One of the best known insights in E. A. Speiser’s Genesis (the Anchor Bible series) is wrong, according to independent studies by Professor R. David Freedman of the University of California, Davis and Professor Samuel Greengus of Hebrew Union College. Speiser, they say, misunderstood the Hurrian material from Nuzi on which he relied.
In his Anchor Genesis, Speiser attempted to bring new light to three episodes which have perplexed scholars for centuries. The three episodes have the common theme of a patriarch passing off his wife as his sister.
In the first episode (Gen. 12:10–20), Abraham (or Abram, as he then is) sojourns in Egypt during a Canaanite famine. Abraham is fearful that the Egyptians will kill him for his wife who is an extraordinarily beautiful woman. So he instructs her to say that she is his sister rather than his wife. Sarah (at that time, Sarai) is indeed recognized for her beauty; and she is taken into Pharaoh’s “household”—not to put too fine a point on it. (According to the Midrash, later Jewish interpretive materials, when Pharaoh went to touch Sarah, an invisible angel struck him a blow with a stick and in this way Sarah’s virtue was saved. In the story itself, however, Sarah seems to have been taken by Pharaoh— Pharaoh refers to Sarah as his wife. ) Because of Sarah, things go very well with Abraham and very badly for Pharaoh. Somehow Pharaoh discovers the cause of his troubles. He calls Abraham before him and asks why Abraham did not tell him that Sarah was his wife. Pharaoh then sends Abraham away with his wife Sarah. Abraham takes with him all his accumulated possessions.