Our children learn the Sunday School song, “Father Abraham had many sons, and many sons had father Abraham.” But we would do well to teach them to sing, “Father Abraham had many sins, and many sins had father Abraham.” For though he was a patriarch and prophet, Abraham also left behind a legacy of deceit. And it’s not as if he always learned from his mistakes. In the most glaring example of this, not once but twice he put his own wife’s chastity in danger to save his own neck. He passed Sarah off as his sister. Abraham never would have won the Husband of the Year award.
The first time it happened with Pharaoh, but it’s the second of these that proves most intriguing. While Abraham and Sarah were camping near Gerar, he told the locals, “She is my sister,” (Gen 20:2). And as in Egypt, so in Gerar, the king whisked Sarah away into his harem. At this point the story has an amusing, and insightful, twist. God confronts the king, Abimelech, in a dream with these startling words, “Behold, you are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is a man’s wife,” (3). Abimelech, taken aback by this revelation, assumes the piety of a protestor. Look, he says, I didn’t have the foggiest idea they were married. He claimed she was his sister, and she affirmed that he was her brother. I haven’t taken her to bed. In the integrity of my heart and the innocence of my hands I have done this.
If this were all we knew, we might applaud Abimelech. A man of integrity. A king who can actually keep his zipper up. But—to break the rules a bit—fast forward to the very end of this story. After God has taken care of this whole debacle, after Sarah is safely back with her husband, we are told that “God healed Abimelech, and also healed his wife and female slaves so that they bore children. For the LORD had closed all the wombs of the house of Abimelech because of Sarah, Abraham’s wife,” (17-18). So why had the king not yet had sex with Sarah? Because Abimelech was a man of such chastity and self-control? Because he was a pillar of integrity and innocence? No, because God had made such illicit intercourse impossible. An ancient form of erectile dysfunction? Some other sexual handicap? Who knows. But it worked. Despite the lies of Abraham, despite the kidnapping and sexual danger to which Abimelech subjected Sarah, this soon-to-be mother of the promised son, Isaac, was protected.
When the Lord appeared to Abimelech in the dream, and the king held up to the Lord his résumé of piety, God responded, “Yes, I know that you have done this in the integrity of your heart, and it was I who kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I did not let you touch her,” (6). The king would not have taken Sarah had he known she was married, but it was not his integrity and self-control that prevented him from bedding the patriarch’s wife. It was the hand of God. “It was I who kept you from sinning.” Had the Lord not intervened by afflicting Abimelech, his wife, and his co-wives, this story would have to be rewritten.
The Abimelech in us looms large. We are fond of attaching our own résumés to our spoken or unspoken prayers. “I thank you, Lord, that I am not like other men, such as that lying, pathetic, husband named Abraham.” We have done some wrongs, to be sure, but there are boundaries that we have not crossed. Nor will we. In the integrity of our hearts and in the innocence of our hands, we have not slept with another man’s wife. In the integrity of our hearts and in the innocence of our hands, we have not put a bullet in another man’s back. In the integrity of our hearts and in the innocence of our hands, we have pretty much lived a decent, honest life. We’re not as good as some, we’ll admit that, but we’re certainly not as bad as others. Look at our résumé, Lord, it’s all there.
The story of Abraham, Sarah, and Abimelech is a healthy reminder for us that, should the Lord withdraw his hand for a single moment, we would plunge ourselves into the deepest, darkest evils our hearts can fathom. And, indeed, that’s sometimes just what happens. “Sometimes [God] even lets us fall into sin, in order that He may look into the depths even more, bring help to many, perform manifold works, show Himself a true Creator, and thereby make Himself known and worthy of love and praise,” (Luther, AE 21:301). But most of the time, that divine hand intervenes. Why have you not committed this or that outward act of evil? For one reason and one reason only: “It is I who kept you from sinning against me.”
There is only one résumé we hold up to God as we pray—the all-sufficient, perfect work of Christ on our behalf. Truly, in the integrity of his heart and in the innocence of his hands, Jesus has refrained from all evil. He has crossed every “t” and dotted every “i” in the law. And his résumé has become ours. The Father in Christ sees us doing what his Son does. His keeping of the commandments is our keeping of them. His obedience cloaks our disobedience.
Father Abraham had many sins, and many sins do we have as well. And countless more we would have should God withdraw his hand. But not only does that hand protect us from ourselves; it bids us come into his kingdom, clothes us with the integrity of Jesus, heals us, and makes us all promised sons and daughters of the King of Kings.
What we need in our fragmented world, full of hurting people, is the love of Jesus Christ, who welcomes home sinners with a grace that knows no bounds. My book Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons, is packed with reflections that go that extra mile of grace. Again and again, they present the Christ who is crucified and risen for you. Please take a moment to check it out here. You may also be interested in my collections of hymns and poetry entitled, The Infant Priest, which you can purchase here. Both books are also available on Amazon, as is my booklet Why Lutherans Sing What They Sing (also on Kindle). Thank you for your prayers and support!