18 July 2023

Prayer in the Abraham and Abimelech story.

The first time we ever read the word “pray” in the bible—the first time holy scriptures were even written which use the word פָּלַל/palál, “praying”—it’s in Genesis 20, in the middle of an odd little story which goes like so.

Genesis 20.1-18 NLT
1 Abraham moved south to the Negev and lived for a while between Kadesh and Shur, and then he moved on to Gerar. While living there as a foreigner, 2 Abraham introduced his wife, Sarah, by saying, “She is my sister.” So King Abimelech of Gerar sent for Sarah and had her brought to him at his palace.
3 But that night God came to Abimelech in a dream and told him, “You are a dead man, for that woman you have taken is already married!”
4 But Abimelech had not slept with her yet, so he said, “Lord, will you destroy an innocent nation? 5 Didn’t Abraham tell me, ‘She is my sister’? And she herself said, ‘Yes, he is my brother.’ I acted in complete innocence! My hands are clean.”
6 In the dream God responded, “Yes, I know you are innocent. That’s why I kept you from sinning against me, and why I did not let you touch her. 7 Now return the woman to her husband, and he will pray for you, for he is a prophet. Then you will live. But if you don’t return her to him, you can be sure that you and all your people will die.”
8 Abimelech got up early the next morning and quickly called all his servants together. When he told them what had happened, his men were terrified. 9 Then Abimelech called for Abraham. “What have you done to us?” he demanded. “What crime have I committed that deserves treatment like this, making me and my kingdom guilty of this great sin? No one should ever do what you have done! 10 Whatever possessed you to do such a thing?”
11 Abraham replied, “I thought, ‘This is a godless place. They will want my wife and will kill me to get her.’ 12 And she really is my sister, for we both have the same father, but different mothers. And I married her. 13 When God called me to leave my father’s home and to travel from place to place, I told her, ‘Do me a favor. Wherever we go, tell the people that I am your brother.’ ”
14 Then Abimelech took some of his sheep and goats, cattle, and male and female servants, and he presented them to Abraham. He also returned his wife, Sarah, to him. 15 Then Abimelech said, “Look over my land and choose any place where you would like to live.” 16 And he said to Sarah, “Look, I am giving your ‘brother’ 1,000 pieces of silver in the presence of all these witnesses. This is to compensate you for any wrong I may have done to you. This will settle any claim against me, and your reputation is cleared.”
17 Then Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Abimelech, his wife, and his female servants, so they could have children. 18 For the LORD had caused all the women to be infertile because of what happened with Abraham’s wife, Sarah.

Some weird cultural things I gotta unpack for you now.

Properly the word אֲבִימֶ֑לֶךְ/Avý-melékh, “Abimelech,” isn’t a name; it’s a title. It means “father-king.” It’s the title of a patriarch, and in the patriarchal society of ancient Israel, this’d be a name you give your son if you expect him to likewise become a patriarch someday. Hence there are lots of other Abimelechs in the bible—like Gideon’s son, who tried to become king of Israel a few centuries before Saul ben Kish. Jg 9 Or the next kings of Gerar, like the one whom Abraham’s son Isaac scams 40 years later with this very same trick of claiming his wife is his sister. Ge 26.6-11 Seriously, same trick! Not the same Abimelech, though—and how embarrassing would it be if the dude fell for it again?

Abraham previously pulled the whole “Tell ’em you’re my sister” scam with the pharaoh of Egypt, Ge 12 because Sarah was beautiful. Ge 12.11 In her sixties, but some women age really well. By the time they were in Gerar, Sarah was in her late eighties, Ge 17.17 but still hot… or Abraham was biased.

But the reason they’d want Sarah wasn’t necessarily connected to her Helen-of-Troy-level hotness. Abraham and Sarah were obviously wealthy. Kill the husband and capture the wife, and you get all his stuff. But if he’s not her husband but her brother, you don’t have to kill him; you can marry her and wait till he died, ’cause he had no sons, so she’d be his heir. So Abraham figured his chances of survival were way better by claiming to be Sarah’s brother.

Thing is… Sarah actually is his sister. Biologically, half-sister: Same dad, different moms. Sweet home Alabama that’s nasty, which is why the LORD told Moses he forbids this kind of incest, Lv 18.9 among others. But in the Sumerian Empire, where Abraham and Sarah were originally from, marrying family was preferred behavior. It’s how they kept family property in the family: When you gotta pay a massive dowry to a new daughter-in-law’s family, your family isn’t quite so wealthy anymore; but if her family is you, it saves money! Hence Abraham later making sure his son Isaac married a cousin, and Isaac’s son Jacob later marrying two of his first cousins. (Still, seriously, ewww.)

Anyway once it got out Sarah was actually married to her brother, the kings who took her, freaked out. Patriarchal societies tend to be offended by polyandry—which is what we call polygamy when it’s multiple husbands. They considered it perfectly fine to have all the women they pleased, but a woman having multiple men? Why, it even offended their pagan gods. Couldn’t be countenanced! So to appease their gods—and more likely to shut Abraham up about it—they paid “restitution.” A lot of restitution.

And to be fair, Abimelech was greedy and horny, and already had plenty enough money and concubines, so he deserved to pay restitution. Punishment fit the crime. So Abraham gets animals, slaves (NLT “servants,” but come on), and silver.

Thing is, God’s in this story.

Unlike the similar story where Abraham (then called Avram) pulls this stunt with the pharaoh of Egypt, Ge 12 Abimelech was already on speaking terms with the One God. Abraham presumed the people of Gerar were a bunch of pagans, but nope; their king follows the very same God, and has a conversational relationship with him. God actually watches out for him to make sure Abimelech doesn’t sin.

That’s impressive. In fact if you read Genesis, you’re gonna notice God doesn’t even have that kind of relationship with Abraham. I know, right?—Abraham’s supposed to be his guy. But when Abraham made mistakes, and he made some doozies, he had to suffer consequences. God might’ve been watching his back, and tried to wave him away, but we don’t see Abraham interact with God in the same way Abimelech interacts with God. Maybe because Abimelech was responsible for a whole city-state, and Abraham only ran a large household. Even so, God’s had my back many times in the past, and the most I’ve ever run is classrooms. Makes me wonder just how often Abraham bothered to talk with him.

Before this story, talking with God—which is all prayer really is—hadn’t been referred to as פָּלַל/palál, “praying.” Previously, talking with God was simply shown. Adam and Eve talked with God, Noah talked with God, Abraham talked with God. But here, God tells Abimelech his prophet Abraham would pray for the king who’d wronged him. Would intercede for him so God would lift his curse and let the women of Gerar have babies again.

This is why the translators of the first English-language bibles went with the word “pray” instead of “talk.” The English word “prayer” originally meant, and still means, to petition. “I pray thee” was how people would beg their superiors. Same idea.

Often we teach that prayer is more than petitions and requests. ’Cause we oughta thank and praise God too. And while this is true, this makes many Christians worry we might come across as too selfish or greedy when all we do is make prayer requests. But the word “prayer” means requests, and is all about requests—and that’s okay. God wants us to be dependent on him. It’s why, in the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus phrased all his statements as requests. Never feel greedy if you have to ask a lot of God. He’s the one we should be asking a lot of.

And… Abraham was already praying.

The other thing is the verb tense of palál in this story. In most bibles it’s rendered the same way the New Living Translation has it. Here’s a few others:

ASV, KJV. “…and he shall pray for thee, and thou shalt live…”
AMPLIFIED, CSB, NASB, NIV. “…and he will pray for you and you will live…”
ESV. “so that he will pray for you, and you shall live.”
GENEVA. “…and he shall pray for thee, that thou mayest live…”
GNT. “…and he will pray for you, so that you will not die.”
ISV. “…and can intercede for you so you’ll live.”
LEB. “…so that he will pray for you and you will live.”
MEV. “…and he will pray for you. Moreover, you will live.”
NET. “…and he will pray for you; thus you will live.”
NKJV, NRSV. “…and he will pray for you and you shall live.”

Thing is, in this verse it has the verb-form of יִתְפַּלֵּ֥ל/yitpallél, which is what linguists call a yqtl verb: It’s an imperfect verb, meaning it’s something which was going on at that time in the story. God isn’t telling Abimelech that Abraham would pray for him later. He’s saying Abraham was praying for Abimelech at that time. Possibly that very second.

Possibly Abraham’s prayer is exactly why God chose to appear to Abimelech in a dream and rebuke him. Because God does answer prayer, y’know.

Bounce down a few more verses, in which the writer of Genesis states while Sarah was in Abimelech’s custody, God stopped the women of his household from having children. Ge 20.17-18 The NLT says this mass infertility was “because of what happened with Abraham’s wife, Sarah.” But the Hebrew text actually says this happened עַל־ דְּבַ֥ר שָׂרָ֖ה/al-devár Šaráh, “by the word of Sarah.” Since devár can also mean “matter” or “cause,” various translators have made it sound like God blighted the women over the plight of Sarah, but that’s extremely dense of them: Wouldn’t Sarah also be praying? Wouldn’t she be petitioning God to get her released, instead of merely being a passive victim of her circumstances?

Considering Sarah had her own fertility problems, doesn’t blighting the women of Abimelech’s household sound far more like an idea she might have? I mean, this looks more and more to me like Sarah called down a curse upon Abimelech’s house, and God agreed to it. And once she was freed and back with Abraham, she simply un-cursed ’em.

Anyway yeah, it’s kinda weird how the first time “prayer” comes up in the bible, it has to do with Abimelech getting slapped around because God answers prayer. But hey, it just goes to show you how prayer can work pretty darned effectively!