Genesis 12 is the first Old Testament chapter that focuses entirely on the life of Abram. It describes his and Sarai’s departure from Haran and journey to the land of Egypt. The LDS Church’s Old Testament Gospel Doctrine Teacher’s Manual does not assign this chapter in Sunday School, except as an “additional reading” to Lesson 8. Its exclusion from the formally-assigned chapters saves the curriculum writers from having to come up with “How-can-you-apply-this-to-your-daily-life?”-type questions for passages like this one:
11 And it came to pass, when he was come near to enter into Egypt, that he said unto Sarai his wife, Behold now, I know that thou art a fair woman to look upon:
12 Therefore it shall come to pass, when the Egyptians shall see thee, that they shall say, This is his wife: and they will kill me, but they will save thee alive.
13 Say, I pray thee, thou art my sister: that it may be well with me for thy sake; and my soul shall live because of thee.
14 ¶ And it came to pass, that, when Abram was come into Egypt, the Egyptians beheld the woman that she was very fair.
15 The princes also of Pharaoh saw her, and commended her before Pharaoh: and the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house.
16 And he entreated Abram well for her sake: and he had sheep, and oxen, and he asses, and menservants, and maidservants, and she asses, and camels.
17 And the Lord plagued Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai Abram’s wife.
18 And Pharaoh called Abram, and said, What is this that thou hast done unto me? why didst thou not tell me that she was thy wife?
19 Why saidst thou, She is my sister? so I might have taken her to me to wife: now therefore behold thy wife, take her, and go thy way.
20 And Pharaoh commanded his men concerning him: and they sent him away, and his wife, and all that he had.
Not clear enough for you? Admittedly, the KJV phrase “that it may be well with me for thy sake” makes it a bit hard to tell who is benefiting here, and “so I might have taken her to me to wife” is a subjunctive construction, which might raise doubt as to whether the “taking to wife” actually occurred. But here’s the NRSV:
11 When he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, ‘I know well that you are a woman beautiful in appearance;
12 and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, “This is his wife”; then they will kill me, but they will let you live.
13 Say you are my sister, so that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared on your account.’
14 When Abram entered Egypt the Egyptians saw that the woman was very beautiful.
15 When the officials of Pharaoh saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh. And the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house.
16 And for her sake he dealt well with Abram; and he had sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male and female slaves, female donkeys, and camels.
17 But the Lord afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife.
18 So Pharaoh called Abram, and said, ‘What is this you have done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife?
19 Why did you say, “She is my sister”, so that I took her for my wife? Now then, here is your wife; take her, and be gone.’
20 And Pharaoh gave his men orders concerning him; and they set him on the way, with his wife and all that he had.
So, let me see if I understand this: Abram feared that if he revealed he was Sarai’s husband, his very beautiful wife would be deemed sexually unavailable by the Egyptians, and he’d be killed as a consequence (thus rendering her newly unmarried and available). So he poses as her brother instead — a relationship that doesn’t throw a monkeywrench into the Egyptians’ sexual plans — and Sarai is then taken into Pharaoh’s palace. Pharaoh promptly showers Abram with lots of cool stuff, but is also afflicted with plagues for taking an already-married woman to wife. Once Pharaoh realizes he’s been with another man’s wife, he confronts Abram, expresses exasperation at his dishonesty, and then cuts Sarai loose. Seems pretty straightforward, right? Well, not to the authors of the new Deseret Book publication, Jehova and the World of the Old Testament, it doesn’t. Here’s their take on what is going on (p. 52):
Genesis 12:11-13 and 26:7 indicate Abraham’s fear that because his wife Sarah was attractive she would be taken into the foreign ruler’s harem and he would be killed. This suggests their perception that the ruler would be expected to negotiate with a woman’s brother before taking her into his harem, but that the ruler would be more inclined to kill the husband if he desired his wife. Thus, this “she is my sister” strategy could theoretically provide greater protection for the wife as well as protecting her husband.
I find this rather odd. How does Abram’s fear of being killed suggest that he and Sarai would develop a perception about the role of “brother-as-negotiator”? Why should we assume they’d have such a perception at all? And what textual evidence is there that Abram and Sarai’s strategy protects both of them (her from sex, him from death), rather than only him? The authors would have us believe that Abram believed the Egyptians were perfectly happy to commit murder to get at a beautiful married woman, but to get at a beautiful single woman, they’d feel compelled to respect legal niceties. This seems pretty farfetched. A more plausible interpretation would be that Abram feared the Egyptians were going to take Sarai regardless of who she was with, but at least if Abram passed himself off as a brother, he’d save his own skin, since a living brother wouldn’t morally complicate the Egyptians’ sexual intentions the way a living husband would. And as unpleasant as we may find Abram’s actions here, he appears to have pursued the less bad of two very bad options: (a) Stay alive and let Sarai lie with Pharaoh vs. (b) Be killed and have Sarai lie with Pharaoh anyway. So under the circumstances, his choice makes a certain amount of sense. But whatever Abram and Sarai’s perceptions may or may not have been, let’s see what JWOT says actually happens in this story (again, p. 52):
The wife did not have sexual relations with the foreign ruler and thus retained her honor and demonstrated her loyalty to her husband and the Lord.
Huh? Look, Genesis 12 doesn’t come right out and say whether Sarai had sexual relations with the foreign ruler or not. But Abram’s posing as the brother and letting Sarai go to Pharaoh surely means that he anticipated such sexual relations would occur. Sarai’s beauty doesn’t make her a likely candidate for the job of palace scullery maid, after all. Further, the text seems to support the notion that the “taking to wife” did occur. Whatever happened behind closed doors, it was enough for Pharaoh to shower Abram with “sheep, and oxen, and he asses, and menservants, and maidservants, and she asses, and camels” (v. 16). It was also enough that the “Lord afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai” (v. 17). Compare this story with two other similar “wife-sister” stories elsewhere in the Old Testament: In Genesis 20:1-18, we are specifically told that Abimelech has not consummated his relationship with Sarah, but that God will slay him if he refuses to return her. Similarly, in Genesis 26:6-11, Abimelech tells Isaac (posing as Rebekah’s brother in this case), that sexual activity with the very married Rebekah would have “brought guilt upon us”, and this is so serious that Abimelech threatens to put to death anyone who molests either Isaac or Rebekah once their true identities are known. Of the three stories in Genesis in which a prophet falsely poses as his wife’s brother, two of them make clear that extra-marital sexual activity would have brought a serious curse down on the male violators — even though the sex never happens — while in the third (Genesis 12), the “taking to wife” does appear to have happened, and plagues are not merely promised; they actually happen. In sum, the best reading of this story seems to be the most uncomfortable one to our modern ears: Sarai did in fact lie with Pharaoh, just as Abram knew she would, Abram and Sarai were both rewarded by Pharaoh for this, but God then punished Pharaoh for taking a married woman to wife.
Why is it so important to us to sugercoat these stories? Why do we insist on projecting our modern moral scruples onto the Prophets of several millenia past? If our own sexual mores have evolved in interesting ways over the past 150 years, why can’t we just take the sexual elements of a 3-4,000 yr-old story at face value?