I’ve often felt sorry for Abimelech. He strikes me as a stand-up guy who got the short end of the stick. We first meet him in the 20th chapter of the book of Genesis. He’s named as the king of the Philistines who lives in Gerar. One day, a rather attractive woman moves to town, supposedly with her brother. She makes a splash on the social scene and turns the heads of some very well-placed individuals. Before long, she’s dating Abimelech himself, who is quite taken with her. Little does he know that she too is taken, but not in a good way. The woman’s “brother” turns out to be her husband who is using her as part of a con-game that they’ve been running in several different towns.
Abimelech, an apparently decent fellow who’s not into that sort of thing, demands an explanation. Abraham, the brother-husband, replies, “I did it because I thought, There is no fear of God at all in this place”.
No fear of God? That doesn’t seem to be the case. First of all, I should explain that I tend to cringe at the word fear being used in this sense. The actual Hebrew word means awe or reverence. We, on the other hand, tend to associate it with dread or terror. Abraham was insisting that he saw no reverence for the sacred in the house of Abimelech. Yet, Abimelech seems to be a rather spiritually sensitive person. One might even call him a mystic. He hears God speaking to him in dreams and responds without hesitation. If anything, Abimelech comes across as a much more spiritually centered person than Abraham the con-man.
Abraham saw no reverence for the divine in Abimelech. I propose a theory that it was actually Abraham’s own prejudice that prevented him from seeing the truth about the kind of person that Abimelech really was. Abraham was accustomed to seeing “foreigners” and “outsiders” in a certain way. Abraham thought that he, as the exalted ancestor of the chosen people, was the sole-possessor of “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” about God. As a result, he was blind to the reality of reverence in Abimelech’s life.
Don’t we do this all the time? We get used to seeing things in a certain way. We come up with interpretive schemas that we impose on reality in order to categorically organize our perceptions of the world. We want to know who is “in” and who is “out”, who is “saved” and who is “damned”, who are the “good guys” and who are the “bad guys”. This is a natural way of looking at things (especially for kids) but it causes problems for adults who know through experience that life is never that simple. If we stay committed to such binary thinking in the face of more nuanced evidence, prejudice closes our minds and hardens our hearts against reality and reverence. We fail to keep in step with what God is doing in the world and end up becoming the worst versions of ourselves.
Especially in this fast-paced and interconnected world of the 21st century, it is incumbent upon us to remain open to the varieties of reverence we may encounter in those who are different from us. When I walk into a situation or relationship with the assumption that God is neither present nor active in another person’s life, I am more likely to misconstrue God’s presence and activity in my own life.
Through openness of heart and mind, let us maintain our reverence for what is sacred and celebrate together the incredible diversity we find in this universe.