Monday, March 14, 2011

Sister Wives and Cousin Wives

Alice C. Linsley

The Patriarchs of Genesis married according to the pattern of their Horite ruler-priest caste. The rulers had two wives. One was a half-sister (as was Sarah to Abraham) and the other was a patrilineal cousin or niece (as was Keturah to Abraham). Genesis has numerous narratives involving the sister-wife. The cousin/niece wife is prominent in the genealogial information as well as in the narratives. Naamah, Oholibamah and Rebekah are examples of "cousin" brides. The wife narratives reveal a great deal about Abraham’s people and their kinship pattern.

The sister-wife narratives of Genesis 12, 20 and 26 involve a powerful ruler who takes the patriarch’s wife as his own. This appears to be motivated by the desire for greater status and/or territorial ambitions, which indicates that these were women of high rank.

In the sister-wife narratives, the ruler’s error is recognized, though the patriarch in both cases is not considered blameless. To rectify his misdeed, the ruler returns the woman to her husband along with livestock and servants so that her brother is richer than before. Even today such ploys are sometimes used in Africa and among tribal peoples to acquire wealth.

In both accounts the rulers are portrayed as righteous leaders who do not wish to bring evil upon their people by committing adultery. This suggests a common moral code for rulers of Egypt and Philistia. In fact, the rulers of Egypt and Philistia were related. They recognized in Sarah not only a beautiful woman of high standing, but also a devotee of God’s son, Horus.

Discrepancies Speak Volumes

There are interesting discrepancies in the parallel stories of Genesis 12 and Genesis 20. In the earlier narrative it is the king of Egypt who takes Sarah. This resulted in plagues upon Pharaoh’s house. The Exodus plagues, by this account, are not a new experience for the rulers of Egypt. The theme of plagues suggests that this version of the story comes from a time well after Abraham and Sarah.

In the Genesis 20 narrative, which is connected to the Philistines of Gerar, God came to the ruler in a dream and warned him not to touch Sarah. In this account Abraham is recognized as a prophet whose prayers for the royal house of Philistia will reverse the curse.

Why should two rulers want Sarah? Who was Sarah that she should bring status to the royal house of Egypt and the royal house of Philistia? Besides being beautiful, Sarah was the daughter of Terah, a great ruler whose vast Mesopotamian territory stretched between Ur and Harran.

There is another important discrepancy to note between Genesis 20 and Genesis 26. When Abraham says that Sarah is his sister, he is telling the truth. According to Genesis 20:12, she was his half-sister. Keturah was his patrilineal cousin wife. However, in Genesis 26, Isaac lies when he reports that Rebekah is his sister (verse 7). Rebekah was his niece wife, not his sister wife. Isaac’s half-sister bride lived in the area of Beersheba. Why would Isaac lie? Perhaps this is a ploy to accumulate riches, as had happened with his fatehr Abraham. Here Isaac shows himself to be grasping and deceptive. Perhaps Jacob's deception of his father and grasping from his brother were behaviors he had learned from his family?

Cousin Wives of High Rank

The cousin wives of the Patriarchs were women of rank also. They were the daughters of ruler-priests. Their first-born sons ascended to the throne of their maternal grandfathers. This is evident in the throne names which they receive from their mother. So we have Joktan the Elder and Joktan the Younger, Sheba the Elder and Sheba the Younger, Esau the Elder and Esau the Younger, etc. We see this with Lamech's daughter Naamah (Gen. 4:22). She married her patrilineal cousin Methuselah and their first-born son was nasmed Lamech after her father. E.A. Speiser observed this pattern and called the maternal grandfather "Lamech the Elder" and the grandson "Lamech the Younger." These throne names are easily traced and make it possible to trace Jesus' ancestry back to Genesis 4 and 5.


  1. Given the value placed on ancestry and strict kinship relationships with the marriage ordering traditions of ruler-priests in Biblical times, -- which you have contended elsewhere existed not just in the time of the patriarchs but right on through the kings of Judah and down to the birth of the Messiah, Jesus Christ of Mary, -- I gather that it should be remarkable, but not completely unusual, when we learn that the will of God was that the prerogatives of the first-born son, or the first-born daughter would be overturned in favor of the younger of two (or sometimes, three) in determining the blood line of the Christ (for example, Jacob was chosen over Esau ("Jacob have I loved"), Isaac over Joktan, Perez over Zerah), how extraordinary do you think it was that for the choice of David (to be King) to be legitimated, God's will to create this particular blood legacy of the Messiah had to go a full seven-sons deep into the reserves of Jesse of the tribe of Judah? Or, must the sustained power-consciousness that seems to have been part of the match-making strategy for ruler-priests in the Genesis period have become somewhat less vital by the time of the Kings, so that it was no longer a given that a patriarch-ruler's firstborn (or by way of exception, the second-born), got the same prerogatives and took the lion's-share?

  2. The theme of the firstborn receiving an earthly kingdom is not at odds with, but rather highlights its counter-theme: that of the youngest son receiving a kingdom from God (Abraham and David are examples.) Both themes have numerous examples in the Bible. There is a message here about God giving the kingdom that lasts to the One chosen by God. In other words, when Jesus told Pilate that His kingdom was not of this world, He was telling him that He was God's Chosen One to inherit the eternal kingdom.

  3. Hello, I enjoy reading your blogs. I would like to know your thoughts on Leviticus 18.
    Understanding this is Mosaic law, could this imply a deity change or support the Moses story being false?

  4. Hi Alice,
    Could you tell me the reference - ideally the exact quote - behind your comment
    "E.A. Speiser observed this pattern and called the maternal grandfather "Lamech the Elder" and the grandson "Lamech the Younger."

  5. Anon, I reviewed the Speiser commentary on Genesis 4 and 5 and recall that he viewed the 2 Lamechs and the 2 Enochs as variant sources or traditions. I believe it was Umberto Cassuto who recognized Lamech the Elder and spoke of the younger Lamech. It was probably in Cassuto's
    Commentary on the Book of Genesis, Part 1 (Adam to Noah)
    Jerusalem: Hebrew University Press, 1961. According to Cassuto, the name Lamech is related to the Mesopotamian word ‘lumakku’, meaning “priest” (Commentary on Genesis, Vol. 1, p. 233).

    Kinship analysis of the Genesis 4 and 5 data has confirmed that the lines of Kain and Seth are regal in nature and represent an authentic marriage and ascendancy pattern in which the patrilineal cousin bride named her first born son after her father. See the Lamech Segment diagram here:

  6. Thanks Alice, I'll read the Cassuto reference and see what I can find. I'm particularly interested in evidence of the intermarriage of the Cainite and Sethite lines. Looking at your page link, its clear you've done a lot of research! Interesting, but not completely convincing - yet! I'll let you know how I get on ...
    Thanks again.

  7. Cassuto is now public domain.

    The ruler-priest lines practiced endogamy. Here are relevant articles: (Click on the diagram at right in this article to see enlarged view.)

    This information helps us to better understand how the kinship and ascendancy of the archaic rulers foreshadowed Jesus Christ.


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