Book of Abraham Insight #5
Before he journeyed into Egypt, Abraham was instructed by God: “Behold, Sarai [or Sarah], thy wife, is a very fair woman to look upon; Therefore it shall come to pass, when the Egyptians shall see her, they will say—She is his wife; and they will kill you, but they will save her alive; therefore see that ye do on this wise: Let her say unto the Egyptians, she is thy sister, and thy soul shall live” (Abraham 2:22–23).
This passage is paralleled in Genesis 12:10–20.1 The rationale behind Abraham’s actions are clear enough. He was “afraid that his wife’s beauty [would] put him in danger when the couple arrive at a foreign kingdom, because he might be killed if the king desires his beautiful wife for himself. This [was] not an unrealistic fear, given how ruthless royalty could be” in the ancient world.2 A key difference between the accounts in Genesis and the Book of Abraham, however, is that the Book of Abraham portrays God as instructing Abraham to engage in the subterfuge, a detail not found in the Genesis account.
The question that naturally arises is whether Abraham was lying by saying Sarai was his sister instead of his wife.3 Some readers of the Book of Abraham are especially bothered by what appears at first glance to be God commanding Abraham to lie.
The important thing to keep in mind is that Genesis 20:12 identifies Sarai as Abraham’s half-sister. “So it is at least possible that Sarah belonged to Abraham’s extended family and was thus considered to be his ‘sister’ in the sense of a near blood relative.”4 Abraham was therefore using somewhat ambiguous terminology and not necessarily making a false statement.5
This tactic would have played well in ancient Egyptian. As Egyptologist John Gee explains,
Abraham was instructed by God to refer to his wife, Sarah, as his sister (Abraham 2:22–25). This takes advantage of an ambiguity in the Egyptian language: the Egyptian word for wife (hime) means only wife, but the Egyptian word for sister (sone) means both sister and wife. Thus, the term that Abraham used was not false, but ambiguous. It was also necessary: since numerous Egyptian texts discuss how pharaohs could take any woman that they fancied and would put the husband to death if the woman was married, this advice saved Abraham’s life.6
Finally, it is noteworthy that a text from the Dead Sea Scrolls called the Genesis Apocryphon depicts Abraham being warned in a dream of the danger he faced when traveling into Egypt because of Sarai’s beauty. This in turn prompted his equivocation with Pharaoh.7 While this text does not overtly say that God told Abraham to “lie” about his relationship with Sarai, it heavily implies that he was divinely forewarned of the situation. This harmonizes nicely with the account in the Book of Abraham.
Gaye Strathearn, “The Wife/Sister Experience: Pharaoh’s Introduction to Jehovah” in Sperry Symposium Classics: The Old Testament, ed. Paul Y. Hoskisson (Provo and Salt Lake City, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, and Deseret Book 2005), 100–116.
Hugh Nibley, “The Sacrifice of Sarah,” in Abraham in Egypt, 2nd ed. (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2000), 343–381.
1 This so-called “sister/wife” motif is picked up again at Genesis 20:1–18 and Genesis 26:6–11 but involves different characters. For some perspective on this motif, see Gaye Strathearn, “The Wife/Sister Experience: Pharaoh’s Introduction to Jehovah” in Sperry Symposium Classics: The Old Testament, ed. Paul Y. Hoskisson (Provo and Salt Lake City: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, and Deseret Book 2005), 100–116.
2 Hilary Lipka, “Sarah, Abraham, and Pharaoh,” Bible Odyssey, online at www.bibleodyssey.org. See additionally the insights offered by James K. Hoffmeier, “The Wives’ Tales of Genesis 12, 20 & 26 and the Covenants at Beer-Sheba,” Tyndale Bulletin 43, no. 1 (1992): 81–100.
3 Yael Shemesh, “Lies by Prophets and Other Lies in the Hebrew Bible,” Journal of Ancient Near Eastern Society 29 (2002): 88–89; Shira Weiss, Ethical Ambiguity in the Hebrew Bible: Philosophical Analysis of Scriptural Narrative (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 130–138.
4 Strathearn, “The Wife/Sister Experience,” 103. See additionally the remarks in Hugh Nibley, Abraham in Egypt, 2nd ed. (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2000), 361–363.
5 Shemesh, “Lies by Prophets and Other Lies in the Hebrew Bible,” 88. “[The biblical text] is implying that [Abraham] did not lie to Abimelech [and also Pharaoh in Genesis 12:13] but only concealed vital information from him.”
6 John Gee, An Introduction to the Book of Abraham (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, and Deseret Book, 2017), 102. Note that Gee is using the Coptic spelling for the words ḥmt and snt. The Egyptian texts Gee is referring to include Pyramid Text 317, P. D’Orbiney (BM EA 10183), and the Bentresh Stele (Louvre C 284). For Pyramid Text 317, see Kurt Sethe, Die Altaegyptischen Pyramidentexte (Leipzig: J. C. Hinrichs, 1908–1910), 1:261; Raymond O. Faulkner, The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969), 99; James P. Allen, The Egyptian Coffin Texts, Volume 8: Middle Kingdom Copies of Pyramid Texts (Chicago: Oriental Institute, 2006), 293; Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975), 1:40; James P. Allen, The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2005), 60; for P. D’Orbiney (BM EA 10183), see Alan H. Gardiner, Late-Egyptian Stories (Bruxelles: Fondation Égyptologique Reine Élisabeth, 1932), 22–21; Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, 2:208; for the Bentresh Stele (Louvre C 284), see Adriaan de Buck, Egyptian Readingbook (Leiden: Nederlands Instituut voor het Nabije Oosten, 1963), 106; Orell Witthuhn et al., Die Bentresch-Stele: Ein Quellen- und Lesebuch (Göttingen: Seminar für Ägyptologie und Koptologie der Georg-August-Universität, 2015); Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, 3:91. On the usage of sone (snt) as both sister and wife, see Rainer Hannig, Ägyptisches Wörterbuch II: Mittleres Reich und Zweite Zwischenzeit (Mainz: Philipp von Zabern Verlag, 2006), 2:2247–2253, esp. 2253. See also Rainer Hannig, Ägyptisches Wörterbuch I: Altes Reich und Erste Zwischenzeit (Mainz: Philipp von Zabern Verlag, 2003), 1153–54.
7 John A. Tvedtnes, Brian M. Hauglid, and John Gee, eds., Traditions About the Early Life of Abraham (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2001), 26–29.