The Treadmill of Besetting Sin — Genesis 20

We have been tracking Abraham in his journey of faith.  We have seen him rise to great heights – such as when he manifested such a magnanimous spirit in Chap. 12 to give his nephew Lot the choice of where to live; or when the Lord used him in Chap. 14 to deliver Lot and the residents of Sodom from the confederacy of invading kings; or when he interceded on behalf of Lot and his family despite the wickedness around them in Sodom and Gomorrah.  But we have also seen surprising lapses in his dependence on God – such as when he passed off Sarah as his sister back in Chap. 12 as a means of self-preservation.  Here again we see that same sin revisited.  It is as if Abraham is on some type of treadmill of besetting sins – repeating the same unwise behavior over and over so that he fails to make any progress.

Yet we are struck by the mercy and power of God who intervenes to still protect Sarah and Abraham and accomplish the fulfillment of His covenant promise.  What an embarrassment it must have been for Abraham to have been rebuked by this pagan king who was filled with moral shock and indignation at the outrageous behavior of his guest that had endangered the royal family.  How could Abraham have so blatantly repeated the same moral blunder?  Yet that is true for all of us.  We each have particular sins that might not seem so threatening to others, but seem to enslave us in a grip that we have trouble breaking.  Abraham was a giant when it came to trusting God.  But in certain types of pressure situations he still resorted to his own human scheming and patterns of deception to try to help God out and preserve his life.   This in spite of God’s clear promises of what he would accomplish in the lives of Abraham and Sarah; this in spite of God’s demonstrated faithfulness over and over in proving His greatness (there is nothing too difficult for God) and His goodness (Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is right?).

GOD OVERRULES EVEN OUR BESETTING SINS TO ACCOMPLISH HIS KINGDOM PURPOSES

I.  (:1-7) REPEATING PAST SINS — FEARFUL AND FAITHLESS ABRAHAM

A.  (:1-2) Pressure Situations Make Believers Vulnerable to Besetting Sins

  1. (:1)  Pressure Situation

Now Abraham journeyed from there toward the land of the Negev,

             and settled between Kadesh and Shur; then he sojourned in Gerar.

Parunak: There is no mention here of famine. This appears to be normal nomadic migration, perhaps strengthened by a desire to move away from the scene of the recent judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah. He does not go all the way to Egypt, but stays in the land.

  • “Shur” (“wall”) is the northern Sinai desert adjacent to Egypt.
  • “kadesh” is probably kadesh Barnea, Ain el Qudeirat, 096006
  • Gerar is Tel Abu Hureireh (Tel Haror), 112087

What is important here is that he remains within the land of promise per 15:18, not crossing over “the river of Egypt” (probably one of the branches of the Nile, perhaps the one now dried up that marked the eastern border with Sinai).

  1. (:2)  Besetting Sin  (Heb. 12:1-2)

And Abraham said of Sarah his wife, ‘She is my sister.’

              So Abimelech king of Gerar sent and took Sarah.

Sarah must have been very beautiful to have been taken into the king’s harem at such an old age = 89

Title: “my father is king

Steven Cole: Probably Abimelech wanted her in his harem to cement an alliance with the wealthy and powerful Abraham, who posed as her brother. Later, Abimelech did enter into an alliance with Abraham (21:22-34). Thus while Sarah was not in the flower of her youth, she was an attractive woman whose family ties could help Abimelech politically.

Jack Arnold: Old habits, thought to be done away with, can crop up in the life of the true believer. Former weaknesses and inveterate tendencies, which we think no longer powerful suddenly arise and bring about our downfall. Believers are often found to slip and fall where they have previously fallen.  Inconsistency of faith …

Parunak: Components of Abraham’s error:

  • Forgetfulness of God’s past protection. Thus the Scriptures exhort us frequently to “bless the Lord, and forget not all his benefits.”

  • Not discerning distinctions among unbelievers. Pharaoh’s antagonism is very different from the inclination toward God of Abimelech.

  • The letdown after the mountaintop. Ch. 18 was certainly a high point of his experience: meeting personally with the Lord, interceding for Sodom, receiving the promise of a son. In such times, it is easy to grow self-confident, and let down our dependence on the Lord. 1 Cor 10:12, “let him that thinketh he standeth, take heed lest he fall.

Why does God allow His children to suffer besetting sins?

  • Keeps us humble; attacks our pride
  • Makes us more dependent on God
  • Magnifies His power and grace in the midst of our weakness

Steven Cole: Five observations about besetting sins:

  • Besetting sins are always a danger.

    • Can experience victory
    • But must always be on guard against them cropping up again
    • Avoid situations that put us at risk
  • Besetting sins are rooted in the love of self.

    • Abraham putting self ahead of glory of God and love for his wife
    • Answer is to deny self – not put more eggs in the basket of self esteem
  • Besetting sins always hurt others.

    • We like to think our sins are harmless
    • We never sin just in private without impact on others
  • We tend to excuse besetting sins, not confess and forsake them. [treat this below]

  • Besetting sins always dishonor God.

    • Abimelech, a pagan, has more integrity here than Abraham, God’s prophet.

Focus Switches to Abimelech and his culpability – we have a picture of the gospel message coming to a prominent Gentile king

B.  (:3) Sin Leads to God’s Certain Death Sentence

But God came to Abimelech in a dream of the night, and said to him,

       ‘Behold, you are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is  married.’

Parunak: lit., “Thou art dying.” Cf. v.17. God had smitten him and his people with an illness, and here announces that it will be fatal if not stopped.

Shows the seriousness of adultery – God always treats sin as a serious offense against His holy nature; shows the importance of marriage – God’s design for society; powerful men cannot simply abuse women as they please with no consequences

This is no different than the Death Sentence God delivered to the original couple in the Garden of Eve – “you shall surely die”  Gen. 2:17; 3:3

Denied by Satan – “You surely will not die!”  Gen. 3:4  direct contradiction; battle lines drawn

But you had better take God at His Word

No different than the message throughout Scripture:

  • the soul that sinneth it shall surely die”  Ezek. 18:20
  • For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God”  Rom. 3:23
  • the wages of sin is death”  Rom. 6:23

How are you going to respond to that declaration from God?

C.  (:4-5) Men Are Quick With Plausible Excuses for Sin

  1. I haven’t done anything wrong

Now Abimelech had not come near her; and he said,

              ‘Lord, wilt Thou slay a nation, even though blameless?’

  1. I was misled and misinformed

Did he not himself say to me,’ She is my sister?’

              And she herself said, ‘He is my brother.’

  1. I acted in good conscience

In the integrity of my heart and the innocence of my hands I have done this.

D.  (:6-7) God Always Has the Final Word

  1. (:6a)  Integrity is an Important Claim but not the Determining Factor

Then God said to him in the dream,

             ‘Yes, I know that in the integrity of your heart you have done this,’

Parunak: God acknowledges only one of the three items that Abimelech claims for himself: “integrity of heart.” He grants that Abimelech did not think he was doing wrong, but this is not the same as being either righteous or innocent. Even if we know nothing against ourselves, that does not prove that everything else is OK. Prov 21:2; 1 Cor 4:3-4.

  1. (:6b)  Intervention by God was Actually the Key

and I also kept you from sinning against Me;

              therefore I did not let you touch her.

Parunak: He points out that in the end it was God’s sovereign intervention, not any merit of Abimelech’s, that guarded him from falling into sin.

  1. (:7)  Ignorance of the Law is No Excuse – Only 2 Options

a.  Repentance and Restoration via Intercession of Abraham

Now therefore, restore the man’s wife, for he is a prophet,

                    and he will pray for you, and you will live.

First use of word “prophet” in the Bible – Jer. 27:18  “If they are prophets, let them entreat the Lord of hosts

Parunak: It is part of the role of prophet to intercede for those to whom one gives revelation. Thus Moses (at the episode of the golden calf, Exod 32:11-13, or the return of the spies, Num 14:13-19); Samuel (at the approach of the Philistines, 1 Sam 7:8-10, or in view of their asking a king, 1 Sam 12:16-25), Jeremiah (concerning the flight to Egypt, 42:1-6), Amos (7:2,5). If God speaks to people through a man, it is reasonable for the people to expect the man to carry their concerns back to God.

b.  Family Execution

But if you do not restore her,

                     know that you shall surely die, you and all who are yours.”

Parunak: This part of the discussion reveals two aspects of sin that run counter to unsaved intuition.

  • Sin is objective, not subjective. It consists in the fact of offending against God’s law, whether or not we know we have done it. Abimelech was ignorant that he was doing anything wrong, but it was still sin, and he was still under sentence of death.

  • Sin is persistent: even after we have stopped doing it, our previous offense still burdens us down. The world sometimes thinks that simply stopping sinning is enough, but this does not take care of the offense that has already been committed, which must be paid for.

II.  (:8-18) RESCUED AND REWARDED — FAITHFUL AND SOVEREIGN GOD

A.  (:8) Fear of God is Proper Response to Divine Indictment

So Abimelech arose early in the morning and called all his servants and told all these things in their hearing; and the men were greatly frightened.

Didn’t waste any time in addressing the serious infraction and the divine indictment that was hanging over the head of the royal household

Could have just dismissed what Abimelech said as a wild dream

Could have tried to appease God with some type of sacrifice of their own imagination

Instead responded with deep-rooted fear of God

Focus now switches back to Abraham

B.  (:9-10) 2 Indignant Accusations – made by Abimelech – expressing moral shock and indignation

  1. (:9)  Undeserved Malice

Then Abimelech called Abraham and said to him,

              ‘What have you done to us?                           

              And how have I sinned against you, that you have brought on me and on my kingdom a great sin?

             You have done to me things that ought not to be done.’

Deffinbaugh: Abimelech had been wronged by Abraham. He had not only done what was wrong in the eyes of God, but also in the eyes of pagans. Abraham, who was to be a source of blessing (12:2,3), had become a proverbial pain in the neck to those in whose land he sojourned.

  1. (:10)  Undisclosed Motivation

And Abimelech said to Abraham,

             What have you encountered, that you have done this thing?’

C.  (:11-13) 3 Bad Excuses – offered by Abraham

  1. (:11)  Bad TheologySituational Ethics – No Viable Options

And Abraham said, ‘Because I thought, surely there is no fear of God in this place; and they will kill me because of my wife.’

Deffinbaugh:  Situational ethics = a system of ethics based upon the denial of either the existence of God or His ability to act in man’s behalf. Situationalism always posits a dilemma in which there is no alternative other than a sinful act. In such cases we are forced to decide on the basis of the lesser of two evils.

  1. (:12)  Bad DeceptionSemantics Obscuring Truth – Loophole Approach

Besides, she actually is my sister, the daughter of my father, but not the daughter of my mother, and she became my wife;’

  1. (:13)  Bad FaithScheming Substituted for Faith – Consistent Practice

and it came about, when God caused me to wander from my father’s house, that I said to her, ‘This is the kindness which you will show to me:

             everywhere we go, say of me, “He is my brother.’

Borgman: Vs. 13 is the disturbing part; this is our common practice whenever we travel for past 25 years;

Elohim = “gods” plural noun; usually takes a singular verb; here Abraham uses a plural verb = “caused me to wander” – saying: when the gods caused me to wander

No sense of witness for the true and living God – talks about God in Abimelech’s terms;

“That’s the way we have always done it” – appealing to tradition and previous experience

D.  (:14-18) Divine Deliverance for All Parties Involved

  1. (:14-16)  Restitution and Vindication

a.  Restitution for Abraham

                      “Abimelech then took sheep and oxen and male and female servants, and gave them to Abraham, and restored his wife Sarah to him. And Abimelech                                  said, ‘Behold, my land is before you; settle wherever you please.’

b.  Vindication for Sarah

                      “And to Sarah he said, ‘Behold, I have given your brother a thousand pieces of silver; behold, it is your vindication before all who are with you,                                                and before all men you are cleared.’

Albert Barnes: A “covering of the eyes” does not mean a veil, the proper word for which is ???? tsa????yp but is a figurative phrase for a recompense or pacificatory offering, in consideration of which an offence is overlooked.

  1. (:17-18)  Intercession and Healing

a.  (:17)  God Answers Abraham’s Petition

               “And Abraham prayed to God; and God healed Abimelech and his wife and his maids, so that they bore children.

Abraham had been praying for a child for decades; only took 1 prayer here

b.  (:18)  God Acts to Protect Sarah

                   “For the LORD had closed fast all the wombs of the household of  Abimelech because of Sarah, Abraham’s wife.

Deffinbaugh: By means of some undisclosed physical malady, no one in the royal household was able to conceive. Further, it seems that sexual activity was prohibited altogether. This would ensure Sarah’s purity, as well as prevent the birth of a child by Abimelech. The revelation Abimelech received in the dream thus explained the reason for the plague which had fallen upon his household. This also sheds light on the great fear of the male servants in Abimelech’s household. They, too, suffered from this affliction which prohibited normal sexual activity. In a culture that placed a high value on many offspring and virility, the situation would have been taken as critical. And so it was.

Parunak: Finally Abraham acts the part of a prophet, and intercedes successfully for Abimelech. He interceded successfully before, in ch. 18 on behalf of Sodom, but there he was alone with the Lord. This chapter shows that he was reluctant to act the prophet with unbelievers, but God is teaching him that his mission to bring blessing to all nations requires that he speak for God among all men. The Lord has graciously led him to this action by telling Abimelech that this is what must happen, and now finally we see Abraham behaving as he ought.

Deffinbaugh: Our failures will not keep a person from coming to faith in our Lord. 

CONCLUSION:

Steven Cole: Juan Carlos Ortiz has captured the balance between God’s grace and our good works nicely. He writes (Leadership, Fall, 1984, p. 46.),

Watching a trapeze show is breathtaking. We wonder at the dexterity and timing. We gasp at near-misses. In most cases, there is a net underneath. When they fall, thy jump  up and bounce back to the trapeze.

In Christ, we live on the trapeze. The whole world should be able to watch and say, “Look how they live, how they love one another. Look how well the husbands treat their wives. And aren’t they the best workers in the factories and offices, the best neighbors, the best students?” That is to live on the trapeze, being a show to the world.

What happens when we slip? The net is surely there. The blood of our Lord, Jesus Christ, has provided forgiveness for all our trespasses. Both the net and the ability to stay on the trapeze are works of God’s grace.

Of course, we cannot be continually sleeping on the net. If that is the case, I doubt whether that person is a trapezist.

God has not intended for us to live on the treadmill of bondage to repeating sins.

That is the tension that Paul described in Romans 7.

But thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!”


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