Abraham departed with his entire household from the area in the vicinity of Hebron (13:18; 18:1) and headed southward to the Negeb, a semi-arid region. There he tented between Kadesh (a city on the western extremity of the region that later became Edomite territory) and Shur (probably a location in the northwestern part of the Sinai Peninsula). Abraham then moved to the vicinity of Gerar (a site not far from Gaza [10:19]). As he had not resided in this region previously and did not know what he might expect from the people there, he, out of fear for his safety, identified his beautiful wife Sarah as his “sister.” Therefore, Abimelech sent for Sarah, intending to make her his wife. (20:2)
Years earlier, if it had not been for YHWH’s intervention, Pharaoh would have violated Sarah because Abraham had led him to believe that she was his sister. (12:12-19) This past experience, coupled with YHWH’s promise that Sarah would have a son (18:10), did not restrain him from dissembling out of fear. Although he was a man of outstanding faith, Abraham apparently still had weaknesses when it came to handling his personal affairs. Kindly and mercifully, YHWH dealt with him accordingly. Again God intervened, revealing to the king of Gerar (Abimelech) in a dream that Sarah was Abraham’s wife and warning him that he would be a dead man if he did not return Sarah. In response to the revelation, Abimelech asked whether God would slay an innocent people, for he had not violated Sarah and had only taken her because Abraham had told him that she was his sister and because she also had said that he was her brother. YHWH had intervened by not permitting Abimelech to have sexual relations with Sarah. Although Abimelech was upright in his actions based on what both Abraham and Sarah had said, he had unintentionally deprived a husband of his wife, and this was an unintentional wrong that needed to be rectified. Therefore, Abimelech’s failure to return Sarah to Abraham would have merited death, especially since Abraham was a “prophet” of YHWH. As a “prophet,” Abraham enjoyed a special relationship with YHWH as a man to whom his purpose and future developments regarding him and his “seed” or descendants had been made known. In his role as a prophet, Abraham had the responsibility to teach his children and his entire household, including many servants, to observe the “way of YHWH” or the course that was upright and just. (18:19) In view of his special relationship to YHWH, Abraham could also pray for Abimlelech that he would live and experience no punishment for his unintentional transgression. (20:3-7)
After Abimelech got up early in the morning, he assembled his servants and told them what God had made known to him, causing them to be filled with great fear. Abimelech then summoned Abraham, reproving him for what he had done to him and his subjects. “What have you done to us, and how have I sinned against you that you have brought on me and my kingdom a great sin? Things that should not be done you have done to me.” In his Antiquities (I, xii, 1), Josephus omits any expressions of reproof but represents Abimelech as assuring Abraham that Sarah’s chastity had been preserved and that, by God’s providence, he had received his wife again. In response to Abimelech, Abraham told him that he thought he could have been killed on account of his wife if “no fear of God” existed in the place. The absence of any “fear of God” would have meant that the people did not consider themselves accountable to a supreme deity and were a law to themselves. Therefore, they could not be trusted to do what was right and just. Endeavoring to absolve himself of having lied, Abraham said of Sarah, “She is indeed my sister, the daughter of my father but not the daughter of my mother.” Ancient Jewish sources indicate that Sarah was the granddaughter of Abraham’s father Terah. Josephus (Antiquities, I, xii, 1) wrote, “Abraham told [Abimelech] that his pretense of kindred to his wife was no lie, because she was his brother’s daughter, and that he did not think himself safe in his travels abroad without this sort of dissimulation.” Targum Jonathan quotes Abraham as saying, “In truth she is my sister, the daughter of my father's brother, but not of the kindred of my mother; and she became my wife.” Abraham then explained that when he, at God’s direction, began to wander away from his father’s house or in other lands, he had requested that his wife, in every place, kindly identify him as her brother. (20:8-13)
Thereafter Abimelech returned Sarah to Abraham, gave him sheep, cattle, and male and female slaves, and extended to him the offer to dwell in his land wherever he pleased (more literally, in what was good in his eyes). To Sarah, Abimlelech said, “Look, I have given a thousand silver pieces to your brother. Look, it is a covering for your eyes to all who are with you and before everyone, and you are adjudged” innocent (or cleared of any blot on your chastity as Abraham’s wife). The Jerusalem Targum represents Abimelech as saying to Sarah that the “silver is given to you as a present, because you were hidden from the eyes of Abraham your husband one night.” According to the Septuagint, Abimelech said, “Look, I have given your brother a thousand didrachmas. These will be to you for the honor of your face [or your person] and all those with you [or all your female servants]; and [in] everything be truthful.” Abraham then prayed for Abimelech; and Abimelech’s wife and female servants were healed so as to be able to have children. On account of Sarah, YHWH had shut the wombs of all the women in Abimelech’s household. (20:14-18)
The designation “Abimelech,” meaning “my father [is] king,” may have been a personal name. More likely, however, it was an official title, for a number of rulers are so designated. (20:2)
The Hebrew word for “father” can designate a grandfather or even an earlier ancestor. Targum Jonathan identifies Iscah (11:29) as Sarai. This identification is only possible in the event that Terah was the grandfather of Sarai but the father of Abram. If Terah was her grandfather, she would have been Abraham’s niece. This is what Josephus (Antiquities, I, vi, 5) understood the relationship between Abram and Sarai to have been, for he wrote that Abram and his brother Nahor “married their nieces.”
In the Septuagint, the thousand silver pieces (20:16) are called a “thousand didrachmas.” In the first century CE, the Jews paid an annual temple tax of a didrachma or two drachmas. (Matthew 17:24) The Romans officially evaluated the silver drachma as three fourths of a denarius. The Septuagint also includes a reference to a “thousand didrachmas” in verse 14 and could there be understood to apply to the value of all the sheep, calves, and male and female slaves Abimelech gave to Abraham.