Bible Commentator


Rabbi Moshe Reiss


   Three times in Genesis a Patriarch passes his wife off as his sister to a foreign ruler, thereby putting them into danger of a potentially unwanted sexual liaison. In each case it is the Patriarch who claims to be in danger.

   Two of the stories feature Abraham claiming Sarah is his sister, once in his interaction with Pharaoh and later with Abimelech. The third episode involves Isaac presenting Rebekah as his sister to Abimelech. All the narratives are variants of the same theme. In each case the Patriarch fears for his life, tells the king that his wife is his sister, the Matriarch seems to go along with the plan, the king discovers the truth and explains to the Patriarch that he had nothing to fear and he certainly would not have brought a married woman into his harem; the Patriarch ends up rich. In all cases the Patriarch appears to have imagined the danger and reacted by deception.  The Patriarchs put the Matriarchs into danger for their sexuality and possibly their lives. As Cheryl Exum says in each case 'a man practically throws his wife into another man's harem in order to save his skin.'  1  

   The Patriarchs had God's promises but still feared for their lives. 2 One might have thought they would rely on God to fulfill His promises. Shortly later after the Pharaoh incident, but before the Abimelech incident, God explicitly tells Abraham 'do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield' (15:1). Abraham's response is 'I continue to be childless' (15:2). Perhaps that is the connection. The promise of descendants was not to the Matriarchs, only to the Patriarchs; Sarah was introduced to us as barren and having no child (11:30) almost as a definition of her identity. They could have additional wives, and in the case of Abraham he did. Some scholars consider Abraham's descendants as the key focus of his life.

   Questions regarding these episodes abound. None of the stories suggest the Patriarchs lost any honor due to the deception and its revelation; but what of the Matriarchs? In the first story of Sarah we are told by the Pharaoh that 'I took her for my wife' (Gen. 12:19), did Sarah lose her honor? The thousand pieces of silver (as well as animals and slaves) Abimelech gave Abraham were to right Sarah's honor (20:16). But by then Sarah is over 90 years old; does Abraham really still fear her beauty will endanger him? By then God has promised Abraham that she will give birth to his own promised son. In the narrative of Isaac and Rebekah story she has twin boys; where are they during the second Abimelech interlude?  Let us first examine the three narratives.

   Abraham and Sarah travel southward to Egypt in search of food.  Abraham tells the Egyptians that Sarah is his sister 3 misrepresenting their more important relationship.  His stated reason for this guise is his fear that the Egyptians would covet her and hence kill him. His fear seems quite real as he speaks to Sarah; 'Behold now I know' (12:11) and 'say now you are my sister' (12:13); very strong terminology in Hebrew. In that culture he was the owner of desirable property. Certainly if the Pharaoh is like that in Exodus 1:16 it would appear to be true, however if he is like the Pharaoh in Gen. 39:5 (the Joseph story) perhaps not.

   As a result Sarah is placed into the Pharaoh’s harem. When Sarah was placed into the harem, ‘because of her, it went well with [Abraham]; he acquired sheep, oxen, asses, male and female slaves, she-asses, and camels (Gen. 12:16). It would appear that this is Pharaoh’s purchase price for his new wife or concubine, a normal transaction in ancient days.  4

   The Pharaoh was then punished with plagues by God for his intended or attempted intimate relations with a married woman (Gen. 12:17). 5 Pharaoh states that had he known Sarah’s true marital status he would never have taken her into his harem. He returns Sarah to Abraham, and then expels both of them from Egypt; Pharaoh's house then recovered from the plagues.

   Before the Abimelech incident several events have taken place; God has expanded his promise to Abraham, he will 'the ancestor of multitude of nations' (17:4), Lot has given birth to two nations, the Moabites and Ammonites, and Abraham himself has a son, Ishmael by Hagar who himself will be a 'the father of twelve princes and I [God] will make him a great nation' (17:20). In addition Sarah will give birth to an additional son to be named Isaac (17:16).
  The story of Abimelech takes place after all of the above; including Sarah's future child 'at this season next year' (17:21) and repeated 'in due season' (18:10,14). Consequently as they move south to Gerar she was possibly already pregnant. 6   Abraham fears that in this a godless place the people would covet Sarah so he tells them she was his sister (20:2,11). This would appear to be a danger not only to his wife, but to his unborn child, his promised son and heir. There was no reason to believe Abimelech was not an honorable man;  7 despite in that culture kings are entitled to harems.

   Abimelech 'took' Sarah but before he approached her God informed him of Sarah's marital status and to return her. Abimelech said to Abraham 'what have I done against you, that you would have brought a great sin upon me and my kingdom?  8  Things that ought not to be done you have done' (20:9). Abimelech gave Abraham much property to attest to Sarah's honor.

   Immediately after the last verse of chapter 20, the LORD had closed all the wombs of the house of Abimelech because of Sarah (20:18) we read that the Lord remembered Sarah and did what he had promised (21:1) and she gave birth to Isaac. Once Isaac is born Abimelech comes back into Abraham's life; at Abimelech's request they make a covenant (21:23-24, 27-33) in Beer-sheva.

   The story starts by reminding us: there was a famine in the land, besides the former famine that had occurred in the days of Abraham (26:1). This reminds us of the famine that led to the Abraham – Pharaoh story (12:10). We are intentionally reminded of the fact that we have a repeated tale. Which story may have come first is a contested area among scholars. 9

   Isaac tells Abimelech that Rebekah, his wife, is his sister. However, Isaac is seen by Abimelech as playing-fondling with his 'sister' (26:8).  This takes place perhaps seventy five to one hundred years later;   10  not only is the Abimelech the same but his same military commander Picol (21:22; 26:26) is the same to remind us that despite the years gone  this is the same Abimelech.  (Some minority of commentators consider the names Abimelech and Picol as titles rather than names, thus they are not the same persons.)

   Isaac must have known of his father and mother's story with Abimelech and Abimelech certainly knew Isaac was Abraham and Sarah's son – Isaac and Rebekah live nearby in Beer-lahai-roi (21:31,33-34; 22:19). So Isaac's deception story seems almost foolish and Abimelech would never have believed such a story; he knew them. 11 And in fact Abimelech does not desire Rebekah, but 'one of the people might easily have lain with your wife and you would have brought guilt upon us' (26:10). Abimelech certainly would not fall into the trap again, but perhaps one of his people might. Abimelech makes it clear to his own people 'whoever touches this man or his wife shall surely be put to death (26:11). The danger does not appear to be Isaac or Rebekah but the people of Gerar. Isaac prospered 'reaped in the same year a hundred fold. . . until he became very wealthy' (26:12-13). Finally Abimelech ask them to leave (26:16); there wealth is disturbing the economic power.

   The beginning of the first story has Abraham journey south due to a famine; in the second story with Abimelech, Abraham journeyed south, but no reason is given, in the third story with Rebekah there was a famine. Thus the first story tells us two events - south and famine, elements of which will be used to introduce the second and third story. Thus the editor wants us to recognize the common thread between the three stories. In each case the Patriarch sojourns ('ger') in a new place (12:10; 20:1; 26:3) and the wife is introduced as his sister (12:13; 20:2; 26:7). In the last two places they move to a place called 'Gerar'; perhaps a word play on 'ger'.  12

   In each the case the Pharaoh story and the Rebekah story the Patriarch fears that his wife’s beauty will endanger him (12:11; 26:7); in the Abraham- Abimelech story no reason is given for the deception. In each story the deception is that the wife is a sister. In each case the deception is originally effective but then the ruler discovers the truth and confronts the Patriarch.

In the Nuzi documents – which may be pre-Patriarchal we find that there was a socio-legal concept of a 'wife-sister'; that referred to a wife with superior and protective privileges. Sarna suggests that the transmission of the concept may have gotten confused over time. 13

   In both Abraham's stories the wife is taken to the kings harem (12:15; 20:2), in both cases the king 'took' Sarah. In the case of Pharaoh he may have had relations with her; Abraham was paid well for her 'sheep, oxen, he-asses, men servants and maid servants and she asses and camels' (12:16). In the case of Abimelech God came in a dream stopping Abimelech from sinning by taking a man's wife (20:3) and Abraham was given much property for Sarah's honor.

   However,  in the Isaac Rebekah story she is not taken but rather Abimelech himself sees Isaac and Rebekah playing-fondling each other (26:8). The term in Hebrew is the same as the playing that Ishmael was doing with Isaac causing Hagar and Ishmael’s expulsion (21:9). Abimelech calls Isaac and says 'what have you done to us' (26:10), being concerned not about what happened but what might have happened; some of his people may have taken it into their heads to lay with the sister. He then establishes a law that anyone who touches Isaac or Rebekah shall surely die (26:11) and Isaac sowed in that land, and found his yield one hundred fold increase (26:12).

   The twin children of Isaac and Rebekah are no longer little boys, Esau is a hunter who has already sold his birthright to Jacob (Gen. 25:29-34); where were they? If they were living with their parents none would believe that Isaac and Rebekah were brother and sister. Could the story have taken place earlier when they were boys? It seems more as if the story was created to connect Isaac with his father Abraham.

    Many scholars believe the key to the Abraham saga is the promise for numerous descendants and more particularly the promised son; yet these tales are counter productive to that. Is there another theological exegesis we should be investigating?

In the first two of the stories (Pharaoh and Abimelech with Sarah) they might be a royal marriage alliance here. Abraham seems on intimate terms with the kings of Egypt and Gerar.

   In each of the thrice told tale the Patriarch deceives a ruler in the nation he has chosen to abide; each ruler believes him. When the deceit becomes known the result could be a disaster for the Patriarch and his wife/sister. 

The ruler in each case does not act as one might expect, that is as godless pagans and attack the Patriarch. But rather acts ethically and resents almost being enticed into an evil act of adultery. The Pharaoh says 'what is this you have done' (12:19), Abimelech says to Abraham 'have I sinned against you' . . .  that you brought great guilt on me and my country' (20:9); a surprising term for a godless person. Abimelech says to Isaac 'you would have brought guilt upon us' (26:10) and then says to Isaac 'you are blessed of the LORD' (26:29).

In God's first call to Abraham He tells Abraham he will be blessed and 'I will bless those who bless you, and curse those you curse you' (12:3). The   Egyptians and the Philistines (21:32) will be the major enemies to the Hebrews in getting to and later in conquering the land God promised to Abraham.

Perhaps the purpose of these thrice told tales was to document that Abraham was to be an instrument for blessing for the nations – even his enemies. This is apparently true even if the Patriarch has the responsibility, creating the problem by his own deception. In the first two tales God Himself intervenes but in then third Abimelech recognizes the implications of the situation. Isaac, we discover, as the promised son, carried his father's blessing as noted in the text (26:3-4) and by Abimelech (26:29). 14
Perhaps this is another example of Abraham life of ethical contradictions. 15

1    J. Cheryl Exum 'Who's Afraid of 'The Endangered Ancestors', J. Cheryl Exum and David J.A. Clines, eds., (Sheffield, Sheffield University Press, 2003) pg. 95.
2     In an intriguing commentary David Clines suggests the foreigners in these cases were more in danger of the Patriarchs than vice versa; cursed rather than blessed (12:2-3); although that is not Clines implication but mine. Clines, David, J. A., 'What Does Eve Do To Help? And Other Readerly Questions to the Old Testament', (Sheffield, Sheffield University Press, 1990) pgs. 67-84.
3    Abraham claims Sarah is his half sister, they had the same father but a different mother - Gen. 20:12.
4    A bride price (differing from a dowry which goes to the bride) was often given to the brother for agreeing to the marriage; see Nuzi texts quoted by Nahum Sarna, in Genesis: Worlds of Myths and Patriarchs; ed. Ada Feyerick, N.Y., N.Y. University Press, 1996), pg. 140.
5    The rabbis suggest that though he tried to approach Sarah, Pharaoh was thwarted in his attempts, Midrash Genesis Rabbah 41.2. 
6    The Hebrew 'ka'et hayya' (18:10, 14) is difficult to translate; it could mean in nine months or in one year.
7    )Ramban, 'Commentary on Genesis', trans. By C.B. Chavel, (N.Y., Shilo, 1971) pg. 263-264.
8    It is worth noting that adultery was considered immoral in both Egypt and Canaan where the thrice told tale occurs. W.L. Moran, 'The Scandal of the Great Sin at Ugarit' JNES, 1959, No. 18. Sarna points out that in Patriarchal times norms and mores – particularly regarding intimate relations - differed that what we find in the Exodus -Deuteronomy period (Genesis, pgs. 118-119).
9    van Seters, John, 'Abraham in History and Tradition' (N.Y., Yale University, 1975) pg.173
10    Abraham has already died which is seventy five years after Isaac's birth.
11    That is why Martin Noth believes this story is the base story and the other two are dependent on this one. Noth, Martin, 'A History of Pentateuchal Tradition' Trs. S.W. Anderson (Englewood Cliffs, Prentice Hall, 1972) pg. 105
12     In Talmudic and modern Hebrew a 'ger' is a convert.
13    Sarna, Nahum, 'Understanding Genesis', (N.Y., J.T.S., 1966) pg. 103.
14     The connection between endangered Matriarchs and Abraham's blessing was first presented by G.W.  Coats in 'A Threat to the Host' in 'Saga, Legend, Tale, Novella, Fable: Narrative Forms in Old Testament Literature', ed. G.W.Coats, (Sheffield, Sheffield University Press, JSOT 35, 1985) and then by Mark E. Biddle, 'The Endangered Ancestress and the Blessing for the Nations', JBL, No. 109, 1990.
15    Moshe Reiss. 'The Actions of Abraham: A Life of Ethical Contradictions', Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament, 2010, Vol. 24,2.