Your Sunday Brunch Special #11. Who is Iscah?

Abraham’s family life is the stuff of Jew, Gentile, and Mormon legend. But, I’m not going to break into that territory much. It’s too complex and I don’t have the mental space for it now. But, who is Iscah? The name appears once in the Hebrew Bible, just after the genealogy of Abram:

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. [Gen. 11:29, KJV]

Just so you get the family tree here:

                       Terah (has three sons)
↓                        ↓                   ↓
Haran              Abram              Nahor

Haran (has two daughters)
     ↓             ↓
Milcah     Iscah

Haran dies, Abram and Nahor get married. Who do they marry?

Abram marries Sarai. Nahor marries Milcah. Moreover, Milcah is identified as a daughter of Haran. So Nahor marries his niece. Right? There is a lot of water under this bridge, arguments about whether “daughter” means “daughter” or relative, etc. The text itself doesn’t give a clue there. Now, Sarai sort of appears out of the blue and Abram marries her.

Then there is this Iscah. She is Milcah’s sister apparently (observe that Hebrew meanings assigned to Milcah and Sarai are usually “queen” and “princess” respectively). Without violating the short format inherent in the blog world, I’ll just say that the traditional interpretation among Jews and Christians here was that Sarai and Iscah are the same person. For various reasons, over the last hundred years or so, people began to dispute the tradition, unlinking Iscah and Sarai. One reason is Genesis 20:12,

And yet indeed she [Sarai] is my sister; she is the daughter of my father, but not the daughter of my mother; and she became my wife.

Here Abram (now Abraham) identifies Sarai (now Sarah) as his half-sister. Now take your pick. Niece or sister. People have discussed the two positions a lot, but this is not my interest now.

Here is a passage from the Book of Abraham as it appears in it’s first printing, clearly edited by Joseph Smith himself:

Now the Lord God caused the famine to wax sore in the land of Ur, insomuch that Haran, my brother, died; but Terah, my father, yet lived in the land of Ur, of the Chaldees.
And it came to pass that I, Abraham, took Sarai to wife, and Nehor, my brother, took Milcah to wife, who were the daughters of Haran.[1]

So Joseph Smith tells us in his translation/revelation called the Book of Abraham that Sarai is the daughter of Haran. This gives some weight to the Sarai = Iscah idea. Indeed, at the critical moment when Iscah makes her one and only appearance in the Hebrew Bible, she is replaced by Sarai.

This is interesting not just for following the Talmudic literature, Josephus, and other sources. Three earlier (c1835) Book of Abraham manuscripts reflect the Genesis text and so run counter to the 1842 first printing.

The first printing of the text was not altered (in the wording of the present passage) through the various successive printings of the Book of Abraham (another in 1842, followed by a fair number of 19th century editions, mostly as part of the Pearl of Great Price) until 1981. While there is no published source for the editing process for this edition, it seems clear that two things happened: 1) The Times and Seasons was consulted and 2) the four extant earlier manuscripts were consulted. The reading that was decided upon follows the Genesis text:

And it came to pass that I, Abraham, took Sarai to wife, and Nahor, my brother, took Milcah to wife, who was the daughter of Haran.[Abr. 2:2, current edition of the PoGP.]

Well, Iscah makes no appearance here, nor did she in the original text, but this new text does make way for the biblical reading. Personally, having studied the events surrounding the original publication rather carefully, I tend to go with the Times and Seasons reading as reflecting Joseph Smith’s final version of the text. Altering that by virtue(?) of manuscript versions in this case is not the same as appealing to some family of Greek New Testament MSS for a Bible translation. On the other hand, since the present text was canonized in 1981, it is the official version. Furthermore, it does not contradict the Times and Seasons text, it merely contains less “information.”

So there you are. The tiny Mormon story of Iscah. Who is she? Danged if I know.[2]


[1] Nehor appears a couple times in the Book of Mormon as a person and place name. All Book of Abraham manuscripts follow the KJV spelling (Nahor) save one. I believe the Times and Seasons spelling was probably a typo.

[2] If you want to say this discussion is pointless because these people are not historical figures, well, go ahead. But it’s still an interesting textual weave. Anybody can appreciate that much. Personally, I’m rather in favor of a historical Abraham and so I don’t blanch a bit at Sarah, or Iscah, no matter how the stories evolved.


  1. Really interesting. Do you happen to know where the various authors JS used came down on this issue? Is this something that resulted from his post-1835 studies?

  2. Hyrum had a copy of Josephus. There is no direct evidence linking that to the BoA text though. Josephus reads like this:

    (Antiquities 6.5) “Now Abraham had two brethren, Nahor and Haran; of these Haran left a son, Lot; as also Sarai and Milcha his daughters, and died among the Chaldeans, in a city of the Chaldeans, called Ur; and his monument is shown to this day. These married their nieces. Nahor married Milcha, and Abram married Sarai.”

    The pseudepigraphic “Book of Jasher” (text follows Josephus) was around and JS was perhaps familiar with it. The Times and Seasons treatment of Jasher suggests an ambivalence about its value. Hazarding a guess, JS considered Josephus authoritative in some sense. He included other stuff in the first printing of the Book of Abraham, like Sephardic Hebrew (not in MSS) that makes one think of those inclusions as sort of window dressing.

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    That’s really interesting, WVS. I’ve never focused on that before.

    Here’s what the Jewish Encyclopedia summarizes from rabbinical literature about Sarai/Iscah (my favorite is the assertion that she was so beautiful that all other persons seemed apes in comparison!):

    Sarah was the niece of Abraham, being the daughter of his brother Haran. She was called also “Iscah” (Gen. xi. 29), because her beauty attracted general attention and admiration (Meg. 14a). She was so beautiful that all other persons seemed apes in comparison (B. B. 58a). Even the hardships of her journey with Abraham did not affect her beauty (Gen. R. xi. 4). According to another explanation, she was called Iscah because she had prophetic vision (Meg. l.c.). She was superior to Abraham in the gift of prophecy (Ex. R. i. 1.). She was the “crown” of her husband; and he obeyed her words because he recognized this superiority on her part (Gen. R. xlvii. 1). She was the only woman whom God deemed worthy to be addressed by Him directly, all the other prophetesses receiving their revelations through angels (ib. xlv. 14). On their journeys Abraham converted the men, and Sarah the women (ib. xxxix. 21). She was called originally “Sarai,” i.e., “my princess,” because she was the princess of her house and of her tribe; later she was called “Sarah” = “princess,” because she was recognized generally as such (Ber. 13a; Gen. R. xlvii. 1).

  4. Thanks Kevin. That’s a nice summary.

  5. Here’s a snippet from the Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch, which is more than ABD has to say.

    “Later Jewish tradition surrounding Sarah adds much to the details of the biblical text. Regarding genealogy, Sarah is identified as Iscah, the daughter of Abraham’s brother Haran (Gen 11:29). That would make her Abraham’s niece. The name Iscah is related to the word sākâ (“to look”), for all looked on her beauty (b. Meg. 14a). It is also said that her beauty lasted through journeys and wanderings and continued through to old age (Gen. Rab. 40:4), that her beauty made all other people look like monkeys (b. B. Bat. 58a), and that Abishag, a great beauty in her own right who sought to cheer David in his old age (1 Kings 1), was only half as beautiful as Sarah (b. Sanh. 39b).
    The name Iscah also refers to Sarah’s ability to prophesy, according to Jewish tradition, and to see with the eyes of vision (b. Meg. 14a). She is named as one of the seven prophetesses in the Hebrew Bible, and her prophetic gift is reputed to have excelled that of her husband (Ex. Rab. 1:1). In addition, when her name was changed from Sarai, Sarah became a princess for all humanity as well as a princess for her own people (Gen. Rab. 40:5).”

    Thanks for the post.

  6. okay I’m interested…where is this Jewish Encyclopedia? This is the phrase “She was the only woman whom God deemed worthy to be addressed by Him directly, all the other prophetesses receiving their revelations through angels”

    huh. Where do they get this information from? Who are the seven women they identify as prophetesses? Isaiah’s wife, Deborah, Huldah, Anna…obviously Sarah…who else?

  7. @lessonNumberOne-Miriam, Noadiah, Elizabeth (New Testament), daughters of Philip (New Testament; Acts 21:9)

  8. Okay. I’m not so fond of the jewish encyclopedia. It doesn’t actually have an entry on prophetess. It describes the most established prophetesses as conceited and overbearing. (huldah and deborah). Would those same actions be considered such in men? The action in question is referring to their respective King as a man instead of by his title. In most situations the prophetesses listed are said to have taught the women…though only in the case of Miriam is that even implied at all in the biblical text. Their list of 7 is :Deborah, Huldah, Sarah, Miriam, Hannah, Abigail, and Esther .

    Which I find puzzling. I like some of Raz’ inclusions.

    I know David united israel an all..but how is he not considered conceited or overbearing..instead he is bold. sigh. NOte to self…don’t read stuff about women in the bible unless you’ve had a TON of sleep.

  9. A few years ago, I drew up a chart and calculated some coefficients of relatedness. (“Father’s Day Special: Relatedness of Abraham and the Children of Israel.”) For example, the relatedness of Jacob and Esau to Abraham, and also to Sarah, was 34.6%, compared to 25% for a standard grandparent-grandchild relationship. If Sarah and Milcah were not sisters, then Isaac and his father-in-law Bethuel would still be first cousins, but not double first cousins. The coefficients of relatedness would be much lower.

  10. So John, how do things change if Sarai is Terah’s daughter?

  11. >>”Hyrum had a copy of Josephus. There is no direct evidence linking that to the BoA text though.”

    Well, it depends how narrowly you define “direct evidence”. Oliver Cowdery quoted Josephus in interpreting one of the vignettes from the “Record of Joseph” scroll in his December 1835 Messenger and Advocate letter. So clearly Joseph and/or his scribes were reading Josephus in connection with the interpretation of the papyri. Furthermore, there are a number of things in the Book of Abraham and the Kirtland Egyptian Papers that seem to betray Josephus’s influence. I described one of the more striking examples in my paper, “The Dependence of Abraham 1:1-3 on the Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar”:

    “Josephus, for example, refers to Egypt as Mestre (apparently a Greek rendering of the Hebrew name for Egypt, Mizraim) and the Egyptians as Mestreans. The GAEL calls Egypt Ah=meh=strah and the Egyptians the Ah meh strahans, apparently Egyptianizations of the names from Josephus. … Joseph Smith seems to have considered ah a characteristic Egyptian phoneme, so that Hades in the Alphabet and Grammar is rendered Hahdees, and Abraham is rendered Ah brah-oam.”

    In other words, the name Joseph Smith gives for Egypt in the Grammar is a nineteenth-century Egyptianization (Ah=meh=strah) of Josephus’s Hellenization (Mestre) of the Hebrew name (Mizraim) for Egypt (anciently called Kemet).

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