The Sister-Wife Trick
There’s no two ways about it. This is a puzzling and troubling passage of Scripture. Four thousand years removed from Abraham’s time, we struggle to understand what’s going on in these three passages. It’s clearly significant. God records three different occasions where one of the patriarch’s pulls this stunt. We skipped the event in Genesis 12, and we haven’t gotten to Genesis 26. The aim of this sermon is to address them all together.
Now here’s the difficulty. Your pastors are not all agreed about the meaning of this passage. There are basically two main alternatives. And we spent a good stretch of time over the summer discussing and debating the meaning over email and in person. We read commentaries and probed arguments. And in the end, we still didn’t land in the same place. Now, no major doctrine hangs on this difference. So our disagreement is, in our eyes, a small thing. We want to come to one mind, and God willing, one day we will. But what do we do now? How should we preach it? What we decided is that I’m going to preach two mini-sermons, one highlighting one view, and the other highlighting the other interpretation. This is our way of inviting you into the wrestling. You have a Bible. You have the Spirit of God. You have teachers who aim to rightly divide the word of truth. Join us in seeking to understand what God wants us to see in these passages.
The Sister-Wife Trick, Take 1—Abraham’s Fall
This is a story of Abraham’s failure—his fear and his unbelief—and God’s faithfulness and grace despite it. The message is: God’s faithfulness despite Abraham’s failure. God has just given Abram amazing promises: God will bless him, make his name great, make him a great nation, and protect him from his enemies. He shows Abram the land of Canaan, which will be his inheritance. But then an obstacle comes: a famine. And Abram leaves the land that God had promised and goes down to Egypt. Leaving the land may indicate to us that Abram is not trusting fully in God to protect and provide for him. As they journey into Egypt, we see Abram’s fear get the better of him. Abram is a tribal chieftain with a beautiful wife, and wicked and powerful kings don’t mind killing tribal chieftains to take their goods and their wives. So Abram comes up with a plan. He will tell a half-truth, passing Sarah off as his sister. Abram will essentially use his wife as a shield so that his life may be spared.
And you know what? Abram was right. Pharaoh is drawn to the new girl in town and he takes her into his harem. And what’s more, Abram is successful in his deception. Abram hoped that Pharaoh would deal well with him (12:13), and Pharaoh does (12:16), enriching Abram greatly. Abram gains wealth, but at Sarah’s expense. His wife has been exposed to harm. Abram’s fear and deception here are a great evil. Understandable evil, perhaps. We see why Abram was afraid. But no husband should use his wife as a shield. God had promised to protect Abram—to bless those who bless him and curse those who curse him. Abram ought to have trusted God. But he didn’t.
But God was faithful anyway. And God defends and protects Sarah, even when Abram doesn’t. God afflicts Pharaoh and his household for violating the marriage covenant. God’s protection isn’t just for Abram; it’s for Sarah too. Note the contrast. Pharaoh dealt well with Abram because of Sarah. God afflicted Pharaoh with plagues because of Sarah. God is our protector. The story ends with Pharaoh somehow discovering the truth and confronting Abram. Pharaoh rightly rebukes Abram for his deception. Ironically, this pagan king echoes the words of God to Adam and Eve. “What is this that you have done?” And like God, Pharaoh exiles Abram from his land. And notably, Abram is silent. He offers no defense for his actions. What defense could he offer? In 12:10 he had gone down into Egypt in fear and unbelief; in 13:1 he comes up from Egypt rebuked and shamed.
Now it might seem that Abram, in a sense, gets away with it. He feared. He lied. He deceived. He exposed his wife to harm. And all he got was a slap on the wrist from Pharaoh, and a great pile of Egyptian wealth—sheep, oxen, donkeys, male servants, and female servants. And there’s the rub. In a few chapters, Abram and Sarah together will refuse to trust God. They will seek to seize the promise for themselves, to produce offspring on their own terms. And to do it, they will use Hagar, a female servant from Egypt. Thus the consequences of Abram’s deception in Gen. 12 follow him for the rest of his life.
Now I’d like to say that Abram learned his lesson here. Trust God. He will protect and provide. But in Genesis 20, we have déjà vu. After Abram’s “fall” with Hagar, and after God’s exaltation of Sarah through the promise of Isaac, and after God’s protection of Lot for Abraham’s sake, Abraham is again sojourning outside the land in Gerar, south of Canaan. And again, fearful of the surrounding kings, he shields himself behind his wife. And again, the foreign king takes her into his household. Same song, second verse. But God has not abandoned Sarah. He continues to guard and keep her. He comes to Abimelech in a dream and pronounces a death sentence for violating the marriage bed. Abimelech protests his innocence. “I didn’t know, God. I was deceived.” And God demonstrates both his sovereignty and his justice. He is just; he won’t kill Abimelech for this transgression, provided that Abimelech now put things right. And we see the sovereignty of God in keeping Abimelech from sinning.
Abimelech tells his household what has happened and they all stand in fear. Like Pharaoh, Abimelech confronts Abram. “Why have you done this to us?” And Abraham comes clean. The sister-wife trick is his deliberate policy in his travels. It’s a half-truth, because Sarah is his half-sister. And Abraham employs this deception because he believes there is no fear of God in Gerar, and therefore they will think nothing of killing an old man to steal his wife. And this is the irony—Abraham sees that there’s no fear of God in Gerar, but can’t see that there is no faith in God’s protection in himself.
Nevertheless, God is faithful to his promises. He continues to bless Abraham. Like Pharaoh, Abimelech lavishes wealth on Abraham. And God grants even more favor. Abimelech pays a thousand pieces of silver as a testimony that he did not violate the marriage bed. And unlike Pharaoh, he does not exile Abraham from Gerar, but allows him to live in the land. And now the blessing of God flows to the nations, as God heals Abimelech and his people from the curse that God had inflicted.
I wish I could say that the story ended here, with Abraham repentant and turned. But the deception continues. Like father, like son. In Genesis 26, Isaac adopts the same reasoning as his dad, and passes his distant cousin off as his sister. He fears the godless nations will kill him to take his beautiful wife. But the kings of Gerar are on to him. Abimelech (possibly the son of the previous king) is watching Isaac and Rebekah out a window. Perhaps he is thinking how much he’d like to marry Isaac’s “sister.” But instead he sees Isaac and Rebekah not acting like brother and sister. They’re fooling around. Isaac’s name means “laughter,” and the passage literally says that Isaac was “Isaac-ing” with his wife. Abimelech confronts Isaac for the deception and announces protection for Isaac—Anyone who touches Isaac or his wife will be put to death. And again, despite Isaac’s unbelief and deception, God blesses him. He makes him fruitful and rich and wealthy, and through Isaac he blesses the nations.
So what do we learn from these stories? First, we’re reminded of what Pastor David preached last week: we are not made right with God by our goodness. God justifies the ungodly by faith alone. Abraham and Isaac are ungodly. If the promise was dependent on their good works, they would be hopeless. But it’s not. Not for them, and not for us. God is true, even when every man is a liar—including the heroes of the faith.
Second, this passage shows God’s protection of women especially. When Abraham fails, when Isaac fails, God guards and keeps Sarah and Rebekah. And the true beauty of these women is that they continue to hope in God and submit to their husbands, despite their failure. I can’t help but think that Peter has these stories in mind when he writes in 1 Peter 3:5-6: “For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. And you are her children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening.” It’s frightening to follow a fallible man. It’s frightening to submit to a husband who uses you as a shield. But holy women who hope in God don’t fear anything that is frightening.
Third, all of our biblical heroes have feet of clay. Sometimes they are admirable and worth emulating. But every one of them will disappoint us. Abraham and Isaac are fearful and use their wives as shields to protect themselves. Jacob is a trickster and a deceiver as well. Moses strikes the rock, contrary to God’s command, and therefore can’t enter the promised land. David sins with Bathsheba. Solomon takes many wives. Again and again, the heroes of faith fail. All of them fail. Except one. And that’s the fourth and ultimate thing we see here. Jesus is better than Abraham. He trusts God completely. He doesn’t fear the violence of wicked men. He protects and guards his bride. He lays down his life for her. The sister-wife trick is in our Bibles to point us to Jesus, the true and better Abraham.
The Sister-Wife Trick, Take 2—Abraham’s Shrewdness
This is a story about Abraham’s faithfulness and shrewdness in living among the godless, and God’s faithfulness and grace to preserve his people, even when their faithful and shrewd efforts fail. The message is: God’s faithfulness even when our faithful shrewdness fails. Because that’s what Abraham is in these passages. If we pay careful attention to the passage, Abraham’s deception is not born from fear, but from wisdom and faith in God. Begin with Abraham’s journey to Egypt. This isn’t disobedience on Abram’s part. God had promised him the land, but he had not yet given him the land. Abraham will be a sojourner his whole life. And therefore, journeying to Egypt in the midst of a severe famine is exactly what a wise and faithful chief does for his people. And he journeys to Egypt in order to show that he’s not longing for his homeland back in Ur.
What do we make of his deception? To understand this, we must remember Genesis 3:15. God promises that there will be enmity and hostility between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent, between the godly and the wicked. Abram recognizes that in Egypt, he is surrounded by serpents and dragons, by godless men and tyrants with no fear of God to restrain their greed and lust. And so he deals shrewdly with the tyrant, telling them the truth, but not the whole truth. And the truth that he tells is significant. In presenting himself as Sarah’s brother, Abram is seeking to protect her. In the ancient world, brothers would often negotiate and supervise the courting and engagements of their sisters. We see this with Rebekah in Genesis 24. It’s Rebekah’s brother Laban who negotiates with Isaac’s servant in arranging the marriage. Abram knows how this works. If he is Sarah’s husband, dragon-like tyrants will kill him and take her and his whole household. But, if he’s her brother, then there is no reason to kill him; instead Pharaoh may try to pursue Sarah, and Abram will be able to hold him off, until the famine is over. Abram’s plan is only partially successful. He isn’t killed, but he underestimates Pharaoh’s greed. Pharaoh takes Sarah into his harem with no mention of a negotiation with her brother. Thus, we see dragonish men waging war on the woman who will carry the seed.
But God is faithful, even when our best-laid plans fail. God protects Abram and Sarah, afflicting Pharaoh with plagues. This is a fulfillment of Genesis 12:3—God curses those who curse Abram. What’s more, the tyrant king blames Abram for his own greed. Pharaoh does not rightly stand in the place of God. He is the accuser of Abram, blaming the patriarch for his own sin. Nowhere in this passage does God condemn Abram. The only person who is judged for their sin is Pharaoh. Pharaoh is not the innocent party; he is guilty. The Judge of all the earth afflicts him for his greed and tyranny.
What’s more, the larger context of Scripture helps us to understand this passage. Here Abram undergoes his own mini-exodus, just as his descendants will in 400 years. Abram journeys to Egypt because of a famine, just like the Hebrews in the time of Joseph. While there, he is threatened by Pharaoh and seeks to resist him through deception, just as the Hebrew mid-wives lie to Pharaoh to preserve the male offspring. The tyrant persists in his evil, and God acts with plagues to judge him. And then God leads Abram up out of Egypt, laden with Egyptian wealth. Like his future descendants, Abram plunders the Egyptians. This is not a story of Abram’s greed or cowardice. The very next chapter demonstrates this. Abram takes on a confederation of the greatest kings in the world with 318 men. Abram isn’t afraid of men. And he’s not greedy for wealth either. He refuses to be enriched by the king of Sodom. Throughout these chapters, God shows himself faithful to Abram, the man of faith.
The second sister-wife trick confirms our understanding of the first. The reason Abraham does it again is that it wasn’t wrong the first time. When Abraham sojourns among the godless, he deals shrewdly with them. Again he presents as the brother with whom any suitor ought to negotiate, and again the tyrant takes what he wants. Abraham and Sarah are trusting in God. They know he will protect them in situations like these. They’ve seen him do it. But this time, God is merciful to the tyrant. He keeps him from sinning against God. Note that: to touch Sarah would have been a sin against God. God does affirm Abimelech’s innocence in one sense, but the fact that God closed the wombs of his household demonstrates that Abimelech is in the wrong. Otherwise, God is unjust to afflict him. Abimelech may blame Abraham, but Abraham’s fear is vindicated by the way that Abimelech simply takes what he wants. Notice that God does not rebuke Abraham. In fact, he tells Abimelech that Abraham is a prophet and can intercede for him. James 5 says that the prayer of a righteous man has great power in its working. Abraham’s prayers are effective here because he is righteous in this passage. He is a righteous prophet who stands in God’s presence interceding for others.
But the second trick ends differently from the first. Here we see the early fulfillment of God’s promise to bless the nations through Abraham. Abimelech recognizes the goodness of Abraham and the mercy of his God, so he asks Abraham to stay. Rather than casting him out, the nations welcome him in, and in so doing receive the blessing of Abraham’s God.
In light of this, we should not be surprised that Isaac follows in his father’s footsteps. God preserved his parents when they lived among wicked societies, and partly through this shrewd strategy of dealing with the tyrants. So Isaac uses it again in Genesis 26. And to underscore that Isaac is not disobedient in this passage, we’re told in Genesis 26 that there was another famine in the land (like Genesis 12) and that God tells Isaac not to go to Egypt, but instead to sojourn in Gerar. And Isaac obeys. Now by this time, the pagan king (or his son) has learned his lesson. He doesn’t just take Rebekah. He watches. And sure enough, he finds out that Isaac had deceived him. And he confronts him with the same accusatory spirit as Pharaoh and his father. But lest we think that Abimelech is justified in his anger at Isaac, note what he says. “One of the people might easily have lain with your wife, and you would have brought guilt upon us.” That statement sheds light on the whole situation. What kind of society are we in? A godless one, with no fear of God before their eyes. The kind of society where an unmarried woman can simply be taken and laid with. The king says it like it’s the most normal thing in the world to simply lay with a beautiful woman that you find. That’s not normal. It’s wicked. And so Abraham and Isaac live wisely in those kinds of societies. And through their faithful presence, God begins to turn things around. In protecting Abraham and Sara and Isaac and Rebekah, God disciplines the nations so that they begin to turn from their wickedness.
What’s the point of the sister-wife stories? First, we see God’s faithfulness even when our best and wisest plans fail. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and unlike the nations, Abraham fears the Lord.
Second, we see that not all deception is sinful. There is a godly deception in the Bible. David deceives the Philistines when he pretends to be out of his mind. Nathan deceives David in telling him the story of the rich man and the little lamb in order to expose his sin. And often in the Bible, it is women who faithfully use deception to outwit the wicked and dragonish tyrants who threaten God’s people. The Hebrew midwives deceive Pharaoh when he wants to kill the children, and God blesses them. Rahab deceives the king of Jericho about the location of the spies and God saves her and her household. Jael deceives Sisera, the pagan general, and then crushes his head. Michal deceives her father Saul when he is driven mad with jealousy at David. Esther deceives Haman when he threatens the lives of the Jews. Holy women who hope in God need not fear anything that is frightening, including godless tyrants. Instead, submitting to faithful men, they walk in obedience to God and he cares for them.
Third, we see the early rumblings of the blessing to the nations through Abraham and his offspring. We move from Pharaoh casting him out, to Abimelech inviting him to live, to Abimelech’s son providing protection for Isaac and Rebekah. God curses those who curse Abram, with the ultimate goal that the nations will bless Abraham and will in turn be blessed by God. Finally, we see God preserving his people until the Messiah comes. Protecting Abraham and Sarah is about preserving the promised seed. And God preserves the line of promise, both through human actions (like deception) and beyond them, until Jesus comes, the true son of Abraham who crushes the dragon and turns the nations back to God.
So, there’s the two main options. Of course, it’s possible to mix and match elements from both. Though I favor the second, I do think it’s significant that the female servant from Egypt becomes the temptation for Abraham, just as the Egyptian gold is turned into a golden calf in Exodus. So what do we do with this ambiguity? Let me close with a few exhortations.
First, we ought to recognize that the ambiguity in these passages is owing to our ignorance. It may be that God is intentionally vague in these passages, but I doubt it. I think our confusion results from the fact that we don’t know our Bibles as well as we should. I wonder: if our minds were soaked and saturated in the Bible, so that we recognize patterns in Scripture and our minds run in biblical ruts, would we see things in these stories that we can’t see now? I feel that for myself in these passages. So the first exhortation is read your Bible. Know your Bible. Soak your mind in it. Read it. Listen to it. Discuss it. Study it. Let the Bible master you.
Second, I hope you see the importance of echoes and themes in Scripture. These passages clearly reach back to Genesis 1-3 and reach forward to the Exodus. Illumination comes when we compare Scripture with Scripture. These other passages are lights that illuminate the dark sayings of the Bible.
Third, on either view, the primary point of the passage is that God is faithful to his promises. He blesses those who bless Abraham and curses those who curse him. God is faithful, whether it’s through Abraham’s faithful shrewdness or despite Abraham’s fearful cowardice. So if you’re confused, take comfort. God is faithful no matter what.
Finally, whether Abraham is protecting his wife or not, Jesus protects his bride. When Satan tempts and accuses us, when the dragon roars and threatens us, Jesus stands in the breach. He is our shield and our protector. He is our great reward. And this table is a monument to that truth. Here Jesus offers himself to us as our great advocate, as the prophet who intercedes on our behalf. This is a table prepared in the presence of enemies, and we eat in safety, because we stand under the protection of our Lord and Savior.