Why Did Abraham Call Sarah his Sister?
Some Bible-readers are confused by this situation, where Abraham seems to lie in order to protect himself. That his life was in danger because of Sarah’s beauty seems quite clear. It seems peculiar, but whereas the Egyptian pharaohs had a strong aversion to committing adultery with another man’s wife, they had no qualms about murdering the man to free his spouse for remarriage.
“To kill the husband in order to possess himself of his wife seems to have been a common royal custom in those days. A papyrus tells of a Pharaoh who, acting on the advice of one of his princes, sent armed men to fetch a beautiful woman and make away with her husband. Another Pharaoh is promised by his priest on his tombstone, that even after death he will kill Palestinian sheiks and include their wives in his harem.” (Kasher, Encyclopedia of Biblical Interpretation, 2:128.)
However, Abraham and Sarah were in actuality closely related. (Click here to see a familychart.) Both Sarah and Lot were the offspring of Abraham’s brother Haran, who died in the famine. In the Bible the Hebrew words brother and sister are often used for other blood relatives. Another ancient custom that might shed light on the relationship permitted a woman to be adopted as a man’s sister upon their marriage to give her greater legal and social status (see Encyclopaedia Judaica, s.v. “Sarah,” 14:866).
However, Abraham did indeed deceive the Egyptians. Could this action be considered righteous? It could, for one major reason — the Lord commanded him to do it, and whatever the Lord commands is righteousness. The Lord had also commanded Abraham to teach the Egyptians. We have record of the command in the Book of Abraham. However, the scriptures don’t tell us exactly when Abraham completed the task. This incident may have been his “foot in the door,” so to speak. At any rate, it did protect Abraham’s life.
Abraham Was a Wealthy Man
The love of wealth is the root of all evil (1 Timothy 6:10), but a man can be wealthy and still be righteous. Abraham was such a man. His treatment of his nephew Lot shows a great deal about his character. Both he and Lot had so many herds and household members that they could no longer share the same land. Abraham gave Lot his choice of property and then moved his own household to the land that was left. Lot chose the area of Sodom, which before the Lord rained destruction upon it, was a beautiful, verdant area.
The Five Kings and Five Cities
The five kings mentioned in Genesis 14:1-7 governed city-states. Thus, the five cities of the plain, including the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah each had a a king. All five cities (Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, Zeboiim, and Bela) were so wicked that they were destroyed. (To see a map of the battle of the kings, click here.) Although there were “slime pits” in the area, it was a verdant plain. The valley was and is seismically active, with the Jordan Rift Fault running north and south through it.
During this battle, the city of Sodom was sacked and Lot was kidnapped. Abraham (called Abram at that time), armed himself and his men and pursued them northward. “And he brought back all the goods, and also brought again his brother Lot, and his goods, and the women also, and the people” (Genesis 14:16).
Melchizedek, the King of Salem brought bread and wine to Abram after his success at reclaiming Lot and the captives from Sodom. The Joseph Smithtranslation of Genesis 14:18 says, “…and he brake bread and blest it; and he blest the wine, he being the priest of the most high God.”
“To the man Melchizedek goes the honor of having his name used to identify the Holy Priesthood after the Order of the Son of God, thus enabling men ‘to avoid the too frequent repetition’ of the name of Deity ( Doctrine and Covenants 107:2–4 ). Of all God’s ancient high priests ‘none were greater’ ( Alma 13:19 ). His position in the priestly hierarchy of God’s earthly kingdom was like unto that of Abraham ( Hebrews 7:4–10 ), his contemporary whom he blessed ( Genesis 14:18–20 ; Hebrews 7:1 ; [JST], Genesis 14:17–40 [click here and here for JST text]), and upon whom he conferred the priesthood ( Doctrine and Covenants 84:14 ).
“Indeed, so exalted and high was the position of Melchizedek in the eyes of the Lord and of his people that he stood as a prototype of the Son of God himself. . . .
“Alma tells us that ‘Melchizedek was a king over the land of Salem; and his people had waxed strong in iniquity and abomination; yea, they had all gone astray; they were full of all manner of wickedness; But Melchizedek having exercised mighty faith, and received the office of the high priesthood according to the holy order of God, did preach repentance unto his people. And behold, they did repent; and Melchizedek did establish peace in the land in his days; therefore he was called the prince of peace, for he was the king of Salem; and he did reign under his father’ ( Alma 13:17–18 ).
“Paul, very obviously knowing much more about Melchizedek than he happened to record in his epistles, gave as an illustration of great faith some unnamed person who ‘wrought righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, Quenched the violence of fire’ ( Hebrews 11:33–34 ). From the Prophet’s inspired additions to the Old Testament we learn that Paul’s reference was to Melchizedek. ‘Now Melchizedek was a man of faith, who wrought righteousness; and when a child he feared God, and stopped the mouths of lions, and quenched the violence of fire’ [ JST, Genesis 14:26 ].” (McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, pp. 474–75.)
In ancient Jewish traditions Melchizedek is often thought to be Shem, the son of Noah. Melchizedek is a title meaning “king of righteousness,” even though it is also used as a proper name. A modern writer examined the question of whether Shem and Melchizedek could be the same person and concluded that, while we cannot say for sure, the possibility is clearly there.
Thus, the Priesthood authority of God has two levels, the Aaronic (or lesser) Priesthood, and the “Melchizedek” (or greater) Priesthood. Melchizedek’s name is used to prevent the over-use of the name of the Son of God.
Did Abraham See Jesus Christ?
Joseph Smith, when working on his translation of the Bible, added verses between Genesis 15:5,6:
“And Abram said, Lord God, how wilt thou give me this land for an everlasting inheritance?
“And the Lord said, Though thou wast dead, yet am I not able to give it thee?
“And if thou shalt die, yet thou shalt possess it, for the day cometh, that the Son of Man shall live; but how can he live if he be not dead? he must first be quickened.
“And it came to pass, that Abram looked forth and saw the days of the Son of Man, and was glad, and his soul found rest, and he believed in the Lord; and the Lord counted it unto him for righteousness” ( JST, Genesis 15:9–12 ).
Who Visited Abraham?
“We are not justified in teaching that our Heavenly Father, with other heavenly persons, came down, dusty and weary, and ate with Abraham. This is not taught in the 18th chapter of Genesis. The first verse of that chapter should read as follows: ‘And the Lord appeared unto him in the plains of Mamre.’ That is a complete thought. The second part of this paragraph has nothing to do with the Lord’s appearing to Abraham . . . : ‘And he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day; and he lifted up his eyes and looked, and, lo, three men stood by him.’ These three men were mortals. They had bodies and were able to eat, to bathe, and sit and rest from their weariness. Not one of these three was the Lord. ” (Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, 1:16.)
In the Joseph Smith Translation, Genesis 18:23 states definitely that “the angels . . . were holy men, and were sent forth after the order of God.”
The Presence of the Righteous Protects the Wicked
It is not uncommon to hear a person say, “Can one person really make a difference?” The answer is a definite yes. Alma told the people of Ammonihah that “if it were not for the prayers of the righteous, who are now in the land, that ye would even now be visited with utter destruction” ( Alma 10:22 ). He then warned them, “If ye will cast out the righteous from among you then will not the Lord stay his hand” ( Alma 10:23 ). Like the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, the people of Ammonihah refused to repent or recognize that the few righteous among them were their only protection, so they killed some of them and cast others out (see Alma 14:9–11 ; 15:1 ). Therefore, a short time later the entire city was destroyed (see Alma 16:1–3, 9–10 ). The Lord also indicated that the United States would bring judgments upon itself for driving out the Saints (see Doctrine and Covenants 136:34–36 ).
Did Lot Offer His Daughters to the Wicked Sodomites?
Many scholars have tried to justify Lot’s shocking offer of his daughters as substitutes for the men on the basis of the strict laws of hospitality and protection that prevailed in the ancient Middle East. The Joseph Smith Translation, however, records that when Lot refused to allow the men of Sodom to satisfy their evil and depraved desires, they became angry and said, “We will have the men, and thy daughters also.” Then the comment is added, “Now this was after the wickedness of Sodom” ( JST, Genesis 19:11–12 ; see also vv. 13–15 ).
What Was the Wickedness of Sodom?
In the Genesis account it is clear that the people of these two cities had become extremely immoral, engaging in homosexuality and other abuses. But the prophet Ezekiel gave greater insight when he said, “Behold, this was the iniquity of thy sister Sodom, pride, fulness of bread, and abundance of idleness was in her and in her daughters, neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy. And they were haughty, and committed abomination before me: therefore I took them away as I saw good.” ( Ezekiel 16:49–50 .) James said that pure religionwas to “visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep [oneself] unspotted from the world” ( James 1:27 ). Sodom and Gomorrah not only had partaken of the filthiness of sexual immorality but had rejected their fellow men in need. Texts other than the Bible explain that the people enacted laws to support their wickedness.
Lot was told to leave Sodom without even gathering his possessions. Perhaps Lot’s wife turned back towards those possessions, but we must also remember that their married children (who certainly had children of their own) had not heeded the warning to flee. Lot’s wife had left them behind, also, and could have been drawn back to them.
“And Lot went out, and spake unto his sons in law, which married his daughters, and said, Up, get you out of this place; for the L ORD will destroy this city. But he seemed as one that mocked unto his sons in law. And when the morning arose, then the angels hastened Lot, saying, Arise, take thy wife, and thy two daughters, which are here; lest thou be consumed in the iniquity of the city. And while he lingered, the men laid hold upon his hand, and upon the hand of his wife, and upon the hand of his two daughters; the L ORD being merciful unto him: and they brought him forth, and set him without the city.
“And it came to pass, when they had brought them forth abroad, that he said, Escape for thy life; look not behind thee, neither stay thou in all the plain; escape to the mountain, lest thou be consumed” (Genesis 19:14-17).
Most scholars agree that the most probable site of Sodom is now covered by the southern part of the Dead Sea, a body of water with a high salt content. If Lot’s wife returned to Sodom, she would have been caught in the destruction. Her becoming a pillar of salt could be a figurative way of expressing this outcome.
The Sin of Lot’s Daughters
The account of the incestuous seduction of Lot by his two daughters is a shocking one but one which, again, illustrates that the Old Testament records the evils of the people as well as their righteousness. There is no way to justify the wickedness of what the two daughters did, although it may be better understood when it is considered that the daughters may have thought that the whole world had been destroyed in the holocaust that befell Sodom and Gomorrah and that Lot was the only source of children left to them. Moses may have included this account in the record because it shows the beginnings of the Moabites and the Ammonites, two peoples that would play an important role in the history of the people of Israel.
Abraham “Sacrifices” Isaac
In the Book of Abraham in the Pearl of Great Price, we learn that in his youth Abraham was nearly sacrificed in Chaldea to an Egyptian deity. He was saved by the Lord at the last minute. He knew first-hand not only the unrighteousness of human sacrifice, but what it was like to be placed on the altar. Isaac was his only son through Sarah, promised to him and guaranteed the birthright of the patriarchs by the Lord. The Lord not only proved Abraham and Isaac (who was not a child at the time and was willing to fulfill the commandment), he taught them by creating a similitude of the sacrifice of the Only Begotten Son. In the Book of Mormon, Jacob clearly teaches that Abraham’s willingness to offer up Isaac is “a similitude of God and his Only Begotten Son” ( Jacob 4:5 ). A similitude is an object, act, or event in physical reality which corresponds to (is similar to or is a simulation of) some greater spiritual reality.
Abraham obviously was a type or similitude of the Father. Interestingly enough, his name, Abram, means “exalted father,” and Abraham means “father of a great multitude” (see Genesis 17:5 ). Both are names appropriate of Heavenly Father.
Isaac was a type of the Son of God. One of the meanings of his name is “he shall rejoice.” Like Jesus, he was the product of a miraculous birth. Isaac’s birth certainly was not as miraculous as the birth of Jesus through Mary, but at age ninety, Sarah too was a woman for whom birth was not possible by all usual standards. Yet, through the intervention of God, she conceived and bore a son. Paul called Isaac the “only begotten son” ( Hebrews 11:17 ) when he referred to this event.
The Lord not only asked Abraham to perform the act of similitude of His own future actions but indicated that it had to be in a place specified by Him. This place was Moriah, “upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of” ( Genesis 22:2 ). (Today Mount Moriah is a major hill of Jerusalem.) The site known traditionally as the place where Abraham offered Isaac is now the site of the Dome of the Rock, a beautiful Moslem mosque. A few hundred yards to the north on a higher point of that same hill system is another world-famous site known as Gordon’s Calvary. Its Hebrew name was Golgotha. Not only did Abraham perform the similitude, but he performed it in the same area in which the Father would make the sacrifice of His Son.
When they arrived at Moriah, the Genesis account says, “Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it upon Isaac his son” ( Genesis 22:6 ). The Joseph Smith Translation, however, reads, “laid it upon his back” (JST, Genesis 22:7 ). Some have seen in this action a similarity to Christ’s carrying of the cross upon His shoulders on the way to His Crucifixion (see Clarke, Bible Commentary, 1:139; John 19:17 ).
Isaac voluntarily submitted to Abraham. This important parallel is often overlooked. The Old Testament does not give enough detail to indicate exactly how old Isaac was at the time of this event, but it is possible that he was an adult. Immediately following the account of the sacrifice on Mount Moriah is recorded the statement that Sarah died at the age of 127 (see Genesis 23:1 ). Thus, Isaac would have been 37 at the time of her death. Even if the journey to Moriah had happened several years before Sarah’s death, Isaac could have been in his thirties, as was the Savior at the time of His Crucifixion. Nevertheless, Isaac’s exact age is not really important. What is significant is that Abraham was well over a hundred years old and Isaac was most likely a strong young man who could have put up a fierce resistance had he chosen to do so. In fact, Isaac submitted willingly to what his father intended, just as the Savior would do.
Once the event was over and all ended happily, Abraham named the place Jehovah-jireh, which the King James Version translates as “in the mount of the Lord it shall be seen” ( Genesis 22:14 ). Adam Clarke, citing other scholars, said that the proper translation should be “on this mount the Lord shall be seen.” Clarke then concluded: “From this it appears that the sacrifice offered by Abraham was understood to be a representative one, and a tradition was kept up that Jehovah should be seen in a sacrificial way on this mount. And this renders . . . more than probable . . . that Abraham offered Isaac on that very mountain on which, in the fulness of time, Jesus suffered.” ( Bible Commentary, 1:141.) Jesus was sentenced to death within the walls of the Antonia fortress, which was only about a hundred yards from the traditional site of Abraham’s sacrifice. He was put to death at Golgotha, part of the same ridge system as Moriah.
Scholars not only have noted the significance of the site for the sacrifice of Jesus Himself but also have pointed out that it related to the site of Solomon’s temple where the sacrifices under the Mosaic dispensation took place. “The place of sacrifice points with peculiar clearness [to] Mount Moriah, upon which under the legal economy all the typical sacrifices were offered to Jehovah; . . . that by this one true sacrifice the shadows of the typical sacrifices might be rendered both real and true” (Keil and Delitzsch, Commentary, 1:1:253; emphasis added).
Elder Spencer W. Kimball commented on this aspect of the test: “Exceeding faith was shown by Abraham when the superhuman test was applied to him. His young ‘child of promise,’ destined to be the father of empires, must now be offered upon the sacrificial altar. It was God’s command, but it seemed so contradictory! How could his son, Isaac, be the father of an uncountable posterity if in his youth his mortal life was to be terminated? Why should he, Abraham, be called upon to do this revolting deed? It was irreconcilable, impossible! And yet he believed God. His undaunted faith carried him with breaking heart toward the land of Moriah with this young son who little suspected the agonies through which his father must have been passing.” (In Conference Report, Oct. 1952, p. 48.)
The scriptures say Abraham’s willingness to follow through with this horrifying act according to the Lord’s command “proved him” and was “counted unto him for righteousness.” Do our acts really matter, if we are saved by grace? They do. We are here on earth to be proven worthy of Celestial glory in heaven. It is by our acts we are judged.
Adapted from the LDS Institute Old Testament Manual.
Go to Isaac and Jacob.