Abraham, Isaac and Their Wives

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: Abraham and Sarah, Men in the Bible, Old Testament


There are three separate stories in Genesis where either Abraham or Isaac lie about their wives being their sisters. Why is this story repeated again and again?


This is a question that has puzzled scholars and enticed them for centuries. For a long time they've studied the similarities in the stories, of which there are many, and suggested that these are really three versions of the same story. This is based on the documentary or source theory that suggests the Pentateuch was derived from different sources. Those scholars think that the first and third stories resulted from the work of J, while the second story comes from E.

In the last few decades, however, the documentary or source theory, has lost much of its emphasis. Rather than trying to separate and pull out the various sources that went into the text, scholars have been looking at the final product as a whole and trying to determine how these various elements all fit together. Someone gave this book its final form and purposefully chose to repeat these stories. There has been no shortage of possible explanations.

In all three situations the stated motive is that the patriarchs feared being killed. The focus is on them. The patriarchs' lives were in danger since they were in the lands of powerful men. They sought to secure their own lives by declaring their wives were really sisters. Some scholars even suggest that in the ancient world a wife could be declared a sister, and this was a much higher marriage since she would then be both a blood relative and a legal wife. Other scholars argue that this misses the point. The enduring explanations of the stories usually involve some element of deceit, primarily because each king is upset about having been deceived. And Abraham does it twice!

Those who admit the patriarchs lied are hard pressed to come up with a satisfactory explanation. Perhaps this shows patriarchal inability to trust in the Lord; perhaps these are examples of their limitations. Or perhaps they didn't really lie; they just didn't tell the whole truth. Most scholars want to defend them. Generally, the explanation is very simple: the wives were unusually beautiful; God protected the patriarchs.

But what about the women? Recently scholars have been considering them, especially the stories involving Sarah. They point out that in the first story with Pharaoh much is made of the fact that Pharaoh, is smitten by Sarah's beauty. Yet, the account with Abimelech is completely silent on this issue. Now to be sure, Sarah is ninety years old. But this king still wants her.

Some scholars argue for economics. Because Abraham was a resident alien in this land, he took steps to establish friendly relations with the local king to ensure his security. One way to do this would have been to initiate a diplomatic marriage between the parties. How better to ingratiate himself to his host than to offer his wife as a sister? And these scholars point out that even though the ruse was discovered, the plan was ultimately successful because Abimelech provided lavish gifts and invited Abraham to settle where ever he chose. Perhaps this fully explains why Sarah went to live with the king.

However, there is one other option from a theological standpoint. When God told Abraham that Sarah would bear a son, Abraham fell on his face laughing. His son was to be called, Isaac, meaning, "he laughed." Likewise, when Sarah was told that she would give birth to a son, she laughed. We, as listeners, wondered about that, wondered how people of faith could respond with laughter to the fulfillment of a promise that God had made so long ago. Had they forgotten the promise? We wondered about their sincerity and pondered the question, "Can anything be too hard for the Lord?"

But here is the tale of a woman of ninety years who was taken into the harem of a foreign king. The reason is not given, but anyone reading this story would remember that Pharaoh took her the first time because she was so "beautiful." The thought of it happening again – at ninety years old – is quite laughable! Harems were filled with beautiful women. Is there anything more worthy of laughter than the thought of Abimelech taking this worn out woman into his harem?

If we did that, then in that one brief moment, the author has deftly tricked us into responding just as Abraham and Sarah did. We, too, "laughed." And Isaac – he laughed – also applies to us, reminds us that we, too, were caught laughing at the word of God. Suddenly, that question, "Can anything be too difficult for the Lord?" takes on a new meaning.

Indeed, some authors argue that since Sarah's concern about giving birth had to do with the fact that she was well past that time and "worn out," the blessing for her included rejuvenation, a complete physical transformation. She was, in fact, restored to her youthful appearance, fully able to give birth and to nurse her child. She was, in fact, truly beautiful at ninety. For, in reality, there is nothing too hard for God. And the last laugh has been on us.

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