When Abram entered Egypt the Egyptians saw that the woman was very beautiful. When the officials of Pharaoh saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh. And the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house. And for her sake he dealt well with Abram;…(Gen 12:14-16a)
So far, everything is happening the way Abram predicted. When Pharaoh heard his officials tell him how beautiful Sarai was, she was taken into Pharaoh’s house. As her “brother,” Pharaoh dealt well with Abram. Just how did he deal well with her “brother”?
…and he had sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male and female slaves, female donkeys, and camels.(Gen 12:16b)
Hagar was almost certainly among the female slaves (Gen 16). Where did all this booty come from? Pharaoh wanted to get in good with Sarai’s closest male relative, so he would be favorably disposed to him. If he wants to marry Sarai, he has to go through her brother. What’s going on here? Does Abram really think they will kill him if they find out he is her husband? Or is he using her as a bargaining chip?
This does not sound like it can end well.
Foreshadowing the Exodus
But the LORD afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife. So Pharaoh called Abram, and said, “What is this you have done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife? 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 be gone.”
And Pharaoh gave his men orders concerning him; and they set him on the way, with his wife and all that he had.Gen 12:17-20 NRS)
The great plagues (not specified) are almost certainly meant to foreshadow the plagues that the LORD afflicts Pharaoh and Egypt with when Moses says, “Let my people go.” They set him on the way … with all he had, including all the gifts he had received from Pharaoh (v. 16). This also foreshadows the Egyptians essentially paying the Israelites to leave, because they were so desperate to be rid of them and their plagues.
Next, we find Abraham was a very rich man.
So Abram went up from Egypt, he and his wife, and all that he had, and Lot with him, into the Negeb. Now Abram was very rich in livestock, in silver, and in gold.(Gen 13:1-2 NRS)
Be Rich Like Abraham?
Some preachers love to talk about how rich Abraham was. They link it to this verse from Galatians.
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us– for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”– in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.(Gal 3:13-14 NRS)
“See, the blessing of Abraham is yours if you are in Christ Jesus,” they say. “Abraham was rich, so God wants you to be rich. God promised the blessing of Abraham for you.” Two problems with that.
- The blessing of Abraham has nothing to do with making you rich. Paul says the blessing of Abraham we receive when we are in Christ is the promise of the Spirit through faith. Besides, God also blessed Abraham and his wife by making them parents in their nineties. Do you think God will do the same for you?
- They praise Abraham for his wealth, but never talk about how he became wealthy.
Early in chapter 12, we learned that Abraham left his extended family and kindred in Haran to wander in Canaan. He left with possessions, so he earned some on his own. But we also just saw he got more livestock, silver, and gold through deceiving Pharaoh. Deceit is much more a part of the story of the Patriarchs than we want to acknowledge.
They Will Say, ‘This Is His Wife’; Then They Will Kill Me
I’ve been talking as if Pharaoh was an innocent victim, and Abram used his wife’s beauty to con him. But was Abram correct about the threat? Would Pharaoh really have killed him if he had known he was Sarai’s husband? I’m having a hard time finding the answer to that. But what if it is true?
Here is one possible scenario. Faced with starvation, Abraham decides to take his household to Egypt, where there is plenty of bread. He intended all along for the move to be temporary (Gen 12:10-11). After all, God sent him to Canaan, not Egypt. As soon as the land of Canaan could sustain his people, he would return.
Sojourn in Egypt
When Abraham gets to the border with his wife, his nephew Lot, his people, and his possessions, the soldiers notice his wife. They say she is his sister (according to plan). The guards report to Pharaoh, and he wants her as part of his harem. He tells them to follow plan A, take her to the palace and deal well with the brother. Plan B is to kill her husband, which they don’t do because (in Pharaoh’s mind) she has no husband..
Since the nearest male relative needs to sign off on the marriage, they bring gifts to Abraham and say, “The Pharaoh requests you and your sister join him for dinner tonight.” Of course, no one says “no” when the king makes a request, especially a foreigner who is only in the country at the king’s pleasure.
The pharaoh, having paid the bride-price for Sarai, takes her away. Abraham wants to protest, but when a king wants a woman for his harem, “no” is not an option. Esther and Bathsheba knew that quite well. What does Sarai do at this point? If she tells them Abram is her husband, he’s a dead man. If Pharaoh wants her in her bed, she can’t refuse. What does she do? Maybe she can play coy with him for a while, keeping him at arm’s length, but not burning that bridge altogether. Let him think she will have him (soon) in order to save her husband while trying her best to stay faithful.
That’s possible. But I know you’re dying to ask this question about Sarai and Pharaoh. Did they or didn’t they? To answer that, we need to dig into the Hebrew a little bit, and then compare this with the other “wife-sister” episode in Abraham’s story.
Did They or Didn’t They?
Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her for my wife? (Gen 12:19a NRS). We have the Pharaoh saying, “I took her for my wife” (Cf. Gen 4:19; 24:4, 67; 25:1-2). KJV renders it “So I might have taken her to me to wife.” That is the Sunday School version, where we don’t want to tell our children Abram pimped his wife to the Pharaoh in order to save his own hide. That version would have Pharaoh saying in effect, “You told me she was your sister. I might have taken her as my wife. I didn’t, but I might have.” And that would be reason enough for Pharaoh to protest.
In almost all modern translations, including NRS, NAS, ESV, NAB, NIV, there is no “might have.” The verb laqach in Hebrew typically means take. Like “take” in English, it can be used in many different ways. When paired with ‘ishshah (woman), it means to take [her] as a wife. In the Hebrew text, the verb would normally be translated in the simple past tense, i.e., I took her. (see Translation Notes below).
So did they or didn’t they? It sure sounds like they did. Translations that say anything to the effect “I might have taken her” appear to be uncomfortable with the obvious meaning of the text. But before we decide, we need to compare a similar incident.
Abimelech, King of Gerar: Another Unwitting John?
When Abraham sojourned in the territory of Gerar, Abimelech the king also took Sarah (Sarai and Abram’s names were changed in Genesis 17) into his household, because she was beautiful. This time, God speaks to the man who took Sarah from her “brother.”
But God came to Abimelech in a dream by night and said to him, “Behold, you are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is a man’s wife.”(Gen 20:3 ESV)
Laqach, the verb, again would be translated took or have taken. Now it sounds like he has had sex with her, and God is about to avenge her husband. But here is what we read just a little later. After Abimelech protests that he is innocent, because Abraham told him she was his sister, God says this:
“Yes, I know that you did this in the integrity of your heart; furthermore it was I who kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I did not let you touch her.”(Gen 20:6 NRS)
So it says he took her, which would normally indicate they had sex. But it also says God kept Abimelech from sinning against me and did not let you touch her, which means they did not have sex.
If you only look at the text about Abraham and Sarah in the land of Egypt, you would have to conclude Sarah slept with Pharaoh, because he took her as his wife. That’s usually what that means. But since we have this case where a man “took her” [as a wife] but never “touched her” (because God prevented him), it is possible this happened with Pharaoh as well.
Gerar “In the Hands of an Angry God”
Like Pharaoh, God visited Abimelech and his people with a plague (20:17-18; cf. 12:17). They must have been wondering what was wrong. Finally, they knew. God tells him how to remedy the situation.
“Now then, return the man’s wife; for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you shall live. But if you do not restore her, know that you shall surely die, you and all that are yours.”(Gen 20:7 NRS)
This is the only verse that specifically calls Abraham a prophet, but he has already been playing the role of a prophet in many ways. Of course, the king must restore the prophet’s wife to him. Abraham, as a prophet, will then pray and heal Abimelech and his household of their plague of childlessness that started when he took Sarah into his household.
What Have You Done to Us?
Naturally, he is furious with Abraham for putting him in that position.
So Abimelech rose early in the morning, and called all his servants and told them all these things; and the men were very much afraid. Then Abimelech called Abraham, and said to him, “What have you done to us? How have I sinned against you, that you have brought such great guilt on me and my kingdom? You have done things to me that ought not to be done.”
And Abimelech said to Abraham, “What were you thinking of, that you did this thing?”(Gen 20:8-10 NRS)
How have I sinned against you, that you have brought this great guilt on me and my kingdom? That sums it up quite well. Abraham brought the guilt upon them. That is no way to treat your host. Why would Abraham do this? It’s the same story we heard when he went to Egypt.
Abraham said, “I did it because I thought, There is no fear of God at all in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife. Besides, she is indeed my sister, the daughter of my father but not the daughter of my mother; and she became my wife.”(Gen 20:11-12 NRS)
This is where we find out Sarah is his half-sister.
We don’t know who her mother is, or under what circumstances she was born. My guess is Abraham and his brothers found out about her when she was a young girl, right about marriageable age. I wonder how they met. I wonder how they reacted when they found out they had the same father.
He says, I thought there is no fear of God at all in this place, but verses 8-10 say otherwise. When they found out God was offended and threatening to kill them, they very much feared God. Also in Kiriath-Arba (later renamed Hebron), he appears to have good relations with the people there (Gen 23:1-20). So as in Egypt, I have to wonder if this is real. Did they really kill husbands of beautiful women to take them as wives? After Abraham brought plagues on his host in Egypt, why is he doing this again? It turns out this was not limited to Egypt and Gerar.
“And when God caused me to wander from my father’s house, I said to her, ‘This is the kindness you must do me: at every place to which we come, say of me, He is my brother.’”(Gen 20:13 NRS)
He claims everywhere he goes, there is no fear of God. They will kill him to get to his wife, “so please, dear, say I am your brother.” I could see this happening in a place here or there, but do they really have to do this at every place to which they come? And just like in Egypt, he makes out like a bandit.
Then Abimelech took sheep and oxen, and male and female slaves, and gave them to Abraham, and restored his wife Sarah to him. Abimelech said, “My land is before you; settle where it pleases you.”(Gen 20:14-15 NRS)
More sheep, oxen, and male and female slaves. And this is to a man who already has a lot of these (13:2). After restoring his wife, Abimelech allows him to settle anywhere in his territory. That was very important to a man like Abraham with no land of his own. Could he have negotiated this without bringing plagues on his host?
Sarah is Innocent … This Time
To Sarah he said, “Look, I have given your brother a thousand pieces of silver; it is your exoneration before all who are with you; you are completely vindicated.”(Gen 20:16 NRS)
Abimelech declares in the open she is completely vindicated and restored to her husband, and nothing happened between them. She keeps her honor. But was that true in every place they went? Did she succeed in keeping every king from touching her? Or was Abraham pimping her out for cattle, sheep, slaves, gold, and silver everywhere they went?
And was Sarah really unwilling? The first time, she might have just gone along because everything happened too fast for her to think it through. What if Abraham is right and they will kill my husband? But if they kept doing this everywhere they went, she had to be a knowing accomplice.
Apparently, we are supposed to believe that every king in Canaan and Egypt had a standing policy of killing husbands of beautiful women, so they could take them into their harem. If the woman wasn’t married, he would acquire her the normal way, by negotiating with her closest male relative. Abraham only started doing this in Egypt, which means he passed through the land of Canaan without ever having to do this with the kings there. Now, we’re told he has to do this everywhere, because every king they had already met suddenly started killing husbands, even though this was never an issue before.
And why didn’t word get around? You’d think after this happened to one king, word would have spread along the trade routes. “Sarah is beautiful, but don’t believe her or her husband Abraham when they say they are siblings. They are husband and wife. You’ll be stealing a man’s wife, and his God will bring plagues on you until you release her.”
Is There Really No Fear of God in Every One of These Places?
Here’s what Matthew Henry’s commentary says about it:
Pharaoh’s reproof of Abram was very just: “What is this that thou hast done?” How unbecoming a wise and good man!…
The sending away was kind. Pharaoh was so far from any design to kill Abram, as he feared, that he took particular care of him. We often perplex ourselves with fears which are altogether groundless. Many a time we fear where no fear is.
Pharaoh charged his men not to harm Abram in anything. It is not enough for those in authority that they do not hurt themselves; they must keep their servants and those about them from doing hurt.Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible (Complete), Genesis 12:10-20, retrieved from https://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/matthew-henry-complete/genesis/12.html
I am inclined to agree with Henry. The evidence that Pharaoh would have killed Abram is flimsy at best. Maybe Abram really believed it. But if so, it seems he “perplexed himself with fears which were altogether groundless.” And when you see someone claim they fear for their lives yet walk away not only unharmed but richer than before, that is always suspicious. What are we to think when Abraham profits over and over again from the same “mistake”?
Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love
And Sarah was sixty-six when they started doing this. Okay, this is going to be a little politically incorrect, but we need to get real here. At sixty-six years old, Sarah is not only beautiful. She is smoking hot. When a king who already has a harem with just about every beautiful woman in the territory at his beck and call, and he sees another woman and says, “I’ve got to have her,” we’re not talking about inner beauty. We’re not talking about personality. We’re not talking about love. We’re talking lust. At. First. Sight.
Could a sixty-six year old woman be so hot she would inspire instant lust in a man like that? Maybe. I’ve seen some women in their sixties who look good. What about a woman ninety years old and likely pregnant (18:10-15)? I’m sorry. I’m just not seeing it.
I’m not saying she couldn’t be beautiful to her husband or to people who knew her. I know men (including myself) need to focus more on inner beauty than outer beauty, but try telling a king he needs to do that. Try telling a king with a harem he needs to stop collecting “barbie doll” wives and concubines and find a soul mate. See how far you get with him. The kind of beauty the story is saying Sarah has at this age just does not happen, even for a woman who lived to be one hundred twenty-seven.
And we are supposed to believe they got away with this? Repeatedly? He said he asked Sarah to do this every place they went (20:13). As I said before, after this happened in Egypt, how could word of this not have gotten around to all the kingdoms of Canaan and Mesopotamia, given the extensive trade that went on in the area?
There is no way Abraham and Sarah look good in this. Sarah might have done it reluctantly the first time to protect her husband. But by the time they got to Abimelech, they had to be a team on this. The king’s officials ask about her and Abraham’s relationship, and they say they are brother and sister. That’s half-true but omits the most important detail.
The king takes her into the palace so he can woo her. Sarah plays coy but most likely slept with some of the kings they scammed. God shakes down the king with plagues. The king pays them, so Abraham will pray and remove the curse. So every time, Sarah and Abraham leave richer than they came in. We don’t know how Abraham became rich in Haran, but doing this in every place is how they became very very rich.
The episode with Abimelech raises the possibility that Sarah never really slept with Pharaoh. If you wanted to say Pharaoh took her as a wife but did not touch her, this is your best evidence. But in the process, the author made Abraham and Sarah both look far worse than if she slept with Pharaoh.
And this is the man and woman God chose to initiate the God’s covenant with the Jews? The bloodline of the Messiah officially starts with them. That seems to be why God protects them. The Bible does say that God’s call and gifts are irrevocable, apparently even for such scoundrels (Romans 11:29).
At this point, I’m almost inclined to believe kings really did kill men to claim their beautiful wives, simply on the ground that no one in ancient times wanted their nation’s founder to be so deeply flawed. Even so, it still sounds too far-fetched to be real for reasons I named above.
Usually, when authors make up stories about their founders and heroes, they try to make them look better and more praiseworthy. This author seems to have deliberately made Abraham and Sarah look worse as human beings. Why? I can think of two reasons, which I will explain in the next two blog posts.
In Genesis 12:19 and 20:3, the key verb is laqach. The simple meaning is “take,” but when paired with ‘ishshah, it means “to take [a woman] as a wife.” Here is an excerpt from the Brown-Driver-Briggs Lexicon.
7. l¹qaµ °iššâ take a wife Gn 251, for onesf. Gn 419, for s.one else Gn 244, l¹qaµ °œt¹h lô le°iššâ Gn 1219;
וָאֶקַּ֥ח אֹתָ֛הּ לִ֖י לְאִשָּׁ֑ה (WTT) – וְ particle conjunction לקח verb qal waw consec imperfect 1st person common singular.
Translation would normally be “I took her as my wife.”
In Genesis 20:3, the phrase, the woman whom you have taken, in Hebrew is
עַל־הָאִשָּׁ֣ה אֲשֶׁר־לָקַ֔חְתָּ (Gen 20:3 WTT).
laqach is qal 2nd masc. sing., “… you took,” or “… you have taken.”
So in both cases, it should be translated in the simple past tense. There is nothing to favor the KJV rendering “I might have taken her.”