Lech-Lecha – Wife? Sister? What’s the difference?

I’m abandoned all pretense now: I’m just going to go at my own pace, but still based on the Jewish liturgical cycle as far as break-points are concerned. There’s just too much to write about and I hate to skip things. (Like I did Babel, for example.)

As I wrote a bit about a few posts ago, Genesis in particular features what to a modern ear sounds like bizarre textual echos. You can see this in the duplications in Noah, in the creation story, and elsewhere. These echos could be visible stitching as multiple versions of the early bible were edited together, or they could have a specific deeper purpose, but in either case one of the most bizarre echos are in the several stories in Genesis where a patriarch disguises his wife as his sister.

Genesis 12:10 begins the first of these echos with Abram, and to make it even more exciting, it’s a DOUBLE echo!

The story is simple enough. Abram has arrived in Canaan with his wife and entourage, just as God said, except that it seems no sooner has he got there (but the Torah doesn’t say how much time as passed), there is a great famine in the land and he is forced to flee to Egypt. At some level, this must have been disheartening to Abram who had been so recently promised to be a great nation. He still didn’t have any children and now it seemed as if even the land for his nation was slipping through his grasp.

Abram goes to Egypt, but he fears for his life. Sarai (who, btw, had to be in her 70s at least) was very beautiful and he was concerned that someone would kill him to claim her, if she was his wife. So instead, he devises a plan where they will claim that she is his sister. That way, while she may still have suitors, they won’t kill Abram for the privilege of bedding her. (To a modern reader, this appears quite selfish. This offers her no protection at all, though it’s not clear that she would have had any anyway, if the Egyptians of this era were this evil.) Now this story doesn’t say so, but Sarai is Abram’s half-sister and so this is not a complete lie.

As Abram suspects, Sarai immediately catches the eye of none other than Pharaoh who whisks her away into his harem and pays some sort of dowery to Abram of sheep, oxen, donkeys, camels, and slaves. Abram has, in effect, pimped his wife off to Pharaoh in exchange for wealth.

But God wasn’t pleased. He intended Sarai for Abraham and so inflicted plagues down on Egypt. Pharaoh somehow figures out that Sarai was a married woman, confronts Abram about his deception, and then exiles him from Egypt, apparently with all of the goods that he had been given, though this is unclear. (The gains were ill-gotten, so would Abram have given them back?) The next verse describes Abram as “very rich”, so that wealth could have come from Egypt, Haran, or elsewhere, Presumably some time has passed as the famine is apparently over, or at least no longer remarked on.

This is obviously an echo of a sort of the story of Abram’s grandson Jacob and great-grandson Joseph. In that story too, there was a great famine in Israel, the Israelites flee to Egypt (and Joseph, at least, under false pretenses), and eventually God gets angry, sends plagues, and Egypt relents. Though an obvious precursor to the later story, this one feels more like it’s naturally setting the stage for it rather than being a version of it. It seems reasonable that if Canaan experienced famines in Abram’s day, it would do so in Joseph’s. It would also seem reasonable that a standard thing to do in a famine is to go to a more prosperous country, and Egypt was implied to be a center of power in the region. So the fact that two groups, two generations apart, both had famines and both went to Egypt, I suspect we can live with.

But the other parallels are more striking:

In Genesis 20 and 21, Abram (now renamed Abraham) traveled to Gerar. In that country, he pulled the same trick: he instructed Sarai (now renamed Sarah) to pretend to be his wife. Abimelech, the king of Gerar, fell for her and took her for his wife. God came to Abimelech in a dream, told him that Sarah was married and that he (Abimelech) was going to die because of it. But God pities Abimelech because he didn’t know she was Abraham’s sister, so gives him one more chance: Let Sarah go and he will not be harmed. Abimelech does so, in the process giving Abraham a going away present of sheep, oxen, slaves, and a thousand pieces of silver, Abimelech and Abraham swore a pact, they dug a well at a place they named Beer-sheba.

In Genesis 26, there is a famine and Isaac travels to Gerar and does the same trick with his wife, Rebekah. Abimelech this time doesn’t fall in love, but notices Isaac behaving in a non-brotherly way with Rebekah and confronts Isaac about it, chastising him that he could have brought one of the locals to sin by his lie. Isaac becomes successful (by his own hand, not a payment or a dowery) but is exiled by the locals for it. A short time later, Abimelech meets up with him to swear a pact, Isaac re-digs the wells that Abram had made which were filled up, and they name the place Beer-sheba.

Looking at it fresh, it’s clear the text is aware of the repetition. Genesis 21 states clearly that Abram had made the “wherever place we come to, say of me there: he is my brother” pact with Sarai early in his travels, probably since before he entered Canaan. In that way, it’s somewhat understandable that it would have happened twice while he was traveling, and yet given how poorly it had worked the first time, why risk it again? His wife had been in Pharaoh’s harem, presumably doing harem-things. Why take that chance again? Or is the risk of husband-slaying so high? (And given how otherwise nice the people in Gerar appear, even allowing Isaac to live there quite some time, why be so afraid?)

When it repeats again for Isaac, the text clearly mentions BOTH of the previous repetitions. First, that there had been a famine in the days of Abram which was different from the famine that Isaac experienced – except that Isaac chose to go to Gerar instead of Egypt when his came. And second, the Isaac text mentions the wells that Abram had dug after his misadventure in Gerar.

Other commentators have remarked that Abimelech (and Phicol, his advisor in the text) must have been quite old to have had the same adventure with both Abram and his son, but that doesn’t seem to be too far-fetched given the lifespans in Genesis.

All in all, I’m left feeling that there is something here. These three stories all give varying reasons for the success and wealth of their patriarchs (a dowery, a parting gift, and the toil of ones own hands). All three are “uplifting” tales of how attractive the matriarchs are that they would be the envy of kings and pharaohs. (Compare to Helen of Troy, perhaps?) Two of them show God punishing the innocent – those that Abram had fooled, rather than punishing Abram for his half-lie. In only the first story is actual sexual impropriety actually implied; in the other two it is stopped before it could happen – first by God and second by Abimelech. The parallels are too many to be dispelled, yet no so vulgar as to be anything more than a narrative curiosity.

Is there a morale here? Don’t lie unless you are well-intentioned?

Up next: The adventures of Abram, warrior-king.

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