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Was Sarah really Abraham’s sister?

Was Sarah really Abraham’s sister?

Published on: Wednesday 14 Mar, 2007

By: administrator

Mohd Elfie Nieshaem Juferi

Ibn Hazm (994CE-1064CE) was a Muslim scholar of great repute in Cordoba during the Muslim Spain era and is widely regarded as the “Father of Comparative Religion”. In his celebrated magnum opus entitled Kitab al-Fasl fi al- Milal wa al-Ahwa’ wa al-Nihal, he predated modern Biblical textual criticism by several centuries and as Krentz admits, Ibn Hazm’s criticisms generally represents the first, albeit rudimentary, systematic historic criticism of the Bible1. He had demonstrated his prowess in Biblical textual criticism by giving many examples of internal contradictions of the Bible. The following Bible contradiction is extracted from Muslim Understanding Of Other Religions: A Study of Ibn Hazm’s Kitab al-Fasl fi al-Milal wa al-Ahwa’ wa al-Nihal2 and insha’allah this will be part of an ongoing series to reproduce extracts of Ibn Hazm’s criticisms of the Bible and Christianity and we will make further elaboration on our part to refine his arguments and further strengthen our case against the Bible.

Was Sarah really Abraham’s sister? Ibn Hazm questions the status of Sarah as being Abraham’s sister as well as his wife, as accepting that viz., from the Biblical perspective, would result in various disagreements with other passages in the Old Testament concerning moral and theological issues that would contradict each other. This is in reference to the stories of Sarah’s seizure by Pharaoh and Abime’elech which was narrated in Genesis 12:10-18 and Genesis 20, Genesis 17:17 and Genesis 20:1-18.

We cite the related passages on the story of the seizure of Sarah as follows.

Now there was a famine in the land. So Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there, for the famine was severe in the land. When he was about to enter Egypt, he said to Sar’ai his wife, “I know that you are a woman beautiful to behold; and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife’; then they will kill me, but they will let you live. Say you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared on your account.” When Abram entered Egypt the Egyptians saw that the woman was very beautiful. And when the princes of Pharaoh saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh. And the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house. And for her sake he dealt well with Abram; and he had sheep, oxen, he-asses, menservants, maidservants, she-asses, and camels. But the LORD afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sar’ai, Abram’s wife. So Pharaoh called Abram, and said, “What is this you have done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife?3

From there Abraham journeyed toward the territory of the Negeb, and dwelt between Kadesh and Shur; and he sojourned in Gerar. And Abraham said of Sarah his wife, “She is my sister.” And Abim’elech king of Gerar sent and took Sarah. But God came to Abim’elech in a dream by night, and said to him, “Behold, you are a dead man, because of the woman whom you have taken; for she is a man’s wife.” Now Abim’elech had not approached her; so he said, “Lord, wilt thou slay an innocent people? Did he not himself say to me, ‘She is my sister’? And she herself said, ‘He is my brother.’ In the integrity of my heart and the innocence of my hands I have done this.” Then God said to him in the dream, “Yes, I know that you have done this in the integrity of your heart, and it was I who kept you from sinning against me; therefore I did not let you touch her. Now then restore the man’s wife; for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you, and you shall live. But if you do not restore her, know that you shall surely die, you, and all that are yours.” So Abim’elech rose early in the morning, and called all his servants, and told them all these things; and the men were very much afraid. Then Abim’elech called Abraham, and said to him, “What have you done to us? And how have I sinned against you, that you have brought on me and my kingdom a great sin? You have done to me things that ought not to be done.” And Abim’elech said to Abraham, “What were you thinking of, that you did this thing?” Abraham said, “I did it because I thought, There is no fear of God at all in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife. Besides she is indeed my sister, the daughter of my father but not the daughter of my mother; and she became my wife. And when God caused me to wander from my father’s house, I said to her, ‘This is the kindness you must do me: at every place to which we come, say of me, He is my brother.’” Then Abim’elech took sheep and oxen, and male and female slaves, and gave them to Abraham, and restored Sarah his wife to him. And Abim’elech said, “Behold, my land is before you; dwell where it pleases you.” To Sarah he said, “Behold, I have given your brother a thousand pieces of silver; it is your vindication in the eyes of all who are with you; and before every one you are righted.” Then Abraham prayed to God; and God healed Abim’elech, and also healed his wife and female slaves so that they bore children. For the LORD had closed all the wombs of the house of Abim’elech because of Sarah, Abraham’s wife.4

From the passages that we have cited briefly above, Ibn Hazm raises the following objections which we note as follows:

(a) it is inconceivable that a woman of more than 90 years5 was fair and attractive enough to have lured Abime’elech;
(b) they told a lie to both the kings, i.e., that Sarah was Abraham’s sister, which is not acceptable for a Prophet of God to have told a lie;
(c) if Sarah was really Abraham’s sister as the passages suggest, then either Abraham had violated the Mosaic Law which forbids one to marry one’s sister or that the Torah had abrogated Abraham’s Shari’ah, hence implying that there is abrogation which Jews and Christians vigorously deny6

Thus, based on the objections above pointed out by Ibn Hazm, we thus say that this story of Sarah being Abraham’s sister is not without inconsistency when conferred with the other passages in the Bible and thus this is an internal contradiction of the Bible with no clear answer.

It should also be mentioned in passing that Ibn Hazm had discussed the issue with a contemporary Jewish scholar of his era named Samuel Ben Joseph, or Ibn al-Naghrilah. The question of the sister/wife motif still remains a puzzing and disturbing question to modern Biblical scholars who consider it to be different strands of traditions which were woven together in confusion. Ibn al-Naghrilah had told Ibn Hazm that the word ukht (sister) as used in the passage means just a relative and not neccessarily a sister as understood by him. Ibn Hazm replied to this by citing Genesis 20:12 which reads as:

“Besides she is indeed my [Abraham’s] sister, the daughter of my father, but not the daughter of my mother, and she became my wife.”

Needless to mention, this answer left Ibn al-Naghrilah confused and silent.7 Perhaps the today’s Christian missionaries should take a leaf from the example of Ibn al-Naghrilah and remain silent as well.

And only God knows best!

  1. Edgar Krentz, The Historical Critical Method (Fortress Press, 1975), p. 41
  2. See Ghulam Haider Aasi, Muslim Understanding Of Other Religions: A Study of Ibn Hazm’s Kitab al-Fasl fi al-Milal wa al-Ahwa’ wa al-Nihal (Adam Publishers, 2004), pp. 92-114 for extracts of Ibn Hazm’s major criticisms of the Pentateuch.
  3. Genesis 12:10-18
  4. Genesis 20:1-18
  5. See Genesis 17:17 which indicated Sarah’s age: “Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, “Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?”
  6. Kitab al-Fasl, pt. 1, p. 135
  7. ibid.

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