What does Genesis 20:4 mean?
ESV: Now Abimelech had not approached her. So he said, "Lord, will you kill an innocent people?
NIV: Now Abimelek had not gone near her, so he said, "Lord, will you destroy an innocent nation?
NASB: Now Abimelech had not come near her; and he said, 'Lord, will You kill a nation, even though blameless?
CSB: Now Abimelech had not approached her, so he said, "Lord, would you destroy a nation even though it is innocent?
NLT: But Abimelech had not slept with her yet, so he said, 'Lord, will you destroy an innocent nation?
KJV: But Abimelech had not come near her: and he said, Lord, wilt thou slay also a righteous nation?
NKJV: But Abimelech had not come near her; and he said, “Lord, will You slay a righteous nation also?
Verse Commentary:
God is speaking to Abimelech in a nighttime dream. God has told Abimelech, the king of Gerar, that he will die from his current illness (Genesis 20:3) for taking a married woman as his wife. Abimelech now pushes back: He had not yet approached Sarah. He asks if God would kill "an innocent people"—the only reason he has taken Sarah is the assumption that she was not married.

To his credit, Abimelech appears to be concerned not just about himself but also about his people, who may have been sick, as well. He seems to assume that God's judgment will include more than just the king. That makes more sense when, at the end of this chapter, we learn that God has stopped any of the women in Abimelech's household from bearing children.

Abimelech's question about God's character, whether the Lord would kill innocent people, echoes Abraham's question to the Lord about whether He would destroy righteous people in His judgment of Sodom (Genesis 18:23). In both cases, the answer was "no." God's character remains intact throughout these moments. This not only highlights the righteousness of God, it would have been a cutting point for Abraham to hear. His own actions put the innocent at risk, though he had appealed to God for the sake of the innocent in Genesis chapter 18.
Verse Context:
Genesis 20:1–18 describes what happens when Abraham once again moves to a new place and insists on lying that Sarah is merely his sister and not his wife. Abimelech, the king of Gerar, takes Sarah as one of his wives. He is soon struck with an illness and visited in a dream with a warning from God that he will die if he doesn't return Sarah to Abraham and if Abraham doesn't pray for him. Sarah is returned untouched, Abraham prays, and all are healed.
Chapter Summary:
Here, Abraham practically duplicates one of the oddest episodes in his earlier life. As he did with the Egyptians in Genesis chapter 12, Abraham moves through a new area and claims that Sarah is his sister. The king of Gerar, Abimelech, takes Sarah for one of his wives, but he is soon struck ill. God appears and tells Abimelech he will die for taking a married woman. Abimelech insists he did not know and has not slept with Sarah. The Lord says that if he returns her, and if Abraham prays for them, all will be healed.
Chapter Context:
After the dramatic events of the previous chapters, Abraham moves south of Gaza to Gerar. As he did in Egypt, he claims that his wife is his sister. The king of Gerar, Abimelech, takes Sarah as his wife, but is soon struck ill and never approaches her. The Lord offers to spare Abimelech and his household if he will return Sarah and if Abraham will pray for them. Sarah is returned. All are healed, including all the women who have been unable to bear children. In the following chapter, Sarah herself will finally bear Abraham a son—an outcome God safeguards through His actions in this chapter.
Book Summary:
The book of Genesis establishes fundamental truths about God. Among these are His role as the Creator, His holiness, His hatred of sin, His love for mankind, and His willingness to provide for our redemption. We learn not only where mankind has come from, but why the world is in its present form. The book also presents the establishment of Israel, God's chosen people. Many of the principles given in other parts of Scripture depend on the basic ideas presented here in the book of Genesis. Within the framework of the Bible, Genesis explains the bare-bones history of the universe leading up to the captivity of Israel in Egypt, setting the stage for the book of Exodus.
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