The Hebrew word translated ”sister” in for instance Gen. 12:13 is ‘achowth (Strong’s 269), which based on Blue Letter Bible could mean sister (same parents), half-sister (same father), relative (of Israel’s and Judah’s relationship), beloved (bride), of intimate connection or another. It could mean sister either literally or figuratively.
According to Gen. 20:12 Abraham claims that Sarah is the daughter of his father (who is Terah) but not of his mother, which would mean that Sarah was Abraham’s half sister. Yet, in Gen. 11:31 Sarah is also called Terah’s daughter-in-law. This does not have to be a contradiction. The information that Abraham’s mother is not the mother of Sarah is clear from the Bible, but is Terah Sarah’s father or is it is oldest brother Haran as The book of Jasher suggests?
Terah could of course have had Sarah through another wife (even the wife of his son Haran), but if the aim is to be consistent with both Gen. 20:12 and Gen. 11:31, as well as the information in Jasher, then perhaps the simplest solution is that Sarah was the grand-daughter of Terah, i.e. the daughter of Haran, and this has been maintained by for instance Josephus. Sarah could then have been adopted into Terah’s household after the tragic death by fire of her father Haran (see The book of Jasher). As the daughter of Haran, Sarah would be Abraham’s niece. If she was also adopted by Terah, then Sarah would also be Abraham’s sister. When Sarah later married Abraham, she became his wife.
According to The book of Jasher Abraham was 10 years old when Sarah was born and it is quite possible that they at some point in time shared the same household and grew up as brother and sister. Terah and his sons Haran, Nahor and Abraham could have lived close together and we can for instance read in Jasher 12:16 that Terah, out of fear for king Nimrod, blamed his son Haran for being responsible for a certain cover up that angered the king who had wanted Abraham to be killed at birth. In the same way as Sarah could be called Abraham’s sister, also Lot could be called Abraham’s brother despite being Abraham’s nephew. Sarah and Lot were siblings.
Note also that this occurred many years before the Law of Moses was established, where it was prohibited to marry a sibling. Adam and Eve did not have any genetic defects to pass on to their children (which means they could marry each other and have children with no risks involved) but later on in time, through genetic bottle necks like the Ark and the Exodus, genetic defects had accumulated.
It is possible to not volunteering with information in order to perhaps gain possessions or wrongful advantages that a person did not previously have. In that case not volunteering with information would be a sin even though no lies were uttered. Abraham did nothing of the sort. He did not withhold information in order to gain something that he did not already have, but he wanted to continue keeping what he already had – a family member. On top of this he offered to PART with ALL of his possessions if he could only keep this family member!
Abraham was actually afraid that the Egyptians would take Sarah away, because he had heard of their evil behavior in advance. Pharaoh is of course an Egyptian, but he would not be the one standing at the city gate to control the goods and the people entering the city. The only way for him to get the news about Sarah would be if someone thought it would be worth while telling him, and the Egyptian guards who were placed to check on the arriving travelers knew they would be getting rewards if they would bring Pharaoh something they knew he would appreciate. Perhaps the Egyptian guards reasoned in this way: 1) If Abraham would only be a brother (or a father) of Sarah, then he would not be an obstacle at all and would not need to be killed, 2) Pharaoh could be presented Sarah who would be a free woman, 3) the Egyptian guards would get great rewards for their discovery, and 4) Abraham would likely be treated really well and receive possessions from Pharaoh in order to smoothly ”buy” Sarah over and take her as a wife. However, Abraham did no travel to Egypt to acquire more possessions (apart from food) and he was willing to part with ALL that he had if the Egyptian workers would only forget about Sarah (Jasher 15:11-12). The question that later arose ”Why did you say she was your sister?”, could be answered with ”Because she is my sister. And who gave you the right to take her due to us being siblings when I urged you not to?”.
A man should be innocent until proven guilty, and if someone wants to charge Abraham of lying, that person has the burden of proof. It is of course an option that Abraham sinned by not trusting God to sort out this problem, but 1) we are not always supposed to sit back and do nothing while God sorts things out, and 2) Abraham presented Sarah as his sister twice in similar occasions – which might suggest that he felt free to repeat his actions due to his realization that he spoke nothing but the truth with no evil intentions in his heart.
Even if we would view Abraham and Sarah’s deed as a sin, it would still not turn Abraham into the monster as some liberal scholars describe him to be. Even king David, a man of God’s own heart, sinned by murder and adultery and did not repent until Nathan made him realize his severe sin. Righteous people can also choose to sin and if they do, the same requirement applies to them – repentance and turning away from sin. Evangelical christians do not believe that a sinful person is a role model, but Abraham was far from being a sinful man. He proved to be an extremely righteous man throughout his entire life. Also a righteous person can choose to sin once and get his spiritual life back by repenting.
Let us check the two stories where Abraham thought it would be best to present Sarah as his ”sister” in order to save his life as well as the quality of life for Sarah. He seems to have made just the right choice based on the outcome!
Gen. 11:29 And Abram and Nahor took them wives: the name of Abram’s wife was Sarai; and the name of Nahor’s wife, Milcah, the daughter of Haran, the father of Milcah, and the father of Iscah.30 But Sarai was barren; she had no child.31 And Terah took Abram his son, and Lot the son of Haran his son’s son, and Sarai his daughter in law, his son Abram’s wife; and they went forth with them from Ur of the Chaldees, to go into the land of Canaan; and they came unto Haran, and dwelt there.
If Abraham would present his beautiful wife Sarah as his wife instead of his sister, then there might be a risk that Pharaoh would kill Abraham in order to get hold of Sarah and make her his wife. As a brother Abraham would not pose the same threat. If a brother and a sister would be travelling together, the brother is the one responsible for his sister’s protection. If she does not belong to her Father’s household, then she belongs to her brother’s household and he is the one to negotiate with if someone wants to marry his sister. This would be understood also by Pharaoh even if it was a risk that his way of negotiating might be very harsh. Abraham of course had no intention to present his wife as a sister and try to marry her off, but it is possible that Abraham tried to estimate what kind of behavior he could expect from Pharaoh and decided to go for the safest bet. The problem was Sarah’s extraordinary beauty, so presenting himself as a husband might be the worse option with the greatest risks involved. Maybe Pharaoh would use his power and simply eliminate him entirely to make Sarah available and dependent on another household – like Pharaoh’s household. The best option would be if Pharaoh would not be interested in Sarah at all, but then it was imperative to avoid causing any reports about her beauty. To be on the safer side Abraham even put Sarah in a chest during a critical situation (The book of Jasher), but to no avail since she was discovered and the news about her beauty reached Pharaoh.
It certainly looks like Abraham’s reasoned rather wisely in a delicate situation. The alternative to not travel to Egypt at all would risk their lives through starving, so a travel to Egypt still seemed like a good option despite the risks.
Gen. 12:10 And there was a famine in the land: and Abram went down into Egypt to sojourn there; for the famine was grievous in the land.11 And it came to pass, when he was come near to enter into Egypt, that he said unto Sarai his wife, Behold now, I know that thou art a fair woman to look upon:12 Therefore it shall come to pass, when the Egyptians shall see thee, that they shall say, This is his wife: and they will kill me, but they will save thee alive.13 Say, I pray thee, thou art my sister: that it may be well with me for thy sake; and my soul shall live because of thee.14 And it came to pass, that, when Abram was come into Egypt, the Egyptians beheld the woman that she was very fair.15 The princes also of Pharaoh saw her, and commended her before Pharaoh: and the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house.16 And he entreated Abram well for her sake: and he had sheep, and oxen, and he asses, and menservants, and maidservants, and she asses, and camels.17 And the Lord plagued Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai Abram’s wife.18 And Pharaoh called Abram and said, What is this that thou hast done unto me? why didst thou not tell me that she was thy wife?19 Why saidst thou, She is my sister? so I might have taken her to me to wife: now therefore behold thy wife, take her, and go thy way.20 And Pharaoh commanded his men concerning him: and they sent him away, and his wife, and all that he had.
Here is the same story according to The book of Jasher:
Jasher 9:1 And Haran, the son of Terah, Abram’s oldest brother, took a wife in those days.2 Haran was thirty-nine years old when he took her; and the wife of Haran conceived and bare a son, and he called his name Lot.3 And she conceived again and bare a daughter, and she called her name Milca; and she again conceived and bare a daughter, and she called her name Sarai.4 Haran was forty-two years old when he begat Sarai, which was in the tenth year of the life of Abram; and in those days Abram and his mother and nurse went out from the cave, as the king and his subjects had forgotten the affair of Abram.
Jasher 12:37 And Haran was eighty-two years old when he died in the fire of Casdim. And the king, princes, and inhabitants of the land, seeing that Abram was delivered from the fire, they came and bowed down to Abram.—44 And at that time Nahor and Abram took unto themselves wives, the daughters of their brother Haran; the wife of Nahor was Milca and the name of Abram’s wife was Sarai. And Sarai, wife of Abram, was barren; she had no offspring in those days.
Jasher 15:1 And in that year there was a heavy famine throughout the land of Canaan, and the inhabitants of the land could not remain on account of the famine for it was very grievous.2 And Abram and all belonging to him rose and went down to Egypt on account of the famine, and when they were at the brook Mitzraim they remained there some time to rest from the fatigue of the road.3 And Abram and Sarai were walking at the border of the brook Mitzraim, and Abram beheld his wife Sarai that she was very beautiful.4 And Abram said to his wife Sarai, Since God has created thee with such a beautiful countenance, I am afraid of the Egyptians lest they should slay me and take thee away, for the fear of God is not in these places.5 Surely then thou shalt do this, Say thou art my sister to all that may ask thee, in order that it may be well with me, and that WE may live and not be put to death.6 And Abram commanded the same to all those that came with him to Egypt on account of the famine; also his nephew Lot he commanded, saying, If the Egyptians ask thee concerning Sarai say she is the sister of Abram.7 And yet with all these orders Abram did not put confidence in them, but he took Sarai and placed her in a chest and concealed it amongst their vessels, for Abram was greatly concerned about Sarai on account of the wickedness of the Egyptians.8 And Abram and all belonging to him rose up from the brook Mitzraim and came to Egypt; and they had scarcely entered the gates of the city when the guards stood up to them saying, Give tithe to the king from what you have, and then you may come into the town; and Abram and those that were with him did so.—11 And Abram said, This chest I will not open, but all you demand upon it I will give. And Pharaoh’s officers answered Abram, saying, It is a chest of precious stones, give us the tenth thereof.12 Abram said, All that you desire I will give, but you must not open the chest.13 And the king’s officers pressed Abram, and they reached the chest and opened it with force, and they saw, and behold a beautiful woman was in the chest.14 And when the officers of the king beheld Sarai they were struck with admiration at her beauty, and all the princes and servants of Pharaoh assembled to see Sarai, for she was very beautiful. And the king’s officers ran and told Pharaoh all that they had seen, and they praised Sarai to the king; and Pharaoh ordered her to be brought, and the woman came before the king.15 And Pharaoh beheld Sarai and she pleased him exceedingly, and he was struck with her beauty, and the king rejoiced greatly on her account, and made presents to those who brought him the tidings concerning her.16 And the woman was then brought to Pharaoh’s house, and Abram grieved on account of his wife, and he prayed to the Lord to deliver her from the hands of Pharaoh.17 And Sarai also prayed at that time and said, O Lord God thou didst tell my Lord Abram to go from his land and from his father’s house to the land of Canaan, and thou didst promise to do well with him if he would perform thy commands; now behold we have done that which thou didst command us, and we left our land and our families, and we went to a strange land and to a people whom we have not known before.18 And we came to this land to avoid the famine, and this evil accident has befallen me; now therefore, O Lord God, deliver us and save us from the hand of this oppressor, and do well with me for the sake of thy mercy.19 And the Lord hearkened to the voice of Sarai, and the Lord sent an angel to deliver Sarai from the power of Pharaoh.20 And the king came and sat before Sarai and behold an angel of the Lord was standing over them, and he appeared to Sarai and said to her, Do not fear, for the Lord has heard thy prayer.21 And the king approached Sarai and said to her, What is that man to thee who brought thee hither? and she said, He is my brother.22 And the king said, It is incumbent upon us to make him great, to elevate him and to do unto him all the good which thou shalt command us; and at that time the king sent to Abram silver and gold and precious stones in abundance, together with cattle, men servants and maid servants; and the king ordered Abram to be brought, and he sat in the court of the king’s house, and the king greatly exalted Abram on that night.23 And the king approached to speak to Sarai, and he reached out his hand to touch her, when the angel smote him heavily, and he was terrified and he refrained from reaching to her.24 And when the king came near to Sarai, the angel smote him to the ground, and acted thus to him the whole night, and the king was terrified.25 And the angel on that night smote heavily all the servants of the king, and his whole household, on account of Sarai, and there was a great lamentation that night amongst the people of Pharaoh’s house.26 And Pharaoh, seeing the evil that befell him, said, Surely on account of this woman has this thing happened to me, and he removed himself at some distance from her and spoke pleasing words to her.27 And the king said to Sarai, Tell me I pray thee concerning the man with whom thou camest here; and Sarai said, This man is my husband, and I said to thee that he was my brother for I was afraid, lest thou shouldst put him to death through wickedness.28 And the king kept away from Sarai, and the plagues of the angel of the Lord ceased from him and his household; and Pharaoh knew that he was smitten on account of Sarai, and the king was greatly astonished at this.29 And in the morning the king called for Abram and said to him, What is this thou hast done to me? Why didst thou say, She is my sister, owing to which I took her unto me for a wife, and this heavy plague has therefore come upon me and my household.30 Now therefore here is thy wife, take her and go from our land lest we all die on her account. And Pharaoh took more cattle, men servants and maid servants, and silver and gold, to give to Abram, and he returned unto him Sarai his wife.31 And the king took a maiden whom he begat by his concubines, and he gave her to Sarai for a handmaid.32 And the king said to his daughter, It is better for thee my daughter to be a handmaid in this man’s house than to be mistress in my house, after we have beheld the evil that befell us on account of this woman.33 And Abram arose, and he and all belonging to him went away from Egypt; and Pharaoh ordered some of his men to accompany him and all that went with him.34 And Abram returned to the land of Canaan, to the place where he had made the altar, where he at first had pitched his tent.
If you react on the information that innocent people seemed to have died due to the curse that surrounded Sarah, the truth is that we are all going to die one day. Based on the Bible and The book of Jasher, the people close to Pharaoh and Abimelech were considered evil but even if they were righteous physical death still awaits every single one of us. It is eternal spiritual death which would be a disaster, but it seems like what had befallen Pharaoh and his household could almost be seen as a wake up call for them. It is hard to know if this disaster caused some of them to repent, but the story eventually ends with Pharaoh letting Abraham and Sarah go – with many new valuable possessions. However, Abraham and Sarah did not travel to Egypt to get possessions but rather to acquire food. They were likely given much food along with their many gifts – and even a handmaid (Hagar) for Sarah.
Considering the circumstances, the story ended rather well but Abraham and Sarah influenced the outcome by praying to their Lord who heard them. Naturally also Pharaoh and his people had the chance to do the same, and to live righteous lives just like Abraham and Sarah. Maybe we would react in a similar way? If I were a Swedish Jew in nazi Germany I would not volunteer with the information that I was a Jew but rather present myself as a Swede. If on the other hand a nazi officer would ask me directly if I was a Jew, believed in God, etc, then it would certainly be a lie to deny it. The same would apply if Abraham or Sarah would deny the truth.
A similar story occurred in relation to Abimelech. Also this story ended well ”Abimelech said, Behold, my land is before thee: dwell where it pleaseth thee”.
Gen. 20:1 And Abraham journeyed from thence toward the south country, and dwelled between Kadesh and Shur, and sojourned in Gerar.2 And Abraham said of Sarah his wife, She is my sister: and Abimelech king of Gerar sent, and took Sarah.3 But God came to Abimelech in a dream by night, and said to him, Behold, thou art but a dead man, for the woman which thou hast taken; for she is a man’s wife.4 But Abimelech had not come near her: and he said, Lord, wilt thou slay also a righteous nation?5 Said he not unto me, She is my sister? and she, even she herself said, He is my brother: in the integrity of my heart and innocency of my hands have I done this.6 And God said unto him in a dream, Yea, I know that thou didst this in the integrity of thy heart; for I also withheld thee from sinning against me: therefore suffered I thee not to touch her.7 Now therefore restore the man his wife; for he is a prophet, and he shall pray for thee, and thou shalt live: and if thou restore her not, know thou that thou shalt surely die, thou, and all that are thine.8 Therefore Abimelech rose early in the morning, and called all his servants, and told all these things in their ears: and the men were sore afraid.9 Then Abimelech called Abraham, and said unto him, What hast thou done unto us? and what have I offended thee, that thou hast brought on me and on my kingdom a great sin? thou hast done deeds unto me that ought not to be done.10 And Abimelech said unto Abraham, What sawest thou, that thou hast done this thing?11 And Abraham said, Because I thought, Surely the fear of God is not in this place; and they will slay me for my wife’s sake.12 And yet indeed she is my sister; she is the daughter of my father, but not the daughter of my mother; and she became my wife.13 And it came to pass, when God caused me to wander from my father’s house, that I said unto her, This is thy kindness which thou shalt shew unto me; at every place whither we shall come, say of me, He is my brother.14 And Abimelech took sheep, and oxen, and menservants, and womenservants, and gave them unto Abraham, and restored him Sarah his wife.15 And Abimelech said, Behold, my land is before thee: dwell where it pleaseth thee.16 And unto Sarah he said, Behold, I have given thy brother a thousand pieces of silver: behold, he is to thee a covering of the eyes, unto all that are with thee, and with all other: thus she was reproved.17 So Abraham prayed unto God: and God healed Abimelech, and his wife, and his maidservants; and they bare children.18 For the Lord had fast closed up all the wombs of the house of Abimelech, because of Sarah Abraham’s wife.
The same story according to Jasher.:
Jasher 20 1 And at that time Abraham journeyed from the plain of Mamre, and he went to the land of the Philistines, and he dwelt in Gerar; it was in the twenty-fifth year of Abraham’s being in the land of Canaan, and the hundredth year of the life of Abraham, that he came to Gerar in the land of the Philistines.2 And when they entered the land he said to Sarah his wife, Say thou art my sister, to any one that shall ask thee, in order that we may escape the evil of the inhabitants of the land.3 And as Abraham was dwelling in the land of the Philistines, the servants of Abimelech, king of the Philistines, saw that Sarah was exceedingly beautiful, and they asked Abraham concerning her, and he said, She is my sister.4 And the servants of Abimelech went to Abimelech, saying, A man from the land of Canaan is come to dwell in the land, and he has a sister that is exceeding fair.5 And Abimelech heard the words of his servants who praised Sarah to him, and Abimelech sent his officers, and they brought Sarah to the king.6 And Sarah came to the house of Abimelech, and the king saw that Sarah was beautiful, and she pleased him exceedingly.7 And he approached her and said to her, What is that man to thee with whom thou didst come to our land? and Sarah answered and said He is my brother, and we came from the land of Canaan to dwell wherever we could find a place.8 And Abimelech said to Sarah, Behold my land is before thee, place thy brother in any part of this land that pleases thee, and it will be our duty to exalt and elevate him above all the people of the land since he is thy brother.9 And Abimelech sent for Abraham, and Abraham came to Abimelech.10 And Abimelech said to Abraham, Behold I have given orders that thou shalt be honored as thou desirest on account of thy sister Sarah.11 And Abraham went forth from the king, and the king’s present followed him.12 As at evening time, before men lie down to rest, the king was sitting upon his throne, and a deep sleep fell upon him, and he lay upon the throne and slept till morning.13 And he dreamed that an angel of the Lord came to him with a drawn sword in his hand, and the angel stood over Abimelech, and wished to slay him with the sword, and the king was terrified in his dream, and said to the angel, In what have I sinned against thee that thou comest to slay me with thy sword?14 And the angel answered and said to Abimelech, Behold thou diest on account of the woman which thou didst yesternight bring to thy house, for she is a married woman, the wife of Abraham who came to thy house; now therefore return that man his wife, for she is his wife; and shouldst thou not return her, know that thou wilt surely die, thou and all belonging to thee.15 And on that night there was a great outcry in the land of the Philistines, and the inhabitants of the land saw the figure of a man standing with a drawn sword in his hand, and he smote the inhabitants of the land with the sword, yea he continued to smite them.16 And the angel of the Lord smote the whole land of the Philistines on that night, and there was a great confusion on that night and on the following morning.17 And every womb was closed, and all their issues, and the hand of the Lord was upon them on account of Sarah, wife of Abraham, whom Abimelech had taken.18 And in the morning Abimelech rose with terror and confusion and with a great dread, and he sent and had his servants called in, and he related his dream to them, and the people were greatly afraid.19 And one man standing amongst the servants of the king answered the king, saying, O sovereign king, restore this woman to her husband, for he is her husband, for the like happened to the king of Egypt when this man came to Egypt.20 And he said concerning his wife, She is my sister, for such is his manner of doing when he cometh to dwell in the land in which he is a stranger.21 And Pharaoh sent and took this woman for a wife and the Lord brought upon him grievous plagues until he returned the woman to her husband.22 Now therefore, O sovereign king, know what happened yesternight to the whole land, for there was a very great consternation and great pain and lamentation, and we know that it was on account of the woman which thou didst take.23 Now, therefore, restore this woman to her husband, lest it should befall us as it did to Pharaoh king of Egypt and his subjects, and that we may not die; and Abimelech hastened and called and had Sarah called for, and she came before him, and he had Abraham called for, and he came before him.24 And Abimelech said to them, What is this work you have been doing in saying you are brother and sister, and I took this woman for a wife?25 And Abraham said, Because I thought I should suffer death on account of my wife; and Abimelech took flocks and herds, and men servants and maid servants, and a thousand pieces of silver, and he gave them to Abraham, and he returned Sarah to him.26 And Abimelech said to Abraham, Behold the whole land is before thee, dwell in it wherever thou shalt choose.27 And Abraham and Sarah, his wife, went forth from the king’s presence with honor and respect, and they dwelt in the land, even in Gerar.28 And all the inhabitants of the land of the Philistines and the king’s servants were still in pain, through the plague which the angel had inflicted upon them the whole night on account of Sarah.29 And Abimelech sent for Abraham, saying, Pray now for thy servants to the Lord thy God, that he may put away this mortality from amongst us.30 And Abraham prayed on account of Abimelech and his subjects, and the Lord heard the prayer of Abraham, and he healed Abimelech and all his subjects.