Genesis 19:30-38 and ch. 20 – After Sodom
Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast March 12, 2006
Craig D. Atwood
Introduction: Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. Let’s turn attention to the Book of Genesis. Last week we had a very difficult lesson on Sodom and Gomorrah with a good discussion after we went off the air. This week we will look at two stories that are less famous, but are also disturbing. They usually get left out of Sunday School curriculum because they deal with themes that are more appropriate for soap operas or late night dramas than Sunday mornings. I think it is helpful to remember that in the ancient world there was no television and there was little literature. Indeed, some of the stories in Genesis functioned in part as entertainment. They were provocative stories that were intended to catch the interest of the hearer, but they were also intended to inspire deeper thinking.
Zoar: Last week we left Lot and his family fleeing from the holocaust of Sodom. They were allowed to fly to Zoar, which means refuge. That was the name given to one of the Pietist communes in America in the 19th century when the people were forced to seek refuge in the West: Zoar, a place of refuge. I’m surprised that this isn’t the name of more churches, since one of the functions of the church is to be a place of refuge in a world bent of self-destruction. The church can never be perfect, but we should labor to make sure that it is safe for all people, a refuge from the competitive and violent forces of the world around us.
But oddly enough, Lot and the daughters turned their backs on Zoar and hid away in a cave. The text says that he was afraid, but it doesn’t say what he was afraid of. Did he think that God would destroy Zoar, just as he had destroyed Sodom? Did he think that the men of Zoar would take his daughters? Or was he simply a man broken by tragedy, one of those men who has seen too much death and destruction, who cannot live in society because he knows what he did or almost did? Did Lot suffer from that debilitating and nameless anxiety that chokes and enervates us? This is the last we hear of Lot in the Bible. He became one of the many men who are left on the waste heap of society; shattered by life and grief, hiding in the hills afraid to rejoin the world.
Incest: Walter Bruggemann dismisses the story of Lot and his daughters as “a primitive story to explain the origin of two tribes who are designated as bastards” (Genesis, 176). He is certainly correct that this story was a bit of Israel’s propaganda against a rival kingdom. It was one of those “yeah, but we know where you come from stories.” As Bruggemann sagely points out, this story was probably not told in Moab. But I don’t think we should just drop the story there. We owe Lot’s daughters the courtesy of remembrance even if we do have themes here that are not suitable for sermons.
Read Gen. 19:30-38
Interpretation: There are several approaches we could take to bringing meaning out of this strange tale. First of all, this story in Genesis 19 completes the parallel with the Noah story. Noah survived the flood, but then he got drunk on wine, and one of his children saw him naked. Here it is Lot who survives the destruction and gets drunk on wine, but it is his daughters who uncover him. This story, like the Noah story, reminds us that even after the destruction of evil doers, humans are still human. They still get drunk and do shameful things. It is foolish to think that we can end evil in this world.
Second, many commentators read this story as indicating the downward spiral of domestic abuse and immorality. Lot had treated his daughters as sexual property, as things to be used, but in the end he was the one reduced to a sexual object, simply a surrogate father for their children. It could be that Lot’s lack of indignation at his daughters’ action is intended to show how far Lot himself has sunk. There may be something in that, but that strikes me as reading too much into the text and trying too hard to make it a modern story.
There is yet a third way of reading this story. Unlike the Noah story, Lot’s daughters are not cursed for what they had done, even though they violated more than one taboo. Perhaps the curse is implied, as Bruggemann suggests, but we haven’t had implied curses previously in Genesis. Perhaps this story is more complicated than simple praise or cursing. Lot’s daughters had just seen their world destroyed and had witnessed the depravity of humans. They were living alone in a cave, facing the end of the world as they knew. They thought they were the only humans left alive and it was up to them to preserve the race. They choose desperate means that required violating strong taboos. They risked divine wrath in order to fulfill the divine mandate to be fruitful and multiply. With limited options they did what they could, and they became the mothers of two great tribes. Centuries later one of their descendents, a woman named Ruth, would live in the land of Moab and marry an Israelite named Boaz. Her grandson would be King David. So, one of the ancestors of Jesus, according to Scriptures, was one of Lot’s daughters. That should give us some pause when contemplating this story.
Abimelech and Abraham: The story of the origin of the Moabites leads into another story dealing with someone outside of the covenant. In Genesis 20 we have another version of the story of Abraham passing Sarah off as his sister. It is strange to have the same tale twice told, and most scholars are convinced that this is just a duplication in the tradition. The idea is that the story was told one way in Judah, the southern kingdom, and another way in Israel, the northern kingdom. One indication that this is from a different tradition is that God is called Elohim in this story rather than the LORD. We will read an almost identical story when we get to Isaac, by the way. Since we went into this motif of the wife-sister in some detail a few weeks ago, we’ll focus on what is different in Genesis 20 and how fits it in the literary context.
This Old Spouse: First of all, we should note that Sarah is much older now. We’ve already had a story about her being so old that she gave her servant to Abraham to have children with. But, she must have still been hot enough at 86 that the king of Gerar wanted to add her to his harem. That’s pretty impressive, especially before botox and surgery. Just think how hard Joan Rivers and Mary Tyler Moore have tried to hold onto their looks, but Sarah had them all beat.
This time, the story does not go into the details leading up to the taking of Sarah. Abraham just said that she was his sister, and so the king took her. In some ways this is rather comical. It makes you wonder if Sarah and Abraham had gotten used to this routine, kind of like two old grifters who know their mark. But in other ways, the brevity of this story is chilling. Abraham hands his wife over as an automatic response. This is particularly disturbing since it comes right after the story of Lot and his daughters. We are reminded that this was a world in which women were not fully people. They were prizes to be taken by powerful lords or tribute to be paid by wanderers. But, once again, God intervened for the sake of the woman.
The Trial: God spoke to King Abimelech in a dream and told him that he had taken another man’s wife. For that crime he would die. It is very intriguing that God spoke to someone outside of the covenant. Abimelech is one of the few people to whom God spoke in the Old Testament. This is another bit of evidence from Genesis that the LORD God was not just the God of the Israelites. Biblical faith views God as concerned about the whole world, not just the children of Abraham, whether they are the people of the covenant or people of faith. God is not bound by our nationalistic or tribal or even religious prejudices. In this case, he warned a foreigner that he had done something wrong.
More than that, God listened to what Abimelech had to say. He was innocent. He had been deceived by Abraham. He thought that he was doing something legal in taking Sarah as a concubine. This little conversation between God and Abimelech plays an important role in the development of Christian ethics. The medieval theologian Peter Abelard used this passage to support his argument that sin is a matter of intention rather than action. We may do something that is wrong or even illegal, but it is not necessarily sinful if we acting from right intentions. Abimelech did not know that he was sinning because important information was hidden from him; therefore God pronounces him innocent. His integrity was intact. We continue to apply this principle in our courts of law today.
But the case in Genesis is more complicated than that. Abimelech had not slept with Sarah yet. God knew that he was ignorant of the fact that she was married, so God kept Abimelech from having sex with Sarah. The text says that God kept Abimelech from sinning. So, perhaps sin is a matter of wrong action even when you think are doing right. So, we have a nice ethical debate here, although there is no doubt that adultery is condemned in this story. I think it is helpful to recognize that by preventing Abimelech from consummating his marriage to Sarah, God was actually protecting Sarah as well as Abimelech.
The Ruler and the People: We aren’t told how God achieved this, but the implication is that Abimelech was not physically able to do as he intended, and there were no drugs to help that. But the story indicates that it was not just Abimelech who was suffering. None of the women of Gerar were able to get pregnant. Apparently this strange charade with Sarah lasted for several months and grew to a crisis point. We are reminded of other tales from the ancient world, such as the story of Oedipus or Antigone where plague strikes a city because of the sin of the ruler. The political body was closely connected to the physical body of the king before modern times. If the king was impotent, for instance, then the kingdom was impotent. If the king was punished by one of the gods, then the realm suffered with him.
We are not entirely freed from this identification with the ruler, are we? Think of how people assumed that President Clinton’s failures as a husband meant that the country had failed. Certainly we do have ample evidence that a president’s short-comings and inattention can have tragic effects on the people he governs, so there is some truth in the identification of the ruler and the ruled. In our lesson for today, Abimelech’s marriage of Sarah threatened the whole kingdom, and he did what any wise ruler would do. He admitted that he had made a mistake, and he took steps to fix the problem. This is what we expect of any competent chief executive. In Abimelech’s case, he returned Sarah to her husband.
Why? Now we come to a very interesting part of this story. This is one of those passages that I am surprised is even in Genesis because a foreign king appears to be more wise and moral than one of the patriarchs. Abimelech asked Abraham why he had deceived him. Why did he not tell him the truth? Why did Abraham risk the well-being of Gerar with his shenanigans? “You have done things to me that ought not to be done.” That is a very clear and simple statement of the facts, and we cannot dispute it. Abraham had done wrong and people suffered as a result. So what is Abraham’s defense? Not much, really.
Abraham offers three reasons for his shameful action. First of all, he claims that he didn’t really lie. Sarah really was his half-sister. For centuries commentators have latched on to this as a way to exonerate the patriarch, but as we noted previously, this doesn’t really change the fact that Abraham was intentionally deceptive. He did not tell Abimelech that Sarah was also his wife. Plus, it adds the problem of incest, which connects this chapter to the previous one. It makes you wonder about our ancestors, doesn’t it? Abraham also tried to shift the blame to God by attributing his problems to the fact that God had made him a rootless wanderer. This is not very convincing, is it?
Distrust: Abraham’s main defense, though, was his claim that there was no fear of God in the Negeb. It was a lawless and God-forsaken place. We may have some sympathy for this view. Remember, Abraham has left his previous encampment after witnessing the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. He had reason for believing that people who live in cities are inherently evil. Abraham here reminds me of many Americans from rural areas or small towns who journey into the city expecting to be cheated or robbed by everyone they meet. Even within the city, you get this kind of suspicion. When I lived in Philadelphia, I was surprised that members of my congregation were frightened when I would go to New York City because they thought I would get mugged and murdered. And they lived ten blocks from a section of Philadelphia known as the Bad Lands. We are naturally suspicious people.
We can understand Abraham’s distrust after what he had witnessed. It is a distrust that we share, but pay close attention to the story. Abraham believed that the people of Gerar did not fear the Lord, and so he lied to the king and let him take his wife. It was Abraham who did not fear the Lord or trust the Lord. It was Abraham’s distrust that led to the suffering of the city. Abraham created the situation he feared. Prejudices can and do kill. Our fears and our lies will destroy us.
Restoration: Abimelech returned Sarah to Abraham and even paid for the shame he had caused her, but Abraham had to pray to God to heal Abimelech and his family. I think this is a significant point in the story. On the surface, this is just an indication that Abraham was a spiritually powerful person, a man with mojo who brings suffering and healing, but I think there is something more than that. It was Abraham who had caused the suffering of Gerar, and God demanded that Abraham play an active role in restoring the situation. Abraham had to pray for the people that he had harmed. He had to restore order and righteousness. This is one of the most basic rules of justice: you break it, you fix it. You pollute the stream and cause suffering for innocent people; you clean it up and help those you hurt.
Conclusion: There is one final theological point made by this strange story. Abimelech is more righteous than Abraham, but Abraham is the chosen one. The story of the covenant is propelled by God’s grace not human merit. There may be hope in this for us who fail so often despite our best intentions. God is gracious and can use even your mistakes for a greater good.