There are a couple of Old Testament stories where we see Abram lie about Sarai, or so it appears. In Genesis 12 and again in chapter 20, we find Abram and Sarai in similar situations that call for a plan. In both instances, Abram (later Abraham) and his wife Sarai (later Sarah) are traveling in a foreign land. In chapter 12, they have gone to Egypt to flee famine in their own land. In chapter 20, they are in Gerar (we are not told why). Both times we read of their plan to tell Pharaoh and Abimelech, the respective king in each place, that Sarai was Abram’s sister.

Did Abram lie about Sarai being his sister? She was technically his half-sister, being the daughter of Abram’s father, but not his mother (Genesis 20:12). Also, the “story” they devised was clearly intended to deceive each king. According to Merriam-Webster, the verb “lie” is (1) to make an untrue statement with intent to deceive, or (2) to create a false or misleading impression. What Abram did would constitute a “lie” and a “half-truth” (still a “lie”) according to Merriam-Webster.

How Scripture answers "Did Abram lie about Sarai?"

If we are using Merriam-Webster, there’s no question that Abram lied about Sarai1,2 and therefore sinned. However, we look to scripture to interpret scripture, not to secular, human things to interpret scripture. Searching scripture we can find a very similar case to Abram’s involving Samuel3 (in fact, there are several others9,10,11 considered in the “Further Study”). In the case of Samuel, God instructed him to “lie” (according to Merriam-Webster) to Saul3. On God’s command, Samuel intentionally deceived Saul about his purpose for coming3.

We would have to weigh Abram’s (and Samuel’s) situation while remembering a couple of important attributes of God’s unchanging character. First, God is not a respecter of persons7, so for example, we couldn’t say He was somehow making an exception for Samuel3. Second, among the things that God cannot do is lie4,5,6 or associate with any sin8.

Therefore, we are forced to conclude or at the very least consider that Abram did not “lie” about Sarai, at least as far as we might secularly define a “lie”. Maybe better said, Abram did not lie sinfully concerning Sarai.

This question and answer raise more questions about lying in general and what is considered a sin in God’s eyes. At the very least, we might need to re-evaluate what a “lie” is according to Scripture. For example, Abram1,2 and Samuel3 did not divulge more than needed or more than was asked. We might argue that they were only deceitful and technically did not say anything untrue.

However, we have several other situations involving outright “lying” where the perpetrator’s actions were decidedly approved by God:

  1. The Egyptian midwives “lied” to Pharaoh about why the Hebrew males lived, yet God rewarded them9.
  2. Jehu deceived (“lied”) about why he was bringing Baal worshipers together yet was approved by God10
  3. Rahab “lied” when she hid the Hebrew spies11, yet her deed/work completed her faith12.

The midwives9, Jehu10, and Rahab11 intentionally deceived (e.g. “lied”) to achieve a Godly outcome. Scripture explicitly records God’s approval of their actions. Conversely, we also know about Ananias and Sapphira who lied to God13 and died as a result. Given all of these situations1,2,3,9,10,11,13, it may be that we need to reconsider exactly what constitutes a “lie” that is considered a sin before God.

Answer built on scripture-blocks below

When he was about to enter Egypt, he said to Sarai his wife, I know that you are a woman beautiful in appearance, and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, This is his wife. Then they will kill me, but they will let you live. Say you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared for your sake.

When Abram and his wife Sarai were about to enter Egypt, he told her that the Egyptians would conclude that she was his wife since she was beautiful.  Abram presumed they would want to kill him as a result, taking her.  As a result, he told her to say that she was his sister so that it would go well with her and his life would be spared.

Abram has just been introduced in the Bible narrative.  Born of Terah in Ur of the Chaldeans and married to Sarai (11:31), he has heeded God’s call to “go to a land that I will show you” (vs 1).

Genesis 12 begins accounting for a period known as the “Patriarchs”, or the “Patriarchal Dispensation”, beginning with Abraham.  Approximately 2,000 years have passed since Creation (Genesis 1).

Scripture-block application to this question

Abram told his wife Sarai to say that she was his sister instead of letting them assume she was his wife.

And Abraham said of Sarah his wife, She is my sister. And Abimelech king of Gerar sent and took Sarah. 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.
Abraham told people that Sarah was his sister instead of telling them she was his wife.  Abimelech, the king of Gerar, sent and took Sarah as his own, but God intervened in a dream to Abimelech by night, telling him that he was as good as dead for taking Sarah, who was someone’s wife.
Following the life of this patriarch since chapter 12, Abraham has been reminded by God a few times about His promise to bless him and provide a son to him and Sarah.  His nephew Lot has just been saved from the destruction of Sodom and the other cities (chapter 19).
Scripture-block application to this question

Abraham never said that Sarah was not his wife. He only shared that she was his sister.

The Lord said to Samuel, How long will you grieve over Saul, since I have rejected him from being king over Israel? Fill your horn with oil, and go. I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons. And Samuel said, How can I go? If Saul hears it, he will kill me. And the Lord said, Take a heifer with you and say, I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.

God asked Samuel how long he would grieve over Saul being rejected by God as king over Israel.  God then told Samuel to fill his horn with oil and go to Jesse the Bethlehemite, because God had provided Himself a new king from among one of his sons.  However, Samuel objected since he feared Saul would kill him if he heard about it. So God told him to take a cow with him and say that he was going to sacrifice to the Lord.

The twelve tribes of Israel have demanded a king and Saul was their first choice.  However, after some years as king, he has been rejected by God due to his disobedience, and God is preparing to install David as the next king.

Scripture-block application to this question

God adds a secondary reason to Samuel’s “real” mission of anointing a new king so that Samuel doesn’t have to disclose the primary objective.

Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ, for the sake of the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth, which accords with godliness, in hope of eternal life, which God, who never lies, promised before the ages began and at the proper time manifested in his word through the preaching with which I have been entrusted by the command of God our Savior;

Paul, a servant of God and apostle of Christ, ministering to the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of His word that teaches godliness in the hope for eternal life which God, who cannot lie, promised before the ages began and at the proper time revealed by His word through the preaching with which I’ve been entrusted by the command of God our Savior;

Paul is writing to a young preacher, Titus.  After giving these qualifications for a church elder, he continues to give instruction regarding behavior to certain segments/groups within the church: older men (2:2), older women (2:3), younger women (2:4), younger men (2:6), and finally slaves (2:9).  With all of these, their behavior is to be exhibited as would “accord with sound doctrine” (1:9, 2:1, 2:10).
Scripture-block application to this question

God never lies.

Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord, but those who act faithfully are his delight.
Lying is abhorrent to God, but He takes pleasure in those that are faithful.

A collection of wise sayings primarily collected from Solomon, the wisest to ever live.

Scripture-block application to this question

Lying is an abomination to God.

There are six things that the Lord hates, seven that are an abomination to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that make haste to run to evil, a false witness who breathes out lies, and one who sows discord among brothers.
To be certain, there are seven things that God hates.  They are pride, lying, murder, scheming evil, running toward and enjoying sin, bearing false witness, and creating strife where harmony resides.

A collection of wise sayings primarily collected from Solomon, the wisest to ever live.

Scripture-block application to this question

God hates lying.

He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality.
He [God] will judge all accordingly: eternal life for those that patiently do good and seek those things above, and wrath and fury for those that selfishly disobey God’s word. Anyone that practices evil will encounter tribulation and distress, but for anyone doing good glory, honor, and peace.  God judges all impartially since God doesn’t show favoritism.

Paul’s opening to his letter to Christians in Rome (primarily Gentiles) where he is spending time describing different types of unrighteous individuals and their eventual judgment by God for their deeds of unrighteousness.

Scripture-block application to this question

God shows no partiality or favoritism.

!! scripture-block context extra important here !!

In this context, the truth is applied to how God will judge, but it is still a truth.

This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.

This is the message we first heard from him [Jesus] and proclaim to you, that God is light and there is no darkness in Him.

The Apostle John’s opening in a letter written to Christians encouraging them to love each other (as God loves) and resist false teaching.  His instruction appears to be to individual Christians (not a particular church) and he’s concerned about them losing fellowship with God (vs 3) and ultimately losing their joy (vs 4).

In this context, “light” is righteousness (e.g. “walk in light” vs 7) and “darkness” is sin or unrighteousness (e.g. not practicing the truth vs 6).

Scripture-block application to this question

God has no participation or fellowship with sin (e.g. “darkness”).

But the midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live. So the king of Egypt called the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and let the male children live?” The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women, for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” So God dealt well with the midwives. And the people multiplied and grew very strong.

The midwives obeyed God rather than man and allowed the male children to live. As a result, the king of Egypt summoned to ask them about it and they told him it was not intentional but rather because the Hebrew women are stronger than the Egyptian women and they give birth before they can arrive. God blessed the midwives as a result of this and the Israelites continued to multiply and grow strong.

The Israelites had been in Egypt for about 400 years and were slaves at this point but growing large in number (vs 7) so Pharaoh instructed the midwives to kill any Hebrew male children (vs 16).

Scripture-block application to this question

The midwives willfully disobeyed Pharaoh’s command and allowed the male babies to live. When Pharaoh asked them about it they gave him a different reason and God rewarded them for this. NOTE: Were Israelite women actually more “vigorous” than Egyptian women? We don’t know, but Pharaoh apparently believed it was so.

!! scripture-block context extra important here !!

Specifically, the text says that “God dealt well with the midwives” (vs 20) because they “feared God” (vs 21).

Now therefore call to me all the prophets of Baal, all his worshipers and all his priests. Let none be missing, for I have a great sacrifice to offer to Baal. Whoever is missing shall not live. But Jehu did it with cunning in order to destroy the worshipers of Baal.

Now call all of Baal’s prophets to me [Jehu], as well as his worshipers and all his priests.  Don’t overlook anyone because I have a great sacrifice to offer Baal. Whoever is missing shall be killed. So Jehu planned the deception in order to kill all the worshipers of Baal.

Jehu is the king of Israel (northern ten tribes) around 800BC.  He followed Jehoram, reigned himself for twenty-eight years, and was succeeded by Jehoahaz.  He primarily fought against Syria during his reign and is attributed with fulfilling God’s curse on the house of Ahab (vss 11, 17, 30).

Refer to our Old Testament Kingdom xReference

Scripture-block application to this question

This passage could apply. Jehu said he was going to have a “great sacrifice” to Baal but it was “cunning in order to destroy the worshippers of Baal”. God later said that Jehu had “done well in carrying out what was right in my eyes” (vs 30).

!! scripture-block context extra important here !!

God’s approval seems to be directly related to Jehu’s actions to eliminate the house of Ahab. However, it could be broader and it could be destroying the worshippers of Baal was related to the task given Ahab’s affinity to Baal.

Then the king of Jericho sent to Rahab, saying, Bring out the men who have come to you, who entered your house, for they have come to search out all the land. But the woman had taken the two men and hidden them. And she said, True, the men came to me, but I did not know where they were from.
Then the king of Jericho sent word to Rahab asking her to bring out the men [Hebrew spies] that had gone into her for the purposes of spying out the land.  But Rahab hid them and said that while they had come into her, she did not know where they were from.
The young nation of Israel is marching to take the promised land. Joshua is leading them, having taken over after Moses’ death.
Scripture-block application to this question

Rahab, a resident prostitute in Jericho, hid the Hebrew spies and lied to the king of Jericho about it.

And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way?

Likewise, it was Rahab the prostitute that was justified by her works when she hid the messengers and sent them out another way in secret.

James has just stated that “faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (vs 17).  He goes further to call it foolish to believe they are separate and uses the example of Abraham offering Isaac and Rahab’s deception (vss 20-26).

Scripture-block application to this question

Rahab’s faith was made complete in her works, in this case, her deception in aiding Israel’s destruction of Jericho11.

But Peter said, Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God.

Peter asked Ananias why Satan had filled his heart by lying to the Holy Spirit about keeping back some of the proceeds from the land.  He told him that while the land was theirs, and even when it was sold, the asset was theirs to do as they wished.  But instead, they misrepresented their offering and through their evil deed not only lied to men but to God.

There is also now a group of believers meeting in Jerusalem from the converts on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2) and they are sharing of their own to help others among them that are without (4:32-37).  Ananias and Sapphira sold some property (vs 1).

Scripture-block application to this question

Ananias and Sapphira lied about how much they made from the property they had sold and tried to keep some back for themselves. Peter is pointing out that they could have kept the property, or even kept some for themselves, but instead, they lied to God about it.

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Andra

I found your site as I was questioning if Abram actually sinned in this situation. I am so thankful to have ran across an awesome site like yours to help clarify.

Would you say it would be proper to cross reference Genesis 12:3, scripture found before this incident, where it speaks of the Lord cursing those that curse Abram?

Thank you