Abraham journeyed from the planes or oaks of Mamre, where he had lived 15-20 years, into the more southern parts of the land of Canaan and dwelt at Gerar. The reason for this move is uncertain, but it may have been that his alliance with Mamre had come under stress. It could be that his friend Mamre had died and his sons were not as cordial to Abraham as their father had been. In any case Abraham moved south into the land of Abimelech, king of the Philistines. Abimelech’s name is taken from abi meaning ‘father’ and melech meaning ‘king’. Abimelech may be a title meaning chief king of the Philistines, and since Abraham had lived over 15 years just north of his land, he would have known his reputation, and it was with some apprehension that Abraham chose to dwell there (Genesis 20:11), leading us to believe that Abraham’s move from the planes or oaks of Mamre had more to do with necessity than it did mere choice.
The land of the Philistines in Abraham’s day was situated between the wilderness of Shur, which stretched from the southern border of Canaan to Egypt, and the wilderness of Kadesh, just south of the Dead Sea, which was where Hagar went when she fled from Sarah, intending to pass through there and then through Shur on her return to Egypt (Genesis 16). Here at Gerar events in Abraham’s life transpire in such a way as to show to what extent God will protect his people who are faithful to him, as they dwell among unfriendly people.
Abraham was concerned for his life as he came to Gerar and didn’t feel it prudent to reveal the whole truth concerning his relationship with Sarah. Years before Abraham had discussed the danger of the situation with Sarah while they were yet in Haran; they had concluded it would be better when they journeyed among powerful nations that she would pose as his sister rather than his wife (Genesis 20:13). It should be noted that Abraham’s fears were not unfounded, because Abimelech is not as innocent in the matter of Sarah as he pretends to be (Genesis 20:9). First of all, we should understand that taking wives into one’s harem often represented an alliance between the king and another powerful figure. In this case Abimelech took Sarah thus making an alliance between the Philistines and Abraham.
Abraham was viewed as a powerful man, but the fact that no negotiations were made between Abimelech and Abraham when Sarah was taken (Genesis 20:2) that Abimelech was considered the more powerful of the two and more or less dictated the terms of the alliance. So, from the very beginning Abraham was made to see that Abimelech was the abi or chief king in those parts. Abraham was permitted to dwell there, but it would be understood from the beginning who was the most powerful in the land, requiring the homage of the other powerful men dwelling with him.
God came to Abraham’s rescue and saved Sarah out of the hand of Abimelech by threatening to destroy the Philistine nation if Sarah wasn’t returned to her husband (Genesis 20:3-7). In Psalm 82 we find that the rulers of lands, great or small, are called gods, and often these gods or rulers abuse their power either to enrich themselves (Psalm 82:2) or to increase their power (Genesis 20:2). The word judge in the Hebrew is often the same word as gods (H430 – elohim – see Exodus 21:6; 22:8-9) The same word (H430) is used by Moses to condemn the practice of reviling and cursing the ruler of the land (Exodus 22:28).
The point is that Abraham came into a dangerous land, probably by necessity. He acted prudently and without violent intent, neither did he make any overtures to make any alliance with the rulers of that land. Nevertheless, he was treated unjustly, but the God of the gods acted on his behalf and defended Abraham, requiring even the most powerful of the rulers there to respect his friend.