The capture of wives in the ancient world
Within a generation after the fall of humanity in Eden, we read that Lamech “took” two women. He became the first polygamist, thereby rebelling against God’s decree that two people become one, and that the man should leave his family and cleave to his wife. Lamech “took” and brought them to himself. The violence of this act is indicated by the subsequent brawl, self-rationalized murder and implied threats to his women (Genesis 4:22-23). The need to guard his female conquests led to the invention of weapons by Lamech’s son, who learned to whet metal into sharp instruments. All the better to kill you with, my dear!
Brutal violence ensued and stealing women became necessary for each clan to procreate, since men were taking more than their alotted one wife. Women quickly became a desired commodity, with the strongest men claiming monopolies through harems and multiple marriages.
When man began to multiply on the face of the land and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were attractive. And they took women – any they chose. Genesis 6:1-2
The sad prophecy of Genesis 3:16 is exemplified in those verses with the heinous actions of rape and bride theft prevalent throughout the ancient world, resulting in the separation of young women from the protection of their familial home and kin. This is the setting of ancient Canaan that Abram and Sarai embarked through.
The Sister Story
“We are brother and sister.” This was the public story Abraham and Sarah told for decades. The Bible does not tell us their motive for this, except through Abraham’s words we learn that he thought it was the way to save lives. In a discussion he had with Sarah upon entering the wild lands of Canaan, Abraham said:
“Sarai, this is a dangerous land where no one knows God. I’m afraid they will kill me so they can have you. Let’s tell everyone you are my sister only. It would be a mercy for you to call me your brother.” (Gen. 20:11-13)
And Sarah agreed with him.
Traditionally, theologians have guessed that this “lie” was a character flaw in Abraham and Sarah, but Dr. Gordon Hugenberger disagrees. (The following theory is based on his sermon to Park Street Church in Boston, found here.) Sarah and Abraham did not lie, but used the truth -Abraham and Sarah were siblings – to survive the culture of licentiousness surrounding their family in Canaan. They both wished to avoid inciting a violent situation in a land known for lawlessness.
Did Abraham use Sarah to protect himself at her expense?
Consider the ramifications of the traditional understanding that Abraham used this “lie” to protect himself at Sarah’s expense. By telling the world she was his sister, was he advertising she was available for marriage or something worse? Did he want her to consort with a pagan? Did he want to “sell” her off? No. Of course not. No normal husband wants his wife to sleep with another man. So, claiming she was a sister was not to put her on the marriage/sex market to save his own skin.
Did Abraham want to get rich off Sarah’s eligibility?
There is also the bride-price to consider. Some claim that Abraham wanted to get rich off the gifts given by the two kings for Sarah. But, this is a misunderstanding of ancient bridal customs. A maiden girl owned nothing. But when she was married, her husband’s family paid a bride-price which was hers to keep as insurance in case of widowhood. The bride-price was hers alone, often worn directly on her person. (The parable of the lost coin is about a woman losing a part of her bride-price.) So, if Pharaoh gave bridal gifts, they would go to Sarah, not Abraham. This cultural understanding erases a motive of greed on Abraham’s part.
Not only does a cultural understanding of bridal customs expunge Abraham’s motives, it actually validates the reason for The Sister Story. As a sister, she had no inheritance at Abraham’s death. It all went to a male heir. A man who stole her and forced marriage on her would get nothing. But, as a wife, she had a sizable fortune that did belong to her alone and would go to her husband upon her death. As a wife, Sarah was a titled –remember her name is her title – and loaded target. As a wife, Abraham also becomes a target for any unscrupulous, greedy bride thief, especially considering her advanced age.
The Sister Story acted as insurance for both of them. And it worked.
Except when it didn’t.
Sarah was abducted.
Sarai was taken into Pharaoh’s house (Gen 12:15).
No marriage contract was negotiated between Pharaoh and Abraham. Sarah was kidnapped and forced to the will of this powerful man, and her “brother” was placated with gifts of honor to offset the shame of having a sister stolen out from under him. In a foreign land, at the mercy of Pharaoh, facing starvation for the hundreds of people under his care, Abraham’s hands were tied.
Pharaoh is to blame.
But God’s were not. God protected Sarah with a plague on Pharaoh’s house. She had God’s promise, and God proved faithful. God punished Pharaoh. God did not punish Sarah nor Abraham. This reveals God’s appraisal of the situation. Pharaoh was the one who sinned. Pharaoh reacted in anger when he learned the full truth, but neither did he punish or harm Abraham for his deception. He did not demand his gifts back. This indicates Pharaoh knew he was the one to blame. Of course he tries to shift responsibility to The Sister Story with his words, but he does not require anything of Abraham or Sarah except to leave the country – and take your God with you! – because they had done nothing wrong.
Why didn’t Abraham and Sarah learn from their mistakes the first time?
After the story failed to protect Sarah in Egypt, why did they continue to tell The Sister Story for another twenty years? Were they too stubborn to repent? Or does the fact that they continued to publish their sibling relationship indicate it was a successful cover? After all, Isaac and Rebekah used it as well throughout their life. Because The Sister Story acted as insurance for both of them. And it worked.
Except when it didn’t.
Sarah was abducted, again.
Abimalech …took Sarah (Gen 20:2).
Again, no marriage contract was negotiated with Abraham. Sarah was stolen, and a forced marriage was planned. God, once again, intervened to protect Sarah, not in spite of her lies, but because of the outrageous wickedness of this king toward those God promised to bless. Abimalech, like Pharaoh, responded to God’s curses and revelations with anger. His abundant, blame-shifting words tempt us to be distracted from the truth of the situation, but Abimalech’s guilt is exposed by his extravagant gifts served to placate the anger of Sarah’s God. If Abraham and Sarah had been to blame, the tale would have ended much differently. And again, we get no sense of God’s judgement on The Sister Story, but on the greedy, licentious behavior of Abimalech.
The Sister Story was used during Abraham and Sarah’s entire lives in Canaan. Why did it fail with Pharaoh and Abimalech? My English Bible says it was because of Sarah’s irresistible beauty. I find that hard to believe. She was an old woman at 65 in Egypt and 89 with Abimalech. But, I also recognize it is hard to believe she birthed Isaac at age 90. God could supernaturally have kept her looking gorgeous in her old age. Nevertheless, I think it more likely that the Hebrew words describing her fair countenance should be interpreted less literally, indicating the attractiveness of her person as a whole, considering her status as a foreign princess and sister to the esteemed and important Abraham. Kings marry foreign women with the purpose of making alliances and trade agreements. Sarah was royalty with family connection to Ur, and the “sister” of a man with 350+ men under his command. She had the blessing of a most powerful new god. Most likely these were the reasons why Sarah was desired by these kings, who did not need wealth, but connections. And they were used to taking what they wanted.
Sarah’s Abductions foreshadow Israel’s story
Generations after Sarah is abducted in Egypt, her grandchildren suffer a similar fate. Like Sarah, they were mistreated even though they had done nothing to deserve it. Again, “Pharaoh tried to kill the boys and keep the girls alive.” – Dr. Gordon Hugenberger. And again, God cursed those who cursed Sarah’s children.