Genesis – Chapter 20

20:1  When Abraham perceived that the region was destroyed and there were no more travelers to whom he might extend hospitality, he moved away.

Another interpretation: He wished to be far from Lot who had gained a notorious reputation through his intimacy with his daughters. Rashi offers this second interpretation because the primary one does not fully account for why he moved so far away.  Surely there were closer places where Abraham could have resettled to find travelers.

Note: In the commentary to 12:4, the Zohar discusses why Abraham took Lot with him when he left Haran.  Among the reasons given was that Abraham prophetically perceived that the Messianic House of David was destined to descend from Lot and his daughters.  Abraham therefore wished to keep him close by so he could watch over him.  That is why Abraham sped to Lot’s aid when he was captured in the War of the Kings (14:14), and desperately interceded on his behalf when Sodom was to be destroyed.  Now that Lot’s daughters had given birth, there was no further need for Abraham to remain in Lot’s proximity.

“..sojourning in Gerar.”  – That Gerar was considered part of the Land to be inherited by the Children of Israel is evident from the fact that God instructed Isaac to live in Gerar after having commanded him not to leave the Land which would become his inheritance.

“..between Kadesh and Shur..”  – These were two large cities.  He chose this area because it was heavily populated and would thereby provide him the opportunity to spread belief in God.  (Sforno)

20:2  Ramban in 12:13 explains that Abraham and Sarah had no fear until they came to a royal city for it was customary to bring a very beautiful woman to the king and to slay her husband through some contrived charge.  He suggests that, as evidenced from 20:13, it may have been their common custom from the time they left Haran to say that Sarah was his sister.  The Torah, however, mentions it only when something happened to them because of it.

Note: The rationale behind Abraham’s resort to the device of claiming Sarah as his sister despite their experience in Egypt requires explanation.

That even his son Isaac later resorted to the same tactic in light of his mother’s experience would seem to indicate that the manners of the tie made such an approach imperative.

As noted to the parallel episode in Chapter 12, Abraham clearly feared for his life, for had they known she was his wife, they would have murdered him knowing that he would never willingly consent to giving up his wife.  The immoral ones would deem it preferable to transgress but once and murder the husband of a woman after whom they lusted, and thus be rid of him, rather than transgress constantly by being adulterous with a still-married woman.  That Abraham was afraid of being murdered in godless Philistia as well as clearly stated by him in verse 11.

Claiming he was her brother minimized the danger.  Among the masses, unmarried maidens were apparently much safer than married women, for the people would befriend the brother of a maiden hoping to win her through his consent.  Meanwhile, Abraham could contrive delays until, with God’s help, he was able to escape.

As Ramban explains, Abraham claimed her as his sister whenever he traveled to a new location, and usually there were no repercussions.  As pointed out in 12:13, it was a half-truth for a man often calls his kinswoman ‘sister’, and Sarah was indeed the grand-daughter of his father as he explains here in verse 12.

The contingency that Abraham did not anticipate was the Sarah’s beauty would come to the attention of the king, the one person whom such a stranger would have to fear.  For it was only the king who would dare take a maiden without wooing her brother, and who later would have no scruples in admitting it.  Indeed, only in Egypt, notorious for its licentiousness – had such a thing happened.

According to Rav, Abimelech took Sarah, not because of her beauty, but because she was Abraham’s sister and he wished to marry into so distinguished a family.

This points to a lack of fear of God in that place.  Their attitude was that ‘the king may do as he pleases.’  A stranger comes to their city, and no one asks him if he wants refreshments.  The first thing that they do is to take note of the beautiful woman with him and ask “Is she your wife?  Is she your sister?”  Perceiving great danger to himself if he were to identify himself as her husband, he answers, “She is my sister”, and she is immediately abducted to the king’s palace.

20:3  “..God came to Abimelech in a dream..”  – To protect the honor of the righteous, God comes to gentiles in in prophetic dreams as occurs often in Scriptures.  To Pharaoh He did not appear in a dream, for he was unworthy even though the honor of the righteous was involved.  Instead he received punishment from God.  It is as Elihu said: “God speaks once, even twice, yet man does not perceive it.  In a dream, a vision of the night, when deep sleep falls upon men, in slumber upon their beds, the He opens the ears of men, and with discipline seals their instruction, that he may withdraw man from his purpose…” (Job 33:14-16).  The twice refers to the dream and subsequent punishment.  (Radak)

The Midrash notes that God appears to heathens only at night.  This was the case also with Balaam (Numbers 22:20) and Laban (Genesis 31:24).

Malbim perceives in this verse that Abimelech committed two wrongs for which he deserved the death penalty:  (1) “For the woman you have taken” ~ i.e. for kidnaping her against her will ~ for which Rambam in Hilchos Melachim prescribes the death penalty whether or not the victim was married, as was the case with Shechem and Dinah (34:1-2);  (2) “Moreover, she is a married woman” and thus you have committed a further transgression.  

“ will die..”  – No one has the right to take anything that is not his, least of all a woman.  It remains immoral even, though you are a king, and even though it is the accepted custom.  He added further that she is a married woman ~ another already has to the right to her.  (Hirsch)

20:4  “Abimelech had not approached her.”  – He had been prevented from doing so by an angel [by denying him the strength to touch her (Rashi to verse 6) or, according to Radak, because God deadened his desire], as it says in verse 6: “I therefore kept you from sinning against Me (Rashi)”

It is necessary for the Torah to explicitly testify that Abimelech had not been intimate with her, more so in this case than in the case of Pharaoh, because Isaac was conceived shortly after the incident with Abimelech.  (Chizkuni)

20:5  “I was mislead!  I asked him, “Is she your wife?”  To which he replied, “She is my sister.”  Yet in spite of that I inquired further of the members of his household, and they all told me, “She is his sister.”  (Pesika Rabbasi 42) 

The loyalty of Sarah’s servants indicate what a considerate mistress she must have been.  Servants ordinarily feel resentment against and jealously of their employers.  They would rejoice at the opportunity to win the favor and reward of a king by informing against their master or mistress.  But in this case the servants maintained their loyalty and corroborated their master’s story.  The servants were surely rewarded for the merit of their loyalty as was Lot for not informing against Abraham and Sarah in Egypt.

Abimelech expressed a not unusual sentiment: if his intentions were good, then he is automatically blameless.  Judaism rejects this view.  Good intentions do not purify a wrong deed.  It must be measured by the standard of whether it complies with God’s will.  If it is wrong in His eyes, then good intentions do not sanction it.  Moreover, lack of knowledge concerning its impermissibility is itself sinful, for a person has the obligation to seek instruction.  A person in Abimelech’s position has the further obligation to set an example of appropriate behavior, for, is it right that even an unmarried woman must fear the whim of every prince?

20:6  Since ‘dream’ is mentioned twice, it is apparent that Abimelech’s response in the previous verse was given to God after he awoke from the first dream.  Then God came to him in this second dream.

“I knew that you acted in the innocence of your heart without intention of sin.”  According to the principle of Avodah Zarah 55a: ‘One who comes to be cleansed is helped,’ “I prevented you from sinning against Me.”  (Rashi; Mizrachi)

Rashi continues: ‘You therefore cannot claim cleanness of hands, however, because it was not of your own will that you did not touch her; rather it was I who prevented you from sinning by denying you the strength to touch her.’

In the Midrash, Rav Aibu said: it is like the case of a warrior who was riding his horse at full speed, when seeing a child lying in the path he reined in the horse so the child was not hurt.  Whom do we praise: the horse or the rider? – Surely the rider!  Similarly, God said: ‘I did not permit you to touch her’ (and the credit is accordingly Mine – not yours.)

20:7  The Talmud asks: And were she not a prophets wife, would she not have to be returned?

This verse must be interpreted”  Return the man’s wife no matter who he is.  Regarding your defense that it is wrong of Me to kill a righteous nation (verse 4) because they themselves told you she was his sister (verse 7), be aware that Abraham is a prophet and as such he perceived from your actions and the questions put to him that his life would have been in danger had he not responded as he did.  A stranger coming to a city should be asked whether he needs food and drink.  Should he be asked: ‘Is this your wife? Is this your sister?’   (Makkos 9a) 

Therefore, it was your own improper conduct that caused him, as a prophet, to be cautious of revealing his true marital status.  You are therefore worthy of the death penalty for having taken his wife.  (Rashi)

The Midrash has it written: “Who will assure him that I did not touch her?’ Abimelech asked.

‘He is a prophet,” God answered, ‘and as such he knows it without need for your assurance.’ ‘But who will make it known to all that I did not touch her?’ Abimelech asked.  God answered  ‘He will pray for you and you will live,’ (and all will realize from the fact that he prayed for you that you were guiltless.)

Radak writes: ‘Because he is a prophet, he is close to Me, and I heed his prayer.  I will not forgive you unless you appease him and he prays for you, for even if she were unmarried you sinned by taking her against her will.’

The word ‘prophet’ is related to ‘expressions of the lips’ (Isaiah 57:19) ~ one who is frequently near Me and speaks My teaching; I love his words and listen to his prayers.  (Rashbam)

As Hirsch points out, it is not the function of a prophet to foretell the future.  To whatever extent he does that, it is incidental to his primary role which is to be the vessel and organ through which God’s will reaches mankind.

But if you do not return her..”  – The threat is repeated, now in the negative form, to emphasize the severity of the matter.  The threat would include his entire household including even the unborn children of your wife and maids.  (Sforno)

20:8  “and the people were very frightened.”  –  This refers to his servants who had agreed to his taking of Sarah and who had initially brought her to his attention.  According to the Midrash, they had seen the smoke of Sodom ascending like that of a fiery furnace and they said: ‘Perhaps Abraham will summon the angels that destroyed Sodom!’  Therefore, fearing a similar fate they were terrified.

20:9  “..brought upon me and my kingdom such great sin?”  For the sin of the king, as representation of the nation, affects all.  (Radak)

As Midrash HaGadol notes:  The king to his country is like the heart to a body.  If the heart ails, the entire body is ill.  So, too, if the king sins, the country is sinful and may suffer accordingly.

“Deeds that are not to be done..”  – It is beneath the dignity of a man like yourself to cause harm to people you have not known and ith whom you have no quarrel, one does not go about claiming his wife is unmarried.  (Radak; Sforno)

20:10  The precious questions were merely rhetorical, and Abimelech asks Abraham to clarify what his true motives were.  ‘What wickedness have you noticed in my conduct that made you fear that I would abduct your wife?  I have never taken wives from their husbands.  Wherever else you traveled, you were the bearer of blessings, while to us you brought this catastrophe.  Why?‘  (Midrash)

20:11  “..there is but no fear of God..”  You are partially right Abraham answered.  ‘The country is good, and the people well-mannered, but nevertheless, the basic flow here is that your subjects do not fear God, and therefore, it would not be beyond them to slay me because of my wife, for only the fear of God acts as a deterrent to unrestrained lust.’

Abraham informed Abimelech that there can be no assurance of safety even among the nation of well-bred, sophisticated people.  Their code of conduct may be based on an appreciation of decent and honorable behavior, but that will avail them only so long as lust and temptation are not aroused.  Let them be tested by a powerful desire for wealth or lust for physical gratification, and they will disregard all the behavioral norms.  Only one thing can stand in the way of such desire ~ a powerful fear of God based on the knowledge that He is aware of even the minutest deed.  (Malbin)

The extent to which Abraham feared that godless people would stoop, apparently motivated even Isaac to repeat the scenario when he traveled to Gerer many years later and identified Rebecca as his sister (26:7).  Although Abraham told him of all that occurred, Isaac, too, could expect no safety in a place ‘where there is no fear of God’.  In such a place, an innocent traveler, could be disposed of for the sake of his wife.

20:12  Having defended his action, Abraham goes on to explain that his claim of being Sarah’s brother, even in the literal sense, was not untrue; he never claimed that Sarah was not his wife, but emphasized that she was his sister.

Ramban maintains that Abraham’s explanation of his motive was given in the previous and the next verse that this manner of identifying Sarah had been routinely adopted as a life saving measure.  The statement in this verse is merely an additional justification that he spoke the truth by declaring her his sister.  Abraham asserted, ‘I spoke the truth.  Had the people been God-fearing, they would have asked if Sarah was also my wife since one may marry his paternal half sister.  Since your servants took her without making any such inquiry, I perceived that there was no fear of God in this place and I remained silent.

20:13  This was Abraham’s third justification: Since he had, at God’s command, become a wanderer, he had resorted to this plan whenever entering a new place; it does not imply low esteem for this particular region.  (Malbin)

“Let this be your kindness..”  – Abraham emphasizes that Sarah did not initiate this scheme, but agreed to cooperate as a kindness to him, prompted by his urgings (12:31).

The Torah explicitly mentions this plan only twice.  The true intent of his statement is: ‘Whenever we are aliens in a new place, and there is reason to believe that the wickedness of the population makes our position precarious, say, you are my sister.’  Apparently, wherever Abraham maintained a permanent residence, he was held in great esteem (see example 23:6) and there was no reason to hide Sarah’s true status.  (Radak)

20:14  ‘..and female slaves..”  – The Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 15:1) records that Abimelech followed the earlier example of Pharaoh.  When he saw the miracles performed in his house on Sarah’s behalf, he gave his daughter to her saying: ‘Better that my daughter Hagar, be a handmaid in your house than a mistress in another!”

20:15  The commentators note the contrast between Abimelech and Pharaoh.  Abimelech displayed courteous hospitality by inviting Abraham to settle in whatever part of the land he chose; in similar circumstances Pharaoh had said to him: ‘Behold your wife; take her and go’ (12:19).  Rashi therefore explains (in Pharaoh’s defense) that Pharaoh, knowing that his people were steeped in immorality, told him to leave the country for Abraham’s own safety.

Also, the Philistines had become terrified because of what had happened in Sodom, and they were afraid that they, too, might be subject to destruction because of what had been done to Sarah.  Therefore, they invited Abraham to remain in their midst so his merit would protect them.

Additionally, by inviting Abraham to remain, Abimelech was demonstrating to all that he had not violated her, for a woman with whom they king had been intimate would never be permitted to return to a commoner husband in the king’s own land.  (Abarbanel)

It has been noted that in conferring full rights of citizenship upon Abraham by allowing him to dwell where he chose, Abimelech showed his recognition of Abraham’s qualities.  It was a prelude to the covenant Abimelech later made with Abraham (21:22)

Abimelech was a righteous heathen and desired to live near a righteous man.

Note: The intent of the Midrashim is that Abraham destined Abimelech’s offer by refusing to live in the capitol city of Gerar in Abimelech’s close proximity.  However, Abraham did decide to dwell in what would later be called Beer Sheba, which, as Ramban in 21:32 explains, was then part of the land of Philistines.  Thus, he excepted Abimelech’s offer to the extent that he settled in Philistia.  (When Eretz Yisrael was apportioned, it was in the territory of Judah.)

Following the above, which most closely accords with the Rabbinic interpretation of the narrative, Abraham resided in Beer Sheba.  It was there, apparently, that Issac was born, the great feast was held to celebrate his weaning, Hagar was expelled, and they treaty was made with Abinelech.  Abraham ‘planted an eshel’ (tamarisk tree) there, and in fact, after the Akeidah, it was to Beer Sheba that Abraham went first, even tough he and Sarah lived in Hebron at the time.

20:16  “..I have given your brother a thousand pieces of silver..”  – Rashi interprets:’It was as a token of honor to you that I gave this money to your brother.” 

The commentators explain Rashi’s basis: Since Abimelech had given gifts to Abraham in order to prevail upon him to pray, this declaration to Sarah could have been only to appease her, for, in fact, he had not given the money for her sake.  How did Rashi know, however, that the gifts were, indeed, for the purpose of prayer?

  • For they were given after God told Abimelech that it was necessary that Abraham pray for him (Mizrachi)
  • If his original intention was only to ppease Sarah, then he should have given the gifts directly to her. (Gur Aryeh)

     “ eye covering for all who are with you..”  – The Talmud perceives this as a curse of blindness which was fulfilled in Isaac.  Rav Yitchak said: Let not the curse of an ordinary man be considered a trifling matter in your eyes for when Abimelech, (who although he was a king, he was an ordinary man in the spiritual sense), cursed Sarah, it was fulfilled in her descendants as it says “Behold! Let it be an eye-covering for you’, which means: ‘Since you covered the truth from me by not disclosing that he is your husband and causing me all of this trouble, may you have children of covered eyes’.

This was actually in her offspring, as it is written (27:1): When Isaac grew old, his eyesight faded.

“..and to all you will be vindicated.”  – The flow of the passage according to Rashi is:  The gifts I have given to you will serve to close the eyes of all those who would otherwise have regarded you contempt, and you will now have the opportunity to be proven before all the people of the world with these already evident facts.

20:17  “Abraham prayed to God..”  – Although he had returned Sarah and appeased Abraham, Abimelech could not be spared from the death penalty, as God warned him in verse 7, unless the prophet, Abraham, would pray on his behalf.  This was to make it manifest to all that it was on Abraham’s account that he had been punished.

This is the first time of Torah that this expression is used ~ that we find anyone praying to God on behalf of another.  (Rashi)  As soon as Abraham prayed, this ‘knot’ was untied.  (Midrash)

Thus, the Mishnah, Bava Kamma 92a derives from Abraham’s very generous act of forgiving of praying for Abimlelech, that an injured person who refrains from forgiving an offender who has asked for forgiveness, is called cruel.

Abraham’s forgiving Abimelech was considered an act of compassion and therefore it is noted in Beitzah 32b that ~ whoever is merciful to his fellow man is certainly of the children of our father Abraham.

Additionally, Yom Kippur makes atonement for man’s sins against God but not for man’s sins against his fellow man until he becomes reconciled with him.  (See Mishnah Yoma 85b)  The offended party must be compassionately forgiving, for when you have compassion for your neighbor, God has compassion for you.  Thus Abraham was compassionate and immediately received his reward, for when Abraham prayed on Abimelech’s behalf, his wife was remembered by Hasem (21:1) and bore him a son.

20:18  Ramban explains that (as pointed out in the commentary of verses 4 & 6) from the day that Sarah was brought to Abimelech’s house, Abimelech’s punishment ~ which was delicately not mentioned in the Torah ~ was to be unable to relieve himself.  He was, in effect, rendered impotent and unable to ‘approach her’ (verse 4), a euphemism for intimacy, and at the same time ‘the wombs of his wife and maids’ who were pregnant ‘were restrained’ and they could not give birth.

The situation then, as Ramban concludes, is that all of this did not occur in one day.  Sarah stayed in Abimelech’s house for a while and he persisted in detaining her without repenting until God spoke to him in a dream.  After Abraham prayed for him, Abimelech was cured and his wife and maid-servants gave birth.

According to the Talmud, the restraining of ‘all the wombs’ was so total that even the fowl in his household did not lay their eggs (Bava Kamma 92a).


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