#26. Did Abraham present Sarah as his sister to Pharaoh in Egypt OR to Abimelek in Gerar OR did Isaac present Rebekah as his sister to Abimelek in Gerar? (Gen 12:10-20 vs Gen 20:1-18 vs Gen 26:1-11)


These three accounts are actuality the same story presented three different times: both Genesis 12:10-20 and Genesis 26:1-11 come from the hand of the Yahwist, while Genesis 20:1-18 comes from the Elohist source, which we hear about for the first time here.

It is the story of a patriarch who sojourns in a foreign land with his wife, and claims that she is not his wife in order to save himself from being killed. The basic plot of the story is: a patriarch visits/settles in a foreign land with his wife and fearing that his wife’s beauty will become a source of danger to himself, he resorts to subterfuge and passes himself off as his wife’s brother. The wife-sister is then taken into the house of the Pharaoh/King (or stays among the people in one account), and becomes a source of sin or the potential for sin for the foreign ruler, his household, and his kingdom. The subterfuge is variously revealed—through a plague sent by Yahweh, through a divine revelation, or through the king’s own observation—and in the end the patriarch is reconciled with his wife and the two depart with possessions or are allowed to reside unharmed in the land, where they become prosperous.

The obvious purpose of this and similar stories in the ancient world was to present one’s forefathers as more virtuous and god-fearing than their neighbors and on account of which they were blessed. There are, however, some interesting variations in the narrative details between these versions. These differences afford us the opportunity to see what was most important to these authors as they variously told the same story.

The two accounts given in the J source, Genesis 12:10-20, where Abram and Sarai go down to Egypt because of a famine in the land, and Genesis 26:1-11, where Isaac and Rebekah sojourn in Abimelek’s Gerar because of a famine, are not necessarily in conflict with one another. Even though the story is similar, and most likely reflects tradition and legend rather than the record of any historical event, the characters and time frame are different. But when we compare the Elohist’s version of the story to the second Yahwist version, it becomes clear that this is one and the same story and that the Elohist has made some significant changes.

In E’s version of the story (20:1-18) it is Abraham and Sarah as wife-sister who sojourn in Gerar of the Philistines (an anachronism), while in the J version (Gen 26:1-11) this becomes Isaac and Rebekah as wife-sister, a whole generation later. Yet the Philistine party is still the same, king Abimelek and his man of arms Phichol, who apparently don’t remember the Abraham-Sarah incident (which according to biblical reckoning occurred more than half a century ago) when Isaac-Rebekah come employing the same subterfuge. Second, although both accounts state that no sin had happened, that is Abimelek did not sleep with Sarah or Rebekah, E’s account goes out of its way to present both Abraham and Abimelek as morally inoffensive and innocent. The Elohist version accomplishes this moralization by adding a scene not present in the Yahwist account: God’s visitation to Abimelek in a dream and his affirmation to Abimelek of his innocence.

In this respect, E’s version of the story is quite unique. First, and typical to the features of the Elohist, God enters as a character and visits Abimelek in a dream, and warns him not to touch Sarah. There is also an added effort to present the whole story as morally unproblematic and to stress that no sin occurred. The concern here is one of a religious nature that is not evident in the two Yahwist accounts. In other words, the Elohist tradition modified the story so that it addressed questions and needs representative of its own community.

Second, E’s characterization of Abraham is dramatically different from J’s. In E’s account, there is a conscious effort to justify Abraham’s actions by presenting moral grounds for his deceit. E’s Abraham reasons: 1) I thought there was no fear of god here and that therefore I’d be killed and Sarah taken; and 2) by point of fact, Sarah really is my sister on my mother’s side. In contrast, J’s Abraham does not make any attempt to justify his subterfuge, and in fact the Yahwist, here as elsewhere, is not concerned with issues of moral propriety (see Gen 34).

Thus the distinguishing features of the Elohist version are: its concern to moralize the story by having both Abimelek and Abraham claim their innocence; revelation through dream and thus a heightened emphasis on divine providence; and the presentation of Abraham as a prophet, which only happens in the whole Bible here in this Elohist passage!

Thus only in E are the religious themes of sin, guilt, justice, fear of god, and intercession via the prayers of a prophet invoked; and only in E are moral issues of right and wrong, guilt and innocence found. These are staple features reemphasized throughout the stories of the Elohist tradition as we will see. They tell us about those things which were important to the Elohist storyteller when he re-narrated this tradition.

Here is a chart showing the differences between these three versions:

Cause of sojourn



Motivation for

Outcome for

Outcome for

Outcome for

Subterfuge revealed

King’s response to god

God’s response to king


response to patriarch

Patriarch’s response to
reasons for subterfuge

final response

Gen 12:10-20 (J)

Abram, Sarai, Pharaoh


Fear of being killed
b/c of wife’s beauty

Taken as wife into
Pharaoh’s house

Given flock, oxen,
camels, servants….

Plague on Pharaoh and his house

Plague sent by Yahweh

What is this you’ve
done to me?
Returns wife and
orders them to leave

Gen 20:1-18 (E)

Abraham, Sarah,

Fear of being killed
Taken into Abimelek’s
Wombs are closed for females in king’s house

God visits Abimelek in a dream & warns him

Claims innocence

I know your innocent; I held you from sinning. Have Abraham pray
for you
What have you done to us?

Thought there was no fear of god here.
She really is my sister!
Returns wife and gives
oxen, sheep, servants.
Allows them to remain in the land.

Gen 26:1-11 (J)

Isaac, Rebekah,

Fear of being killed
b/c of wife’s beauty

Left to stay a potential wife among the people
– potential for sin–
King spies Isaac ‘fooling around’ w/Rebekah




What is this you’ve
done to us?

Thought I’d die over

Orders people not to harm Isaac & Rebekah.
Allows them to dwell in the land.

One thought on “#26. Did Abraham present Sarah as his sister to Pharaoh in Egypt OR to Abimelek in Gerar OR did Isaac present Rebekah as his sister to Abimelek in Gerar? (Gen 12:10-20 vs Gen 20:1-18 vs Gen 26:1-11)

  1. What’s interesting is that the P source, consistent with what we find elsewhere, is concerned with ages, and he says that Abraham is 100 and Sarah, 90, at the time of the promise of a son (Genesis 17:17). Combined with the E version of the wife-is-my-sister pericope, however, it results in the unlikely scenario in which a king would find a 90-year-old woman attractive enough to take as his own–from her 100-year-old husband!

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