There are three wife-sister narratives in Genesis, part of the Torah, all of which are strikingly similar. At the core of each is the tale of a Biblical Patriarch, who has come to be in the land of a powerful foreign overlord that has mistaken the Patriarch's wife to be the Patriarch's sister, and consequently has attempted to wed her himself, though later finds out his error. Two of the three stories are similar in many other details, including the antagonist's name, Abimelech, although this could be construed as being a royal title.
The first of the stories is found at , and is the briefest of the three. The story begins by describing Abram migrating to Egypt in order to evade a famine. Noticing how beautiful his wife, Sarai, is, Abram worries that the Egyptians will kill him so that they can marry his wife instead, and so asks her to pretend she is his sister. On arriving before the Pharaoh, the Egyptians recognise Sarai's beauty, and the Egyptian princes shower Abram with gifts of livestock and servants to gain her hand in marriage. Sarai thus becomes part of Pharaoh's house, but Yahweh sends a plague to punish Pharaoh for (unknowingly) causing adultery. Pharaoh consequently realises the truth of the matter and so sends Sarai and Abram away from Egypt back from where they had come.
Abimelech then restores Sarah to Abraham, and gives him gifts of livestock and servants by way of apology, and also allows Abraham to reside anywhere in Gerar. Abimelech also gives 1000 pieces of silver to Abraham to reprove Sarah by a covering of the eyes. The story then states for the first time that Abimelech, his wife, and household, had previously been punished for Abimelech's mistake concerning Sarah, by being made infertile; suggesting that Sarah had remained Abimelech's wife for quite some time before God visited him and corrected his error.
After an intermission concerning the birth of a son to Abraham and Sarah, the second half of the story begins with Abimelech requesting Abraham swears an oath of non-aggression towards Abimelech and his family, to which Abraham agrees. Abimelech's servants later violently take away a well, and so Abraham complains to Abimelech, who apologises. Abraham then sets aside seven ewes as witness to his having dug the well, and Abraham, Abimelech, and Philcol, Abimelech's chief captain, then make a covenant, and leave each other. The place the covenant was made is consequently named Beersheba, which translates either as well of oaths or well of seven or seven wells, and according to , Abraham plants an tamarisk tree there in memory.
Abimelech then orders that Rebekah be left alone by the denizens of Gerar, on pain of death. Isaac goes on to spend a year in the area, and gradually built up a large household of servants, and a strong possession of livestock, leading to the envy of the Philistines of Gerar, so Abimelech sends Isaac away. Noting that the wells that Abraham had dug have since been filled in, Isaac re-digs them, giving etymologies for three:
Isaac then travels to Beersheba (which does not yet have its name), and Yahweh appears to him, so Isaac builds an altar there. Abimelech then meets Isaac there, with a friend named Ahuzzath, and Philcol, Abimelech's chief captain. They then make an oath of non-aggression, hold a feast, and then depart from one another. Later on the same day, Isaac's servants report to him that they have found another well, so he names the place in such a way that it later becomes known as Beersheba. Beer is the Hebrew word for well, the other half of the word is explained as due to Isaac naming the location:
The most striking parallels occur between the tales of Isaac and Abimelech and Abraham and Abimelech, both of which involve the names of Gerar, Abimelech, and Philcol, all taking the same roles in the story, with Philcol and Abimelech making the oath to the Patriarch at Beersheba, which was consecrated to the Israelite deity, and with Abimelech previously coming to realise that the Patriarch's wife is just that. The Egyptian story on the other hand resembles an abridgement, with the later treaty cut out of the story, and on the whole appearing in its own context to be an odd irrelevant aside. As they currently stand in the Torah, it appears that Beersheba is named for the first time twice, for the same reasons, consecrated for the first time twice, and that there are either two consecutive Abimelechs who are each king of Gerar in turn, and each have a captain of the guard named Philcol, or that these are the same long lived individual, with each instance of Abimelech correcting an earlier identification of the Patriarch's sister with his wife, and desiring to make a non-aggression pact covering multiple generations with the Patriarchs at Beersheba.
An explanation presented in classical times, and suggested by Rashi, argued that when a stranger comes to town, the proper thing to do would be to inquire if he needs food and drink, not whether his female companion is a married woman, and hence as Abimelech did the latter, it tipped off Abraham to the fact that there is no fear of God in this place, and so he lied about his relationship with Sarah in order to avoid being killed. Consequently, it could be argued that the parallel behaviour results from this lack of fear of God by the antagonists in the other two similar situations.
However, in more modern opinion, such as that of the Jewish Encyclopedia,
Much Biblical criticism views the parallels as evidence for the documentary hypothesis, with each of the stories originating in different parallel partly independent sources, with a later redactor being responsible for the passages which explain why Isaac would be digging wells that Abraham has already dug (and ). The Isaac and Abimelech version is in this hypothesis seen as being a tradition recorded by the Yahwist, whereas the Abraham and Abimelech version is attributed to the Elohist. The Egyptian version of the story could be said to abridge the first part of either of these two, and is often attributed to the Yahwist as a deliberate foreshadowing of the later story, though with its vicious plague visited on Pharaoh for his innocent mistake, others see it as originating from the hand of the Priestly source, whose attitude towards non-Israelites, and frequent use of plagues as divine punishment, this resembles.
If it were to originate from the Priestly source, the Egyptian version would have been written with open knowledge of the other two, and its lack of conciliation with the Pharaoh reflecting the xenophobic attitudes towards the Philistines and Egyptians which had arisen within Priestly circles during the intervening period, and were later recorded in the Talmud and Midrash.
There are dissenting voices, most notably by biblical archaeologists. According to Feldman (1965), basing his argument on Albright's interpretation of the archaeology of Nuzu, a wife could legally be awarded the title "sister", and that this was the most sacred form of marriage, and hence Abraham and Isaac referred to their wives as "sisters" for this reason. Most archaeologists however dispute that view, instead arguing the opposite - that sisters in the region were often awarded the title "wife" in order to give them much greater status in society. Neither case however, completely justifies the parallels.
In the midrash, Abimelech's treatment of Abraham is viewed as an act by one of the few pious non-Israelites. His attempted marriage to Sarah is explained by his being childless and thus hoping for offspring by Sarah, and was thus acting from the best of intentions. Under the documentary hypothesis, the positioning of the story by the Elohist is sometimes interpreted as a slur upon Isaac, since Isaac is born almost immediately after this event, and although no sexual relationship between Sarah and Abimelech is present in the text, the implication is easily read into the text by anyone wishing to slur Isaac's parentage.
Conversely, the treatment of Isaac by Abimelech is attributed by the midrash simply to envy by Abimelech of the size of Isaac's livestock and household; Abimelech is described as cunningly setting the situation, of the confusion of Rebekah between sister and wife, up in order to cause a quarrel against Isaac. Paralleling the Egyptian story, the Midrash describes Abimelech being visited by a disease in punishment for his treatment of Isaac.
Abimelech's statement to Abraham made with the giving of 1000 pieces of silver - may this one that will be thine have a covering on her eyes - is interpreted in the midrash, and sometimes elsewhere, as a curse and re-translated ... his eyes, in order to interpret it as the reason for Isaac's later blindness in his old age. Such a curse was seen as righteously carried out, since Abraham's deliberate deceit was to blame for Abimelech's innocent error, and hence its visitation on Abraham's son was considered just. More modern critical readings view it simply as an instruction to purchase a veil for Sarah, so that she would be clearly identified as being married, in which case it forms a sly reproach against her for not already wearing one.
Despite the deceit, the Bible still states that Sarah is a close blood relation of Abraham, specifically his half sister, and hence many modern cultures (and even the Bible itself, see ) would view her also being his wife as a form of incest. However, in some significant ancient cultures, such as the Hurrian and Egyptian cultures, biological sisters were often raised to the position of a wife in order to give the sister a greater standing in society, and this tradition is one with which Abraham would be likely to have come into contact during his migration.
On the other hand, there has been ancient tablets recently recovered from the ancient city of Mari that suggest otherwise. These ancient Semite legal records show that when a woman is married to a man, she is then formally adopted by his father as a full daughter as well Like Abraham, many ancient Semites were Nomads and it was customary for the daughter-in-law to be officially adopted as a full daughter in case her husband is to die while she is traveling with his family.
According to , Sarah left her family to set out for the land of Canaan, which puts her in this same position as suggested in the ancient tablets of Mari (a Semite city which Abraham is presumed to have visited). This suggests that Sarah was not Abrahams half-sister, but adopted sister by law. Thus, Abraham did not lie, nor did he commit incest. However, there is little question that the deception was intentional.
Still, many believe that the verse concerning the 'cover of the eye' is probably instructions that Sarah should wear a veil in order to show her marital status, as was the custom of many ancient pagan cultures. By doing this she would clear up any confusion as to her availability (yet still be able to claim that Abraham is her brother).
In one prominent school of critical thought, the whole underlying story is believed to have originally been one simply representing a treaty between the Philistines and Israelites, eponymously represented by a marriage between Abimelech, the Philistines' eponym, and Sarah, acting as eponym for the Israelites. The separation of the marriage part of the story from the treaty part being considered a result of these parts becoming gradually more seen as unconnected, mainly due to the element of deceit about Sarah's true relationship with Abraham. Apart from the religious belief in total biblical inerrancy, academic circles have put forward very few arguments for either side of whether the treaty at the core of the story is factual or simply a result of folk etymology concerning Beersheba's name, and hence this is academically a very unanswered question.
There are different theories concerning the origin of the deceit element of the tale. The majority position is that it originates as a cunning trick by Abraham to get the treaty, the gifts that go with it, and still keep the woman, his wife. However, a theory held by Robertson Smith is that originally the early Israelite society was matriarchal and Abraham was not originally present in a significant way in any of the stories of Genesis whatsoever, his role being almost entirely taken by Sarah herself, particularly as the name Israel supposedly derives from the word Sarita (often translated you have struggled), which is thought to have a linguistic connection with Sarah (c.f. Hosea 12:3 - own sarah El=as a man he struggled with God). In this theory, Isaac is hence the result of the union between Abimelech and Sarah. The theory goes on to state that as the culture became patriarchal, so the figure of Abraham was introduced and gradually took over Sarah's role, though obviously this was not possible in the tale of the marriage to Abimelech. Consequently Sarah became variously identified as Abraham's sister or as his wife, the deception part of the tale arising as a result of Sarah having to be Abraham's wife for them both to be parents of Isaac, but also Abimelech's for the treaty, and simultaneously not commit bigamy by having two husbands.