finally, not that it matters since The Koran is not among the true Holy Books of God, I would like to note that even The Koran acknowledges that Abraham sinned.
See Bukhari 4:55:578 and 4:55:591 – Doubt about Allah giving life to Dead. Also Koran 21:51 and 26:82 where Abraham’s history as a polytheist who worshipped the Sun, Moon and Stars is recorded.