My Wife, My Sister

Three times in Genesis, wives are "passed off" as sisters.

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It is just weird, really.  Passing off your wife as your sister just doesn’t seem like the type of thing that the patriarchs of Judaism should be doing. And not only does it happen once in the Torah, it happens three times. Twice Abraham passes Sarah off as his sister [Genesis 12:10-20; 20:1-18] and once Isaac passes off Rebekah as his sister [Genesis 26:1-16].

The motivation for this rather odd act is fear. As Abram says to Sarai, “I know what a beautiful woman you are. If the Egyptians see you, and think, ‘She is his wife,’ they will kill me and let you live.  Please say that you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that I may remain alive thanks to you” [Genesis 12:12-13].

Why are the patriarchs passing off their wives as their sisters? The explicit reason given in the text is fear for their own lives, but the deeper question remains of why the Torah includes such an unflattering portrayal of our patriarchs. A second and perhaps more challenging question is why the motif repeats itself three times.

The location of the stories in the Torah makes the question of motivation even more problematic. Each wife-as-sister scene occurs directly after God has made some pledge of prosperity to the patriarch. Right after receiving God’s pledge of safety, the patriarchs commit this rather scandalous act of weakness.

Traditional Commentators

The traditional commentators differ (not surprisingly) as to the motives of the patriarchs. A famous midrash depicts how Abraham puts Sarah in a box and tries to smuggle her into Egypt.  He then offers to pay any levy on the box until the customs officer became suspicious and opens the box discovering her. This midrash suggests that Abraham at least tried alternative plans before suggesting that she was his sister. Some commentators, such as Seforno, suggest that Abraham would be able to bide his time during the famine, make some money in the markets, and then leave Egypt with Sarah when the time was right.

Abraham himself offers an interesting reason for his actions; he claims that he was in fact Sarah’s brother, that they had the same father but not the same mother (Gen 20:12). While this claim may provide a hint for how Abraham came to this ruse, it does nothing to explain Isaac’s calling Rebekah his sister.

Modern Commentators

Some modern commentators have made a similar type of claim, though.  Nahum Sarna, amongst others, says that there is evidence from Hurrian society, of which Abraham and Sarah might have participated, that there was a status known as “wife-sistership.” A Hurrian could adopt his wife as his sister and give her special status and she would be treated as a blood relative of the husband’s family. Abraham asked Sarah to tell the Egyptians that she was of this special class, and the Egyptians understood this legality and did not harm the couple. As knowledge of this custom faded, the story is now understood to be about the patriarch’s lying but its initial theme concerned recognition of this special status. This theory does not explain the wife-sister motif. It strains credulity to believe that these stories were initially not about deceit because the kings in each story respond as if they are being deceived.

There are some commentators, however, who do not defend Abraham and Isaac’s actions. Nahmanides says directly that the patriarchs simply erred: “Know that Abraham our father unintentionally committed a great sin by bringing his righteous wife to a stumbling-block of sin on account of his fear for his life.  He should have trusted that God would save him and his wife and all his belongings for God surely has the power to help and to save.  His leaving the Land, concerning which he had been commanded from the beginning, on account of the famine, was also a sin he committed, for in famine God would redeem him from death.  It was because of this deed that the exile in the land of Egypt at the hand of Pharaoh was decreed for his children.”

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Rabbi Dan Judson

Rabbi Dan Judson is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth David in Canton, MA. He is the co-author of two books, The Rituals and Practices of a Jewish Life:  A Handbook for Personal Spiritual Renewal (Jewish Lights Press, 2002) and Meeting at the Well:  A Jewish Spiritual Guide to Being Engaged (UAHC Press, 2002).