Before he journeyed into Egypt, Abraham was instructed by God:
“Behold, Sarai [later Sarah], thy wife, is a very fair woman to look upon; therefore it shall come to pass, when the Egyptians shall see her, they will say—she is his wife; and they will kill you, but they will save her alive; therefore see that ye do on this wise: Let her say unto the Egyptians, she is thy sister, and thy soul shall live” (Abr. 2:22–23).
This passage is paralleled in Genesis 12:10–13.1 The rationale behind Abraham’s actions is clear enough. He was fearful that Sarai’s beauty would endanger him when the couple arrived in a strange, foreign land. A key difference between the accounts in Genesis and the Book of Abraham, however, is that the Book of Abraham portrays God as instructing Abraham to engage in the subterfuge, a detail not found in the Genesis account. The question that naturally arises is whether Abraham was lying by saying Sarai was his sister instead of his wife,2 and, if he was, whether that lie was morally justified.3 Some readers of the Book of Abraham are especially troubled by what appears to be God commanding Abraham to lie.
One important thing to keep in mind is that Genesis 20:12 identifies Sarai as Abraham’s half-sister. “So it is at least possible that Sarah belonged to Abraham’s extended family and was thus considered to be his ‘sister’ in the sense of a near blood relative.”4 With this in mind, Abraham appears to have been using somewhat ambiguous terminology and not necessarily making an outright false statement.5 This ambiguous language may also have been playing on Mesopotamian legal definitions, but this point is debated.6
Whether or not this tactic would have played well in a Mesopotamian context, it would have worked in ancient Egyptian, since in that language “a wife was often called the ‘sister’ (snt) of her husband, but not because they had the same parents: instead, the term was one of affection, indicating that the family relationship between husband and wife by marriage was as close as that between real brother and sister.”7 This appears to reinforce the point that Abraham could be viewed as taking advantage of an ambiguity that would have worked especially well in thwarting the murderous intentions of the Egyptians. “The custom of referring to one’s wife (hm.t) as one’s sister (sn.t)” in ancient Egyptian culture therefore takes on deep significance for this passage. “For an Egyptian audience, Abram’s calling Sarai his sister would not have precluded her being his wife.”8
Finally, it is noteworthy that a text from the Dead Sea Scrolls called the Genesis Apocryphon depicts Abraham being warned in a dream of the danger he faced when traveling into Egypt because of Sarai’s beauty. This in turn prompted his equivocation with Pharaoh.9 While this text does not overtly say that God told Abraham to “lie” about his relationship with Sarai, it heavily implies that he was divinely forewarned of the situation. This harmonizes nicely with the account in the Book of Abraham.
Boyce, Duane. “Why Abraham Was Not Wrong to Lie.” BYU Studies Quarterly 61, no. 3 (2022): 5–27.
Nibley, Hugh. “The Sacrifice of Sarah.” In Abraham in Egypt, edited by Gary P. Gillum, 343–81. 2nd ed. The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley 14. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book; Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies at Brigham Young University, 2000.
Strathearn, Gaye. “The Wife/Sister Experience: Pharaoh’s Introduction to Jehovah.” In Sperry Symposium Classics: The Old Testament, edited by Paul Y. Hoskisson, 100–116. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book; Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2005.