Try to put yourself in King Abimelech’s shoes: He was eighty years young, having held sway over his kingdom for more than half a century through war and peace. He’s a Philistine, who the Egyptians called the “Sea People”, and a descendant of a tribe of seafarers and raiders that were not unlike the Vikings of their day. We might say that his olive complexion looks a bit Greek, but it’s hundreds of years before Homer composed his first stanza. At this time, the Philistines controlled a coastal area of Israel from what today would be Gaza to just south of Tel Aviv. Abimelech is ruling from a town called Gerar, though it’s not one of the principal Philistine cities. In the time since the Philistines had come to Canaan, the local customs had rubbed off on them: they still spoke a separate language, but were increasingly worshipping Canaanite gods.
One day, Abimelech’s kingdom was greeted by two wanderers, a brother and sister from Canaan who had fallen upon hard times. Something was familiar about them, but he couldn’t quite place it– they both had just the hint of a Mesopotamian accent. Where had he heard that accent before? But the young lady was attractive and even though Abimelech was too old for those kinds of thoughts, he didn’t see the harm in letting them stay in Gerar.
But Abimelech didn’t live to his eighth decade by taking chances: he kept a close watch on the couple. After all, they could have been spies or worse. Not that it was too much of a chore to keep tabs on the young lady, after all. But a few weeks later, as he watched from afar, he caught the supposed siblings in a lover’s embrace. Realization dawned: they weren’t siblings! He stormed out of his hiding place to confront the young man. “She is really your wife! Why did you say, ‘She is my sister’?” The king fumed. He paused for a second, his brow creased, “Wait a second… have we done this before?”
That narrative is a fabrication, a mix of details from historical and biblical sources. But Abimelech is undoubtedly one of the most unusual figures in Genesis: a polytheist who nonetheless talked with God and may have been rewarded by Him. But was the Abimelech who met Abraham the same man who met Isaac? The bible isn’t clear and there is some disagreement. Read on for a look at what the early Jews and Christians thought.
(This post is part of a continuing series of chronological commentaries on Genesis, starting at the very beginning, but they get better as we go on. Previous entries on Abimelech include his first meeting with Abraham, the negotiation of a treaty at Beersheba, and his second meeting with Isaac.)
What The Bible Says About Abimelech
Abraham traveled to Gerar and met Abimelech after the birth of Ishmael but before the birth of Isaac. This story is recounted in Genesis 20. During this trip, Abraham told the inhabitants that Sarah was his sister, not his wife– a statement that while true (Sarah was his half-sister) is also misrepresentation. Sarah’s beauty was renowned even into her nineties and Abimelech became smitten with her and quickly took this attractive single nonagenarian for his wife. In consequence, his kingdom was cursed with infertility and Abimelech was somehow prevented from consummating the marriage.
But God appeared to Abimelech:
[Abimelech said] “[…] Did he not say to me, ‘She is my sister,’ and didn’t she also say, ‘He is my brother’? I have done this with a clear conscience and clean hands.”
Then God said to him in the dream, “Yes, I know you did this with a clear conscience, and so I have kept you from sinning against me. That is why I did not let you touch her. […]”
Abraham prayed for Abimelech, the curse was lifted, and Abimelech paid Abraham a large fine.
Some time later, after the birth of Isaac, Abimelech came to meet Abraham at Beersheba. The previous events had put the fear of God in him (literally) and he wanted a peace treaty with Abraham, which he was granted:
At that time Abimelek […] said to Abraham, “God is with you in everything you do. Now swear to me here before God that you will not deal falsely with me or my children or my descendants. Show to me and the country where you now reside as a foreigner the same kindness I have shown to you.”
Abraham said, “I swear it.”
Fast-forward sixty to eighty years to Genesis 26. Isaac is fleeing a famine in Israel and needs a place to stay. Isaac, like his father, tells Rebekah to claim to be his sister, but this time around it’s not true. (She’s a cousin.) The couple are not molested, but they are chastised by Abimelech for their dishonesty:
When Isaac had been there a long time, Abimelek king of the Philistines looked down from a window and saw Isaac caressing his wife Rebekah. So Abimelek summoned Isaac and said, “She is really your wife! Why did you say, ‘She is my sister’?”
Isaac stayed in Gerar and became a very successful herdsman, to the point where he was asked to move out of the city to the nearby Vally of Gerar. There he reopened the wells that his father Abraham had dug and built an altar to God. A short time later, Abimelech visited him and requested a peace treaty:
They answered, “We saw clearly that the Lord was with you; so we said, ‘There ought to be a sworn agreement between us’—between us and you. Let us make a treaty with you that you will do us no harm, just as we did not harm you but always treated you well and sent you away peacefully. And now you are blessed by the Lord.”
Isaac then made a feast for them, and they ate and drank. Early the next morning the men swore an oath to each other.
There are a few other distinctions in these two stories. In the first, Abimelech is called the “King of Gerar” while later he is called the “King of the Philistines in Gerar”. In both stories he also has a senior commander of his forces called Phicol.
In Judaism, there is an almost endless amount of midrash, commentary on the bible and Jewish laws, commentary on the commentary, and almost certainly commentary on the commentary’s commentary. It’s one of the things that makes going back to the early Jewish accounts so rewarding. But some of the commentary isn’t straight-forward commentary at all, but rather somewhat different retellings which flesh out stories or provide a different spin on events.
Even early Jews found the question of Abimelech compelling. In the 1st or 2nd century, a translation of the Torah was made for Aramaic-speaking Jews and early Christians who could not read the original Hebrew. Called the Targum Onkelos, this “translation” (available here) included clarifications that weren’t in the original. I’m very far from an expert on this text, but here’s a snippet from when Abimelech has returned to Isaac:
And Isaac said to him, Why have you come to me when you have hated me, and sent me from you?
And they said, seeing we have seen that the Word of the Lord is for thy help; and we have said let the oath that was between our fathers be now confirmed between us and thee […]
Targum Onkelos, Genesis 26
The same text in a standard version of Genesis:
Isaac asked them, “Why have you come to me, since you were hostile to me and sent me away?”
They answered, “We saw clearly that the Lord was with you; so we said, ‘There ought to be a sworn agreement between us’—between us and you.
The translator was either working from a different text or added the “between our fathers” to make it clear that this was not the same Abimelech.
Fourteen centuries later, Jewish scholars were still toying with this question. In the 16th century an expanded retelling of Genesis was published known as the Sefer haYashar, in English called the “Book of Jasher”. This is similar to the Book of Jubilees that I talked about a long time ago, but it’s not canonical– no one believes this book is in their bible, but it’s a good source of stories.
This book repeats that there were two Abimelechs, a father and son:
- The father is the man that Abraham met. After the story proceeded pretty much as it did in Genesis, plus a few more angels and other elaborations, the two men part– but they remained friends. This Abimelech, according to the story, came to Sarah’s funeral. Abraham later repaid him in kind by attending his funeral when he died at the ripe old age of 193.
- Abimelech’s son was originally named Benmalich, but took the name Abimelech on his father’s death. His story with Isaac proceeded just as it did in Genesis.
The truth is that even the ancient targum was written hundreds of years after Genesis so we can’t know the author’s intent. The story works perfectly well if you hold that they were two separate men. Here are a few more thoughts in favor of having two Abimelechs:
- Abimelech never shows a hint of recognition in Genesis of having met Isaac’s father in the second story. The narrator talks about re-digging Abraham’s wells, but Abimelech doesn’t mention it in dialog.
- Abimelech, like Pharaoh, may have been a title instead of a name. There are several other Abimelechs later in the bible and some of them seem to be named, but others suggest they are titles. No clear evidence.
- Key details such as the double-naming of Beersheba suggest some amount of textual problems.
Should you believe this? I don’t know. But how about if there was only one?
Most of the sources that I consulted either continued to leave Abimelech’s identity ambiguous or seem to side by default on there being one. The Jewish Encyclopedia entry, for example, states that the two are the same.
If there was only one Abimelech, he must have been quite old. We know that Abraham visited him just prior to the birth of Isaac, when Abraham was 100 years old. Isaac visited Gerar after his marriage to Rebekah but probably before the birth of his children, forty to sixty years later. That’s very long time for the reign of a king, but not impossible. If Abimelech was young during Abraham’s time, he might have only been in his 60s or 70s by Isaac’s era.
One of the reasons I love the “one Abimelech” version of the story is that it shows a progression and a man rewarded by God for his goodness. Even if he didn’t worship God, at least not exclusively, God could still work through him. And perhaps the prayer he received from Abraham was the reason for his great success:
- Between the two stories, he had been promoted from King of Gerar to King of the Philistines. That’s a lot of advancement, but not impossible for a strong king to conquer and unite the neighboring cities under his leadership.
- Abimelech’s land remained fertile and comfortable even as the rest of Israel was plunged into a famine.
Is this a great leap? I don’t think so. Even the fact that God spoke to him implies that he is special. At this point in the story, God has only directly spoken to six other people: Adam, Eve, Cain, Noah, Abraham, and Sarah. (Hagar and Lot spoke to angels who may or may not have been God.) That is a very exclusive club! Abimelech is the first person that isn’t closely related to the patriarchal line to have that honor.
This could also explain why Abimelech didn’t pursue Rebekah when she arrived. Not only had he learned his lesson from the previous occasion, at eighty he might not have been chasing the Canaanite equivalent of skirts with quite so much gusto.
I think I just like this story the most because of the morale: that God works through even those that do not believe in him or worship him. And if God can speak to a Philistine, he could speak to just about anyone. Abimelech was an honest man with Abraham and part of me wants to think that his success was his reward.
There are no answers here, only more questions. Are the two Abimelechs the same man or different? We will probably never know, but let me know what you think in the comments here or on our Facebook page.
Up next is a jump backwards in time as I take a quick detour into the timeline of Genesis from Adam to Abraham. There will be graphs! Thanks especially this week to Reddit’s Judaism section for some pointers on Abimelech.
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