A man and his beautiful wife immigrate to a foreign kingdom. The man assumes that if the local king knew they were married, he would be killed and the king would marry his widow. So he asks his wife to pretend to be his unmarried sister. He knows the king will still take her, but as her nearest male relative the man might live—and receive the customary bride-price.
The beautiful woman does become one of the king’s wives. Then the hoax is revealed. The horrified king releases her and sends off the man and his wife with gifts to buy their silence. The couple journeys on, richer than when the story began.
A version of this sordid tale appears two and a half times in the book of Genesis/Bereishit. The first time, in the portion Lekh-lekha (“Go for yourself”), the husband is Abraham and the king is the Pharaoh of Egypt. In this week’s portion, Vayeira (“And he appeared”), Abraham and Sarah do it again with Avimelekh, King of Gerar.
And Pharaoh summoned Abraham and said: “What is this you have done to me? Why didn’t you tell me that she is your wife? Why did you say ‘She is my sister’, va-ekach her for my wife?” (Genesis/Bereishit 12:18-19)
va-ekach (וָאֶקַּח) = and I took; and I married.
And Abraham said of Sarah, his wife: “She is my sister”. And Avimelekh, the king of Gerar, sent vayikach Sarah. (Genesis 20:2) … Avimelekh summoned Abraham and said: “What have you done to us?” (Genesis 20:9)
vayikach (וַיִּקַּח) = and he took; and he married.
In a later portion, Toledot (“Lineages”), Abraham’s son Isaac passes off his wife Rebecca as his sister. This time the tale is cut short because the king (also called Avimelekh)1 never takes her as a wife. The aborted version begins the same way as the first two iterations, but it reverses the lessons of the Abraham tales.
In this series about the wife-sister tales, the first two posts will present different explanations of the wife-sister tales in which the trickster is Abraham. The third post will show how Isaac’s attempt to use the wife-sister lie challenges the conclusions of all three interpretations.
Explanation A: Exculpating the Patriarchs
Early commentary such as Bereishit Rabbah2 takes the wife-sister stories as literal history, and assumes that Abraham and Sarah are more virtuous than Pharaoh or Avimelekh. It does not question Abraham’s claims that the men of both Egypt and Gerar routinely seize beautiful female immigrants, and kill their husbands if they are married.
And it happened, as he [Abraham] was close to entering Egypt, he said to Sarah, his wife: “Hey, please! I know that you are a woman of beautiful appearance. And it will happen that the Egyptians will see you and they will say: ‘This is his wife!” And they will kill me, but they will let you live.” (Genesis/Bereishit 12:11-12)
Abraham implies that the Egyptian border guards routinely detain beautiful women of all ages (Sarah is at least 65)4 and then kill their husbands if they are married. With these orders, the guards would have to murder a lot of foreign men. But perhaps the idea is not so preposterous, given that in 2018 American guards on the border of Mexico jailed the children of would-be immigrants separately from their parents, without making any provision for reuniting the families. Foreigners have been fair game in many cultures.
The first part of Abraham’s claim, that beautiful immigrants will be seized, turns out to be true in both episodes.
And it happened, that Abraham came to Egypt and the Egyptians saw that the woman was very beautiful. The officials of Pharaoh saw her, and they praised her to Pharaoh, vatukach ha-ishah to the House of Pharaoh. (Genesis 12:14-15)
vatukach ha-ishah (וַתֻּקַּח הָאִשָּׁה) = and the woman was taken; and the wife was taken.
And Abraham said of Sarah, his wife: “She is my sister”. And Avimelekh, the king of Gerar, sent vayikach Sarah. (Genesis 20:2)
For both stories, the early commentary only needed to explain:
- why Sarah is so beautiful,
- why she is never molested by a king, and
- why Abraham’s behavior is excusable.
Although Sarah is in her sixties when Pharaoh takes her, early commentary maintains that she is extraordinarily beautiful. Talmud Bavli, Megillah 15a, lists Sarah as one of the four most beautiful women in the world.5 According to Bereshit Rabbah 40, the whole land of Egypt was illuminated by her beauty.
The Torah does not say whether Pharaoh has sexual intercourse with Sarah. But early commentators wrote that both times when Abraham passes her off as his sister, God protects her from being molested by afflicting the king with a disease that prevents intercourse.
And God afflicted Pharaoh and his household with great afflictions over the matter of Sarah, the wife of Abraham. And Pharaoh summoned Abraham and said: “What is this you have done to me? Why didn’t you tell me that she is your wife?” (Genesis 12:17-18)
The Torah does not describe the nature of the affliction. Bereishit Rabbah 41 suggested lupus or another disease that affects the skin. Rashi6 wrote that this affliction made intercourse harmful to Pharaoh. Whatever God’s affliction is, according to classic commentary it prevents Pharaoh from molesting his new wife, and alerts him that things are not what they seem. Then Sarah tells him the truth, and he is outraged that he was tricked into marrying another man’s wife. He sends Abraham and Sarah out of the country, and lets them take all their new wealth with them.7
Pre-modern commentators differ when it comes to the question of Abraham’s virtue. The Zohar says that Abraham sees the divine presence is with Sarah, and an angel confirms it, so he knows she will be safe.8 But Ramban wrote: “Know that our father Abraham inadvertently committed a great sin by placing his virtuous wife in a compromising situation because of his fear of being killed. He should have trusted in God.”9
Even if Abraham is not guilty of putting his wife in peril, what about his deception? Some commentators view Abraham’s lie as his only alternative, given the nastiness of the Pharaoh and the famine in Canaan.
The second version of the wife-sister tale appears in the Torah portion Vayeira, after God has promised Abraham and Sarah they will have a child at last. They settle in the Negev Desert, but travel west to Gerar to live there as resident aliens for a while. Once again Abraham calls Sarah his sister. The king of Gerar, Avimelekh, “takes” her.
At this point in the Torah, Sarah is 89 years old.10 So classic commentary needs to explain why Sarah is still beautiful enough to tempt a king. Before Abraham takes her to Gerar, three angels announce that in a year she will have a son. (See my earlier post, Vayeira: Laughter, Part 1.) In Talmud Bavli, Bava Metzia 87a, Rav Hisda explains that after the annunciation, Sarah’s worn and wrinkled skin is rejuvenated, and her beauty returns.
In this iteration of the wife-sister tale, God speaks to the king in a dream after he has married Sarah. God informs him that Sarah is another man’s wife, and declares that Avimelekh and his people must die for this sinful marriage.
But Avimelekh had not come close to her. And he said: “My Lord, will you slay even innocent people? Did not he himself [Avraham] say: ‘She is my sister’? And she even said: ‘He is my brother’! With a pure heart and with clean palms I did this.”
And God said to him in the dream: “Even I myself knew that you did this with a pure heart, so I restrained you from sinning against me, even I myself. Therefore I did not let you touch her.” (Genesis 20:4-6)
How does God restrain Avimelekh from having intercourse with Sarah? Through “a closing up of orifices” according to Bereishit Rabbah. Rashi wrote that God closes the orifices of Avimelekh and his household, including their ears and noses as well as genital and urinary openings.
The rabbis of Bereishit Rabbah overlooked Avimelekh’s protest that his intention were good, and give God all the credit for the king’s restraint. “R. Aibuil said: It is like the case of a warrior who was riding his horse at full speed, when seeing a child lying in the path, he reined in the horse, so that the child was not hurt. Whom do all praise, the horse or the rider? Surely the rider!”11
And Avimelekh summon Abraham and said to him: “What did you do to us? And what is my sin against you, that you brought [this] upon me and my kingdom? [You committed] a great sin, doing what should not be done against me!” (Genesis 20:9)
Abraham explains his poor opinion of the morals of Gerar, and adds that Sarah really is his half-sister as well as his wife. Avimelekh then gives Abraham a flock, a herd, and slaves, and permission to settle wherever he likes in the land of Gerar. He gives Sarah a thousand silver pieces as hush money.
Then Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Avimelekh and his wife and his slave-women, and they gave birth. For God had shut every womb in the house of Avimelekh on account of the matter of Sarah, the wife of Abraham. (Genesis 20:18)
This is the verse that Bereishit Rabbah and Rashi interpreted as meaning that God had “closed up every orifice”. Other commentators, including Ramban and 18th century Rabbi Chayim ben Moshe ibn Attar, wrote that the men’s genitals were also closed, and this proved that Avimelkh could not be the biological father of Sarah’s son Isaac.
Is Abraham’s behavior excusable in this case? The idea that Abraham knew God would protect Sarah still applies in the story of Avimlekh, but why does he take Sarah to Gerar in the first place, when they could just continue grazing their livestock in the Negev? The classic commentary has no answer.
Traditional commentators assumed the first two wife-sister stories relate what actually happened to Abraham and Sarah. They talked up Sarah’s beauty to explain why she was brought straight to the king both times, and they worried about and how Sarah and Abraham retained their virtue. But they offered no insights on why these stories are included in the Torah; traditional commentary views the tales as part of history.
When one considers the Torah as an ancient composite crafted by one or more religious editors, the questions that traditional commentary answered are not the important ones. What is the purpose of including the sordid story at all? And why does the patriarch Abraham tell lies and sell his wife to a foreign king—twice? What kind of sacred book is this, anyway?
These questions illustrate the frequent problems that arise when one both takes the bible literally and believes that the designated heroes are good, and the designated villains are bad. Some people feel a psychological need to have faith in a religion that contains contradictions, so the classic explanations serve them well.
What about the rest of us? Next week’s post will examine two other explanations, one from the viewpoint of a modern scholar and one from the viewpoint of a modern storyteller.
- Avimelekh can be translated as “My Father King”; avi (אֲבִי) = my father + melekh (מֶלֶךְ) = king. Avimelekh may be a title, like “Pharaoh”, and the second Avimelekh may be the first one’s successor.
- Bereishit Rabbah, also called Genesis Rabbah, is a collection of commentary on the book of Genesis by rabbis from the Talmudic period of about 300-500 C.E.
- 2 Samuel 11:1-17.
- Sarai and Avram leave Charan when Avram is 75 (Genesis 12:4). Avram is ten years older than Sarai (Genesis 17:17).
- The other three beautiful women in Megillah 15a are Rahab, Abigail, and Esther.
- 11th-century C.E. Rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki.
- Genesis 12:20.
- Moses de Leon, 13th century Spain, Zohar 1:181b, 3:52a.
- Ramban (13th-century Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, a.k.a. Nachmanides), translated in Etz Hayim, ed. David L. Lieber, Jewish Publication Society, 2001, p. 73.
- In Genesis 17:15-17 and 18:10 Abraham learns that Sarah will give birth at age 90. An alternative to early commentators’ claim that Sarah miraculously regains the beauty of youth is a theory that the border officials single her out for a different reason. Twentieth-century commentator Savina Teubal (Sarah the Priestess, Swallow Press Reprint edition, 1984) suggests that Sarai was the priestess of a god or goddess in Charan, and her marriages with Pharaoh and Avimelekh were examples of hieros gamos, an ancient ritual in which a high priestess and a king had intercourse in order to enact the coupling of the gods who made the land fertile. Teubal did not explain why a king would employ a priestess from a foreign land for this ritual, instead of using the priestess of one of his own country’s gods.
- Bereishit Rabbah, translation by H. Freedman, Soncino Press, London, 1939.
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