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Why did Sarah go with Abimelech? Why didn't she refuse? Weren't women allowed to refuse being raped by kings, or what? Or did Sarah go to the king willingly when she was called? I'm struggling to understand this but I just can't, so I'd really appreciate some help with this passage.

Genesis 20:1-7 (ESV):

1 From there Abraham journeyed toward the territory of the Negeb and lived between Kadesh and Shur; and he sojourned in Gerar. 2 And Abraham said of Sarah his wife, “She is my sister.” And Abimelech king of Gerar sent and took Sarah. 3 But God came to Abimelech in a dream by night and said to him, “Behold, you are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is a man's wife.” 4 Now Abimelech had not approached her. So he said, “Lord, will you kill an innocent people? 5 Did he not himself say to me, ‘She is my sister’? And she herself said, ‘He is my brother.’ In the integrity of my heart and the innocence of my hands I have done this.” 6 Then God said to him in the dream, “Yes, I know that you have done this in the integrity of your heart, and it was I who kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I did not let you touch her. 7 Now then, return the man's wife, for he is a prophet, so that he will pray for you, and you shall live. But if you do not return her, know that you shall surely die, you and all who are yours.”

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    Toward the question of if she went willingly, it says that she herself said she was his sister too. Sarah is not a stranger to schemes. It was her idea for Abraham to impregnate Haggar afterall.
    – Joshua
    Commented May 7, 2015 at 15:49
  • "Weren't women allowed to refuse being raped by kings, or what?" Open a history book maybe, the answer is very clearly no
    – Hobbamok
    Commented Sep 28, 2023 at 14:05

5 Answers 5

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The question is applying modern standards of women’s rights and self-determination to a culture that existed long before such inventions. The short answer is that she could not refuse.

Abimelech and Pharaoh were kings in the Bronze Age. One did not refuse Bronze Age kings anything, not as long as one were in their power. The fact that Abraham asked Sarah to agree to this exploit indicated that they lived in a culture in which kings enjoyed whatever women they liked—and if they were refused, and the woman was married, the king who wanted a man’s wife would simply kill the husband. (Sadly, this is what happened with David, Bathsheba, and Uriah.) Thus even less could an unmarried sister or daughter be refused. Unless the visitor were equal in power—as Abraham, although wealthy, was not—refusing would be regarded as a ridiculous and foolhardy insult. Think the medieval right of prima nocta, only even less polite.

It might also help (although it is also unpleasant to reflect on this) to know that women were regarded as mere appendages of men; their value was in bearing and raising children. When Moses counted “all the souls of his [Jacob’s] sons and his daughters” (Gen 46:15) with Leah, and came to the figure 33, guess what? There were 33 males listed, despite the fact that Dinah was just mentioned by name. She was not in the count, despite the count being explicitly of “his sons and his daughters.” Womenfolk were adequately covered by counting the men. Other enumerations such as those in Numbers 1 and 26 similarly omitted the womenfolk.

When Korah, Dathan, and Abiram rebelled against the leadership of Moses, their wives and children were killed along with them (Num 17:27-34). The daughters of the wicked Achan, who stole from the loot of Jericho, suffered a similar fate (Josh 7:24); his wife isn’t even mentioned, so obvious her punishment was, as an appendage of him. Women were a bit more than property, but only a bit.

Sarah was asked to lie to spare Abraham’s life; but when the king’s men came to take her away, rest assured, she wasn’t consulted. Or if she was, it was strictly pro forma.

Do not neglect this explanatory passage in Gen 20, in which Abraham explains to Abimelech why he misled him about the relationship between him and Sarah:

[11] And Abraham said, Because I thought, Surely the fear of God is not in this place; and they will slay me for my wife's sake. [12] And yet indeed she is my sister; she is the daughter of my father, but not the daughter of my mother; and she became my wife. [13] And it came to pass, when God caused me to wander from my father's house, that I said unto her, This is thy kindness which thou shalt shew unto me; at every place whither we shall come, say of me, He is my brother.

She could of course not refuse. That was never a question. The best she could do was to lie to save Abraham’s life.

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Gen 12:

10 Now there was a famine in the land. So Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there, for the famine was severe in the land. 11When he was about to enter Egypt, he said to Sarai his wife, “I know that you are a woman beautiful in appearance, 12and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me, but they will let you live.

They were at the mercy of the Egyptians. Abram came up with a solution:

13Say you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared for your sake.” 14When Abram entered Egypt, the Egyptians saw that the woman was very beautiful. 15And when the princes of Pharaoh saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh. And the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house.

Why didn't Sarai say no to Pharaoh?

She could at the risk of her life. In the bronze age, kings had absolute power and women had little. Saying no would bring trouble to Abram as well. To protect Abram, she had to go along with it.

16 And for her sake he dealt well with Abram; and he had sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male servants, female servants, female donkeys, and camels.

As far as her conscience was concerned, she did the right thing. She obeyed Abram and it went well with him.

Why didn't Sarah refuse to go to Abimelech?

The same reasons she didn't refuse Pharaoh earlier.

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I will mention two possibilities:

  1. Sarah did it to protect Abraham. This explanation is based on the nearly identical story in Gen. 12, in which the rationale is explicit:

“I know that you are a woman of beautiful countenance. Therefore it will happen, when the Egyptians see you, that they will say, ‘This is his wife’; and they will kill me, but they will let you live. Please say you are my sister, that it may be well with me for your sake, and that I may live because of you.” (12:11-13)

In the event, Abraham was indeed protected, and so was Sarah. Thus, even though it is not stipulated in the case of Abimelech, Sarah believed that the same principle was operative: if she entered the king's harem, Abraham would be protected and she would not be harmed.

  1. It was in order to give birth to Isaac. Ishmael had been born to Hagar sometime after Sarah returned from Pharaoh's harem. (Gen 12:19) Still infertile, Sarah had given Hagar to Abraham, saying "perhaps I shall obtain children by her." (Gen. 16:2) That, however did not work out, as Hagar treated Ishmael as her own. In the meantime, God promised that Sarah herself would now have a son. (18:14) So when Abraham travelled south after the destruction of Sodom (Gen. 19) Sarah entered Abimelech's harem in the hope that this time, such an act would create the condition by which she herself would bear a son. The idea is supported by the timing of her returning to her husband, which was followed immediately by her conception of Isaac. [the text is rendered here without the chapter break, which was added by later editors]:

So Abraham prayed to God; and God healed Abimelech, his wife, and his female servants. Then they bore children; for the Lord had closed up all the wombs of the house of Abimelech because of Sarah, Abraham’s wife. And the Lord visited Sarah as He had said, and the Lord did for Sarah as He had spoken. For Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age. (Gen. 20-21)

Thus, whether Sarah knew it or not, the implication is clear that Sarah's entering Abimelech's harem resulted in both the king's wives and Sarah herself becoming fertile by God's intervention.

Conclusion: The first explanation is explicitly mentioned in the text, though in regard to Pharaoh, not Abimelech. The second is speculative but plausible. I conclude that Sarah's complied to protect Abraham, and perhaps also because she sensed that God would bless her couple as a result.**

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It might be Sarai's second try to recover her Chaldean kingdom by marriage. It can be inferred from the name Sarai. The first was with Pharaoh.

There is no mention about Sarai's mother but two things look clear that her unnamed mother called her Sarai, My Little Princess, and that Sarai had been a Fair Woman to look upon not only in her young age but also in her very old age. Her incredible fairness could be an euphemism of her royal status. I assume that Sarai was the only daughter of the deposed Chaldean princess who got married to Terah temporarily concealing her true identity. Along with that name she left Sarai a lifelong desire of recovering her kingdom.

Abimelech's marriage offer was Sarai's second and the last chance to recover the kingdom. So, Sarah voluntarily chose to go to Abimelech. Abraham could not help but agree because they were nominal husband and wife and he was a lifelong patron of his princess sister. Their first exodus from Ur was also to rescue Sarai from the hands of ambitious Chaldean suitors.

However, things went different way and the rest are written in Genesis. Having struggled with childbirth of his harem, Abimelech put Sarah back to her original position as directed by God in a dream and his harem was saved. It is recorded in Genesis as divine intervention.

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    – Community Bot
    Commented Sep 19, 2022 at 13:02
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The bible did not specifically say why Sarah did not refuse Abimelech, but I believe that she counted on God to help her out of the situation. She just completely submitted her will to her husband as a loyal wife, even though she must have had her reservations about some of his decisions. That was why she could say "God will judge between you and me!" when she felt she had been pushed beyond her limit.

On the other hand, she must have figured that she would have caused more problems for Abraham if she had resisted Abimelech. It seemed like it was a common practice for kings or rulers to have the most beautiful women to themselves by hook or by crook because that was the second time that happened to her.

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  • Where does Sarah say "God will judge between you and me!"? Commented Feb 26, 2015 at 9:00
  • @JonathanChell 16:5, but that’s a different story, where Sarai is referring to Hagar’s contempt that she held Abram responsible for.
    – Susan
    Commented Feb 27, 2015 at 10:53
  • @Susan I am aware of that reference but I don't see it relevance to the question being asked here. Commented Feb 27, 2015 at 15:30
  • @JonathanChell Me either.
    – Susan
    Commented Feb 27, 2015 at 15:33
  • Could you support this with sources rather then pure speculation? I.e. references about ancient Mesopotamian and Babylonian familial relations, etc. We call this 'showing your work' and it's a requirement here.
    – Dan
    Commented Feb 28, 2015 at 6:05

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