Formations 01.14.2018: Pagan Is as Pagan Does

Genesis 20:1-14

Ambon Damselfish (Pomacentrus amboinensis) by Gagliano (PLOSone) [CC BY 2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons.

Members of one damselfish species identify their enemies through facial patterns that can only be seen in ultraviolet light. In 2010, Ulrike Siebeck of the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia found that Ambon damselfish could tell their own species from another just by interpreting these markings, which are invisible to the human eye.

Siebeck proposes that such patterns send important signals regarding possible rivals or mates without drawing the wrong kind of attention from predators.

There are plenty of good reasons to be able to quickly and accurately distinguish between friend and foe. Is that stranger coming toward me a potential friend—or a potential threat? Most species of animal life have developed strategies for doing just that.

Although humans can’t rely on ultraviolet vision, like other primates we also have ways of telling the difference between “insiders” and “outsiders”—members of our tribe or strangers. And we tend to instinctively react to individuals based on which category they are in.

Sometimes, this instinct for self-preservation can save our lives. Sadly, however, it often does more harm that good. Take Abraham for example.

Today’s text doesn’t cast Abraham in a very positive light. He deceives his host and jeopardizes his wife’s safety. By his own admission, he acts this way out of fear (v. 11). His biological instincts told him to be wary among these strange “outsiders.” But God often calls us to rise above our biological instincts.

By contrast, Abimelech—the pagan king—is depicted as a paragon of virtue. God speaks to him in a dream to warn him of Abraham’s deception (v. 3). When he protests that he had acted innocently (v. 5), God agrees. God even takes responsibility for keeping the king from sinning with respect to Sarah (v. 6). Finally, when God gives him instructions on how to resolve the matter, he is quick to obey. Maybe we’re calling the wrong character a “pagan” in this story!

Passages like this alert us to the possibility that outsiders are not always enemies. But Abraham writes Abimelech off as a dangerous outsider who couldn’t possibly fear God.

Just because the king is a stranger to the covenant, it doesn’t mean he is a stranger to God. In fact, Abimelech leads a life of integrity that puts Abraham to shame.

Abimelech’s story reminds us that, in bringing light to the nations, it pays to be sensitive to the light these outsiders may already possess. His example encourages us to share the gospel with humility and with reverence for those who are different.

Because, to paraphrase Forrest Gump’s momma, pagan is as pagan does.

Susan Milius, “Fish See Their Enemies’ Faces in Ultraviolet,” Wired, 25 Feb 2010


• When have you been surprised to find common ground with someone you’d assumed would be completely different from you?
• When have you encountered supposed outsiders whose morals or lifestyles challenged you to live better?
• How do you think Abraham felt when he realized he had no reason to fear Abimelech?
• How can Christians bear faithful testimony to Christ without being prejudiced or morally condescending?

Reference Shelf

King Abimelech

Little is known about Abimelech, King of Gerar, except that he appears in two Genesis narratives (Gen 20–21; 26) concerning Abraham and Isaac. In each passage there is a repeat of the motif established earlier in Gen 12:10-20 where Abraham pretends his wife is his sister. Since the king’s name is the same, some have suggested that it is a royal title. It is more realistic to see the stories as doublets and only one King Abimelech.

The Gen 20:1-18 account is far more theologically oriented than the folklore account in 12:10-20. Abimelech plays a crucial role in the theological assertion that God has chosen Abraham, regardless of any weaknesses, to be the means of life and blessing to the nations. Abimelech, a non-Israelite, becomes a model of faith as he trusts God and emerges subservient and dependent upon Abraham because he perceives that God is with Abraham in all that he does.

John P. Dever, “Abimelech,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 3–4.

A Brief, Puzzling Narrative

This brief narrative puzzles readers. Gerar is identified as the site of Abraham’s encounter of King Abimelech, but Gerar is very difficult to locate in the ancient world. Similar problems surround the king; nothing is known beyond what is said about him here, in 21:22-34 and chap. 26. Whether these citations all refer to the same person is not clear because the personal name is fairly common in West Semitic literature.

This particular tradition is clearly a variant (attributed to E) of the like tradition in 12:10-20 (attributed to J). Both are somehow related to another such episode involving Isaac and Rebekah (26:6-11). Each such encounter finds Abraham or Isaac misrepresenting a wife as a sister because the husband believes his life to be in danger.

In all three cases it turns out, however, that the husbands’ lives were not in danger, because when it is discovered that the women are their wives, no harm befalls the husbands. On the contrary, they acquire wealth and protection from their hosts (20:14; cf. 12:16; 26:11-14).

Bruce T. Dahlberg, “Genesis,” Mercer Commentary on the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1995), PGE.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.


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