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.

7 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?

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