Genesis 20 records one of the doublets that tell of Abraham's habit of passing his wife Sarah off as his sister when they were living among strangers, this time in the city of Gerar. The other occasion is recorded in Genesis 12:10-20 when Abraham and Sarah went into Egypt during a famine. This earlier version of the doublet cited her beauty as the reason why Abraham presented Sarah as his sister rather than his wife. "Indeed I know that you are a woman of beautiful countenance," Abraham said to Sarah as they approached the Egyptian border. "Therefore, it will happen, when the Egyptians see you, that they will say, `This is his wife'; and they will kill me, but they will let you live. Please say you are my sister, that it may be well with me for your sake, and that I may live because of you" (vv:11-13 ).
Although the text doesn't say so directly, it nevertheless implies that Sarah's beauty was the reason for Abraham's duplicity while they were in Gerar, for king Abimelech, who had taken Sarah with obvious sexual intentions, demanded an explanation when he discovered that Sarah was actually Abraham's wife. "Because I thought, surely the fear of God is not in this place," Abraham explained, "and they will kill me on account of my wife" (20:11 ). If Abraham was afraid that "they" would kill him, as he was afraid that the Egyptians would do on the other occasion, he must have thought that his life was in danger for the same reason, i.e., Sarah's exceptional beauty.
I see a major credibility problem in this story. There are textual reasons to assume that Sarah was no spring chicken even when Abraham lied about his relationship to her when they were in Egypt. However, with no direct statement of her age at that time, one might concede the possibility of her beauty being so striking that men of barbaric times might try to kill her husband. The incident in Gerar, on the other hand, was entirely different. By this time, the biblical text had described Sarah as a woman in her nineties (17:17 ), who had "passed the age of childbearing" (18:11 ). The Bible even implies that she was by this time sexually inactive. When Yahweh appeared to Abraham at the Oaks of Mamre to renew his promise that Sarah would bear a son, she laughed within herself and said, "After I have grown old, shall I have pleasure, my lord [Abraham] being old also" (18:12 )? So are we to believe that a woman this old was so stunningly beautiful that men would actually want to kill her husband so that they could have her? To raise again a question that we applied to the exodus story in an earlier issue of TSR, how likely is this?
Sarah's apparent age at the time of this incident is not the only problem in the story. After God revealed to King Abimelech that he was about to take another man's wife, Abraham's conduct in this matter was whitewashed and Abimelech came off looking like the bad guy:
But God came to Abimelech in a dream by night, and said to him, "Indeed you are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is a man's wife. But Abimelech had not come near her; and he said, "Lord, will You slay a righteous nation also? Did he not say to me, `She is my sister'? And she, even she herself said, `He is my brother.' In the integrity of my heart and innocence of my hands I have done this." And God said to him in a dream, "Yes, I know that you did this in the integrity of your heart. For I also withheld you from sinning against Me; therefore I did not let you touch her. Now therefore, restore the man's wife; for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you shall live" (Gen. 20:3-6).
Let's consider what we have here. Abraham had lied about his relationship to Sarah and had passed her off as his sister, but now Abimelech was the one who was in hot water, the one who was described as "a dead man," specifically because of Sarah whom he had taken, believing she was an unmarried woman. Where's the fairness in this? Does the inscrutable Yahweh expect people to be mind readers? In terms of civilized moral standards, this whole incident involved nothing that warranted killing anyone, but if anyone deserved to die because of what had happened, then surely Abraham was the one. Furthermore, if anyone was to pray for another in this matter, Abimelech should have been instructed to pray for Abraham whose conduct had precipitated the entire affair.
The story ended with Abraham praying to God, who then "healed Abimelech, his wife, and his female servants" (v:17 ). And why did Abimelech's wife and female servants need healing? Well, it seems that Yahweh "had closed up all the wombs of the house of Abimelech because of Sarah" (v:18 ). Abraham and Sarah both had lied in this affair, but the house of Abimelech was the one to experience the wrath of Yahweh. Justice and fairness seemed to have taken a vacation while Abraham and Sarah were living in Gerar.
Furthermore, there is a clear implication in this ending of the story that Abimelech had taken his female servants as concubines. If Yahweh was so protective of Sarah's honor that he had divinely intervened to keep Abimlech from "touching" her, we have to wonder why Yahweh had not kept Abimelech "from sinning against [him]" by not letting him "touch" the female servants. Are we to understand that Yahweh did not care as much for the honor of the female servants as he did for Sarah's? If so, what does this do to the biblical claim that Yahweh is not a respecter of persons (Dt. 10:17 ; 2 Chron. 19:7 ; Rom. 2:11 ; Acts 10:34 ; Gal. 2:6 ; Eph. 6:9 ; Col. 3:25 ; 1 Pet. 1:17 )?
Another credibility problem in this story concerns the way that God revealed to Abimelech the true nature of Sarah's relationship to Abraham. "God came to Abimelech in a dream by night," we are told (v:3 ). This is the first incidence of divine revelation via a dream recorded in the Bible, and it established a precedent that biblical writers used and reused thereafter. On Jacob's journey to Paddanaram, Yahweh appeared to him in a dream and renewed the promise to bless all nations through the seed of Abraham (Gen. 28:11-17 ).
When interpreting Pharaoh's dream about the seven lean and seven fat cows, Joseph told Pharaoh that God had shown him "what He is about to do" (Gen. 41:25 ). Yahweh appeared to Solomon in a dream and told him that he could have whatever he asked (1 Kings 3:5 ). In this dream, Solomon asked for wisdom and was made the wisest man who had ever lived or ever would live (v:5 ). An "angel of the Lord" informed Joseph in a dream that Mary's child had been conceived by the Holy Spirit (Mt. 1:22 ). An angel of the Lord "appeared to Joseph in a dream" and warned him to flee to Egypt to escape Herod's massacre of the innocents (Mt. 2:13 ). In Egypt, Joseph was told by an angel in a dream that Herod was dead and it was safe to return to the land of Israel (Mt. 2:19 ). On his way back home with his family, Joseph was "warned by God in a dream" to take the child to Galilee rather than Judea (Mt. 2:22 ). Matthew seemed particularly fond of the divine-appearance-in-a-dream device.
Like Matthew, Daniel liked the dream device. Probably more than any other biblical writer, Daniel claimed that he received divine revelations through dreams. When interpreting Nebuchadnezzar's dream about the great image fabricated from different metals, Daniel said to the king, "But there is a God in heaven who reveals secrets, and He has made known to King Nebuchadnezzar what will be in the latter days" (2:28 ). Later, when Nebuchadnezzar had the dream about the tree that grew until its height reached to the heavens, Daniel informed the king that the dream meant he would be driven from men to live with the breasts of the field until he came to realize that "the Most High rules in the kingdom of men" (4:32). In the seventh chapter, Daniel himself dreamed a dream that was understood to be a divine revelation of future events.
I could continue with summations of other dreams that biblical writers presented as divine revelations, but these are sufficient to establish that divine revelation via dreams was a common biblical scenario. In other words, Bible writers took dreams seriously and apparently believed that God spoke to people in dreams, either directly or through angels. The fact that they incorporated this belief into their writings takes us back to the question of likeliness. How likely was it that God really spoke to Abimelech, Jacob, Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar, Daniel, Joseph, et al in dreams as claimed throughout the Bible? Even if we assume that men like Abimelech and Jacob actually did have dreams in which "God" spoke to them or that Pharaoh and Nebuchadnezzar did have the dreams attributed to them or that Joseph did dream about angels and/or God speaking to him, how likely was it that these were really incidents of divine revelations via dreams? To apply the principle of Occam's razor to these dreams (assuming that they actually did occur), which was more likely, that God really was speaking through these dreams or that the dreamers, living in superstitious times, just thought that he was? As for the actuality of the dreams themselves, which was more likely, that the dreams actually occurred as recorded in the various stories or that Bible writers just made up the stories?
So once again we see that when the test of likeliness is
in this matter, the many biblical tales about divine revelations
via dreams fail to pass. If a person today should claim to be
in communication with God through dreams, we would view him with
suspicion and recommend psychiatric treatment, yet when we read
about the same claim made by people who lived centuries ago, in
highly superstitious times, we venerate them and call them prophets
or men of God. Where is the logic in that?