Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Lekh Lekha 5765/ October 23, 2004

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan , Israel . A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University 's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University . Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,


“Say You Are My Sister”

Dr. Gabriel H. Kohn
Department of Bible


With Parashat Lekh-Lekha we begin the stories of the patriarchs (and the matriarchs), which focus primarily around struggles to continue the family line and settle the land of Israel.  These struggles for physical and spiritual survival were difficult and complex, and some of the steps taken to this end by the patriarchs have been viewed controversially by biblical exegetes.

In this week’s reading we encounter what seems to be a grave moral issue.  When going down to Egypt, Abraham requested of his wife that she pose as his sister:   “Please say that you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that I may remain alive thanks to you” (Gen. 12:13).

Nahmanides, in his commentary on Gen. 12:6, criticized this action of Abraham’s especially from the point of view of faith in G-d:

Note that our patriarch Abraham unwittingly sinned greatly, for he put his righteous wife in the position of being a stumbling block leading to wrongdoing because of his fear that he would be killed.  He ought to have trusted the Lord to save him and his wife and all that belonged to him, for G-d has the power to help and deliver.

Radak (on verse 12:12), however, rejected Nahmanides’ criticism in no uncertain terms:

It is fitting for any righteous person not to rely on a miracle when in a place of danger, but to protect himself using any device he can.  Regarding this, Solomon said:  “Happy is the man who is anxious (Heb. mefahed, meaning not complacent) always” (Eccles. 28:14); also our Sages said that one should not rely on miracles.

Abarbanel, in his introduction to chapter 12, emphasized the moral aspect in his questions, wondering how Abraham could have abandoned his wife:

The thirteenth question [which Abarbanel asks on the Parasha] concerns Abraham saying to his wife, “They will kill me and let you live.  Please say that you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you.”  What elevated man would choose life with such terrible dishonor, seeking to benefit himself by having his wife commit adultery with others?  It would have been more behooving had he chosen death, rather than do such a disgraceful thing.

Gentile exegetes, especially those whose commentaries express anti-Semitic sentiments, sharpened the question even more, transferring it from something that needs investigation to a scathing critique.   For example, one commentator wrote: [1]

Acting with shameful villainy, Abraham abandoned his wife to the lust of a foreign ruler, and from this filthy business he sought material advantage.

A partial explanation of this surprising action is found in Abraham’s answer to Abimelech (Gen. 20:11-12):  “I thought, surely there is no fear of G-d in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife.  And besides, she is in truth my sister, my father’s daughter though not my mother’s; and she became my wife.”

Abraham explained that it was a matter of life and death – his life and his wife’s honor being endangered – since the basic principles of human morality were not observed there (“surely there is no fear of G-d in this place”). [2]   In addition, Abraham stressed that what he had said was true, since the family relations between them made it possible to call them brother and sister, just as Lot, Abraham’s nephew, is called “brother.” [3]

This answer, however, does not fully explain why Abraham seemed willing to abandon his wife for financial gain.   Abarbanel himself answered this question (in his commentary on v. 10, citing Ran):

When it is said that she is his sister, everyone will hope that Abram will consent to give her to them as a wife in exchange for giving him presents, and they will not kill him, for they will think that he brought her for that reason, to marry her off to one of the nobles in the land.  Abram did not think they would suddenly take her, but that they would negotiate with him for many days.

Abraham knew the Egyptians would not refrain from killing a husband in order to win a beautiful woman, but according to the etiquette of the times they would not take a woman to wife without the consent of her father or her brother (as in the cases of Rebecca, Dinah).   Therefore Abraham planned to hold off the Egyptian suitors for his “sister” until he returned home.  Abraham’s plan failed, since the king, who is above the law, himself wished to take Sarah to his home, “and it did not occur to Abraham that the king himself would take her for a wife” (Abarbanel, loc. sit.). [4]

Abraham’s plot did not work out in this exceptional circumstance, and therefore, in order to prevent a sin being committed, Sarah revealed to Pharaoh that she was a married woman and that he had become afflicted on her account:  “But the Lord afflicted Pharaoh and his household with mighty plagues on account of Sarai, the wife of Abram” (Gen. 12:17).  The afflictions came “on account of” (Heb. al devar) the affair of Sarai, and the Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 41.2) adds that it was due to Sarai’s speaking (Heb. devar, from dibbur) that Pharaoh found out the reason for his affliction: [5]   On account of Sarai, the wife of Abram – for she kept saying to him:  I am a married woman, but he would not let her be.”

The nasty contention that Abraham abandoned his wife for the sake of monetary gain has been rebutted by such commentators as Radak, Shadal and others, who argued that Abraham was not willing to take money even from the king of Sodom, therefore he could not be said to be a person who seeks financial gain.

It follows that Abraham and Sarah sought to save themselves by a simple, understandable plot; but when their design no longer worked, they revealed the truth, hoping for help from heaven.

Apparently the Torah has no problem accepting what Abraham did, for a similar story is told three times in Genesis:   Sarai and Pharaoh (Gen. ch. 12), Sarah and Abimelech (Gen. ch. 20), and Rebecca and Abimelech (Gen. ch. 26).   In all these instances the wife is called “my sister,” and when the highest-ranking of the people wants to take her, she is delivered only by divine intervention.

Furthermore, a similar episode is cited by Radak:   When Samuel was requested by    G-d to go and anoint the son of Jesse, he was apprehensive:  “If Saul hears of it, he will kill me” (I Sam. 16:2).   The Lord did not allay Samuel’s fears, but suggested a solution:  “The Lord answered, ‘Take a heifer with you, and say, “I have come to sacrifice to the Lord”’” (loc. sit., v. 3).  G-d Himself suggested a plan; so, indeed, one should not rely on miracles.

The famous saying, originating in cynicism, “G-d helps those who help themselves,” becomes a central principle of faith in the Genesis narratives, and all follow this advice. [6]

[1] H. Holzinger, Genesis, KHC zum Alten Testament, Freiburg i.B. 1898, p. 139.  Also see M. D. Cassuto, Mi-Noah ad Avraham, Jerusalem 1943, p. 238.

[2] On “fear of G-d” as a term alluding to human behavior, see N. Leibowitz, Studies in Exodus, Jerusalem, YEAR OF ENGLISH PUBLICATION, ENG. PAGES.   Also cf. N. Leibowitz, “Yir’at Hashem be-Humash Bereshit,” Deot 20 (1994), pp. 67-69.

[3] “For we are kinsmen [Heb. ahim, lit. “brothers”]” (Gen. 13:8); When Abram heard that his kinsman [Heb. ahiw, “his brother”] had been taken captive” (Gen. 14:14).

[4] One should also recall that Sarah was sixty-five years old at the time.

[5] Cf. Y. Barkai, “Al devar Sarai,” Bar-Ilan Parasha Page in Hebrew on Lekh-Lekha, 2002.

[6] It is interesing to note that in biblical commentaries, in all episodes that are morally complex, there is a tendency to accuse the patriarchs and matriarchs without sufficiently taking into account the context and the circumstances that led them to act as they did.   Among the commentators on this week’s reading, there is hardly any criticism of the immorality of the Egyptians, who are prepared to kill innocent foreigners in order to take their wives; and this is what compelled Abraham to devise a plan to save himself and his wife.   In another story in this week’s reading, describing the conflict between Hagar and Sarah, many commentators find fault with Sarah’s treatment of Hagar, without pausing to consider the reason – Hagar’s desire to undermine Sarah’s standing in her own home:   “When she [Hagar] saw that she had conceived, her mistress was lowered in her esteem” (Gen. 16:5).   Likewise, Sarah’s suggestion that Ishmael be banished comes in for gret criticism, without taking into account what Ishmael’s “playing” (metsahek) represented.   It seems that there has always been a lack of balance when judging Israel’s relations with others, including other nations, throughout the course of history, to this very day.  History repeats itself.