Maternal Lines: The Patriarchs (Part Two)

Having looked at the importance of endogamous marriages to the patriarchs [1], let us turn our attention to three of the most amusing stories in the Scriptures that deal with the patriarchs pretending that their wives are their sisters.  Let us first look at the text of all of these stories and then draw from them conclusions relating to what the Bible says about the influence of these stories to the issue of the importance of women to the family line of believers in biblical history.  There are, of course, many other reasons to be interested in these stories and their relationship to assumptions (often false) about the lack of honor of Gentile rulers, but let us at least attempt to keep the focus on our subject at hand [2].

The first “She’s my sister” story comes in Genesis 12:10-20:  “Now there was a famine in the land, and Abram went down to Egypt to dwell there, for the famine was severe in the land.  And it came to pass, when he was close to entering Egypt, that he said to Sarai his wife, “Indeed I know that you are a woman of beautiful countenance.  Therefore it will happen, when the Egyptians see you, that they will say, ‘This is his wife’; and they will kill me, but they will let you live.  Please say you are my sister, that it may be well with me for your sake, and that I may live because of you.”  So it was, when Abram came into Egypt, that the Egyptians saw the woman, that she was very beautiful.  The princes of Pharaoh also saw her and commended her to Pharaoh. And the woman was taken to Pharaoh’s house.  He treated Abram well for her sake. He had sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male and female servants, female donkeys, and camels.  But the Lord plagued Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife.  And 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’? I might have taken her as my wife. Now therefore, here is your wife; take her and go your way.”  So Pharaoh commanded his men concerning him; and they sent him away, with his wife and all that he had.”

The second “she’s my sister” story takes place in Genesis 20:1-18:  “And Abraham journeyed from there to the South, and dwelt between Kadesh and Shur, and stayed in Gerar.  Now Abraham said of Sarah his wife, “She is my sister.” And Abimelech king of Gerar sent and took Sarah.  But God came to Abimelech in a dream by night, and said to him, “Indeed you are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is a man’s wife.”  But Abimelech had not come near her; and he said, “Lord, will You slay a righteous nation also?  Did he not say to me, ‘She is my sister’? And she, even she herself said, ‘He is my brother.’ In the integrity of my heart and innocence of my hands I have done this.”  And God said to him in a dream, “Yes, I know that you did this in the integrity of your heart. For I also withheld you from sinning against Me; therefore I did not let you touch her.  Now therefore, restore 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 who are yours.”  So Abimelech rose early in the morning, called all his servants, and told all these things in their hearing; and the men were very much afraid.  And Abimelech called Abraham and said to him, “What have you done to us? How have I offended you, that you have brought on me and on my kingdom a great sin? You have done deeds to me that ought not to be done.”  Then Abimelech said to Abraham, “What did you have in view, that you have done this thing?”  And Abraham said, “Because I thought, surely the fear of God is not in this place; and they will kill me on account of my wife.  But indeed she is truly my sister. She is the daughter of my father, but not the daughter of my mother; and she became my wife.  And it came to pass, when God caused me to wander from my father’s house, that I said to her, ‘This is your kindness that you should do for me: in every place, wherever we go, say of me, “He is my brother.”’”  Then Abimelech took sheep, oxen, and male and female servants, and gave them to Abraham; and he restored Sarah his wife to him.  And Abimelech said, “See, my land is before you; dwell where it pleases you.”  Then to Sarah he said, “Behold, I have given your brother a thousand pieces of silver; indeed this vindicates you before all who are with you and before everybody.” Thus she was rebuked.  So Abraham prayed to God; and God healed Abimelech, his wife, and his female servants. Then they bore children; for the Lord had closed up all the wombs of the house of Abimelech because of Sarah, Abraham’s wife.”

The third “she’s my sister” story takes place in Gerar as well, and it is given in Genesis 26:1-11:  “There was a famine in the land, besides the first famine that was in the days of Abraham. And Isaac went to Abimelech king of the Philistines, in Gerar.  Then the Lord appeared to him and said: “Do not go down to Egypt; live in the land of which I shall tell you.  Dwell in this land, and I will be with you and bless you; for to you and your descendants I give all these lands, and I will perform the oath which I swore to Abraham your father.  And I will make your descendants multiply as the stars of heaven; I will give to your descendants all these lands; and in your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed; because Abraham obeyed My voice and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My laws.”  So Isaac dwelt in Gerar.  And the men of the place asked about his wife. And he said, “She is my sister”; for he was afraid to say, “She is my wife,” because he thought, “lest the men of the place kill me for Rebekah, because she is beautiful to behold.”  Now it came to pass, when he had been there a long time, that Abimelech king of the Philistines looked through a window, and saw, and there was Isaac, showing endearment to Rebekah his wife.  Then Abimelech called Isaac and said, “Quite obviously she is your wife; so how could you say, ‘She is my sister’?”  Isaac said to him, “Because I said, ‘Lest I die on account of her.’”  And Abimelech said, “What is this you have done to us? One of the people might soon have lain with your wife, and you would have brought guilt on us.”  So Abimelech charged all his people, saying, “He who touches this man or his wife shall surely be put to death.””

Unsurprisingly, these stories are connected to each other.  In Isaac’s story, he already has children at the time he pretends Rebekah is his sister, and already has two sons–one wonders where they were during this time, as they are not mentioned in the story.  He is forbidden from going to Egypt as Abraham did, and instead he goes to Gerar and does exactly what his father did with a previous (?) ruler of that city.  The apple does not fall far from the tree.  In all three stories the Gentile rulers show themselves as respectful of the patriarchs marriage, in all three cases the women involved appear to be very attractive, and in all three cases the loyalty of husband and wife to each other gives (relatively) righteous Gentile rulers the opportunity to show their relative obedience and for God to give blessings to the patriarchs.  Yet equally seriously, we see that the patriarchs were generally driven to close relationships with town dwellers only in times of famine when it was not possible to graze on land more distant from cities where they evidently did not feel comfortable.

It is the second story where we see the most relevant meaning to our own examination of the importance of the mother in fertility.  It is ironic, in a particularly appropriate way, that while Sarah was in Abimelech’s harem (but where nothing wrong had happened), the fertility of Abimelech’s household mirrored that of Sarah herself.  And it was right after Abraham and Sarah left Gerar that she became pregnant with Isaac.  What is most unclear for our purposes is the question as to why it was that Sarah was rebuked.  What was it that she was supposed to have done?  Abraham does not appear to have been rebuked for coming up with the story that Sarah was his sister.  Was Sarah supposed to have been demonstrative enough as a partner to make it obvious that they were married, as was the case between Isaac and Rebekah?  The Bible does not make the nature of the rebuke clear, and so it remains an odd mystery.  It is surely more than coincidence, though, that the patriarchs had a tendency both to marry close relatives and then to give partial truths about the nature of their relationships with their wives.  If men are willing to lie in order to protect their lives on account of how desirable their wives are, does that not say something interesting about how well they married?

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Bible, Biblical History, Christianity, History, Love & Marriage, Maternal Lines, Musings and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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