In Genesis 12 Abram is called to be a blessing to the nations. In Genesis 20 he is just the opposite, and the foreigner who was supposed to be pagan, lustful, and violent turns out to be the one who hears God’s voice and has a conscience. What might this curious story have to teach us about cultural differences and how we navigate them? The essay was published in The Reformed Journal in 2005 and became the basis for the opening chapter of my book Learning from the Stranger.
The king was understandably upset. In a single night, it had all unravelled. What had started out as a most gratifying series of developments had taken a turn that would unseat anyone’s peace of mind; divine death-threats in the dark night hours were not the best recipe for a restful sleep, and watching fear seep through his court was not his favorite way to start the day. And all because of that foreigner. Before last night there had been no hint of trouble. A wealthy nomad from out East had turned up in Gerar and pitched his tents. Word had it that he had brought his sister along, and that she was a delight to the eyes. The general sentiment was that she would be a desirable catch, a presence to grace any hearth. Tales of her beauty lost nothing through repeated retellings. Before long the king himself had been able to verify the truth behind the rumors and ponder their implications: if the woman was held in such esteem, then who else but the king should have her ornament his dwelling? He sent for her and began the process of adding her to his harem.
And then, before things had chance to reach their happily anticipated culmination, God had appeared to him in an unforgettably vivid dream and told him point blank that he would die. This wandering foreigner, apparently, was a prophet, the woman was his wife, and King Abimelech, who had taken her for his own, was in trouble.
Abimelech had protested that he could not have known she was the prophet’s wife, that Abraham himself had declared her to be his sister and raised no complaint when she was fetched, that Sarah had confirmed the claim, and that although Sarah was now in his residence, he had not yet been near her. God’s tone had remained stern – it was I who kept you from sinning against her, he had pointed out, and you are to return good to this foreigner even though he deceived you and is in your power. At least God had lifted the death sentence, provided Sarah was returned and Abraham’s intercession was sought.
Abimelech had woken early in a cold sweat, and his dread had spread to his officials when he told them about the dream. Now he was about to face Abraham, his mind churning with a bewildering mixture of fear and anger, awe and protest. From pleasurable anticipation to fear for his life and loss of control over his choices, from ruler of the land to the recipient of a foreigner’s mercy, all in a single night. The king was understandably upset.
Abraham was anxious. He entered cautiously, unsure exactly what to expect or why he had been summoned so early. It did not take long for the Philistine king to get to the point: “What have you done to us? How have I wronged you that you have brought such great guilt upon me and my kingdom? You have done things to me that should not be done.” Why, Abimelech wanted to know, would he pretend that his wife was his sister? Why would he stand by and let her be taken to another man’s bed? What reason could he have had for quietly ushering others into evil, for bringing God’s anger down on their heads?
Abraham stood silently for a while before replying, suddenly exposed in a public place far from home, naked in the court of a foreign king. Abimelech’s anger alone he could perhaps have braved, but there was now more than Abimelech involved. By way of Abimelech’s dream, the questions were coming from God himself, the God whom Abraham had been following all these years. Why, Abraham, when I called you to be a blessing to the nations, why did you do this?
Abraham’s mind darted back involuntarily to the time when he had turned his steps towards Gerar. He had just witnessed the destruction of Sodom, Gomorrah and the other cities of the plain. He had pleaded with God to spare them for the sake of fifty, twenty, even ten righteous people, and God had agreed; the burning ruins bore shocking testimony to the absence of even ten whom God could regard as righteous. The anxiety that he already carried with him as one who wandered through other people’s lands, dependent on their goodwill, was roused afresh: nothing in this part of the world but wickedness, people who might stoop to anything, especially with a man who happened to be in the company of a desirable woman. Now his fear, a fear that had sustained repeated deception in the name of self-preservation wherever he had traveled, was laid bare before the gaze of a foreign king and his court.
“I was afraid,” he admitted. “I said to myself, ‘There is surely no fear of God in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife.’ Besides, she really is my sister, the daughter of my father though not of my mother; and she became my wife. And when God caused me to wander from my father’s household, I said to her, ‘This is how you can show your love to me: Everywhere we go, say of me, “He is my brother.”‘” Everywhere he had traveled, Abraham had been anxious.
This story is found in Genesis chapter 20, sandwiched between the promise to Abraham that Sarah would finally give birth to a son, a sign of God’s covenant with the man who was to bless the nations, and the actual birth of Isaac. It is a story filled with irony. Abraham, the prophet, stands accused while the Word of the Lord comes to and through a Philistine king. Abraham, the one called to walk with God, stands guilty of lying and gross mistreatment of his wife and her suitors, while the heathen Philistines are mortified at the thought that they might have sinned against God. Abraham’s fear of mistreatment in spite of God’s repeated promise that he would be blessed stands in contrast to the immediate and obedient fear of God that breaks out in the Philistine court as soon as God speaks there. Abimelech’s concern for Sarah’s chastity is deeper than that of her husband, who knows that she is to bear the child of the promise. Everything is upside-down. Something, it seems, has gone horribly wrong.
I suggest that Abraham’s failures, thrown into such sharp relief by Abimelech’s God-fearing response, are failures from which we should learn, in hope that we might stop repeating them. His failures have at least four causes, all of which subvert of what God had called him to be, and all of which become intertwined with cultural difference. All are factors that can similarly subvert our own ability to be fruitful followers of Christ in a culturally diverse world. Let’s explore each one briefly.
First there is fear. Both in this instance and on the other similar occasion when Abraham passed off his wife as his sister, fear for his safety and his future wellbeing is an explicit motive. On one level, fear is one of the basic challenges of life in general – what will happen to me? Will I be kept safe in a world of many dangers? Will I have a good life? What if everything suddenly goes wrong? But in this particular instance Abraham’s fear has a more specific context: God has called him to live the life of a wandering stranger, far from his home territory, outside his home culture. The first incident of self-protective lying occurred in Egypt; this time Abraham is among the Philistines. Both times his fear centers upon the treatment that he might receive at the hands of the locals.
There is a peculiar vulnerability involved in being a stranger – a migrant, a refugee, an exile, an alien. Every human community has a multitude of unspoken rules about when to speak (and about what) and when to be silent, where to go for what, what to call things, when to smile, what to praise, what to despise, and so on. Children of the community internalize these rules as they grow, often simply through imitation or by means of a disapproving parental stare. For the stranger, who has learned other rules and cannot rely on the locals, who are scarcely aware of their own habits, to foresee and explain all of his likely mistakes, these bring constant daily reminders of not belonging, of being an outsider who does not quite fit in.
This sense of not being at home goes together with a certain insecurity. The stranger has neither the same rights nor the same roots as the native. The locals inhabit extended networks of family, clan and other social groupings. The stranger is not rooted here and cannot as easily call upon the support of the community; the community owes him or her no deep-grained debt of loyalty. In the extreme case, the stranger is at risk of being cheated, mistreated, deported or even attacked. Such things happen often enough to offer a genuine basis for anxiety. It is easy for the stranger to feel an exaggerated sense of fear, and hard to avoid the sense that some degree of anxiety is justified.
This already hints at a second factor in Abraham’s situation: power. As a foreigner, Abraham is relatively powerless. Having no born right to be where he is, he is at the mercy of the local community’s decisions about how to treat him and dependent on his own ability to defend himself if necessary. Abimelech sits secure amidst his officials, wielding authority in the community and enjoying standing among the dominant group; Abraham lives at the fringe of Philistine society. Such power as Abraham gains here will have to be granted him by the Philistines. When the powerful king sends for the nomad’s wife, powerlessness works with fear to keep both Abraham and Sarah silent. Cultural differences are not just benign variations, like colors on a palette; they constantly become places where power is unevenly distributed so that cultures and those who live them are more or less powerful, more or less vulnerable. Lack of cultural power can encourage fear. Dealing with Philistines might have been a less fearful thing if Abraham had been the one on the throne.
However, at the same time as exposing the vulnerability of the stranger, this story addresses the power of the king. When Abimelech, the powerful one, is addressed by God, he is told, despite his legitimate claim to have been wronged, to lay down his position of power before Abraham, the foreign visitor. He is to ask Abraham to intercede for him, he is to see Abraham as a prophet and thus grant him authority, even though he is a foreigner in the land and a patent liar. Other responses might have been more natural – those with power and rights tend to like to wield them more than to lay them down for another’s good. Not all of us are kings (or politicians or executives or officials or employers), but we may wield power in other ways, perhaps simply because of the belongings created by our ethnicity or education. We face the same choices. Dealing with the Philistines might have been a more fearful thing had the one on the throne chosen to wield his power at the expense of the outsider.
To fear and power we can add partial knowledge. Abraham’s fear of the Philistines is not simply a product of a fevered imagination. He has heard of bad things happening in that part of the world (compare the story of Lot, his nephew, and his experiences in Sodom). He has even witnessed first hand God’s judgment on a group of nearby cities, a judgment that fell because their wickedness was so great that not even ten righteous ones could be found. Abraham thus arrives in Philistia armed with knowledge – he “knows” that no-one in this place fears God, that this is a ruthless people, that they would think nothing of doing away with a foreign visitor in order to appropriate his beautiful wife. He takes what seems to him a rational course of action based on what he ‘knows’.
To a degree such ‘knowing’ is a normal and useful part of how human thinking works. As I look out of my window, I see my lawn covered with uncountable small objects, all slightly different shapes and shades of brown. I am a finite creature with finite capacities for processing information; grouping them all under the general heading “leaves” (even if one or two should turn out to be pieces of bark or twigs) makes things much more manageable than if I were to try to hold each object’s uniqueness in my mind. We do the same kind of thing all the time in order to deal with the complexity of our environment, and we cheerfully extend the habit to people; new acquaintances are quickly assigned to broad categories (young men, middle-aged women, blondes, sporty types, academics, rednecks, blacks, foreigners, and so on) to help us keep our world straight without mental overload. In the process we tend to associate the ideas we have about the general category with the individual before us, whether or not there is any evidence in this particular case that our generalizations apply. This is stereotyping, and it is a particularly fertile source of misunderstanding when cultural differences are in play.
Abraham ‘knows’ what Philistines are like – but the narrative is at pains to point out that his ‘knowledge,’ in spite of its basis in recent experience, is plain wrong. He ‘knows’ that Philistines don’t fear God. And yet when God appears to Abimelech in a dream the response is prompt obedience, despite the fact that God is asking the king of the country and the victim of the injustice to humbly ask for Abraham’s intercession. Moreover, the narrative pauses to note that when Abimelech’s court hears about the dream they too are “very much afraid”. Apparently Philistines do fear God. Philistines, Abraham ‘knows’, have no respect for marriage or for the safety of a beautiful foreigner’s husband. But in his dream encounter with God, Abimelech shows immediate recognition that if he had knowingly touched another man’s wife it would have been a sin, and effectively protests (without contradiction from God) that if he had known Sarah was married he would not have sent for her. The next day he goes beyond what God asks him to do, not merely returning Sarah to her husband but giving her a generous gift to vindicate her reputation in the eyes of the community (thus showing significantly more concern for her chastity than Abraham himself has shown to date). Apparently Philistines do respect marriage and try to do right by foreigners. Abraham acts upon what he “knows” about Philistines and turns out to be comprehensively mistaken. Such is often the case with what we “know” about other groups of people, and especially other cultures.
Finally, fear, powerlessness and partial knowledge are bound up with a limited spiritual horizon. The story implicitly rebukes Abraham’s understanding of God in two ways. His sense of God’s presence with him and of God’s faithfulness to his promises clearly still has room for growth. God has promised to bless him, to be his shield, to make his name great, and has told him not to fear. The divine invitation has been to root his identity and his future in the God who has called him, to live by faith and not by the security or insecurity of his cultural location. But Abraham is afraid and feels the need to secure his own wellbeing, even at the expense of his and his wife’s integrity. Lack of faith gives birth to sin.
At the same time, paradoxically, Abraham seems to think of God as located with him but not among the Philisitines. They don’t fear God (implying that I do). This is a godless place where the godly (of which I am a prime example) are at risk. This perspective is sharply exposed in the Genesis narrative. God speaks not to Abraham, the prophet, but to Abimelech, the Philistine. Fear of God and obedience to God are found not in Abraham’s household, but among the Philistines. When Abraham arrives among the Philistines he does not reckon on God already being there; but here again he is mistaken.
As with the other factors discussed above, this one seems disturbingly normal if we pause to look around and within. One of my students, when asked on a questionnaire why Christians should take an interest in other languages, once wrote: “they should because if they don’t then people who do not know English will not hear the Gospel.” We may smile at this as a particularly naive example of thinking of one’s own cultural location as the center and origin of God’s purposes, but it merely states baldly a common subconscious assumption. It goes like this: God is with me, God works and speaks in my culture (despite its defects), and if I take the risk of venturing into other cultures I bring God with me; I have little expectation that God is saying things to members of the other culture that I need to hear, or that they will teach me obedience or challenge my sin. God speaks my language and likes my ways, and must surely share my discomfort at the strange ways of others. If we assume that there is none of this attitude in us, it may be because we have never ventured far enough from home to be put to the test. The standard human tendency is to declare that the earth is the Lord’s but to locate his favorite chair in my own back yard.
These four factors working together, fear, power (and lack of power), partial knowledge and limited spiritual horizons, lead to a unsettling result: Abraham achieves the opposite of that for which he was called. When God first spoke to Abram he defined his future in terms of bringing blessing to all the peoples of the earth. More than that, Abraham was to “be a blessing” – he was to grow in such a way that his presence would be a channel of wellbeing. Here among the Philistines (as in that other episode among the Egyptians) he brings dishonesty and subterfuge that lead his hosts unwittingly into judgement and fear of death. In place of thanks for blessings received, the response is “What did we do to you to deserve this? What could have been going through your mind that you would treat us like this?” Hardly a prime instance of being a blessing. Cultural differences have been with us since before the time of Abraham, and so have the resulting misunderstandings. What makes this an issue of growing urgency in our day is the exponential increase in contact between cultures. Efficient and relatively inexpensive means of global transport mean that increasing numbers of people can pay brief visits to the other side of the world. Through the media of communication such as television, telephone and the internet we can be placed in contact with another culture in seconds, enjoying the illusion of instant access and fallen barriers. And the towns and cities where people live and work are themselves increasingly multicultural; the other side of the world may, in cultural terms, be across the street. The chances of spending the rest of my life solely in contact with people who are culturally like me are increasingly slim. As Abraham’s story shows, however, mere contact is no guarantee of learning, peace or blessing. As contact grows, so does the opportunity for both good and evil, for both blessing and cursing.
If cultural difference has such potential to turn a desire to bless into the ability to curse (even for Abraham, the father of all who believe), then anyone who wishes to live fruitfully as a disciple of Christ can ill afford ignorance about culture and its effects upon us and our callings. Is it possible to be a blessing in spite of cultural differences? Only if some important learning takes place. Learning the dynamics of cultural difference can no longer be a special training for missionaries. It is a necessary part of the learning that any disciple of Christ who desires to “be a blessing” to those outside his or her immediate clan must undergo. The alternative is to walk a little too thoroughly in Abraham’s footsteps.