Sarah, Abraham, and Pharaoh by Hilary Lipka

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, "Sarah, Abraham, and Pharaoh", n.p. [cited 19 Feb 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/tools/ask-a-scholar/sarah-abraham-and-pharaoh

Contributors

Hilary Lipka

Hilary Lipka
Instructor, University of New Mexico

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).

Gen 12:10-20

Abram and Sarai in Egypt
10Now there was a famine in the land. So Abram went down to Egypt to reside there as an alien, for the famine was severe in the land.11 ... View more

Gen 20:1-18

Abraham and Sarah at Gerar
1From there Abraham journeyed toward the region of the Negeb, and settled between Kadesh and Shur. While residing in Gerar as an alie ... View more

Gen 26:6-11

6So Isaac settled in Gerar.7When the men of the place asked him about his wife, he said, “She is my sister”; for he was afraid to say, “My wife,” thinking, “or ... View more

Gen 12

The Call of Abram
1Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you.2I will make of y ... View more

Gen 20

Abraham and Sarah at Gerar
1From there Abraham journeyed toward the region of the Negeb, and settled between Kadesh and Shur. While residing in Gerar as an alie ... View more

Gen 26

Isaac and Abimelech
1Now there was a famine in the land, besides the former famine that had occurred in the days of Abraham. And Isaac went to Gerar, to King Ab ... View more

1Kgs 21:1-16

Naboth's Vineyard
1Later the following events took place: Naboth the Jezreelite had a vineyard in Jezreel, beside the palace of King Ahab of Samaria.2And Ahab s ... View more

2Sam 11:14-17

David Has Uriah Killed
14In the morning David wrote a letter to Joab, and sent it by the hand of Uriah.15In the letter he wrote, “Set Uriah in the forefront of ... View more

Gen 12:13

13Say you are my sister, so that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared on your account.”

Gen 12:16

16And for her sake he dealt well with Abram; and he had sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male and female slaves, female donkeys, and camels.

Gen 20

Abraham and Sarah at Gerar
1From there Abraham journeyed toward the region of the Negeb, and settled between Kadesh and Shur. While residing in Gerar as an alie ... View more

Gen 26

Isaac and Abimelech
1Now there was a famine in the land, besides the former famine that had occurred in the days of Abraham. And Isaac went to Gerar, to King Ab ... View more

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