Questions From Readers
▪ When Abraham (and later Isaac) represented his wife as his sister, was this an example of the wife-sister relationship that once existed in the Middle East?
Modern scholarship has advanced that theory, but there seems to be more underlying Abraham’s and Isaac’s conduct.
Professor E. A. Speiser presented the wife-sister idea in The Anchor Bible. He noted discoveries about the ancient Hurrians who appear to have lived in northern Mesopotamia, including Haran where Abraham resided for a time and where Rebekah may have lived. Speiser wrote:
“In Hurrian society the bonds of marriage were strongest and most solemn when the wife had simultaneously the juridical status of a sister, regardless of actual blood ties. This is why a man would sometimes marry a girl and adopt her at the same time as his sister, in two separate steps recorded in independent legal documents. Violations of such sistership arrangements were punished more severely than breaches of marriage contracts . . . The wife-sister relationship is attested primarily among the upper strata of Hurrian society . . . Not only was Rebekah a native of Hurrian-dominated Har(r)an, but she was actually given as wife to Isaac, through an intermediary, by her brother Laban . . . There are thus sufficient grounds for placing the two marriages, those of Abraham and Sarah and of Isaac and Rebekah, in the wife-sister category.”
The Genesis history tells us that Abraham twice represented his wife Sarah (who actually was his half sister) as his sister, not as his wife. This happened when they were in Egypt and again in Philistia. (Genesis 12:10-20; 20:1-7) Isaac followed a similar course with Rebekah. Since Isaac and Rebekah were related, he could call her his sister.—Genesis 26:6-11.
In these cases Abraham and Isaac wanted their wives thought of as a sister because of an apparent danger to the husbands if it became known that the beautiful women were married. (Genesis 12:12; 26:9) So it does not seem that the men were appealing to a supposed wife-sister status as a means of protection; the object was to hide the marital status of Sarah and Rebekah.
Abraham married his half sister prior to God’s giving Israel laws against such close unions. Still, many have been critical of his (and Isaac’s) representing his wife as his sister. Of course, we must not forget that the Bible sometimes relates events without approving of the conduct involved. (Genesis 9:20, 21; 19:30-38) Yet there are ways of viewing what Abraham/Sarah and Isaac/Rebekah did that are consistent with their exemplary standing with God.
Before these events took place, God told Abraham: “I shall make a great nation out of you and I shall bless you and I will make your name great; and prove yourself a blessing. And I will bless those who bless you, and him that calls down evil upon you I shall curse, and all the families of the ground will certainly bless themselves by means of you.” (Genesis 12:2, 3) Jehovah also indicated that the blessing depended on Abraham’s seed. (Genesis 12:7; compare Genesis 15:4, 5; 17:4-8; 22:15-18.) Hence, Abraham (and later Isaac) needed to stay alive to produce offspring.
This may well have moved Abraham and Isaac to represent their faithful wives as their sisters. If public knowledge that Abraham was the legal husband of desirable Sarah, and Isaac of lovely Rebekah, would endanger the line of the seed, these men of faith might have determined that it was prudent not to let such relationship be known while they were in dangerous territory.
Sarah is singled out as an example of faith and a woman who ‘hoped in God.’ (1 Peter 3:5, 6; Hebrews 11:11) She chose to accept the position taken by her family head and for a time did not publicize her married state. It would be kind to view this as being done out of selflessness, a subordinating of personal feelings and interests so that all mankind would have a blessing available. And, seeing that Jehovah protected her from Pharaoh and later from Abimelech, king of Gerar, it is not surprising that Rebekah confidently followed a similar course in cooperation with Isaac, who was also a man of noteworthy faith.—Hebrews 11:20.
Consequently, whether people in Canaan and Egypt knew about the wife-sister status that seems to have existed in Haran or not, the course followed by Abraham/Sarah and Isaac/Rebekah was, according to the things involved, motivated by high principles and objectives.