Abraham Committed Adultery Got Divorced

December 26, 2009 by
Filed under: Abraham, Divorce, Family 

Marriage Connections
Are Both Legal
And Personal


Some people make the assumption that Abraham’s relationship with Hagar did not constitute adultery because the biblical text refers to her as his wife.

And the presentation of Hagar to Abraham even has an official tone, like a wedding ceremony:

“Sara…gave Hagar to her husband Abraham to be his wife.” Genesis 16:3

So, Sara’s suggesting the arrangement in the first place followed by her official presentation of Hagar makes it sound like a genuine marriage.

But was it really?

A superficial reading might imply this but a thorough consideration of the text suggests otherwise.

In Defense of Divorce ad2

There are actually several things to consider: adultery, marriage and divorce.


Some suggest that adulterous “do’s and don’ts” were neither defined nor explained to Abraham so we can’t accuse him of adultery. We can’t hold him responsible for information he didn’t have.

But nowhere in the Bible is a technical definition of adultery provided. We have the word and we know the definition but Abraham had the word, and the definition long before we did.

The first biblical mention of the word didn’t occur until the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20:14) but it surely was understood long before that. After this it is used no more than 37 times (KJV). Some versions have less.

That means, of course, that our definition of adultery is insinuated from the text and the primary text is found in Genesis chapter two where the first wedding is recorded.

There are a couple of very good reasons to believe Abraham was not ignorant:

  • One, adultery is always adultery and the consequences are always painful even when those who commit it are poorly informed.

Adultery in Jesus day was exactly the same as adultery when Adam and Eve were created and ignorance is neither mitigating or prophylactic.

Adultery is like gravity. Falling from the side of a mountain is just as hurtful, whether you have a concept of gravity or not, accidental or not.

The common sense that warns us not to jump from a cliff also warns us not to violate the healthy boundaries of relationships. The fear of jumping in one situation is also present in the other.

Abraham and Sara experienced a lot of relationship pain due to her inability to bear children. Abraham’s lying about their marriage relationship (a veiled expression of rejection) had to be hurtful, but even with this emotional cloud cover it wouldn’t take a brain surgeon to know that the addition of a second woman, even at the insistence of the first, wasn’t the best answer.

Abraham probably wasn’t as conditioned against adultery as we are today but he WAS guarded. If he hadn’t been, he would have surely taken on a second wife long before Hagar? Polygamy for the sake of multiplying family members was common.

And, if marrying another woman was OK in his eyes he wouldn’t have worked so hard to find another husband for Sara?

This wasn’t an easy step for Abraham to take. He obviously had entertained the idea previously but before he could take the plunge there had to be mental justification.

  • Two, God gives us the truth and doesn’t waste time talking about the many ways it can be violated or the circumstances in which that may occur.

Marriage, not adultery, is the issue and that is what God emphasized in the first wedding ceremony in the Bible. Eve was created from Adam’s rib and he then referred to her as “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” You can’t get closer or more intimate than that.


The word “marriage” was never used in the text but the story does record a scaled down matrimonial procedure much like ours today:

  • Eve was made from Adam signifying a connection that is not superficial.
  • Eve was made from Adam’s rib signifying equality, not the foot or head which would signify inferiority or superiority.
  • Eve and Adam were presented to each other ceremoniously, somewhat like weddings today.
  • Eve was referred to as “woman” signifying she was different to Adam and as “wife” signifying a special relationship to him.
  • Even before children these two were referred to as “father” and “mother.”
  • Marriage is described as self perpetuating.  A son leaves parents and cleaves to A wife, not several, and they in turn build another family.
  • There is no shame or embarrassment in the relationship.
  • The implication was, neither Adam nor Eve could be whole without the other but they were entirely sufficient together.

More observations could be made but suffice it to say that adultery represents any deviation from this picture. Writing a book about all the ways it can occur or its causes would be a never-ending project. The simple truth, “marriage,” is much more concise and living within the boundaries of marriage is the goal. Anything outside that is adultery whether we’re familiar with the word or not.

And remember, God created marriage, man created adultery. We shouldn’t expect God to waste time explaining and exploring our deviations.


There are two sides to marriage: one is personal and the other is technical – legal.

On the personal side is the mystical connection that exists between two people on all levels: physical, emotional, mental and spiritual. These connections can’t be seen with the naked eye but they are definitely hard wired and can’t be easily broken.

Disapproving parents have been known to “force break” the connections their children make only to discover they are resilient and often survive time and distance.

These connections/attractions can’t be controlled, predicted or prevented and often they are difficult to understand. What one person sees in another is sometimes completely invisible to everyone else and it isn’t unusual for the connections to fracture cultural and family expectations. “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” and “The Notebook” are fictional illustrations of what happens in real life more often than we know.

I think Abraham and Sara had this connection and the proof is the fact that their relationship survived a lot of turbulence. They didn’t always understand each other but the connection was always there.

This is more than affection. It is a type of symbiosis that is mutual and individual at the same time. It has the potential to feed the relationship as well as the individual development of each person simultaneously.

No individual can have this connection with more than one other person at a time. A third party destroys the balance.

On the technical side of marriage are the regulations that involve a tit for tat interaction. You do this and I’ll do that. It is practically driven and legally restrained. This type of marriage serves a convenient purpose: child bearing, sexual gratification, financial goals or cultural expectations.

The terms are legally contracted and no personal connection is required. Prince Charles and Lady Diana are modern day examples.

The details of a technical marriage are negotiated, not proposed, and focus mostly on external issues. The laws regulating these marriages are written by man. God honors these laws and expanded on some in an attempt to encourage decency but that is another discussion.

Personal marriages are spontaneous and reflect matters of the heart where God resides.

Hagar may have been Abraham’s wife in the “legal” sense but there was no real personal connection and the relationship was nothing more than a sophisticated, legalized form of adultery based on cultural traditions not generated by God.

In fact, we have reason to believe Abraham never slept with Hagar after the birth of Ishmael, possibly after his conception. Not only was friction generated immediately following but no additional children were sired later.

Adultery can be committed many different ways. In Abraham’s case it was by polygamy. That isn’t the worst form of adultery but adultery it is. The law that allowed Hagar to be called Abraham’s wife was man made not God made. Adultery and polygamy are wrong for the same reason.

Adultery defined:

Therefore adultery would be defined as taking any marital attention, on any level, promised to a first person and giving it to a second person, even if the first person agrees and the second person is legally and culturally recognized.

In Abraham’s case he gave affection to Hagar which he previously promised to Sara. His relationship to Hagar was legally right but personally wrong. It was adultery.

Sara was offended and insulted that Abraham was foolish enough to entertain the suggestion.  All she wanted was understanding and reassurance. She got neither.

A full discussion on why Abraham was vulnerable to this suggestion can be found here.

Abraham did catch on but only after Ishmael’s conception when the fireworks started. The friction between Sara and Hagar was the kind normally associated with adultery. In this instance Abraham acted stupidly but with the help of his proper wife he got smart quickly, after it was too late.

Note: Ladies don’t expect your husband to read between the lines. Generally, men don’t have enough emotional literacy to do that well. He’ll appreciate it more if you are gently direct.


This is a sticky subject and one that is supercharged emotionally.

Divorce, like technical marriage, is a legal issue and is often treated as the anti-grail of Christian home making. Several religious groups (no names mentioned) never allow divorce under any circumstances and those that do, discuss it only in very hushed tones, treating it with shame.

Modern day attitudes toward divorce are very similar to the Pharisees attitude toward the Sabbath. No discussion or deviation is allowed.

Divorce is clearly allowed in the Bible but disdained by all the religious and disallowed by some. The same groups who shame divorce will often allow, even insist on marriages between people who fit the cultural, religious, technical formulas but have no basis for real connection and then frown on a divorce when the relationship goes badly wrong.

What we do comes perilously close to worshiping marriage rather than using it for the benefit and health of mankind. We sacrifice personal relationships on the altar of technicalities.

The truth is, God said and did nothing to endorse Abraham’s so-called “marriage” to Hagar but He definitely endorsed the inevitable “divorce.” When Sara insisted Hagar be cast out, God agreed. Abraham wasn’t even required to provide her with material support. If God had not intervened, Hagar and Ishmael would have died. Ishmael, however, according to God’s promise, did become a large and influential nation.

This situation can’t be soft soaped. It was not just a gentle separation it was a complete disavowal of Hagar and Ishmael. There were no conjugal visits later and when Sara died Abraham married Keturah, he didn’t reunite with Hagar.

All of that is to say, God doesn’t spend a lot of time describing, defining and categorizing distortions. He also doesn’t get tangled up in the legal wrangling which results from our mistakes.

He gives us the truth and assumes we are intelligent enough to see the simplicity of it even though we tend to knowingly stray from it. It takes very few words to describe a basic truth but there is no end to possible distortions or excuses when we fail.

He also assumes we have enough sense to know when things like divorce are necessary to make situations tolerable. God didn’t hesitate to disband the arrangement between Hagar and Abraham and we shouldn’t be afraid to consider it when necessary, without condescension and judgment.

Abraham would have been emotionally retarded to think bedding Hagar could be dignified with terms like “wife” or “marriage” and the same thing could be said of people who think marriages and the people in them can only be served well by disallowing divorce.


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11 Comments on Abraham Committed Adultery Got Divorced

  1. minority scholarship on Wed, 5th May 2010 10:59 am
  2. found your site on del.icio.us today and really liked it.. i bookmarked it and will be back to check it out some more later

  3. ubong on Sun, 5th Sep 2010 6:08 am
  4. did Abraham ever divorce Sara

  5. EnnisP on Sun, 5th Sep 2010 6:31 am
  6. No, Sara died while still married to Abraham. You can read about it in Genesis 23. Abraham did remarry, however, and you can read about that in Genesis 25.

  7. Peter on Fri, 17th Sep 2010 5:51 am
  8. I appreciate the time and effort you put into your posts; however, I disagree with the post above for the following reasons:

    The fact that David had many wives but was only called on the carpet once for adultery–with Bathsheba–makes me think that your definition of adultery may not be the same as the definition of adultery that existed thousands of years ago.

    In your post about the massacre of the Midianites you said, “Compounding this problem is the fact that God actually regulated polygamy in the Law of Moses. The assumption is, if it is allowed in the law it must have been acceptable on some level. There is, however, a big difference between creating legislation to control a practice and endorsing it.”

    While it may be true that God wasn’t “endorsing” polygamy, the fact that He gave laws to regulate it, tells me that it wasn’t sinful in His eyes.

    Paul said “‘Everything is permissible’—but not everything is beneficial.” My reading of the OT makes me think that polygamy was viewed as permissible by men and God in spite of the fact that it wasn’t God’s best and often had negative consequences.

  9. EnnisP on Fri, 17th Sep 2010 8:16 am
  10. Hey Peter. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment.

    If by “sinful” you mean “culpable” I agree. But, even if they weren’t too blame I would still have to say adultery, fornication, whatever, was sinful in the sense that it misses the mark of God’s original design.

    Also, while God did regulate polygamy for the average individual He specifically said Kings were not to have multiple wives. So, He really didn’t need to say anything more about that.

    God responded to only one of Davids adulterous relationships (with Bathsheba) because it involved additional violations:

    One, It was with a woman already married.

    Two, It required lieing and was done secretively.

    Three, to cover the lie a particularly egregious murder was committed.

    Not to mention that God had done many things to personally endorse David so these multiple violations couldn’t go unaddressed.

    Paul made the “all things are permissible (lawful)” statement twice and in both instances was referring to things that were, in fact, legally allowed, and the list included fornication and adultery, which were freely practiced in Corinth, the city to which he wrote.

    But, that makes the point that what the law allows – Old Testament or not – does not represent how things should be. Suggesting this reflects poorly on God.

    Regulating polygamy was God’s way of being gracious toward people caught in this cultural trend but grace is only needed when things are sinful.

    For a more complete read on the nature of OT law go here.

    Thanks again for the visit.

  11. Peter on Fri, 17th Sep 2010 12:44 pm
  12. Hi Ennis,
    I believe God forbids sin; I don’t believe that He regulates it in His laws to be gracious.

    I also think it’s a misinterpretation of Deuteronomy 17:17 to say that kings were not to have mutiple wives. I know the KJV says they were not to “multiply” wives. It also says in the previous verse that they were not to multiply horses. I highly doubt God was restricting kings to just one horse. Most translations say that kings were not to “acquire many” or “have a large number.”

    If David, a man after God’s heart, committed adultery numerous times, it’s very hard for me to believe that God would just let it slide. Adultery is a big deal to God. As you know, He included it in the ten commandments that He personally handwrote and gave to Moses.

    BTW, even though I think the case you make for calling polygamy (polygyny) adultery is flimsy, I really got a lot from your post about the massacre of the Midianites. (It was a Google search on “Midianites” that led me to your blog.) I plan to read more of your stuff.

    I love what you and your wife are doing with your lives! Keep up the good work!

  13. EnnisP on Fri, 17th Sep 2010 2:53 pm
  14. Thanks for responding. I appreciate the dialogue. If it doesn’t change minds it at least stimulates thinking and that is good.

    OK, I will assume you have a different definition for adultery. But if David didn’t commit adultery we both agree that he did at least commit polygamy.

    Question: Do you think that is wrong today and if so why wouldn’t it be wrong in David’s time?

    In other words, if it is right at any time why wouldn’t it be right all the time?

    I do talk about this on another post. If you have the time, please read.

  15. Peter on Fri, 17th Sep 2010 5:28 pm
  16. “The best approach and the one God used was to begin putting regulations on many existing trends which otherwise would not have been allowed.”

    Interesting idea. You could be right although I get a sense that God just laid out His righteous laws and the people had to deal with them whether they liked them or not.

    On a side note, it seems that the dancing naked at the golden calf mentioned in the KJV may have been based on a faulty translation.

    Now to answer your question : )
    I do think polygamy was and is wrong in the sense that God has something better, but I do not think that it was or is sinful. The fact that He created just one woman for Adam and the fact that Paul cites monogamy as a qualification for elders leads me to believe that monogamy is best.

  17. Peter on Sat, 18th Sep 2010 12:48 am
  18. I probably shouldn’t have used the word “wrong” in the last comment. I think it’s better to describe polygamy as “less than God’s best”; therefore, I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone : )

    […] It also proves that divorce is sometimes the only acceptable option. Sending Hagar away was nothing if it wasn’t divorce and it was a God-sanctioned decision. You can read about that here. […]

    […] These quotes are from: Abrahams Adultery and Divorce […]

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