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?

3 Answers 3


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.

  • 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.
    – user862
    Aug 26, 2013 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.


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.

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