If Sarai really was Abram’s half-sister, were his claims to Pharaoh and later Abimelech lies? What’s the difference between deception and witholding needed information?
Hello, I have read your article on the question “Were the plagues on Pharaoh because of Abram and Sarai unfair?” I disagree with the claim that he lied. He didn’t. He in fact was claiming the truth. Sarah was his sister but didn’t classify her as his “half sister.” It was probably different when it came to classifying sisters and brothers in those days. In Genesis 20:7 God tells Abimelech to go and redeem himself but doesn’t say the same to Abraham. In Genesis 20:17 God heals Abimelech but not Abraham. This must mean that Abraham did nothing wrong. In Genesis 20:7 God still referred to Abraham as a prophet in the dream of Abimelech. If Abraham did lie then it seems to justify the idea of “white lies.” It also appears that in Genesis 12 Pharaoh doesn’t allow Abraham to respond. May God bless you.
BC, Los Angeles
Thank you for raising this interesting point in reference to the article, “Were the Plagues on Pharaoh Because of Abram and Sarai Unfair?” You have obviously searched the Scriptures on this matter and concluded that Abram actually did nothing wrong in either the incident with Pharaoh or with Abimelech. We need to examine two main issues: the actual definition of a lie and whether one of God’s prophets could lie. Let’s look first at the question of the lie.
I disagree with the claim that he lied. He didn’t. He in fact was claiming the truth. Sarah was his sister but didn’t classify her as his “half sister.” It was probably different when it came to classifying sisters and brothers in those days.
Granted, Sarai really was Abram’s half-sister, making Abram’s claim—“She’s my sister”—technically true. Does Scripture offer any examples in which telling only part of the truth is the right thing to do?
Proverbs 12:22–23 offers some insight. “
Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord, but those who deal truthfully are His delight. A prudent man conceals knowledge, but the heart of fools proclaims foolishness.” Clearly, the Lord condemns lying and praises those who deal truthfully. And just as clearly, the Lord calls the person who keeps some knowledge to himself wise. God seems to agree that it can be foolish to tell everything you know.
Jesus frequently declined to answer everything people asked Him. Yet He never lied. Isaiah 53:9 tells us, “
Nor was any deceit in His [the Messiah’s]
mouth.” Jesus kept some information back from his half-brothers in John 7:8–10. They taunted him and urged Him to go to Jerusalem to proclaim Himself. He told them, “
You go up to this feast. I am not yet going up to this feast, for My time has not yet fully come.” Then, “
when He had said these things to them, He remained in Galilee. But when His brothers had gone up, then He also went up to the feast, not openly, but as it were in secret.” While Jesus did not lie to His family, He held back information they did not need and were not entitled to have.
In the case of Abram and Pharaoh, by concealing information that would have been customarily provided, Abram implied that he was not married to Sarai. He used the literal truth to imply an untruth. This action is analogous to our concept of sins of commission and sins of omission. Abram’s sin was one of omission—not technically a lie, but it amounted to the same thing.
Pharaoh needed and was entitled to a complete disclosure of the matter.
Furthermore, Pharaoh needed this information to avoid both a cultural no-no (taking a visiting dignitary’s wife for his harem) and an offense to God. Because he lacked information he was entitled to have, Pharaoh interfered with God’s plan to bless the human race through the Abrahamic covenant. Abram’s deception put Pharaoh—and later Abimelech—in danger of not only violating their own cultural standards, but also of sinning against God. Many times, people want information that is none of their business or information that they have no right to have. But in this case, Pharaoh needed and was entitled to a complete disclosure of the matter.
Abram endangered Sarai by failing to protect her. Perhaps he assumed God would guard her honor for the sake of His covenant promise to provide an heir. The Bible does not record God telling Abram to conceal Sarai’s marital status. Therefore, Abram was not only imprudent but presumptuous. Sometimes people wrestle with the “righteous lie” issue, and one common question is whether it is wrong to lie to protect an innocent life. No matter how you answer that question, it seems that the life Abram was trying to protect was his own. He was actually putting his wife—the one God says a husband is supposed to protect—in harm’s way.1
No matter what Abram was thinking—no matter how technically true his deception was—his actions were a bad testimony for God in the court of pagan kings. They saw Abram as a sneaky clever coward who had deceived them and put them and their nations in danger. That reputation reflected badly on God. Abram twice endangered his wife and his testimony.
In Genesis 20:7 God tells Abimelech to go and redeem himself but doesn’t say the same to Abraham. In Genesis 20:17 God heals Abimelech but not Abraham. This must mean that Abraham did nothing wrong.
Readers are probably familiar with the Egyptian side of the story from the previous feedback, but let’s review the Abimelech incident from Genesis 20. When nomadic Abraham and Sarah arrived in Gerar, Abraham once again said of Sarah, “
She is my sister.” Surprise of surprises, “
Abimelech king of Gerar sent and took Sarah” (Genesis 20:2). Evidently, she remained in his harem for some time, for all of Abimelech’s women became barren (Genesis 20:18). Finally, “
God came to Abimelech in a dream by night, and said to him ‘Indeed you are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is a man’s wife’” (Genesis 20:3).
God told him that He—God Himself—had kept Abimelech from sinning with Sarah.
Abimelech reminded God that both Abraham and Sarah had told him the same tale. Then Abimelech said, “
In the integrity of my heart and innocence of my hands I have done this” (Genesis 20:5). Since Abimelech had not taken Sarah to his bed, God agreed that Abimelech was innocent of violating Sarah’s marriage. God told Abimelech, “
Yes, I know that you did this in the integrity of your heart” (Genesis 20:6). Then God told him that He—God Himself—had kept Abimelech from sinning with Sarah.
God did not require Abimelech to pay any sort of redemption price. God just told him to give Sarah back and to ask Abraham to pray for him.
Abimelech gave Abraham a piece of his mind in verse 10. Then he chose to give Sarah back with a thousand pieces of silver. And as he did so, he told Sarah, as the King James Version literally translates, “
Behold, I have given thy brother a thousand pieces of silver: behold, he is to thee a covering of the eyes, unto all that are with thee, and with all other” (Genesis 20:16, KJV).
Abimelech publicly declared that he’d had no sexual contact with Sarah, and then he rubbed Abraham’s and Sarah’s noses in their brother-sister claim. But Abimelech’s words also reminded them that it was Abraham’s responsibility as a husband to protect his wife. Abraham as a husband was to cover Sarah with his protection.
God did tell Abimelech to ask Abraham to pray for him, in Genesis 20:7, adding, “
For he is a prophet.” The Lord wanted Abimelech to know that the power to bless or harm him was in God’s hand. God let Abimelech know that being treated unfairly by someone did not excuse improper behavior on his part or obviate the consequences of his actions.
Furthermore, when Abraham was put in the position of having to pray for Abimelech, he was undoubtedly reminded that his own imprudent action was the cause of the curse in the first place. In one sense, Abraham had to pray for God to clean up his mess—the trouble he had brought upon others.
In Genesis 20:7 God still referred to Abraham as a prophet in the dream of Abimelech. If Abraham did lie then it seems to justify the idea of “white lies.”
You are probably thinking of the passage in Deuteronomy 18:20–22 where God explained that prophets who “
presume to speak a word in [God’s]
name” would suffer the death penalty if they were not genuine prophets. And the test of a prophet’s authenticity would be whether or not the prophesied event came true. Yet this passage does not mean that a prophet is sinless. It does not even mean that a true prophet’s sins would exclude lying. The passage just states that a true prophet will always speak the truth when he is speaking on behalf of God. Prophets, like all the rest of us, are sinful people in need of God’s grace for salvation (e.g., 1 Kings 13:11–32).
It also appears that in Genesis 12 Pharaoh doesn’t allow Abraham to respond.
Pharaoh may indeed have been posing rhetorical questions. That would certainly have been his right, since he, as king, was chastising an honored guest who had deceived him. Pharaoh had reason to be upset, and no answer Abram might have given could have excused him in Pharaoh’s eyes or repaired Abram’s bad testimony.
So in what way did our sinful prophet Abraham have a bad testimony? For starters, he had shown that he could at times be selfish, sneaky, and deceptive.. But more importantly, Abraham demonstrated to both Pharaoh and Abimelech that he wasn’t fully trusting his God to protect him and felt the need to resort to clever deceptions. If Abraham couldn’t trust his own God when there wasn’t even a visible threat, why should these pagan kings give Abraham’s God a second thought?
As we decide how to speak, we must follow the whole counsel of Scripture. We should be wise enough to know when to speak and when to be quiet. What we say needs to be seasoned with salt (Colossians 4:6)—wise, edifying, and incorrupt. If we find ourselves trying to be clever enough to figure out how to avoid technically transgressing a fine line—like a technical truth to imply a big untruth—perhaps we should examine ourselves a little more carefully. Are we being honest with ourselves? Or are we rationalizing selfish actions? Are we guarding our testimony?
God does not hide the mistakes made by Old Testament saints. Like us, they had to navigate through life faced with surprises, fears, and uncertainties. Like us, they had feet of clay. But the bottom line with God is faith—not human perfection. Without faith it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6). Abraham—a real man with both virtues and faults—believed God. God counted that belief for righteousness and called Abraham “friend” (Romans 4:3, Galatians 3:6, and James 2:23). We can learn from Abraham’s errors and appreciate God’s grace in his life. Through faith, the grace of God is also freely available to us. Jesus Christ will even call us, like Abraham, “friends” (John 15:15).
Blessings as we all seek to rightly divide the Scriptures!