O Felix Culpa Gen 20:1-18


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Genesis 20:1-18

We have finished with Lot – we will hear nothing more of him – and now return to Abraham and Sarah as their life goes on, still waiting for the son God has promised them.

Text Comment

v.1       “From there” in context means the area of the Oaks of Mamre and Hebron (18:1). Abraham traveled through the extremely arid southern part of Palestine. We may forget that Abraham was a wanderer, as he had to be, owning large flocks and herds in a country already occupied by others. Shur was on the border with Egypt. He then visited the royal city of Gerar. We are not told why, but the lack of rain required that he continued to move his flocks and herds and Gerar had richer pasture. [Sarna, 141]

v.2       The reason this verse can be so cryptic is because we already know all about this from a previous incident, both what Abraham did and why (12:11-16). The reason will be made explicit in v. 11. He was afraid for his life. The phrase, “Sarah his wife” serves as an inclusio, appearing as it does at the very end of the chapter as well. The whole point is that Sarah was Abraham’s wife, not his sister! But apparently, at least the rabbis thought this, her youthful beauty had been rejuvenated. [Waltke, 285] On the other hand, Abimelech may simply have been desirous of some alliance with a man as wealthy as Abraham and so married his aged sister with such an alliance in view. [Sarna, 141] Whatever the truth of the matter, when Isaac should have been being conceived, Sarah found herself another man’s wife!

v.3       We are not told until the end that every womb in Abimelech’s household was closed because of his having taken Sarah into his harem.

v.5       “Innocent.” The Bible often uses such terms relatively, that is, innocent in one respect and to one degree. In any case, Abimelech made the same argument to God that Abraham had made in chapter 18: the judge of all the earth must do what is right.

v.7       This is the first use of the word “prophet” in the Bible. And Abimelech is right: Abraham had received revelation from God, and more than once he had interceded for others, both of which were the mark of prophets. The Lord then told Abimelech to prove his integrity by taking a set of actions that would put right the wrong that was done.

v.8       “Early…” Abimelech acted immediately, showing the seriousness with which he took the Lord’s warning. He feared the Lord more than Abraham had supposed!

v.9       Abimelech’s concern, not just for himself but for his kingdom, speaks well of him, the mark of a good ruler. All the inhabitants of Canaan were not as depraved as those who had lived in Sodom.

v.13     Either Abraham was fudging here, looking to mitigate his lie by describing it as a general policy that he had followed for some time, when, in fact, he had done it only once before, or he did do this on other occasions. Neither alternative reflects well on him!

v.16     Note the barbed “your brother.” 50 shekels, which is what the 1000 pieces of silver amounted to, was the maximum bride price; in ancient Babylon a worker received half a shekel per month. So this is a fabulous sum of money. Abimelech took seriously God’s warning and was doing his utmost to remove any blame that might still be attached to him and his people. Abimelech showed himself to have more concern for Sarah’s honor than Abraham!

v.17     Once again it is the sinner who must pray for the man who had not sinned. Such is the effect of God’s election.

v.18     We are to appreciate the irony of the situation. In order to open the womb of Sarah with the promised son, God closed the wombs of many other women. He is the Lord of childbirth as he is of everything and everyone else.

After the promise that God had made to Abraham and Sarah in chapter 18, it would be entirely natural to expect that we would read next that Sarah was pregnant and then of the arrival of a son that had been promised them in their old age. But instead we are treated to this episode, an account that reflects very poorly on Abraham, the hero of the story. What is worse, by his cowardice and his failure of faith, Abraham placed the covenant in jeopardy, placed God’s plan to grant him a son into a cocked hat by allowing Sarah to be taken into the local ruler’s harem. In this way the woman who was to be the matriarch of the covenant people now leaves the family of the man God and becomes instead the wife of a pagan. Is she now to bear a son to Abimelech instead of to Abraham?

It is actually even more jarring than that! In the narrative of Abraham’s life he has appeared recently a hero of faith. He bested in battle the four kings who had attacked and looted the cities of the plain and rescued those who had been carried captive, including his nephew Lot and his family. He was recognized by Melchizedek as a man of God and he resisted the temptation offered him by the king of Sodom to profit financially from his military success. The Lord appeared twice more to renew and elaborate his covenant with Abraham and Abraham promptly obeyed the command to circumcise his family. Most recently the Lord appeared in the flesh to Abraham and assured him that a son was coming, as had been promised him years before. The Lord himself declared in chapter 18 that he had chosen Abraham to be a righteous man and to raise his children in righteousness after him. And Abraham had demonstrated his righteousness in a conversation with the Lord about the judgment of Sodom, a conversation that showed Abraham to be a man with God’s own kind of heart.

Over the last two Lord’s Day mornings we compared Lot unfavorably with Abraham. We naturally have come to expect much more of Abraham. But, in that respect, the narrative of chapter 20 comes as a surprise, even a shock.

We are not expecting Abraham at this point to betray his faith, the Lord’s promise, and his own righteousness. As a man of faith, Abraham seemed to have hit his stride. But suddenly, in chapter 20, he’s flat on his face.

But that isn’t the worst. What makes the narrative in chapter 20 so discouraging is that Abraham had done precisely the same thing before. In the second half of chapter 12 we saw Abraham risking his wife’s virtue and the promise of the covenant because he was afraid that if the Egyptians knew that Sarah was his wife they would take her and kill him. Only the intervention of God, himself in the most extraordinary way preserved Sarah’s virtue and restored her to Abraham. If you remember the sermons you heard not so long ago on chapters 13 and 14, a point was made that his failure and restoration had taught Abraham some important lessons, lessons that Lot had not learned nearly so well.

Now it appears that Abraham hadn’t learned those lessons as well as we might have supposed. Here we find him doing the very same thing that before got him and his wife into trouble from which only the intervention of God had or could have rescued them. And to make matters still worse, he did this with the Lord’s promise that he would have a son within the year still ringing in his ears. What was the man thinking?

And the embarrassments just keep on coming. In the narrative, obviously and emphatically, the pagan king, Abimelech, appears more righteous; more concerned for upright conduct and honest dealing, than does the man of God. Or in the language of the church of our day, the unbeliever here behaves very much better than the believer. Abimelech knows the difference between truth and falsehood. What is more, he cares about marital fidelity, at this point more than Abraham appears to do. As Paul reminds us, the law of God has been written upon the hearts of all men. As a matter of fact, we know from written sources from the period that the peoples of the ancient near east in Abraham’s time took adultery very seriously. They did not look lightly on the breaking of a home. The sad fact is that while Abraham feared that there was no fear of God in Gerar (v.11), there seems to have been more fear of God in Abimelech’s heart than there was in Abraham’s!

While Abraham showed little reverence for the words God had spoken to him, Abimelech couldn’t act on God’s warning fast enough! What was the outcome of these contrasting behaviors? Abimelech needed Abraham to pray for him and Abraham got not only a great deal of money from Abimelech but his pick of the king’s real estate! Where is the justice in that, you may ask! Well, there is no justice. But, again, grace makes a distinction between men that has nothing to do with their merits or deserts. Though at a particular moment Abimelech, the pagan, behaved much better than Abraham, the father of the faithful, Abimelech was not and never became a true believer in God or a partner of God’s covenant with his people. The church often fails, it often behaves badly, but it remains the people of God, the means by which God gives life and blessing to the world.

But the fact remains that Abraham’s behavior was pathetic, inexcusable, and deeply disappointing. Here is a man in the middle of his Christian life, a man the Lord had rescued once before from a similar spot, a man to whom the Lord had made a fabulous promise, and here he behaved as if none of that mattered. His faith and his righteousness seemed to have deserted him. What are we to do with this? More to the point, what are we to do with the fact that in this – in this once again falling on his face, in his failure of faith, in his cowardice, in his selfishness, in his indifference to others – Abraham was also an exemplar of the Christian life. Throughout the Bible, throughout the history of the Church ever since, moral failure in the Christian life has been a sad fact of life. Abraham’s son Isaac will stumble badly; so will his grandson, Jacob, and his great-grandsons, Judah in particular. But more to the point, so have you and so have I! This is hardly the only time when Christians have come off badly in comparison with unbelievers. We know that. Non-Christians often don’t. They imagine that we think that we’re better than they are, when, in fact, we know we’re not. They suppose that Christians regard themselves as morally superior to non-Christians. But the fact is serious Christians have always known and often said that the worst sins of all are the sins that Christians commit and every Christian is committing them all the time.

I read just the other day of a religion reporter for a large American newspaper, who had been an evangelical Christian but lost his faith, in some large part because it was his job to cover Christian news and that meant for him, one disgusting public betrayal of the faith by a celebrated Christian after another. Whether it was financial malfeasance, or marital infidelity, the mistreatment of employees, or dishonesty – promises made to his followers but never kept – one prominent Christian after another brought the faith into public disrepute and chipped away at this man’s faith until it was no longer credible for him to believe that Jesus Christ really makes any difference in people’s lives. Well, alas, we understand that all too well. We are as humiliated by what he witnessed and what he had to report as he was undone by it. The failure to be grateful to God and honor him in our lives; the raging pride and self-centeredness of someone who claims to believe that someone else made an impossibly great sacrifice for his or her salvation is impossibly shameful!

How many times and in how many ways do we put ourselves first in the disgusting and unmanly way that Abraham did here? Alice Roosevelt Longworth once said of her father, Theodore Roosevelt, “Father wanted to be the bride at every wedding, the corpse at every funeral, and the baby at every christening.” Ouch! That is a perfect description of us, far too much of the time, and we don’t have Teddy’s panache!

Okay, so Abraham stumbled once again. Why do we have to know that? Why does God have to rub our noses in Abraham’s failure? Don’t we read in Proverbs that it is the glory of a man to cover up a fault? Why didn’t God cover Abraham’s fault in this case?

There is a doctrine of the Christian church that you will not find listed in the index of any of your favorite systematic theologies. Almost all of our Reformed authorities hold this doctrine in some form, but they rarely discuss it and virtually never teach it. The reason they don’t is obvious: they fear people will misunderstand and misuse the truth. The doctrine, like most doctrines, goes by a Latin name: O felix culpa, “Oh happy fault,” a phrase that goes back to Gregory the Great at the end of the 6th century.

What the phrase is after is the undeniable reality that sin, ugly and disreputable and inexcusable and harmful as it is, is the occasion for some of the most wonderful things in the world and the opportunity for some of the most important and life-changing discoveries that we make in our lives. This conclusion is a deep mystery, but can you deny its truth? Without the Fall, which is to say, without the sin of Adam and Eve, there would have been no incarnation, no sacrifice of the Son of God on the cross, no resurrection from the dead, no powerful and magnificent experiences of God’s transforming grace in human life, none of the satisfactions of the spiritual warfare, no prospect such as the Second Coming, and on and on. “There would certainly have been no display of some of the divine attributes had sin not been. They would have been conserved forever in the depths of the…Godhead.” [Duncan, Just a Talker, 73]

As John Owen, among many others, described this mysterious but undeniable reality:

“The greatest evil in the world is sin, and the greatest sin was the first; and yet Gregory feared not to cry, “O happy fault, which found such a Redeemer!” [Works, viii, 35]

Thomas Ken, the great hymn writer, put the same thought in a memorable verse.

What Adam did amiss

Turned to our endless bliss.

O happy sin, which to atone,

Drew filial God to leave his throne.

But more than that, who of us who is at all reflective of our own Christian lives, can deny that our sins and their aftermath have taught us the most precious lessons of our lives and have been the occasion of the most powerful and important experiences of our lives.

Alexander Whyte referred to Romans 7:14-25 as the most comforting passage in the Bible. You know what those verses describe: Paul there is describing his continuing sinfulness, even as an apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the discouragement that it was to him. Why was that so comforting? Every Christian knows immediately from his or her own experience. The logic is irresistible: if the Apostle Paul of all people struggled with his sins, if he was always finding himself flat on his face, if near the end of his life he was still mourning his still great moral weakness, then there is hope for me. I feel about my life as Paul felt about his and that is some important evidence that I am a real Christian and I’m not just kidding myself.

Surely it is our ongoing battle with sin, sins we know full well we should not commit, sins of which we are ashamed even as we commit them, sins that do damage to ourselves and, worse, to others, I say it is our failure to rise above sins we desperately want to rise above, that forms in us what little true humility we have. It is our struggle with sin that, to a great degree, keeps us hard at work following the Lord Jesus and practicing our Christian life.

As the Scottish covenanter, James Fraser, reflected on this in an entry in his journal:

“I find advantages by my sins,… I may say, as Mr. Fox [this is the John Fox of Fox’s Book of Martyrs], my sins have in a manner done me more good than my graces. Grace and mercy hath abounded where sin hath abounded. I am made more humble, watchful, revengeful against myself, to see a greater need to depend more upon him, to love him the more…notwithstanding…my many provocations. I find that true which Shepard [He is referring to Thomas Shepard, the New England Puritan] said, ‘Sin loses strength by every new fall.”[Memoirs, 170-171]

It is that truth that raises the question, in the context of Genesis and its narrative of the life of Abraham, to what extent Abraham’s triumphant faith in chapter 22, when commanded to sacrifice the very son that God had finally given him, was the result of the experience of failure and deliverance recorded for us here in chapter 20.

Any thoughtful Christian can see the danger lurking here. If we say that some good comes from our sin, if we are willing to acknowledge that, as Thomas Shepard almost too boldly put it, he could thank God more for his sins than for his good works, [Shepard, in Whyte, Thomas Shepard, 101-102] who is not going to be tempted to worry less about his sins, even to become unconcerned about committing them, seeing that God will use them for some good. It this not a form of the false logic that Paul so sternly condemns in Romans 2, the idea which he describes as “doing evil that good may come?” Will anyone not be tempted to complacency who believes God will use his sins for good?

Well, you know that the Bible teaches us that God hates sin – indeed the Bible calls sin the abominable thing that God hates – that it warns us unrelentingly against it, that the punishments that God visits upon our sins are often severe, the damage our sins do to others can be destructive of another’s heart and life, and no Christian, under any circumstances, should ever be careless about dishonoring the Lord. Nevertheless, however difficult it may be to reconcile with the Bible’s relentless abomination of sin, who can deny that sin has been the cause of the most wonderful things that have ever happened in the world and the cause of many of the best and purest things that have come to pass in our own lives. O felix culpa; O happy fault!

Think of the image the Lord Jesus used of his disciples as vines that he would continue to prune so that they would bear more fruit. Robert McCheyne said that, in his view, almost everything that happens in a Christian’s life is in one way or another Christ pruning his vines. Or use another image. Think of your life as a block of marble that the sculptor is slowly, steadily chipping away to create the finished product he has in mind. In either case, our sins, perhaps more than anything else, cause the Lord to take his pruning shears or his hammer and chisel in hand and begin to wield them on our behalf. No doubt that is what happened in Abraham’s life. In the final analysis Abraham became a better man because of his stumble in chapter 20.

So, then, what is the lesson, what is the help, the good we are to take away from Genesis 20? What is the good that, more than any other, Abraham himself took from it when reflecting on his experience. How did this disappointment make Abraham a better man? Surely it must have been by strengthening in him the conviction that Paul summarized this way:

“If we are faithless, he will remain faithful, for he cannot disown himself.” [2 Tim. 2:13]

Abraham betrayed the covenant, but the Lord did not. Abraham gave God reason to withdraw the promise he had made to Abraham and Sarah, but God would not. Abraham had dishonored the Lord’s name and Word, but far from taking offense, the Lord not only forgave Abraham but rescued him and then blessed him still more. He intervened to protect the covenant couple, he afflicted the king’s harem to provoke Abimelech to the recognition that something was wrong. He forestalled a sexual relationship between Abimelech and Sarah. And finally he himself explained the problem to the king in such a way as to motivate Abimelech to restore Sarah’s honor publicly and emphatically. By the by, he used Abraham’s misbehavior to create peace and harmony between Abraham and an important figure in the land of Canaan, making Abraham still wealthier in the process.

If Abraham’s sin is a window on a sad fact of our own Christian lives, so is his deliverance from that sin and the Lord’s continuing faithfulness to him through that sin, even in defiance of his sin. That deliverance, that divine faithfulness, more than any of us realizes, is the true story of our lives as the followers of Jesus Christ.

If there is any sense in which Abraham’s serious stumble in chapter 20 was a happy fault, because of the good that came from it, it is this good: the revelation to him and to us of God’s faithfulness to his Word and his people, God’s faithfulness to his covenant. There is nothing you and I need more than the living conviction in our hearts that God loves us with an immutable love, that he will never let us slip from his hand, even when we sin and prove ourselves for the umpteenth time unworthy of his love and goodness to us.

What sinners such as ourselves need to know is that God will not forsake us because we have failed him once again. The fact that this was the second time Abraham did this very thing twice is very important precisely because you and I, alas, commit the same sins repeatedly. We are being taught that the sort of Christian lives you and I live, the disappointment we live with because of our chronic moral failure, that those lives, like your life and like my life, are real Christian lives; that our sin does not in fact nullify our profession of faith in Jesus Christ. People like us are what the Bible teaches us that Christians are like and so people like us are the true people of God. And there is nothing more necessary to know than that and certainly no truth as full of hope and gratitude and love!

“If we are faithless, he will remain faithful.”