Abraham moved from Mamre (18:1) and headed south, eventually reaching the Philistine territory of Gerar. From one perspective, he seemed to be following God’s command to walk through the land that was promised to him (Gen. 13:7). Yet we know that appearances can be deceptive.
The occasion when Abraham made this move to forbidden territory is surprising. We have seen that he had recently enjoyed a profound experience of fellowship with God, one that many would regard as a mountain-top encounter. Since he had been the recipient of such communion and had received such promises, we would expect him to continue in a state of spiritual devotion until Isaac was born. Yet Abraham did not do so.
Further, Abraham had just witnessed what had happened to Lot because of his venture into an unapproved location. Lot had moved to Sodom and, while he himself had escaped, he had lost everything in the divine judgement that fell on the city. Surely Abraham would have said to himself, ‘I must be careful about where I go in case something similar happens to me.’ Yet he did not do so.
The narrator also describes a vision of warning that Abimelech, the king of Gerar, received from God. Later details in the chapter reveal that Abimelech was a godly ruler, which in a sense is not surprising because there was an awareness of the true God in that geographical area, as can be seen in the case of Melchizedek.
Abraham’s response to Abimelech’s confession contains two aspects of repentance, one recent and the other distant. The recent sin was a wrong assessment he had made of the community, an assessment that was based on fear. He had assumed wrongly that no-one in Gerar at that time feared God and therefore would be killed by them (v. 11).
The distant confession concerned a decision he had made before he left Ur decades ago, when he asked his wife to pretend to be his sister when necessary. Some commentators regard Abraham’s explanation as rather lame, but I don’t see why his words cannot be taken as expressing repentance for two wrong outlooks that he had. If his words were not true expressions of repentance, it is very surprising that the Lord then listened to his subsequent prayer.
Having repented, Abraham resumed his role as a prophet of God. His voice had been silent all the time he had been living in deception. But the moment he repented, his lips were opened and, even more amazing, his intercession on behalf of Abimelech and his household was heard.
The incident closes with the beautiful spectacle of the Philistine king of Gerar and the father of the faithful acting appropriately in the presence of God. The obvious lesson from this passage is that repentance restores us in God’s sight and when it takes place it shows itself on the path of grace on which hostilities are removed, previous mistakes are forgiven, expressions of kindness are displayed, divinely-given roles are acknowledged, and the future once again is bright. Their friendship would continue to develop as later chapters in Genesis will show.
And we should note the time when all this took place. In verse 8, Moses stresses that Abimelech rose early in the morning and revealed the problem to his people. When is the best time to repent? As soon as possible.