Good Point. Wrong Text.

Abimelech Restoring Sarah to Abraham

Recently, the Association of Biblical Counselors published a blog post arguing that we should not use Sarah lying in Genesis 12 and 20 as justification for a woman to stay in an abusive relationship. The argument runs like this. Sarah did obey Abraham and lie. She put herself in a situation where she could be abused. She submitted to her husband. But 21st century women cannot follow in her footsteps because we are not in the same cultural situation. 

“Abraham and Sarah were nomads. They had no family nearby or “church” community to provide accountability or protection. They lived in a patriarchal culture where women had little choice and few rights.

When Abraham told Sarah to lie and pretend she was his sister, God was Sarah’s only protection. She had no pastor to tell, no elders to turn to, no counselor or hot line to call. God himself stepped in to protect her from Abraham’s foolishness and selfishness, not once, but twice.”

Besides misrepresenting patriarchy in the Scriptures by saying, “women had little choice and few rights” I found the post strange because it twists two texts (Genesis 12 & 20), which only tangentially touch on the main subject of the post, while ignoring more obvious texts and then uses those twisted texts to subvert another clearer text (I Peter 3:6). Got that? No? Let me explain.

First, the author could have gone to a hundred different passages to prove her point that wives should not stay in abusive relationships with their husbands. She says, “I could quote verse after verse about how God hates injustice, oppression, revilers, pride, liars, and those who misuse their authority to hurt others.” Yes, you could. So why don’t you instead of relying upon a difficult interpretation of Sarah’s story? Even a simple verse like “be kind to one another” (Ephesians 4:32) could be used to defend a wife against an abusive husband. Men (and women) use the Bible to defend all sorts of nonsense. A man who thinks the story of Sarah allows him to abuse his wife or a pastor/counselor who thinks this proves a wife should stay an abusive situation has more problems than their interpretation of Genesis. His entire picture of salvation and Christ is skewed. Trying to prove that Sarah’s actions are not an example of godly submission is not the best tactic.

Second, and more importantly, it is not clear that Abraham was asking Sarah to do something wicked. The author says, “We know that God was displeased with Abraham when Abraham told Sarah to lie and say she was his sister, putting her at risk for sexual abuse.”  She goes on to say that God “confronted Abraham’s sin.” Actually that is not what the text says or implies. Abraham comes out relatively clean.

These texts are difficult, but there are several indicators that Abraham was not the sinner in the story. 

  • Abraham is not rebuked by God in either situation. Both kings are rebuked and chastised by the Lord. Pharaoh is plagued by God (Genesis 12:17). Abimelech’s women were barren (Genesis 20:18). Both Abraham and the kings could be guilty, but only the kings are declared guilty by God in the text.  
  • Abraham leaves both scenarios richer (Genesis 12:16, 20:14). Why would God prosper Abraham when he had thrown his wife to the wolves? On the author’s interpretation God is subsidizing disobedience.
  • God tells Abimelech to have Abraham pray for him (Genesis 20:7). God also tells Abimelech if he does not restore Sarah he will die. Abraham is the righteous prophet who calls on God to save Abimelech. God answers this prayer (Genesis 20:17). How does this fit with Abraham being a sinner who put his wife in a position to be abused (Psalm 66:18, James 5:16)?
  • Abraham specifically says that he asked Sarah to say she was his sister because there is no fear of God in the land (Genesis 20:11). It is possible that Abraham asked Sarah to lie not to expose her “sexual abuse” but to protect her from it.  
  • Genesis 20:18 says that the women of Gerar were barren. This means there was sex happening in Abimelech’s house and that it had been going on long enough for folks to start to wonder why there were no growing bellies. That would be at least 2-3 months, possibly longer. And Sarah had been there the whole time. One option is that God protected Sarah despite her lying. Another option is that God protected Sarah because she lied. I think the latter is more plausible.
  • God tells Abimelech that He (the Lord) kept him from sinning (Genesis 20:6). This implies that if Abimelech had slept with Sarah he would have been sinning. No mention is made of Abraham’s sin. 
  • Abimelech calls Abraham Sarah’s “brother” in Genesis 20:16, which means that he accepted Abraham’s story about Sarah being his half-sister as legitimate.  

The blog post makes Sarah’s story about God protecting her from Abraham’s sin, when the text makes it about God protecting Sarah from the wicked kings.

The author of the post implies that I Peter 3:6 is not talking about Sarah’s submission to her husband in these two circumstances. I can see why she wants to say that. If Abraham purposely put Sarah in a position for her to be sexually abused by various kings then we would not want to use that as a godly example of submission. 

But if her interpretation of Sarah’s actions is off then Sarah is a great example of godly submission. These two situations are the clearest examples of submission by Sarah in Genesis 12-23 outside of leaving Ur. What other examples do we have in those chapters of Sarah obeying Abraham and trusting God (I Peter 3:5)? What else could Peter be thinking of? The author, unnecessarily I believe, strips I Peter 3:6 of some of its power by removing two real life examples from Sarah’s life.

The author is right that Sarah’s obedience to Abraham should not be used to justify abuse. On that point we agree. But that is not because of anything found in Genesis. It is because of the rest of Scripture, which makes it clear that men are to love their wives as Christ loves the Church. Therefore Genesis 12 and 20 fit well with Peter’s purposes in I Peter 3:6. Godly women trust in the Lord and obey their husbands, even calling them lord. That is what Sarah did throughout her life and these two situations are places where the Lord rewarded her for that trust and obedience.