The Women of Genesis: Sarai in Egypt

In the past two years I have become passionate about the women of the Bible – and uncovering a part of the culture that isn’t documented in the scriptures. This passion has grown even more in the last few months due to extensive research into the lives of the matriarchs. So I think I’m going to speak out – or write out – for the matriarchs of our faith: Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, and Rachel.

For too long people looked at the decisions these women made in the book of Genesis with contempt. These women – these mothers of our faith – have been put under the harshest scrutiny. We look at them as women who made horrible choices against the “perfect” model of their patriarchal husbands. But if we do that, we are completely missing out on half of their culture.

So in the coming weeks I want to unravel some of the decisions they make – one story at a time. Why did Sarah send Hagar to sleep with Abraham only to kick her out of camp later? Why did Rebecca deceive her husband? Why is Rachel holding unto idols in secret? These are some of the questions I will dive into.

There are also other questions from the women of Genesis such as: why did Eve eat the forbidden fruit? Why did Lot’s daughters have sex with their own father? If you want to understand the women of Genesis in a new way, follow my blog in the coming weeks as we go through the book of Genesis. Every time a woman makes a decision, we will stop and digest what we are reading and what hidden things are in the text that we don’t notice at first glance.

Instead of starting at the beginning, I am going to start with Genesis 12. After we get through the matriarchs, I will circle back and tackle Eve.

So our question of the week is this:

Why did Sarah tell Pharoah she was Abraham’s sister instead of his wife?

If you are unfamiliar with this story, you will find it in Genesis 12:10-20 (and a similar variation of it in chapter 20).

The story goes like this: Abram (Abraham’s name before God changed it) has been traveling around Canaan, but a famine is now in the land. In order to survive, he and his nomadic village move with him into the land of Egypt where there is food. However, Sarai (Sarah’s name before God changed it) is a beautiful woman and Abram is worried that if he introduces her as his wife, things will be difficult for him and his people. So instead, Sarah agrees to be named as his sister instead of a wife.

Sarai is then given to Pharaoh’s household where Abram is then given herds of animals in exchange. But a plague comes upon Pharaoh and his household. When he realizes that this plague is a punishment for taking Abram’s wife Pharaoh asks Abram why he wasn’t honest with him in the first place. So in order to appease the God that afflicted him, Pharaoh sends Abram and Sarai away with all the cattle and servants that were already given to them.

Now, I have heard MANY ways to answer this story and none of them jumped out at me as an adequate answer until recently. But before we jump into that can-of-worms it should be stated that Sarai was in some capacity Abram’s sister. In Genesis 20:12, Abraham admits to another king that Sarai is indeed his half-sister: they share a paternal lineage but have different mothers. Genesis 12 states that they share the same father. Now, depending on how one interprets Genesis 11, one could also make the argument (and this is my personal position) that Sarah is a daughter of Haran, Abram’s brother, which would make her a niece to Abram.

Even if you understand Sarai to be Abram’s niece, she is, according to patriliny, a sister. In the ancient world, families were more clan based and much less nuclear. You would define your family by either your eldest living patriarch or matriarch. Therefore, when Sarai says that she is Abram’s sister she is stating that through their paternal line (Terah), they are family.

So, why did Sarai say she was Abram’s sister?

Because she was. Or a neice. Either way, this is considered a sister through a clan defined by the patriarch.

 *    *    *

Now, if you want an even more developed answer – keep reading. The rest of this post will delve into what I believe is the most historically accurate (and potentially controversial) look into the story. And it has been offered by Savina Teubal who has made her career looking into the women’s lives in the Ancient Near East from 3000-1500BCE. (Her books used in this post are listed at the bottom of this blog).

Teubal demonstrates in her works that Mesopotamia, where Sarai and Abram’s family are originally from, places the family structure on matriliny. In other words, your family history is not traced through your father, but through your mother. This is seen in many instances in the women in the book of Genesis. This means that the matriarch is considered the head of the family “cluster” while husbands are “imported” in (and often they are “imported” from within the cluster, just a different mother). Therefore, siblings were considered siblings only when they came from the same uterus. Therefore, incest is incest only when you came from the same womb.

This way of measuring family will be discussed again as we get into the Hagar narratives. But Genesis does seem to reflect this matriliny. Sarai makes sure her son marries from her own family – Rebecca. Rebecca then sends her favorite son to her families relatives to find wives. It explains why Lot leaves and goes to his wife’s land. Again, this will be discussed even more as we get into the implications of what this means and why it would have been done in other coming posts.

But for the purposes of this story -with Pharaoh – it is important because of this:

In Abram and Sarai’s cultural background, they are husband and wife because it was not considered incestuous. But in Egyptian society – they wouldn’t be recognized as husband and wife because they are related through the father’s bloodline.

Therefore, it seems as if Sarai and Abram are respecting the leader of the land who has a patriarchal family system. And when Pharaoh finds out that they are married through their separate customs he kicks them out in terror of what he has done (or in disgust).

So, why did Sarai say she was Abram’s sister? Because that was the only relation she has to him if her position as a wife is recognized.

Please feel free to ask any questions you may have in the comments.


Blog’s Bibliography:

Sarah the Priestess: The First Matriarch

Ancient Sisterhood: The Lost Traditions of Hagar and Sarah

Both by Savina Teubal.

4 thoughts on “The Women of Genesis: Sarai in Egypt”

  1. I have heard this story explained many different ways over the years, as well.

    Thank you for taking on this project.

    I look forward to your next post.

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