Issues in Genesis: The Trafficking of Sarah, Part 1

There isn’t a lot of fine art made about this story.  This cropped image comes from a painting called “Pharaoh Returns Sarah to Abraham (Abimelech, King of Gerar, Restores Sarah to Abraham).”  It is an oil painting on canvas by Isaac Isaacsz, 1640.  Housed in Rijks Museum, Amsterdam.

If you haven’t looked at the Introduction to my Issues in Genesis series, please do that.  It will give you the shape and purpose of what I’m hoping to accomplish by discussing these stories.

Defining the Issue

Margin Note, November 2019.

The first time I got really upset with the Bible was in Genesis 12:10-20.  In that passage, Abram tells Sarai, (his wife) to pretend they are not married.  He then turns around and sells Sarai to the Egyptian pharaoh as a concubine.  Sarai’s feelings and reactions to all of this are neither mentioned nor even hinted at. The given reasons for Abram’s position are shady because they make no sense.  Adding insult to upset, the story gets repeated by Abraham in Genesis 20, and again by Isaac in Genesis 26 (like father, like son).  Basically, Abraham just tosses his wife to other men whenever it seems profitable or convenient for him, and God never really punishes him for it.  On the contrary, both times Abraham pulls this stunt, he is rewarded with massive wealth and increased power.

This was the first big hurdle for me in trying to understand how the Bible could praise the lives of men who do things like this.  It was also the first step I took in trying to figure out how I can reconcile a God who is loving, personal, and good with a God who could bless and make covenant with people who commit these crimes we see against the humanity of women in scripture.  I had to process questions like:

  • Does God hate women?
  • Why is God rewarding men who treat women this way?
  • Why is Lot’s wife destroyed, but Sarah–who seems far more openly rebellious–is blessed?
  • Why would God make covenant with a man who sells his own wife and keeps concubines?
  • Why do women in the Bible have no voice?  Why do we so rarely hear about how they feel or what they experience?

These are heavy questions, and many women who approach the Bible for study will ask them.  Many women eschew bible study in favor of light, devotional-only reading because confronting these questions causes deep discomfort.  Sadly, there were not a lot of answers forthcoming from the church at large, and I felt very alone in the frustration and fear I experienced while trying to reconcile all of this…stuff.

These are the reasons I have chosen Genesis 12:10-20 as our second Issue in GenesisMy goal for this post is to lay out the issue, read through the text, and give you some things to consider between now and Part 2.

Facing the Brutality of an Ancient Culture

Genesis 12:10-20 is the first place in scripture that vividly illustrates a hard truth that is omnipresent in our Bible: Ancient Near Eastern culture treated women as objects of property, not as people.  Most men we see in the Old Testament deal with women as though they were merely currency.  They could be bought and sold, traded, or given as gifts. From the lowest conquered slave to the highest-ranking woman in a royal household, women were only useful for carnal pleasure, status, and the production of legitimate sons.  Any freedom or agency a woman enjoyed was entirely dependent upon the whims of her father, her husband, or her sons.

Many of the “heroes” in the Bible treat women with callous disregard.  Many of the Torah’s stories include lists of spoils after a battle, and women are on those lists somewhere between donkeys and baskets of grain.  It is a very ugly image, and it gets presented to us over and over again in God’s Word.  The frustration, doubt, and grief that a woman might face when reading her Bible is rarely addressed by the church. 

To this day, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a pastor give a sermon addressing it from this perspective, and that needs to change.  The pulpit hasn’t spent much time over the generations in teaching us how to interpret the unaddressed vile and violent misogyny of men who are later listed as bastions of the faith in Hebrews 11.  Lot, Jephthah, Samson, David–their names are all there, yet each of them spent his life treating women like sentient furniture.  They denied women the use of their gifts.  They defiled and abused the bodies of women who were made in the image of God.  They actively drove women away from the knowledge, grace, and salvation of God.  But there they are in the Hebrews “Hall of Fame,” and women who ask why, more often than not, receive nothing but a chorus of crickets.  

It Was Mostly Christian Men Who Helped Me Through This
I have been blessed and privileged to meet with a lot of bible nerds online and in life.  I was encouraged by the kindness, help, and respect they have almost universally shown to me.  Be that as it may, the most frightening part of my initial studies in Genesis was realizing that most of the Christian brothers I talked to–seminary students, pastors, and theology geeks who love the Lord and love their wives and daughters–had never even considered the questions I was bringing to them.  It had never offended them, moved them, or even snared their attention that women were treated this way in scripture.  It wasn’t a roadblock in their own faith journeys, so it never occurred to them that these questions could be a massive obstacle for their sisters in Christ.

It hurt me that this repeated image of women’s mistreatment had never bothered them or even roused their attention.

A lot of these men became very animated by the questions I brought, and they read the passages and worked through them with me over and over again.  They attacked it from multiple angles, and their discussions–both shallow and deep–demonstrated the beauty of a curious masculine mind at work.  It was a joy to watch and participate in, and that experience of male and female minds working together to understand God convinced me that mixed-gender bible study is crucial.  Nobody gets through this stuff alone, and I want you to keep in mind throughout this blog series that it was mostly men (and two fabulous Christian women) who worked these questions out with me.  They did it with love and dedication.  Once I showed it to the men, they understood and were very compassionate, but it shows how very broken we really are that these seriously literate students of the Bible had never even seen it before.

The good and godly men who have been placed in positions of authority over our spiritual education and development either don’t know how to address this stuff, or they don’t know it’s a problem.

Well, gentlemen, it’s a problem. Now you know. 

Margin Note, January 2017.

With this Part 1 post, I will invite both men and women to read this text and sit with it for a week.  I want you to see and understand that the story we’re being told here is an image of textbook sex trafficking.  Abraham trafficked his wife, Sarah.  She, in turn, was both a victim and a perpetrator in her lifetime.  I want to lay it out completely and then show you how the text clearly demonstrates God’s goodness, his esteem for women, and his anger at these sins in the middle of all the man-made ugliness.

If you are a Christian man raising daughters, I implore you to sit with all of this and study it.  If your daughter comes to you and asks you why God doesn’t love girls as much as he loves boys, it will be 100% on you to explain to her why that isn’t true…and how she can know it.  Hopefully, my scribbles will be of service to you in that solemn task. 

What Does the Text Say? – Reading Genesis 12 & 20

Let’s get into the text and see what we see.  Open your Bible to Genesis 12.

Margin Note from November 2019.

In Genesis 12:1-9, God calls to Abram and tells him to leave his land, his culture, and his father’s house.  Abram and his wife Sarai, along with Lot and his family, leave their current home in the city of Haran, traveling west into Canaan.  For a few blissful verses, Abram is obeying God and building altars to worship Him as the large family party moves from one location to another.

But then the weather changes.

A terrible famine comes, and instead of turning to God, Abram turns to Egypt.  He takes his family and leaves the land of God’s promise, heading for the nation where food and water are plentiful.  Abram, Sarai, and Lot were all born and raised in the city of Ur.  In the era of human history we’re talking about, Ur* was one of the most advanced and populous cities in the world.  It was fertile and wealthy and powerful.  It makes sense that these two men would face a time of great famine by returning to what they knew would work.  They headed for a fertile, wealthy, and powerful urban center to ride it out.

There was just one problem:  Sarai, Abram’s 65 year-old wife, was beautiful.  So beautiful, Abram said, that Egyptian men might kill him to have her.

*Ur was located smack in the center of what would later become the Babylonian Empire.  In the ruins of the city’s ziggurat (visible as it looks today in the photo above), archaeologists found dedications to Belshazzar, the very same king mentioned in the later chapters of Daniel.

Ruins of Ur
A view from “Abraham’s House” in the ruins of Ancient Ur (in modern day Iraq).  Note the Great Ziggurat in the background and the scope of how much area the city once covered.  Photograph from Aziz1005 on Wikimedia Commons, 2016.

10 There was a famine in the land, so Abram went down to Egypt to stay there for a while because the famine in the land was severe. 11 When he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, “Look, I know what a beautiful woman you are. 12 When the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ They will kill me but let you live. 13 Please say you’re my sister so it will go well for me because of you, and my life will be spared on your account.” 14 When Abram entered Egypt, the Egyptians saw that the woman was very beautiful. 15 Pharaoh’s officials saw her and praised her to Pharaoh, so the woman was taken to Pharaoh’s household. 16 He treated Abram well because of her, and Abram acquired flocks and herds, male and female donkeys, male and female slaves, and camels.

17 But the Lord struck Pharaoh and his household with severe plagues because of Abram’s wife Sarai18 So Pharaoh sent for Abram and said, “What have you done to me? Why didn’t you tell me she was your wife19 Why did you say, ‘She’s my sister,’ so that I took her as my wife? Now, here is your wife. Take her and go!” 20 Then Pharaoh gave his men orders about him, and they sent him away with his wife and all he had.
~Genesis 12:10-20, CSB (emphasis and underlines added)

Read it in your own Bible, and then read it here from mine.  I’ve emphasized a few things here, and I’d like you to take notice of them.

(I have to give Jen Wilkin credit for teaching me to underline repeated words in the Bible.  Her studies have been some of my favorites).

  • I’ve noted all of the times Sarai is referred to by the author as “wife.”
  • I have also underlined the places where something happens “because of” Sarai.
  • Finally, I put a single word from verse 10 in bold text.


Now, open your Bible and read Genesis 20

It’s a short chapter, but you’ll see the same story play out as Abraham plays the same game, tells the same lie, and gives Sarah to yet another man.  There are key differences between the first time Abram sells Sarai and the second time, when Abraham sells Sarah (that’s a huge hint about the biggest difference).  Look for the differences and write them down or highlight them in your Bible.  Look for the times when the author reminds you of Sarah being Abraham’s wife.  Look for anything that happens “because of” Sarah.  Look for any phrasing or word choices that indicate how God feels about all of this, how Sarah feels, or how Abraham feels.

Consider why I have emphasized these things and asked you to look for them.  Google anything you think of and see if you find bible scholars or pastors talking about it somewhere.  Read the text from Chapter 12 and Chapter 20 at least twice–maybe today and then come back to it again tomorrow. See if you find anything new or noteworthy to consider on second or third readings.

We’ll come back to it and get some clarity in Part 2.

For now, I’d like you to sit with this story for a while.  Consider whether Abram’s reasoning that a 65 year-old woman’s “beauty” was really the motive in view.  In past readings, did you think of Sarai as a young woman in this part of the story?  How does her age change how we look at this story? If you don’t think Abram’s beauty rationale holds water, then what do you think his motivation might really have been?  Imagine what Sarai might have felt and thought about all of this.  Would she be upset?  Would she feel betrayed?  Do you think it’s possible that Sarai, a woman raised in Ur, could have viewed the whole thing favorably, that she could’ve seen it as a lucky exchange on her part?  Why or why not?  Think about what this kind of transaction could mean for her feelings about Abram, to her regard for him as a brother she grew up with, as a protector, a husband, and the head of her family.  What might this incident have done to Sarai’s impression of who God is?  Really think about this story and read it.  Look carefully at everything it says…and everything it does not say.

Women like reading the books of Ruth and Esther because they are two of the very few places in the Old Testament where we get to see a woman given the dignity of recognition as a human being.  Boaz treats Ruth like a person.  Mordecai and Ahasuerus (a pagan king) treat Esther like a person.  That women gravitate toward these books has very little to do with romance or the nonsense notion of “girl power.” It has a great deal more to do with God’s story being visibly spread over women who are displayed as image-bearing humans with value in God’s eyes.  The stories are comforting to women for this reason.

Next week, I’ll post Part 2, and we’ll start breaking down all of the parts and bringing in text from other passages in the Bible that show a little more about what God was doing while Abraham and Sarah were screwing up.  We’ll get a little more perspective and a little more empathy as we see our own sins reflected in this tragic series of ancient wrongdoing.

sand field
Photo by Oday Hazeem on

God saved us and brought us close before we learned to love and obey him.  He’s been doing that for us since the beginning.  What you’ll see by the end of all of this is that God didn’t excuse what these people and this culture were doing.  He doesn’t excuse what we and our 21st-century cultures are doing, either.  He simply meets us where we are, extending mercy and grace that we don’t deserve.  He is good.  He is consistent.  He is just.  He handles us today with the same care and patience that he used with Abraham and Sarah thousands of years ago.  That’s the image we’ll see at the end, so stick with it.




4 thoughts on “Issues in Genesis: The Trafficking of Sarah, Part 1

  1. Hadn’t thought about it in terms of trafficking until I re-read it recently and read the piece by Karen Gonzalez. Interesting too that in the narrative, Abraham traffics Sarah to Egyptian king; later, Sarah traffics Hagar (Egyptian slave) to Abraham. It started me thinking about how human beings who are abused often become abusers and how we repeat cycles of trauma and why. And these things (or things like them) keep happening in the Abraham and Lot cycle. Thank you for writing this post.

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