In the comments to this answer to the question of why Abraham lied to Pharaoh about his relationship with Sarah, the following question which I am about to pose, appeared:

Was the marriage between Abraham and Sarah incestuous?

In two separate occasions, Abraham told the local ruler that Sarah was his sister. These two passages are found in in Genesis 12:10-20 and Genesis 20.

Let's examine the first passage:

Genesis 12:10-20 (NIV)

10 Now there was a famine in the land, and Abram went down to Egypt to live there for a while because the famine was severe. 11 As he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, “I know what a beautiful woman you are. 12 When the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me but will let you live. 13 Say you are my sister, so that I will be treated well for your sake and my life will be spared because of you.”

14 When Abram came to Egypt, the Egyptians saw that Sarai was a very beautiful woman. 15 And when Pharaoh’s officials saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh, and she was taken into his palace. 16 He treated Abram well for her sake, and Abram acquired sheep and cattle, male and female donkeys, male and female servants, and camels.

17 But the LORD inflicted serious diseases on Pharaoh and his household because of Abram’s wife Sarai. 18 So Pharaoh summoned Abram. “What have you done to me?” he said. “Why didn’t you tell me she was your wife? 19 Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her to be my wife? Now then, here is your wife. Take her and go!” 20 Then Pharaoh gave orders about Abram to his men, and they sent him on his way, with his wife and everything he had.

This seems to imply that since Abraham told Pharaoh that Sarah was his sister, Sarah was believed to be his sister only and not his wife. This, in turns, makes me draw the conclusion that marriage between siblings was unusual.

Let's head on to the second passage:

Genesis 20 (NIV)

1 Now Abraham moved on from there into the region of the Negev and lived between Kadesh and Shur. For a while he stayed in Gerar, 2 and there Abraham said of his wife Sarah, “She is my sister.” Then Abimelek king of Gerar sent for Sarah and took her. 3 But God came to Abimelek in a dream one night and said to him, “You are as good as dead because of the woman you have taken; she is a married woman.”

4 Now Abimelek had not gone near her, so he said, “Lord, will you destroy an innocent nation? 5 Did he not say to me, ‘She is my sister,’ and didn’t she also say, ‘He is my brother’? I have done this with a clear conscience and clean hands.”

6 Then God said to him in the dream, “Yes, I know you did this with a clear conscience, and so I have kept you from sinning against me. That is why I did not let you touch her. 7 Now return the man’s wife, for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you will live. But if you do not return her, you may be sure that you and all who belong to you will die.”

8 Early the next morning Abimelek summoned all his officials, and when he told them all that had happened, they were very much afraid. 9 Then Abimelek called Abraham in and said, “What have you done to us? How have I wronged you that you have brought such great guilt upon me and my kingdom? You have done things to me that should never be done.” 10 And Abimelek asked Abraham, “What was your reason for doing this?”

11 Abraham replied, “I said to myself, ‘There is surely no fear of God in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife.’ 12 Besides, she really is my sister, the daughter of my father though not of my mother; and she became my wife. 13 And when God had me wander from my father’s household, I said to her, ‘This is how you can show your love to me: Everywhere we go, say of me, “He is my brother.”’”

14 Then Abimelek brought sheep and cattle and male and female slaves and gave them to Abraham, and he returned Sarah his wife to him. 15 And Abimelek said, “My land is before you; live wherever you like.”

16 To Sarah he said, “I am giving your brother a thousand shekels[a] of silver. This is to cover the offense against you before all who are with you; you are completely vindicated.”

17 Then Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Abimelek, his wife and his female slaves so they could have children again, 18 for the LORD had kept all the women in Abimelek’s household from conceiving because of Abraham’s wife Sarah.

This second passage also tells us that marriage between siblings was unusual. It also tells us that Abraham did not really lie when he said that Sarah was his sister, since she was his half-sister. Also note that nowhere in the two passages Abraham is accused of lying! This is a quite interesting fact. In any way, it is clear that our definition of incest in today's western society, is not the same as it was in that time and place. Still, Deuteronomy 27:22 clearly states that for a man to marry his father's daughter (as Abraham did) is a sin!

How does one reconcile these passages? Was Abraham's and Sarah's marriage a sin? Was it considered incest?

  • 9
    I once read something that Orson Scott Card wrote on the subject that puts things in perspective. I can't quote the exact words, but the basic idea is "I'm always astounded by the way so many people would make Abraham guilty of incest to save him from the dreadful sin of having told a lie to save his life."
    – Mason Wheeler
    Jan 13, 2012 at 13:28
  • Maybe better suited to Biblical Hermeneutics? Jan 13, 2012 at 13:42
  • @MasonWheeler Props for the OSC reference. :) I'm a big fan of the Homecoming Saga, although I'm guess that reference was from his book on Sarah. Jan 13, 2012 at 14:05
  • 2
    I actually found the answer when writing this question, but I didn't want to answer it immediately myself. I found two articles discussing this: The first article covers the same ground as the two previous answers. The second article goes a bit deeper and adds that the prohibition by Moses probably was instituted partly for legal issues, inheritance and such.
    – Shathur
    Jan 13, 2012 at 14:24
  • @AffableGeek: Yeah, I think it was from the author's commentary from Sarah.
    – Mason Wheeler
    Jan 13, 2012 at 15:05

9 Answers 9


Like my answer here, you need to keep the chronology right. There is no levitical law at the time of Abraham.

Thus, even if he did marry his sister, remember that he was breaking no covenantal restriction on doing so. As I said in that answer, you don't convict someone of a crime ex post facto.

  • 2
    they were half-siblings, to boot
    – warren
    Jan 13, 2012 at 18:11
  • 1
    Incest is biologically based with the legal coming later (as a result of the biology and not vice-versa). The ex post facto argument is once again specious as a crime is not suggested just biological incest which has the same consequences then as it does now. Incest is not relative (excuse the pun) as the biology is consistent as would be the generational issues afterwards. He (and she) were breaking genetic restrictions.
    – user13599
    Dec 13, 2015 at 1:26
  • 1
    So murder, idolatry etc. were allowed before Moses? May 4, 2020 at 4:03

Marrying a close relative was not forbidden at that time. The old question of "Where did Cain get his wife?" is answered by saying that he married a sister of his. It was not immoral at that time, since there was no law forbidding it.

Leviticus is where we find such laws, which was written over 400 years after the time of Abraham. We now understand that as the genetic pool has become degraded, it is best not to marry a close relative because of the possibility of both husband and wife having the same genetic deficiencies.

Early on in human history, these genetic deficiencies were quite minimal, so there wasn't an issue.

Marrying a sister may have been uncommon at that time, so Abraham appears to be fudging a bit to justify Sarah as his sister. He has to explain how she is his sister, because she isn't his direct sister. So, he's trying to justify his lie by a tenuous explanation.

So again, there was no law that he was breaking at that time. It would be as if the government passed a law against eating twinkies and then rounded up everyone who had ever eaten one before it was outlawed. The American Justice system strictly forbids this practice (Ex Post Facto).

  • regardless of the frequency of marrying a sibling, lying to save his own life was the problem :)
    – warren
    Oct 30, 2013 at 20:23
  • 3
    "the genetic pool has become degraded," I think if you're going to make scientific claims you need to provide a source. It doesn't have to be a good one, but at least has to support your statement. Readers can individually agree with the source or not then, instead of taking your word for it.
    – user3961
    Sep 12, 2014 at 23:56
  • Incest wasn't immoral before the Law? Abraham produced many offspring that would eventually become nations that frequently harbour hostility and wage war against his "chosen" descendants, aka his son Isaac and eventually his grandson's Jacob's line. You must be on drugs to think this is isn't a bad idea. Mar 18, 2019 at 6:46
  • @Narnian - if there were no genetic problems in Adams time then where did they come from that people should not marry close relatives? And how/why? Nov 23, 2019 at 16:22

During Abraham's time the law hadn't been written against a man taking his father's daughter as his wife. After the law was written in:

Deuteronomy 27:22 (NKJV)
22  ‘Cursed is the one who lies with his sister, the daughter of his father or the daughter of his mother.’
“And all the people shall say, ‘Amen!’

it forbade such a practice even today, but the lineage of Christ was coming through Abraham and Sarah. This also shows what happens when we are faced with fear that our faith is too weak to overcome.


In Ancient times, the word for "sister" also means "cousin" in Semitic languages. Aramaic word "Khtha" can mean sister or cousin. I believe the intended meaning here was Cousin.

Genesis 11:26-27 (NIV) - "After Terah had lived 70 years, he became the father of Abram, Nahor and Haran. This is the account of Terah’s family line. Terah became the father of Abram, Nahor and Haran."

If Sarai (later Sarah) was the daughter of Terah, then Sarai would have been listed along with Abram, Nahor, and Haran.

So we can confirm that the intended meaning was cousin.

In ancient Semitic languages, it must be noted that the word for father can also mean ancestor. For Example, Aramaic word "abba" can mean "father" or "ancestor/progenitor" (Source - Book "Introduction to Syriac" by Wheeler Thackston, Page 65)

Abraham was an Aramean (Deuteronomy 26:5) and Arameans spoke Aramaic. Abraham spoke Aramaic before he came to the land of Canaan where Old Hebrew was spoken. Laban the Aramean spoke Aramaic ("Jegar Sahadutha" in Genesis 31:47).

Check on Footnotes (at the bottom of the website) for "Jegar Sahadutha".

I also want to point out that the commandments were established as early as the time period when Noah lived. For Example, Noah knew about clean animals and unclean animals.

Genesis 7:2-4 - Take with you seven pairs of every kind of clean animal, a male and its mate, and one pair of every kind of unclean animal, a male and its mate, and also seven pairs of every kind of bird, male and female, to keep their various kinds alive throughout the earth. Seven days from now I will send rain on the earth for forty days and forty nights, and I will wipe from the face of the earth every living creature I have made.”

God gave Abraham commands, decrees, and instructions. Abraham obeyed God and kept all of what God taught him.

Genesis 26:4-5 - "I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and will give them all these lands, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because Abraham obeyed me and did everything I required of him, keeping my commands, my decrees and my instructions."

This is the same type of instruction God gave to Moses in Deuteronomy 11:1.

Deuteronomy 11:1 - "Love the Lord your God and keep his requirements, his decrees, his laws and his commands always."

But you may ask what about Moses' father marrying his aunt? In Hebrew Masoretic Text, it says this.

Exodus 6:20 (1917 JPS Tanakh English translation of Hebrew Masoretic Text) - "And Amram took him Jochebed his father’s sister to wife; and she bore him Aaron and Moses. And the years of the life of Amram were a hundred and thirty and seven years.“

This is confirmed as an error by Scholars, because Septuagint and Peshitta Tanakh (Aramaic Old Testament used in first century Israel) says Amram married his cousin.

Exodus 6:20 (Samuel Bagster & Sons' Translation from Septuagint) - "And Ambram took to wife Jochabed the daughter of his father's brother, and she bore to him both Aaron and Moses, and Mariam their sister; and the years of the life of Ambram were a hundred and thirty-two years."

Here is a link to check this information.

Exodus 6:20 (Lamsa translation of Peshitta Tanakh)- "And Amram took his uncle’s daughter Jokhaber, and she bore him Aaron, Moses, and Miriam; and the years of the life of Amram were a hundred and thirty-seven years."

But Peshitta Tanakh (Aramaic Old Testament) agrees with Hebrew Masoretic Text about Ambram’s age.

Cousin Marriage is permitted in the Bible. It is not in the prohibited marriage list mentioned in Leviticus Chapter 18. Aside from Exodus 6:20, we see cousin marriages in Genesis 29, Joshua 15:17, Numbers 36:1-11, 1 Chronicles 23:22.


Abraham just lacked faith at that time and was telling lies. He did not trust God to protect him, so he used his wife and her beauty instead – that's why God kept revealing and exposing him where ever he went.

  • 3
    Welcome to C.SE! I'd encourage you to add a bit more support- how, for example, do you reconcile this view with Hebrews 11? Nov 1, 2012 at 1:07
  • @Loduwijk These are precisely the issues I was encouraging Dorothy to consider. Feb 24, 2014 at 17:57
  • I would encourage you to edit her answer or make one of your own that does more than just state an opinion. Good theology encounters the text and answers relevant criticisms. Feb 24, 2014 at 17:58
  • @AffableGeek, I understand this is what you wanted Dorothy to do. I was not arguing with you, rather I was just providing the comment response which Dorothy should have.
    – Loduwijk
    Feb 24, 2014 at 17:59
  • Comments are temporary, and your content is good. Please, edit the response and make them permenant! Feb 24, 2014 at 18:00

In Genesis 11:31 the KJV reads "And Terah took Abram his son, and Lot the son of Haran his son's son, and Sarai his daughter in law, his son Abram's wife; and they went forth with them from Ur of the Chaldees, to go into the land of Canaan; and they came unto Haran, and dwelt there."

Why would it say "Sarai his daughter in law" if she was in fact Terah's daughter? It would be shorter and more accurate to say "Sarai his daughter, his son Abram's wife" rather than "Sarai his daughter in law, his son Abram's wife" as it does. Was the fact that she was married to Abraham more relevant in a patriarchal society, so that it should be repeated twice while leaving out the father-daughter relationship? Or perhaps the author of Genesis 11 wanted to obscure the fact that Abraham had committed incest? None of these seem very satisfactory to me.

This induces me to consider that in Genesis 20:12, Abraham is lying again to Abimelech, in order to cover up the fact that he lied about Sarah being his sister. He said she was his sister in order to deceive Abimelech about her being his wife, and now he's saying that she's his half-sister in order to deceive Abimelech about the fact that he lied to the king.

However, the first lie was justified (albeit through the mouth of Abraham, not the narrator). That the second lie would not be explained to the reader at all seems jarring.

I guess another interpretation is based on something that other posters have asserted, that the words for "daughter" and "father" should be read loosely according to the languages spoken by the people involved. In that case, Sarah could have been Terah's grand-daughter; then maybe 11:31 left out this detail because the genealogies were being precise about lineage; while Abraham was being imprecise with Abimelech partly to cover up his first obfuscation. However, I would like to see where else in the Bible a granddaughter or grandson, for example, is referred to as a daughter or son.

  • 1
    Thanks alot for this! I was really struggling with issue but all I need to do was to look closer. May 4, 2020 at 4:04

Sibling marriage, and later, "near kin" marriage, was the only initial option; the limited selection repeated with Noah's 3 sons and their wives following the great flood. Just 340 year later Abram, was 10 when his half-sister Sarai was born. During this time period sibling and "near kin" marriage was less common, but not certainly accepted and not prohibited yet; even forms of endogamy was still practiced at this time. Genesis 19:30-38 shows a good example of the times when the daughters of Abram's nephew, Lot, sleep with their father Lot out of necessity of circumstance; endogamy is demonstrated when Jacob, then Abraham's grandson, was instructed by his father Isaac to seek a marriage within the family, and Rebekah, daughter of Bethuel the son of Milcah, the wife of Abraham’s brother Nahor was chosen by God to be Isaac's wife. It was over 500 years later that near kin marriage was declared as wrong within Leviticus 18, 20 and Deuteronomy; it's interesting to note that marriage between a man and his step sister, his wife's niece or daughter are not prohibited specifically anywhere in those texts.


Abraham married his wife before his calling from God and before the 10 commandments. Every wrong action after the 10 commandments is a sin.

  • 1
    Welcome to Christianity.SE! Please read our tour page and our help page on how to write a good answer. Normally we like to see answers that have a little more detail and some supporting documentation. In this case a reference to scripture would be helpful. Oct 28, 2013 at 20:34
  • This answer would be a lot better if you could add references showing that this is a common understanding, and who teaches/believes it. On this site, we're not looking for personal interpretation, but rather focusing on what various Christian groups teach. See How we are different than other sites? and What makes a good supported answer? Oct 31, 2013 at 0:36

"If Sarai (later Sarah) was the daughter of Terah, then Sarai would have been listed along with Abram, Nahor, and Haran.

So we can confirm that the intended meaning was cousin."

Hmm, but in Genesis 20 Abraham says ...

Abraham replied, “I said to myself, ‘There is surely no fear of God in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife.’ 12 Besides, she really is my sister, the daughter of my father though not of my mother; and she became my wife.

... So I guess she was his half-sister and the marraige very much was an incestuous one.

  • 2
    In ancient Semitic languages, the word for father can also mean ancestor. For Example, Aramaic word "abba" can mean "father" or "ancestor/progenitor" (Source - Book "Introduction to Syriac" by Wheeler Thackston, Page 65).
    – konwayk
    Nov 3, 2013 at 0:40
  • @konwayk And we have good evidence that some of the generations listed in the Bible skipped persons, yet are still called fathers and sons to each other.
    – user3961
    Sep 13, 2014 at 0:02

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