2. Sarah's Abduction (Genesis 12:10-20 and 20:1-18)

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Audio (34:13)

Beni-Hasan tomb painting of semite nomads visiting Egypt
Detail from wall painting in the tomb of Khnumhotep II (ca. 1890 BC), a provincial governor during Egypt's Middle Kingdom, at Beni Hasan, Egypt, on the east bank of the Nile. This painting shows a band of "Asiatic" nomads from Syria-Canaan visiting Egypt. Perhaps this is how Abraham's family dressed. Larger picture.

So far in Genesis 12, Yahweh has appeared to Abraham and promised him blessing, land, and offspring. But now two problems present themselves -- (1) famine forces Abraham to move his family to Egypt and (2) Sarah's beauty causes her to be abducted into Pharaoh's harem. God's promise seems in jeopardy of fulfillment.

We, too, have problems in understanding what is going on. (1) How can a 65-year-old woman be considered so beautiful? (2) How can a righteous man like Abraham lower himself to deception in claiming that Sarah is his sister? and (3) Why does a similar wife-sister account occur three times in the book of Genesis? And most important -- (4) What should we be learning from this passage?

We'll be examining two passages together in this lesson -- Genesis 12:10-20 and 20:1-18 -- not because I consider them "doublets," but because they teach us similar discipleship lessons.

Famine in the Land (12:10)

Prolonged drought has a devastating effect in areas which are highly dependent upon rainfall. Farmers are devastated. Those whose livelihood depends upon grazing land for their herds, have to go where there is pasture -- or feed their flocks with grain purchased from afar. During a severe regional famine Jacob sent to Egypt to purchase grain (chapters 42-45) and finally settled there in Goshen (chapters 46-50). Isaac settled in Gerar during a famine (chapter 26) and planted crops for the first time (26:12-13). But Abraham was the first of his clan to head to the Nile delta area to keep his herds -- and his family -- alive.

"Now there was a famine in the land, and Abram went down to Egypt to live there for a while because the famine was severe." (12:10)

Vulnerabilities of a Sojourner

"Live ... for a while" (NIV), "sojourn" (KJV), and "reside there as an alien" (NRSV) is the Hebrew verb gûr, "sojourn, be a stranger." The root means "to live among people who are not blood relatives."  Thus, "rather than enjoying native civil rights, the gēr was dependent on the hospitality that played an important role in the ancient near east."[1]

Imagine living in a country where you have few legal rights -- where your treatment depends upon the whim of a local king or warlord. Where he could, Abraham developed alliances with various local leaders (14:24), but when he moved to new areas, he was much more vulnerable. Curiously, the Hebrew root gwr, "to tarry as a sojourner" may derive from words that mean "to attack, strive," and "to be afraid."[2]

When a person has no family or relationship to protect him, he is especially vulnerable to evil people who try to take advantage of him. Examples of gangs of men seeking to rape men and women sojourners can be found in Genesis 19:1-11 and Judges 19. The only protection is to have sufficient armed force yourself or to place yourself under the protection of the monarch and hope for the best.

As I write, famine and oppression of refugees is in the news. 12 million East Africans -- mostly in Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya, Uganda, Somalia, and Sudan -- are in need of famine relief in mid-2004. 150 Congolese Tutsi refugees have been killed by Hutu tribesmen in an overnight raid on a refugee camp in western Burundi. Famine refugees crowding into the Nile delta in Abraham's day were similarly at risk.

There are strong commands in the Bible to protect and not oppress sojourners (Exodus 22:21; Leviticus 19:3, 10, 34; 23:22; Deuteronomy 14:27-29; 16:11, 14; 24:17-21; 26:12-13; 27:19; Jeremiah 7:6; 22:3). God himself protects the resident alien:

"[The Lord] defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing. And you are to love those who are aliens, for you yourselves were aliens in Egypt." (Deuteronomy 10:18-19)
"The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the Lord your God." (Leviticus 19:34)

Q1. (12:10) What dangers faced Abraham and his family as aliens and sojourners in Egypt and elsewhere? Who might oppress them? What "aliens and sojourners" live in your community? Why did they come? How are they being oppressed or discriminated against by employers and others in the community? What can you and your church do to "love those who are aliens"?
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Abraham's Fear of Death (12:11-12)

Abraham faces a fear that most refugees don't face -- the fear that his beautiful "trophy wife" will be abducted and that he will be killed so that he doesn't cause problems.

"As he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, 'I know what a beautiful woman you are. When the Egyptians see you, they will say, "This is his wife." Then they will kill me but will let you live. Say you are my sister, so that I will be treated well for your sake and my life will be spared because of you.'"

This passage raises a number of questions that we need to consider one by one. First, Sarah's beauty.[3] Our culture puts youth and beauty together in women. How can Sarah be seen as beautiful at age 65? Kidner sees the key to this quandary in the patriarchal life-span which is about double our own.

"Sarai's sixties would therefore presumably correspond with our thirties or forties and her ninety years at Isaac's birth with perhaps our late fifties."[4]

Of course, this is speculation and we don't know for sure. But we do know that both Abraham and the Egyptians saw her as beautiful. Abraham was afraid for his life. He asks Sarah to say she is his sister rather than his wife -- since she is indeed his half-sister. His request is purely on personal grounds. Do this for me: (1) I will be treated well and (2) my life will be spared. His reasoning is that if she is abducted, a brother will not be harmed, but a husband will be killed so that marriage won't be an impediment to a beautiful woman becoming the king's concubine. Many commentators have criticized Abraham for being a cad, saying that he was looking out for himself rather than for Sarah's welfare. But here's another view. Professor Mary Evans puts it this way:

"It may be thought that Abram was careless of his wife's safety and that the only thing that counted for her as a woman was her looks. However, the pair apparently saw themselves as fleeing from certain death in the Canaanite famine and assumed that Sarah's unusual beauty meant that she was likely to be taken anyway. The only question was whether Abram himself could survive. As a husband he would not; as a brother he might."[5]

How likely was wife abduction by the Egyptians?[6] Abraham certainly thought it likely. And, indeed, it actually happened to Sarah, both in Egypt and Gerar. Claus Crough says:

"The hunger was life-threatening; family, friends, slaves, and animals depended upon the Pharaoh's willingness. Abraham became a convenience-refugee, with all types of insecurity, fear, and suffering among the selfish Egyptians, who had only contempt for 'these kind of people'. The stay in Egypt was hardly to be free of charge. The refugees had to pay off with animals, property, or whatever their hosts wanted; among others, their beautiful women."[7]

Aliens, refugees are dependent upon the protection of the monarch. When the pharaoh or king, who is the law in his realm, demands a beautiful woman for his harem, there is no saying, "No." Another biblical example is Esther, who was abducted as a candidate for queen to King Xerxes of Persia (486-465 BC).

Sarah Becomes Pharaoh's Concubine (12:14-16)

And it came to pass as Abraham had feared it would:

"When Abram came to Egypt, the Egyptians saw that she was a very beautiful woman. And when Pharaoh's officials saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh, and she was taken into his palace. He treated Abram well for her sake, and Abram acquired sheep and cattle, male and female donkeys, menservants and maidservants, and camels." (12:14-16)

Though Abraham believes he cannot refuse Pharaoh without being killed, he as the "brother" is rewarded with sheep, cattle, donkeys, slaves, and camels. His wealth increases considerably.

A number of commentators blame Abraham for receiving this booty at Sarah's expense, based upon clear deceit, and then for not returning it when his ruse is discovered (12:20). For them, this is evidence of Abraham's pagan background showing through.

The truth is: Life is messy. Church people are often quick to judge, to find fault, to tell you what you should be doing, even though they don't know what's it's really like to be in your situation. Fortunately, God knows and God cares. Abraham's action doesn't seem to be either honorable or faith-filled. It was the act of a man hoping to survive. But God is his judge, not we.

God's Judgment on Pharaoh (12:17-20)

So Sarah is taken into Pharaoh's palace harem and becomes his wife (12:19). The scripture doesn't say (as it does in the case of Abimelech in 20:6) that Pharaoh didn't consummate this marriage. Now Abraham and Sarah are separated. God's promise of blessing, land, and offspring seem remote. What God had begun seems to have floundered.

"But the Lord inflicted serious diseases on Pharaoh and his household because of Abram's wife Sarai. So Pharaoh summoned Abram. 'What have you done to me?' he said. 'Why didn't you tell me she was your wife? Why did you say, 'She is my sister," so that I took her to be my wife? Now then, here is your wife. Take her and go!' Then Pharaoh gave orders about Abram to his men, and they sent him on his way, with his wife and everything he had." (12:17-20)

Pharaoh and his household get sick. In his inquiry to understand why, Pharaoh discovers that he has taken Abraham's wife as his own and is being punished for it. Pharaoh is angry. He blames Abraham for not telling him the essential truth -- that Sarah is Abraham's wife -- rather than that she was his sister. Because Pharaoh senses that he is being judged for taking Sarah, he doesn't punish either Abraham or Sarah, but instead sends them out of Egypt to fend for themselves in what may be a still-famished land.

Yes, the famine may still be present, but Abraham and Sarah are alive, together again, and free. They survive and end up richer than before.

Q2. (12:17-20) Why did Pharaoh and his household get sick? What effect did this have? What was God seeking to accomplish through this affliction? Did it have the desired effect?
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Abraham's Deception in Gerar (20:1-18)

Before we examine the rights and wrongs here, let's look at a similar situation that happened 25 years later. Previously, Abraham has been living near the great trees of Mamre near Hebron (18:1).

"Now Abraham moved on from there into the region of the Negev and lived between Kadesh and Shur. For a while he stayed in Gerar, and there Abraham said of his wife Sarah, 'She is my sister.' Then Abimelech king of Gerar sent for Sarah and took her." (20:1-2)

Gerar is a Philistine city at the edge of the Negev desert. We aren't told why Abraham was staying in Gerar, but Isaac went there once due to famine, so that seems like a good possiblity in Abraham's case, too. Abimelech ("my father is king") is either the title applied to Philistine rulers or the name assumed by the ruler of this city-state, since both Abraham and Isaac encountered a king named Abimelech there many years apart. While in Gerar, history repeats itself. Abraham again calls Sarah his "sister" and the king "sent for Sarah and took her" -- that is, he abducted her.

Are the Wife-Sister Stories "Doublets"?

Because of the similarities between this story, the abduction of Sarah in Egypt (12:12-20), and Isaac claiming that Rebekah was his sister to save himself (26:7-11), many scholars have seen these stories as "doublets," that is,  repetitions of the same basic story. I disagree.

There are four common motifs:

  1. Travel to a place in which the husband and wife are unknown.
  2. A claim that the man's wife is his sister, because he fears being killed on account of her.
  3. Discovery of the ruse.
  4. Resolution of the situation created by the false identity.[8]

When you study the events, however,  you see a number of differences in the motivations, details, and conclusions. And, the episodes in chapters 20 and 26 presuppose that the reader is familiar with wife-sister account in chapter 12.[9] Observe the variety in these stories in the chart below:

Passage

12:10-20

20:1-18

26:7-11

Couple

Abraham, Sarah

Abraham, Sarah

Isaac, Rebekah

Locality

Egypt

Gerar

Gerar

Reason for stay

Famine

No reason given

Famine

King

Pharaoh

Abimelech

Abimelech

Offence

Sarah taken as wife.

Sarah entered harem but kept from adultery.

Potential only

King becomes aware

Not said

Warning dream

Sees Isaac caressing Rebekah.

Reason for deceit

Abraham's fear of death.

Abraham's fear of death.

Isaac's fear of death.

Excuse

None given

"No fear of God in this place.... When God had me wander..." asked favor of Sarah.

"Because I thought I might lose my life on account of her."

Penalty on King

Serious diseases on Pharaoh and his household.

Abimelech, his wives and concubines could not beget or bear children.

None. Orders people not to molest either Isaac or Rebekah.

Gifts because of Sarah

Pharaoh treats Abraham well -- sheep, cattle, donkeys, slaves, and camels.

None reported

Not applicable

Expiation

None

1,000 shekels of silver, plus sheep, cattle, and slaves

None

Expulsion

Sent away with wife and possessions.

None. "Live wherever you like."

Not immediately, but finally because of Isaac's wealth only.

I conclude that each of these stores, strange as they might seem to twenty-first century ears, represents a different incident in the patriarchs' lives.

The Seriousness of Adultery (20:3-6)

It is sobering to see how seriously God sees adultery -- that is, having sexual intercourse with another person's spouse:

"But God came to Abimelech in a dream one night and said to him, 'You are as good as dead because of the woman you have taken; she is a married woman.'
Now Abimelech had not gone near her, so he said, 'Lord, will you destroy an innocent nation? Did he not say to me, "She is my sister," and didn't she also say, "He is my brother"? I have done this with a clear conscience and clean hands.'
Then God said to him in the dream, 'Yes, I know you did this with a clear conscience, and so I have kept you from sinning against me. That is why I did not let you touch her.'" (20:3-6)

In our day adultery is looked on negatively, as a moral failure, as "cheating," and perhaps grounds for divorce, but scarcely criminal. God sees it as a sin punishable by death (20:3) and a sin against God himself (20:6). Because Abimelech wasn't aware of Sarah's married status and hadn't had sex with her, God shows him mercy.

Q3. (20:3-6) What does this story teach us about God's view of adultery? Can God forgive a person who has committed adultery?
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Abraham the Prophet and Healer (20:7, 17)

This passage shows Abraham in a new light, as both a prophet and a healer:

"Now return the man's wife, for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you will live...." (20:7)
"Then Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Abimelech, his wife and his slave girls so they could have children again." (20:17)

The word "prophet" is the Hebrew noun nābî', "spokesman, prophet." The essential idea is that of authorized spokesman,[10] one who speaks and acts on behalf of Yahweh. It seems strange to us that God honors Abraham in Abimelech's eyes by calling him a prophet whose prayers for healing[11] God will give heed to. Nowhere is there a hint of censure towards Abraham.

Abraham's Excuses (20:11-13)

Look at Abraham's excuses:

"Abraham replied, 'I said to myself, "There is surely no fear of God in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife." Besides, she really is my sister, the daughter of my father though not of my mother; and she became my wife. And when God had me wander from my father's household, I said to her, 'This is how you can show your love to me: Everywhere we go, say of me, "He is my brother."'" (20:11-13)

His defense before this pagan but moral king's questions is elaborate:

  1. He believed that would be no justice for him in Gerar.
  2. He believed that he would be killed if they knew Sarah was his wife.
  3. Sarah was indeed a half-sister.
  4. He had asked her to maintain the brother-sister ruse out of love for him.
  5. This ruse was customary on their sojourns.
  6. He almost implicates God as the one who made this ruse necessary by forcing him a sojourner -- "And when God had me wander from my father's household, I said to her..." (20:13)

Based on Hurrian practices described in the Nuzi texts, Speiser believes that certain wife-sister marriage customs, practiced in Haran where Abraham had lived, help explain Abraham's actions:

"In Hurrian society the bonds of marriage were strongest and most solemn when the wife had simultaneously the juridical status of a sister, regardless of actual blood ties. This is why a man would sometimes marry a girl and adopt her at the same time as his sister."[12]

However, where true or not,[13] this observation seems irrelevant to Abraham's situation, since Sarah was already a half-sister by blood (20:12) and the Egyptians and Philistines recognized no such wife-sister distinctions.[14]

Was Abraham's and Sarah's Ruse Ethically Wrong?

I wouldn't call Abraham's and Sarah's deceit honorable. But I am uncomfortable being their judge. Their deceit is condemned by two pagan kings, but do the kings speak for God here? Here are the pertinent factors to consider in the ethics of the situation:

  • Abraham and Sarah are the "powerless" parties in the case of sexual exploitation. A king abducts whatever women he desires.
  • Abraham believes that his life, though not Sarah's life, will be forfeited if either of them tells the full truth.
  • Abraham and Sarah clearly deceive the kings, speaking a truth (that Sarah is Abraham's sister), but purposely leaving out the relevant detail (that Sarah is also Abraham's wife).

Are the kings ethically in the clear? No. They have taken by force what is not theirs to take. Abraham believes they will take his life, too, if they know the truth. The kings are not guilty of committing adultery wittingly, though God afflicts them for their guilt in the matter.

Are Abraham and Sarah ethically in the clear? Not exactly. They told a lie and their lie has caused others grief. Is Abraham a cad for not protecting his wife? By twenty-first century feminist standards he certainly is a cad. But in his own culture I'm not so sure. He emerges as someone who has done what he felt he had to do to survive. And God himself does not censure him on either occasion.

Yes, Abraham and Sarah are censured by (a) pagan kings who are accustomed to abducting beautiful women by force, (b) kings whom God has afflicted with diseases because of their actions, and (c) kings that are angry and are motivated to blame Abraham and Sarah for their plight. But is the kings' censure also God's? I'm not so sure.

Instead of Abraham being reprimanded or disciplined by God, in both instances he comes out richer than before -- and stays alive. These riches are seen as the blessing of God (24:35; compare 26:12-13; Deuteronomy 8:18; Job 1:10). Perhaps these incidents are early examples of an Old Testament theme that the riches of heathen nations will flow to the Israel and to Yahweh (Isaiah 23:18; 60:5-6, 11, 16; 61:6; 66:12; Micah 4:13; Zechariah 14:14).

These incidents are not told like moral stories to warn God's people of the consequences of deceit. Rather they seem like stories that illustrate God's mercy in spite of human weakness and God's determination to fulfill his promise to Abraham in spite of the attempts of foreign kings to frustrate God's will. In the face of Sarah's abduction by foreign kings, these stories illustrate the truth of God's initial promise to Abraham: "I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse..." (12:3).

I don't think that we should use these events in Abraham's life to justify not telling the truth or as examples of what happens when we deceive. That isn't what these stories are about or they would clearly draw that conclusion. They don't.

Is This a Lapse of Abraham's Faith?

Rather than fault Abraham and Sarah ethically or morally, perhaps it more appropriate to consider their actions on the basis of what it shows of their faith. Here is one interpretation of the weakness of their faith:

In the first instance in Egypt, God has made great promises to Abraham concerning blessing, the land, and his offspring. As yet, God hasn't been specific that Abraham's heir will come through Sarah (though Abraham should have assumed this). However, when faced with a crisis in Egypt, fear motivates Abraham and Sarah and they revert to the purely human ruse of a half-truth, rather than throw themselves on the mercy of God and believe God for deliverance.

By the time the second instance occurs in Gerar, Abraham knows God a lot better, and the promises are quite specific -- that Abraham will bear a son to be his heir and Sarah will be his mother (18:9-15). Still, Abraham and Sarah perpetrate the ruse rather than seeking God for deliverance in order to fulfill his promises to them.

Certainly neither Abraham's or Sarah's faith is highlighted in this account. But to judge Abraham and Sarah for lack of faith requires us to resort to an argument from silence. No where does the Scripture say that they did not seek God in these instances. I find it hard to believe that Abraham didn't pray to God prior to facing these threats from foreign kings.


Available in PDF and Kindle formats.

Perhaps, these two stories aren't intended to teach us about either ethics or faith. Perhaps these stories are intended to teach us about the intervention of God to keep his promises, regardless of the worthiness of his servants. God is sovereign and will keep his promises -- in spite of us, if need be. God has made a covenant with Abraham and will allow nothing to prevent its fulfillment. The Apostle Paul summed it up well in this saying:

"If we are faithless,
he will remain faithful,
for he cannot disown himself." (2 Timothy 2:13)

We disciples are to learn that God himself will keep his promises to us and to the human race. He is more powerful than any force that comes against us. We can trust him.

Q4. What do you think about Abraham's and Sarah's ethics and faith? Are they ethically and morally wrong? Does the Scripture intend to show that their actions as a lack of faith? What lessons should we disciples learn from these stories?
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Q5. (12:2-3) What relationship does God's promise to Abraham in 12:2-3 have to do with the incident of Sarah's abduction in 20:10-20?
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Prayer

Father, thank you for your steadfastness to your promises. Your mercies are new every morning. Great is thy faithfulness! I am weak, but you are faithful. Abraham and Sarah were under great stress in these situations, yet you came through for them, because you had made promises to them and would not break your word. Thank you for your character of faithfulness. Let me emulate that, O Lord, and learn to trust you more. In Jesus' name, I pray. Amen.

Key Verse

"Now return the man's wife, for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you will live. But if you do not return her, you may be sure that you and all yours will die." (Genesis 20:7)

References

Common Abbreviations http://www.jesuswalk.com/abraham/refs.htm

  1. Harold G. Stigers, TWOT #330.
  2. Diether Kellermann, gûr, TDOT 1:439-449; Robin J. DeWitt Knauth, "Alien, Foreign Resident," DOTP 26-33; Gustav Stählin, "xenos, ktl.," TDNT 5:8-20; Karl Ludwig Schmidt and Martin Anton Schmidt, "paroikos," TDNT 5:842-851; Karl Georg Kuhn, "prosēlutos," TDNT 6:728-730.
  3. "Beautiful" (NIV, NRSV) or "fair" (KJV) is the Hebrew yāpeh, "fair, beautiful, excellent," of physical beauty (Paul R. Gilchrist, TWOT #890a).
  4. Kidner, Genesis, p. 117.
  5. Mary J. Evans, "Women," DOTP 897-904.
  6. "Pharaohs were never loath to add ladies to their harems, foreign as well as Egyptian. Mentuhotep II (c. 2000 BC) had swarthy Nubian belles among his harem members buried at Thebes, while Syrian girls are known under Thutmose III (c. 1460 BC)" (Kenneth A. Kitchen, "Egypt, Egyptians," DOTP 208).
  7. Claus Fentz Krogh, From Abraham to Joseph. The historical reality of the Patriarchal age, www.genesispatriarchs.dk.
  8. T. Desmond Alexander, Abraham in the Negev: A source-critical investigation of Genesis 20:1-11:19 (Paternoster Press, 1997), p. 35. Alexander amends a formulation of motifs by D.L. Peterson, "A Thrice-told Tale: Genre, Theme and Motif," Biblical Research 18 (1973) 30-43.
  9. Alexander, Abraham in the Negev, p. 51.
  10. Robert D. Culver, TWOT #1277a.
  11. "Healed" is the Hebrew verb rāpā', "heal, make healthful" (William White, TWOT #2196). It is usually used literally of physical healing, but also occasionally figuratively, of the healing and forgiveness of Gentile nations (Isaiah 19:22; 57:18) and forgiveness of our sins (Isaiah 53:5).
  12. Speiser, Genesis, p. 92.
  13. Hamilton (Genesis 1:381-382) questions Speiser's handling of the Hurrian material.
  14. Speiser sees that the Hurrian wife-sister distinction might make a difference because "both Abraham and Isaac were married to women who enjoyed a privileged status by standards of their own society." Abraham might have emphasized this because "it enhanced the credentials of the visitors." I think the Hurrian wife-sister practices might have made more sense in Isaac's ruse that Rebekah was his sister, since she wasn't a blood sister, but one given to her by her brother Laban (Speiser, Genesis, p. 93).

Copyright © 1985-2014, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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