Alice C. Linsley
When Abraham asked Sarah to tell Pharaoh that she was his sister, was he asking her to lie? When he told her to “say that you are my sister so that it might go well with me”, was he attempting to deceive? That is the common claim, but one which Scripture doesn’t support and one which we “children of Abraham” should not make.
The passages in question are Gen. 12:10-20; Gen. 20:1-13 and Gen. 26:1-14. E.A. Speiser writes, “All three passages give essentially the same story: a patriarch visits a foreign land in the company of his wife. Fearing that the woman’s beauty might become a source of danger to himself as the husband, the man resorts to the subterfuge of passing himself off as the woman’s brother.” (Anchor Bible Commentary on Genesis, p. 91. Italics mine.)
By this assessment of the wife-sister motif in Genesis, we must assume that Abraham is both a lair and a coward, a troubling picture of the Patriarch who is regarded as the Father of our Faith. While we see evidence that his trust in God grew over time, there is no evidence that Abraham was a liar. Sarah was his half sister.
He explains that Sarah “is really my sister, my father’s daughter though not my mother’s” (Gen. 20:12). This piece of information would surely have caused Pharaoh to ask more questions since kinship was a matter of great concern to rulers. This would have given Abraham the opportunity to explain his people's kinship pattern and since this pattern is unique to ruler-priests of the Horites, Pharaoh would have been forced to recognize Abraham as one to be protected as family. The Horites worshiped Horus (known also as the “Son of God”) and Egypt was the main center of Horus worship.
The Horites (Egyptian 'khar') were likely a tribe of priests (khar was a measurement of fuel used in burnt offerings) whose rulers were careful to marry chaste daughters of priests. Joseph, the first-born son of Jacob by Rachel, married Asenath, daughter of the "priest of On" (Gen. 41:45).
When Abraham explained his kinship pattern, the Pharaoh would have recognized it as that of the Horite ruler caste. The Pharaohs also married sisters, as is evident in Egyptian texts. The beauty of the sister bride is praised throughout Egyptian poetry and in the Song of Solomon. Abraham married his half-sister, as did his father Terah and his grandfather Nahor. This was a characteristic of their ruler-priest kinship pattern, as analysis of the Genesis genealogies reveals.
In Genesis 26, we find that Isaac employs his father's method to gain Abimelech’s attention in Gerar which was in the heart of Horite territory (see map). It is significant that only Isaac does this, since he was the son designated to rule after his father. Though Abraham had 7 or 8 other sons, none of them are reported to have tried this ruse. This suggests that these stories are not about deceit and cowardice, but about gaining the ruler’s recognition and favor. This would be necessary to become established in the land, which he did. Abraham's territory was between Sarah's settlement in Hebron and Keturah's settlement in Beersheba.
This is further substantiated by the fact that Abraham and Isaac were NOT visiting “foreign” lands as Speiser claims, but were in territory under Horite - Egyptian control. Kadesh and Shur (Gen. 20:1) were in Horite territory under the control of the Pharaohs. Abraham's mother's people controlled territory between Mt. Hor (northeast of Kadesh) and Mt. Harun (near Petra). Genesis 10:30 tells us that these were the clans whose dwelling place extended from Mesha “all the way to Sephar, the eastern mountain range.” They are called Horites in Genesis 14:6, 36:20 and in Deuteronomy 2:12.
Numbers 33:27-28 mentions 'Terah' as a place near Mount Harun in Jordan. Besides being the name of Abraham's father, Terah is also the name of an Arabian tribe (Terabin) that dwells chiefly between Gaza and Beersheba. So clearly Abraham was not in a foreign land. He was in territory ruled by his ancestors and he deserved to have his status recognized, which chiefly would have been done by verifying his kinship.
The Egyptians took pleasure in sex, but regarded adultery was an grave offense, especially for a ruler since such an unrighteous act would put his kingdom under divine judgment. This is why both Pharaoh and Abimelech were angry that Abraham should put them at risk, but in both instances the God of Abraham protected Sarah and the ruler long enough for Abraham to accomplish his objective of gaining the ruler’s favor.
The theological point of these stories is not that Abraham was a liar, but that He trusted God to help him make himself known to Pharaoh. Later, his descendents would seek the favor of a ruler of Egypt who was also one of their own.