The Meaning of the “Wife-Sister” Stories

The Meaning of the “Wife-Sister” Stories

In my last post, I talked about the “wife-sister” episodes in Abraham’s saga. I pointed out they are problematic in these ways:

  1. Abraham and Sarah are supposed to be paragons of both faith and faithfulness (Rom 4:19), but these stories present them as anything but.
  2. The stories are presented in a way that suggest they could not have really happened.
  3. There is no evidence (that I know of) that kings in that world behaved this way.
  4. If they never really happened and made them look bad, why would a Jewish author present these stories of the founders of the Jewish people in such a bad light, not only once or twice, but every place they went (Gen 20:13)?

I’m going to answer those questions in this post. But first, there is one more nagging question. Why didn’t God reprimand Abraham?

From what I’ve gathered, God appears to Abraham for these reasons:

  1. To make promises to Abraham (usually through a covenant).
  2. To keep promises to Abraham
  3. To protect the bloodline of the Messiah.

But we don’t see God reprimanding Abraham in any of God’s appearances, even when it looks like he needs it. In his assessment, Dr. Ralph F. Wilson says,

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 [bold mine]. 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.

Sarah’s Abduction (Genesis 12:10-20 and 20:1-18)

These “sister-wife” episodes don’t present Abraham and Sarah as heroes in any fashion. But they do show God keeping God’s promises to Abraham.

  1. God promised, “I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse”  (Gen 12:3 NRS). When Abimelech took Abraham’s wife, God warned him he’d better return her to him, or he was a dead man. Promise kept.
  2. God had just promised Abraham and Sarah, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife shall have a son” (Gen 18:10 ESV). Sarah has been infertile her whole life, but God has just spoken her fertility into existence. What if she’s not pregnant yet? If Abimelech makes her pregnant, the promise to Abraham is broken. Therefore, as God said, “it was I who kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I did not let you touch her” (Gen 20:6 NRS). God is keeping that promise to Abraham.
  3. God told Abraham, “But my covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this season next year” (Gen 17:21 NRS). In some parts of the world, people believed that if two men lay with the same woman, the child could be begotten of both fathers. I don’t know if this was the case in Abraham’s culture, but even if it wasn’t, God wanted it to be clear. The child born of Sarah (Isaac) came from Abraham. If she had just become pregnant, that question would always be uncertain. If that is the case, God is again protecting the bloodline of the Messiah.

You might have an issue with how God acted here, protecting Abraham and Sarah without reprimanding them for their deceit. It’s easier to understand with Pharaoh than here. When they went to Egypt, God speaking to Abraham was still new. For us looking back, it’s easy to say he should have trusted God more. But trust is something that is built over time. By the time we get to the Abimelech episode, Abraham has had twenty-five years walking before God to learn this lesson. God promised to curse those who curse you, so why do you still not trust God? Do you still think you have to pass your wife off as your sister?

I admit I have the same issue. But as I said in earlier posts, I’ll say it again. I’m not interested in justifying the motivations of these characters, whether it be Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Abimelech, or even God. I’m interested in understanding their motivations. That’s the writer in me. We need to understand our characters, even if we disagree with them.

That is another way I agree with Dr. Wilson. This is not a lesson in ethics or faith. It certainly is not a “Go and do likewise” passage. It is about God keeping God’s promises. That is something God will always do, “regardless of the worthiness of his servants” (Wilson). So here is a little more from Dr. Wilson.

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…will keep [God’s] promises to us and to the human race. [God] is more powerful than any force that comes against us. We can trust [God].

Sarah’s Abduction (Genesis 12:10-20 and 20:1-18)

But did this really happen?

In my last post I also said I have a hard time believing this is real because

  1. Sarah is ninety at this point. Is she really going to attract the attention of a king who already has a harem of young, beautiful wives and concubines?
  2. Abraham said he did it every place he went, because he thought there was no fear of God in any of the cities of Canaan. Yet there are clear examples in his own story where that is just not the case.
  3. I haven’t found any evidence outside the Bible where the kings of Egypt and Canaan made a habit of killing the husbands of beautiful women, so they could claim them for their harem. After twenty-five years of wandering in Canaan, Abraham should have noticed this.
  4. How could he have gotten away with telling this fib every place he went, when word certainly would have spread along the trade routes? That kind of ruse could not have fooled the kings and their officials for so long.

So why did the author do this? Why tell the same story twice when even once made their founding ancestors look so bad? And why tell it in a way that strained credibility to the breaking point?

New Word: Doublet

Oxford Online Biblical Studies defines a doublet as

A second version of a saying or of a narrative. [For example] Mark 8: 1–9 is regarded as a doublet of the previous account (6: 35–44) of the feeding of the multitude. But when small units are repeated it is not always easy to know whether these are doublets or deliberate repetitions for stylistic effect.

Doublet

It is generally accepted among scholars that these stories circulated orally for hundreds of years before they were written down and collected into what we call the Torah, or the Five Books of Moses. We have two different stories of Abraham and Sarah telling kings she is his sister because they fear the king will kill him if they know he is her husband. There is even a third such story involving Isaac and Rebekah, also with Abimelech of Gerar (Gen 26). How did he get fooled the same way twice? Could we be looking at an ancient “urban legend”?

Here’s my take on it. It started as one story of Abraham and Sarah, either in Gerar or Egypt. That story got passed down orally. In different places, some of the details changed over time. Three versions of the same story were preserved in the Torah.

  1. Abram and Sarai with Pharaoh of Egypt.
  2. Abraham and Sarah with Abimelech of Gerar.
  3. Isaac and Rebekah with Abimelech of Gerar.

Dr. Wilson believes this is not a doublet (or a triplet in this case). There are so many differences in the details that they could not be merely three versions of the same story, he claims. Yes they could, if the same story were told in three different locations over hundreds of years. The differences are significant. But they are exactly the kind of differences that happen when the same tradition is preserved orally in different communities.

Urban Legends

Urban Legend movie poster
Urban Legend: What you don’t believe can kill you.

This story also has a lot of marks of what we call today “urban legends.” Snopes.com gives this definition.

Urban legends are best described as cautionary or moralistic tales passed along by those who believe (or claim) the incidents befell either folks they know … or acquaintances of friends or family members.

-David Mikkelson, Urban Legend Definition

Wikipedia says:

An urban legend, urban myth, urban tale, or contemporary legend is a genre of folklore comprising stories circulated as true, especially as having happened to a friend or family member, often with horrifying or humorous elements. These legends can be entertainment, but often concern mysterious peril or troubling events, such as disappearances and strange objects. They may also be moralistic confirmation of prejudices or ways to make sense of societal anxieties.

Whereas legends usually take place in the distant past, urban legends are contemporary to the speaker and the audience. The teller claims it really happened, but no further evidence exists. Over time, the details change as the setting changes. For example, in one place, Egypt changes to Gerar, or vice-versa. Abram and Sarai change to Abraham and Sarah, because the Gerar incident is reported after God changed their names. Maybe in another locale, instead of Abraham and Sarah, they say it happened to Isaac and Rebekah. One teller says Sarah slept with Pharaoh. Another is not comfortable with that, so they say God intervened to stop Abimelech from sleeping with Sarah.

Most cultures have urban legends in some form. They are usually cautionary tales against behavior the listener might be tempted to do. The Snopes article says,

The legends we tell reflect current societal concerns and fears as well as confirm the rightness of our views. It is through such stories that we attempt to make sense of our world, which at times can appear to be capricious and dangerous.

– Mikkelson, Urban Legend

In ancient times, they were transmitted orally, and some of them were written down. There is usually a moral and/or a theological component to them. Even though, as I said above, these wife-sister legends do not show proper ethics, there are moral components to them:

  1. Kings need to be wary of bringing a strange woman into their harem.
  2. Adultery is unacceptable, even for a king.
  3. Using deceit to protect yourself may bring guilt on the innocent.
  4. Our fears of the “other” are not necessarily true.

The theological lesson is quite simple: God keeps God’s promises, sometimes even in spite of our unworthiness.

Modern examples

Today with the Internet, an urban legend can spread all over the world in an instant. Recently, two people who don’t know each other told me Steve Perry, former lead singer of Journey, was dead. Turns out, he is very much alive. How did they hear the same “fake news”? Someone started a rumor on the Internet, a rumor which had no basis in fact. I don’t know if that qualifies as an urban legend, but it shows how something salacious or shocking can spread quickly, whether it’s true or not.

Perhaps a better example is one from my childhood. Around Halloween, we would hear stories of people in a nearby neighborhood hiding razor blades in candy. It wasn’t just from other kids. Some adults told us that, so it must be true. Then you heard kids who moved from other towns telling the same story about neighborhoods in their town. Did it ever really happen to anyone? As far as I know, there was never any evidence of it happening anywhere. But just about every kid had heard it as if it happened close to them.

What was the purpose of telling us that? Not to teach us a history lesson about our neighborhood. It was a cautionary tale against trusting others too easily. It warned us there are evil people out there who would enjoy doing harm to us. And unfortunately, you just have to watch the news to see that is true. It’s part of the whole lesson they tried to teach us, “Don’t talk to strangers.” And don’t just dive into a bag of candy you collected from strangers. At least, let your mom look at it first. Maybe you should look for signs of tampering. And bite into it carefully.

With most urban legends, there could have been some real life inspiration. For example, the legend involving a serial killer with a hook could have originated with a series of “lovers’ lane” murders in Texarkana in 1946.

This scared the pants off me when I was young.

So my conclusion is, since these “wife-sister” episodes have all the hallmarks of an urban legend, that’s how we should read them. There might have been a real incident one time, but the story spread so far and wide, there is no way to tell when, where, how often, or even if it really happened.

For Writers: Plotting

When it came to the stories of Abraham and Sarah, the author had two different traditions regarding Abraham passing off Sarah as his sister (plus the one about Isaac). Even if they were urban legends, they were both sacred traditions and needed to be preserved. This is not the only instance in the Abraham saga where it looks like there are two different versions of similar stories. Sarah drives Hagar and Ishmael away twice. God promises Abraham he will have a son with Sarah twice. There are two stories involving Lot in Sodom. Why all these doublets?

Besides looking at two different traditions, I believe the answer has to do with plotting. It turns out there is a way of plotting stories in the Bible that works well in this kind of situation.

It’s similar to the plotting of many popular stories today as well. In modern writing classes, when they teach about plot, they usually teach the most common pattern called Freytag’s Pyramid.

The story starts with Exposition, setting the scene for the protagonist (the main character). There is an inciting incident (the point where the line turns up) that takes him out of his ordinary life and forces him to pursue a goal. In the Rising Action, there are obstacles along the way. Often, though not always, there is an antagonist (villain) who opposes him. The action and peril keep rising until the story reaches a Climax (often the direct confrontation with the antagonist), the moment or conflict to which the Rising Action has been leading. After the Climax, there is Falling Action that leads to a Resolution.

For example, in The Wizard of Oz, the climax is when Dorothy and her friends are trapped in the Wicked Witch’s castle, and Dorothy (protagonist) defeats the witch (antagonist). {Sorry for the spoiler, but this is one story I assume we all know}. But her goal was not to defeat the witch. Her goal was to get home. After the climax, the falling action is what she does to get home. The Wizard is revealed to be a fraud. Even so, he helps the Lion get his courage, the Tin Man get his heart, and the Scarecrow get his brain. The resolution is when Dorothy, with help from the Good Witch, makes it home.

In some stories, the resolution can be very short. One short story I’d say is must reading for any author is “The Most Dangerous Game” by Richard Connell, first published in Collier’s on January 19, 1924. The climax happens near the end of the story, and the resolution is literally one sentence. So after the Climax, the falling action and resolution are where unanswered questions get answered and loose ends get tied up. How long is it? In modern times, it is as long as you need it to be, whether it’s one sentence or several chapters. However, audiences today are used to fairly short resolutions. In Connell’s story, one sentence was enough for both the falling action and the resolution.

Plotting, Biblical style

In Biblical times, they found a longer resolution more satisfying, especially when each key event came full circle. In the diagram below, you can see how this pattern is played out in the Abraham saga. There is rising action leading to a climax, but each key event in the rising action is somehow mirrored in the falling action and resolution.

Story of Abraham events that form a pyramid
If we rotate left, it would form a pyramid. X marks the climax of the story–Expulsion and rescue of Hagar, Gen 16:1-16.

Sorry if it’s hard to read. I don’t have a drawing program (or I probably do but don’t know how to use it), so I couldn’t make this a true pyramid. But you see how each event from A to G builds to a Climax marked X. After the Climax, the events in the Resolution are marked with a prime and follow the same order (mostly) from G to A. The story began and ended with a genealogy (A and A’). The wife-sister episodes are marked D and D’. Each key event leading up to the climax is either echoed or resolved in the Resolution, and mostly in reverse order.

This diagram shows the first instance of Hagar leaving as the climax. I would have thought the climax would have been the birth of Isaac (Gen 21:1-7). That was the event all the action had been building to. But that would throw off the symmetry that’s clear in the diagram. This pattern of storytelling is common in the Bible, so it’s safe to assume the original audience would have found this story structure satisfying.

The episode with Abimelech is placed after the promise of a son for Abraham and Sarah, some twenty-five years after the episode with Pharaoh. Taken on its own, the story sounds like it should have happened earlier. Abraham sounds very inexperienced in terms of his faith in God, not too surprising in Egypt, but by now you really think he should know better.

Here’s my take. I think this was originally early in the story, but the author moved it to the D’ position to create a more enjoyable story experience for his audience. However, if he did this for the two wife-sister episodes, why did he place the border dispute with Abimelech (E’) in the “wrong” position? I don’t know. But if you remove E and E’ from the diagram, the overall story of Abraham follows the pattern perfectly.

Conclusion

So to answer the issues I started with,

  1. Abraham and Sarah are supposed to be paragons of both faith and faithfulness (Rom 4:19), but these stories present them as anything but. However, the stories are not about their heroism. They are about how God kept God’s promises in spite of their unworthiness.
  2. The stories are presented in a way that suggest they could not have really happened. These are examples of urban legends. Therefore, any lessons we are supposed to glean from them have nothing to do with whether or not they “really happened.” The lessons are in the stories themselves.
  3. There is no evidence (that I know of) that kings in that world behaved this way. See #2.
  4. If they never really happened and made them look bad, why would a Jewish author present these stories of the founders of the Jewish people in such a bad light, not only once but twice (Gen 20:13)? The story is about how God keeps God’s promises, which was always an important theme to the Jewish people. The author had a doublet of what appeared to be the same story and wanted to preserve both versions. Ancient Hebrew story practices allowed him to do that by placing one in the rising action and the other in the falling action.

Resources for Writers

A list of American urban legends

Show Don’t Tell: checklists for showing different emotions

Plot Diagram Templates

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