22 And it came to pass at that time, that Abimelech and Phichol the chief captain of his host spake unto Abraham, saying, God is with thee in all that thou doest: 

23 Now therefore swear unto me here by God that thou wilt not deal falsely with me, nor with my son, nor with my son’s son: but according to the kindness that I have done unto thee, thou shalt do unto me, and to the land wherein thou hast sojourned.

24 And Abraham said, I will swear.

We like to assume that good conduct can be taken for granted. All people should already be decent human beings who don’t lie and cheat and steal from one another. We shouldn’t require a special pledge from someone that they won’t stab us in the back one day. Everything that Abimelech is asking Abraham to pledge are things that ought to go without saying.

We might even feel offended if someone felt it necessary to ask us for such a promise. We genuinely believe that we will always conduct ourselves towards others in an honorable way. And yet…we don’t. We stab each other in the back all the time. Even the people we are closest to: neighbors, family, even our own spouse, we betray their trust as soon as it is in our interest to do so. The willful harm we inflict on others is so ubiquitous that a common control question during a polygraph is “have you ever hurt someone that you care about?” The truthful answer is always “yes.”

To be frank, most of us are well-mannered and respectful only because it serves us well to be so. The fear of incurring anger, social shame, and criminal justice are what primarily deter us from inflicting harm. But once we have to choose between another or ourselves, our natural instinct is always to side with our own interest. Of course men and women can overcome this common selfish tendency, but only by deliberate effort.

So I believe this question from Abimelech was actually very sincere. It is a testament to the quality of their relationship that Abimelech felt he could cut past the façade and the formality and hold this question with Abraham in earnestness. Honestly and truly, will you deal honorably with me and my family, even when it isn’t to your own advantage? And Abraham sincerely replies, “yes.”

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