Hero and Healer: Abraham, God, and Infertility in Genesis 20

Introduction

In Genesis 20, we read a puzzling story of God’s protection over Abraham and Sarah from yet another incident in which their lie causes a warlord king to take Sarah as his wife. By this time, Abraham and Sarah had already:

  • Followed a call, from a God they didn’t previously know, to leave their homeland and come to Canaan when they were 65 (Sarai) and 75 (Abram) years old.
  • Spent 24 years waiting for God to fulfill His promise of giving them land and a family. They were still childless at 89 and 99 years old respectively and impossibly past the point of having children, and they owned precisely 0% of the land God had promised them.
  • Grown a considerable bit of wealth (the text makes it clear that this was a result of God’s blessing), despite a series of stilted, (sometimes) unwise choices.

The end of the passage provides this seemingly-odd and incongruent connection to healing, which is why we’re talking about it here. In Genesis 20:17-18, we read:

Then Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Abimelek, his wife and his female slaves so they could have children again, for the LORD had kept all the women in Abimelek’s household from conceiving because of Abraham’s wife Sarah.

Context

What is going on in this passage and what does this reference to God’s healing have to do with it? That is the focus of our conversation. So let’s take a few moments to read this through eyes of the original audience in Moses’ day.

Moses’ day?

Moses lived 700+ years after these events occurs; but if we’re to trust the testimony of Rabbinic scholars as well as Jesus, Moses was involved in writing this story down – sharing it with an audience of Hebrew people who were recently freed from a multi-generational season of slavery in Egypt. Genesis is Israel’s (to use the Marvel parlance) origin story, and Abraham and Sarah were the people through whom God initiated a new arc in history. Reading the stories in Genesis through their eyes, we see a consistent theme played out. The patriarchs (Abraham and his decedents) weren’t heroes or superhuman; they were portrayed honestly: flawed, and sometimes quite unflattering. Instead, there is one true hero and focus of these stories: Yahweh, a God determined to enact His plans in and through a people group He chose and in the world He made.

How could Abraham let someone just take his wife?

Abraham and Sarah lying about their relationship is something that occurs a few times in Genesis, and the context is confusing (to say the least) for our current sensibilities. To Abraham and Sarah, who lived in a context so unlike ours, where the notion of forcibly taking another persons spouse, property, or even personal freedom was commonplace. The stronger ruled the weaker; and the weaker did well to steer clear of the wishes of the powerful. Much as we may (rightly) lament the disparity of wealth and power in our day, we simply cannot fathom the reality of those who lived in Abraham’s day. In that light, Abraham’s lie is no less cowardly but far more understandable from a practical perspective. Abimelek wanted what Abraham “had,” and he had every means of taking it.

Abimelek

In that context, we see Abraham and Sarah once again encountering a regional warlord (the “king” of a region or city) referenced as Abimelek (Abimelek literally means “my lord the king” and probably isn’t a given name as much as a title of status). Abimelek ruled an area in modern-day Israel northwest of Beersheba and east of Gaza, controlling a region on the edge of the Negev desert in which Abraham and his livestock were grazing.

This Abimelek took Sarah into his home and as a result the women of his household was apparently struck with infertility. We don’t know how long Sarah was in Abimelek’s household, but it was apparently long enough to notice that the women of Abimelek’s harem were unable to conceive. As the passage indicates, God kept Abimelek from sleeping with Sarah; and it’s plausible to presume that Abimelek’s intentions towards an aged Sarah were less about seeing her as a sexual partner and more about demonstrating his dominance over the foreigner (Abraham) on Abimelek’s land. Nevertheless, verses 17 and 18 makes it clear that God’s power to take and restore fertility were an important sign.

Then Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Abimelek, his wife and his female slaves so they could have children again, for the LORD had kept all the women in Abimelek’s household from conceiving because of Abraham’s wife Sarah.

A first act of healing in the Bible

Without a doubt, Genesis chapter 20 is focused on the protection and provision of God to Abraham and Sarah, despite their poor choices; but secondarily, this first, recorded act of healing in the Bible highlights two key ideas:

  1. God is active  and present in history
  2. God’s ability to provide (and withhold) physical restoration

Let us briefly talk about both.

God is present in history

As we read through the Bible, I find it useful to highlight and remember precisely what God does and doesn’t say about Himself. They’re puzzle pieces on the grand picture of what God wants us to know about Him. In that way, we can construct (and when needed, de-construct) our view of God as we “place” pieces of the puzzle we find in these stories. Genesis 20 offers one of these pieces: God is present in history.

Genesis 20 makes it clear that God was at work, despite Abraham and Sarah’s choice, to carry out a larger plan. For them and for us, getting a handle of what God is and isn’t doing in history is a difficult task, arguably impossible in the midst of one circumstance or even one lifetime. For many, this is a real stumbling block in faith, asking people to trust that God is working out some larger narrative in the midst of circumstances and events that often are unjust or seemingly random. For those who choose to trust – that God is there and is ultimately good – stories like this give us a window into what God was and still is doing.

God can restore physically

This story also offers another equally valuable puzzle piece: God has the ability to heal infertility. He also holds the power to withhold fertility. The implications of both of these are critical to our understanding of who God is and the way He works. The fact that Abraham prayed and God chose to restore the fertility of this family is one testimony in a long line of testimony through the Bible of God’s ability and propensity to restore human beings.

At the same time, God’s choice to temporarily strike Abimelek’s household with infertility strikes at a concerning, deeply personal question for many who face the unmet desire for a  child. Namely, is God punishing me/us?

Early on in my marriage to my wife, Cre, we experienced some significant challenges with fertility, and even today, I have dear friends who – though faithful to what they believe God desires for them – deal with the unmet longing of starting a family. The struggle is real and the thoughts that each person or couple deals with through those seasons can’t be fully encapsulated in one story; but there is one important detail that I want to offer.

God does not quietly, randomly, and certainly not arbitrarily punish people.

I’ve wrestled with this question for some time and come to the conclusion that the “puzzle pieces” throughout the Bible don’t testify to God quietly or arbitrarily afflicting people because they’re committed some unknown misstep in the cosmic order of good and evil. Instead, I see God being clear and obvious when He does withhold blessing as a form of correction. Throughout Biblical history, we see a pattern of God patiently calling people who have done wrong to turn around and come back. Even the consequence (or punishment) for that disobedience is meant to lead people back into relationship with him vs. discard them as failures.

Knowing or believing that to be true doesn’t necessarily make a season of wanting and waiting – be it for a child or healing from a disease – easier to bear; but it might help us know God better. For whatever reason, God has the ability to restore but sometimes (seemingly often) does not. We can do our best to trust that God is telling a bigger story through our circumstance, but that doesn’t ease the pain and longing for comfort and relief in the midst of the circumstance.

For that, I look to one more puzzle piece in the picture of who God is that we read from King David. 1100 years after the story Abraham and Sarah, David encountered another ruler in this same region who called himself Abimelek. Finding himself needing refuge and trapped in the king’s city, David resorted to faking madness in order to escape; and out of that experience, we have Psalm 34, a song extolling God’s goodness to those who are in a season of distress. It’s to these words that I often look in the midst of a season where I wonder why God isn’t doing what I believe He can do. It is these words that comfort me when I look up and wonder where God might be.

The LORD is close to the brokenhearted
and saves those who are crushed in spirit.
– Psalm 34:18
What David’s writing and experience speak to me is that God is present in the muck, mire, and sorrow of our situation. While I’m looking up for escape and relief, all the while God is beside me, experiencing the season with me. He is Emmanuel, God with us. For whatever reason, He may not relieve the circumstance, but we can find Him and His goodness if we seek it in the midst of circumstance. For those navigating such a season, I pray you have the chance to see a God who loves you in and through a difficult season.

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