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.

New JPS Commentary Volumes, Now in Accordance

Jonah JPS CommentaryOne of the best biblical commentaries is the Jewish Publication Society (JPS) Bible Commentary. Previously at Words on the Word I’ve reviewed JPS Jonah, Genesis, Exodus, and Leviticus.

Now Accordance Bible Software has announced the release of every JPS Bible Commentary volume that currently exists in print, including Michael Fishbane’s Song of Songs and Michael V. Fox’s Ecclesiastes.

(Fun aside: I was leading an Accordance Webinar on building Workspaces when I realized the “Michael Fox” in attendance was THAT Michael V. Fox.)

Accordance has a number of purchase and even upgrade options available, all of which are explained in detail here.

New Story of God Bible Commentary Volumes: Genesis and Romans

SGBC GenesisScot McKnight set the bar high with his Sermon on the Mount volume in The Story of God Bible Commentary series.

Now there are two more volumes: Genesis, by Tremper Longman III, and Romans, by Michael F. Bird.

As Tremper Longman III describes in the video below, The Story of God Bible Commentary has three primary focuses:

  1. Listening to the Story
  2. Interpreting the Story
  3. Living the Story



You can read my review of McKnight’s Sermon on the Mount volume here. Also published so far have been Lynn H. Cohick’s Philippians and John Byron’s 1 and 2 Thessalonians. You can find the series landing page here.

Biblia Hebraica Quinta (BHQ): Genesis!!

Though it’s been long in coming, the Biblia Hebraica Quinta (BHQ) is meant to supercede the current scholarly edition of the Hebrew Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (BHS).

What is the BHQ? Start here and you’ll get a good grasp of it. I updated my readers in 2014 with what was then some new information. To my great surprise, in a .pdf from Hendrickson Publishers today, I saw a cover image for the Genesis volume!

Look on the far right:


BHQ Genesis


So new is it that Amazon and Hendrickson both don’t have it listed by ISBN or any other means. Hopefully it really will show up soon!

UPDATE: I have received word that the expected release date is Spring 2016.

Go to the Mattresses with God (Wrestling for a Blessing)

This is the sermon I preached Sunday on Jacob, us, and wrestling with God. Text: Genesis 32:22-32.

Jacob was a trickster. He had managed to trade a meal of lentil stew for his older brother Esau’s birthright, to be next in line in his family. Lentil stew! I like lentils, but as soup goes, this wasn’t even chicken tortilla soup.

With the help of his mother, Rebekah, he tricked his blind father Isaac into blessing him instead of Esau. Esau was getting ready to go all Cain and Abel on his brother Jacob.


Esau Comin’


Since Esau had made a vow to kill his brother—the Bible says, “Esau hated Jacob”—Jacob left his home and his family. He moved in with his uncle Laban and started a family of his own.

Some 20 years later, Jacob is coming back home. He’s days away from meeting up with Esau, so has sent ahead some gifts—you know, the usual: goats, sheep, cows… bowls of piping hot lentil stew. (No, wait, I shouldn’t send him that!)

Jacob knows Esau is coming.

Jacob and his crew come up to a river. It’s dark. The majestic mountains on either side of them and the starry night overhead are no match for the utter fear that grips Jacob now.

He helps his family cross to safety, and then in v. 24: “So Jacob was left alone.”

“So Jacob was left alone.”

Before he could worry whether Esau would pounce on him in his vulnerable state, a man jumps out of the shadows and they start to wrestle. Surely this is Esau! Jacob must be thinking.

There’s a well-represented strand of Jewish interpretation that sees this mysterious man as Esau’s patron angel… a proxy for Esau. But the story goes on to reveal this is more of a divine than human character he is wrestling with.

The fight seems to be pretty even. Verse 25 says, “The man saw that he could not overpower [Jacob],” but then he pops him in the hip so that Jacob begins to limp.

Jacob—ever the trickster, ever the procurer of blessings where they are not his to procure—says to the guy he has in a headlock, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”


Come to Jesus


“What is your name?” the man asks him. “What is your name?”

The answer is, “Jacob,” but naming in the book of Genesis and Ancient Near East was deeply significant. Your name was your personality. Your name was your reputation. Your name was your future calling and destiny. Your name was who you are.

“What is your name?” the godlike wrestler said. “Who are you?”

Jacob has a come-to-Jesus moment here, to use a religiously anachronistic phrase.

At this point he can dodge the question. He can say, “I’m not telling you that. Why should you know anything about me?” He can run off, though he’ll be hobbling and probably won’t get very far. He can lie and say he is somebody else.

“What is your name? Who are you?”

“I’m Jacob—I’m a trickster. I don’t trust people very well. My family was dysfunctional, my parents played favorites, and my family role was the conniving one. I want so deeply to be loved, that I’ll cheat, lie, and steal my way to it.”

Just one word in the text, “Jacob,” he says, but when I visualize this encounter, I think of Jacob’s answer as almost a confession of who he is, warts and all. By this point, surely, he must realize it’s not Esau he’s been wrestling with. “I saw God face to face,” Jacob would say at the end of this encounter, and face-to-face with God, he tells God his name. By saying, “I am Jacob,” he admits to God—freely—who he is, what he’s done, what his own internal struggles have been.


Go to the Mattresses


Tom HanksGrowing up my family had a few go-to movies that we’d watch on a Friday night. One of them was You’ve Got Mail. Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan are two competing bookstore owners who also happen to be falling in love over AOL’s now archaic Instant Messenger service online, under the screen names of “ShopGirl” and “NY152.” They don’t at first that they already know each other in real life, too.

Meg Ryan’s character complains from her computer screen, as ShopGirl, to Tom Hanks’s character, as NY152, about Hanks’s ruthless efforts to put her local, neighborhood bookstore out of business.

Hanks’s character summons the Godfather and tells her, “Go to the mattresses.”

Befuddled at that reference, she asks him about it and he replies:

The Godfather is the I Ching. The Godfather is the sum of all wisdom. The Godfather is the answer to any question. What should I pack for my summer vacation? “Leave the gun, take the cannoli.” What day of the week is it? “Maunday, Tuesday, Thursday, Wednesday.” And the answer to your question is “Go to the mattresses.” You’re at war. “It’s not personal, it’s business. It’s not personal it’s business.” Recite that to yourself every time you feel you’re losing your nerve. I know you worry about being brave, this is your chance. Fight. Fight to the death.

(Watch the scene here.)

Jacob has gone to the mattresses. He’s fighting—if not to the death, then he’s fighting for some favor. He’s wrestling for a blessing.

Let’s not forget how the book of Genesis started—the God of the universe separated vast expanses of sky, water, and land; he created light; he made all kinds of beings and vegetation, culminating in the creation of male and female in his image.

This Lord of the cosmos, this magnificent God of the universe who spoke and breathed all things and people into being—this could be a God we puny humans choose to avoid. Out of fear. Out of a sense of unworthiness. Due to a notion that we don’t want to trouble God with our concerns, our struggles, our anxieties. Maybe we think we have to be strong, or keep it together, or look like we’re keeping it together.

Maybe we feel guilty for the questions we have, for how distant we’ve been, for how hard it is to pray.

But if that’s you, go to the mattresses. Go to the mattresses with God.

Are you angry, at your brother or sister, or at God? Are you nervous about your life? Go to the mattresses—take it to God. Do you feel betrayed, passed over, or left out to dry by God? Go to the mattresses—take it up with him and have it out.

Go to the mattresses with God, if you think you have a need to clear the air.

Go be alone, like Jacob was, and wrestle a little bit.


Jacob Wrestles
Jacob Wrestles with the Angel of the LORD, Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863)


The stakes are higher for us than in the Godfather because we can’t say, “It’s not personal; it’s business.” With God, it’s all personal, and the blessing of our future seems to entirely depend on whether we can have an encounter with God.

I realize this is potentially dangerous advice to give to a group of Christians, to encourage us to go to the mattresses with God. You see Jacob limping around here, with a strained hip. And who wants another injury to have to worry about?

But there’s something about this human-divine struggle that is holy. There’s something sacred about grappling more deeply with the wonder and the mystery–even the sometimes elusive nature–of God.


Jacob Became Who He Was Always Supposed to Be


Jacob, the trickster, the one who contends on his own behalf, receives the new name Israel, meaning, “God strives,” “God contends,” “God struggles for you and for your good.”

Jacob became even more of who he was always called to be.

I think there are two main reasons we don’t go to the mattresses with God when we know we should, or could.

First, we think that God can’t handle it. We’re worried that the whole edifice will come crumbling down and we’ll have nothing left to believe in, when we really examine just who this God is, and just what this Word is, and just why justice does not prevail as it should in the world. We think God is either easily offended, quickly angered, or readily deconstructed, and so we stay at home. We don’t fight. We don’t engage in the struggle that is needed.

But if God is truly omniscient, if God really knows everything, then he already knows your questions, your frustrations, the things you protest about him, or others, or about the world. So why not give voice to them?

God can handle our frustrations, our consternation, our jadedness, even if we see him as the source of it.

Another reason we don’t go to the mattresses with God is we think we can’t handle it. We’re nervous that we’re right about God not being able to handle our complaints, our indictments, our protestations, and what would I have left anymore if that were true?

But if you’re keeping a midnight, solo encounter with God at bay for fear of what will happen—what do you have left anymore right now, anyway?

God can handle the struggle. You can manage to get in the ring—respectfully, of course—and go a few rounds.

Jacob, on that long, dark night, became even more of who he was always called to be. From the struggle emerged a new expression of God’s favor. From the wrestling came a blessing. Because he dared to face God—in all his honesty and uncertainty, and with all his passion—God gave him a new name, an altered identity, and declared Jacob to be a new person in God.

When we wrangle with God, we are not the same afterwards. We may come out of a period of holy wrestling a little worse for the wear, as Jacob did with his limp—which healed in due time—but we do so with a blessing. We get back up with a new name, a refined identity.

So if you need to, go to the mattresses with God. You don’t have to do it alone, like Jacob did; take a friend with you. Make a vulnerable new step of really chasing down some of your unfinished business with God, and sharing that journey with a friend, inviting them to walk with you, to pick you up and carry you when you’re limping.

And as the sun rises after your dark night, you will be able to rejoice at the new name and the even more abundant blessings you’ve received from God.

But sometimes, to get there, you’ve got to be willing to wrestle.

2 Exceptional Jewish Commentaries on Genesis, Part 2: The Torah: A Modern Commentary

This fall I’m preaching through Genesis. Two Jewish commentaries have been exceedingly helpful and illuminating as I prepare each week. Yesterday I praised Nahum M. Sarna’s Genesis (JPS Torah Commentary). Here I highlight another commentary I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading.


2. The Torah: A Modern Commentary


Torah Modern CommentaryLike the JPS Torah Commentary, the Modern Commentary includes the Hebrew text (with pointed vowels and cantillation marks) and English translation. Most of the Torah is in the new Jewish Publication Society (JPS) translation (with updates for gender-sensitivity), but the English translation of Genesis is the work of the late Rabbi Chaim Stern.

Most noticeable in Stern’s translation is his use of “the Eternal” to translate the tetragrammaton (YHVH). The Preface to the Revised Edition explains:

The root meaning of the divine name in Hebrew is “to be,” and the name “Eternal” renders that name according to its meaning rather than its sound. That is, it conveys the overtones that an ancient Israelite would have heard when encountering YHVH as a name.

Between introductions, verse-by-verse Commentary, Essays, and Gleanings (insights from rabbinic commentaries and modern-day interpreters), there’s a wealth of useful information here.

For example, last Sunday I began to wonder whether the story of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9) was, among other things, an anti-empire polemic. Moving through the “Gleanings” in the Modern Commentary, I found the following early sources:

As the tower grew in height it took one year to get bricks from the base to the upper stories. Thus, bricks became more precious than human life. When a brick slipped and fell the people wept, but when a worker fell and died no one paid attention.


They drove forth multitudes of both men and women to make bricks; among whom, a woman making bricks was not allowed to be released in the hour of childbirth, but brought forth while she was making bricks, and carried her child in her apron, and continued to make bricks.

The commentary nicely blends cultural background, sensitivity to the history of Jewish interpretation, and application-ready insights, as here in the comment on Genesis 12:1-9:

For while Abram’s story must be read as the biography of an individual, he (and this applies to the other patriarchs as well) is more than an individual. The Torah sees the patriarch as the archetype who represents his descendants and their fate.

I especially appreciate how Accordance Bible Software lays out the commentary and all its sections; I’ve been using it in that medium (click to enlarge).


Torah Modern Commentary


The publisher offers quite a generous (70 or so pages) .pdf sample of the Torah Modern Commentary, which you can read here.

You can find The Torah: A Modern Commentary here at the publisher’s page or here at Amazon.

2 Exceptional Jewish Commentaries on Genesis, Part 1: The JPS Torah Commentary

This fall I’m preaching through Genesis. Two Jewish commentaries have been exceedingly helpful and illuminating as I prepare each week. In a short series of two brief posts, I highlight each.


1. The JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis


JPS Torah GenesisI’m a sucker for beautifully constructed books, and this is one. Nahum M. Sarna’s Genesis has the full Hebrew text of Genesis (with vowel points and cantillation marks), an English translation (the Jewish Publication Society’s New JPS translation), incisive commentary, and 30 Excursuses at the back of the book.

Already at Genesis 1:2 I found the commentary quoteworthy enough to cite it in a sermon. It notes that the Hebrew term create is used only of God:

It signifies that the product is absolutely novel and unexampled, depends solely on God for its coming into existence, and is beyond the human capacity to reproduce.

There’s this gem on Cain and Abel, where Cain’s sacrifice points to “a recurrent theme in the Bible–namely, the corruption of religion.” Sarna tersely (yet effectively) comments:

An act of piety can degenerate into bloodshed.

And in Genesis 6, where the reader struggles to understand how a loving God could all but eradicate his creation, the introductory essay to “Noah and the Flood” reads:

The moral pollution is so great that the limits of divine tolerance have been breached. The world must be purged of its corruption.

He goes on:

The totality of the evil in which the world has engulfed itself makes the totality of the catastrophe inevitable.

Every passage of the commentary I read is like this–the perfect blend of lexical analysis and devotional implication. Sarna makes good use of ancient Jewish sources, so the reader gets the sense that she or he is really being exposed to thousands of years of Jewish interpretation.

This has often been the first commentary to which I turn after reading the text.

You can find it here at the publisher’s page or here at Amazon. I waited a long time to purchase this volume, since it’s not cheap. This summer I found it on ebay, and have been grateful to own it since!


Next post, I’ll highlight the second of two Jewish commentaries on Genesis that I’ve been enjoying–The Torah: A Modern Commentary. UPDATE 10/16/14: See that review (part 2) here.