The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
Abraham and Abimelech
Abraham went from Mamre to the south, and found a fertile country lying between two deserts, the desert of Kadesh and the desert of Shur. The earth is not all fertile, or we should think little of it; neither is it all desert, or we should be driven into despair. Abraham, the great man and prophet of the Lord, once more shows his littleness by giving way to a cowardly fear that strangely divided his heart with the noblest faith found in the ancient world. His fear in one direction was simply ridiculous and pitiful; when he came amongst a powerful people he was always afraid that they would kill him in order to get possession of his wife: on the face of it the thing would seem to be incredible; here is a man who left his kindred and his father"s house, who braved the hardships of the wilderness, who arose and pursued kings and slew them, and delivered the prey from the hand of the mighty, tottering like a weak old coward when he thinks that he may be killed. He made a mean figure before Pharaoh, and he makes a meaner still before Abimelech. In one sense I am glad that Abraham made such a fool of himself, for had he been without flaw or blemish, perfect and invincible in faith, and complete in the sanctification of his character, he would have awed me by his supernatural respectability, and I should never have thought of him as an example or a pattern. From his own account he told a white lie by keeping back part of the truth.
The thing that is most remarkable in the whole story is that God should apparently have taken Abraham"s part instead of humbling and punishing him in the sight of the heathen. To us the Almighty seems to have had just cause for contracting Abraham into Abram, and sending him back into his own country "a sadder but a wiser man." In discussing a subject so delicate we must awaken the attention of our whole mind and heart, for the loss of a word may be the loss of a truth Observe, first of all, that if the Divine purpose is to be turned aside by the fault or blemish found in individual character, the Divine government of man is at an end, and human progress is an impossibility. Adam failed, so did Noah, so did Abraham, so did Lot. So clearly was it established as a sad and mournful truth that no individual man was perfect, that once and again God was moved to abolish the human race from the earth altogether. It was not Adam that sinned, or Noah, or Abraham; it was human nature that sinned. There seems to be little advantage of one man over another in this or that particular, but the advantage even when real is only partial. Pharaoh seemed to be a better man than Abram, but he was not so in reality. Take them bulk for bulk, character for character, Pharaoh was not to be mentioned with Abram. Esau seemed to be a brave and noble son of the soul, and Jacob seemed to be a sneaking and vile schemer, with the making of an assassin under his smooth skin; I admit this fully, but the judgment is not to be fixed at any one point; you must take the full stretch of time required by the Almighty in working out his purposes, and then it will be seen that under all appearances there was something undiscernible by the human eye, which made every man chosen to leadership and renown in the holy kingdom the best man that could have been chosen for the purpose. You say that Abimelech was better than Abraham; now let me ask you what you know about Abimelech? Nothing but what is stated in this chapter. Very well. You are so far right. You have seen Abimelech at his best and you have seen Abraham at his worst, and then you have rushed to a conclusion! This is not the right way to read history; certainly it is not the right way to read the Bible. We are not to set act against Acts, but life against life. If we were to set act against Acts, we should reverse the most solemn verdicts of history, and disennoble some of the very princes of human kind. You have seen a professing Christian in a bad temper, and you have seen a man who made no profession of Christianity unruffled and serene, and instantly you question the sincerity of the professor and sing the praises of the pagan. And you point to facts in justification. Now your reasoning may be wrong, your facts may be illusory, and your judgment may be most unjust and cruel. It is quite true that you have seen the one man in a stormy passion, and the other man without a flush of colour on his pale cheek, and it is quite possible that in the particular case referred to the professor may have been wrong and the pagan may have been right; but take them life for life, spirit for spirit, character for character, through and through, and no man who is without Christ can compare for true and lasting dignity of soul with the least in the kingdom of heaven.
This principle may help us to come to larger and juster judgments of human character and human history. We must not judge the universal by the local. When I think of the meanness of Adam, the drunkenness of Noah, the selfishness of Lot, the cowardice of Abraham, the cunning of Jacob, the sensuality of David, and the inconstancy of Peter, my first wonder is that such men should have a name in the Divine history at all. But therein I show my folly not my Wisdom of Solomon, and I may show my impiety, too, by my setting up my morality against the righteousness of God. It is easy for me to compare the flat and insipid respectability of some of my own acquaintance with the painful characteristics I have just named, and to depose the great historical characters in favour of my unimpeachable friends. But where would my unimpeachable friends have been in the same circumstances? And what have they ever done to show that they would have stood where Adam fell, and that they would have been bold where Peter shrank and lied?
This, then, is the point at which I find rest when I am disturbed by the evident and painful immorality of illustrious Bible characters, viz, human nature has never been perfect in all its qualities, energies, and services; the perfection of human nature can be wrought out only by long-continued and severe probation; in choosing instruments for the representation of his will and the execution of his purposes, God has always chosen men who were best fitted on the whole for such ministry, though in some particulars they have disastrously and pitiably failed. When I think I could have improved God"s plan, the mistake is mine, because my vision is dim and I never can see more than a very limited section of any human character.
In the next place consider, knowing human nature as we do, how beneficial a thing it was to the great men themselves to be shown now and again that they were imperfect, and that they were only great and strong as they were good—as they were true to God. To be an illustrious leader, to have power and authority amongst men, always to be in high places, and to be absolutely without a fault of disposition, temper, or desire, is enough to tempt any man to think that he is more than a man; and even to be without actual social fault, that can be pointed out and blamed, is not unlikely to give a man a false notion of the real state of his own nature. We may learn quite as much from our failures as from our successes. I have seen more truly what I am by my faults than by my graces, and never have I prayed with so glowing a fervour as when I have seen that there was but a step between me and death and that I had nearly taken it! Speaking of faultless men I am reminded of Enoch. It is on record that "Enoch walked with God." I fear that these words may not be always fairly applied. Let me point out to you the difference between a contemplative and an active life. It is clear from the very form of expression that Enoch was of a retiring and meditative character. He loved the quiet nook in the hill. You find him away under the whispering trees, with eyes now fixed on the ground and presently lifted towards heaven in tender and expectant prayer. Let me ask you, What has Enoch done for the human race? What dangers has he braved, what battles has he fought, what heroisms has he displayed? Compare the position of Adam with the position of Enoch! Compare the valour of Abraham with the peaceful disposition of Enoch! This, I contend, is the just and honourable course of criticism. When men return from the far-away battle-field, I shall stand upon the shore and watch their debarkation. The artist who has drawn the pictures shall pass in cordial silence; the literary correspondent, who has given graphic accounts of the bloody fray, shall have a friendly salute; the ornamental soldier, who returns without scratch or stain, shall have a look of suspecting wonder; but the grand old general who led the fight—who has come home with battered helmet and dinted shield, maimed, torn, half the man he was when he went out, whose old likeness we have to search for through scars and seams that tell of heroic suffering—when he steps forth, every war-mark shall make him dear to us, and, as his brave old limbs limp under him, we shall hail him as a patriot, a soldier, and a friend.
Do we, then, find any justification of our own evil-doing in these reflections? I answer, not one tittle of justification. God forbid! I am seeking to justify God, not to justify man. We are called to holiness, to honour, to purity, to nobleness: to all that is beautiful and resplendent in character. To this end Christ died; to this end the Holy Spirit works; to this end our whole being should move in one strenuous and hopeful effort. And yet in thought, or word, or deed; by fear, or unbelief, or selfishness; by suspicion, envy, jealousy, or uncharitableness, we may slip and even fall many times by the way. But if the root of the matter be in us; if, under all our faults and sins we have that true faith which is the gift of God, and that deep love which lives through our inconstancy amounting sometimes to treason, and if we press and strive towards better things, we shall find in the last result that God"s grace is greater than our sin, and that we shall be saved if only "so as by fire."
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Genesis 20". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://beta.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 19 / Ordinary 24