Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for professors, theologians, and those interested in exegetical analysis of biblical texts. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

Gen. 11:29 states:

And Abram and Nahor took themselves wives; the name of Abram's was Sarai, and the name of Nahor's wife was Milcah, the daughter of Haran, the father of Milcah and the father of Iscah.

In his Genesis commentary, Rashi states that Iscah is Sarah. But when Abram (Abraham) passes Sarai (Sarah) off as his sister instead of saying that she's his wife, he later elucidates that Sarah is his half-sister (he says this to King Abimelech in Gen 20). Sarah and Abraham have the same father (Terah) but different mothers.

And Haran is Abraham's brother (Abraham's brothers: Nahor and Haran). So if Gen 11:29 describes Iscah (who Rashi says is Sarah) as being Haran's daughter, then that would make Sarah Abraham's niece, not his half-sister, right?

What's going on here?

Also, Sarah being both Iscah and Sarai would mean that she underwent a name-change two times instead of one? God changed her name once from Sarai to Sarah, but her being tied to the name Iscah suggests another name change? What are some insights about this?

share|improve this question
up vote 7 down vote accepted

Let me give you an example.

In one verse, Lot is said to be Avram's brother (Gen. 14:16: אֶת־לֹוט אָחִיו). Elsewhere, Lot is described as the son of Haran (Gen. 11:31: וְאֶת־לֹוט בֶּן־הָרָן), Avram's brother (Gen. 14:12: בֶּן־אֲחִי אַבְרָם). Strictly speaking, this would make Lot, Avram's nephew.

So, we see that a nephew (as Lot is to Avram) is referred to as a Avraham's אָח (ach), literally "brother." But, of course, we should only consider this word to mean "relative" in this context, since Lot was actually Avraham's nephew.

Now, if Sarah (or Sarai) is indeed Yiskah, as most Jewish commentaries affirm, then she is, as you mentioned, the daughter of Charan, the brother of Avraham. And, if the daughter of Charan, then she is Avraham's niece.

Elsewhere (Gen. 20:2), Sarah, again, as you mentioned, is said to be Avraham's sister, or אָחוֹת (achot). It elaborates that Sarah is the daughter of Avraham's father, Terach, and thus supposedly, Avraham's actual sister, or אָחוֹת (technically, half-sister).

Now if indeed Sarah is Yiskah, this could be reconciled. A daughter of a man could be a man's grand-daughter, as is the case with Aholivamah in Gen. 36:2, for she is not the actual daughter of Tziv'on ("Zibeon"), but the daughter of Anah, and thus the grand-daughter of Tziv'on. Yet, she is said to be "the daughter of Anah, the daughter of Tziv'on" (בַּת־עֲנָה בַּת־צִבְעֹון).

Accordingly, Sarah could be the grand-daughter of Terach, and thus, the actual daughter of Nachor. This would make Sarah to be Avraham's niece. Like Lot is referred to as the אָח (lit. "brother") of Avraham although Lot was actually his nephew, Sarah (and Yiskah) may be referred to as the אָחוֹת (lit. "sister") of Avraham although actually his niece.

Thus, how Yiskah could be Sarah is reconciled. Now, I am not agreeing that she is, only explaining how it is possible that she could be.

share|improve this answer
To note, this means the idea that Avraham married his actual sister (or half-sister) isn't so true after all. He would have married his niece. – Simply a Christian Aug 26 '13 at 19:03

You cannot marry a woman of the same father, even though of a different mother. I do not think Abram would marry his sister of the same blood and father because it was a taboo, since they are so close. Sarai is Iscah because she is his brother's daughter and it is possible to marry. In Leviticus 20:17 one cannot marry the daugher of his father or mother, and the punishment was death. Even though it was long before this law was made, God will not let Abraham make such a mistake. Relatives are generally brothers and sisters in the Jewish tradition, and even in other world civilizations.

share|improve this answer
Welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange! Be sure to take our site tour to learn more about us. We're a little different from other sites. We do not allow signatures here so I removed that, and I also improved your grammar. – Dan Jan 24 '14 at 0:08

It is interesting to note as well that Milcah means "Queen" whereas Sarai means "Princess." Iscah means "She will see God" or "She will look out" as to God. So perhaps since Haran sees his daughters as royalty, Iscah was called Sarai, a "little queen" - perhaps more of a nickname that took precedence over her given name - if you will, whereas Milcah, being the elder and consequently being first-named, was called "queen." The very fact that Moses thought it essential to name these two women to me is significant, and since according to Reese, Lot and Abraham were born in the same year it is probable that they saw themselves more as brothers and sister than as nephew and niece, and remember Haran died young so in all probability Sarai was more like a sister (and Lot more like a brother) with Terah being the father and head of the family.

share|improve this answer
Welcome to Stack Exchange, we are glad you are here. Please consider registering an account to fully take advantage of what this site has to offer. Also, be sure to check out the site tour and read up on how this site is a little different than other sites around the web. This is not a comment on the quality of your answer, but rather a standard welcome message. – ThaddeusB Sep 5 '15 at 2:13

protected by Community Nov 4 '15 at 11:51

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.