God uses Moses as a spokesperson to liberate the Israelites from Egyptian slavery, but this is not the first time that God works through someone to deliver his chosen people from Pharaoh. Long before Moses, God uses Sarai to speak a word that frees her from bondage in Egypt and anticipates the entire nation’s exodus under Moses.

In Exodus, Moses warns Pharaoh of impending judgment and God sends plagues in accordance with Moses’ warnings. Before the second plague, Moses speaks God’s words to Pharaoh: “Let my people go, that they may serve me. But if you refuse to let them go, behold, I will plague your whole land with frogs” (Exod 8:1-2). After Pharaoh’s refusal, Moses speaks to God regarding the plague of frogs: “Moses cried to the Lord according to the word (על-דבר; al-davar) of the frogs… and the Lord did according to Moses’ word” (Exod 8:12-13). The plagues follow a two-step process: (1) Moses speaks God’s word to Pharaoh, and (2) God sends plagues in accordance with Moses’ word.

God anticipates this two-step process when Abram and Sarai find themselves captive to a previous Egyptian Pharaoh—only this time, God sends plagues in accordance with Sarai’s word. When Abram and Sarai go down to Egypt to escape a famine, Pharaoh takes Sarai into his palace as one of his many concubines, “but the Lord afflicted Pharaoh and his household with mighty plagues according to the word (על-דבר) of Sarai, Abram’s wife” (Gen 12:17). Just like with Moses, God sends plagues upon Egypt in accordance with Sarai’s word; through Sarai, God stages a “mini-exodus” long before the people of Israel come out of Egyptian bondage. Sarai is a prophet before Moses who, in liberating herself and her husband from Pharaoh, foreshadows the nation’s future liberation in Exodus.

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62 COMMENTS

  1. I checked a bunch of translations and only the LITV has it worded the way you do. Others say "because of Sarai" or similar that make it not seem to be a word FROM Sarai. Thoughts?
    • Hi Donald, you're absolutely right that my translation of על-דבר as "according to the word" is seldom attested in English translations. Indeed, the term can be (and often should be) translated "because of," and that may well be the more accurate translation with reference to Sarai. What my translation has going for it, though, is the shared context between Sarai & Abram in Egypt and the Israelites in Exodus (i.e., God's people being captives and God sending plagues against Pharaoh to liberate those people). If Genesis alludes to Exodus (which I think it does), the "according to the word" of Sarai foreshadows God acting "according to the word" of Moses. Thus, mine would be the better translation in this case; it's by no means a translational slam-dunk, but it is a possibility.

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    • that wasn't sarah's only prophecy. she also prophesied when she said that the son of the slave woman shall not participate in the inheritance with the son of the free woman (her son, issac). that was the reason God told abraham to listen to his wife 2 remove hagar.
  2. This is convoluted word association. על-דבר has a whole range of meanings from "word" to "matter" to "affair" and more. It probably an idiom meaning simply "because of" or "on account of." Also, the Moses example you cite is not to send the plague of frogs, but to STOP it. I appreciate what you are trying to do, but this type of superficial exegesis does not help the cause to take up Hebrew to learn deeper insights.
    • Ivan, I certainly would not deny that על-דבר has a range of meanings, and you could well be right that it means "because of" or "on account of" with reference to Sarai. What my translation has going for it, though, is the shared context between Sarai & Abram in Egypt and the Israelites in Exodus (i.e., plagues liberating God's people in Egypt). If Genesis alludes to Exodus, the “according to the word” of Sarai foreshadows God acting “according to the word” of Moses in the context of plagues. You're right that my Moses example describes God stopping the plague, which I should have explained more fully (we are limited by word count). My translation is by no means a slam-dunk, but calling it "superficial exegesis" is a bit unfair :( since there are contextual reasons for the translational choice.
  3. Abraham married his brother Haran's daughter, Sarai. But when you read Genesis chapter 11 Haran had 2 daughters, Milcah who married Nahor the other brother and Iscah the second daughter. We do not hear about Iscah or was a prophetess but we do read about Sarai. My belief is that they are one and the same, a prophetess turned Princess when she married Abraham. Interested in your thoughts. Thanks.
    • Hi Eric, thanks for your comment. You're not alone in thinking that Sarai and Iscah are the same person -- the rabbis came to the same conclusion: "Rabbi Isaac observed, 'Iscah was Sarai, and why was she called Iscah (יסכה)? Because she foresaw (שסוכה) [events] by means of the Holy Spirit" (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 69b cf. Targum Pseudo-Jonathan to Genesis 11:29). While it would be difficult to be dogmatic about it, the idea that Iscah is another name for Sarai is attested in ancient Jewish tradition. Thanks again for your contribution to the discussion :)

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  4. Is’nt salvation nothing more than Joel 2:28,29: living a life of being in a trance and having visions of a world “of milk and honey”, free from internal and external exploitation: 1 SamChap.8& 9. A nostalgia for King but better than David and Solomon? A “journey” of Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses and us today?
    • Did you mean to post your comment in the "Salvation is from the Jews" blog, Winston? Your points sound more suited to the content of that article, so I wanted to make sure you posted in the right place :)
  5. I really appreciate the fresh way of looking at the Hebrew. I think however that Genesis 20:11 provides the exact same Hebrew construction with Sarai as a reference and there it clearly is pointing to "because of" or "on account of". This construction is "closer" than the Moses connection in Exodus. Is there an underlying reason (eisegesis perhaps?) of trying to find a woman prophetess instead of just the connection between the prepositions? Just curious. We all have our pre-suppositions. :)
    • Very good point, Mondo. I'm with you all the way on the "because of" reading for על-דבר at Gen 20:11. Of course, the same preposition can often be used in two different ways in the same narrative (cf. אל as "against" and "to" in Gen 4:8 & 10, respectively), but if we equate Gen 12:17 with 20:11 (and I think there's good reason to do so) then you're right that we should probably translate על-דבר as "because of." But I'm glad you appreciate the alternative way of looking at the Hebrew, whether you find it convincing or not :)
    • On the female prophet question, the claim that Sarai was a seer or prophet is as old as the Talmud (see b. Sanhedrin 69b; cf. Tg PsJ Gen 11:29), so it's less my own presupposition than it is a rabbinic presupposition. I offered my reading of על-דבר in Gen 12:17 simply as an entry point into seeing how the talmudic understanding of Sarai as a prophet can work from a biblical/linguistic perspective. Alas, due to word-count limitations, I wasn't able to preface the post with my exegetical motivations for it.
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  6. This is a very interesting post. I wonder how the Greek Septuagint translated that preposition. I'm only in the very beginning stages of learning NT Greek, but from what I understand Greek prepositions can be a bit more precise than Hebrew prepositions. Thanks, though, for the insights.
    • Great point/question, Rebecca. Going to the Septuagint is often helpful for getting behind what the Hebrew writer may have meant. The Greek preposition in Gen 12:17 LXX is περὶ, which has a range of meanings including "about," "concerning," "for [the sake of]," and "on account of." So the Greek says that God sent plagues against Pharaoh "on account of Sarai," rather than "according to the word of Sarai." In a nutshell, the Greek translation doesn't reflect my English translation :(
  7. Understanding scriptural translational intent by means of the original language might be a double edge sword. One side cutting through centuries of analogy and allegorical interpretation to a clear intent, but the other side stifling it. J.
    • It is certainly a tricky business, Jerry. You're right that there's always that double-edged dynamic going on in biblical interpretation -- which makes interpretation both difficult and fun.
  8. What made this hard for me to read was I see “say you are my sister” as lying, but now I can see God’s warning was about letting His people go, not lying. I think I must be reading something into "say you are my sister".
    • That's an interesting way to look at it, Kat! I hadn't thought about that before, but I think it works :)

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    • Lying? Methinks Sarah was Abraham's bonafide sister. This, for me, is no issue judging where I come from in Africa. An Uncle even if a bit distant can be referred to as an "elder brother". Whotcha think?
    • Hello Kat - do you mean that Abram was lying because he didn't add "and she is also my wife" ? Or do you believe that she was not his [half-]sister? I know that some read Gen 20:12 differently than half-sister.
  9. Thanks for your perspective, James. You're right that Sarai, while being Abram's wife, is also his half-sister (Gen 20:12). So, technically, Abram isn't lying -- let's just say he's withholding the whole truth :) Beyond the half-truth that he tells, the more problematic ethical question for me (and I'd welcome your thoughts): Why would Abram let his wife be taken (twice!), likely as a concubine, in order to save his own skin?
    • Ha'satan reels in Avraham bit at a time. First, fear of being killed, then the lie after which he can't turn back. Then she is taken and if he says anything death is even more certain. Then the agonizing wait and shame. The enemy looks at the long game. This wasn't just about defiling Sarah, but also breaking Avraham. I can imagine the decision to twice sacrifice his wife for his own safety instead of trusting the promises of HaShem plagued his mind many times. But it may have also later strengthened his resolve. God turns these things for good.
    • Abraham knew there was no fear of God in Egypt, and this was a sin against God/Abraham/Sarah. Abraham knew Egypt would kill him because of Sarah's beauty, and yet he believed God would protect them because God had promised him "I will make of you a great nation;" and the promise in Gen 12:7 "To you offspring I will give ...."; and promised him the land of Canaan. These promises required his safe return from Egypt and a son from Sarah; and Abraham believed! He 'feared' God more than he feared Egypt. Not space to explain depth of this

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  10. I am so amazed how this was brought up here. I am in awe here meaning back to the reading the bible to do more deeper reading here. Thank you.
    • Glad you found this helpful, Timothy. The goal of these posts is to send us back to deeper reading of the Bible, so that's wonderful to hear!
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