God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

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.


October 29, 2010 - Posted by | Q&A, translation practice | , , , , , , , ,


  1. Thanks — “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.” Pretending to be his sister seems to offer a sense of protection — for both of them?

    Comment by Enid C. Lader | October 29, 2010

    • I also felt uncomfortable about the way he put Sarah in harms way as if he were an expendable shield. Bill Gothard suggests that this was the driver of the 400 years of slavery, with which I’ve come to concur.

      Comment by WoundedEgo | October 29, 2010

      • That and the dishonesty, lack of faith, etc.

        Comment by WoundedEgo | October 30, 2010

  2. I thought Sarah WAS Abraham’s half-sister.

    Comment by Don Johnson | October 29, 2010

  3. @ Don–

    I believe Dr. Hoffman’s point was exactly that–that Sarah was asked to play up her “sister” status and leave out the wife part in the one text but that the Song of Songs is not suggesting incest (particularly considering that the bride comes from a different people altogether!) and that we therefore have to look at the other possible meanings of the Hebrew word.

    Comment by Deborah | October 29, 2010

    • Tangential, but related…

      Can you throw any light on “I am black but lovely”? The Targum suggests that it was a deep tan on a Jewess, but other sources suggest that she was an Ethiopan slave:


      Also, can you think of a specific Jewish (OT) prohibition of consensual, non-committed (sex) sex other than another man’s wife, a relative or a male with male? Song of Songs certainly seems to celebrate unmarried relations, and I’m wondering if the prohibition is an assumption or if it is codified in Jewish law somewhere.

      Or is it that in Jewish scripture, “one flesh” is presumed to be the effect of the sex act rather than either the commonality of being human, or the introduction of a baby?

      If the Jewish scriptures (Song About Solomon) make a hero of a “Mick Jagger” figure (Solomon) for his sexual prowess, and the other scriptures do not explicitly prohibit casual sex, then perhaps the proper understanding of the scriptures is that a false embarrassment about naked bodies was introduced through eating some “bad Noni” (or whatever the fruit was that they ate)?

      Gen 2:25 And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed.

      Gen 3:7 And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons.
      Gen 3:8 And they heard the voice of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day: and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God amongst the trees of the garden.
      Gen 3:9 And the LORD God called unto Adam, and said unto him, Where art thou?
      Gen 3:10 And he said, I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.
      Gen 3:11 And he said, Who told thee that thou wast naked? Hast thou eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldest not eat?

      Now, if this is the case, then the shame of nakedness is something that should be undone, no? That the natural, pure, uncontaminated state of humans is naked, unashamed, not regarding marriage, of a common composition (bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh) and equally unashamed before YHVH. In fact, since before the fruit, Jesus and Adam took walks together naked, maybe YHVH is to be understood to have been naked? (In the scriptures, YHVH is clearly of human form).

      Men were given clothes as a result of shame from a catastrophe. Why would God and his sons/deputies wear clothing?

      Considering *only the OT,* is there anything in the scriptures that says anything different?

      I’m not preaching, here, only asking… I don’t see a flaw of this tact, insofar as the Jewish scriptures are concerned.

      Was Song an anomaly of YHVH’s scriptures? Or are the scriptures simply saying what no one is hearing?! It has happened before!

      Comment by WoundedEgo | October 30, 2010

  4. Sarah is not PRETENDING to be Abraham’s sister, she IS his (half-) sister. I read the text that Abraham tells Sarah to NOT mention that she is his wife. She tells part of the truth.

    Comment by Don | October 29, 2010

  5. Half-sister, half-truth. It works, sort of. Wait, no it doesn’t.

    Joel, you pointed out in And God Said that one must be cautious making any statements on feminine terms by assuming parallel usage to the masculine counterpart. I would expect that most uses of kinship terms would parallel, but on the other hand, “equal” is a power/status affiliation. Much like with master/mistress, which are also relational (though not kinship) terms.

    Do we have any other examples of achot being used where it clearly or likely refers to an equal status? Otherwise, I would be inclined to think it is “softer” in meaning, referring to intimate closeness rather than closeness/equality in power structure. I think that in the context of love and pillow-talk, intimacy is a more likely topic than power structure.



    Comment by Gary Simmons | October 30, 2010

  6. Whether or not it literally implies a Blood relation, I feel that the word is a word for Sister has more meaning then you’re giving it credit for. After all there is a reasons the brothers and sisters of your spouse becomes your brothers and sisters in law. It reflects an ancient way of thinking about these things that I feel it would hurt any translation to ignore.

    Comment by MithrandirOlorin | April 19, 2017

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