Just imagine you are Abimelech. A rich guy comes into your territory with a cute sister (although she had to be pretty old) and you take her for your wife. Win!
But God came to Abimelech in a dream by night and said to him, “Behold, you are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is a man’s wife” (Genesis 20:3, English Standard Version).
Ack! But…wait a minute…
Now Abimelech had not approached her. So he said, “Lord, will you kill an innocent people? Did he not himself say to me, ‘She is my sister’? And she herself said, ‘He is my brother.’ In the integrity of my heart and the innocence of my hands I have done this (Genesis 20:4-5).
Touché. Good to be able to clear that up. But…wait a minute…
Then God said to him in the dream, “Yes, I know that you have done this in the integrity of your heart, and it was I who kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I did not let you touch her” (Genesis 20:6).
If I were Abimelech, I would have said…
What?! Wait! You knew?! Then why did you say you were going to kill me?!
Seems a legit question to me…but, of course, it would since I suggested it. 🙂
Seriously though, if God knew Abimelech wasn’t guilty…and even interceded to make sure he and Sarah didn’t “know” each other in a biblical way, why the “Behold you are a dead man”?
I think a few other verses may help:
Now then, return the man’s wife, for he is a prophet, so that he will pray for you, and you shall live. But if you do not return her, know that you shall surely die, you and all who are yours (Genesis 20:7).
Then Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Abimelech, and also healed his wife and female slaves so that they bore children. For the Lord had closed all the wombs of the house of Abimelech because of Sarah, Abraham’s wife (Genesis 20:17-18).
If I were a betting man I’d suggest a few things might be at play here. First, not only was Sarah Abraham’s wife, but the very next chapter starts off with:
The Lord visited Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did to Sarah as he had promised. And Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age at the time of which God had spoken to him (Genesis 21:1-2).
So, it appears Sarah had yet to conceived Isaac. Not only is adultery bad, but putting the parenthood of the promised child in question is sub-optimal to say the least. God was going to make sure that never happened.
Second, when it came to his relationship with God, our Lord made it clear who “His man” was for Abimelech. Abimelech needed God’s prophet Abraham to pray for him, and when Abraham did, healing abounded. No question that if he wanted God’s favor, it might be wise to be in Abraham’s good graces.
However, I suspect the biggest reason was the fact that God really, really wanted Abimelech to do what he was told (otherwise why threaten him with death again…and prevent all the women in his household from having children?) Perhaps it was because, without that “encouragement,” Abimelech wouldn’t have returned Sarah. Perhaps God wanted those aware of the situation to have some healthy fear of Him. Perhaps…
One thing that is not “perhaps” is that God wasn’t going to chance Abimilech misunderstanding. And, praise God, Abimelech didn’t. 🙂