Wife–sister narratives in the Book of Genesis

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There are three wife-sister narratives in Genesis, part of the Torah, all of which are strikingly similar. The narratives occur in Genesis 12, 20 and 26. At the core of each is the story of a Biblical Patriarch, who has come to be in the land of a powerful foreign overlord who misidentifies the Patriarch's wife as the Patriarch's sister, and consequently attempts to wed her himself. The overlord later finds out his error. Two of the three stories are similar in many other details, including the ruler's name, Abimelech.

Synopsis of the three narratives[edit]

Sarai Is Taken to Pharaoh's Palace by James Tissot.

Abram and Pharaoh[edit]

The first episode appears in Genesis 12:10-20, and is the briefest of the three.

Abram (later called Abraham) is pressured to move to Egypt in order to evade a famine. Because his wife (also his half-sister), Sarai, is very beautiful, Abram asks her to say that she was only his sister lest the Egyptians kill him so that they can take her. On arriving before the Pharaoh, the Egyptians recognise Sarai's beauty, and the Egyptian princes shower Abram with gifts of livestock and servants to gain her hand in marriage. Sarai thus becomes part of "Pharaoh's house" (believed to mean his harem), but Yahweh sends a plague to punish Pharaoh - probably in order to protect him from committing adultery (Ross, A.P., 1988, Creation and Blessing). Pharaoh realizes the truth of the matter, restores Sarai to Abram and orders them to leave Egypt with all the possessions Abram had acquired in Egypt.

Abraham and Abimelech[edit]

The second episode is split into two parts. The first part is in Genesis 20:1-16 and the second in Genesis 21:22-34. The first part begins with Abraham emigrating to the southern region of Gerar, whose king is named Abimelech. (Note that, by this time, God has changed Abram and Sarai's names to Abraham and Sarah, respectively, as stated at Genesis 17:5,15.) Abraham states that Sarah, his wife, is really his sister, leading Abimelech to try to take Sarah as a wife; however, God intervened before Abimelech touched Sarah. God visits Abimelech in a dream and tells him the truth, acknowledging that Abimelech made the mistake innocently, but ordering Abimelech to restore Sarah to Abraham. Abimelech complains to Abraham, who states that he did not exactly lie, since Sarah is his half-sister.

Abimelech rebuking Abraham by Wenceslas Hollar. Abimelech asks Abraham, "What has thou done unto us?"

Abimelech then restores Sarah to Abraham, and gives him gifts of livestock and servants by way of apology, and also allows Abraham to reside anywhere in Gerar. Abimelech also gives 1000 pieces of silver to Abraham to reprove Sarah by a "covering of the eyes". The story then states for the first time that Abimelech, his wife, and household, had previously been punished for Abimelech's mistake concerning Sarah, by being made infertile; suggesting that Sarah had remained Abimelech's wife for quite some time before God visited him and corrected his error.

After an intermission concerning the birth of a son to Abraham and Sarah, the second half of the story begins with Abimelech requesting Abraham swear an oath of non-aggression towards Abimelech and his family, to which Abraham agrees. Abimelech's servants later "violently take away" a well, and so Abraham complains to Abimelech, who apologises. Abraham then sets aside seven ewes as witness to his having dug the well, and Abraham, Abimelech, and Phichol, Abimelech's chief captain, then make a covenant, and leave each other. The place the covenant was made is consequently named Beersheba, which translates either to well of oaths or well of seven or seven wells, and according to Genesis 21:33, Abraham plants a tamarisk tree there in memory.

Isaac and Abimelech[edit]

The third episode appears in Genesis 26:1-33. Here it is Isaac who, in order to avoid a famine, emigrates to the southern region of Gerar, whose king is named Abimelech. Isaac has been told to do so by Yahweh, who also orders him to avoid Egypt, and promises to him the fulfillment of the oath made with Abraham. Isaac states that Rebekah, his wife, is really his sister, as he is worried that the Philistines will otherwise kill him in order to marry Rebekah. After a while, Abimelech spots Isaac sporting (the word is used of laughter in Genesis 18 and is derived from the name Isaac. Abimelech knew that a brother does not 'yitsak' his sister) with Rebekah, and states that she must be Isaac's wife rather than his sister.

Isaac and Abimelech Swear Friendship. This occurred at Beersheba.

Abimelech then orders that Rebekah be left alone by the denizens of Gerar, on pain of death. Isaac goes on to spend a year in the area, and gradually built up a large household of servants, and a strong possession of livestock, leading to the envy of the Philistines of Gerar, so Abimelech sends Isaac away. Noting that the wells that Abraham had dug have since been filled in, Isaac re-digs them, giving etymologies for three:

  • Esek (which means argument) gaining its name due to the Gerar herdsmen contesting the ownership of the well
  • Sitnah (which means opposition) gaining its name due to the Gerar herdsmen also contesting this well
  • Rehoboth (which means enlarged space) gaining its name because Yahweh made room for Isaac

Isaac then travels to Beersheba (given its name in Genesis 21:31), and Yahweh appears to him, so Isaac builds an altar there. Abimelech then meets Isaac there, with a friend named Ahuzzath, and Phichol, Abimelech's chief captain. They then make an oath of non-aggression, hold a feast, and then depart from one another. Later on the same day, Isaac's servants report to him that they have found another well, so he names the place in such a way that it later becomes known as Beersheba. Beer is the Hebrew word for well, the other half of the word is explained as due to Isaac naming the location:

Historical-critical analysis of the narratives[edit]

The Jewish Encyclopedia's article "Sarah" notes that

"the story of Sarah's life, brief and incomplete as it is, presents nevertheless curious repetitions, e.g., the incident with Pharaoh and a similar incident with Abimelech (Genesis 22:10 and Genesis 20:1)."

Striking parallels occur between the tales of Isaac and Abimelech and Abraham and Abimelech, both of which involve the names of Gerar, Abimelech, and Phichol, all taking the same roles in the story, with Phichol and Abimelech making the oath to the Patriarch at Beersheba, which was consecrated to the Israelite deity, and with Abimelech previously coming to realise that the Patriarch's wife is just that. The Egyptian story on the other hand resembles an abridgement, with the later treaty cut out of the story, and on the whole appearing in its own context to be an odd irrelevant aside. As they currently stand in the Torah, it appears that Beersheba is named for the first time twice, for the same reasons, consecrated for the first time twice, and that there are either two consecutive Abimelechs who are each king of Gerar in turn, and each have a captain of the guard named Phichol, or that these are the same long lived individual, with each instance of Abimelech correcting an earlier identification of the Patriarch's sister with his wife, and desiring to make a non-aggression pact covering multiple generations with the Patriarchs at Beersheba.

According to the Jewish Encyclopedia, the recurring story has a unified purpose:

"From the point of view of the history of culture these episodes are very instructive. But it is not very probable that Abraham would have run the risk twice. Moreover, a similar incident is reported in regard to Isaac and Rebecca (Genesis 26:7-11). This recurrence indicates that none of the accounts is to be accepted as historical; all three are variations of a theme common to the popular oral histories of the Patriarchs. That women were married in the way here supposed is not to be doubted. The purpose of the story is to extol the heroines as most beautiful and show that the Patriarchs were under the special protection of the Deity."

This view takes the marital framework at face value, as historical.

Comparison to other cultures[edit]

There are dissenting voices. According to Emanuel Feldman (1965), basing his argument on Albright's interpretation of the archaeology of Nuzi, a wife could legally be awarded the title "sister", and that this was the most sacred form of marriage, and hence Abraham and Isaac referred to their wives as "sisters" for this reason. Most archaeologists[who?] however dispute that view, instead arguing the opposite - that sisters in the region were often awarded the title "wife" in order to give them much greater status in society. Neither case however, completely justifies the parallels.[citation needed]

Other scholarship suggests another cultural explanation for the behavior of Abraham and Isaac. Political marriages were common occurrences in the Near East during the second and first millennia B.C.E., which typically meant that a resident alien would offer one of his daughters to the monarch as a diplomatic action and to protect himself and his family. In the wife-sister narratives found in the Book of Genesis, Abraham and Isaac are traveling in foreign territory without any daughters to offer the local ruler. Therefore, in declaring that their wives were actually sisters, they attempted to create similar diplomatic relationships.[1]

Source criticism[edit]

From the perspective of source criticism, these three accounts would appear to be variations on the same theme, with the oldest explication being that in Gen. 12.[2] In the past, the first and third accounts have been attributed to the Yahwist source (or J source), and the second account has been attributed to the Elohist source (or the E source) via source criticism. However, it has also been proposed that similarities between these narratives is because they are oral variations of one original story. Recently, it has been thought that the second and third accounts were based on and had knowledge of the first account. According to critics, such as T.D. Alexander, there are different theories about the sources but none can be proven to be flawless.[3]

Literary analysis[edit]

Additionally, scholars have also argued that the three tales are not true historic occurrences, rather purposeful tales. According to Niditch, there is one wife-sister story that has many different versions, but there are inconsistencies and they all refer back to the same story. Niditch associates the wife-sister entries as potential folklore written to target a particular audience and in hopes of conveying a message regarding the sinful nature of deception and adultery.[4]

The three wife-sister narratives are all related to each other in some way, according to Coats, sharing common content, structure and genre for communicating the content. In all three stories a promise for progeny is not a factor in the content and the structure rather the narratives have a focus on blessing.[5]

The wife and sister relationships[edit]

Hepner concludes, through Biblical exegesis and semantics, that it is plausible that the union of Abraham and Sarah was actually incestuous with Sarah being Abraham's half-sister. For example, in Genesis 20: 13, Abraham, talking to Abimelech, alludes to Leviticus laws or the Holiness code, by using the phrase "lovingkindness." The same word is found referring to the sin of incestuous relationships and can also take the alternative meaning of "disgrace." Abraham, in his discourse with Abimelech, could be openly confessing his "disgraceful" relations with his wife/sister Sarah but whichever translation of the word is taken, it shows Abraham's knowledge of the Holiness code and specifically the clauses pertaining to incest found within Leviticus.[6]

Jewish and Christian interpretations[edit]

An explanation presented in classical times, and suggested by Rashi, argued that when a stranger comes to town, the proper thing to do would be to inquire if he needs food and drink, not whether his female companion is a married woman, and hence as Abimelech did the latter, it tipped off Abraham to the fact that there is no fear of God in this place, and so he lied about his relationship with Sarah in order to avoid being killed. Consequently, it could be argued that the parallel behaviour results from this lack of fear of God by the antagonists in the other two similar situations.

Christian interpretation of the incidents has varied considerably. Some commentators have seen them as regrettable exceptions in the lives of those who otherwise lived upright lives, in the same sense perhaps as Noah's and Lot's drunkenness and David's adultery. On the other hand, commentators such as Allan Turner, in his essay "Lying: Is It Ever Right?", takes the standpoint that the patriarchal individuals did not actually lie, but merely concealed part of the truth.[7]


  1. ^ Hoffmeier, James K. The Wives' Tales of Genesis 12, 20, & 26 and the Covenants at Beer-Sheba.
  2. ^ Ronning, John (1991). "The naming of Isaac: the role of wife/sister episodes in the redaction of Genesis". Westminster Theological Journal. Biblical Studies.org.uk. 53 (1): 1–27. Pdf.
  3. ^ Alexander, T.D. (1992). Vetus Tentamentum: Are the Wife/Sister Incidents of Genesis Literary Compositional Variants?. p. 145. 
  4. ^ Niditch, Susan (1987). Underdogs and tricksters: a prelude to biblical folklore. San Francisco: Harper & Row. pp. 23–50. 
  5. ^ Coats, George, ed. (1985). "A Threat to the Host". Saga Legend Tale Novella Fable. JSOT Press. pp. 71–81. 
  6. ^ Hepner, Gershon (2003). Abraham's Incestuous Marriage with Sarah a Violation of the Holiness Code. Los Angeles: Koninklijke Bril NV. pp. 144–155.
  7. ^ Turner, Allan. "Is it ever right to lie?". allanturner.com. 


P literature.svg This literature-related list is incomplete; you can help by expanding it.
  • Israel Finkelstein (2002). The Bible Unearthed. Free Press. ISBN 0-684-86913-6. 
  • Robin Lane Fox (1992). The Unauthorized Version. Knopf. p. 409f. 
  • Richard Elliott Friedman (1987). Who Wrote The Bible?. New York: Harper and Row. ISBN 0-06-063035-3. 
  • Richard Elliott Friedman (2003). The Bible with sources revealed. HarperSanFrancisco. ISBN 0-06-053069-3. 
  • Jewish Encyclopedia. 
  • Savina Teubal (1984). Sarah The Priestess: The First Matriarch Of Genesis. ISBN 978-0-8040-0844-0. 
  • Robinson (1977). Biblical Researches. Swallow Press. ISBN 0-405-10281-X. 
  • New American Bible.  — note the footnotes for Genesis 26 and 20-21
  • Emanuel Feldman. Changing patterns in Biblical criticism. Tradition 1965;7(4) and 1966;8(5).