The backdrop to the event: God calls Abraham out from Haran and his wife Sarai goes with him. Abraham travels to Gerar where he meets Abimelech the king of the Philistines and tells Sarah (renamed from Sarai by God) to say that she is his sister, hiding the fact that they’re married, so that they don’t kill Abraham to take Sarah (The fact that Peter tells women to be obedient like Sarah and not fear what is frightening is startling when considering the situations that Abraham keeps putting poor Sarah in). Abimelech takes Sarah to be his wife but is restrained by God from having sex with her and then is warned by God that if he does not let her go that He will kill him. So Abimelech lets Sarah go and questions Abraham as to why he would be so deceitful and allow this to take place seeing as it roused God to prevent pregnancies and threaten death. Abraham gives a lame excuse about how it’s mostly true that Sarah is his sister (she’s his sister in law) and that he had her tell the partial truth in order to protect himself from what appeared to be a godless people (where is the faith of Abraham now? Even the great man of faith was a sinner who did not always live in perfect trust and obedience). Abraham and Sarah take off with some gifts from Abimelech and soon after Isaac is supernaturally born.
The making of the treaty: Apparently Abimelech heard of Isaac’s birth and comes over with the commander of his army to make an agreement of peace between Abraham’s descendants and Abimelech’s descendants. Abraham and Abimelech make a covenant with one another and settle a dispute over a well.
Why in the world does any of this matter?
Firstly, we see that even an unbeliever that is the king of such a godless gathering of people that Abraham fears for his life (20:11) is able to discern that this man is both protected by God and his descendants are of supernatural origin (Isaac being an impossibility for Sarah at this time) and therefore will also be protected and blessed by God. Unlike many people today Abimelech cares about his children’s children and wants to see them blessed by the godly family rather than be rivals with them.
Secondly, the last we heard of Ham’s descendants (of which the Philistines are – 10:14) they had been cursed by Noah to be servants of Japheth and Shem. From Shem came Israel and the Messiah and from Japheth came the gentile nations that Israel was rarely at war with. [An interesting side note is that Noah’s blessing to Japheth of being able to dwell in Shem’s tents is really fulfilled in the salvation of gentiles through Christ – they take refuge in the tent of Christ (but this post isn’t to flush out all of those details)]. Now we have the cursed descendants of Ham making an agreement of peace with Abraham which goes against the curse that Noah had brought upon them.
Thirdly, this covenant is never kept at any point in the Old Testament – Abraham’s word to Abimelech seems like total garbage as the Israelites wage war after war with the Philistines (the descendants of Abimelech). The descendants were required to keep this agreement but failed to do so. But God fulfils through Christ all the things that Israel failed to do – in Christ there are descendants from Ham who enjoy the blessings of salvation and peace with God and God’s people. Jesus was obligated to keep Abraham’s covenant and he did so by going far beyond merely not going to war with them but by going to the cross and dying for the sins of many of our modern day descendants of Ham.
Conclusion: This is in the Bible to show that even in the midst of a curse (Noah’s) comes a covenant of peace – in the midst of our curse also comes a covenant of peace that is brought about through Jesus Christ. God was providing a picture, an event in history that provided an example, for people to have categories in their minds that even when curses have been called down there is yet room for a covenant of peace to override those curses.