The Wife/Sister Experience: Pharaoh's Introduction to Jehovah

By Gaye Strathearn

Strathearn, Gaye, “The Wife/Sister Experience: Pharaoh’s Introduction to Jehovah” in Sperry Symposium Classics: The Old Testament, ed. Paul Y. Hoskisson (Provo and Salt Lake City: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, and Deseret Book 2005), 100–116.

The Wife/Sister Experience: Pharaoh’s Introduction to Jehovah

Gaye Strathearn


Gaye Strathearn is an assistant professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University.

A most important aspect of the ministry of Abraham was his concept of the nature of deity. Throughout the ancient world, nations worshiped a pantheon of gods that were responsible for particular geographical areas. The ancient Babylonians, Assyrians, and Egyptians were henotheistic, that is, they were quite willing to allow that other gods existed outside their pantheon. Nevertheless, each nation believed that the power of its gods was superior to that of the gods of the other nations, and this belief was determined, to a large extent, on the battlefields. If the Egyptians won a battle against the Assyrians, then that showed the Egyptian gods were more powerful than the Assyrian gods. In contrast, the book of Abraham makes it clear that as Abraham traveled throughout the Levant; he did not shift his divine allegiance as he crossed a new political border. Instead, he worshipped a god who knew no geographical boundaries, and Abraham taught those he encountered about that god. Abraham’s God, Jehovah, was the same whether Abraham was in Ur of the Chaldees (see Abraham 1:1–16), Haran (see Abraham 2:5–14), Bethel (see Abraham 2:20), or Egypt. But that was not all: not only was Jehovah unencumbered by geographical boundaries but His power knew no equal. Although the power of Jehovah was manifested dramatically in Egypt and in the various Israelite battles, during the life of Abraham, Jehovah’s power was manifested in more subtle ways. One important manifestation of Jehovah’s influence and power occurred in the confrontation between Abraham and Pharaoh in Egypt in which Pharaoh took Sarah into his harem. That event ultimately led to Pharaoh’s seeking a blessing at the hands of Abraham—an interesting demonstration of humility for someone of Pharaoh’s power and prestige.

The Wife/Sister Motif

The book of Genesis contains a trilogy of incidents in which the wife/sister motif was used by either Abraham or Isaac. The first account describes Abraham’s journey into Egypt after a famine enveloped the land of Canaan (see Genesis 12:10–13:4). Similar situations arose later when both Abraham and Isaac dwelt in the city of Gerar (see Genesis 20:1–2; 26:7–8). Although in each instance the patriarch identified his wife as his sister to avert a potentially dangerous situation, these accounts have puzzled many readers and scholars because of the apparent deception involved. Why did the patriarchs resort to such action? That is a difficult theological issue. In attempting to justify the patriarchs’ actions, writers have proposed a number of different explanations that offer some significant insights into the three episodes; however, we can gain a still greater understanding, especially of the episode of Abraham’s sojourn in Egypt, if we take into account the insights provided by the book of Abraham and the Genesis Apocryphon (1QapGen), one of the scrolls from the Dead Sea corpus. By doing so, we see the hand of God in Abraham’s request of Sarah, for Abraham’s actions initiated a confrontation between himself and Pharaoh. Because of Abraham’s obedience, God was able to introduce Himself to the Egyptian Pharaoh in power and glory. Even though it was only the first of a series of such encounters, it is clear that the God of Abraham was announcing His jurisdiction over all the families of the earth and not just over Abraham and his descendants. That concept is fundamental to our understanding of all of Jehovah’s subsequent dealings with humankind throughout the Old Testament.

The biblical account introduces the episode in the following manner: “And there was a famine in the land: and Abram went down into Egypt to sojourn there; for the famine was grievous in the land. And it came to pass, when he was come near to enter into Egypt, that he said unto Sarai his wife, Behold now, I know that thou art a fair woman to look upon: Therefore it shall come to pass, when the Egyptians shall see thee, that they shall say, This is his wife: and they will kill me, but they will save thee alive. Say, I pray thee, thou art my sister: that it may be well with me for thy sake; and my soul shall live because of thee” (Genesis 12:10–13).

From these verses it appears that Abraham’s major motivation for asking Sarah to say she was his sister was the beauty of Sarah, which would put his life in danger. Certainly that situation was not unique to Abraham and Sarah. Israel’s great king David was willing to kill Uriah for his wife Bathsheba (see 2 Samuel 11:14–17), and we see similar incidents in the Egyptian literature. One example, which is found in the Pyramid Texts, records a king boasting of his virility by declaring, “I am the owner of seed who takes women from their husbands whenever he wishes, according to his desire.”[1] Similarly, the Papyrus D’Orbiney recounts the “Tale of Two Brothers,” in which the Pharaoh, on the advice of his wise men, sent envoys in search of the daughter of Ra-Harmachis. The text describes her as “more beautiful . . . than any woman in the whole land.” Unfortunately for the Pharaoh, she was married to Bata, who was willing to slay anyone who tried to take her from him. When Bata killed his envoys, the Pharaoh sent soldiers and a woman who lured the daughter of Ra- Harmachis away from her husband with “all kinds of beautiful ladies’ jewelry.” The story then explains that, having been given the “rank of Great Lady,”[2] the woman advised the Pharaoh to dispose of Bata, which he promptly did. Although in this instance the Pharaoh acted at the behest of the wife, it is clear that he had no compunction in terminating Bata’s life so that he could have an uncontested claim to a beautiful woman.

Historical Interpretations

Though these records seem to validate Abraham’s concern for his life, both ancient and modern authors have been concerned about the method Abraham used. Did Abraham ask Sarah to lie just to protect himself? The question of whether there was indeed any blood relationship between Abraham and Sarah has been a constant source of dispute. The ancient Jewish historian Josephus approached the incident by merely saying that Abraham “pretended to be her [Sarah’s] brother.”[3] A number of scholars believe that there is at least some basis for the identification and thus have attempted to justify the action. Appealing to the Bible, we find only two passages that address this issue. In Genesis 11:27–29 we read: “Now these are the generations of Terah: Terah begat Abram, Nahor, and Haran; and Haran begat Lot. And Haran died before his father Terah in the land of his nativity, in Ur of the Chaldees. And Abram and Nahor took them wives: the name of Abram’s wife was Sarai; and the name of Nahor’s wife, Milcah, the daughter of Haran, the father of Milcah, and the father of Iscah.”

In the past, some have argued that the Iscah mentioned in verse 29 is Sarah.[4] Unfortunately, the book of Abraham does not shed any light on the matter. In Abraham 2:2, in the Pearl of Great Price, we read merely that Abraham’s brother, Nehor, married his niece, Milcah, but the author says nothing about Sarah’s family line. Since the turn of the century, scholars have dismissed the attempt to equate Iscah with Sarah,[5] but it is clear that Jewish and Muslim writings in antiquity assumed that Sarah was Abraham’s niece through Haran.[6] In discussing this problem, it is important to realize that in the ancient Near East the nuclear family, as we now know it, did not exist. Rather, a family unit encompassed grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. This state is reflected in ancient Semitic languages, including biblical Hebrew, in which there is no definite linguistic separation between siblings and their offspring. We find one example of this in the passage that tells of the five Canaanite kings capturing Sodom and Gomorrah. When Abraham is advised of Lot’s capture, twice he refers to Lot as his brother (see Genesis 14:14, 16) even though, by western standards, he is clearly Abraham’s “nephew” (see Genesis 11:27). 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. Even allowing for that possibility, however, those who write about this biblical incident generally feel uncomfortable relying solely on such an explanation.[7] Therefore, the search for understanding continues.

The second biblical passage relating to Sarah’s and Abraham’s nonmarital relationship is found in Genesis 20:12. Here Abraham justified identifying Sarah as his sister to Abimelech by saying that “indeed she is my sister; she is the daughter of my father, but not the daughter of my mother” (Genesis 20:12). In other words, Abraham claimed that Sarah was his half-sister. Two later Christian documents clearly based their understanding of the wife/sister motif by appealing to that claim. The author of The Book of the Cave of Treasures, dating from the sixth century A.D., indicated that Sarah was Terah’s daughter by another wife. Hence we read, “Now Sârâ was the sister of Abraham on the father’s side, because Terah took two women to wife. When Yâwnû, the mother of Abraham, died, Terah took to wife a woman whose name was “Naharyath” (or Shalmath, or Tona, or Tahdif), and of her Sârâ was born.”[8] Similarly, the Book of the Bee, another Syriac text (thirteenth century A.D.), states that Terah’s two wives were Yônâ and Shelmath.[9] There are obvious similarities between these two names and the ones in the Cave of Treasures.

Those interpretations were the prevailing arguments up until the late 1960s. In 1963, E. A. Speiser proposed another theory. By a legal process found in the Nuzi documents, artifacts of a Near Eastern Bronze Age city-state, Speiser asserted that under Hurrian law a woman could legally be adopted by her husband to give her greater privileges and social status.[10] Speiser’s argument initially received wide support in the academic arena, but in recent years a number of scholars have questioned his conclusions. Van Seters acknowledges that the documents do describe an adoptive process, but he argues that this practice was for commercial purposes. By adopting the woman, a man would become her legal guardian and could then benefit from a marriage dowry; however, Van Seters argues, “this did not necessarily create a variety of different marriage types or place women on varying levels of social status.”[11] Therefore, it is difficult to understand Abraham’s request by an appeal to a linguistic or cultural understanding of the term sister.

Another Look at a Complex Situation

So where does that leave us? Although these hypotheses have some merit in adding to our understanding of a difficult passage of scripture, they fail to take into account the insights provided by the book of Abraham and the Genesis Apocryphon. Both of these texts demonstrate that Abraham acted not merely out of an interest in self-preservation but in obedience to a divine command. Thus we read in Abraham 2:22–25: “And it came to pass when I was come near to enter into Egypt, the Lord said unto me: Behold, Sarai, 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. And it came to pass that I, Abraham, told Sarai, my wife, all that the Lord had said unto me—Therefore say unto them, I pray thee, thou art my sister, that it may be well with me for thy sake, and my soul shall live because of thee.”

Similarly, the author of the Genesis Apocryphon, which differs slightly in detail from the book of Abraham, explains the nature of Abraham’s request at great length. When Abraham traveled to Egypt, he was given instructions in a dream. It is not explicitly stated, but the implication is that the dream came from God. “And I, Abram, had a dream in the night of my entering into the land of Egypt and I saw in my dream [that there wa]s a cedar, and a date-palm (which was) [very beautif]ul; and some men came intending to cut down and uproot the cedar, but leave the date-palm by itself. Now the date-palm cried out and said, ‘Do not cut down the cedar, for cursed (?) is he who fells (?) the [cedar].’ So the cedar was spared with the help of the date-palm, and [it was] not [cut down]” (1QapGen XIX:14–17).[12]

When Abraham awoke, he described the dream to Sarah. Although the text is somewhat damaged at this point, it is clear that Abraham identified himself with the cedar and Sarah with the date-palm. Therefore, he asked Sarah to identify herself as his sister.

But why did God require Abraham to make such a request? In discussing this question, Stephen Ricks shows that though this commandment might seem strange, obedience is the primary concern.[13] There are numerous passages throughout the scriptures in which God commands people to perform “strange” acts. God’s commandment to Nephi to slay Laban was obviously difficult for Nephi, who wrote: “I was constrained by the Spirit that I should kill Laban; but I said in my heart: Never at any time have I shed the blood of a man. And I shrunk and would that I might not slay him” (1 Nephi 4:10).[14] Also, when Abraham returned to the land of Canaan he was given another difficult commandment—to sacrifice his son Isaac (see Genesis 22:1–2). Given the circumstances in Abraham’s own life, in which Abraham faced a sacrificial death himself (see Abraham 1:12–15), this commandment must certainly have appeared contradictory to him. On another occasion, God commanded the Apostle Peter in a dream to eat meat that was unclean under the law of Moses (see Acts 10:9–18). Each of those commandments seems to violate one of God’s laws. Each one placed the individual in a position where he had either to follow a preexisting law or follow God’s current command. The Prophet Joseph Smith taught us: “That which is wrong under one circumstance, may be, and often is, right under another. God said, ‘Thou shalt not kill;’ at another time He said, ‘Thou shalt utterly destroy.’ This is the principle on which the government of heaven is conducted by revelation adapted to the circumstances in which the children of the kingdom are placed. Whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is, although we may not see the reason thereof till long after the events transpire.”[15]

As we read of the commandments given to Nephi, Abraham, and Peter, in each case the scriptures go on to show us the reason for God’s actions. For Nephi, it was so that his people would have the scriptures to remind them of their covenants (in contrast to the people of Zarahemla, who had no records). The scriptures also tell us that Abraham was asked to sacrifice Isaac as a test of his obedience and as a foreshadowing of the eventual sacrifice of God’s Only Begotten Son. And the commandment given to Peter was to let him know that God was opening the way for the Gentiles to hear the gospel. But the scriptural account is silent about God’s instruction concerning Sarah. We must turn instead to the Genesis Apocryphon to provide us with some insight concerning God’s possible motivation.

The Interchange between Abraham and Pharaoh

The very fact that Abraham went down into Egypt sets up an important contrast between himself and Pharaoh. Bowie observes: “How insignificant Abraham and all he represented appeared to be as compared with Egypt! On the one hand, an unimportant wanderer; on the other hand, a proud civilization, ancient and deep-rooted. At the time when Abraham . . . came within its borders the history of its life already went back more than two thousand years. From the rich valley of the Nile and from their conquests beyond it the Pharaohs drew the wealth to build the magnificence of Memphis and Thebes and the colossal temples at Karnak; and the pyramids were even then centuries old. What did it matter to Egypt or to history that this Hebrew should exist? To Egypt, nothing: to history, more than Egypt itself would ultimately mean. Egypt represented material pride and power and possessions, and all these would crumble. Abraham represented a new spiritual impulse, and this would be creative long after Egypt should have ceased to count.”[16]

Why did Abraham, even though he was insignificant in comparison to the mightiest man of his time, have such a profound influence on the history of the world? It seems that Jehovah was setting the scene to make a statement not only to Pharaoh but also to all of Egypt and to all who read of this event that He wanted them to understand His power and sphere of influence. Therefore, He orchestrated the circumstances around Abraham’s introduction to the Egyptian Pharaoh. As Abraham’s sister, Sarah provided that introduction, but that was only the first step in a powerful set of events. To appreciate the whole saga, we must delve deeper into the social and religious implications of the confrontation between the apparently insignificant Abraham and the mighty Egyptian Pharaoh.

As a result of the Pharaoh’s reaction to Sarah’s beauty, the Genesis account tells us that “the Lord plagued Pharaoh and his house with great plagues” (Genesis 12:17). As we turn again to the Genesis Apocryphon we find a similar reaction: “In that night the Most High God sent a pestilential spirit to afflict him and every man of his house, an evil spirit that kept afflicting him and every man in his house” (1QapGen. XX: 16b–17a). As a result of these plagues, the Pharaoh called in all his wise men, both the religious advisers (kspy’) and the physicians (a?y). This division of the wise men into religious and medical groups reflects the dualistic approach the ancient Egyptians had to the healing of sickness. They acknowledged the limitations of their considerable scientific knowledge and recognized the need for divine intervention from deity. To fully appreciate the significance of these divisions in the Egyptians’ attitudes toward healing and their effect on the Genesis account, we must first explore the nature of ancient Egyptian medical practices. We can only appreciate the nature of the contest if we understand the power of the Pharaoh.

Egyptian Medical Practices

In antiquity, other nations considered Egypt the center of medical science. The fame of Egyptian physicians commanded international respect. Homer wrote in the Odyssey that “there [in Egypt] every man is a physician, wise above human kind.”[17] There are similar statements in other ancient writings. Herodotus commented that the Persian emperors Cyrus and Darius were impressed by their Egyptian physicians and that “each physician is a healer of one disease and no more. All the country is full of physicians, some of the eye, some of the teeth, some of what pertains to the belly, and some of the hidden diseases.”[18] Stead explains that “by trial and error the Egyptians learnt the use of many natural drugs and realised the importance of rest and care of the patient, as well as basic hygiene as a means of preventing the onset of certain problems.”[19]

Two important medical documents dating from the sixteenth century B.C. are the Edwin Smith Papyrus and the Ebers Papyrus. The Edwin Smith Papyrus is a surgical textbook, which “differentiates with utter strictness between the examination method, diagnosis, therapy or prescription, and prognosis.”[20] Even today those aspects are an integral part of modern medical practice. Indeed, Wiseman comments that the “level of knowledge” the Edwin Smith Papyrus demonstrates “was not otherwise attained until later classical Greek times or in England in the sixteenth century A.D.”[21] The inclusion in the Ebers Papyrus of religious formulas, along with the medical discussions, indicates that the art of healing during this time was not a pure science but was used in conjunction with religious rituals. It began with an appeal for the gods and Thot to aid the physicians in their healings.[22]

Thus we find two types of physicians mentioned in the ancient writings of Egypt: the hry-heb, “carrier of the ritual book,” a religious adviser, and the synw, “physician.”[23] Wiseman believes that “both probably underwent a formal training based on traditions passed down from father to son.”[24] It was the synw who held the governmental positions, however. In the account in the Genesis Apocryphon, it appears that Pharaoh summoned both groups to his aid, yet both of them failed. Egypt, with all of its medical knowledge and religious powers, was not able to provide any relief for its Pharaoh. With no other recourse available to them, Pharaoh’s servant Hirqanos came and “begged . . . [Abraham] to pray over the king” and to “lay (s?mak) . . . [his] hands upon him that he might live” (1QapGen. XX: 22). Fitzmyer notes that this line is the first time in a Jewish source that the rite of the laying on of hands is used for healing. [25] The author’s word choice and its significance in this instance is important in helping us understand the nature of Abraham’s action. Why did the author choose the verb s?mak to describe the nature of laying on of hands? In the Old Testament the word s?makhas some very specific connotations that are important for an understanding of our passage.

The Old Testament Practice of Laying on of Hands

In the King James Version of the Bible, the translators consistently use the verb lay to describe the action of placing hands upon something during priesthood activities. That is true regardless of the ritual being performed. But in the Hebrew text two different verbs are used: šît and s?mak. [26] To distinguish between these two verbs is important because the author of the Genesis Apocryphon specifically used the latter to describe Abraham’s blessing of Pharaoh. Generally šît was the verb of preference when the laying on of hands was associated with a blessing. That was certainly the case when Jacob blessed each of his sons: “and Israel [Jacob] stretched out his right hand, and laid (šît) it upon Ephraim’s head, who was the younger, and his left hand upon Manasseh’s head, guiding his hands wittingly; for Manasseh was the firstborn” (Genesis 48:14). This usage contrasts with the specialized usage of s?mak. Daube argues that the difference between šît and s?mak can be distinguished by the amount of pressure used by the officiator. He prefers to translate šît as “place,” and s?mak as “lean.” The difference was that when a person “leans” (s?mak) during the rite of the laying on of hands, there was a symbolic transference of something from the officiator to the recipient.[27]

The matter can be clarified further when we examine the occasions when s?mak was the verb of choice in describing the rituals of the laying on of hands. As Réne Péter demonstrates, its use is categorized in one of two ways—it is used in either sacrificial or nonsacrificial occasions.[28] The sacrificial use is not relevant to our discussion, but the nonsacrificial use is very enlightening because Abraham’s blessing of Pharaoh clearly falls into that category. Thus it is grouped with such incidents as the scapegoat ritual on the Day of Atonement (see Leviticus 16:5–10, 21–22), the case of the blasphemer (see Leviticus 24), and Joshua’s ordination by Moses (see Numbers 27:18–23). In each of these occasions s?mak is used to indicate not a blessing but the transference of something from the officiator to the recipient. In the case of the scapegoat, Aaron symbolically transferred the iniquities of Israel to the goat. In the story of a man who blasphemed during an altercation, Moses was instructed to have those who heard the offense “lay [s?mak] their hands upon his head, and let all the congregation stone him” (Leviticus 24:14). Although there is considerable scholarly debate concerning the nature of the laying on of hands in this instance,[29] it appears that the laying on of hands represents a retransference of the impurity back to the offender. The third example occurred when Moses set Joshua apart as the next Israelite leader (see Numbers 27:23). In that instance, Moses symbolically transferred his honor, or authority, to Joshua (see Numbers 27:20).[30]

In all three of these cases, the verb s?mak was chosen instead of šît. It is clear that it had a specialized meaning in association with nonsacrificial rituals. Unfortunately, though, there is no Old Testament instance where the ritual of the laying on of hands was associated with healing. As Mackay points out, that lack is “understandable since the O. T. is almost entirely the record of the House of Israel under the Law of Moses, that is, without the Melchizedek Priesthood.”[31] It was not until the dawning of the Christian era, and hence the return of the Melchizedek Priesthood through the Savior, that the practice was generally associated with the healing of the sick. But Latter-day Saints know that Abraham did hold the Melchizedek Priesthood. The Doctrine and Covenants tells us that he received it from Melchizedek (see D&C 84:14). Therefore, it is certainly not out of place to find in the Genesis Apocryphon that Abraham lays (s?mak) his hands upon the head of Pharaoh to heal him from the plagues sent by the Lord.

The Laying on of Hands and the Genesis Apocryphon

As mentioned previously, the discovery and translation of the Genesis Apocryphon provided scholars with the first Jewish source where healing was achieved by the laying on of hands. In response to Hirqanos’s plea for help, Abraham’s nephew, Lot, responded that Abraham could not pray for the Pharaoh until he returned Sarah (1QapGen. XX: 22–23). When Pharaoh acted accordingly, the author recorded Pharaoh’s plea and Abraham’s response as follows: “But now pray for me and for my house that this evil spirit will be rebuked from us. So I [Abraham] prayed [. . .] and I laid [s?mak] my hands upon his head and the plague fell from him and the evil spirit was rebuked and he lived” (1QapGen. XX: 28–29). It is significant that Abraham did not initiate this scene with Pharaoh. Instead, he waited for Pharaoh to approach him. In fact, this whole episode appears to have been orchestrated so that Pharaoh would seek out Abraham’s assistance.

Although the biblical account of this incident does not mention Abraham’s praying for the Pharaoh, it is mentioned in the similar account with the king of Gerar, Abimelech. Here we are informed that “Abraham prayed unto God: and God healed Abimelech, and his wife, and his maidservants; and they bare children” (Genesis 20:17). Then the plague which Jehovah had sent upon them is explained: “for the Lord had fast closed up all the wombs of the house of Abimelech, because of Sarah Abraham’s wife” (Genesis 20:18). The Genesis Apocryphon gives no indication of the nature of the plague against Pharaoh, and although scholars have suggested numerous hypotheses,[32] it is at least possible, given the corresponding circumstances, that Pharaoh experienced problems similar to those of Abimelech.

Noteworthy in both the passages from the Genesis Apocryphon is the use of s?mak rather than šît to indicate the laying on of hands. From the parallel passages in the Old Testament, it appears that the author chose the word s?mak to indicate a transference of something to Pharaoh. In both instances in the Genesis Apocryphon, s?mak is found in connection with s el?, the verb for praying. The two words seems to be integrally connected. It was not Abraham’s power that cured Pharaoh; it was the power of Jehovah, with Abraham as a conduit, that effected the cure. The concept of having a priesthood holder act as a conduit for divine purposes is certainly not unfamiliar to Latter-day Saints. In the Doctrine and Covenants, we read of Jehovah’s telling Edward Partridge that “I will lay my hand upon you by the hand of my servant Sidney Rigdon, and you shall receive my Spirit, the Holy Ghost, even the Comforter, which shall teach you the peaceable things of the kingdom” (D&C 36:2). In a similar way, priesthood holders lay their hands upon the sick to invoke the power of God. Brigham Young once declared: “When I lay hands on the sick, I expect the healing power and influence of God to pass through me to the patient, and the disease to give way. . . . When we are prepared, when we are holy vessels before the Lord, a stream of power from the Almighty can pass through the tabernacle of the administrator to the system of the patient, and the sick are made whole.”[33] Abraham performed in a similar manner as he approached Pharaoh.

But was the actual healing of Pharaoh the principal reason behind Abraham’s actions? I believe that Abraham’s actions have a much more significant purpose than the mere healing of Pharaoh. Abraham brought about something that the Egyptians could not do for themselves, even though they were the leading authorities in ancient medical practices and even though they possessed their own pantheon of gods. Those gods failed to cure Pharaoh, but Abraham and his God were successful. This was a contest between man’s knowledge—man’s gods—and Jehovah, the God of Abraham. Therefore, in recording that Abraham laid his hands upon Pharaoh, the author of the Genesis Apocryphon used the verb s?mak to convey a message to his readers—one that is not readily evident in the English translation but that was very significant to a Hebrew audience. In using the language of the Torah, the author conveyed the idea of a transference of power from Jehovah (through Abraham) to Pharaoh. Could there now be any doubt in Pharaoh’s mind concerning the jurisdiction and strength of Jehovah’s power? This incident was only the first of a number of contacts between Egypt and Abraham and his descendants. The contest between Pharaoh’s wise men and Abraham’s God to secure a cure parallels the events some centuries later when Abraham’s successor, Moses, also confronted an Egyptian Pharaoh. Once again, Jehovah orchestrated the events so that His power was manifested both to the Pharaoh and to the children of Israel.[34]


The prophet Abraham stands uncontested in history as the father of three monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. While the people in the world around him worshipped a plethora of deities, Abraham stood firm in his commitment to Jehovah. Whenever Abraham journeyed throughout Chaldea, Canaan, or Egypt, he proclaimed the power of Jehovah. His allegiance did not shift from one country to another. In examining the controversial incident in Egypt, the book of Abraham and the Genesis Apocryphon help us to see Abraham continuing his missionary activities. When Abraham responded to God’s commandment to call Sarah his sister, he acted with immediacy and unquestioned obedience. One of the great characteristics of such individuals as Abraham, Nephi, and Peter was their commitment to God’s current commandments, not just his previous ones. As we go through life, we also encounter times when we are given commandments that seem strange or that are difficult to understand. We may not always see their immediate purpose, but if we respond as Abraham did, then we can also experience the power of God in our lives and in the lives of those around us. Surely that is one of the great lessons to learn from our mighty ancestor, Abraham.


[1] Utterance 317, in The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts, trans. R. O. Faulkner (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969), 99.

[2] “Tale of Two Brothers,” in Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature: A Book of Readings (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976), 2:207–8.

[3] Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 1.8.1, trans. H. St. J. Thackeray, in Loeb Classical Library, ed. E. H. Warmington (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1967), 81.

[4] For example, Josephus substitutes the name of Sarah for that of Iscah by saying that Sarai and Milcah were Haran’s daughters (Jewish Antiquities 1.6.5 [Thackeray, 75]). A footnote to this episode notes that in making the connection between Sarai and Iscah, Josephus is following rabbinical tradition. Later Augustine also equates the two women. See City of God 16.12, in A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series, ed. Philip Schaff (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans Publishing, 1956), 2:318. Similarly, the Targum Jonathan Genesis 11:29 qualifies the name of Iscah by adding the phrase “who is Sarai” (Targum du Pentateuque, trans. Roger Le Déaut, Sources Chrétiennes 245 [Paris: Les Éditions du Cerf, 1978], 147).

[5] See Adam Clarke, The Holy Bible: Containing the Old and New Testaments (New York: Eaton and Mains, 1883), 1:93–94; and J. Skinner, Genesis, in International Critical Commentary, ed. Samuel R. Driver, Alfred Plummer, and Charles A. Briggs (New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1910), 1:238. Since that time scholars have insisted on a distinction between Sarah and Iscah. See Claus Westermann, Genesis 12–36: A Commentary, trans. John J. Scullion (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing, 1984), 137–38; and Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis Chapters 1–17, in The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, ed. R. K. Harrison (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990), 362.

[6] Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 1.6.5 (Thackeray, 75); and G. Weil, The Bible, the Koran, and the Talmud; or, Biblical Legends of the Mussulmans (New York: Harper, 1855), 79.

[7] For example, see Thomas Whitelaw, “Genesis and Exodus,” in The Pulpit Commentary, ed. H. D. M. Spence and Joseph S. Exell (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1950), 1:187–88.

[8] The Book of the Cave of Treasures, trans. E. A. Wallis Budge (London: The Religious Tract Society, 1927), 149.

[9] The Book of the Bee, trans. E. A. Wallis Budge (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1886), 42.

[10] Ephraim A. Speiser, “The Wife-Sister Motif in the Patriarchal Narratives,” in Biblical and Other Studies, ed. Alexander H. Altmann (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1963), 15–28.

[11] John Van Seters, Abraham in History and Tradition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1975), 74. For further arguments, see S. Greengus, “Sisterhood Adoption at Nuzi and the ‘Wife-Sister’ in Genesis,” HUCA 46 (1975): 5–31; and Thomas L. Thompson, The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives: The Quest for the Historical Abraham (New York: de Gruyter, 1974), 234–48.

[12] Translation from Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Genesis Apocryphon of Qumran Cave 1: A Commentary (Rome: Biblical Institute Press, 1966), 51, 53.

[13] Stephen D. Ricks, “The Early Ministry of Abraham,” Studies in Scripture, Volume 2: The Pearl of Great Price, ed. Robert L. Millet and Kent P. Jackson (Salt Lake City: Randall Book, 1985), 221–22.

[14] For a discussion of some of the legal implications of Nephi’s action, see John W. Welch, “Legal Perspectives on the Slaying of Laban,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 1 (Fall 1992): 119–41.

[15] Joseph Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1938), 256.

[16] Walter Russell Bowie, “Genesis,” in The Interpreter’s Bible, ed. George Arthur Buttrick, et al. (New York: Abingdon Press, 1952), 1:579–80

[17] Homer, Odyssey 4.231–32, trans. A. T. Murray, in Loeb Classical Library, ed. E. H. Warmington (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1974), 1:123.

[18] Herodotus 2.84, trans. A. D. Godley, in Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1966), 1:369.

[19] Miriam Stead, Egyptian Life (London: British Museum, 1986), 70.

[20] E. Brunner-Traut, as cited in Klaus Seybold and Ulrich B. Mueller, Sickness and Healing, trans. Douglas W. Stott (Nashville: Abingdon, 1978), 33.

[21] Donald J. Wiseman, “Medicine in the Old Testament World,” Medicine and the Bible, ed. Bernard Palmer (Exeter: Paternoster Press, 1986), 14.

[22] Ebers 1, as cited in P. Ghalioungui, The House of Life, Per Ankh: Magic and Medical Science in Ancient Egypt (Amsterdam: B. M. Israël, 1973), 1.

[23] J. V. K. Wilson, “Medicine in the Land and Times of the Old Testament,” in Studies in the Period of David and Solomon and Other Essays, ed. T. Ishada (Tokyo: Yamakawa-Shuppansha, 1982), 338.

[24] Wiseman, “Medicine in the Old Testament World,” 16.

[25] Joseph A. Fitzmyer, “Some Observations on the Genesis Apocryphon,” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 22 (1960): 283–84.

[26] This difference between the two Hebrew verbs is also found in the Septuagint, where šît is translated as epiballo and s?mak is translated as epitith?mi.

[27] David Daube, The New Testament and Rabbinic Judaism (London: Athlone Press, 1956), pp. 225–26.

[28] Réne Péter, “L’imposition des mains dans l’Ancien Testament,” Vetus Testamentum 27 (1977): 48–55.

[29] Jacob Milgrom, after reviewing the arguments, cogently argues in favor of a transferral ritual in this passage. He believes that “those who heard the blasphemy were contaminated by it and, via the hand-leaning, they effectively transferred the pollution back to the blasphemer and eliminated it by executing him outside the camp.” See Leviticus 1–16, in The Anchor Bible, ed. William Fox Albright and David Noel Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1991), 3:1041. This is in contrast to David P. Wright, “The Gesture of Hand Placement in the Hebrew Bible and in Hittite Literature,” Journal of the American Oriental Society, 106, no. 3 (1986): 435. This author argues against the “transferral theory” and instead supports a legal interpretation whereby the witnesses proclaim the guilt of the accused.

[30] See Péter, “L’imposition,” 54.

[31] Thomas W. Mackay, “Abraham in Egypt: A Collection of Evidence for the Case of the Missing Wife,” Brigham Young University Studies 10 (Summer 1970): 436.

[32] Two midrashic traditions identify the plague as leprosy. See Lech Lecha 41.2 and Vayera 52.13 in Midrash Rabba: Genesis, 3rd ed., trans. Rabbi Dr. H. Freedman (New York: Soncino Press, 1939), 1:334, 460. Hugh Nibley, in Abraham in Egypt, argues that Pharaoh was afflicted with impotence. That both these incidents should be associated with the creation of offspring is important, given the nature of the Abrahamic covenant that should pass through Abraham’s lineage. During these accounts Abraham and Sarah were still awaiting the time when they would be given a son to carry on the covenant. It should also be noted that although many scholars believe that the incidents with Pharaoh and Abimelech are two versions of the same story (see W. W. Sloan, A Survey of the Old Testament [New York: Abingdon Press, 1957], 43–44; and Robert Davidson, Genesis 12–50, Cambridge Bible Commentary, ed. P. R. Ackroy, A. R. C. Leaney, and J. W. Packer [New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979], 2:4), it is clear from the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible that the Prophet Joseph Smith considered them to be two separate events: “and when Abraham said again of Sarah his wife, She is my sister” (Joseph Smith Translation, Genesis 20:2; emphasis added).

[33] Brigham Young, in Journal of Discourses (London: Latter-day Saints Book Depot, 1854–86), 14:72.

[34] See John S. Kselman, “Genesis,” Harper’s Bible Commentary, ed. James L. Mays (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988), 95; and Meredith G. Kline, “Genesis,” in Eerdmans Bible Commentary, ed. D. Guthrie and J. A. Motyer (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987), 93.