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Abraham and his “sister,” Sarah!



I had a discussion about the truthfulness of the Torah with an acquaintance. We were disagreeing hardly, but not unfriendly, on the issue, me holding that I indeed do believe the Torah to be true, according to the traditional Jewish understanding, though I hold to the final verses after Moshe Rabenu’s, A”S, death to be written by the hand of Yehoshu’a bin Nun, A”S. He related to the theory of the four sources of the Torah, as well as various stories being repeated, such as Avraham Avinu, A”S “lying” about his wife being his sister, first to Pharaoh, and later to the king of Gerar, Avimelech.

I found the mention of the two accounts interesting, and thought that it could be interesting to do a comparative analysis on them, in order to get to a deeper understanding of whether it indeed is the same story being repeated, or whether we are dealing with two different but more or less similar accounts.

The first account can be found in Bereshit (Genesis) 12:10-20, shortly after Avraham Avinu being called by G-D, caused to leave K’na’an and go to Egypt because of a famine (a theme which we see reappearing in the account of Yosef, A”S, later in Bereshit). The second can be found in chapter 20, where we are not given any particular reason for his entering the land in question.

I will use the standard English names from here, since it is supposed to be a neutral analysis.


Abraham in Egypt:


This part happens shortly after Abraham enters Canaan, caused by famine in the land. It is before he receives the name Abraham, being Abram, and his wife still being called Sarai.

When entering Egypt, Abraham said to Sarah that if the Egyptians would know that she was his wife, then they would probably kill him for her beauty, so in order to prevent that they should say that she was his sister. Indeed, the Egyptians did become astonished by her beauty, and the “princes of Egypt” related or her beauty to Pharaoh himself, who called for her to be brought to his house[1]. Abraham was dealt well with for her sake, and given many belongings, all being mentioned as being animals or servants. This didn’t sit well with G-D though, who plagued Pharaoh and his house, who after that called for Abraham and complained of his lie. Somehow Pharaoh found out that Sarah was his wife, how we are not told. Abraham is not allowed to defend himself though, being given Sarah back and then ordered to leave Egypt, escorted by Pharaoh’s men.

The text is told in ten verses, having six parts, as far as I can see, namely a) the background for leaving Canaan for Egypt (verse 10), b) the convincing Sarah to say that she is Abraham’s wife (verses 11-13), c) the Egyptians seeing her beauty, relating it to Pharaoh, who then takes her to his house, and dealing well with Abraham (verses 14-16), d) G-D plaguing Pharaoh (verse 17), e) Pharaoh confronting Abraham (verses 18-19), and f) Abraham being escorted out of Egypt.

The parts should have the following titles:

a)      Leaving for Egypt.

b)      Convincing Sarah.

c)       Pharaoh taking Sarah.

d)      G-D plaguing Pharaoh.

e)      Pharaoh confronting Abraham.

f)       Abraham leaving Egypt.


Abraham in Gerar:


The second account happens after the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham had at this time been given the name of Abraham, being older in years and had seen both wars and destruction, as well as prosperity in Canaan. Of some reason he decided to settle in the “land of the South,” between Kadesh and Shur, somewhere in the northern Negev I suspect, and then from there did he go to the land of Gerar, ruled by Avimelech. Abraham decided, again, to say that Sarah is his wife, but this time not discussing it with Sarah, leading to the king sending for her. G-D then appears to Avimelech in a dream and wars him that he is going to die, something Avimelech objects to, not having touched Sarah, and apparently being of a righteous people, only having married her because he was told that she was Abraham’s sister. G-D agrees and states that He had kept him from touching her, since this was the case, but then telling him that he needs to give her back to Abraham (Sarah apparently not having much to say in all this), so Abraham can pray for him. Avimelech then rises early in the morning, and call his servants. Upon telling them about his dream, they get afraid, and Avimelech then calls for Abraham, pleading with him, requesting why Abraham had lied to him, causing him to sin in such an extent. Abraham defends himself saying that he feared that they were without fear of G-D and therefore would have killed him, but that she also actually is his sister, of the same father, but different mothers[2]. Abraham then explains why we didn’t see him talk with Sarah about calling her his sister in the beginning of this account, that the agreement they made in the first account, on the way to Egypt, wasn’t only about their stay in Egypt, but every place they came. It seems as if Avimelech accepts this explanation, giving Abraham sheeps and oxen, as well as servants, for then to invite them to stay in his land, wherever they want to stay, releasing Sarah from him, giving Abraham thousand silver pieces, after which Abraham prayed to G-D, who “opened” the wombs of Avimelech’s house, which had been closed while he was married with Sarah.


I see here nine parts, namely a) Abraham and Sarah living for Gerar (verse 1), b) Abraham deciding to say that Sarah is his wife (verse 2a), c) Avimelech sending for Sarah (verse 2b), d) G-D appearing in Avimelech’s dream (verses 3-7), e) Avimelech consulting with his servants (verse 8), f) Avimelech calling for Abraham, confronting him (verses 9-10), g) Abraham defending himself (verses 11-13), h) Avimelech accepting Abraham’s defense, inviting them to stay, and releasing Sarah (verses 14-16), and i) Abraham praying for Avimelech (verses 17-18).

The titles of these parts I would call:

a)      Leaving for Gerar.

b)      Abraham calling Sarah his sister.

c)       Avimelech taking Sarah for him.

d)      G-D in Avimelech’s dream.

e)      Avimelech counseling his servants.

f)       Avimelech confronting Abraham.

g)      Abraham defending himself.

h)      Avimelech forgiving Abraham.

i)        Abraham praying for Avimelech.


Indeed, there are some clear similarities, and I understand why one would think of the one account, while reading the other. But there certainly also are some major differences. The most obvious being the number of parts, only having six in the Pharaoh-account, while having nine in the Avimelech-account. But let’s try to put them next to each other:


In Egypt

In Gerar

a Leaving for Egypt Leaving for Gerar
b Convincing Sarah Abraham calling Sarah his sister
c Pharaoh taking Sarah Avimelech taking Sarah for him
d G-D plaguing Pharaoh G-D in Avimelech’s dream
e Pharaoh confronting Abraham Avimelech counseling his servants
f Abraham leaving Egypt Avimelech confronting Abraham
g   Abraham defending himself
h   Avimelech forgiving Abraham
i   Abraham praying for Avimelech




Abraham and Sarah do leave their land to settle in another land. Abraham calls Sarah his sister, leading to the kings of the land taking her to their house. G-D interferes in both cases, leading to a confrontation with Abraham. And that’s where the similarities end. And even in the similarities do we find differences:


Differences in the similarities:

A: In Abraham and Sarah leaving their land, we are only explained the rationale behind in the first account. In the second account we are only told that they are leaving their place of settlement, and here they are even settling another place before getting to Gerar.

B: In the first account Abraham is discussing his decision to say that she is his sister, which isn’t the case in the second account; here Abraham takes the decision without consulting Sarah.

C: In the first account we are told that the Egyptians found her very beautiful, and that the princes of Egypt told Pharaoh about her. This is not the case in the second account, where Avimelech apparently doesn’t have to be told about her. Of course, this does not mean that he wasn’t told about her, but he could as well have seen her from a window or a ride through the city, we don’t know, we are simply not told.

D: Where G-D plagues Pharaoh in the first account, He chooses to appear in Avimelech’s dream, and then reasoning with him. From Avimelech’s defense here, it could be understood that Pharaoh actually did touch Sarah. Why G-D didn’t keep Pharaoh from sinning we are not told, but it could be hinted from Avimelech hinting that he is from a righteous people.



Confronting Abraham – Pharaoh and Avimelech takes two total different approaches how to deal with Abraham. Where Pharaoh refuses to give Abraham any word of defense, and apparently doesn’t need to counsel with his advisers, Avimelech seems to take a more calm approach, talking with his servants, as well as giving Abraham a chance to defend himself. It seems like Pharaoh is enraged, not wanting to give Abraham any chance, while Avimelech allows Abraham to give him a reason to believe in the good in Abraham.

Doing well with Abraham – Also here we see a difference. Even though Pharaoh chose to do good with Abraham, giving him all kinds of animals as well as servants, he is still punished. This is given before the punishment, seeing as if Pharaoh’s and Abraham’s relation was building up to the climax, where Pharaoh then did what he shouldn’t have done, and being punished for it (that he did something is my guess, it doesn’t appear from the text). In Avimelech’s case the animals and servants are only given after Abraham’s defense.

Going and staying – Again, in case of Egypt Abraham is told to leave, being escorted by soldiers. Whether it is to prevent Abraham from staying or in order to protect him is not clear. In case of Gerar, Abraham and Sarah are invited to stay in the land, wherever they want to stay.

End of the story – Where Abraham is being escorted out of Egypt in the first account, in the second we see Abraham praying for Avimelech, showing two total different relations between Abraham and the kings. One account ends with an enemy, the second with a friend.


Based on this analysis I certainly agree that there are some major and obvious similarities, but relating to the incidents, I find it hard to believe that we really are dealing with the same account. It is clear that we are talking about two total different kings, the first being enraged and hostile to Abraham after the discovery of Sarah’s true status, while the second is hoping for reasons to believe in Abraham. There is simply two different personalities involved here. Also Abraham’s approach to Sarah in the beginning, as well as the conclusions of the stories, shows that we are dealing with two different stories.

[1] Whether it should be understood as him marrying her or merely taking her as part of his harem, is not clear. I would expect the former, since Abraham is dealt well with because of her, something I don’t think would be the case, had she “just” be taken to be part of the harem.

[2] Though it is not clear from the Biblical account, the Talmud does teach that Sarah is the same as Iscah, being the daughter of Abraham’s brother, Haran, making her his niece. This aside, it isn’t unusual in Semitic cultures to describe close family being from the same father, here having Abraham relating to his father Terah, also being “father” to Sarah through Haran.

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