And God Came to Abimelech in a Dream
Genesis 20 records one of the doublets that tell of Abraham's habit of passing his
wife Sarah off as his sister when they were living among strangers, this time in the city of
Gerar. The other occasion is recorded in Genesis 12:10-20 when Abraham and Sarah went
into Egypt during a famine. This earlier version of the doublet cited her beauty as the
reason why Abraham presented Sarah as his sister rather than his wife. "Indeed I know
that you are a woman of beautiful countenance," Abraham said to Sarah as they ap-
proached the Egyptian border. "Therefore, it will happen, when the Egyptians see you, that
they will say, `This is his wife'; and they will kill me, but they will let you live. Please say
you are my sister, that it may be well with me for your sake, and that I may live because of
Although the text doesn't say so directly, it nevertheless implies that Sarah's beauty
was the reason for Abraham's duplicity while they were in Gerar, for king Abimelech, who
had taken Sarah with obvious sexual intentions, demanded an explanation when he discov-
ered that Sarah was actually Abraham's wife. "Because I thought, surely the fear of God is
not in this place," Abraham explained, "and they will kill me on account of my wife" (20:11).
If Abraham was afraid that "they" would kill him, as he was afraid that the Egyptians would
do on the other occasion, he must have thought that his life was in danger for the same
reason, i.e., Sarah's exceptional beauty.
I see a major credibility problem in this story. There are textual reasons to assume
that Sarah was no spring chicken even when Abraham lied about his relationship to her
when they were in Egypt. However, with no direct statement of her age at that time, one
might concede the possibility of her beauty being so striking that men of barbaric times
might try to kill her husband. The incident in Gerar, on the other hand, was entirely differ-
ent. By this time, the biblical text had described Sarah as a woman in her nineties (17:17),
who had "passed the age of childbearing" (18:11). The Bible even implies that she was by
this time sexually inactive. When Yahweh appeared to Abraham at the Oaks of Mamre to
renew his promise that Sarah would bear a son, she laughed within herself and said, "After
I have grown old, shall I have pleasure, my lord [Abraham] being old also" (18:12)? So are
we to believe that a woman this old was so stunningly beautiful that men would actually
want to kill her husband so that they could have her? To raise again a question that we
applied to the exodus story in an earlier issue of TSR, how likely is this?
Sarah's apparent age at the time of this incident is not the only problem in the story.
After God revealed to King Abimelech that he was about to take another man's wife,
Abraham's conduct in this matter was whitewashed and Abimelech came off looking like
the bad guy:
But God came to Abimelech in a dream by night, and said to him,
"Indeed you are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken, for
she is a man's wife. But Abimelech had not come near her; and he said,
"Lord, will You slay a righteous nation also? Did he not say to me, `She is
my sister'? And she, even she herself said, `He is my brother.' In the integri-
ty of my heart and innocence of my hands I have done this."
And God said to him in a dream, "Yes, I know that you did this in the
integrity of your heart. For I also withheld you from sinning against Me;
therefore I did not let you touch her. Now therefore, restore the man's wife; for
he is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you shall live" (Gen. 20:3-6).
Let's consider what we have here. Abraham had lied about his relationship to Sarah and
had passed her off as his sister, but now Abimelech was the one who was in hot water, the
one who was described as "a dead man," specifically because of Sarah whom he had taken,
believing she was an unmarried woman. Where's the fairness in this? Does the inscrutable
Yahweh expect people to be mind readers? In terms of civilized moral standards, this
whole incident involved nothing that warranted killing anyone, but if anyone deserved to
die because of what had happened, then surely Abraham was the one. Furthermore, if
anyone was to pray for another in this matter, Abimelech should have been instructed to
pray for Abraham whose conduct had precipitated the entire affair.
The story ended with Abraham praying to God, who then "healed Abimelech, his
wife, and his female servants" (v:17). And why did Abimelech's wife and female servants
need healing? Well, it seems that Yahweh "had closed up all the wombs of the house of
Abimelech because of Sarah" (v:18). Abraham and Sarah both had lied in this affair, but
the house of Abimelech was the one to experience the wrath of Yahweh. Justice and fair-
ness seemed to have taken a vacation while Abraham and Sarah were living in Gerar.
Furthermore, there is a clear implication in this ending of the story that Abimelech had
taken his female servants as concubines. If Yahweh was so protective of Sarah's honor that
he had divinely intervened to keep Abimlech from "touching" her, we have to wonder why
Yahweh had not kept Abimelech "from sinning against [him]" by not letting him "touch"
the female servants. Are we to understand that Yahweh did not care as much for the honor
of the female servants as he did for Sarah's? If so, what does this do to the biblical claim
that Yahweh is not a respecter of persons (Dt. 10:17; 2 Chron. 19:7; Rom. 2:11; Acts 10:34;
Gal. 2:6; Eph. 6:9; Col. 3:25; 1 Pet. 1:17)?
Another credibility problem in this story concerns the way that God revealed to
Abimelech the true nature of Sarah's relationship to Abraham. "God came to Abimelech in
a dream by night," we are told (v:3). This is the first incidence of divine revelation via a
dream recorded in the Bible, and it established a precedent that biblical writers used and
reused thereafter. On Jacob's journey to Paddanaram, Yahweh appeared to him in a dream
and renewed the promise to bless all nations through the seed of Abraham (Gen. 28:11-17).
When interpreting Pharaoh's dream about the seven lean and seven fat cows, Joseph told
Pharaoh that God had shown him "what He is about to do" (Gen. 41:25). Yahweh appeared
to Solomon in a dream and told him that he could have whatever he asked (1 Kings 3:5).
In this dream, Solomon asked for wisdom and was made the wisest man who had ever lived
or ever would live (v:5). An "angel of the Lord" informed Joseph in a dream that Mary's
child had been conceived by the Holy Spirit (Mt. 1:22). An angel of the Lord "appeared to
Joseph in a dream" and warned him to flee to Egypt to escape Herod's massacre of the
innocents (Mt. 2:13). In Egypt, Joseph was told by an angel in a dream that Herod was
dead and it was safe to return to the land of Israel (Mt. 2:19). On his way back home with
his family, Joseph was "warned by God in a dream" to take the child to Galilee rather than
Judea (Mt. 2:22). Matthew seemed particularly fond of the divine-appearance-in-a-dream
Like Matthew, Daniel liked the dream device. Probably more than any other bibli-
cal writer, Daniel claimed that he received divine revelations through dreams. When inter-
preting Nebuchadnezzar's dream about the great image fabricated from different metals,
Daniel said to the king, "But there is a God in heaven who reveals secrets, and He has
made known to King Nebuchadnezzar what will be in the latter days" (2:28). Later, when
Nebuchadnezzar had the dream about the tree that grew until its height reached to the
heavens, Daniel informed the king that the dream meant he would be driven from men to
live with the breasts of the field until he came to realize that "the Most High rules in the
kingdom of men" (4:32). In the seventh chapter, Daniel himself dreamed a dream that was
understood to be a divine revelation of future events.
I could continue with summations of other dreams that biblical writers presented as
divine revelations, but these are sufficient to establish that divine revelation via dreams was
a common biblical scenario. In other words, Bible writers took dreams seriously and ap-
parently believed that God spoke to people in dreams, either directly or through angels.
The fact that they incorporated this belief into their writings takes us back to the question
of likeliness. How likely was it that God really spoke to Abimelech, Jacob, Pharaoh,
Nebuchadnezzar, Daniel, Joseph, et al in dreams as claimed throughout the Bible? Even if
we assume that men like Abimelech and Jacob actually did have dreams in which "God"
spoke to them or that Pharaoh and Nebuchadnezzar did have the dreams attributed to
them or that Joseph did dream about angels and/or God speaking to him, how likely was it
that these were really incidents of divine revelations via dreams? To apply the principle of
Occam's razor to these dreams (assuming that they actually did occur), which was more
likely, that God really was speaking through these dreams or that the dreamers, living in
superstitious times, just thought that he was? As for the actuality of the dreams themselves,
which was more likely, that the dreams actually occurred as recorded in the various stories
or that Bible writers just made up the stories?
So once again we see that when the test of likeliness is applied in this matter, the
many biblical tales about divine revelations via dreams fail to pass. If a person today
should claim to be in communication with God through dreams, we would view him with
suspicion and recommend psychiatric treatment, yet when we read about the same claim
made by people who lived centuries ago, in highly superstitious times, we venerate them
and call them prophets or men of God. Where is the logic in that?