Questions From Readers
Did Pharaoh actually marry Sarah, Abraham’s wife, as it appears from the rendering of Genesis 12:19 in some Bible versions?
No, Pharaoh was prevented from taking Sarah (Sarai) as his wife. Hence, Sarah’s honor and dignity were not compromised.
We are helped to see this by examining the situation in its context. A famine compelled Abraham (Abram) to seek refuge in Egypt for a while. He feared that his life would be in jeopardy there because of his beautiful wife, Sarah. Abraham had not yet fathered a son by Sarah, so if he met death in Egypt, the line of the Seed would be broken, the Seed through whom all families of the earth would be blessed. (Genesis 12:1-3) So Abraham directed Sarah to identify herself as his sister, for she was in fact his half sister.—Genesis 12:10-13; 20:12.
His fear was not without foundation. Scholar August Knobel explained: “Abram requested Sarai to present herself as his sister in Egypt so that he would not be murdered. If she were viewed as a married woman, an Egyptian could only get her by killing her husband and owner; if she were viewed as a sister, there was the possibility of winning her from the brother by amicable means.”
The Egyptian princes, however, did not enter negotiations with Abraham about Pharaoh’s marrying Sarah. They simply brought beautiful Sarah into Pharaoh’s house, and the ruler of Egypt gave her supposed brother, Abraham, gifts. But following this, Jehovah touched Pharaoh’s household with plagues. When the true situation was revealed to Pharaoh in some unstated way, he said to Abraham: “Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I was about to take her as my wife? And now here is your wife. Take her and go!”—Genesis 12:14-19.
The New English Bible and other Bible translations render the above italicized portion of the verse “so that I took her as a wife” or similar wording. While not necessarily a wrong rendering, such wording could give the impression that Pharaoh had actually married Sarah, that the marriage was an accomplished fact. It may be noted that at Genesis 12:19 the Hebrew verb rendered “to take” is in the imperfect state, which indicates an action not yet completed. The New World Translation renders this Hebrew verb in harmony with the context and in a way that clearly reflects the state of the verb—“so that I was about to take her as my wife.”* Though Pharaoh was “about to take” Sarah as his wife, he had not yet gone through whatever procedure or ceremony was involved.
On a comparable occasion that was potentially dangerous, Isaac had his wife, Rebekah, avoid disclosing her married state. At that point their son Jacob, through whom the line of the Seed would come, had already been born and evidently was a young man. (Genesis 25:20-27; 26:1-11) Nonetheless, the motive behind this upright tactic could well have been the same as Abraham’s. During a famine Isaac and his family were residing in the territory of the Philistine king named Abimelech. If he realized that Rebekah was married to Isaac, Abimelech might have pursued a murderous course against all the rest of Isaac’s family, which could have meant death for Jacob. In this case too, Jehovah intervened to protect his servants and the line of the Seed.
The translation by J. B. Rotherham reads: “Wherefore saidst thou, My sister she; and so I was about to take her to me to wife?”