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Sarah, Abraham, and Pharaoh

Why does Abraham claim that his wife Sarah is his sister?

Isaac Isaacsz

Q. The story of Abraham, Sarah and Pharaoh, where Abraham claims his wife Sarah is his sister, in order to save his own life, is the first of three similar episodes. Do these accounts say anything about the worthlessness of a sister relative to a wife?

A. I can see why these three accounts in Gen 12:10-20, Gen 20:1-18, and Gen 26:6-11 give the impression that a sister may have been considered less valuable than a wife. Yet that is probably not the case. In all three episodes, the patriarch (Abraham in Gen 12 and Gen 20, and Isaac in Gen 26) is afraid that his wife’s beauty will put him in danger when the couple arrive at a foreign kingdom, because he might be killed if the king desires his beautiful wife for himself. This is not an unrealistic fear, given how ruthless royalty could be. In 1Kgs 21:1-16 queen Jezebel connives to have Naboth executed on trumped up charges so her husband Ahab can take possession of his vineyard. King David in 2Sam 11:14-17 arranges to have Uriah killed in the front line of the battle so that he can hide his adulterous act with Uriah’s wife Bathsheba.

Abraham asks Sarah to say that she is his sister in Gen 12:13 because a sister travelling with her brother would be perceived as sexually available. There would be no reason for someone to kill Abraham to gain access to her. Because of this deception, Pharaoh takes Sarah into his palace as a wife, and he rewards the man he believes is her brother very generously with a substantial amount of property, including “sheep, oxen, asses, male and female slaves, she-asses, and camels.” (Gen 12:16, JPS) Pharaoh’s generosity demonstrates that a beautiful sister could be quite valuable, just less lethal in some cases than a beautiful wife.

Yet Pharaoh realizes something is wrong when his entire household suffers plagues, and he figures out that he has unknowingly committed the sin of adultery. In all three cases, the patriarch is rebuked for his deception, which put not only the king but his entire household (and, in Gen 20 and Gen 26, the entire community) in danger of inadvertently incurring God’s wrath.

  • Hilary Lipka

    Hilary Lipka is an instructor in the Religious Studies Department at the University of New Mexico. She is the author of Sexual Transgression in the Hebrew Bible (Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2006).