Rabbi Moshe Reiss
ENDANGERING THE MATRIARCHS
Three times in Genesis a Patriarch passes his wife off as
his sister to a foreign ruler, thereby putting them into danger of a
potentially unwanted sexual liaison. In each case it is the Patriarch
who claims to be in danger.
Two of the stories feature Abraham claiming Sarah is his
sister, once in his interaction with Pharaoh and later with Abimelech.
The third episode involves Isaac presenting Rebekah as his sister to
Abimelech. All the narratives are variants of the same theme. In each
case the Patriarch fears for his life, tells the king that his wife is
his sister, the Matriarch seems to go along with the plan, the king
discovers the truth and explains to the Patriarch that he had nothing
to fear and he certainly would not have brought a married woman into
his harem; the Patriarch ends up rich. In all cases the Patriarch
appears to have imagined the danger and reacted by deception. The
Patriarchs put the Matriarchs into danger for their sexuality and
possibly their lives. As Cheryl Exum says in each case 'a man
practically throws his wife into another man's harem in order to save
his skin.' 1
The Patriarchs had God's promises but still feared for
their lives. 2 One might have thought they would rely on God to fulfill
His promises. Shortly later after the Pharaoh incident, but before the
Abimelech incident, God explicitly tells Abraham 'do not be afraid,
Abram, I am your shield' (15:1). Abraham's response is 'I continue to
be childless' (15:2). Perhaps that is the connection. The promise of
descendants was not to the Matriarchs, only to the Patriarchs; Sarah
was introduced to us as barren and having no child (11:30) almost as a
definition of her identity. They could have additional wives, and in
the case of Abraham he did. Some scholars consider Abraham's
descendants as the key focus of his life.
Questions regarding these episodes abound. None of the
stories suggest the Patriarchs lost any honor due to the deception and
its revelation; but what of the Matriarchs? In the first story of Sarah
we are told by the Pharaoh that 'I took her for my wife' (Gen. 12:19),
did Sarah lose her honor? The thousand pieces of silver (as well as
animals and slaves) Abimelech gave Abraham were to right Sarah's honor
(20:16). But by then Sarah is over 90 years old; does Abraham really
still fear her beauty will endanger him? By then God has promised
Abraham that she will give birth to his own promised son. In the
narrative of Isaac and Rebekah story she has twin boys; where are they
during the second Abimelech interlude? Let us first examine the
ABRAHAM, SARAH AND PHARAOH:
Abraham and Sarah travel southward to Egypt in search of
food. Abraham tells the Egyptians that Sarah is his sister 3
misrepresenting their more important relationship. His stated
reason for this guise is his fear that the Egyptians would covet her
and hence kill him. His fear seems quite real as he speaks to Sarah;
'Behold now I know' (12:11) and 'say now you are my sister' (12:13);
very strong terminology in Hebrew. In that culture he was the owner of
desirable property. Certainly if the Pharaoh is like that in Exodus
1:16 it would appear to be true, however if he is like the Pharaoh in
Gen. 39:5 (the Joseph story) perhaps not.
As a result Sarah is placed into the Pharaoh’s harem. When
Sarah was placed into the harem, ‘because of her, it went well with
[Abraham]; he acquired sheep, oxen, asses, male and female slaves,
she-asses, and camels (Gen. 12:16). It would appear that this is
Pharaoh’s purchase price for his new wife or concubine, a normal
transaction in ancient days. 4
The Pharaoh was then punished with plagues by God for his
intended or attempted intimate relations with a married woman (Gen.
12:17). 5 Pharaoh states that had he known Sarah’s true marital status
he would never have taken her into his harem. He returns Sarah to
Abraham, and then expels both of them from Egypt; Pharaoh's house then
recovered from the plagues.
ABRAHAM, SARAH AND ABIMELECH:
Before the Abimelech incident several events have taken
place; God has expanded his promise to Abraham, he will 'the ancestor
of multitude of nations' (17:4), Lot has given birth to two nations,
the Moabites and Ammonites, and Abraham himself has a son, Ishmael by
Hagar who himself will be a 'the father of twelve princes and I [God]
will make him a great nation' (17:20). In addition Sarah will give
birth to an additional son to be named Isaac (17:16).
The story of Abimelech takes place after all of the above;
including Sarah's future child 'at this season next year' (17:21) and
repeated 'in due season' (18:10,14). Consequently as they move south to
Gerar she was possibly already pregnant. 6 Abraham fears
that in this a godless place the people would covet Sarah so he tells
them she was his sister (20:2,11). This would appear to be a danger not
only to his wife, but to his unborn child, his promised son and heir.
There was no reason to believe Abimelech was not an honorable
man; 7 despite in that culture kings are entitled to harems.
Abimelech 'took' Sarah but before he approached her God
informed him of Sarah's marital status and to return her. Abimelech
said to Abraham 'what have I done against you, that you would have
brought a great sin upon me and my kingdom? 8 Things that
ought not to be done you have done' (20:9). Abimelech gave Abraham much
property to attest to Sarah's honor.
Immediately after the last verse of chapter 20, the LORD
had closed all the wombs of the house of Abimelech because of Sarah
(20:18) we read that the Lord remembered Sarah and did what he had
promised (21:1) and she gave birth to Isaac. Once Isaac is born
Abimelech comes back into Abraham's life; at Abimelech's request they
make a covenant (21:23-24, 27-33) in Beer-sheva.
ISAAC, REBEKAH AND ABIMELECH:
The story starts by reminding us: there was a famine in
the land, besides the former famine that had occurred in the days of
Abraham (26:1). This reminds us of the famine that led to the Abraham –
Pharaoh story (12:10). We are intentionally reminded of the fact that
we have a repeated tale. Which story may have come first is a contested
area among scholars. 9
Isaac tells Abimelech that Rebekah, his wife, is his
sister. However, Isaac is seen by Abimelech as playing-fondling with
his 'sister' (26:8). This takes place perhaps seventy five to one
hundred years later; 10 not only is the Abimelech the
same but his same military commander Picol (21:22; 26:26) is the same
to remind us that despite the years gone this is the same
Abimelech. (Some minority of commentators consider the names
Abimelech and Picol as titles rather than names, thus they are not the
Isaac must have known of his father and mother's story
with Abimelech and Abimelech certainly knew Isaac was Abraham and
Sarah's son – Isaac and Rebekah live nearby in Beer-lahai-roi
(21:31,33-34; 22:19). So Isaac's deception story seems almost foolish
and Abimelech would never have believed such a story; he knew them. 11
And in fact Abimelech does not desire Rebekah, but 'one of the people
might easily have lain with your wife and you would have brought guilt
upon us' (26:10). Abimelech certainly would not fall into the trap
again, but perhaps one of his people might. Abimelech makes it clear to
his own people 'whoever touches this man or his wife shall surely be
put to death (26:11). The danger does not appear to be Isaac or Rebekah
but the people of Gerar. Isaac prospered 'reaped in the same year a
hundred fold. . . until he became very wealthy' (26:12-13). Finally
Abimelech ask them to leave (26:16); there wealth is disturbing the
SIMILARITIES AND DIFFERENCES:
The beginning of the first story has Abraham journey south
due to a famine; in the second story with Abimelech, Abraham journeyed
south, but no reason is given, in the third story with Rebekah there
was a famine. Thus the first story tells us two events - south and
famine, elements of which will be used to introduce the second and
third story. Thus the editor wants us to recognize the common thread
between the three stories. In each case the Patriarch sojourns ('ger')
in a new place (12:10; 20:1; 26:3) and the wife is introduced as his
sister (12:13; 20:2; 26:7). In the last two places they move to a place
called 'Gerar'; perhaps a word play on 'ger'. 12
In each the case the Pharaoh story and the Rebekah story
the Patriarch fears that his wife’s beauty will endanger him (12:11;
26:7); in the Abraham- Abimelech story no reason is given for the
deception. In each story the deception is that the wife is a sister. In
each case the deception is originally effective but then the ruler
discovers the truth and confronts the Patriarch.
In the Nuzi documents – which may be pre-Patriarchal we find that there
was a socio-legal concept of a 'wife-sister'; that referred to a wife
with superior and protective privileges. Sarna suggests that the
transmission of the concept may have gotten confused over time. 13
In both Abraham's stories the wife is taken to the kings
harem (12:15; 20:2), in both cases the king 'took' Sarah. In the case
of Pharaoh he may have had relations with her; Abraham was paid well
for her 'sheep, oxen, he-asses, men servants and maid servants and she
asses and camels' (12:16). In the case of Abimelech God came in a dream
stopping Abimelech from sinning by taking a man's wife (20:3) and
Abraham was given much property for Sarah's honor.
However, in the Isaac Rebekah story she is not taken
but rather Abimelech himself sees Isaac and Rebekah playing-fondling
each other (26:8). The term in Hebrew is the same as the playing that
Ishmael was doing with Isaac causing Hagar and Ishmael’s expulsion
(21:9). Abimelech calls Isaac and says 'what have you done to us'
(26:10), being concerned not about what happened but what might have
happened; some of his people may have taken it into their heads to lay
with the sister. He then establishes a law that anyone who touches
Isaac or Rebekah shall surely die (26:11) and Isaac sowed in that land,
and found his yield one hundred fold increase (26:12).
The twin children of Isaac and Rebekah are no longer
little boys, Esau is a hunter who has already sold his birthright to
Jacob (Gen. 25:29-34); where were they? If they were living with their
parents none would believe that Isaac and Rebekah were brother and
sister. Could the story have taken place earlier when they were boys?
It seems more as if the story was created to connect Isaac with his
Many scholars believe the key to the Abraham saga is
the promise for numerous descendants and more particularly the promised
son; yet these tales are counter productive to that. Is there another
theological exegesis we should be investigating?
In the first two of the stories (Pharaoh and Abimelech with Sarah) they
might be a royal marriage alliance here. Abraham seems on intimate
terms with the kings of Egypt and Gerar.
In each of the thrice told tale the Patriarch deceives a
ruler in the nation he has chosen to abide; each ruler believes him.
When the deceit becomes known the result could be a disaster for the
Patriarch and his wife/sister.
The ruler in each case does not act as one might expect, that is as
godless pagans and attack the Patriarch. But rather acts ethically and
resents almost being enticed into an evil act of adultery. The Pharaoh
says 'what is this you have done' (12:19), Abimelech says to Abraham
'have I sinned against you' . . . that you brought great guilt on
me and my country' (20:9); a surprising term for a godless person.
Abimelech says to Isaac 'you would have brought guilt upon us' (26:10)
and then says to Isaac 'you are blessed of the LORD' (26:29).
In God's first call to Abraham He tells Abraham he will be blessed and
'I will bless those who bless you, and curse those you curse you'
(12:3). The Egyptians and the Philistines (21:32) will be
the major enemies to the Hebrews in getting to and later in conquering
the land God promised to Abraham.
Perhaps the purpose of these thrice told tales was to document that
Abraham was to be an instrument for blessing for the nations – even his
enemies. This is apparently true even if the Patriarch has the
responsibility, creating the problem by his own deception. In the first
two tales God Himself intervenes but in then third Abimelech recognizes
the implications of the situation. Isaac, we discover, as the promised
son, carried his father's blessing as noted in the text (26:3-4) and by
Abimelech (26:29). 14
Perhaps this is another example of Abraham life of ethical
1 J. Cheryl Exum 'Who's Afraid of 'The Endangered
Ancestors', J. Cheryl Exum and David J.A. Clines, eds., (Sheffield,
Sheffield University Press, 2003) pg. 95.
2 In an intriguing commentary David Clines
suggests the foreigners in these cases were more in danger of the
Patriarchs than vice versa; cursed rather than blessed (12:2-3);
although that is not Clines implication but mine. Clines, David, J. A.,
'What Does Eve Do To Help? And Other Readerly Questions to the Old
Testament', (Sheffield, Sheffield University Press, 1990) pgs. 67-84.
3 Abraham claims Sarah is his half sister, they had
the same father but a different mother - Gen. 20:12.
4 A bride price (differing from a dowry which goes to
the bride) was often given to the brother for agreeing to the marriage;
see Nuzi texts quoted by Nahum Sarna, in Genesis: Worlds of Myths and
Patriarchs; ed. Ada Feyerick, N.Y., N.Y. University Press, 1996), pg.
5 The rabbis suggest that though he tried to approach
Sarah, Pharaoh was thwarted in his attempts, Midrash Genesis Rabbah
6 The Hebrew 'ka'et hayya' (18:10, 14) is difficult
to translate; it could mean in nine months or in one year.
7 )Ramban, 'Commentary on Genesis', trans. By C.B.
Chavel, (N.Y., Shilo, 1971) pg. 263-264.
8 It is worth noting that adultery was considered
immoral in both Egypt and Canaan where the thrice told tale occurs.
W.L. Moran, 'The Scandal of the Great Sin at Ugarit' JNES, 1959, No.
18. Sarna points out that in Patriarchal times norms and mores –
particularly regarding intimate relations - differed that what we find
in the Exodus -Deuteronomy period (Genesis, pgs. 118-119).
9 van Seters, John, 'Abraham in History and
Tradition' (N.Y., Yale University, 1975) pg.173
10 Abraham has already died which is seventy five
years after Isaac's birth.
11 That is why Martin Noth believes this story is the
base story and the other two are dependent on this one. Noth, Martin,
'A History of Pentateuchal Tradition' Trs. S.W. Anderson (Englewood
Cliffs, Prentice Hall, 1972) pg. 105
12 In Talmudic and modern Hebrew a 'ger' is a
13 Sarna, Nahum, 'Understanding Genesis', (N.Y.,
J.T.S., 1966) pg. 103.
14 The connection between endangered Matriarchs
and Abraham's blessing was first presented by G.W. Coats in 'A
Threat to the Host' in 'Saga, Legend, Tale, Novella, Fable: Narrative
Forms in Old Testament Literature', ed. G.W.Coats, (Sheffield,
Sheffield University Press, JSOT 35, 1985) and then by Mark E. Biddle,
'The Endangered Ancestress and the Blessing for the Nations', JBL, No.
15 Moshe Reiss. 'The Actions of Abraham: A Life of
Ethical Contradictions', Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament,
2010, Vol. 24,2.