My Sister Sarah
Tuesday, January 25, 2011 at 9:40AM
Jeff Smith in Tongue, Worldliness

There are two separate occasions in the book of Genesis in which the great patriarch, Abram, and his wife, the equally great matriarch, Sarai, were caught in a lie, a well-intended, seemingly necessary fib, told for self-preservation and without malice toward the hearer. Nonetheless, God disapproved of their deception and punished them with guilt, exceeded only by the tangible threat made against the people that believed their falsehood. Those events become cautionary tales against the well-meaning, self-preserving lies we are tempted to tell from time to time.

I. Abram and Sarai

    A. Their History

        1. we first meet Abram and Sarai in the eleventh chapter of the Genesis historical record, an ancient document thought to have been written by Moses thousands of years ago, and preserved through the ages on papyrus, on scrolls and in earthen vessels, long before it founds its way onto the leather bound pages of paper before you now (Genesis 11:27-32)

            a. Abram and Sarai were, in fact, both the children of Terah, but through different mothers, making them half-siblings

            b. their brother, Nahor, married their niece, Milcah, to keep things really in the family

        2. it is at this time, where their biblical story begins, that they leave modern-day Iraq for the land of Canaan, but settled in modern-day Turkey instead (see also Acts 7:4)

        3. Sarai, whose name fittingly means “princess,” was already advanced in age by this time, and had never been able to bear children

        4. these conundrums intersect at the outset of the second section of Genesis – Abram is stuck in Turkey and his offspring are as numerous as the hairs on the head of a bald man (Genesis 12:1-3)


    B. Pharaoh

        1. despite their age and because of their faith, they went, but there were soon causes for compromise (Genesis 12:10-20)

        2. the narrator of this story does not leave it ambiguous as to the morality and rectitude of Abram’s scheme, visiting punishment, however, upon its object

        3. Abram was willing to share his wife sexually with other men to preserve his own life and that is not so unusual in that economy of polygamy and concubinage, but God’s ideals were not compromised

        4. Pharaoh deduced from the plagues that he had been fooled and reacted with indignation, sending Abram and his wife away from Egypt


    C. Abimelech

        1. it should not be assumed that Abraham learned his lesson, perhaps because he had really not suffered much more than the ejection from Egypt (Genesis 20:1-2)

        2. surely you are thinking that Abraham’s statement is not really a lie, and that is where the issue is – while Sarah is Abraham’s sister, she is only his half-sister and the more important piece of information is the bit that he is concealing – that they are married (Genesis 20:3-7)

        3. Abimelech, king of Gerar, took her in innocence, not knowing at all that she was Abraham’s wife, but he was still due punishment until he accepted God’s offer of grace and avoided the sin of laying with her (Genesis 20:8-13)

            a. Abraham had made the mistake of underestimating the morality of strangers, assuming them to be incapable of anything greater than animal lust, and in the process, he made himself guilty of distrusting God and deceiving others into stumbling

            b. God had his hands full with Abraham, and for every offense he caused, God prevented another still more serious; it makes us wonder how busy we keep God today


    D. Isaac and Rebekah

        1. we hear no more of Abraham pulling this ruse upon his hosts, but the scheme is not altogether extinct; Abraham and Sarah’s son of promise either heard the stories or thought of the same idea on his own when he and his wife, Rebekah, traveled south of Gaza (Genesis 26:6-11)

        2. the reaction is the same this time – righteous indignation that someone would tempt them to sin by uttering a lie, and this time a complete fabrication, for her relationship to Isaac was even more distant

        3. again, we’re struck with how cavalierly Isaac will send his wife into adultery to protect his life, and how surprisingly chaste his hosts are when confronted with the truth

        4. the Bible is not a book that presents God’s people as solely wholesome and their enemies as entirely objectionable; there are times when the heathen are purer than the Hebrews


II. Some Applications

    A. Situation Ethics

        1. Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, find themselves on the horns of a dilemma, in which it seemed good and noble to employ a lie, or half-truth, to serve the greater good; after all, what good is a dead patriarch, they probably reasoned

        2. thousands of years ago, they employed a system of justification still enjoyed by people today, who would ordinarily prefer honesty, but when faced with a threat, will resort to deception, trickery and sometimes worse, to achieve what they consider to be a greater purpose

            a. the goal might be saving one’s own life or reputation, preventing injury to another person’s feelings, covering up an embarrassing mistake, or taking advantage of an evil person who seems to have it coming

            b. the means by which those goals are met can take the Christian into behaviors that would be unjustifiable under normal circumstances or when confronted by equally pious people, but which seem to be acceptable for the moment

        3. this is situation ethics and clearly they are not approved by God, who punished Abraham and Isaac with guilt when they attempted to use them

        4. God’s ethic is not determined situationally, but is consistent throughout

            a. honesty (Ephesians 4:25-29) 

            b. selflessness (Romans 12:17-21)

            c. vengeance (Matthew 5:38-42)

            d. fidelity (Revelation 2:10)


    B. Harm to Others

        1. situation ethics suggests that sometimes the law of God gets in the way of doing good, either for self or someone else, and that sin (reluctantly defined) is necessary to achieve a greater good than can be accomplished by honesty or strict consistency

        2. the Bible, however, indicates that God’s will is always successful in achieving the greatest good without resorting to compromise (Romans 13:8-10)

        3. exercising a situational ethic is usually a selfish decision, even when people claim they are trying to save someone else from embarrassment or insult, they are usually just trying to avoid telling them an unpleasant truth that might actually help them more, but only through conflict and self-examination

        4. when we give people misinformation, we are only perpetuating the underlying problem and avoiding the chance for resolution

        5. and when we tell little white lies, or commit other sins in the name of peace or saving face, we are teaching our children and others that God’s law is only applicable when convenient (First Peter 1:6-9)


    C. Trust in God

        1. like Abraham and Isaac, we also tend to resort to situation ethics when we do not trust God to keep us safe in spite of doing his will; imagine if Paul had exercised a situation ethic when on trial – what good is a dead apostle, he might have reasoned, before lying his way out of jail

        2. likewise, Peter and John could have saved themselves a great deal of pain by agreeing to quit preaching Jesus, at least long enough to get away from the council

        3. trust in God means counting on deliverance, whether from an ordeal or from life itself, but without relying upon sin to get there (Second Corinthians 1:5-10)

        4. sometimes our assumptions about other people are arrogant, just as Jonah discovered that his fellow sailors were more righteous than he, praying while they struggled upon the sea and he slept below, the very cause of their peril



In the end, there is no room for the situation ethicist in the kingdom, where “the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death” (Revelation 21:8).


Questions For Review

  1. What was the relationship between Abram and Sarai?
  2. What does the name “Sarah” mean?
  3. How did Pharaoh respond to being tricked?
  4. How did Abimelech respond to Abraham when he found out the truth?
  5. What false assumption had Abraham made about his hosts?
  6. What is situation ethics?
  7. What happens to the cowardly and liar in judgment?
Update on Monday, August 22, 2011 at 9:07AM by Registered CommenterJeff Smith

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