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How do we explain the fact that Abraham and Sarah pretended to be siblings?

Genesis tells us that on two separate occasions, Abraham and Sarah posed as brother and sister and then Sarah was taken from her husband into another man’s house. These incidents strike us as bizarre and we often are not sure how to explain to ourselves, our children, or others why Abraham did this. However, if we look closely at the details, we see that in many ways, Abraham was the victim, not the protagonist.

The first occasion is recorded in Genesis 12. Abram was about 75 years old (Gen 12:4). Notice that Sarai was a beautiful woman and that Abram was afraid of being killed.

Gen. 12:10 ¶ Now there was a famine in the land; so Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there, for the famine was severe in the land.

Gen. 12:11 It came about when he came near to Egypt, that he said to Sarai his wife, “See now, I know that you are a beautiful woman;

Gen. 12:12 and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife’; and they will kill me, but they will let you live.

Gen. 12:13 “Please say that you are my sister so that it may go well with me because of you, and that I may live on account of you.”

The reason they claimed to be siblings was to protect Abram’s life. Abram apparently thought that since Sarai was beautiful, the Egyptians would want her for themselves. If the Egyptians knew that Abram and Sarai were married, then the Egyptians would conclude that the only way to have Sarai for themselves was to kill Abram. However, if the Egyptians thought that Abram and Sarai were siblings, then the Egyptians would have no reason to kill Abram.

In the following verses, notice the word “taken”.

Gen. 12:14 It came about when Abram came into Egypt, the Egyptians saw that the woman was very beautiful.

Gen. 12:15 Pharaoh’s officials saw her and praised her to Pharaoh; and the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house.

Gen. 12:16 Therefore he treated Abram well for her sake; and gave him sheep and oxen and donkeys and male and female servants and female donkeys and camels.

Pharaoh took what he wanted. We often criticize Abram for allowing this to happen to Sarai, but Abram didn’t have much choice. What was Abram supposed to do when Pharaoh decided to take his wife? Pharaoh had the Egyptian army at his disposal. Abram didn’t have enough armed men to resist Pharaoh, and if he had revealed that they were married, the Egyptians may have killed him and then Sarai would have belonged to Pharaoh anyway. Our criticism of Abram assumes that Sarai would not have been taken had Abram told the truth, but it is possible that she would have been taken anyway.

Next, notice what Yahweh did to Pharaoh. How would the plagues have affected Pharaoh’s behavior?

Gen. 12:17 ¶ But the LORD struck Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife.

Gen. 12:18 Then Pharaoh called Abram and said, “What is this you have done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife?

Gen. 12:19 “Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her for my wife? Now then, here is your wife, take her and go.”

Gen. 12:20 Pharaoh commanded his men concerning him; and they escorted him away, with his wife and all that belonged to him.

Pharaoh acted as if he would have done the right thing had he known Abram and Sarai were married, and he blamed Abram for what happened. However, just because Pharaoh said he would have done the right thing does not mean he would have, and it is possible that the only reason he restored Sarai was because Yahweh had intervened with some plagues.

Chart of Abram's lifeThe second occasion is recorded in Genesis 20. Abraham was about 100 years old (Gen 21:5). Notice the word “took”.

Gen. 20:1 ¶ Now Abraham journeyed from there toward the land of the Negev, and settled between Kadesh and Shur; then he sojourned in Gerar.

Gen. 20:2 Abraham said of Sarah his wife, “She is my sister.” So Abimelech king of Gerar sent and took Sarah.

Again, we criticize Abraham for allowing this to happen, but Abimelech took Sarah. Abimelech was the king, he had soldiers under his authority, and he was able to do what he wanted. If Abimelech wanted Sarah, he could take her one way or another.
As you read the following verses, notice what God said about Abraham in verse 7. Does it appear that God thought that Abraham did something wrong?

Gen. 20:3 But God came to Abimelech in a dream of the night, and said to him, “Behold, you are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is married.”

Gen. 20:4 Now Abimelech had not come near her; and he said, “Lord, will You slay a nation, even though blameless?

Gen. 20:5 “Did he not himself say to me, ‘She is my sister’? And she herself said, ‘He is my brother.’ In the integrity of my heart and the innocence of my hands I have done this.”

Gen. 20:6 Then God said to him in the dream, “Yes, I know that in the integrity of your heart you have done this, and I also kept you from sinning against Me; therefore I did not let you touch her.

Gen. 20:7 “Now therefore, restore the man’s wife, for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you will live. But if you do not restore her, know that you shall surely die, you and all who are yours.”

The fact that Abraham was the one who would pray for Abimelech so that Abimelech would live, makes it appear that God did not think that Abraham did anything wrong.
In the following verses, notice Abraham’s reasoning for claiming to be siblings.

Gen. 20:8 ¶ So Abimelech arose early in the morning and called all his servants and told all these things in their hearing; and the men were greatly frightened.

Gen. 20:9 Then Abimelech called Abraham and said to him, “What have you done to us? And how have I sinned against you, that you have brought on me and on my kingdom a great sin? You have done to me things that ought not to be done.”

Gen. 20:10 And Abimelech said to Abraham, “What have you encountered, that you have done this thing?”

Gen. 20:11 Abraham said, “Because I thought, surely there is no fear of God in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife.

Gen. 20:12 “Besides, she actually is my sister, the daughter of my father, but not the daughter of my mother, and she became my wife;

Gen. 20:13 and it came about, when God caused me to wander from my father’s house, that I said to her, ‘This is the kindness which you will show to me: everywhere we go, say of me, “He is my brother.”’”

Again, Abraham was afraid he would be killed. Abraham’s observation of the culture was that there was no fear of God and that they would not hesitate to kill him in order to take his wife. Furthermore, there was truth to what they were saying: Abraham and Sarah actually were siblings.

In our culture, we find it difficult to comprehend Abraham’s actions because we assume that the factor that caused Sarah to be taken was the fact that Abraham and Sarah claimed to be siblings. The reality is that she may have been taken regardless of what Abraham and Sarah revealed about their relationship. Furthermore, we assume that Abraham had a choice between admitting they were married and keeping Sarah, or claiming to be siblings and having his wife taken. However, it is more likely that Abraham had a choice between admitting they were married and being killed, or claiming to be siblings and living.

 

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“Scripture quotations taken from the NASB.”