Two people hear God’s voice for the first time in this week’s Torah portion, Lekh Lekha (“Get yourself going”, God’s opening words). And the reactions of Abraham and Hagar to their first encounter with the divine are very different.
God first speaks to Abraham1 at the start of this week’s Torah portion, Lekh Lekha. There is no preliminary visual effect, just a voice.
And God said to Abraham: “Get yourself going from your land and from your home and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make you into a great people, and I will bless you, and I will make your name great, so it will become a blessing.” (Genesis 12:1-2)
The rewards for obedience are significant: descendants for the childless 75-year-old old man, a divine blessing (which usually means health and prosperity), and fame that will lead people to say “May you be blessed like Abraham”. So Abraham leaves Charan.
And Abraham took Sarah, his wife, and Lot, his brother’s son, and all their personal property that they had acquired, and the persons that they had made [their own] in Charan. And they left to go to the land of Canaan. (Genesis 12:5)
Abraham obeys God without hesitation. But he makes his own decisions about who and what to take with him. He also decides his own route, heading southwest toward Canaan, rather than southeast toward his birthplace, Ur, or north into the mountains of the Hittites.
Fortunately, God confirms that Canaan is the right place after Abraham reaches the town of Shekhem.2
Abraham and God have many conversations in the book of Genesis, including one in next week’s Torah portion, Vayeira, in which Avram questions God’s plan to wipe out the entire population of Sodom and Gomorrah. He even tells God:
“Far be it from you to do a thing like this, to kill the tzadik with the wicked, [treating] tzadik and wicked the same! Far be it from you! The judge of all the earth would not do justice!” (Genesis 18:25)
Yet later in the portion Vayeira, Abraham fails to question God’s command to sacrifice his own innocent son Isaac.3 God issues that command as a “test”, and Abraham chooses blind obedience over standing up for justice. If God is testing Abraham’s sense of ethics, God learns that his protégé’s knowledge of good and evil comes into play only intermittently.
Sometimes, as at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Abraham uses his own judgment. Sometimes he does not.
The other person who hears God speak for the first time in this week’s portion is Hagar, Sarah’s Egyptian slave.
Sarah, childless and post-menopausal, assigns her slave to Abraham in the hope that Hagar will produce a son for them by proxy. Once the slave is pregnant, her status in the household is ambiguous. Hagar treats Sarah with less respect, and Sarah reacts by oppressing and humiliating her. Hagar runs away.
And a messenger4 of God found her by a spring of water in the wilderness … and said: “Hagar, slave of Sarah, where did you come from and where are you going?” And she said: “I am running away from the presence of Sarah, my mistress.” (Genesis 16:7-8)
Hagar answers honestly about where she came from. But she does not say where she is going. Perhaps the messenger’s question makes her realize that she has no plan, and poor future prospects.
Abraham can plan his journey from Charan to Canaan because he is the owner of a livestock business; he is accustomed to taking command and thinking out what to do. Hagar is only a slave, with no experience in making her own decisions.
And the messenger of God said to her: “Go back to your mistress and submit to oppression under her hand.” (Genesis 16:9)
We know that Hagar does not respond, because the next sentence begins with the messenger speaking to her again—a convention the Torah uses to indicate silence on the part of the one spoken to. Hagar does not want to return and submit to Sarah, but she is probably afraid to protest against the order.
And the messenger of God said to her: “Here you are, pregnant, and you will give birth to a son. And you shall call his name Yishmaeil, because God listened to your oppression.” (Genesis 16:11)
Yishmaeil (יִשְׁמָעֵאל) = God listens. Eil(אֵל) = God + yishma (יִשְׁמָע) = he listens. (Many English translations spell the name “Ishmael”.)
God’s messenger adds that Hagar’s son and his kinsmen will fight everyone else, and everyone else will fight them. This information is enough for Hagar. She herself may never escape slavery again, but God will ensure that her son is independent and has his own extended family of like-minded rebels. So she returns to Sarah.
But before Hagar leaves the spring, she says one more thing.
And she called out the name of God, the one who spoke to her. “You are Eil Roi!” Because, she said: “Have I not seen, even here, after [God] saw me?” (Genesis 16:13)
Eil Roi (אֵל רֺאִי) = God Who Sees Me. Eil(אֵל) = God + roi(רֺאִי) = is seeing me.
Hagar realizes that the messenger is just a device for God to speak through. God has listened to her and seen her! She has heard God, and seen one of God’s manifestations!
Like Abraham, Hagar makes a considered decision to obey God. Unlike Abraham, she is amazed and awed by her first encounter with God.
Awed, but not cowed. Hagar waits silently until God promises a reward she considers worth sacrificing herself for. And she is the only person in the Torah who assigns a name to God.
What happens the first time God speaks directly to a human being? It depends on the psychology of the individual. Abraham is a clever person accustomed to leadership. Hagar is a pawn who yearns for independence, and treasures her encounter with the divine.
Both of them are certain that they do indeed hear God’s voice, not the voice of a demon or some subconscious part of themselves. Throughout the Torah, everyone to whom God speaks knows that the speaker is God.
I have had a few liminal experiences in my life, but I have never heard God speaking to me, and I am glad. Now, in the twenty-first century, someone who claims to hear words directly from God might be evaluated for schizophrenia—or made the guru of a cult. Regardless of where the voice in your head comes from, the most important thing is what you do as a result of hearing it. Abraham takes practical action to emigrate with his whole household, expecting certain improvements in his life. Hagar accepts her fate as a slave, and also names and remembers her amazing encounter with the divine.
At this point in the book of Genesis, Abraham is named Avram(אַבְרָם). Later in the Torah portion Lekh Lekha (Genesis 17:3-5), God changes his name to Avraham(אַבִרָהָם), which is written “Abraham” in traditional English translations.
Why is there so much inbreeding in the book of Genesis/Bereishit? After the first two Torah portions, most of the major characters are descended from Abraham’s father, Terach, through multiple lines. The branches of their family tree keep growing together again.
The Torah does not say how many wives Terach has, but it does name four of his children at the end of the Torah portion Noach. He has three sons: Avram (whom God renames Abraham), Nachor, and Haran.1 He also has a daughter named Sarai (whom God renames Sarah).2 While they are all living in the southern Mesopotamian city of Ur, Avram and Nachor marry their own relatives.
Avram and Nachor took wives for themselves. The name of Avram’s wife was Sarai, and the name of Nachor’s wife was Milkah, the daughter of Haran … (Genesis 11:29)
In other words, Avram marries his half-sister, Terach’s daughter, and Nachor marries his niece, Terach’s granddaughter.
Terach leaves Ur and heads toward Canaan with some of his family members. Halfway there they stop and settle in the town of Charan, where Terach dies.3
Thanks to archeology, we know that Charan was an actual city where the main road north from Ur met the main road that went southwest to Canaan. Both Charan and Ur were dedicated to the moon-god Nannar. The residents of those two cities worshiped many other gods as well, in temples stocked with idols. They also kept terafim, figurines of lesser gods, to protect their households.
Terach would probably acknowledge Nannar, but his primary god might be a different deity. In last week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah, both Betueil (son of Nachor and Milkah) and Betueil’s son Lavan use the same four-letter name of God that Avram uses (commonly represented in Roman letters as Y-H-W-H).4 Later in Genesis, Lavan says “Y-H-W-H” has blessed him, and he makes a vow in the name of “the god of Nachor”.5 But he is not a monotheist; he also owns terafim.6
Lekh-Lekha and Vayeira
Does Terach hear the voice of God, Y-H-W-H? The Torah is silent.7 But it is conceivable that he starts traveling toward Canaan because he hears the same voice in Ur that his son Avram hears in Charan:
“Go for yourself, away from your land and from your relatives and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.” (Genesis 12:1)
For Avram, that land turns out to be Canaan.
Avram hears God’s voice many more times in the portions Lekh-Lekha and Vayeira. On five occasions God promises him that his descendants will inherit the land of Canaan.8 God informs him that first those descendants will be enslaved in another land for 400 years.9 God demands circumcision for every male in his household and all of his future descendants, alters the names of Avram and Sarai, and promises that Sarai (now Sarah) will have a son at age 90.10 Avram (now Abraham) talks God into agreeing not to wipe out Sodom and Gomorrah if there are even ten innocent people living there.11 When Sarah demands that Abraham cast out his first son, Ishmael, along with Ishmael’s mother, God tells him to do what Sarah says.12
Terach’s daughter Sarah also hears God’s voice. When three men who turn out to be angels visit in the Torah portion Vayeira, she overhears one of them say that she will have a child the following year. Sarah, who is 89, laughs silently. Then she hears God asking Abraham: “Why did Sarah laugh?”
And Sarah lied, saying: “I did not laugh,” because she was afraid. But [God] said: “No, for you did laugh.” (Genesis 18:15)
Abraham and Sarah do have a son. Isaac is probably 26 when his father hears God order him to sacrifice that son on an altar. God calls him off at the last minute, and Abraham goes home alone.13 Then he gets news from Charan: Nachor and Milkah (Abraham’s brother and niece) had a son named Betueil, and Betueil now has a daughter named Rebecca.14
Abraham arranges a marriage for Isaac fourteen years later, in the Torah portion Chayei Sarah. He insists that Isaac must marry one of his relatives back in the Aramaean town of Charan. He adds the condition that the bride must be willing to move to Canaan, because he wants Isaac to stay in Canaan.
Why does he reject the idea of simply getting Isaac a Canaanite wife?
In last week’s post I proposed that Abraham worries Isaac might stray in his religion, after the trauma of being bound as a sacrifice to his father’s god. (See Chayei Sarah: Arranged Marriage.) Since his extended family in Charan worships Y-H-W-H (among others)15, a wife from that branch of the family would not tempt Isaac away from serving the God of Abraham.
But there is another possible reason for marrying Isaac to one of his relatives. Perhaps Abraham believes his covenant with God can be best continued through the generations if as many of his descendants as possible can hear God’s voice. For that, more inbreeding might help.
Rebecca may be exactly the young woman Abraham has in mind as a bride for Isaac. After all, she is descended from Terach through both Nachor and Milkah. She agrees to go to Canaan, and marries Isaac.
In Toledot, this week’s Torah portion, Rebecca is alarmed by her pregnancy; it feels as though a wrestling match is taking place in her womb.
And she went to inquire of God. And God said to her: “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples will branch off from your belly. One people will be mightier than the other, and the older will serve the younger.” (Genesis 25:22-23)
The text does not say where Rebecca goes to inquire of God; some commentary suggests that she consults an oracle. But the text does say that God speaks directly to her, and it uses the name Y-H-W-H. The voice of God is correct; Rebecca has twins, Esau and Jacob, who eventually found two peoples in the Torah: the Edomites and the Israelites.
Rebecca’s husband Isaac, who is descended from Terach through both Abraham and Sarah, also hears God’s voice.
And God appeared to him that night and said: “I am the god of Abraham, your father. Don’t be afraid, because I am with you, and I will bless you and increase your descendants for the sake of my servant Abraham.” (Genesis 26:24)
Jacob proves more intelligent and more patient than his twin brother Esau.17 The Torah does not say whether his parents realize that Jacob is the better candidate to carry on the covenant with God. Isaac fumbles his delivery of the blessing of Abraham, Esau is enraged at the result, and Rebecca tells Jacob to flee to her brother Lavan’s house in Charan. Then she tells Isaac that she is disgusted with the Hittite women Esau married, and she could not bear it if Jacob also married one of the local women.
Isaac calls in Jacob. Rebecca has not told him where to send Jacob for a bride, but Isaac decides to continue Abraham’s family breeding program.
And he said to him: “Do not take a wife from the daughters of Canaan! Rise, go to Padan Aram, to the house of Betueil, your mother’s father, and take yourself a wife from there, from the daughters of Lavan, your mother’s brother.” (Genesis 28:1-2)
Thus he orders Jacob to marry one of his first cousins, who also carries more than the usual share of Terach’s blood (or genes).
As soon as Jacob leaves home he, too, hears the voice of God. In next week’s Torah portion, Vayeitzei, he dreams of God’s angelic messengers ascending and descending between heaven and earth, and then sees God standing over him. God confirms that the blessing of descendants who will inherit Canaan has gone from Abraham to Isaac to Jacob.
And [God] said: “I am God [Y-H-W-H], the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. The land which you are lying on I will give to you and to your descendants.” (Genesis 28:13).
Jacob marries both of Lavan’s daughters, and their eight sons (plus Jacob’s four sons with Lavan’s daughters’ servants) become the ancestors of the twelve tribes of Israel.
Being able to hear God is not a unique trait of Terach’s descendants. Before the Flood, God converses with Adam and Eve, Cain, and Noah. After the flood, God speaks twice to Hagar the Egyptian and once to Avimelekh of Gerar.18 But most of God’s words in the Genesis are addressed to Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, and Jacob, all inbred descendants of Terach.19
There is no record in the Torah of God speaking to any of Jacob’s children. Perhaps a few of them would be able to hear God’s voice, but God chooses to be “with” them without words. It may be enough for God that all the inbreeding among Terach’s descendants results in the genesis of the Israelite people. The next time God speaks in the Torah is in the book of Exodus when God needs a prophet to bring the Israelites from Egypt to Canaan, and chooses Moses.20
In the Torah, God is one of the characters, and converses with some of the human characters. Is this only a literary device to make the stories juicier? Or does it also reflect some deeper truth?
When individuals today claim to have heard God’s voice, how can we tell whether they have heard an external power of the universe, or a hidden part of their own minds?
Is there a difference?
Genesis 20:12 (unless Abraham is lying).
Genesis 30:27 and 31:51-53.
In a 5th century C.E. story attributed to Rabbi Chiya, Terach made idols for a living, and Abraham mocks them (Bereishit Rabbah, 38:13). This fable enhanced Abraham’s reputation with a Jewish audience, but the Hebrew Bible itself never mentions idols in connection with Terach.
Genesis 12:7, 13:14-17, 15:1-7, 15:17-21, 17:1-8.
Genesis 22:1-2, 22:11-19.
See Genesis 25:29-34, in which Esau can only think about eating, but Jacob cooks stew ahead of time and is prepared to bargain for Esau’s birthright.
Hagar hears God in Genesis 16:7-13 and 21:17-18. Avimelekh hears God in a dream in Genesis 20:3-7.
Lavan, Rebecca’s brother, also hears God in a dream (Genesis 31:24).
Here is another essay from the first version of my book on moral psychology in Genesis, which I am now rewriting. The Torah portion this week is the beginning of the Abraham story, Lekh-Lekha (“Get Going” or “Go for Yourself”).
And Sarah, the wife of Abraham, had not borne children to him, and she had an Egyptian domestic slave, and her name was Hagar.And Sarah said to Abraham: “Here, please! God has barred me from bearing [a child]. Come, please, into my domestic slave; perhaps I will be built up through her.” (Genesis 16:1-2)
Hagar (הָגָר) = ha- (הַ) = the + geir (גֵּר) = male resident alien; or ha- (הַ) = the + hitgar(הִתְגָּר) = opposed, struggled with. (Hagar is a foreigner who becomes Sarah’s opponent.)
Sarah is 75 years old and God has never “opened her womb”, enabling a first pregnancy. Maybe she concludes that God must intend Abraham to have descendants through a different woman, so he might as well do it now. Or maybe she hopes to adopt Hagar’s son as her own, so he will support her if she outlives her husband. Maybe she believes that once Abraham has impregnated one woman, God will make it easier for him to do it again, and she will finally give birth.1
And Abraham paid attention to the voice of Sarah. And Sarah, the wife of Abraham, took Hagar the Egyptian, her domestic slave, at the end of ten years [that] Abraham had been dwelling in the land of Canaan; and she gave her to Abraham, her husband, as a woman for him. (Genesis 16:2-3)
Sarah does not ask Hagar if she is willing to have intercourse with an 85-year-old man. The whole premise of slavery is that one person gives orders and the other must obey. Later books in the Torah establish some rights for Israelites who become slaves because of debt,2 but foreign slaves have fewer protections. There is no limit to how long a foreign slave must serve, and the foreign slave is considered property that can be sold or inherited, like a herd of cattle.3
Today a world-wide consensus of opinion considers slavery grossly unethical, though it still occurs. By our own standards it is unethical for Sarah to own Hagar, but not by the standards of the Torah.
And he came into Hagar and she became pregnant. And she saw that she was pregnant, vateikal, her mistress was, in her eyes. (Genesis 16:4)
vateikal (וַתֵּקַל) = and she was diminished, of no account. (A form of the verb kalal, קלל. Various stems of this verb mean to be small and unimportant, to demean oneself, to declare a curse, to reduce, to shake something or someone.)
Hagar upsets the premise of slavery when she stops treating Sarah with deference. The Torah does not say exactly what Hagar does. Perhaps she continues to visit Abraham’s bed after she is pregnant. Perhaps she does not follow Sarah’s orders as thoroughly as she used to, or perhaps she complains. All these actions would be unwise, but they may not be unethical.
Sarah becomes enraged when her pregnant slave belittles her by acting above her station.
Then Sarah said to Abraham: “The cruelty I suffer from is on account of you! I myself placed my domestic slave in your bosom. Now she sees that she is pregnant, va-eikal in her eyes. May God judge between me and you!”Then Abraham said to Sarah: “Hey! Your domestic slave is in your hand. Do to her whatever is good in your eyes.” (Genesis 16:5-6)
va-eikal (וָאֵקַל) = and I am diminished, of no account. (Another conjugation of the verb kalal.)
From Sarah’s point of view, Abraham is guilty of encouraging Hagar to treat his real wife as if she has no status. Maybe he was unusually considerate of the slave in his bed. Maybe he continued to take Hagar to bed even after she was pregnant.4 Regardless of whether Abraham did anything to contribute to Hagar’s new attitude, he refuses to take any responsibility for her future welfare.
Yet by agreeing to impregnate Hagar, Abraham implicitly accepted some responsibility for her. She is the future mother of his child, and therefore he is morally obligated to protect her.
When Sarah tells Abraham “May God judge between me and you!” she means that the situation is not fair. I can imagine her thinking: It’s not fair that I lose both my slave and my husband’s attention, when I’m the one who made the arrangement in the first place. I never asked to be barren. I was only promoting God’s plan. Why should I suffer?
I can imagine Hagar thinking: It’s not fair that my mistress elevates me to the position of a concubine, and then snatches it away from me again. I never asked for this role, but now that I have it, why should I suffer?
And I can imagine Abraham thinking: It’s not fair that I’m forced to choose between these two women, between my lifelong companion and the mother of my child. I never asked for this mess. Why should I suffer?
The situation is unfair to all three characters, but no one deliberately creates an unfair situation—until Abraham tells Sarah “Do to her whatever is good in your eyes” and Sarah does it.
Sarah vataneha, and [Hagar] ran away from her. (Genesis 16:6)
vataneha (וַתְּעַנֶּהָ) = then (she) oppressed her, humiliated her, overpowered her, violated her. (A piel form of the verb anah, עָנַה = was wretched.)
The Torah outlaws humiliating or overpowering an Israelite slave,5 but not a foreign slave. Nevertheless, the use of the verb anah implies that Sarah’s behavior is unethical. The Torah uses a piel stem of anah to describe the unfair working conditions of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt, where they are the foreigners.6
Hagar runs away impulsively; she has no particular destination in mind, though she does head south, in the general direction of Egypt. When she stops at a spring on the road and a messenger (a.k.a. an angel) from God asks her two questions, Hagar can only answer the first one.
And he said: “Hagar, domestic slave of Sarah, where have you come from, and where are you going?” And she said: “Me? I am running away from my mistress, Sarah.” And the messenger of God said to her: “Return to your mistress, vehitani under her hand.” (Genesis 16:8-9)
vehitani (וְהִתְעַנִּי) = and submit to being humiliated or tormented. (An imperative hitpael form of the verb anah.)
But Hagar does not obey, at least not immediately. Since she is silent, the divine messenger adds that Hagar will have too many descendants to count. Hagar still does not respond. The messenger adds that her son will be like a wild ass, impossible to discipline or domesticate, fighting everyone. After hearing that, Hagar obeys and returns to Sarah. She is willing to project her desires on her son and let him be the rebel.
She may also be having second thoughts about running away. If continuing south meant that she would escape slavery and her son would not be born a slave, then that would be a better moral choice that obeying God. But Hagar may now realize that if she stays on the road, sooner or later someone else will capture and enslave her, or worse. In that case it would be better to return to Sarah and Abraham, who at least want to keep Hagar’s unborn child alive and well.
For whatever reason, Hagar makes the most ethical choice open to her in a bad situation.
Sarah accuses Hagar of belittling her, but actually both Sarah and Abraham belittle Hagar. The treatment of foreign slaves varies even within their household. Abraham trusts and respects one of his foreign slaves, Eliezer of Damascus, enough to promote him to the post of steward. If Abraham remains childless, Eliezer will be his heir.7
On the other hand, Sarah does not respect Hagar. She assigns Hagar to Abraham long enough for her to get pregnant, but then instead of promoting her to the status of a concubine she takes full control over her slave again. Even then, Sarah is insecure about her own value relative to the value of the woman carrying Abraham’s child. When Hagar does something that triggers Sarah’s insecurity, she abuses the woman who became pregnant at her own command. Sarah does not master her own emotional reaction in order to treat Hagar more ethically.
Abraham ducks his responsibility to protect Hagar. He looks the other way when his wife is cruel to her, and he fails to promote Hagar to concubine over Sarah’s head, even though in his society the mother of a man’s heir is normally a wife or concubine.8 Abraham is motivated primarily by a desire to avoid confrontation with Sarah. He does not master his own emotional complex in order to treat Hagar more ethically.
Even when biblical characters do not consider whether slavery itself is immoral, they still face moral choices about individual actions. Today, even when heads of governments do not consider whether war itself is immoral, they still face moral choices about how they conduct war. Even when we do not transcend the evils that are commonplace in our societies, may we still strive to transcend our selfish interests and emotions in order to protect other human beings as much as we can.
Pamela Tamarkin Reis, Reading the Lines: A fresh Look at the Hebrew Bible, Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, Mass., 2002, pp. 60-63.
Pilagesh (פִּילֶגֶשׁ) = concubine, lesser wife. Hagar is always called a shifchah (שִׁפְחָה) or an amah(אָמָה); both terms mean a female domestic slave. The term pilagesh first appears in Genesis 22:24, in a list of the children of Abraham’s brother Nachor: eight by wife, Milkah, and four by his concubine, Re-umah. Abraham’s grandson Jacob has two wives, Rachel and Leah, who ask their domestic servants, Bilhah and Zilpah, to bear children to him. The Torah calls Bilhah and Zilpah Jacob’s domestic servants (Genesis 32:23), and later refers to Bilhah as Jacob’s pilagesh. All other references in the Hebrew Bible to a mother of a free man’s children call her either a wife or a concubine, not a slave.
The default marriage in the west today is an exclusive covenant between two people who care for one another and restrict their sexual activity to one another. This arrangement is feasible and rewarding for many couples, but not for everyone. So some people try polyamory or “open marriage”, some cheat on their covenant by secretly having sex with others, and some opt for divorce.
The default marriage in the Torah is a different kind of contract. A man with sufficient wealth can take multiple wives, concubines, and female slaves. Another option is to pay prostitutes. A woman who is not a prostitute is expected to restrict her sexual activity to the man who owns her. A girl or unmarried women is supposed to remain a virgin and live with her father until he either sells her as a slave,1 or accepts a bride-price for her.
In this unequal kind of marriage, one wife might feel jealous of her husband’s other wife because she has some advantage: more children, or more affection from their husband. 2 But a wife does not complain that her husband is unfaithful to her when he takes another woman.
A husband, however, considers it a serious breach of contract if one of his wives has sex with another man. In the Torah, if a married woman is witnessed committing adultery, both she and her lover get the death penalty.3 A man expects exclusive possession of any woman he purchases, as a wife or as a slave. If he merely suspects his wife has been unfaithful, but there are no witnesses to prove it, he can divorce her; a man can divorce a wife for any reason.4
What if she has been in an apparently compromising position, but there are no witnesses, and he does not want to divorce her? The question arises both in this week’s Torah portion, Naso (“Lift it”) in the book of Numbers, and in the book I am writing on moral psychology in the book of Genesis.
Naso in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar
A spirit of kinah passes over him and he is kinei of his wife and she defiled herself, or a spirit of kinah passes over him and he is kinei of his wife and she did not defile herself. Then the man shall bring his wife to the priest, and he shall bring an offering over her, one-tenth of an eifah of barley flour. He shall not pour oil over it and he shall not place frankincense on it, because it is a grain-offering of kena-ot, a grain-offering of an acknowledging reminder of a bad deed. (Numbers/Bemidbar 5:14-15)
kinah (קִנְאָה) = jealousy, envy; passion, fury, zeal.5 (Plural: kena-ot, קְנָאֺת. In all cases kinah is a powerful feeling that may overwhelm reason.)
kinei (קִנֵּא) = he is jealous, envious, zealous.
The priest pronounces a curse on the woman, asking God to inflict a particular physical calamity on her if she did lie down with a man other than her husband. (Biblical scholars do not agree on the exact nature of the calamity, which involves her belly and her crotch; it may be a miscarriage.) The woman must say “Amen, amen!” The priest writes down the curse, then rubs the lettering off into water mixed with dirt from the floor of the sanctuary and makes the woman drink it then and there.
After this impressive ordeal, the verdict is up to God.
When he has made her drink the water, it happens: if she defiled herself and she was unfaithful with unfaithfulness to her man, then the water will enter her, inflicting a curse for bitterness, and her belly will swell and her crotch will fall, and the woman will become am object of cursing among her people. But if the woman has not defiled herself and she is pure, she is cleared and she will bear seed. (Numbers 5:27-28)
Her husband no longer has any reason for jealousy, and becomes able to trust his wife again. The rest of the community also accepts that she is innocent.
Vayeira in the book of Genesis/Bereishit
In the book of Genesis, Abraham puts his wife, Sarah, in a compromising position twice by telling a king that she is his sister, accepting the king’s bride-price, and cheerfully sending her off to the king’s harem. Is he incapable of jealousy?
On the first occasion, in the Torah portion Lekh-Lekha, Abraham, Sarah, and the rest of his household travel to Egypt to escape a famine. Abraham asks his wife to lie when they reach the border of Egypt.
“Hey, please, I know that you are a woman of beautiful appearance. And if the Egyptians see you and say, ‘This is his wife’, then they will kill me and let you live. Say, please, you are my sister, so that it will be good for me because of you, and I will remain alive on account of you.”(Genesis 12:11-13)
Abraham’s extraordinary request assumes that Egyptians abhor adultery, but have no qualms about killing a man in order to marry his wife. The pharaoh himself makes Sarah his concubine and pays Abraham a lavish bride-price. Then God afflicts the pharaoh and his household with a disease. The pharaoh scolds Abraham and has him and Sarah escorted out of Egypt, but they get to keep the bride-price.
So Abraham tries it again with King Avimelekh of Gerar in the Torah portion Vayeira. This time God speaks to the king in a dream after he has paid the bride-price and welcomed Sarah into his house. God threatens to kill Avimelekh, who protests his innocence due to ignorance.
And God said to him in the dream: “Also I knew that you did this with a blameless heart, and I, even I, restrained you from erring against me. Therefore I did not let you touch her. And now, restore the man’s wife. Since he is a prophet, he will pray for your benefit and life.” (Genesis 20:6-7)
The early commentary assumes that the king of Gerar also executes husbands in order to marry their wives, so Abraham’s deception is once again justified. Furthermore, since God calls Abraham a prophet, both the Talmud and Bereishit Rabbah conclude that Abraham knows ahead of time that God will protect Sarah.6 Therefore he is not guilty of pimping his wife.
I disagree. After traveling toward Egypt for weeks, does Abraham suddenly remember the bizarre ethics of Egyptians? It is more likely that he gets a brilliant idea for acquiring a lot more wealth in livestock and slaves—if his scam comes off. That would also explain why he does not return the bride-price after the pharaoh discovers his scam.
He destroys his wife’s honor by putting her in a position where she, too, is exposed as a liar, and where she stays in Pharaoh’s harem long enough for her chastity to be in question. He is careless about her reputation and does not even consider her self-esteem.
Years later, Abraham uses the same scam to swindle Avimelekh of Gerar—apparently for no reason except that he can get away with it and make a profit. No sense of honor stops him, nor does any consideration for either his wife or the afflicted king.
Abraham is an amusing trickster, and nobody is killed on his account. He happily prays for healing for Avimelekh—once he has received the king’s gifts. But he fails to meet his moral obligations either to his wife or to the kings of the countries where he is a guest.
Abraham does, in effect, pimp his wife. Why does he feel no jealousy? If marrying the two kings were Sarah’s idea, then he might be granting her the freedom he enjoys as a man. But Abraham, not Sarah, is the one who initiates the scam both times.
If he knows ahead of time that God will prevent both kings from touching Sarah, then he is spared from jealousy over his property, i.e. his wife.
Or perhaps Abraham does not really care what happens to Sarah. The Torah says Isaac loves his wife, Rebecca,7 and Jacob loves one of his wives, Rachel,8 but it does not say Abraham loves any of the three women he has children with.9
There is more than one way to avoid jealousy in a marriage.
In Exodus 21:7-11, sexual duties are part of the job description of a daughter sold as a slave.
For example, in Genesis 29:31-30:24, Leah envies Rachel because their mutual husband, Jacob, loves Rachel more. Rachel envies Leah because Leah regularly bears Jacob children. In 1 Samuel 1:1-8, Hannah is jealous of her husband Elkanah’s other wife, Peninah, because Peninah has children.2
Leviticus 20:10, Deuteronomy 22:22. The Talmud later added so many extra requirements for conviction of adultery that the death penalty was no longer practiced. A man is free to have sexual intercourse with an unbetrothed virgin as long as he then pays her father a bride-price and marries her (Deuteronomy 22:28).
Kinah for God is usually translated as “zeal”, and kinah of one human over another human is usually translated as “jealousy”. God’s kinah regarding humans is often translated as “fury”, though Isaiah and Zecharaiah refer to God’s kinah meaning God’s zeal to ensure a good future for the Israelites (Isaiah 9:6, 11:11, 37:32; Zechariah 1:14, 8:2).
Talmud Makkot 9b, Bereishit Rabbah.
When God tells him to obey Sarah and send away Hagar and her son Ishmael, he is only troubled about Ishmael (Genesis 21:9-12).
Sarah (Genesis 21:2), Hagar (Genesis 16:15), and Keturah (Genesis 25:1-2).
“Lekh-lekha!” God says to Abraham at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, called Lekh-lekha. The first word of this phrase, lekh (לֶךְ), is easy to translate; it means “go” in the imperative. The second word, lekha (לְךָ), is more ambiguous. The -kha suffix means “you”, “your”, or “yourself”. The preposition at the beginning of the word, לְ, could correspond to either “to” or “for” in English.
Certainly God is urging Abraham, who has lingered for years in Charan, to go to a new land now. Adding lekha might make the request more urgent; God might be saying “You! Go!” or “Get yourself going!”
But commentators through the ages have pointed out that God might also be saying “Go for yourself!” In other words, Abraham should uproot himself from Charan and go to Canaan for his own sake. Or God might be saying “Go to yourself!” In other words, Abraham should look inside himself and see that going away is part of his nature.
We had many reasons, my husband and I, to uproot ourselves from our familiar and comfortable life in Oregon and fly to Europe and eventually Israel for a new adventure. Here on the other side of the globe we have had many new experiences, some of them delightful. But the day we visited Tempio Maggiore, the Great Synagogue of Florence, was so disconcerting I still feel uprooted.
The synagogue itself is a majestic Neo-Moorish building constructed 1874-1882, after Jews in Florence were given full citizenship and the old ghetto was razed and turned into a large public square.
In the same block as the Great Synagogue we found a now-defunct Chabad house; Ruth’s, the best kosher restaurant I’ve eaten at on two continents; and soldiers in berets and “camouflage” uniforms. (At least that’s what uniforms of patchy green, brown, and khaki are called, though they really stand out in a street of gray stone and stucco.) These soldiers were carrying sub-machine guns.
A building labeled “Carabinieri” was in the next block. But there were no carabinieri posted at the entrances to this military police station. Instead, they were walking slowly up and down the block in front of the synagogue. Protecting Jews. Protecting us.
I know that anti-Semetism has increased lately in the United States, and in a few cities people have opened fire on Jews in synagogues. I understand why even in Portland, Oregon, there are now police guards at the front doors buildings where Jews are arriving in droves for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I understand why we had to show our ID at the door to enter a synagogue in Prague for Yom Kippur.
But I was not psychologically prepared for sub-machine guns.
Some people probably feel safer thanks to these well-armed carabinieri. But I felt less safe. I felt as if I had stepped into a war zone without knowing it. Am I more at risk than all the other Americans touring Florence just because I am a Jew and I eat at a kosher restaurant?
Maybe I am. Can I accept it? What about when we reach Israel, and we see a lot more guards carrying sub-machine guns?
“Lekh-lekha! Go for yourself!” I expected this journey to benefit me personally, broadening my horizons and knowledge. And it has.
“Lekh-lekha! Go to yourself!” I did not expect this journey to open an uncomfortable cranny of my own psychology. But it has, most notably at Terezin, and now in Florence.
And Isaac stayed in Gerar. And the men of the place asked about his wife, and he said: “She is my sister,” because he was afraid to say “my wife”—“lest the men of the place kill me on account of Rebecca, since she is good-looking.” (Genesis 26:6-7)
Isaac’s father, Abraham, pulls the wife-sister trick twice, once in Egypt and once in Gerar. (See The Wife-Sister Trick, Part 1 and Part 2.) Now Isaac moves to Gerar and starts the process a third time in this week’s Torah portion, Toledot (“Lineages”).
The Torah tells us he is afraid; he believes that people in Gerar are so immoral they would kill a man in order to marry his wife—perhaps because he heard the story from his father. (The assumption is that marrying an already-married woman is so sinful, not even foreigners would do it. Murder is the lesser sin.)
Abraham’s feelings about passing off his wife as his sister are omitted; we do not even know if he believes he would be killed, or if he sees it as a way to get rich. At least Abraham has a reason for moving to Egypt.
A famine happened in the land, and Abraham went down to Egypt lagur there, because the famine was heavy on the land. (Genesis 12:10)
lagur (לָגוּר) = to live as a resident alien, to sojourn.1
In the second tale, Abraham goes to Gerar for no apparent reason—except maybe to get richer.
And Abraham pulled out from there to the land of the Negev, and he settled between Kadeish and Shur, vayagar in Gerar. And Abraham said of Sarah, his wife: “She is my sister.” And Avimelekh, king of Gerar sent and took Sarah.(Genesis 20:1-2)
vayagar (וַיַּגָר) = and he lived as a resident alien, and he sojourned. (Another form of the verb lagur.)
After the king of Gerar discovers the ruse, he showers gifts on Abraham and Sarah in order to induce Abraham to pray for him and compensate Sarah for any loss of honor.
In the third iteration of the wife-sister tale, Isaac faces another famine, and goes to Gerar even though he believes the men of Gerar are exceptionally lusty and murderous.
Then a famine happened in the land, apart from the first famine that happened in the days of Abraham. And Isaac went to Avimelekh, King of the Philistines, to Gerar. And God appeared to him and said: “Do not go down to Egypt. Stay in the land that I say to you. Gur in this land and I will be with you and I will bless you, for I will give all these lands to you and your descendants, and I will establish the oath that I swore to Abraham, your father.” (Genesis 26:1-3)
gur (גּוּר) = Live as a resident alien! Sojourn! (Another form of the verb lagur.)
What is “the land that I say to you”? Canaan is the land God “shows” Abraham.2 But perhaps Isaac interprets God’s words as an order to stay in Gerar.
When Isaac tries Abraham’s wife-sister trick with the second Avimelekh3 of Gerar, the reader or listener expects the same outcome: the king will marry Rebecca, God will afflict the king and his household with a disease, and he will discover that the cause of the affliction is the sin of marrying an already-married woman. Then the king will restore Rebecca to Isaac, along with some movable property as compensation, and they will return to Canaan richer than when they left.
But this time it does not happen. The new king of Gerar merely watches and waits. After a while Isaac gets tired of treating Rebecca like a sister.
And it happened because the days were long for him. Then Avimelekh, the king of the Philistines, looked out the window, and he saw—hey! Isaac was fooling around with Rebecca, his wife. And Avimelekh summoned Isaac and said: “So hey! She is your wife! Then why did you say: ‘She is my sister?”
And Isaac said to him: “Because I said (to myself): ‘Lest I die on account of her.’”
And Avimelekh said: “What is this you have done to us? Is it a small thing that one of the people might have lain down with your wife? Then you would have brought guilt upon us!” (Genesis 26:8-10)
Even though Rebecca is beautiful, not a single man in Gerar has attempted to bed her or marry her. The only moral transgression that occurs is Isaac’s deception about their relationship.
Then Avimelekh commanded all the people, saying: “Anyone who touches this man or his wife will certainly be put to death.” And Isaac sowed that land, and he obtained that year a hundredfold. And God blessed him. And the man became great, and he grew constantly greater until he became very great. (Genesis 26:11-13)
This king does not need to shower Isaac with gifts. God makes Isaac rich.
Traditional commentators take the wife-sister tales as literal history, and also assume that Abraham and Sarah are more virtuous than any of the kings. They do not question Abraham’s claims that the men of both Egypt and Gerar routinely seize beautiful female immigrants and kill their husbands if they happen to be married.
But when Isaac tries the wife-sister trick and nothing happens, their attempts to prove that the foreign king and his men are immoral prove feeble. Nineteenth-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote: “Isaac’s concern was not unfounded; for as soon as the true relation between Rebecca and Isaac became known, Avimelech found it necessary to protect them by a decree of the death penalty for any assault.”4
However, Avimelekh might issue the order, “Anyone who touches this man or his wife will certainly be put to death” simply in order to reassure the fearful Isaac, not because there is any real danger. If Rebecca were at risk for sexual assault, why would so much time pass without any man making the attempt?
Early commentary interprets Avimelekh’s question “Is it a small thing that one of the people might have lain down with your wife?” as proof that the king was at least planning to lie with Rebecca. Rashi interpreted the phrase achad ha-am (אַחַד הָעָם), “one of the people” as “the most prominent of the people, meaning the king”.5 And 16th-century rabbi Ovadiah Sforno claimed Avimelekh means he can bed Rebecca whenever he wants because the king “is singular among his people”.6
But although these commentators strained to paint the second Avimelekh in a bad light, the most they could say was that the king thinks about having sex with Rebecca, but does not do it.
Meanwhile, they find Isaac and Rebecca’s behavior scandalous. Rashi, following Bereishit Rabbah, wrote that when Avimelekh saw Isaac and Rebecca “fooling around”, they were actually engaging in marital relations.7 They were doing it during the day where they could be seen; married couples are supposed to do it at night and in private.
Thus the efforts of traditional commentators to exculpate the patriarchs and matriarchs of Israel, and paint foreign kings and their male subjects as immoral, break down when it comes to the third wife-sister tale. The king of Gerar and his men think about sex, but do not do anything wrong. Isaac and Rebecca, on the other hand, are guilty of unseemly behavior in public.
Explanation B: Instilling Xenophobia
Modern scholars view the three wife-sister tales as three iterations of an ancient folk tale, casting first Abraham and then Isaac as the trickster husband. But why did the people who wrote and edited most of Genesis during the 8th and 9th centuries B.C.E. choose to include these tales in the first place? Perhaps they would encourage readers to believe that the descendants of the patriarchs belong in Canaan, and that foreigners are dangerous.8 (See The Wife-Sister Trick, Part 2)
Alan Segal argued that the first wife-sister tale reinforces other warnings in the Hebrew Bible against dealing with Egyptians; the second tale “stresses God’s promise to live in the Canaanite land in which the patriarchs wander; the third shows that Hebrews were also invited to live on land controlled by the Philistines, both with their flocks and to raise crops.”9
Isaac does gur for some years in Gerar, which this Torah portion refers to as Philistine territory.10 There he copies his father by pretending his wife is his sister, and by redigging his father’s wells.11
Yet the second Avimelekh actually does not invite Isaac to stay. Isaac apparently takes Avimelekh’s command to his people not to touch him or Rebecca as a free pass to engage in any lawful activity in Gerar. The next sentence says he plants seeds and harvests an excellent crop. The Torah does not say who, if anyone, owns the land Isaac farms, but it does say he uses wells that his father’s servants had dug during Abraham’s sojourn in Gerar. As Isaac becomes richer, the native Philistines become envious, and they plug the wells with dirt.12
And Avimelekh said to Isaac: “Go away from us, because you have become much more mighty than we are.” (Genesis 26:16)
This is the opposite of an invitation to stay. Only after Isaac has moved to Beer-sheva does Avimelekh come over with his councilor and his army chief to make peace. They say politely:
“We see clearly that God is with you, and we say: Let there be, please, an obligation by oath between our sides, between us and you, and let us cut a covenant with you: that you will do no harm to us, as we have not touched you, and we did only good to you and sent you away in peace. Now may you be blessed of God!” (Genesis 26:28-29)
Thus the third wife-sister tale implies that the Israelite kingdoms can co-exist peacefully with Philistine states, not that Israelites have a right to use Philistine land. The peace treaty, rather than instilling xenophobia, demonstrates that Israelites can get along with at least some outsiders.
Explanation C: Exploring Morality in a Trickster Tale
If the Torah is presenting three versions of a trickster tale as an entertaining way to teach a moral lesson, then the third wife-sister iteration must be the climax, the one with a turn that makes us think.
The new turn in the tale is that after the patriarch passes off his wife as his sister, nobody tries to get her into bed. Every man of Gerar, including the king, is circumspect and sexually virtuous. (I can imagine the second Avimelekh remembering what happened to his father, and being especially careful to avoid strange women.)
The funniest part of this version is when Isaac and Rebecca are fooling around right under the king of Gerar’s window, and the king pops his head out, looking outraged. Then he questions Isaac, just as the previous two kings questioned Abraham. But he does not need to pay them anything, since he did nothing wrong, and God has not afflicted him.
All three kings in the three wife-sister tales respect the moral law that one must not poach a married man’s wife. There is no indication that any of them resort to murder to fix their domestic affairs. And when they find out they were deceived, none of them take revenge. They ask the trickster to leave the country, but let him take his wife and his new riches with him.
The king in the bible who actually does kill a man in order to marry his wife is not a foreign king at all, but the second king of Israel, David.
While King David’s men are off fighting the Philistines, David looks down from his rooftop and sees “a very good-looking woman” bathing. He finds out she is Bathsheba, another man’s wife, but he has her brought to his bed anyway. After he has impregnated her, he tries to get her husband to spend a night with her, but he fails. So David has her husband killed, and then marries her.13
Is it a coincidence that King David actually commits the moral crimes that Abraham and Isaac claim the kings of Egypt and Gerar would consider committing? Or is the book of Genesis making an implicit criticism of Israel’s legendary king?
The wife-sister tale in Toledot demonstrates that a foreign king, even a king of Israel’s enemies the Philistines, can be more virtuous than an Israelite king.
It is not enough to say:
And you must love the geir, since you were geirim in the land of Egypt. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 10:19)
geir (גֵר) = foreigner, resident alien, sojourner. Plural geirim(גֵרִים). (From the same root as lagur.)
We should not only love foreigner and immigrants, but also remember that some of them are better than we are.
All three patriarchs in the Torah are sojourners: temporary resident aliens, staying in countries where they are not citizens. After Abraham leaves Charan, his homeland in Mesopotamia, the bible describes him as “sojourning” in Egypt (Genesis 12:10), Gerar (20:1), Beersheba (21:34), and Hebron (35:27). Isaac lives most of his life in Beer-sheva and Beer-lachai-roi, but he “sojourns” in Gerar (26:3) and Hebron (35:27). Jacob grows up in Beer-sheva, then sojourns with his uncle Lavan in Charan during his prime (32:5), and in Egypt during his old age (47:4).
Genesis 12:1, 12:5-7.
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 of Gerar may be the first one’s son and successor.
Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash: Sefer Bereshis, English translation by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, 2002, p. 566.
“Rashi” is the acronym for 11-century rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki.
Ovadiah Sforno, Sforno: Commentary on the Torah, translation and notes by Rabbi Raphael Pelcovitz, Artscroll Mesorah Series, 1993, p. 136.
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. “Fooling around” is one translation of metzacheik (מְצַחֵק) = amusing oneself, fooling around, playing around with; from the root tzachak (צָחַק) = laughed, which is also the root of the name Isaac(יִצְחָק) = he laughs, he will laugh.
Alan F. Segal, Sinning in the Hebrew Bible, Columbia University Press, New York, 2012, chapter one.
Segal, p. 33.
Scholars agree that the reference to Philistines (Plishtim) is an anachronism, since these people did not cross the Mediterranean and settle between the Negev and the sea until circa 1200 B.C.E., much later than the putative time of the three patriarchs. The Torah may use “Plishtim” here to indicate the geography, or remind the reader of one of Israel’s old enemies. The term “Canaan” in the Torah refers to a region that always includes the west bank of the Jordan and the Negev desert, but only sometimes includes the Philistine states as well.
2 Samuel, chapter 11.
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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 isa 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.
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.
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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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.
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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Sarai and Avram (later renamed Sarah and Abraham) are an unusual couple. In a society dominated by men, Sarai appears to have authority equal to her husband’s. Neither can give unilateral orders to the other.
The Torah portion Lekh-lekha (“Go for yourself”) begins with Avram, Sarai, and their nephew Lot leaving Charan (along with all their livestock and servants) and traveling through Canaan. Since there is a famine in that land, they continue south to Egypt.
It happened, as he was close to entering Egypt, he said to Sarai, his wife: “Hey, na! 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, na, you are my sister, so that it will go well for me for your sake, and my soul will live on account of you.” (Genesis my12:11-13)
na (נָא) = Please! (An indicator of courtesy and urgency.)
Avram believes that Sarai will end up in an Egyptian’s bed one way or another: either they will kill her husband to get her, or they will pay her brother to get her. (I will discuss Avram’s peculiar assumptions about Egyptian customs in my next two posts, Lekh-Lekha, Vayeira, & Toledot: The Wife-Sister Trick, Part 1and Part 2.)
Even though Avram believes his life is on the line, he does not command Sarai to masquerade as his unmarried sister. He implores her, saying na twice.
Sarai cooperates, and the Egyptian officials at the border take her to the Pharaoh’s harem. Perhaps she foresees that her stay there will be temporary, and then they will both leave Egypt with extra wealth. Or perhaps the childless 65-year-old is making her last bid for a baby.1 (Her menopause might be late, and at this point she does not know whether Avram is fertile.) The Torah does not tell us Sarai’s motivation.
Avram and Sarai return from Egypt to Canaan with more more livestock, slaves, gold, and silver, but no pregnancy. This is a problem for both of them. God promised to give the land of Canaan to Avram’s descendants, yet he has no descendants. Sarai does not need a child to take care of her after her husband dies, like other biblical women. She appears to have wealth of her own, enough so that in very old age she can afford to leave Avram in Beersheba, move north with her retinue, and pitch her own tent near Hebron.2 But like Avram, she would want a child to inherit her possessions and continue her name.
Later in this week’s Torah portion, Sarai concludes that her best option is to adopt a baby. A long-standing legal custom in the ancient Near East was for a childless wife to give her personal slave to her husband as a surrogate, and then adopt the resulting child as her own.3
Since Avram is Sarai’s equal, she does not command him to comply with this arrangement; she implores him.
Sarai, the wife of Avram, had not borne children to him, but she had an Egyptian female slave, and her name was Hagar. Sarai said to Avram: Hey, na! God has shut me off from childbirth. Enter, na, my slave; perhaps I will be built up through her.” And Avram listened to the voice of Sarai. Sarai, the wife of Avram, took Hagar the Egyptian, her slave, at the end of ten years of Avram’s dwelling in the land of Canaan; and she gave her to Avram, her husband, as a woman for him. (Genesis 16:1-3)
Sarai uses the same approach that Avram used on the border of Egypt, opening with “Hey, na!”4 then stating the problem, then asking for a favor with a second na. (These are the only two speeches in the Hebrew Bible in which the word na appears twice.) Like Sarai, Avraham agrees to go along with his partner’s scheme.
Although Sarai says “please” to her high-status husband, she can command her personal slave to do anything, so she does not bother to ask Hagar about the arrangement. When Sarai says “perhaps I will be built up through her” she indicates her intention to adopt the child Hagar bears as her own.
But once Hagar is pregnant with Avram’s child, she is not as subservient as Sarai expected.
When she [Hagar] saw that she was pregnant, [her] mistress wasdemeaned in her eyes. Then Sarai said to Avram: “The violence against me is because of you! I myself put my slave into your lap. Now she sees that she is pregnant, and I am demeaned in her eyes. May God judge between me and you!” (Genesis 16:4-5)
Sarai, accustomed to having complete authority over her own slaves, cannot bear to be snubbed and ignored by Hagar. She has lost some of her power.
Why does she blame Avram? Although Sarai may not feel sexual jealousy about the arrangement, I believe she is jealous in another way. Perhaps Sarai’s husband and business partner is continuing to spend time with Hagar instead of with her, thus reinforcing Hagar’s idea that her status has increased. Others in the household who notice this might also begin to treat Sarai with less respect, and Hagar with more.
So Sarai accuses Avram of encouraging Hagar’s new behavior. Then she cries, “May God judge between me and you!” She still believes that she and Avram are supposed to have equal authority. Anything that demeans Sarai challenges her God-given status. And Avram recognizes this.
Then Avram said to Sarai: “Hey! Your female-slave is in your hand; do to her as you see fit.” And Sarai oppressed her. And she [Hagar] ran away from her. (Genesis 16:6)
An angelic messenger from God reassures Hagar that her son will prosper in the long run, and tells her to return to Sarai and “submit yourself to her hand” (Genesis 16:9) Hagar obeys God. Sarai does not adopt the baby; instead of reporting a birth on Sarai’s lap or knees (the usual adoption ritual), the Torah says:
And Hagar bore to Avram a son, and Avram named his son that Hagar bore: Ishmael. (Genesis 16:15)
Thirteen years later God changes the names of Avram and Sarai to Avraham and Sarah, and tells Avraham that Sarah will bear him a son when she is 90.5 In next week’s Torah portion, Vayeira, Avraham holds a celebration on the day Sarah weans her own son, Isaac.
And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Avraham, making fun! And she said to Avraham: “Drive out this slave-woman and her son, so that the son of this slave-woman will not inherit with my son, with Isaac!” (Genesis 21:9-10)
Now Sarah is giving Abraham orders without saying “please”. Abraham does not argue with her, but he is worried about his son Ishmael. God reassures him that Ishmael and his progeny will become a great nation, and tells him:
“Everything that Sarah says to you, listen to her voice; because through Isaac your descendants shall be identified.” (Genesis 21:12)
Abraham follows Sarah’s orders and exiles Hagar and Ishmael the next morning. At this point, Sarah has more authority than Abraham. What she says, goes—because God is backing her up.
Unlike Sarai/Sarah, I have never had much authority. I never had staff working under me in any of my paid jobs. In one congregation I became a leader by dint of years of hard work, continuing Jewish education, and volunteering, but I learned that my opinions held no more weight than anyone else’s. Sometimes even when I thought we had reached a consensus, other volunteers ignored it. I felt snubbed and demeaned, like Sarai in response to Hagar.
I wonder if any of the other volunteers felt like Hagar under Sarai’s—my—thumb?
Or was I like Hagar, pregnant with knowledge and know-how, slaving away day and night without remuneration, sometimes appreciated and sometimes snubbed?
Authority and deference are still hard to balance, even when you say “please”.
Sarai and Avram leave Charan when Avram is 75 (Genesis 12:4) and Avram is ten years older than Sarai (Genesis 17:17). Therefore Sarai is 65 or so when they emigrate to Egypt.
And Avraham stayed in Beersheba (Genesis 22:19). Sarah died in Kiryat Arba, which is [now] Hebron … (Genesis 17:17). Isaac inherits his mother’s tent (Genesis 24:67).
The Code of Hammurabi specifies that when a wife gives one of her female slaves to her husband for the purpose of bearing his child (or children), she remains a slave until the husband dies, and her children by him are free. The man’s wife has the option of adopting her child.
Hey, na = הִנֵּה־נָא. Hineh (הִנֵּה) is often translated as “Behold!” or “Look!” or “Here!”, but since it is an attention-getting exclamation, I have been translating hineh as “Hey!”
In this week’s Torah portion alone, Abraham encounters God six times, more than anyone else in the book of Genesis/Bereishit. God both speaks to him and appears to him. And Abraham learns—or adopts—three new names for God: Eil Elyon, Adonai, and Eil Shaddai.
Before Abraham appears in the Torah, God is called either Y-H-V-H or Elohim. These names for God are also used in this week’s Torah portion, Lekh-Lekha (“Get yourself going”).
And Y-H-V-H said to Abraham: “Get yourself going, away from your land and from your birthplace and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.” (Genesis 12:1)
Y-H-V-H (י־ה־ו־ה) = the four-letter name of God (the “tetragrammaton”).
This is God’s most holy and personal name in Judaism. Y-H-V-H may be based on the root verb for being, becoming, and happening, hayah(היה); or it may derive from an ancient pre-Hebrew god name. It is often translated into English as “LORD” in all capitals, although the Hebrew word for “lord” is adon (see Adonai below) and has nothing to do with the tetragrammaton.
The Torah calls God Elohim from the beginning, in Genesis/Bereishit 1:1, and the name resurfaces often, including later in this week’s Torah portion:
And Abraham fell on his face, and Elohim spoke to him. (Genesis 17:3)
elohim (אֱלוֹהִים) = God; gods.
The first new name for God is introduced when Abraham he runs into a delicate political situation. After Abraham and his allies have won a war, the local kings meet in the valley of the king-priest Malki–Tzedek.1
And Malki-Tzedek, the king of Shaleim, brought out bread and wine. He was a priest to Eil Elyon. And he blessed him; he said: “Blessed is Abraham to Eil Elyon, the owner of heaven and earth”. (Genesis 14:18)
Eil Elyon(אֵל עֶלְיוֹן) = highest god, supreme god. Eil(אֵל) = god + elyon(עֶליוֹן) = highest, uppermost.
Then the crasser king of Sodom interrupts with a plan for dividing the spoils of war. In order not to insult the god of Malki-Tzedek, Abraham replies using the same god-language as the king-priest, merely putting his four-letter name for God in front of Malki-Tzedek’s formula.
And Avram said to the king of Sodom: “I vow by Y-H-V-H, Eil Elyon, the owner of heaven and earth, from a thread to a sandal strap, if I take anything that is yours … (Genesis 14:22-23)
Thus Abraham politely indicates that his own personal god is the same as Melki-Tzedek’s highest god, the owner of heaven and earth.
This is the only chapter in the Torah in which God is called Eil Elyon. But the word Elyon, “highest”, is used again 21 times in the Hebrew bible. Most of these uses occur in poems, where the parallel structure of verses requires a lot of synonyms for “God”.
The second new god-name introduced in this week’s Torah portion is an honorific. Abraham is the first person to call God Adonai, “my lord”. He follows this honorific with the four-letter name of God both times that he initiates a conversation with his god.
And Abraham said: “Adonai, Y-H-V-H, what will you give me, since I go childless, and the heir of my household is Eliezer of Damascus?” (Genesis/Bereishit 15:2)
And he said: “Adonai, Y-H-V-H, how will I know that I will take possession of it?” (Genesis/Bereishit 15:8)
Adonai (אֲדֺנָי) = my lords (usually translated as “my lord” when it refers to God). From the singular adon(אֲדוֹן) = lord, master.
The third new god-name in this week’s Torah portion is the most difficult to translate. Eil Shaddai is commonly translated into English as “God Almighty”, based on the Latin Vulgate, but Shaddai means something else in Hebrew.
It was when Abraham was 99 years old that Y-H-V-H appeared to Abraham and said to him: “I am Eil Shaddai. Walk constantly in my presence, and become perfect.” (Genesis 17:1)
Eil Shaddai(אֵל שַׁדַּי) = eil = god + shaddai. Shaddaimight mean:
who is enough (prefix she-/שֶׁ= who + dai/דַּי = enough)
of breasts (shadayim/שָׁדַי = breasts)
devastation (shudad/ שֻׁדַּד= devastated)
of the mountain (if the word shaddai is borrowed from Akkadian)
God is called Eil Shaddai 48 times in the Hebrew Bible. Most references to Eil Shaddai or justShaddai occur in poems,2 which need lots of synonyms for God. The two uses of Shaddai in the book of Ezekiel are onomatopoeic; Ezekiel describes the sound of wings in his vision as being “like the sound of Shaddai”.
However, Eil Shaddai does occur nine times in biblical prose passages, including every reference in Genesis. And all nine occurrences have something to do with fertility. In this week’s Torah portion, when God first reveals the nameEil Shaddaito Abraham, God goes on to say 1) that Abraham will be very fruitful, with nations of descendants; 2) that he and all the males in his household must be circumcised, and 3) that he will have a son with his 89-year-old wife Sarah.3
The five names for God that Abraham uses in the Torah portion Lekh-Lekha are still used in Hebrew liturgy today.4 Do Abraham’s three new names for God have any relevance to us? The name Eil Elyon, “Highest God”, is about God’s relationship to other gods. But by the time of Deuteronomy, the Torah is monotheistic, and uses only Elyon, “Highest”, as an adjective for the one God. Today, calling God Elyon might remind us that God (at least the God within us) is more important than other things we give top priority in our lives.
The nameAdonai, “My lords”, can remind us that we are not as autonomous as we might think. We are not the masters of the universe. We are not even masters of our own souls; we do what we can, but we are all dependent on the grace of God. Calling God Adonai might remind us to be humble.
The name Eil Shaddai, “God of Breasts” or “God of Enough”, is about God as the source of fertility and nurture. We are creative creatures; we not only bear offspring, like other animals, but we generate inventions, art, ideas, religions. Calling God Eil Shaddaimight remind us to be grateful for all those inspirations that come “out of the blue”, and grateful for our abilities to nurture both ideas and fellow human beings.
(An earlier version of this essay was published in October 2010.)
Malki–Tzedek(מַלְכִּי־צֶדֶק) = melekh(מֶלֶךְ)=king + tzedek (צֶדֶק)=righteousness, justice. Malki–Tzedek is identified as the king of Shaleim(שָׁלֵם) = wholeness; from the same root as shalom(שָׁלוֹם) = peace. Judging by the location, he is probably Jebusite ruler of the town that came to be known as Jerusalem.
The word Shaddai occurs in poems in Isaiah 13:6, Joel 1:15, twice in Bilaam’s prophecies in Numbers/Bemidbar, twice in Psalms, and 31 times in the book of Job.
In the next occurrence, Isaac asks Eil Shaddai to bless Jacob by making him “fruitful and numerous” and “an assembly of peoples”. When God renames Jacob “Israel”, God adds, “I am Eil Shaddai; be fruitful and numerous; a nation and an assembly of nations…” Jacob himself uses the name Shaddai three times, once to recall the above blessing, once to plead for the safe return of two of his sons from Egypt, and once to shower blessings on the tribe of Joseph, including “blessings of breasts and womb”. In Exodus, God tells Moses “I appeared to Avraham, to Yitzchak, and to Yaakov with Eil Shaddai”, but then uses a different name with Moses—whose personal fertility is not an issue. In the book of Ruth, Naomi refers to Shaddai twice, complaining that this god harmed her and made her bitter by bereaving her of her husband and two sons, and leaving her with no grandchildren. Eil Shaddai, the god of breasts, can withhold fertility as well as grant it.
This week’s Torah portion also includes what might be considered a fourth new name of God. Hagar, who is Abraham’s concubine and Sarah’s servant, runs away, then hears angels of God giving her advice and prophecy. She says, “You are a seeing god!” But this particular formation, eil ro-iy, is never used again in the Torah, and I have never found it in the standard liturgy. It seems to be an expression Hagar’s personal relationship to God.