Genesis 20:1-7 - "Now return the man's wife, for he is a prophet ..."

Now Abraham moved on from there into the region of the Negev and lived between Kadesh and Shur. For a while he stayed in Gerar, and there Abraham said of his wife Sarah, "She is my sister." Then Abimelek king of Gerar sent for Sarah and took her. But God came to Abimelek in a dream one night and said to him, "You are as good as dead because of the woman you have taken; she is a married woman." Now Abimelek had not gone near her, so he said, "Lord, will you destroy an innocent nation? Did he not say to me, 'She is my sister,' and didn't she also say, 'He is my brother'? I have done this with a clear conscience and clean hands." Then God said to him in the dream, "Yes, I know you did this with a clear conscience, and so I have kept you from sinning against me. That is why I did not let you touch her. Now return the man's wife, for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you will live. But if you do not return her, you may be sure that you and all who belong to you will die." (Genesis 20:1-7)

Did God really not know?

These verses represent that the Supreme Being at first did not realize that Abimelek had been told that Sarah was Abraham's sister. It also assumes that God had to find out from Abimelek that he had made an innocent mistake.

Such a notion illustrates the weakness in the portrayal of the Supreme Being in these and other verses of the Old Testament. It also illustrates that these stories are part truth and part allegories. They are fabled mythological tales that were handed down for centuries before finally being recorded. Once they were recorded, their allegorical nature became obvious.

The situation could be compared to the so-called story-tellers circle. This is when a story is whispered from one person to another successively around a circle. The last person in the circle tells the story, revealing how the story had changed from the original story told.

This doesn't mean that Abimelek didn't exist. It also doesn't mean that Abimelek didn't have a dream, and didn't try to marry Sarah when he thought she was only Abraham's sister. But it doesn't accurately portray the exchange between Abimelek and the Supreme Being, because God is omniscient. He understands everything that is going on simultaneously.

As such, the first dream revealed to Abimelek that Sarah was married. Then he prayed to God for forgiveness and mercy, knowing that he made a mistake. That is what an honorable person does when they find out they made a mistake.

Why didn't Abraham tell him Sarah was his wife?

Here the king of Gerar, Abimelek, took Sarah, not realizing she was Abraham's wife. He had not "touched" (slept with) her yet, and then God's spoke to him in his dream.

Genesis 20:2 confirms that Abraham himself said Sarah was his sister.

Why is this? Why did Abraham hide the fact that Sarah was his wife? In Gen. 20:11 we find that Abraham answers this question as he tells Abimelek why he told Sarah to say she was his sister:
"I said to myself, 'There is surely no fear of God in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife.' Besides, she really is my sister, the daughter of my father though not of my mother; and she became my wife. And when God had me wander from my father's household, I said to her, 'This is how you can show your love to me: Everywhere we go, say of me, "He is my brother."' (Genesis 20:12-13)
And to this Abimelek acknowledged that Sarah was Abraham's wife, returned her to him and even offered Abraham to live on and use his land as he wished.

Did Abraham marry his half-sister?

According to this translation, Abraham married his half-sister - the daughter of his father. So this marriage was considered okay, apparently. Otherwise, the king would not have acknowledged and returned Sarah, as well as given Abraham some of his land and resources.

But isn't incest condemned?

We find in Deuteronomy, the following instruction, submitted by Moses to be from the Supreme Being:
"Cursed is anyone who sleeps with his sister, the daughter of his father or the daughter of his mother." (Deuteronomy 27:22)
Why then, is Abraham married to the daughter of his father? This wasn't the only time that incest is apparent from literal translations of the Old Testament.

For example, Lot's two daughters supposedly slept with him when he was drunk and each became pregnant. They gave birth to Moab and Ben-Ammi respectively (Genesis 19).

Then we find in Exodus 6 that Amram, who was Moses' father, married Jochebed, who was the sister of his mother. And Ammon, who was David's son, also married his half-sister (2 Samuel 13).

What is occurring here? Are the Israelites this incestuous?

And why, if Sarah was Abraham's sister, why did Abraham earlier have to ask her to tell the Pharaoh that she was his sister (as if she wasn't). And why did the Pharaoh later find out she wasn't Abraham's sister after all. The Pharaoh said to Abraham:
"Why did you say, 'She is my sister,' so that I took her to be my wife? Now then, here is your wife. Take her and go!" (Genesis 12:19)
Certainly if Sarah was Abraham's sister after all, the Pharaoh would not have said this. He would have simply gone on with Sarah, knowing Abraham was her brother, as the marriage would have been a sham.

Because men could take multiple wives, being the son or daughter of the man was considered being brother and sister. Having a different mother did not matter much.

The Scripture also states very clearly that Tarah was Abraham's father, along with his brothers, but does not mention Sarah:
Terah became the father of Abram, Nahor and Haran. (Gen. 11:27)
Sarah (Sarai) is then discussed as marrying Abraham in the following verses, and again there is no mention of Sarah being Terah's daughter.

This issue of Abraham marrying his sister has been the subject of debate and doubt for centuries among ecclesiastical religious scholars, along with the event of the previous chapter (Genesis 19) indicating that Lot had children with his daughters, and two sons were born of them.

The first point to consider is what is stated above about many of these events becoming allegorical after centuries of being passed on orally. Often they were passed on for the purpose of the moral-devotional lesson, rather than as an absolute historical record.

As far as this verse in Genesis 20, the more appropriate translation relates to understanding that the Hebrew word אב ('ab) can not only mean a father by birth, but also can refer to a "head or founder of a household, group, family, or clanhead" - "originator or patron of a class, profession, or art" - or a "ruler or chief" according to the lexicon and other verses of the Old Testament.

In this context, אב ('ab) would then be more appropriately understood to be Abraham's spiritual Teacher - also considered traditionally as "father." Marrying another student of one's spiritual Teacher is an accepted custom amongst most religious orders, and it is acceptable to the Supreme Being.

This would explain why their relationship was acceptable to king Abimelek as well, and why he immediately released Sarah. If Abraham had married the sister of his physical body - born from the same father - it would not have been considered a legal marriage.

Abraham could legitimately refer to Sarah as a "sister" because fellow students of a spiritual Teacher will refer to each other as "brothers" and "sisters" quite frequently. So Abraham, wanting to protect Sarah and his own followers, proclaimed Sarah as his sister.

This would also explain Lot having sex with the two young women, who would essentially have been two of his followers. As the tradition called for, male students were called בֵּן (ben) and female students were called בַּת (bath).

Yes, this could cause some confusion, as fellow followers could refer to each other as brothers or brother and sister, which could be confused with being a blood brother or sister.

This misunderstanding - confusing references to one's teacher with the father of the body - occurs throughout the Old Testament. Not everywhere, but often. It is quite simply a translation issue, but also an issue born of stories taking on an allegorical nature as they were portrayed over centuries of oral transmission.

Territorial struggles

One of the indicators of the allegorical nature of some of these stories is the importance that was placed on the so-called ownership of land. This was a very territorial time when feudal tribes were struggling over the control of certain territories. For this reason, territorial control became a big issue as these events were portrayed.

Yet this very principle is unbelievably the cause for the various struggles for lands of the Middle East, as some feel that God granted them ownership to certain lands.

God is not a land-grant office. This is confirmed by the fact that Abimelek granted to Abraham that he could live where ever he wanted to on Abimelek's land. If God had given Abraham all that land as mistranslated in Genesis 15, then Abimelek would not have needed to grant Abraham the ability to stay on his land. Abraham would already have all that land.

This confirms that God isn't in the business of giving away land.

God simply wants us to return to our original loving relationship with Him. This is why He sends prophets like Abraham and Moses to teach us love and devotion for the Supreme Being.

We must understand that the original texts that have been ecclesiastically translated into the Old Testament are spiritual texts. They describe devotional relationships. But over the centuries, many of these devotional relationships have been misconstrued to be strictly family relationships - as though the Old Testament is some sort of "Dynasty" story.

Rather, what is being described - confirmed by these statements by God to Abimelek, is how God protects His confidential loving devotees. God is protecting all three of them: Abimelek, Sarah and Abraham.

Abimelek was devoted to God

And we know from these verses that Abimelek was devoted to the Supreme Being. How do we know this?

Because not only did Abimelek communicate directly with God through his prayers and he heard from God through his dreams, but God sought to protect Abimelek by not allowing him to touch (have sex with) Sarah.

God said: "Yes, I know you did this with a clear conscience, and so I have kept you from sinning against me. That is why I did not let you touch her."

God protects those who are devoted to Him

Being devoted to the Supreme Being comes with an important side effect: The Supreme Being looks out for those who are devoted to Him. He protects them and watches over them.

Certainly, God watches over all of us and cares for each of us. But when someone is devoted to God there is a relationship. The Supreme Being reciprocates loving relationships. God enjoys exchanging loving relationships.

Those who ignore God while seeking self-centered enjoyment through the physical world are also loved and cared for by God, but there is no relationship to reciprocate. There is no devotion from the person so that does not result in this special care God extends to those who are devoted to Him.

So we know from this text that not only was the Supreme Being looking out after Abimelek: God was also protecting Sarah and Abraham. God did not want Sarah to be touched by Abimelek and he did not want Abraham to be submitted to any insult of seeing his wife betrayed.

This is also reflected in the last part of God's statement above. God is not necessarily threatening Abimelek with the physical death of his body. As Jesus described when he talked about the "dead burying the dead," the issue is spiritual death. Offending God's representative and loving servant produce spiritual death. Spiritual death is losing one's relationship with God.

The entire Scriptures describe the loving relationships that exist between God and His loving servants - along with their teachings that we should love and devote ourselves to God. This is the sum and substance of the Old Testament, as Moses put forth the greatest of the commandments:
"Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength." (Deut. 6:5)