Abraham has a low opinion of two kings in the book of Genesis/Bereishit: the Pharaoh of Egypt, and Avimelekh of Gerar. Yet he emigrates to both their countries with his wife Sarah: to Egypt in the Torah portion Lekh-lekha and to Gerar in Vayeira.
Both times, Abraham says Sarah is so beautiful that if men knew they were husband and wife, he would be killed and the king would marry his widow. So he asks Sarah to pretend to be his unmarried sister; that way, he figures, he will survive when the king takes her. And as her nearest male relative, he might even receive gifts.
“Say, please, you are my sister, so that yitav for me for your sake, and my soul will live on account of you.” (Genesis 12:13)
yitav (יִיטַב) = it goes well, it becomes better.
Both times, the king does take Sarah as one of his wives. Then the hoax is revealed. The horrified king releases her and sends off Abraham and Sarah with gifts to buy their silence. The couple journeys on, richer than before.
Last week’s post, The Wife-Sister Trick, Part 1, reviewed “Explanation A”: traditional commentary’s attempt to take the wife-sister stories as literal history while also rescuing the reputations of Sarah and Abraham. Here are two other explanations of what each iteration of the tale “really” means.
Explanation B: Instilling Xenophobia
Modern commentator Alan Segal posits that in the 8th and 9th centuries B.C.E., when most of Genesis was written,1 the editor(s) of Genesis cast Abraham and Isaac as the tricksters in an existing folk tale. Then they added details to promote the view that the descendants of the patriarchs belong in Canaan and should have no dealings with outsiders.2
In the portion Lekh-Lekha Abraham hears God tell him to leave his hometown, Charan, and move to a new land that God would show him.3 He and his household, including his childless wife (called Sarai at this point) journey south through Canaan. But there is a famine, so they continue south to live as resident aliens in Egypt.4 (See last week’s post, The Wife-Sister Trick, Part 1.) There Abraham passes off his wife as his sister.
And [Pharaoh] heytiv for Abraham because of her, and he acquired a flock and a herd and male donkeys and male slaves and female slaves and female donkeys and camels. (Genesis 12:16)
heytiv (הֵיטִיב) = he made it good, he made things go well. (From the same root as yitav.)
Abraham and Sarah’s return to Canaan with additional movable property prefigures the liberation from Egypt in Exodus. Near the end of Genesis, their grandson Jacob and his descendants, the Israelites, migrate to Egypt.5 In the book of Exodus, God liberates the Israelites from Egypt and leads them back toward Canaan, enriched by “gifts” from the Egyptians. Later prophets warn the kings of Judah not to ally with Egypt.
The Torah makes it clear that God wants the Israelites, Abraham’s descendants, to live in Canaan. The first iteration of the wife-sister tale reinforces this idea, and also prejudices Israelites against making treaties with Egypt.
According to Segal, the second iteration of the wife-sister tale adds the information that the God of Israel also speaks to non-Israelites—at least when it is necessary to promote the welfare of the people of Israel. 6
Then God came to Avimelekh in a dream at night and said to him: “Hey, you are dead, on account of the woman that you took, for she is a wedded wife!” (Genesis 20:3)
Avimelekh protests that he was an innocent dupe, and God takes credit for preventing Avimelekh from touching Sarah. (See The Wife-Sister Trick, Part 1.) Then God tells the king what to do.
“And now, restore the wife to the man, because he is a prophet, and he can pray for you, and then you shall live.” (Genesis 20:7)
In the morning Avimelekh asks Abraham why he told such a terrible lie.
And Abraham said: “Because I said [to myself] only: there is no fear of God in this place, and they will kill me over the matter of my wife.” (Genesis 20:11)
Abraham appears to believe that any foreign country with a foreign religion must be lawless and immoral. After Abraham has insulted him, Avimelekh collects himself and bribes the man with lavish gifts.
Then Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Avimelekh and his wife and his slave-women, and they bore children.” (Genesis 20:17)
This version of the wife-sister tale repeats the lesson that outsiders are immoral, and also shows that God is in charge everywhere and promotes the welfare of divinely favored people.
I often find that a scholarly analysis of a passage in Torah provides valuable information about the details, but misses the meaning of the bigger story. In this case Segal shows how the biblical editor(s) used the wife-sister trickster tale for political persuasion. But why not find a less sordid story for this purpose? Why does the Torah use the wife-sister tale in the first place?
Explanation C: Exploring Morality in a Trickster Tale
A reader or listener without an agenda, someone who does not require Abraham and Sarah to be saintly or the kings of foreign countries to villainous, might well consider the wife-sister stories humorous tales that raise questions about morality.
In the first iteration of the tale, Abraham is traveling from Beit-El toward the Negev when he notices there is a famine in Canaan. He takes his household all the way to the border of Egypt, a journey of about 200 miles (320 km), before he tells Sarah:
“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. Say, please, you are my sister …” (Genesis 12:11-13)
After traveling toward Egypt for weeks, does Abraham suddenly remember how immoral Egyptians are? Or does he get a brilliant idea for leaving Egypt with a lot more wealth, if his scam comes off? I know which alternative I would believe if I were Sarah.
And the officials of Pharaoh saw Sarah, and they praised her to Pharaoh, and the woman was taken to the House of Pharaoh. (Genesis 12:15)
Out of all the beautiful women the border guards detain, 65-year-old7 Sarah is the one who gets referred to Pharaoh. Abraham receives a generous bride-price, just as he had hoped. Twentieth-century commentator Pamela Tamarkin Reis wrote, “To the ancient reader, I am convinced, this shady deal was funny. Pharaoh, more fool he, is paying all those livestock and servants for a woman who is not even a virgin. And no spring chicken into the bargain.”8
Then God afflicts Pharaoh with some unmentionable disease.
And God afflicted Pharaoh with great afflictions, and his household, 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 she is your wife?” (Genesis 12:17-18)
The Torah never says whether Pharaoh’s disease prevents him from bedding Sarah, but he does discover the truth about Sarah, perhaps because the disease makes him impotent and he wants to know why. Pharaoh has Sarah and Abraham escorted out of the country—but they get to keep the bride-price, perhaps because Pharaoh wants to avoid publicity.
So Abraham went up from Egypt, he and his wife and everyone that was his, and Lot with him, to the Negev. And Abraham was very heavy with livestock and with silver and with gold. (Genesis 13:1-2)
Pharaoh is the dupe in this story, but he is innocent of any deliberate wrongdoing.
Sarah is passive; the Torah does not report anything she says in Egypt. The custom among Abraham and Sarah’s people is to give a prospective bride the chance to consent or refuse the prospective groom.9 But the Torah does not say Sarah protested against being taken to Pharaoh—and the Torah never depicts her as shy. Perhaps she is more interested in getting rich than in avoiding polyandry.
Abraham is the chief trickster in this tale. He lies to the Egyptians at the border, to Pharaoh, and perhaps to Sarah. He destroys his wife’s honor by putting her in a position where she, too, appears to be a liar, and where she stays in Pharaoh’s harem long enough for her chastity to be questioned. Yet despite his moral failings, Abraham goes unpunished. He leaves Egypt in safety and with riches. Cleverness, not virtue, is rewarded.
In the second wife/sister story there is no famine in Canaan, no practical reason for Abraham and Sarah to leave their campsite in the Negev.10 God has recently told them both that in a year Sarah (who has been childless her whole life) will have a son.11
Abraham should be focusing on giving his aged wife the baby God promised, but instead he decides to repeat the wife-sister trick, this time in the relatively nearby city-state of Gerar. His supposed fear that the men of Gerar would kill him over Sarah is more ridiculous the second time, since Sarah is now 89.
And Avimelekh, king of Gerar, sent and took Sarah. (Genesis 20:2)
I can imagine Abraham cheerfully waving goodbye, not caring whether God prevents Avimelekh from bedding her, or uses the arrangement to get Sarah pregnant. Either way, once the king discovers the truth about Sarah he will have to buy they off to avoid public shame.
This time God tells the king in a dream that he will die because Sarah is already married. Avimelekh protests his innocence. God is not impressed, and tells him to restore Sarah to Abraham—because Abraham is a prophet who can pray for the king’s life.
When Avimelekh summons Abraham in the morning, his first words are:
“What have you done 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)
Avimelekh’s outburst is justified; he did not act against Abraham, but Abraham tricked him into marrying an already married woman. Abraham insults the king by explaining his poor opinion of the morals of Gerar, and adds feebly that Sarah really is his half-sister as well as his wife.
But Avimelekh does not blow up. He remembers that he needs Abraham to pray for him, so he gives the man a flock, a herd, slaves, and permission to settle wherever he likes in the land of Gerar. He gives Sarah a thousand silver pieces as hush money.
At that point in the story we finally learn what God has been doing to Avimelekh.
Then Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Avimelekh and his wife and his slave-women, and they bore children. For God had closed up every womb in the House of Avimelekh over the matter of Sarah, the wife of Abraham. (Genesis 20:18)
In other words, God afflicted the king and his household with impotence. Once again the duped king cannot even enjoy his wedding night with Abraham’s “sister”.
In this second iteration of the wife-sister tale, God forces an innocent and protesting Avimelekh to bribe Abraham in exchange for the prayer of a so-called prophet. This demonstrates favoritism rather than justice on the part of the God-character.
Sarah is silent again. And Abraham? He has no excuse for his behavior. If he were really worried about being murdered in Gerar, he could simply stay home. Instead he swindles Abimelekh because he can get away with it and make a profit. No sense of honor or consideration for his wife stops him. Abraham does not care about the king of Gerar, who is, after all, a foreigner. But he prays for him anyway, once he has received enough gifts.
The first two wife-sister tales in the Torah were undoubtedly derived from an ancient folk tale. Folk tales love reversals. In this story, the poor man tricks a rich man into giving him wealth. The king expects to marry a beautiful virgin and discovers he has taken an old married woman.
Another common feature of folk tales is that men never learn. Abraham manages to escape Egypt with his wife and Pharaoh’s gifts. Then 25 years later, when God has promised Sarah a miraculous birth, Abraham casually goes to Gerar and tries the same trick. It never occurs to him that when Sarah’s son is born, someone might wonder whether he is really the father.
Yet the kings in both iterations of this tale try to do the right thing. When they discover they have been duped, they resolve the situation with generosity rather than death sentences. Everyone benefits from the righteous behavior of Pharaoh and Avimelekh.
God heals both kings after they have returned Sarah to Abraham, with gifts. But God does even more for Abraham, the trickster with the shady morals. He dies happy after a long and healthy life.12
Does this mean God does not care about human morality?
The third time a patriarch claims that his wife is his sister, the story takes a different turn. See next week’s post, The Wife-Sister Trick, Part 3.
- Scholars who subscribe to the Documentary Hypothesis consider the wife-sister passages as either J or E, both sources dating from 922-722 B.C.E., the period when the Israelites had two small kingdoms, Samaria (a.k.a. Israel) in the north and Judah in the south. (Scholars who view the sources as more fragmentary do not dispute this dating.) The kings of Samaria and Judah vacillated between paying tribute to Assyria and allying with Egypt, but biblical books from Exodus through Zephaniah opposed cooperation with world powers, the worship of other gods, and intermarriage with other peoples.
- Alan F. Segal, Sinning in the Hebrew Bible, Columbia University Press, New York, 2012, chapter one.
- Charan had became an important Assyrian city by the time this passage was written.
- Genesis 12:10.
- The first three Torah portions of the Joseph story: Genesis chapters 37-47.
- Also God warns Lavan in a dream that he must not do anything bad to Jacob (Genesis 31:22-24) and God tells Bilam in a dream that he cannot curse the Israelites because God has blessed them. When Bilam attempts to curse them anyway, God puts blessings in his mouth (Numbers 22:7-12 and 23).
- Sarai and Avram leave Charan when Avram is 75 (Genesis 12:4). Avram is ten years older than Sarai (Genesis 17:17).
- Pamela Tamarkin Reis, Reading the Lines, Hendrickson Publishers, 2002, p. 45.
- Genesis 24:58-59.
- Genesis 20:1.
- Genesis 18:10-14.
- At age 175. And Avraham breathed his last, and he died at a good old age, old and satisfied. (Genesis 25:7-8)
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