Abimelech, King of Gerar part 1
by John Thomas Lowe
Abimelech, King of Gerar
Abimelech means "my father a king" or "father of a king." This is the name of 5 biblical men; 4 were kings. Abimelech was the common name for Philistine kings, as the name "Pharaoh" is for Egyptian kings. Abimelech, the Philistine king of Gerar, reigned during the time of Abraham (Genesis 20:1-18). This is the Abimelech who will be our subject today. By the intervention of Providence, Sarah was delivered from his harem and was restored to her husband, Abraham. As a mark of respect, the king gave Abraham valuable gifts. He offered him a settlement in any part of his country. At the same time, he delicately and yet severely rebuked him for having practiced deception upon him by pretending that Sarah was only his sister.
Among the gifts presented by the king were a thousand pieces of silver to purchase a "covering for the eyes" for Sarah, i.e., either as an atoning gift or a testimony of her innocence in the sight of all. Alternatively, perhaps the silver was to procure a veil for Sarah to conceal her beauty and thus reproof (rebuke, disapproval) of her for not having worn a veil, which she apparently ought to have done in that culture as a married woman.
A few years after this, Abimelech visited Abraham, who had moved southward beyond his territory, and entered into an alliance of peace and friendship with him. This league was the first of which we have any record. A mutual oath confirmed it at Beer-sheba (Genesis 21:22-34).
Note: Abimelech is a cognomen (surname, nickname) applied to Philistine rulers as Pharaoh, Agag, and Jabin were applied by the Egyptians, Amalekites, and Canaanites. Three different people groups in the OT use this title: one during Abraham's time (Gen 20; 21), one during Isaac's time (ch. 26), and one during David's days (Ps 34, title).
The king of Gerar was titled Abimelech. Seeing Abraham's wife Sarah, Abraham stayed with his flock in his country after the destruction of Sodom, and Gomorrah, the king of Abimelech of Gerar, took her, intending to make her his wife. Abraham, again fearing for his life as he had with Pharaoh (Gen 12:10-20), declared that Sarah was his sister. Whether Abraham was implying that she was doubly protected based on the Nuzu documents is uncertain. There were marriage documents and "sistership documents"; thus, some wives simultaneously had the juridical status of a wife and sister, each recorded in separate, independent, legal documents. Abraham might have been technically correct when he referred to Sarah as his "sister" if she were thus protected when Abimelech discovered the whole truth or understood the implications of this *Hurrian Laws of Marriage
* Hurrian Definition & Meaning - noun a member of an ancient non-Semitic people of northern Mesopotamia, Syria, and eastern Asia Minor about 1500 b.c. There were laws to protect married women.
1. He asked Abraham why he had done this to him. Abraham answered that he thought "the fear of God" (i.e., true religion) was not in Gerar; therefore, he would be slain for his wife's sake (Gen 20:11). Indeed, "she is my sister,...the daughter of my father, but not the daughter of my mother." Abimelech lavished Abraham with gifts and an invitation to graze his flock in his land to recognize his person and intercession (20:14, 16, 17). Later some twenty-five miles from Gerar, a series of disputes broke out between the servants of the two men over the water wells. Finally, the covenant at a well, which they called Beersheba, "well of seven or swearing," was made by Abraham and Abimelech (21:22-34).
2. The same experience occurred almost a century later between Isaac and another Abimelech of Gerar (26:1-11), "king of the Philistines." Isaac claimed that Rebekah was his sister, and God intervened when Abimelech attempted to move in. A series of incidents involving wells followed, and a covenant concluded the hostilities (26:17-32).
3. The title of Psalm 34 gives us a third Abimelech in David's time, who was the Philistine king of Gath named Achish (1 Sam 21:10). Most commentators regard Abimelech (Ps 34) as a copyist error for Achish or confusion with Abimelech found earlier (1 Sam 21:1). This misses the point (Gen 26:1) where an Abimelech is a "king of the Philistines" in Gerar.
4. The son of Gideon (also called Jerubbabel) by a Shechemite concubine (Judg 8:31) in a matrilineal marriage (one in which the wife lives in the parental home and the children belong to the clan). After Gideon's death, Abimelech approached the "Lords" of his clan of Shechem, which is further designated in Judges 9:28 as "the men of Hamor" who still (Gen 34) worshiped the God Berith (Judges 9:4, 9:6 46), and proposed that he be proclaimed "king." They agreed and promptly paid him seventy pieces of silver from the treasuries of Baalberith. With this start, he hired a handful of assassins who quickly helped Abimelech slay all his seventy brothers except for the youngest son Jotham who escaped.
His kingdom was limited to Shechem, Bethmillo (apparently the tower of Shechem, Arumah, and Thebez, 9:6, 41, 50). This is the first Israelite man in the Bible to form his name with the divine designation Melech. According to Martin Buber, neither was this his original name, for Judges 8:31 says that "his concubine...bare him a son, and he called his name Abimelech."
Jotham, the sole survivor of the bloody massacre of Abimelech and his supporters, stationed himself on Mt. Gerizim and cried out his famous fable, which placed a deliberate slur upon Abimelech as a worthless bramble incapable of offering the men of Shechem security or profit; to the contrary, it grimly predicted their mutual destruction (Judg 9:7-21).
After three years of reign, God visited Abimelech and the men of Shechem (9:23) in the persons of the usurpers' assistant Zebul and Gaal, the son of Ebed (9:26). The latter was another slick talker. Thus the dissension was sown in Shechem (9:28, 29). An armed rebellion ensued, which Abimelech was just on the verge of crushing when an unknown woman dropped a millstone on his skull from the besieged tower at Thebez (9:50-53). Upset that it was a woman who finally ended his proud career, he begged his armor-bearer to spare him this disgrace, which he did by thrusting him through with Abimelech's sword (9:54).
Abraham in the Land of Abimelech
The mighty King of Gerar, named Abimelech, had an essential role in the life of Abraham. Their interaction is shown on the Bible Timeline Poster around 1854 BC. It all started when Abraham and Sarah set foot upon the king's land. Abimelech was kind enough to give Abraham the right to graze his cattle in any place in the land he wanted. Unfortunately, a dispute existed between the two, which mainly started when Abraham decided to dig a well only to have it seized by one of the king's servants.
However, Abimelech was unaware of this dispute. The king only heard of Abraham's complaint, leading to an agreement that Abraham first presented. This situation was resolved by giving Abraham full rights of ownership to the well, which also entitled him to proceed with his business activities on the land.
The Life of Abraham in the Land of Abimelech
Several times, Abraham was forced to give up most things he originally owned. God commanded him to leave his homeland in pursuit of the Promised Land that Abraham was not wholly aware of. Although he had doubts and fears about departing, he allowed himself to put his trust in God as he left his native land.
However, the situation with the well showed that Abraham was securing what he believed was his property. He also believed in the importance of legal protections for any property he had. This only proved how Abraham was indeed a committed, responsible, and hard-working person who only wanted to live life moderately.
During his stay in Canaan, Abraham lived by shepherding. Thus, good access to water is vital for this business to thrive. Instead of allowing his livelihood and family to suffer, he fought for his rights and was able to succeed by doing so. This signifies Abraham's love and concern for others instead of merely focusing on what he wanted for himself.
The Lesson We Learn from Abraham
Just like Abraham, it is only fitting that anyone involved in responsibilities where they need to protect others should think beyond their own needs. We, humans, are indeed tasked to be the stewards of God's creations, which means we should do our best to be responsible for everything under our care. With this in mind, every decision should not only depend on who is correct, but it is essential to consider how each decision could affect other people's welfare.
Although Abimelech had every reason to be upset with Abraham in this story, he even rewarded him in the end. For instance, he brought Abraham male and enslaved women and some cattle. Sarah was also returned to Abraham, who could live more comfortably in this land. Indeed, the life of Abraham turned out for the best because of his wisdom and ability to make the right decisions for the common good.
There is more than one Abimelech in the Bible, but he is most commonly referred to as the King of Gerar. He was in power when Abraham traveled through Kadesh and Shur inside the Philistine territory.