Q&A: On Sisters and Wives
From the About page comes this follow-up question from a presentation I recently gave:
Thanks for your presentation for the ARC — You mentioned the use of achoti in Song of Songs meaning more than “my sister,” but better translated as “my equal.” How do you understand Abraham’s turning to Sarah and telling her to tell the Egyptians that she is “…his sister, so that things will go well for him”?
The issue is the Hebrew word achot, literally “sister,” which forms half of the famous line from Song of Songs, “my sister, my bride” or “my sister, my spouse.” (I bring this up briefly in an on-line video.)
In And God Said I devote the better part of a chapter to achot, starting with the (obvious) point that “my sister, my spouse” isn’t incest. My conclusion is that kinship terms such as achot were used not just for family relationships but also for power structure. For instance, av (“father”) indicated “more powerful.”
The key point is that achot in Song of Songs specifically indicates “a woman who is equal” to the man.
In English, of course, “sister” doesn’t convey this important concept. But “equal” does. In many dialects, so does “partner.” (But for some, “partner” in this context means primarily “same-sex partner.”)
But this extended use of kinship terms doesn’t mean that the words weren’t also used for family relationships. So achot can also be a literal sister.
And this is what we find starting in Genesis 12:13. Abraham has Sarai pretend to be his (flesh-and-blood) sister. His reasoning, we read, is that Pharaoh will want her because she’s so beautiful, so Pharaoh will befriend her brother but dislike or even kill her husband.
The plot — played out again starting in Genesis 20:2 — is interesting and, to modern readers, sometimes disturbing. But the text is pretty clear. In both cases, Abraham’s wife pretends to be his sister.