Abram/Abraham* lived as a monotheist among polytheists, a worshiper of the one true God in a world of idolaters. In the time of Abraham, nations worshiped many gods. These gods were usually viewed as responsible for particular geographical areas and political borders. Abraham's father and family were idolaters (Cf. Joshua 24:2-3), but Abraham knew one God. As he traveled from Ur of the Chaldees and throughout the land to which this one God called him, he did not change his gods. He did not shift his allegiance as he crossed various geo-political boundaries. Abram worshiped and served Jehovah, a God who knew neither geographical boundaries nor political borders. Abraham’s God was the same whether he was in Ur, Haran, Bethel, Egypt, Gerar or any other place God led him. Through His calling and leading of Abraham, God demonstrated His sovereignty -- His jurisdiction not just over Abraham and his family, but over all of the families of the earth.
Abraham was a man of great faith, but he was also a man of recurring weakness. One of his weaknesses was fear for his life and his safety. This is vigorously demonstrated in two separate "wife-as-sister" scenes in his life. At these times, Abraham represented Sarah as his sister rather than his wife. Sarah was a beautiful woman and they were in a strange land. Abraham feared that a powerful leader might kill him in order to take Sarah as wife. Among some who hold a low view of inspiration, these two incidents are conflated as one. Close examination of Genesis 12 and Genesis 20 indicates that these accounts are distinct events and not a retelling of the same event with more detail or from a different perspective. There are distinctions or differences that are hard to account for if we accept the Bible as inspired and truthful. For example, in Genesis 12:10-20 the participants are named Abram and Sarai. Chronologically this happens before God changed their names. In Genesis 20:1-18 the participants are named Abraham and Sarah. This happens after God changed their names, as recorded in Genesis 17. The geographical locations are different. This first wife-as-sister scene occurred in Egypt with Pharaoh the king. The second occurred in Gerar and with Abimelech the king. Gerar is in the south of Canaan, nowhere near Egypt (Genesis 10:19). The gifting is different. Pharaoh gave Abram gifts before he knew that Sarah was Abram's wife (12:16). Abimelech gave Abraham gifts after he discovered that Sarah was Abraham's wife (20:14-16). The discovery is different. In Egypt Pharaoh discovers that Sarai is Abram's wife when considering the cause of the plagues (20:18). In contrast, God reveals the truth to Abimelech in a dream (20:3). There are differences in the stories to such a degree that it leaves no possibility of these two incidents being the same. Interestingly, the same "wife-as-sister" ruse was perpetrated by Isaac upon a later king of Gerar (Cf. Gen. 26:1-11; the "name" Abimelech is a royal title used for various Philistine kings).
Why is Abraham (and Isaac) passing off his wife as his sister? The reason given in the text on both occasions is fear for his life, or self-preservation. See Gen. 12:11-13 and Gen. 20:11-13. This was Isaac's reasoning also (Cf. Gen. 26:7). Regrettably, in each case these scenes of presumption and deception follow directly after God's appearances and assurances. How weak we are. Praise God, His strength is made perfect in weakness. It was not altogether unreasonable for Abraham to think he could be killed for his wife. Ancient Egyptian texts preserve records of kings who took wives from husbands as they pleased. The beloved king David made Uriah pay for his wife with his life (though through a series of intrigue David did not initially intend). Even today in the United States some cult leaders take their followers' wives and make them their own (though usually without killing the husbands). Know, then, that this was a real fear and not an imagined one. We are not told what was going on in Abraham's mind, beyond fear. Perhaps he thought he could control the situation so that it would not degenerate into adultery and polyandry. The deception portrayed Sarah as an unmarried woman -- one in the absence of her father and in the presence of her brother. Marriage custom would have dictated that the suitor (in these cases, Pharaoh and Abimelech) ask permission from the brother to betroth and marry this unmarried sister. (Cf. Gen. 24:29- 60 for this custom of brotherly involvement among Abraham's people.) Abraham perhaps thought himself positioned perfectly to act as the older brother and deny the suitor. Regardless of what he thought, the plan was flawed. It fell apart. In both cases Sarah came precariously close to marriage. Both cases required their rescue by God.
Why does God record such an uncomplimentary chronicle of Abraham (and Isaac). First, this hints to us that we are reading a divine record rather than a human one. Were I to record the history of my family, I would acknowledge our failures, but certainly would not exhibit them in bold detail for the entire world to gaze upon. Second, though God never emphasizes these flaws in the New Testament, He records them for examples to and warnings for us. He preserves them for our learning and our admonition. So, what should we learn?
God's purpose is sovereign, immutable and inevitable. God chose a man -- Abram. He chose a family and a nation -- Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Israel. God chose them and not others. Therefore, we cannot dismiss the importance of these individuals. But the success God's purpose was not dependent on these individuals. God's purpose depends on God. God fulfilled His covenant promises despite the falls, flaws and failures of the patriarchs. God's blessings were furnished to Abraham despite his mistakes. Gods calls, God blesses, God leads and God sanctifies. In the end Abraham may be well remembered not as a faithless failure but as the faithful father of the promised seed, both physical and spiritual. And through him all the nations of the earth are blessed.
God's dominion is over all of the families of the earth. God chose Abraham and led him to a new country. Abraham was not out of God's jurisdiction when he entered the lands of those who worshiped other gods. Neither were those who worshiped other gods out of God's jurisdiction! Abraham went to Egypt. The Egyptians worshiped a multiplicity of gods. But when the plagues come it is not his own gods with whom Pharaoh must deal -- they are no help -- it is the God of Abraham, the God of heaven and earth Who adds plagues and removes them. Abraham sojourned in Gerar. The Philistines worshiped false gods such as Dagon, Ashtoroth and Beelzebub. But it was not his gods who warned him, not his gods to whom Abraham prayed, and it was not his gods who healed his land. The same may be said of other lands, as God's dominion demonstrably extends over Bethel, Hai, Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, Zeboim, Bela (Zoar), Horeb, Salem, Mamre and others. This is a fundamental biblical concept, and necessary to understanding Jehovah’s dealings with mankind.
*For simplicity I have defaulted to the use of "Abraham" and "Sarah," though strictly speaking they should be called "Abram" and "Sarai" in references before God changed their names.