Genesis 12: Abram and Sarai’s Misadventures in Egypt

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.
(Emphasis added)

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.
(Emphasis added).

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.
(Emphasis added).

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?


  1. I have often thought about the woman in situations like this. It could not have been too bad to have been kept in Pharaoh’s house and paid great attention and been lavished with attention and the honor of having sex with a “god”. To have been desired by two powerful men, Pharaoh and Abram. And the sex might have been OK. Could she have not luxuriated a little in this attention and in this sexuality?

  2. Seems like a lot of indignation over Genesis 12, Aaron. Please don’t read Judges 19.

  3. It should be noted that in the PofGP, it is the Lord that tells Abram to pose as Sarai’s brother.

  4. “Why do we insist on projecting our modern moral scruples onto the Prophets of several millenia past?”

    Why? Because we desperately want to shore up the idea that the Gospel is the same yesterday and today. Besides, it’s hard work taking the scriptures seriously, and not just read them as a way to validate our own current cultural understandings.

  5. (But I should say, aside from my flippant remark, I agree with your take on this — it is too bad that we often feel compelled to make a story say something that it does not.)

  6. I think it is a bit bigger than just modern scruples. Therer is something deepy uncomfortable about a Man who is not willing to defend his wife’s virtue, in our day. There is a sense then, for us, that this makes Abraham kinda complicit in her ‘rape’. There is quite a bit at stake here. Moreover, I am not sure it is as easy as you make out to just separate out ideas around righteousness from a time-period as easily as you suggest.

    On a different note, i think the Pharoah’s response is strange. Why when he got sick did he think that he had sleeped with another man’s wife but (according to these traditions) would not fear that punishment for murder? Perhaps there is something I am missing here?

  7. Well, also there was a certain amount of time that Sarai was living with Pharoah, so we can consider that there was a lot of dialogue and day to day living that went on in Pharoah’s household. Who knows how much was said between him and Sarai? When he got sick, perhaps it was then that the truth came out, and he just wanted to get better, so he was like, Okay! Get out of here already! Whereas, there probably wasn’t a lot of compunction about murdering someone who stood in your way if you were Pharoah.

    And, yes, I think it’s painfully obvious to anyone who reads any version of this story that Abram and Sarai chose the most logical course of action, and that was to sort of go undercover for everyone’s protection and that Sarai had to sleep with Pharoah. Sort of like Mata Hari.

  8. I’m seeing a pattern here (Abram, Lot, Jacob’s sons):

    God: Behold I will give you a large swath of desert in Canaan. It’s a fixer-upper, but you’ll be left alone to prosper.

    Abram/Lot/Jacob’s sons: Keep it. I’d rather rent a mansion than own a shack. Famine’s not really my thing.

    God: You’re actually disobeying me? I warn you, it’s no fun dancing to another person’s tune.

    All: Uh, if you haven’t noticed, it’s no picnic dancing to your tune either…

    Abram: Better unwed than dead. I’ll sell my wife to pay the rent.
    Lot: Better my honor intact than my daughters’ virginity. I’ll use them as human shields if trouble comes knocking (as I know it will).
    Reuben et al.: No problem, better to live on my knees than die of starvation on my feet. I sold my own brother into slavery, so how bad can it be?

    You want GD Lessons?

    Lesson 1: When someone says, “trust me, you’ll love it”, you probably won’t love it. Accept graciously, then throw it away when the person is not looking.

    Lesson 2: When dealing from weakness, just go along with whatever they say, then do what you want later. If they’d have wanted to kill you, they’d have killed you by now.

    Lesson 3: All these trials of faith could have easily been avoided if there had not been a problem with the goods on delivery. Why must blessings from God always disappoint us initially? First impressions matter. No wonder Moses got it in writing.

  9. StillConfused says:

    Well, he pretty much pimped out his wife and she apparently was cool with that. So the lesson could be, if your husband offers to pimp you out, go for it, the other guy is probably richer and better in bed anyway. At least he will be less of a wuss than your husband.

  10. I do think that it is interesting that this is brought up about the same time another post is talking about “better to be sent home in a pine box” than commit sexual sin. Because in reality, sex with someone else’s spouse is adultery, yet it seems to be condoned by the Bible here.

    The more I understand about the Old Testament, the less I try to understand.

  11. Let’s make a movie:

    Woody Harrelson as Abraham
    Robert Redford as Pharaoh
    Demi Moore as Sarai

  12. As is obvious from the Deseret Book quote, the person who signs on as an apologist for the book of Genesis – let alone other OT books, such as Joshua with it’s genocide – has their work cut out for them.

  13. Mike S: that is hilarious!

  14. I had the joy of taking my college religion courses at a non-LDS college. (Church of Christ-based University, to be exact). When discussing this chapter in comparison to the other similar chapters that Aaron cited (Gen 20 & 26) the conclusion our professor made was simple: That this one story was probably repeated three times because it was the same Legend/Tall Tale (Paul Bunyun anyone?) passed down through the generations told in different ways. It probably had some point it was trying to make at the time, but doesn’t translate well to us in our day.
    I try to fall back on the “as far as it is translated correctly” argument as little as possible. But when you have a story that clashes with my sense of morality, and you also have Scriptorians and Scholars calling it non-historical, its pretty easy for me to reject it. Those are my two cents.

  15. Wow, I forgot about Judges 19. What’s the deal with that?

  16. When I taught GD four years ago, I brought up the parts about women. There are powerful women in the OT as well as women who were victims of horrible injustice. I never got much dialoge from the class – usually silence so we moved on. Using the OT as a guide to daily living would be dangerous and disastrous. I do wonder how Sarai felt about this decision before hand. Was she “damaged goods” after Pharoah slept with her? Was she shunned for not protecting her virtue? How many people knew about this? Did Abraham keep all the gifts? Did he share them with Sarai – she was the one who “earned” them! I always have more questions after reading the OT stories. I could mention some that would make your toes curl! Also – Carol Lynn Pearson has a moving dialoge called “Mother Wove the Morning” about women in scripture. I have the book, but the video is one of the most powerful things I have EVER watched. Find it at your library or inter-library loan it. You will FEEL for OT women as you never did before.

  17. “Was she shunned for not protecting her virtue?”

  18. re # 15, it’s basically an ancient CSI episode.

    CSI: Gibeah.

  19. #14 152 — I think I have to agree with you. The story in Genesis 20 with Abimilech pops up in the middle of the conception-of-Isaac story when Sarah (already called Sarah) was really old. Could she really have been so attractive at such advanced age that a powerful man like Abimilech would snap her up instead of a younger woman? Something makes no sense.

    However, it’s quite possible God arranged (PoG 2) to pimp Sarai out to get the wealth Abram would need to begin a life in Canaan. After all, if “thou shalt not kill” is superceded when Nephi needs to steal from Laban, why can’t the Law of Chastity be superceded to get goods for Abraham? After all, Abraham was told sacrifice Isaac, and he was tremendously blessed for being willing to do that.

    To allow your wife to go live with another man — ugh. To personally sacrifice your own kid — oh God. Can’t think of a man with more faith.

  20. Well, historically speaking men WOULD be less inclined to mess with an unmarried woman for one important reason: she would (under the best circumstances) have been a virgin. This is not necessarily the big deal Victorians made it out to be as representing virtue, but rather going to your future husband/family a virgin garunteed whatever children you bore came from their line. This was VERY much a “legal nicety” in most cultures and would have been respected even across cultural boundaries. Think of Dinah whose kidnapping/rape/forcible marriage/whatever term one chooses, resulted in her brothers’ ravaging of an entire city.

    And speaking of Dinah: on the other hand, taking a wife by violence (even murdering her husband to get her) was common in many cultures as well. Though paying a bride-price to her family to recompense them for the service, child-bearing capability, and family connections they would lose by marrying her out of it was the more polite and typical way to go about things. Which makes your theory as to the root of Abraham’s Egyptian wealth make sense.

    As uncomfortable as it sounds to modern readers, I think your theory has historical plausibility. And it’s an interesting examination of something I hadn’t really looked at before. Like the other prophetic examples you named, I always just assumed there was no sexual relationship between her and Pharoh. Interesting!

  21. OP: “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?”

    Given that the Hebrew could be translated either way and sex with Pharoah is not a necessary conclusion from the text, the questions could just as easily be flipped on their head: Why is it so important to us to find the most unsavory reading in these stories? Why do we insist on projecting our modern sexuality onto biblical characters of several millenia past? Why do we think we have found a clear “face value” to this passage that has befuddled scholars and religious figures for centuries?

  22. What’s up with the male donkeys and female donkey having to have slaves between them?
    Don’t Jack and Jennie get along?

  23. I don’t think this episode is all that troubling considering the cultures in which it took place. The later account of Jacob’s dealings with Rachel’s brother Laban in Genesis 24 & 27 suggests to me that the brother-as-negotiator was a big deal at that time. As others have said, projecting modern cultural mores on ancient cultures is problematic. Also, the accounts of Abraham & Sarah in Egypt are rather sketchy. More details would probably help clarify what happened.

  24. Seely and Pike aren’t the kind to BS their way through this. (I don’t know Holzapfel personally, but he’s not an OT scholar the way the other two are.)

    Obviously JWOT can provide only the shortest of commentary, but I don’t think it’s being read charitably here. They’re not exactly creating this interpretation. It’s well rooted in ANE law and culture, as they point out, but here’s another example.

    From the JPS Torah commentary on Genesis, authored by Nahum Sarna-

    “In the ancient Near East there was a well-known sociolegal institution of ‘fratriarchy’ that existed over a long period of time. Where there is no father, the brother assumes legal guardianship of his sister, particularly with respect to obligations and responsibilities in arranging marriage on her behalf. Therefore, whoever wished to take Sarai to wife would have to negotiate with her “brother.”

    In short, I don’t see anything inconsistent between the actual JWOT commentary and the way you want to read Genesis. JWOT has plenty of shortcomings, but this isn’t one of them.

    Moreover, to their credit, the authors shoot down the Nuzi sister-wife parallels, something a few conservative scholars still seem to cling to.

    As to the claim “The wife did not have sexual relations with the foreign ruler” I agree that there’s no clear textual evidence here, though at least in Gen. 12, the events all appear to happen in quick succession. You could translated v.17 as “then” or “at that point” Yahweh afflicted Pharaoh greatly. That’s still somewhat ambiguous.

    I do take issue with the implication that “taking to wife” equates to consummation of the marriage. Taking to wife is simply Israelite legal terminology for “getting married.” The brother, as legal guardian, would have received these “gifts” as part of that legal process, not as a later “well now that I’ve bedded your sister, have lots of stuff” kind of consolation prize.

    Anyway… I agree with your greater point. Most LDS don’t know how to deal with the messiness of the OT, it doesn’t match our expectations, but then I would argue that it’s our expectations that are messed up. We try to read it for what it’s not. You don’t read the phone book for bread recipes, or the newspaper for French lessons. The patriarchal narratives (as well as the rest of the OT) were not intended to provide short stand-alone stories of moral models, or teach “daily application” of how to live correctly. (That’s called Wisdom Literature. Check out Proverbs.)

    If it’s important not to sugarcoat these stories, I think it equally important to try to read them (as #21 suggests) on their own terms, something many comments here fail to do.
    Since the OT was not written for us, then as Rico asks, “Perhaps there is something I am missing here?” the answer is always “Yes, there is.”

  25. The tradition is that the curses included impotence, just FYI.

    Otherwise, I think 152 has it right.

  26. #6
    “Pharoah’s response is strange”

    I don’t believe that Pharaoh ever intended to kill Sarai, however perhaps the servants would. (thinking it would please Pharaoh).

    This act shows the love Sarai had for Abram, A moving moment in Bravehart dir Mel Gibson is when the Landlord acts upon his historical right to sleep with a new bride before the husband, a fight ensues the bride gracefully intercedes before her husband is killed.

    Sarai is the hero of this story, however the bible is rubbish at showing things from a female perspective.

  27. Correction #26

    “I don’t believe that Pharaoh ever intended to kill Abram”

  28. Alex T. Valencic says:

    “Could she really have been so attractive at such advanced age that a powerful man like Abimilech would snap her up instead of a younger woman? Something makes no sense.”

    Sure it does. Abimilech had a thing for attractive older women. It is known as a “fossil fetish”.

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