In Genesis 20, Abimelech was deceived by Abraham. Abraham lied to Abimelech about Sarah being his sister rather than his wife. In Genesis 20:18 we see that Abimelech was negatively impacted by the deceit of Abraham. Abimelech did nothing but believe the words of Abraham, and yet God did not spare Abimelech of the consequences of following Abraham’s lies.
Likewise, when we are deceived by others and thus participate in their wrong doings, either inadvertently or otherwise, God still holds each of us accountable for doing the right things regardless if we were duped or not.
In short, God expects all of us to avoid being deceived by others. Thankfully, we can learn from Genesis 20:1-18 on how to avoid falling for the lies of others.
1. Don’t Ignore Someone’s Past/Track Record (Genesis 20:1-2)
Abraham just showed up in Abimelech’s life. Abraham wasn’t there and then all of a sudden he was. Although Abraham and Abimelech had no past relationship together, Abraham did have a past that Abimelech could have benefited from knowing.
This was not the first time Abraham told someone that Sarah was his sister (Genesis 12:1-20). If Abimelech would have looked into Abraham’s past, asked for some references, or simply asked people who had worked with Abraham before, he would have learned Abraham had lied in this exact same way in the past, and people were negatively impacted by Abraham’s behavior then too.
When we meet someone for the first time, it is so easy to just assume the best. No one is going to have a perfect past, but when you allow someone to play a significant role in your life (like a pastor, a mentor, a close friend, or even a romantic partner), God expects you to look at their past and treat them accordingly. Everyone has the right to be forgiven for what they’ve done, but when someone has a track record of deceit, lies, domination, or a lack of skills for the role they want to play in your life, God expects you to treat that person accordingly so you can avoid being deceived.
The past must be forgiven, but the past is also the best indicator of the future. If someone has a track record of faithfulness, it’s safer to trust them at face value. If they have a track record of broken relationships, turmoil, chaos, or other negative indicators, it is your job to weigh through that.
2. Trust God’s Word Over a Person’s Words (Genesis 20:3-6)
Abimelech was initially deceived by Abraham because he trusted Abraham without consulting God. Thankfully, for Abimelech’s sake, once God spoke, he listened. God came to Abimelech in a dream and clearly told him how Abraham had deceived him. God said to Abimelech, “. . . it was I who kept you from sinning against me” (Genesis 20:6).
None of us are smart enough to always smell out deceit. God must keep us from sinning. But like Abimelech, we too have an obligation to not trust people without first consulting God. Abimelech needed a dream from God because the Bible was not yet written. We have even less of an excuse than he did since we have the very words of God right at our fingertips.
When God is putting a warning in our spirit or and we feel his discernment speaking to us (confirmed by the Bible), we must obey what we are feeling in our walk with God rather than trusting what someone else is claiming they have received in their walk with God.
God expects all of us to weigh the words of a man or woman against the words of God. When we do this for ourselves rather than blindly listening to the words of one man, we often times avoid being deceived.
3. Don’t Be Blinded by Someone’s Status (Genesis 20:7)
In Genesis 20:7, Abimelech learns that Abraham is a genuine prophet. Abimelech was not a prophet himself. Clearly Abraham knew God better than Abimelech. It would have been so easy for Abimelech to simply trust Abraham rather than his own walk with God, “Well, I could be wrong. Maybe I just misinterpreted God’s words. Who am I to challenge someone so spiritually mature like Abraham?”
We are much more likely to be deceived by others if we trust people because of their title, the way they present themselves, because of their speaking ability, or simply because they just look trustworthy. God gives none of us a pass if we believe a pastor, a teacher, or a spiritual mentor just because they hold one of these titles.
Paul corrected Peter even though Peter had walked with Jesus and had much prestige in the church (Galatians 2:11-14). If you are blinded by someone’s status, you are more likely to be deceived.
4. In Certain Cases, Consult Other People First Before Going Directly to the Culprit (Genesis 20:8)
Once Abimelech was given information that brought Abraham’s trustworthiness into question, he did not go to Abraham first but rather consulted others. Abimelech’s concerns were validated by others, “So Abimelech rose early in the morning and called all his servants and told them all these things. And the men were very much afraid” (Genesis 20:8).
Certainly Matthew 18:15-20 is the go to Bible passage on dealing with personal sins between two Christians. However, this passage has huge limitations and thus it should not be applied to every situation where there seems to be a dispute. For one, Matthew 18:15-20 only applies to personal sins that were committed directly against you, “If your brother sins against you . . .” (Matthew 18:15). Thus every deceit and sin that a leader or person does that was not directly against you should not be addressed through the Matthew 18:15-20 model.
1 Timothy 5:19-20 states:
Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses. 20 As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear.
When there is a corporate offense by a pastor or leader, there is an entirely different set of biblical rules in handing that sin. Notice in 1 Timothy 5:19-20 the emphasis on including many people in this decision making process. You need two or three witnesses, you need a plurality of elders (notice “elders” is plural), and then the punishment should be public for the whole church to see.
Notice how different this pattern is than Matthew 18:15-20 where things should be done as quietly as possible. Matthew 18:15-20 is meant for Christian to Christian and does not apply when there is a corporate sin, a sin that is affecting many people, or when the sinner has a place of authority that would make void the qualification for the “brother to brother” element of Matthew 18:15-20.
Sometimes the deceitful person cannot be removed because of their seat of power or unwillingness to follow the proper chain of command. In this case, you must remove yourself and leave the person so they can be given the discipline they need through your absence.
5. Don’t Be Afraid to Ask Specific, Bold, Factually Based Questions Directly to the Culprit (Genesis 20:9-10)
Once Abimelech had grounds for major concerns regarding Abraham, he asked bold, specific, and measurable questions directly to Abraham. Notice that as soon as Abimelech was given counsel by God, he “rose early in the morning” (Genesis 20:8) and quickly began making a plan on how to confront Abraham. Without delay, he then immediately confronted Abraham with questions rather than accusations.
Abimelech did not just accuse Abraham, but he did ask him direct and specific questions. He asked, “What have you done to us? . . . What did you see, that you did this thing?” (Genesis 20:9-10). Notice the emphasis on seeking factual and observable answers. He asked Abraham, what have you “done” and what did you “see.” These are questions that require concrete answers, not vague, round about explanations that are the culprit’s opinion.
One way deception takes place is through intimidation. Deceivers thrive in environments where people are too afraid to ask direct, specific questions that require the person to give concrete, non-opinionated answers. When Abimelech had concerns he didn’t wait to get answers. He did not accuse Abraham. He addresses the problem and asked Abraham to explain himself directly and clearly.
6. Don’t Trust Justifications or Half-Truths. Trust Provable Facts (Genesis 20:11-12)
Sadly, once Abraham was exposed, all he did was try to justify himself. He didn’t have a good answer for his deceit, so rather than give concrete explanations and facts that would clear his name of the accusations, all Abraham could do was try to justify his sinful actions with half truths contrived in his mind.
Abimelech asked Abraham what he had done, but Abraham answered with “I did it because I thought, ‘There is no fear of God at all in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife’” (Genesis 20:11). Abraham focused on what he “thought” as though he could explain away his deceitful actions with explanations that didn’t really relate to the direct questions asked.
Additionally, Abraham tried to rely on half-truths and more justifications, “Besides, she is indeed my sister, the daughter of my father though not the daughter of my mother, and she became my wife” (Genesis 20:12).
Like Abimelech, God expect us to avoid being deceived by not allowing people to explain away their poor decisions. We must not be duped by half-truths and odd justifications. While we certainly want to believe the best, when someone is asked direct questions and all they give are indirect answers that try to manipulate the truth into a justifiable reason for their sin, you need to treat them as their answers deserve.
Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits [observable actions].” (Matthew 7:15-16)
I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. 18 For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive.” (Romans 16:17-18)
7. Don’t Trust People Out of Sympathy (Genesis 20:13)
There is a big biblical difference between a confession and being caught. One way you can tell if someone feels caught rather than convicted over their sin is if they try to play the sympathy card.
Notice the details Abraham makes sure he works into his explanation, “And when God caused me to wander from my father’s house, I said to her, ‘This is the kindness you must do me: at every place to which we come, say of me, ‘He is my brother’” (Genesis 20:13).
Deceivers often deceive themselves into sinning by feeling sorry for themselves. They then want everyone else to excuse their sin out of sympathy too. Notice how Abraham made sure everyone knew how hard it was for him to move away from his father. Notice how Abraham basically blamed God when he said, “God caused me to wander away” (Genesis 20:13). Adam did the same thing. Rather than come clean he tried to gain sympathy for his sinfulness and blamed other people rather than take ownership for what he did (Genesis 3:12).
When people are supposed to be giving concrete, factual explanations to their behavior but instead they shed tears, try to gain sympathy, or blame other people for their behavior, God expects you to look past the emotional veil and see what is being covered by the picture of pity they are desperately seeking to paint.
It’s okay to feel sorry for someone, but to excuse their sin our of sympathy is something each of us will be judged by God for. We must avoid being deceived by others by not being deceived by their plan to gain sympathy.
8. Don’t Trust People Who Have a Conflict of Interest, Like the Culprit’s Family (Genesis 20:14)
Genesis 20:14 makes it clear that Sarah was in Abimelech’s possession. Abimelech could have just asked Sarah what all this was about. For obvious reasons he knew, however, that she had a conflict of interest in telling the truth. She cared for Abraham and she wanted to protect him. Abimelech knew this, and out of respect for her he did not put her in such an awkward spot. If Abraham was leading well, he would never have put Sarah in such a compromising situation.
We must be leery of trusting people with a conflict of interest. Good leaders and well meaning people do not put their family in such difficult places to begin with. If someone has put a family member in a place of accountability over him or herself, you should have concerns. Why would someone put a family member in the position where they might need to discipline the culprit? People often subconsciously surround themselves with people who have emotional ties so that these people, like family members, don’t challenge their corrupt behavior. If a leader is only accountable to people who have a conflict of interest, we must see this has a huge red flag.
Abimelech knew better than to run to Sarah for answers. To avoid being deceived, again, we must not rely on people who have obvious conflicts of interest.
9. Don’t Be Deceived By Your Own Anger in Response to the Culprit’s Offenses (Genesis 20:14-18)
By human standards, Abimelech had a right to treat Abraham extremely harshly. Abimelech could have humiliated Abraham with the information he knew. If Abimelech would have done this, however, he would still have been deceived by Abraham.
Being deceived by someone doesn’t just happen when you believe their lies. You are deceived by someone when you disobey God because of what someone else has done. Abimelech could have done whatever he wanted to Abraham, but in the process he would have offended God. Rather than sin because of Abraham and thus be deceived by Abraham, Abimelech just obeyed God.
God told Abimelech to show respect Abraham not because of Abraham’s integrity but because of the office God had given Abraham, “Now then, return the man’s wife, for he is a prophet . . .” (Genesis 20:7).
We are still deceived by the lies of others when we find out about those lies but then take unbiblical courses of actions. If you find out lies a pastor told, you can still be deceived by that pastor if you then go and shoot your mouth off to the whole congregation, even though people are eager to get dirt on that man. Sometimes deceivers will even tell lies about you to anger you, hoping you will retaliate in ways that would damage your reputation and trustworthiness.
You can also sin, however, but discovering deceit and then turning a blind eye to it. Abimelech did not discover Abraham’s lies and then punish him in unbiblical ways, but he also did not just sweep those sins under the rug. Abimelech did what God told him.
Likewise, each of us needs to figure out what God is telling us in his word. God has laid out different processes for handling lies and deception according to the roles different people have. When a child lies, you handle him or her differently. When a member of the church is caught in a lie, again you treat them accordingly. And if a pastor or leader lies, again there are different steps to follow which factor in this persons place of authority, need for exemplary integrity, and ability to continue fulfilling the role they currently have (1 Timothy 3:1-13).
Abimelech was humble enough to accept that he had been duped. He was also humble enough to treat Abraham in the way outlined by God. Because Abimelech disciplined Abraham but did it in a way that was obedient to God’s word, Abimelech was blessed.
Genesis 20:18 states, “For the LORD had closed all the wombs of the house of Abimelech because of Sarah, Abraham’s wife.” Abimelech was deceived by Abraham, and despite his good intentions and desire to just believe the best of people, Abimelech still suffered the consequences by allowing himself to be deceived.
But then God showed Abimelech truth. Abimelech exposed the lies and then no longer allowed himself to be deceived. Because of Abimelech’s commitment to God rather than to a spiritual leader like Abraham, God blessed Abimelech and restored all that had been lost because of his former blind trust of Abraham.
We will all be deceived by others at times, but God is light and in him is no darkness at all (1 John 1:5). When we trust God and obey him, we will be blessed even when others try their best to deceive us.