Did Abraham Lie (Again) When He Called Sarah His Half-Sister?

In both Genesis 12 and Genesis 20 a sojourning, scared, and self-preserving Abraham urges his wife Sarah to lie and say she is his sister.

Confronted by Abimelech about his lie (the second one), Abraham says,

I did it because I thought, There is no fear of God at all in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife. (Gen. 20:11)

Amazingly, Abraham goes on to say:

Besides, she is indeed my sister, the daughter of my father but not the daughter of my mother; and she became my wife.

At this point Abraham has been caught a second time in his lie. The truth of his marriage to Sarah has been revealed, and he is not going to be killed. So he has no real motivation to lie about being half-sibling to Sarah.

Still, he’s proven himself not trustworthy on this front already, so why believe him?

Going back to Genesis 11:31:

Terah took his son Abram and his grandson Lot son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, his son Abram’s wife, and they went out together from Ur of the Chaldeans to go into the land of Canaan; but when they came to Haran, they settled there.

Abraham has just claimed that Sarah is Terah’s daughter by another mother. But when Genesis introduces Sarah (then Sarai) in relation to Terah, it says “his daughter-in-law Sarai.” If Abraham is telling the truth that Sarah is Terah’s daughter, might we not expect the text to have said so in Genesis 11:31? Instead, she is just “daughter-in-law, his son Abram’s wife.” Not “daughter.”

This admittedly could be an argument from silence—arguing for a claim just because a text doesn’t say something. That’s generally to be avoided, but at the same time it seems remarkable that in Sarai’s relationship to Terah, her being his daughter is not mentioned.

I see three potential ways to make sense of this:

  1. Abraham is lying about Sarah being his half-sister.
  2. The biblical text contradicts itself.
  3. Abraham is telling the truth and the biblical text is not contradictory, but selective (if oddly so) in what it mentions.

On theological, evidential, and many other grounds, I do not believe that Scripture contradicts itself. (There’s a post for another time!)

Is it possible that the genealogy in Genesis 11 mentions Sarai as daughter-in-law and just misses the chance to identify her also as daughter to Terah? Yes, but that seems unexpected, given how detailed other Genesis genealogies are with family relations.

I conclude, then, if tentatively, that Abraham is lying again in claiming Sarah as half-sister. He has little motivation to (save face?), but his untrustworthiness in claiming her as full sister (to save his own life!) means his credibility on this point is shot.

Interestingly, having wondered about this in my own reading already, it took about 10 commentaries before I finally found one that is open to the possibility that Abraham continues to lie. (I was amazed at how many commentators just take Abraham’s “half-sister” claim in Genesis 20:12 at face value.) Here is Victor P. Hamilton on the question:

Abraham now proceeds to share with Abimelech a bit of family biography. He reminds the king that Sarah is indeed his half-sister, for she and Abraham have the same father, but not the same mother. But Gen. 11:27ff., where one would expect to find the details of this kinship, gives no genealogy for Sarah. She is never mentioned there as the daughter of Terah. One wonders why Abraham did not volunteer this information earlier, when he first came to Gerar. Had he been honest about their situation, he would have saved Sarah and himself a lot of shame, and Abimelech a lot of guilt. Then again, the writer may have intended it as a total fabrication on Abraham’s part.

Hamilton and I could both be wrong in our wonderings, but I see no compelling reason to trust Abraham’s follow-up claim that Sarah was his half-sister.

Please feel free to weigh in via the comments section below.

22 thoughts on “Did Abraham Lie (Again) When He Called Sarah His Half-Sister?

  1. Thanks for your analysis. I had always wondered about this. I agree that it is quite conceivable that Abraham lied again. But I am no biblical scholar. Thanks for keeping in touch.

  2. “Is it possible that the genealogy in Genesis 11 mentions Sarai as daughter-in-law and just misses the chance to identify her also as daughter to Terah? Yes, but that seems unexpected, given how detailed other Genesis genealogies are with family relations.”

    Abram–it is interesting to conjecture, isn’t it? Sometimes trying to fill in gaps without much information leads us in untenable directions. But given Abe’s tendencies to not tell the truth, there is that option (a regrettable spiritual DNA gene that apparently passed down into his son–Gen 26).

    But may I push back gently on the quote from your blog (above). It might be helpful to reflect a bit more on genealogies found in the Bible–specifically their purpose/s. There certainly is a degree of accuracy needed and expected that if not there, would undermine even the mentioning of the family trees. But their function/s deviate considerably from our current usage and understanding of a proper or accurate genealogy. My apologies for this long quote from Ben Witherington, but consider:

    “Differences there are indeed in the accounts of the birth of Jesus in Matthew and Luke. And they are not explained by denying their existence, or resorting to false harmonizing tactics and exegetical gymnastics…ancient royal genealogies often were prone to leaving the skeletons out of the list, and so offering an edited version of the ancestry. Something like this is happening in Matthew who wants to suggest Jesus is the seventh son of a seventh son of David, namely the perfect descendant of David. In other words, the form of the genealogy reflects not just historical but also theological interests. The same can be said for Luke’s genealogy and his concern to show that Jesus is not merely son of David son of Abraham, but also son of Adam, and more crucially, son of God. The issues here are not purely historical and it is a form of reductionism to treat them in a purely historical manner. But they were not intended to answer purely historical questions. One needs to read them in light of the conventions of
    such ancient genealogies, not in the light of modern historical conventions.” — B. W. blog 4.7.09 in book review of Bart Ehrman’s Jesus Interrupted.

    With that understanding, perhaps the non-mention in Gen 11 of Sara’s connection may not be ‘unexpected.’ See also John Gill’s thoughts found at concerning the Arabic writers. I’ve found simply in reading the NIV Study Bible’s study notes on various genealogies scattered throughout both testaments that there is a consistent pattern of gaps in those listings–which perhaps should give us pause in trying to understand why that may or may not have been included (as a right or wrong issue) in a specific genealogy.

    Perhaps there is some similarity between the accounts of Abraham and Rahab–both of whom are clearly presented in the OT as lying but in the NT (Hebrews 11) are presented in a different light, not glossing over, but redefined in the light and grace of a life of faith.

    An interesting note: there are no more genealogies found in the NT after Matthew and Luke–so it appears (from a theological point of view) that all the OT listings were primarily (but not totally) included as a road map leading to the Messiah. The only other mentions of genealogies in the NT are unfavorable (e.g., 1 Tim 1:4f, etc.) — and Paul’s admonition there may perhaps even apply toward the Abraham enigma.

    1. These are all great points, and thank you for sharing them! Agreed about genealogies having theological intentions, and so we need to think about them in those terms (in addition to other ways we think about them).

      Prior to Gen 11:29, the genealogies in Genesis really do seem to focus on the “fathering.” They are patriarchal in that sense–little mention of women; it is sons who are fathered, or at least fathered sons who are mentioned. So maybe that’s not a good corollary, but the emphasis so far in Genesis on fathering a child (even if only sons per se are mentioned) still makes me wonder why Terah’s “fathering” Sarai is not mentioned here, when it could have been (if it is true). Perhaps the text just wishes to define Sarai in relation to Abram, and that’s it? That could be the simplest way forward.

      Still, the rest of 11:29 is interesting: the text lists Milcah as *both* Nahor’s wife and Haran’s daughter. (The incestuous relationships here are difficult to read about!) But to the point of this conversation, it not only says, “She was the daughter of Haran,” but says the redundant, “She was the daughter of Haran the father of Milcah….”

      So in the same verse as Sarai there is this other woman who can be defined in a genealogy with multiple relations, and both are listed. Note, too, that the parallelism (“the name of Abram’s wife… the name of Nahor’s wife…”) is broken with the new information given about Milcah but not also Sarai. And Milcah is a much more minor character than Sarai! Interesting.

      If Genesis uses so many words on Milcah (and in particular whose daughter she is, even after she has been mentioned as a wife), I still wonder why Sarai doesn’t also have her daughter-ship mentioned?

  3. It was customary in genealogies only to mention the men. Only rarely are the ladies mentioned and there is usually some explanation for a mention eg Rahab because she featured prominently in safeguarding the spies. So, no mention of Sarai is normal. Marrying cousins or even half sisters was not forbidden at this time. So it makes sense that Abram offered no explanation until he chose to do so. Sarai being his half sister may partly explain why barrenness was an issue but would certainly explain why both Pharaoh (Gen 12) and Abimelech (Gen 20) were happy to accept that Abram was the brother of Sarai – they looked like brother and sister.

    1. This analysis on the topic seems to be most on point with scripture and cultural norms at this time..Society was patriarchal, intermarriage was common and often preferred, the lie must have been visually believable in their features.

    2. I read that marrying half-sisters was absolutely against the law at the time and would have been a blight on the lineage of Christ. So, she must not have been his half-sister.

  4. I don’t understand why God didn’t punish Abraham for lying about Sarah being his wife could you please explain that if possible Thank you

  5. Ultimately GOD is Spirit and we are to worship Him in Spirit and Truth! Our sin is against GOD not each other so much, and our sin against GOD is what brings death to us! The world/flesh/sin is death to us and enemy to GOD!! This pharoah and Abimelech are as rulers of this world, therefore enemies to Abraham, and therefore he goes in the land carefully, as like the foreigner he is, and does not tell his secrets to the enemy! In our flesh, until we are born again of the Spirit, GOD Himself, does not reveal His secrets to us. He sent a mediator, a man of flesh like us, to know the enemy in order to destroy the enemy: flesh! Jesus died as sin to raise again as Spirit! That we might be the righteousness of GOD! How? By denying our self, taking up our cross, and following Jesus: His way, truth, and life!
    Abraham as a man of faith: he believed GOD and it was counted as righteousness/right !! If GOD never condemned Abraham for ‘lying’ ??, why would I? Why do I even think of judging him or condemning him? Without faith it is impossible to please GOD!
    Abraham is known as the father of faith! My ‘father’ in the faith. If we bless him we are blessed. Curse Abraham and be cursed. Jesus never condemned Abraham when He spoke of knowing him in John 8. Some things are not written in the Bible because it is as a ‘riddle’. Or a math problem. We are commanded to seek GOD first and scripture says that GOD reveals Himself to those who love Him! We must seek Him for the answers: His Truth! Suffering to do away with sin as 1Peter says in chapter 4. When I am spirit-being and one with the Holy Spirit, indwelling in me, with the mind of Christ, then I began to understand more and more as from GOD’s side rather than my flesh/ death side. Life who is GOD, swallows up death! Then all the analogies of Abraham as like GOD (in Genesis) make sense! His almost sacrifice of Isaac is not the only parallel of GOD and Abraham. Either way, it is always about Spirit and flesh. Find GOD! Find Life in Him!

  6. I am a preaching pastor and am undertaking a sermon series on Abraham now. I have been carefully looking at all the material and came to the surprising conclusion that more likely than not Abraham IS lying twice when it comes to Sarah’s relationship to him. At the very least it’s a viable contender for what actually happened. What is somewhat disheartening is that I am struggling to find a commentary that takes this approach- all the ones that I own anyway just presume with very little explanation that Abraham’s speech to Abimelech is Gospel truth. But that hardly seems like a forgone conclusion for all the reasons you list above. Googling this topic is what led me to this blog but I think this is a case of scholars all lining up behind a theory because it has simply been accepted to be true for so long. On the surface of it the case for Abraham lying a second time certainly looks as strong as her actually being his half-sister, and with a little digging it is, IMHO, a stronger case.

  7. Grace and peace be multiplied unto you through the knowledge of God, and of Jesus Christ, our Lord!

    Praise be to God!

    “O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out!
    For who hath known the mind of the Lord? or who hath been his counsellor?
    Or who hath first given to him, and it shall be recompensed unto him again?
    For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever. Amen.” (Rom. 11:33-36).

    He planned salvation in advance. Wisely, according to His scheduled times, He revealed His plan through prophecies, especially messianic prophecies, and it has unfolded with their fulfilement. The Bible tells us some details on how God used vessels, men, to realize His plan. Abram had a role in it, and is even to be regarded as the father of faith (Rom. 4:1-12). Our Lord spoke of faith in parable “like a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and cast into his garden” (Luke 13:19), and spoke of the Father as “the gardener” (Joh. 15:1). It reveals to us something of “His ways”. As “the gardiner”, God plants seeds and gives them growth (1.Cor. 3:7). For ex. when He created man, He started by creating one individual, then from this He made a second individual, then from them mankind grew. As “the gardiner”, God has planted many other kinds of seeds, and made their products bare fruits and birth new seeds. He foretold especially of a particular “seed” (Gen. 3:15). He promised Abram a “seed” (Gen 12:7, etc.). Through it all He promised our Savior, our Lord Jesus Christ.

    Events, even small details, things worked together, even as types and foreshadows of great things to come.

    Our Lord Jesus said, “I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now. Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak: and he will shew you things to come. He shall glorify me” (Joh. 16:12-14).

    As it is meaningful that Abraham’s sacrifice of his only son Isaac and subtitution by a ram foreshadowed the crucifixion, God the Father’s sacrifice of His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ, and thus he was representative or type of the father in this sense, it is also significant that he was a brother to Sarai, because God incarnate, our Lord Jesus Christ, is also a brother (Mat. 25:40; 28:10).

    Wisely, in many situations, our Lord Jesus took care of not letting everybody know all about His true identity and attributes. The Bible tells that some “things spake Jesus unto the multitude in parables; and without a parable spake he not unto them” (Mat. 13:34). In addition to speaking only in parables to them at this point, He even “charged he his disciples that they should tell no man that he was Jesus the Christ” (Mat. 16:20), when it wasn’t yet time to do otherwise. When Pilate questionned Jesus about the truth, He didn’t tell (Joh. 18:38), because it was then time for Him to behave “like a lamb dumb before his shearer, so opened he not his mouth” (Acts 8:32). He didn’t take everybody with to the mount of transfiguration (Mat. 17:1-9, Mark 9:1-10, Luke 9:27-36). And He has let unbelieving people think of Him as a mere carpenter’s son and his sons’ brother (Mat. 13:55).

    Of Jesus Christ, the Messiah, it is written, “He came unto His own, and His own received him not.” (Joh. 1:11). Because of this, He said, “Behold, your house is left unto you desolate: and verily I say unto you, Ye shall not see me, until the time come when ye shall say, Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.” (Luk 13:35). As God appointed Joseph to be a savior to his brethren, who, by that they had trown him into a well and sold into slavery, they had rejected him. When they saw him, as long as they were not ready to repent and reconcile, they knew him as the vizier of Egypt Zaphnath-Paaneah. But, when it was time for it, in order to fulfil His plan of salvation God made them reconcile. When they were ready, then Joseph revealed himself to them (Gen. 45:3). There is a reconciliation coming between Jesus and His brethren, the chosen people (Rom. 11). Meanwhile, as long as they remain in unbelief, “a vail is upon their heart” (2.Kor. 3:15), they “were blinded” (Rom. 11:7), and they will experience “blindness” (Rom. 11:25), until “the fulness of the Gentiles be come in” (Rom. 11:25-27), then “His own” (Joh. 1:11), His brethren in the flesh, will be ready as a people to reconcile with their brother, the Lord.

    God works in mysterious ways. “Verily thou art a God that hidest thyself” (Isa. 45:15). But His mysteries are things yet to be revealed by Him on the right times, so “new things do I declare, before they spring forth I tell you of them…” (Isa 42:9), “who hath declared this from ancient time? who hath told it from that time? have not I the LORD? and there is no God else beside me; a just God and a Saviour; there is none beside me.” (Isa. 45:21). “Surely the Lord GOD will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret unto his servants…” (Amos 3:7). So, “we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, even the hidden wisdom, which God ordained before the world unto our glory” (1.Cor. 2:7). Of His plan of salvation He gave prophecies and made happen many foreshadowing events.

    A spiritual war is going on. It was won in advance by Jesus, our Savior and Lord, He got the victory (Rev. 5:5). But until the end of the world, as the Prince of Peace has not come yet, it is not wise to tell everything to everybody, especially not to the enemy.

    Abimelech was the king of the Philistines. It is said that he was a righteous king, and God said, “”

    Abram took care to introduce himself to the Philistines, and to Abimelech, their king, simply as Sarai’s brother.

    Although Abibelech had been righteous, God gave him the following explanation with warning: “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. 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.” (Gen. 20:6-7).

    So, in this case, God withheld Abimelech from sinning. Although Abibelech had been righteous till then, it was fleshly possible to Abimelech, or/and the other Philistines who encountered Abram and seen the beautiful woman with him, would have come into the temptation of sinning even in such a way that they would have the stranger be killed, in order to get his beautiful wife, if he had let them know he was the husband.

    Think, even the righteous and faithful king “David did that which was right in the eyes of the LORD, and turned not aside from any thing that he commanded him all the days of his life, save only in the matter of Uriah the Hittite” (1.Kings 15:5), for in order to get his beautiful wife, the king had knowingly and intentionally sent him to fight on the front line and there surely be killed.

    So Abram rather made them know him as the brother.

    BTW the words “brother” and “sister” had then a broader meaning. Notice that in the Bible the word “cousin” did not appear before the New Testament times (Luke 1:36,58). Sarai’s bloodline relationship to Abram may still remain unclear to the reader, but, either half-sister or sister by adoption or even cousin, in the language of the time, it’s not wrong to say that Sarai was Abram’s sister.

    Abram was her brother and her husband biblically foreshadowing and spiritually pointing to the coming Christ, who came to be brother to God’s children and head to the church.

    As a particular conduit of God’s salvation plan, he conveyed a crucial load of blessings for all that believe in God’s seed, Christ. Jesus had to die for us, but he took care in a way and the other of keeping himself alive until the right time. If Abram had passed away before his time, particularly before becoming Abraham and getting a promised son, Isaac, then he wouldn’t have got any posterity, so no Savior of the world, no hope for us then. Thank God, Abram, His “prophet” and the becoming father of our faith, was wisely spared.

    I found no biblical proof that he would have lied by having Sarai say she was his sister and saying himself “indeed she is my sister; she is the daughter of my father, but not the daughter of my mother; and she became my wife” (Gen 20:12), nor by keeping secret until this point that thus he was her husband.

    Notice that God prevented Abimelech, a Philistine, from sinning (Gen. 20:6-7). So, think, if Abram, His “prophet”, chosen vessel, conveyer of God’s plan of salvation for mankind, would have been himself on the verge of sinning, surely He could have prevented him as well. And if he really lied, then he would have sinned, and afterwards God would have rebuked or chastised him somehow. Instead (Gen. 20:14-15) Abram was blessed!

    Sorry for my English, I may have done some mistakes, I’m originally French and have lived in Finland for 40 years, now injured with whiplash and brain damage, a rather poor retired individual, yet by grace through faith in Christ a brother.

    In Christ
    Your brother

  8. It might simply be possible that Sarai is the daughter to a concubine of Terah. It is traditionally believed that Sarai is a sister to Lot and her name changed from Iscah to Sarai. Suppose Abram’s brother married his father’s concubine (think of Jacob’s firstborn son Ruben and Bilhah Gen35:22) and through her, fathered Lot and Milcah. This would make Sarai both a niece, sister and wife to the same man, embarrassing indeed. In the genealogy of Jesus, we know Joseph did not beget Jesus Christ, yet by Torah (Lev 18:9) Joseph becomes his father, and is grafted into his line. Another embarrassing possibility is that Sarai’s mother was wife to Haran during which Terah fathered Sarai, in a secret affair that came to light after the death of Haran. This too is embarrassing, and might not have been something the writer wanted to share.

  9. Terah may have had a concubine. Iscah is traditionally thought to be Sarai. If so, suppose Abram is telling the truth, what are the possibilities?

    1.) Terah might have had an affair with his daughter-in-law.
    2.) Haran might have married Terah’s concubine and adopted Iscah.
    3.) Sarai is not the same person as Iscah, and the tradition is false.

    Genesis 11:29 (KJV)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.

  10. Is it possible that Terah took for himself a woman who already had a daughter (Sarai) to another man who had died. This daughter (Sarai then became Terah’s daughter in his household. Terah was responsible for her as the headman (father). Abram takes Sarai as his wife, relieving Terah of being Sarai’s headman. Abram is now Sarai’s headman. Thus Terah call’s Sarai his daughter-in-law, as he is no longer responsible for Sarai as her head man. Abram has now become Sarai’s headman and is responsible for Sarai.
    Note: a woman always has to have a head man, either in the form of a master and his slave or a father and his daughter or a husband his wife. This man is the head man of that woman. It is for the woman’s protection and well being. It was unsafe for a woman to be without a man, see what happened to Hagar when Abraham sent her away.

    1. When you say “a woman always has to have a head man,” are you speaking historically, meaning a woman *was viewed as having to have a “headman”*, and not saying this normatively for today?

  11. I am wondering who Haran’s wife was? If Haran died leaving his widow (Terah’s DAUGHTER- in-law), wouldn’t the law of the leverite marriage require a brother (Abram or Nahor) to marry her?

    This would allow Abram to say that Sarai is his ‘sister’ because she is Terah’s daughter by marriage- not by birth ‘but not of my mother’

    Perhaps, too, Sarai was barren when married to Abram, because Abram continued to view her as a ‘sister. ’ Any brother-sister type of union would result in ‘closing of the womb.’

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