Abram and Sarai made a mistake, twice

Compare:

There was a famine in the land. Abram went down into Egypt to live as a foreigner there, for the famine was severe in the land. When he had come near to enter Egypt, he said to Sarai his wife, “See now, I know that you are a beautiful woman to look at. It will happen, when the Egyptians see you, that they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ They will kill me, but they will save you alive. Please say that you are my sister, that it may be well with me for your sake, and that my soul may live because of you.”

When Abram had come into Egypt, Egyptians saw that the woman was very beautiful. The princes of Pharaoh saw her, and praised her to Pharaoh; and the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house. He dealt well with Abram for her sake. He had sheep, cattle, male donkeys, male servants, female servants, female donkeys, and camels. Yahweh afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife. Pharaoh called Abram and said, “What is this that you have done to me? Why didn’t you tell me that she was your wife? Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her to be my wife? Now therefore, see your wife, take her, and go your way.”

— Genesis 12:10-19, World English Bible

And then,

Abraham traveled from there toward the land of the South, and lived between Kadesh and Shur. He lived as a foreigner in Gerar. Abraham said about Sarah his wife, “She is my sister.” Abimelech king of Gerar sent, and took Sarah. But God came to Abimelech in a dream of the night, and said to him, “Behold, you are a dead man, because of the woman whom you have taken. For she is a man’s wife.”

Now Abimelech had not come near her. He said, “Lord, will you kill even a righteous nation? Didn’t he tell me, ‘She is my sister?’ She, even she herself, said, ‘He is my brother.’ In the integrity of my heart and the innocence of my hands have I done this.”

God said to him in the dream, “Yes, I know that in the integrity of your heart you have done this, and I also withheld you from sinning against me. Therefore I didn’t allow you to touch her. Now therefore, restore the man’s wife. For he is a prophet, and he will pray for you, and you will live. If you don’t restore her, know for sure that you will die, you, and all who are yours.”

Abimelech rose early in the morning, and called all his servants, and told all these things in their ear. The men were very scared. Then Abimelech called Abraham, and said to him, “What have you done to us? How have I sinned against you, that you have brought on me and on my kingdom a great sin? You have done deeds to me that ought not to be done!” Abimelech said to Abraham, “What did you see, that you have done this thing?”

Abraham said, “Because I thought, ‘Surely the fear of God is not in this place. They will kill me for my wife’s sake.’ Besides, she is indeed my sister, the daughter of my father, but not the daughter of my mother; and she became my wife. When God caused me to wander from my father’s house, I said to her, ‘This is your kindness which you shall show to me. Everywhere that we go, say of me, “He is my brother.”’”

Abimelech took sheep and cattle, male servants and female servants, and gave them to Abraham, and restored Sarah, his wife, to him. Abimelech said, “Behold, my land is before you. Dwell where it pleases you.” To Sarah he said, “Behold, I have given your brother a thousand pieces of silver. Behold, it is for you a covering of the eyes to all that are with you. In front of all you are vindicated.”

Abraham prayed to God. God healed Abimelech, and his wife, and his female servants, and they bore children. For Yahweh had closed up tight all the wombs of the house of Abimelech, because of Sarah, Abraham’s wife.

— Genesis 20:1-18, World English Bible

So, what gives? Did Abraham (Abram) and Sarah (Sarai) make the same mistake twice? Once again, Ron Maimon has interesting things to say. First, read his take on the authorship of Genesis, then come back here and read this essay about this specific incident.

Summary: It didn’t happen twice: it’s told twice (three times, actually). But the incest angle is interesting, and suggests that real history underlies the myth.

The following essay is quoted from Ron Maimon. Full details, attribution, and link are at the end of the post. Note that I do not consider myself qualified to comment on the veracity of this essay, but I do think it’s interesting.


The Genesis text is widely believed by modern secular scholars to have been put together from various traditions, compiled in at least two major independent narratives, which were merged to produce the final text. The merger is very rough, so that the two narratives may be easily distinguished, because one consistently uses the sacred name “Yahweh” to refer to God, and the other uses the more generic identifier “Elohim” (God) in Genesis and the early parts of Exodus.

To those who doubt this idea, the textual boundaries are sometimes glaringly obvious, as in Exodus 3:14, where the first 14 verses are Elohist, and the rest a Yahweh tack-on. In Exodus 6:2, God says to Moses that he did not reveal his name “Yahweh” to Abraham Isaac and Jacob, only to Moses. But this is contradicted by the Yahwist narrative in Genesis, where all the patriarchs reference Yahweh several times by name. For a nice Genesis example, consider the entire chapter of Genesis 39, which is a lovely Yahwist narrative about Joseph’s attempted seduction by his master’s wife, which ends with Joseph in jail. This chapter throws off the rest of the narrative, because in the rest, Joseph seems to be Potiphar’s servant throughout. The inconsistency is resolved in KJ by a stretched translation— which claims that Potiphar who is “Rosh Ha-tabachim” is actually the head of the guard. These examples are just those I noticed, but the arguments about this division date back to the 19th century, and it is universally accepted by secular Bible scholars today.

The two narratives have different and recognizably consistent authorial voices, indicative of at least two separate authors, both excellent writers. By the end of Exodus and throughout Leviticus, there is a third much less inspired author writing, who uses a legalistic language, full of unnecessary repetitions and pedantic double-speak, and narration, when it comes, is jarringly bad (like the first verses of Leviticus 10). This author is referred to as “Priestly”. Aside from J, E, and P, as the Yahwist, Elohist, and Priestly authors are called, I could not clearly distinguish any other voices, although the academics sometimes do.

The narrative in Genesis 20 is an Elohist narrative, and it is just repeating a different tradition regarding the narrative in Genesis 12, which is Yahwist. The two narratives come from the same tale, but they differ in a few details. The distinguishing details are revealing, since it is here that one learns the most about Abram’s relation to Sarai. In the first narrative, Abraham tells Pharaoh that he was lying about Sarai being his sister. In the second narrative, Abraham says that Sarah is his half-sister.

This is very strange, since incestuous ancestry is most often used in the Pentateuch to indicate that a certain tribe is somehow cursed, or weakened, or inferior. Here, the implied incest is for the ancestors of the Hebrews, so it is really very striking— it suggests that there was a deep rooted tradition for Abram/Sarai being both brother/sister and husband/wife, a tradition that was able to survive transmutation through many retellings, even with the strong incest taboo that is evident in other parts of Genesis (Gen 35:21 & 49:4, 19:30-38).

On the internet, one finds a possible explanation. Abraham/Abram and Sarah/Sarai have a very striking parallel in Hindu mythology in the couple Brahma and Saraiswati, who are both brother and sister and husband and wife. The narrative parallel here has led some of the internet folks to suggest that the origin of the Hebrew religion is as a monotheistic offshoot of Hinduism. According to John Newbrough’s book Oahspe Bible Part 2: A New Bible in the Words of Jehovih and His Angel Embassadors, Jesuits suggested the connection.

There is another monotheistic tradition which comes from the Persian region which is identified as Abraham’s birthplace, which is Zoroastrianism. The existence of different monotheistic traditions claiming to come from the same place suggests a common ancestry, and it could be a monotheistic Brahma cult. If you google “Brahma Saraiswati” you find lots of websites.

The sister/wife story is repeated a third time, with Isaac and Rebekah as the couple. This third repetition is in Genesis 26:7 and thereabouts. The third repetition is not as salient as the other two, but it suggests that different tribes assigned the same stories to different patriarchs. This uses Yahweh as God’s identifier.


Copyright Ron Maimon. Originally published on Christianity Stack Exchange. License: CC BY-SA 3.0. Feel free to repost elsewhere.

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