For those who accept the Bible as God’s timeless Word, and who receive its message with openness and honesty, God’s design for marriage is clearly presented in many places.
There’s an example in Abraham’s and Sarah’s experience when they moved into the alien territory of the Philistine King Abimelech (Genesis 20). This land was the extreme southwest section of the Negev Desert, between Egypt and Israel.
In that era, a king usually gathered a harem of beautiful women — sometimes as trophies, sometimes for political reasons. This would be just one example of culture’s veering from the message of the Biblical account of creation — that marriage is a bonding between one man and one woman (Genesis 1,2).
After establishing God’s intention for marriage, in Genesis 1 and 2 this book of beginnings reports faithfully the state of affairs for domestic life the world drifted into — bigamy, polygamy, concubinage, incest, fornication, and adultery. Genesis reports these aberrations because they describe the broken world into which God would send our Lord Jesus for our redemption.
At the outset of their travels from Mesopotamia into Canaan and Egypt, Abraham and Sarah knew about harems. They therefore agreed between themselves that if Sarah were seized and taken into a king’s harem because of her beauty, they would present themselves as brother and sister — not a completely false claim because they shared a common father, Terah. The marriage of half-siblings is not affirmed in the Bible but simply reported here as a feature of the honesty of the Book.
Word of her beauty reached the king. She was sent for and preliminarily taken into the harem, as they had feared would happen. Abraham might now be killed to get him out of the way if it were discovered that she was his wife, not his “sister”.
But before Abimelech went near Sarah, God came to the king in a dream, revealing the fact that Sarah was more than a sister to Abraham; God said in the dream, “she is a married woman.”
Abimelech, the pagan ruler, was instantly stricken with fear at what he had done — he had invaded a marriage to take a woman who was already the wife of another man. Within the dream, Abimelech protested his innocence to God, “I have done this with a clear conscience and clean hands.” In spite of his harem, here is a pagan king acknowledging that marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman regardless of how far culture might have traveled or moved away from that standard.
Early the next morning, Abimelech called his officers together to report the perilous situation they were in. They, too, were stricken with the fear of divine judgment. Abraham was immediately called before the king to explain his deception and in the presence of the king’s officers he was rebuked and asked why he had done this evil deed.
Abraham defensively told the king of the fear that drove him: “There is no fear of God in this place and they will kill me because of my wife.”
To stave off divine judgment, Abimelech gave Abraham abundant gifts of sheep, cattle, and slaves while restoring Sarah to him and graciously inviting them to live anywhere in his land they might choose.
He also notified Sarah that he was giving “her brother” one thousand shekels of silver to make amends for the offense committed against her. The story ends as Abraham prays God’s blessing on Abimelech and his house.
It’s an ancient story, lodged in an ancient culture. Its setting is devoid of the full revelation eventually reported in God’s divine Word. Yet the story shows that the Eternal God has his ways of affirming his rules even among those who do not know him.
There, in the Bible itself, is a case for natural law, known by Abimelech and affirmed in a dream even long before the divine law establishing the sanctity of marriage was given on Sinai.
Photo credit: Stephen Durham (via flickr.com)