Saturday, June 25, 2011

Who was the Bigger Liar, Abraham or Issac?

Alice C. Linsley

It is commonly believed that Abraham lied to Pharaoh and Abimelek when he said that Sarah was his sister. In fact, Sarah was Abraham’s half-sister as well as his wife. Abraham explained this to Abimelek, “She is the daughter of my father, but not of my mother” (Gen. 20:12.)

The text doesn’t actually say that Abraham lied. It indicates that he asked Sarah to lie when he said to her “say that you are my sister so that it might go well with me.” The explanation given was that Sarah was very beautiful and that it might cost Abraham his life to fight for her (Gen. 20:11).

The key to understanding this ploy is to place these stories in the proper cultural context. Sarah was a high-ranking woman and as such was valuable. Women such as Sarah were prized not simply for their beauty, but also for the political leverage that they could bring. The sister-wife narratives of Genesis 12, 20 and 26 involve a powerful ruler who unknowingly takes the patriarch’s wife as his own. This action appears to be motivated not by lust but by the desire for status and territorial ambitions.

The interest in Sarah is explained when we remember that she was the daughter of Terah, a great Kushite ruler who vast Mesopotamian territory extended from Haran to Ur, virtually the entire length of the Euphrates River.

It is also significant that both rulers recognized in Sarah a woman who was not to be violated. In both accounts the rulers are portrayed as righteous leaders who do not wish to bring evil upon their people by committing adultery. The rulers of Egypt and Philistia (who were kin) were bound by a common moral code. They recognized in Sarah not only a beautiful woman of high standing, but also a devotee of Horus, the deity to whom these rulers showed devotion.

E.A. Speiser writes, “All three passages [Gen. 12:10-20; Gen. 20:1-13; Gen. 26:1-14] 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)

This is a troubling picture of Abraham and Sarah. Yet both rulers respond positively to their ploy by giving gifts to Abraham and making provision for them to move safely or dwell safely in their territory. In other words, the information which Abraham provided the rulers enabled them to see that Abraham and Sarah were Horite kin, as this kinship pattern was unique to the Horites.

The Patriarchs married according to the pattern of their Horite ruler-priest caste. The half-sister wife held the rank of the first wife. So Sarah held a higher social rank than Keturah, Abraham’s cousin bride. Only through her was Abraham going to establish a territory to pass on. The firstborn son of the sister wife was the heir-designate to the throne of his biological father.

This raises an interesting question. Was Isaac the biological son of Abraham? Nowhere in Genesis does it say that Abraham “knew” his wife and she conceived. It is provocative that the story of Sarah conceiving comes immediately after her dismissal from Abimeleh’s court. Genesis 21:1 says “Now YHWH took account of Sarah as he had said, YHWH dealt with Sarah as he had spoken. Sarah became pregnant and bore Abraham a son…” There is a suggestion here that Sarah was overshadowed by the Lord. This aspect of the story is important because there is evidence that Abraham believed that Isaac was the promised “Seed” of Genesis 3:15 whose coming the Horites anticipated. This belief puts the story of Isaac's "sacrifice" in a very different light.

Genesis has fewer narratives involving the sister-wife than the cousin/niece wife. Isaac’s sister wife isn’t even named. She is hidden in the text and only discovered through analysis of the Horite kinship pattern whereby all the rulers had two wives by the time they ascended to the throne.

In Genesis 26:7 we are told that Isaac attempted the same ploy as his parents, only in this case he tried to pass off his cousin/niece wife as his sister. If anyone can be called a liar, it is Isaac, since Rebecca wasn’t his sister wife.

Related reading: The Cousin Bride's Naming Prerogative; The Pattern of Two WivesDid Abraham Believe Isaac to be Messiah?Terah's Nubian Ancestors


Phil said...

Look at some of the people that God chose...liars, cheats, murderers, adulterers, whores and cowards. I guess we shouldn't judge a book by its cover. God certainly doesn't. Thanks for posting this.

Alice C. Linsley said...

Good point, Phil. The Son of God came into the world to save sinners and that's all of us.

I think of Cain. He deserved to die for murdering his brother, but instead he was granted mercy and sent away. As a "sent-away son" he fared well, marrying into the House of Enoch (Nok) and establishing a territory of his own. He built a city for his firstborn son Enoch to govern. The fact that his firsborn son was named Enoch after Cain's father-in-law suggests that Enoch the Younger's mother was Cain's cousin bride.

Genesis tells us so much more than we realize at first (superficial) reading.

Unknown said...

involve a powerful ruler who unknowingly takes the patriarch’s wife as his own. This action appears to be motivated not by lust but by the desire for status and territorial ambitions...This is a lie, How does it appear to be political motivated.If it was politically motivated what would be Abimelech gain? You can not just insist its politically motivated. Sarah was not a queen nor a princess. She was Abraham step sister.

Alice C. Linsley said...

Wives served to increase status among some ancient rulers. I don't know whether that was the case with Abimelech. I am speculating here.

Among the Horite ruler-priests there was a custom to marry on two wives. The first was married during the man's youth. This was the half-sister, as was Sarah to Abraham. They had the same father, but different mothers. The second wife was either a patrilineal cousin or niece, as was Keturah to Abraham (Gen. 25). The wives lived in separate households on a north-south axis. Sarah resided in Hebron and Keturah in Beersheba.

These people were rulers; people of the noble class, so it is accurate to speak of Sarah as a princess. She was a Horite woman of high social standing.