After the destruction of Sodom Abraham moved towards the Negev and into the territory of Abimelek. As was their custom. Abraham and Sarah agreed to call themselves brother and sister to avoid rouble with the king.
The reason for their journey could have been to do with the destruction of Sodom and the wider region destabilizing conditions and agriculture in the region. Many local people might have been moving again in that time.
I believe a wider issue in this chapter is the relations between Israel and the gentile nations in the years ahead. In this chapter, God again makes a difference between Abraham and other people. God calls Abraham his prophet and protects him against the king. God plays the game the pagan way, closing the wombs of the women of the land because the king took Sarah to his harem. Sarah was quite aged by this time, so it makes you wonder how she was still so beautiful for a king.
This event would have gone down in the archives of the pagan magic rituals: like the earlier event in Egypt, where the Pharoah momentarily took Sarah into his harem and the oracles were consulted. In both cases it was known and recorded that there was a more powerful God known to the future Israelite people. This record would have stayed in their archives, which were rigorously consulted and treated as very important to the interests of their states. The particular calling of Israel as distinct from the other nations became known to the wider region. Other priests of Elohim would also have heard this news, and the case of Joseph in Egypt and the Exodus widely made this news known, so Balaam and most other magicians would have been aware.
But this relationship between Israel and her neighbours has become a major stumbling block down through the ages and is every bit the same even today. Why should Israel be elect above others? When God called them out of Egypt, he was at pains to tell Israel it was because of nothing better in them, but only because they were weak that he chose them. This fell on deaf ears and they took their calling as meaning they were special. But God called them only to show his goodness to whole world, because he loved the world, not because Israel was special.
Even in the case of Abraham and Abimelek, Abraham’s sin is pointed out in lying. And through the life of Abraham, we see he knew he was called to justice and had no special excuse from God to be unjust towards other people. But Israel later wrongly believed that because God had called them, they had special rules and could do as they pleased. Not at all: God called them to a special place of service. Their election meant that they had all the more reason to be humble and serve others.
Paul deals with Israel’s calling more specifically in Romans and Paul’s discussion is a summary of the debate that we already see beginning in passages like Genesis 20. Israel’s election brought them into harsh conditions, not at all to be envied by the world. Their rebellion against God resulted in their intense suffering, but through this rebellion the grace of God through Christ was revealed to the whole world. The gospel became known to the world because Israel sinned against God. What is the conclusion? It is that the world owes Israel gratitude for the role they played in the opening of all our eyes. The conclusion is that we owe Israel the humility they failed to show before gentiles, because we have learned so much from their journey, a journey they took on behalf of us all. The conclusion is that we are all one in sin and in grace. This is Paul’s lesson and the conclusion of the whole drama of Israel’s election for us all. It is because God loves the world, and this is how he chose to reach us all. We come to one table of grace and deny the “specialness” that causes us to sin against others.
Paul’s aim in Romans was to bring the Jewish and gentile believers to one table of honour and care through the free grace of Christ to us all. It was to undo the racial superiority in us both, to instead call us to humility and service of each other. This was the lesson and reason why God called Israel, to deliver us all from our racial superiority and tribalism, not to enhance it. The world was full of tribalism, so God called one tribe to heal us all of this factionalism. And this is the humility we should seek in our international and regional politics today: one of mutual healing, not of suppression and dominion.
The same goes for our “specialness” we hold in distinction to other religions, or to other denominations within the Christian faith. Our call is to build unity: “Hear O Israel, the Lord you God is one Lord, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and neighbour as yourself…” This Shema was the eschatological vision of Israel, which Paul highlights in Ephesians 1:9-10, where all things are called together into one in the kingdom of Christ, in the renewal of the whole creation. This unity is built where “specialness” is shown by service or others and not by pride or self-service. It is the humility of the cross that rules, that achieves the resurrection: social and earth renewal. Unity doesn’t deny difference, but demonstrates true faith through transforming service, even while suffering, rather than by bringing suffering upon others. The farmer suffers in labour due to his hope of harvest, which is our eschatological vision fulfilled.