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Take my wife, please: on the utility of the wife/sister motif.

Three times in the book of Genesis we are told of a husband passing his wife off as his sister lest he be killed by those who desire her. In Genesis 12:10-20, Abraham deceives the Egyptians about Sarah's status. (At this point in the Bible, Abraham and Sarah are still called Abram and Sarai. I shall, however, use their final names throughout.) In Genesis 20:1-18, Abraham deceives the Philistines, and, in Genesis 26:1-12, the Philistines are again deceived, but this time by Abraham's son, Isaac.

To advocates of the "higher criticism," the triple presentation offers little difficulty. To these exegetes, it is obvious that two of these stories come from one source, and the remaining story from another. According to the documentary theorists, the redactor preserved all three tales, unlikely as their multiple occurrence may have seemed, to fill space, as a sort of editorial stutter, or because he did not feel at liberty to give one folk-tale

preference over the others.

Traditional interpreters find the proofs of these source analysts shallow and arbitrary. All of these stories, orthodoxy maintains, come from one source: the mouth of God by the hand of Moses. In this view, each version teaches us different ethical and theological principles. Repetition is necessary and beneficial because we may learn by comparing and contrasting the stories, and because it is only with the emphasis of repetition that these principles are impressed and inculcated.

My position is neither the religious and didactic one of the traditionalists nor the linguistic and historiographic one of the source analysts. As the Bible comes to us as a single text, I prefer to treat it as a unified entity, and to focus on its literary and narrative qualities. At the supposed "seams" where source critics discover rough stitching together of disparate texts, I see, not fault lines, but gold mines of subtlety and allusion.

Accordingly, apparent anachronisms do not worry me. Source critics find it particularly telling to their case that in the second and third stories Philistines are placed in Gerar, where, historically, there were no Philistines. Orthodox apologists conclude from these stories that either there was a small colony of Philistines in Gerar at that time, or that the inhabitants of Gerar were the ethnic precursors of the Philistines, and might just as well be called by that name. To me, the statement that Abraham and Isaac encountered Philistines is of great narrative significance, as will be shown, and it was brilliant of the author (or redactor as I shall call him) to make it, anachronism or no.

Similarly, I am not troubled by a detail such as Sarah's age in the chronology of the first two stories. Documentary hypothesists argue the haphazard insertion of these stories by observing that Sarah is sixty-five the first time her honor is placed in jeopardy, and ninety the second time. Since she could not have been the object of Egyptian and Philistine desire at these ages, the stories must be clumsy interpolations. Orthodoxy maintains that Sarah's beauty was so sublime that even at ninety she retained her freshness and pulchritude. I find the threat to Sarah's virtue and, particularly, the temporary Egyptian and Philistine possession of Abraham's greatest treasure, his wife, a literary necessity, and so her years are not a critical factor. Besides, as shall be seen, that she is a woman of a certain age serves the redactor's intention to make these stories amusing.

From my literary perspective I see coherence, integrity, and intent in this thrice-told tale. All three stories function to explain the subsequent motivations of the individuals and nations involved, and to reveal the inner objectives of persons whose actions will be described centuries hence. Like an operatic overture, the wife/sister narratives refer to melodies that we must wait to hear developed fully. Though the stories are comic, and repetition heightens their humor, each has serious ramifications. I shall argue that it is necessary for the redactor to tell three nearly identical stories, for each of them is analogous to events that will occur later in the text. The later stories shed light on one another, but the reader would not connect them without the clue provided by the obvious similarity of their corresponding wife/sister counterparts. The purpose of this paper is to show how the wife/sister motif is utilized to further and to enhance the narrative on the political, the domestic, and the theological levels immediately, as well as over a long time span.

The Joke

My title suggests an old joke. The wife/sister stories are even older jokes - dangerous, blameworthy, practical jokes. Abraham is a clever and successful strategist who manages, with his wit and considerable help from God, to turn the tables on his powerful adversaries and to leave their respective towns with his life, his unsullied wife, and his host's bounty.

When Abraham asks his wife to pass herself off as his sister, he says, "Say, I pray thee, thou art my sister; that it may be well with me for thy sake, and that my soul may live because of thee" (Gen. 12:13). Traditional interpreters as well as non-religious readers recoil from the hint that Abraham plans to enrich himself from the bride-price which he will get for his wife. They explain, "that it may be well with me for thy sake," does not refer to doing well in the financial sense, but means only that Abraham needs to stay alive so that he can somehow protect Sarah from the depredations of the Egyptians. Therefore, the phrase, "that it may be well with me," is the exact equivalent of "that my soul may live." However, they cannot supply a more scrupulous sounding equivalent for the repetition of the phrase in the description of the transaction that Pharaoh and Abraham make, "and the woman was taken into Pharaoh's house and he dealt well with Abram for her sake; and he had sheep, and oxen, and he-asses, and men-servants, and maid-servants, and she-asses, and camels" (Gen. 12:15-16). To the ancient reader, I am convinced, this shady deal was funny. Pharaoh, more fool he, is paying all that livestock and those servants for a woman who is not even a virgin - and no spring chicken into the bargain.

Another example of this order of humor may be found in Exodus 2:9, in which we are told that Pharaoh's daughter pays Moses' mother wages to nurse him. The Hebrews were slaves, after all; to require her to nurse without compensation would have seemed more appropriate. The reader derives ironic enjoyment from the fact that the mother is paid to nurse her own baby. The humor celebrates the minor victory of the victim over the oppressor. When the Hebrew slaves are finally expelled from Egypt, there is a similarly "amusing" reversal of fortune (Ex. 12:35-36), and the Israelites walk away rich from four hundred years of slavery, just as God foretold in Genesis 15:14.

Ancient readers revelled in stories of victim turned victor, and had an earthy appreciation of the comedic element in Abraham's shrewd gambles. The humor is stressed even more in the second wife/sister tale. We see Abimelech, King of@ the Philistines, make the same bad deal as Pharaoh; we observe him trying to claim a little more innocence than God will allow (20:5-6), and we witness Abraham's embarrassed, untruthful, bumbling justifications for his deception. Inside of three sentences, he catches himself in a lie; in the first sentence he says that he feared the people in this place, and in the third sentence he admits that he had asked Sarah to lie about their relationship every place they should come. And he fields an excuse so beside the point that Abimelech's blood pressure must have sky-rocketed: Abraham says that Sarah is, indeed, his sister, his half-sister on his father's side (20:11-13). To Abimelech, whose entire household is barren because he has taken this man's wife, it does not matter if she is also his cousin, his aunt, and his grandmother. She is Abraham's wife, and God is wroth. Abimelech does not let the half-truth pass, but says sarcastically to Sarah, "Behold, I have given your brother a thousand pieces of sliver" (20:16). Abraham's defensive fumbling in response to Abimelech's anger sounds like an adolescent making inept excuses for a careless accident with the family car: "It wasn't me driving. And, anyway, it's not your car; it's registered in Mom's name. Besides, I was really driving slow."

Unpalatable as Abraham's tricks are to more modern tastes, they serve to illuminate his character. Some exegetes have said that Abraham showed little faith in God by going down to Egypt in the face of the famine; he should have stayed in Canaan and relied upon God to feed his family, servants, and flocks. But Abraham shows great faith in God. He risks his life and his wife's honor on his trust that God would fulfill His promises in Genesis 12:1-2, 7 and 17:19. Before the sojourn in Egypt, God had promised Abraham offspring. Surely, He will not permit Pharaoh to retain Sarah, for, if He did, whence would this offspring come? By the time of the second wife/sister story, Abraham has a son by Hagar, but God has promised him a soil by Sarah as well: therefore, somehow, God will preserve Sarah from the lust of Abimilech.

To be certain that the reader understands that Abraham is a trickster rather than a cowardly and rapacious man, the redactor tells us the story of Abraham's rescue of Lot soon after Abraham leaves Egypt. Abraham's physical courage is evidenced by his unhesitating campaign to retrieve his nephew from captivity. When Abraham is offered the spoils of victory by the King of Sodom, and refuses to take so much as a shoelace from him, we see that Abraham is not greedily ambitious for wealth (14:12-23). He will not be enriched by the likes of the King of Sodom simply because they happen to be on the same side of a just cause, but he is willing to enrich himself by defeating those who would tyrannize him - Pharaoh and Abimelech.

The National Level

A practical joke does not seem funny to the butt of it nor to other participants who may be hurt by it. The Egyptians and the Philistines never forgive the Hebrews for what Abraham and Isaac did, and the political consequences of their acts reverberate across the centuries. The patriarchs engendered lasting enmities for doing "deeds ... that ought not to be done" (Gen. 20:9).

The events leading to the Exodus are a paradigm of the first wife/sister tale. All of the salient circumstances of Abraham's prank on Pharaoh echo in the account of Joseph's descendants in Egypt. Just as Abraham and Sarah go to Egypt because of famine, so does Joseph's family. Pharaoh takes Sarah, Abraham's most precious possession, and a later Pharaoh enslaves and keeps Israel, a people precious to God. In both stories, the captives are not released until God smites Pharaoh with plagues. In both stories, the Hebrews leave Egypt with Egyptian wealth. The tune we first hear in Genesis is repeated in Exodus.

When the Israelites escaped from Egypt, God did not lead them through "the land of the Philistines, although that was near; for God said: |Lest peradventure the people repent when they see war, and they return to Egypt'" (Ex. 13:17). Once again, the mention of Philistines in this time and in this place raises the source critics' charge of anachronism. Traditional interpreters wonder, to which war does God refer? I believe that the redactor names the Philistines here to pick up the old melody and play out an old hatred. They would have attacked the Israelites in commemoration of Abraham and Isaac's centuries-old transgressions.

The Bible does not record God's opinion of Abraham and Isaac's ploy, but, extrapolating from later evidence, we may assume some degree of silent sympathy for the Egyptians and the Philistines. Again and again in Scripture, God commands the Israelites to show no mercy and utterly destroy the peoples with whom they contend. The Moabites and the Ammonites are spared this judgment because they descend from the incestuous children of Lot (Gen. 19:37-38); the Israelites are told not to abhor the Edomites because they descend from Esau (Deut. 23:8); however, the unrelated Amalekites, Zidonians, Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, Jebusites, and Girgashites are all sentenced to extermination (Ex. 17:14, 1 Sam. 15:3, Ezek. 28:21-22, Deut. 20:17, Ex. 23:23-24, Deut. 7:1-2). Only the Egyptians and the Philistines, despite four hundred years of oppression on the one hand and generations of war on the other, are not designated for obliteration. They had been wronged by the Hebrews and have a right to their hereditary hatred.

The Domestic Level

The wife/sister stories have domestic as well as national repercussions. Sarah and Rebecca are not the targets of the trick, but they, too, are hurt. Their chastity is not profaned, but their honor is certainly violated: they are forced to assent to a lie. In the first and third stories, their silence implies their consent; in the second story, Abimelech reports that Sarah told him, "He is my brother" (Gen. 20:5). Abraham's genealogical explanation, furious though it must have made Abimelech, serves to validate Sarah's assertion. Abraham's regard for Sarah is such that he will not let her be considered a bald-faced liar. Yet, neither Abraham's nor Isaac's regard for their wives extends to a real concern for their self-esteem.

How does a woman feel when her husband's survival plan is to sell her to the king? Even if Abraham and Isaac have perfect faith in the providence of God, surely their wives feel devalued, shamed, frightened, and angry. Doesn't he love me? Couldn't he have thought of something else? Why did we even have to come to Egypt/Gerar? Of course they want their husbands to live, but must the men's lives be bought with the risk that each woman might spend the rest of her life in the ruler's harem - in Rebecca's case, never to see her children again? They both agree to pay the price, but, in the economy of marriage, in the quid pro quo of human relationships, their husbands owe them. And Sarah and Rebecca collect.

In Genesis 12:11-13, when Abraham asks Sarah to let him pass her off as his sister to the Egyptians, he uses a particular form of supplication. He says, in Hebrew, "Hinai-na" (Behold, I pray thee), to point out the peril of her beauty and the Egyptians' lasciviousness, and he repeats the participle of entreaty, "na" (I pray thee), in making his request. Sarah uses exactly the same formula in appealing to Abraham to father a child by her maid. She says "Hinai-na," and points out that the Lord has not allowed her to bear children; then she says "na" and makes her plea for Abraham to have sexual relations with Hagar (Gen. 16:2). The duplication in language signals the reciprocity to the reader; having granted a favor, Sarah now asks for a favor in return.

Abraham's compliance was successful, as far as he was concerned, but it was disastrous to Sarah's scheme. As soon as Hagar was confident in her pregnancy, "her mistress was despised in her eyes" (16:4). The Hebrew root translated as "despised" means not only dishonored, held in contempt, and lightly esteemed, but it also has the sexual connotation of female wantonness (Jer. 13:26, Nahum 3:5). Why should not Hagar esteem Sarah lightly? Hagar saw Abraham hold her lightly, and Sarah can be taunted with that disgrace, derided for living a lie, and perhaps even smeared with the insinuation that Pharaoh had lain with her before the plagues effected her release.

That Hagar's lack of respect for Sarah is connected to the events in Egypt, is shown by Sarah's recrimination of Abraham (Gen. 16:5). Why else is she blaming him? He did just as she asked. But Sarah says that the wrong being done to her is his fault, "My wrong be upon thee." He put her in a shameful position, and now she bears the brunt of that shame. Sarah wants to punish Hagar harshly. She says to Abraham, "the Lord judge between me and thee," as if to say, "Let God decide which wrong is the greater, that which I am about to do to her, or that which you have already done to me."

Abraham recognizes the truth of Sarah's argument, and tells her to do that which is good in her eyes. Often in the Bible, when one is told to do that which is good in one's eyes, the speaker deplores what he knows will be done (Jud. 19:24, I Sam. 1:23, 3:18, 14:36, 14:40). The prospect of Sarah's harsh treatment of Hagar pains Abraham, but he knows that he has done Sarah an injury, and that she is still hurt by it.

Abraham again falls into moral debt to Sarah by the events in Gerar, the second wife/sister tale, and she again collects her due by banishing Hagar and her son, Ishmael. The Gerar experience is much worse for Sarah than was the Egyptian episode. That Abraham plays the same trick again, despite her remonstration with him, must be wounding; that he does not bother to ask her compliance, but now takes her for granted, is belittling. This time there is more anxiety. She has already had the experience of being taken to Pharaoh's harem; she knows too well what is likely to happen. And in Gerar she does not get away with silent assent; she must voice her participation in the deceit (Gen. 20:5). Her anguish is greater the second time, and Abraham pays a higher price for it.

Sarah is sensitive to derision. We learn that from her response to Hagar's contempt, and from her words when she bears a son in her old age: "everyone that heareth will laugh on account of me" (21:6). The preposition that is translated "on account of" often means "at" or "against" when used with verbs of mocking or laughter. The verb used here means laughter, but has been translated variously because of its other connotations. The same verb is used three verses later when Sarah sees Ishmael "making sport." She was apprehensive about being the target of laughter, and now her fear is realized.

Ishmael was at least thirteen years old at the time of the incident in Gerar (17:25), old enough to know what was going on. His mother, punished severely enough to keep silent publicly, nevertheless may have privately told her son her version of the events in Egypt. Abimelech, more conscious than Abraham of Sarah's humiliation, pointed out to her that, besides the cattle and servants, he was paying a thousand pieces of silver specifically as a "covering of the eyes" to all who were with her (20:16). But his money did not blind a disgruntled teenager, nor did it bribe him to hold his tongue. Left out, jealous, and envious of the great feast that is being given in honor of Isaac, Ishmael retaliates for the slights that he perceives, and jeers insultingly about Sarah's past. Perhaps he directs his remarks to Isaac and says something like, "Yeah, well, you may be having a swell party, but your mother's a whore!"

Whatever his words, they are more than Sarah can bear. She has had trouble with the mother and now has the same trouble with the son. She tells Abraham that the pair must go, but she does not tell him the true reason why this must be so. Abraham loves Ishmael, and might make excuses for him, saying he is only a boy and is acting out typical sibling rivalry. She needs a subterfuge to get rid of these thorns, and so she says that she does not want Ishmael to share in Isaac's inheritance. Of course, it had not taken her years, from Isaac's birth to his weaning, to notice that Ishmael was also an heir.

In the third wife/sister story, Isaac, too, becomes indebted to his wife, Rebecca, for, to her hazard, she must accede to his guileful stratagem. Rebecca collects the debt when she effects the deception of switching her favorite son, Jacob, for Isaac's pet, Esau (Gen. 27). A trick for a trick, a sister for a wife, a second born for a first born. Like Sarah, she proffers a plausible excuse when she tells Isaac why she wants Jacob to leave town (27:46). She could have told him the truth; he knew that he had given Esau's blessing to Jacob, and that Esau was unhappy. She could have said, "Let Jacob leave town for a few days until Esau cools off." Maybe she feared that Isaac would say, "A good thrashing is just what Jacob needs." Or maybe we learn here that their husbands had taught both Sarah and Rebecca to lie.

The Theological Level

The marked congruity of the first wife/sister story and the Israelite enslavement, alerts the reader to expect similar agreement between the other wife/sister tales and later events in the Bible. The second wife/sister account has been compared to the capture of the holy ark by the Philistines in I Samuel 4-6. Umberto Cassuto, in Commentary on Genesis (Vol. 2, p. 341), observes the striking parallels between the first wife/sister story and the narrative of the Hebrew bondage in Egypt. He mentions the agreement between the second wife/sister story and I Samuel 4-6, but, since he finds it less clear, does not ascribe any particular significance to it. I, however, find it significant in several respects. It reiterates the theme of animosity between the Philistines and the Hebrews, it repeats the leitmotif of comedy, and it introduces the metaphor of the holy ark as the bride of Israel.

In this passage of I Samuel, the Philistines capture the ark from the Israelies in battle, and keep it until God afflicts them with, apparently, hemorrhoids. They then return the ark to the Israelites along with propitiatory gifts: images of hemorrhoids cast in gold and golden mice. To some interpreters, this combination suggests that the Philistines had bubonic plague, and were sending symbols of their buboes and of the rodent carriers of the disease. I think the conjecture projects backward a greater scientific sophistication than their civilization possessed. Mice were sacred cultic animals to the pagans (Isa. 66:17). Juxtaposing images of their affliction with images of mice may have been considered curative, just as Russian Orthodox Christians today place representations of body parts in front of icons. Perhaps the redactor names mice as objects of the Philistines' veneration and specifies hemorrhoids as their disease to heighten the humor of the account and increase its resonance with the comedic second wife/sister tale. Certainly, as conciliatory gifts to the monotheistic Hebrews, these infidel symbols seem so risibly inappropriate that one might doubt the possibility of such a gesture, did not one remember President Reagan's gift of a signed Bible to fundamentalist Islamic Iranian leaders (The New York Times 1/30/86).

The concordance between I Samuel 4-6 and the story of Abraham in Gerar, is manifest. In each story, the cherished object is taken by the Philistines - another reason for "anachronistically" placing the Philistines in Abraham's time. In each story, God afflicts the Philistines with barrenness/hemorrhoids, and in each the wife/ark is returned with gifts. Just as Sarah is dear to Abraham, so is the word of God that is contained in the ark dear to Israel. The equivalency established here between Abraham's love for his wife and Israel's love for the word of God is critical to a third analogy that I find - that between the third wife/sister tale and II Samuel 6:16-23.

In this passage of II Samuel, King David joyfully accompanies the ark into Jerusalem. His wife, Michal, King Saul's daughter, looks out of a window and sees David "leaping and dancing before the Lord" (that is, before the word of God contained in the ark), and she "despised him in her heart" (II Sam. 6:16). She speaks sharply to David about his behavior, ostensibly angry at the improper, undignified exposure caused by his prancing about ("... who [David] uncovered himself ...") (6:20). David replies heatedly that he will make merry before the Lord (6:21), using that word ("make merry" is one word in Hebrew) to describe his frolicking.

The Hebrew word used for "make merry" has the same root as the verb "laugh." It is the root for Isaac's name, and we have already noted its use in the stories in which he figures. In this instance, I believe, it is specifically reminiscent of the use of the word in the third wife/sister tale, in which Abimelech looks out of a window and sees Isaac "sporting" with Rebecca (Gen. 26:8). "Sporting" and "making merry" have the same root in Hebrew. In Genesis, a king looks out of a window and sees "sporting" to his displeasure; in II Samuel, a king's daughter looks out of a window and sees "making merry" to hers.

The analogy between the second wife/sister story and the theft of the ark by the Philistines leads the reader to consider that the word of God contained in the ark may be described metaphorically as the wife of Israel. The analogy between the third wife/sister tale and the David story, and their use of the same root word, further guides the reader to equate "sporting" with a wife and "making merry" before the Lord: David "sports" with the word of God. The connotation of conjugal sexuality that is so crucial to the Genesis story is important to the II Samuel story as well. It enables us to understand that Michal is jealous of David's love for the word of God. She is not indignant because he showed a bit too much thigh. Just as Sarah finds a plausible reason to banish Hagar and Ishmael, and Rebecca uses a pretext to separate Jacob and Esau, so does Michal use a specious justification for her anger with David. The function of the wife/sister stories here is to clarify the scene between Michal and David, expose their hearts, and explain God's disposition to both.

Romantic love is not stressed in the Bible as it is in modern Western literature, and yet we are explicitly told of the love that eight different men have for individual women or a set of women. We are told that Isaac loved Rebecca (Gen. 24:67), Jacob loved Rachel (29:18,20,30), Shechem loved Dinah (34:3), Elkanah loved Hannah (I Sam. 1:5), Rehoboam loved Maacah (II Chron. 11:21), Ahasuerus loved Esther (Est. 2:17), Samson loved Delilah (Jud. 16:4), and Solomon loved his foreign wives (I Kings 11:1-2). But only once in Scripture are we told of a woman loving a particular man. We are told that Michal loved David, and we are told it twice (I Sam. 18:20,28). Her love for David is obviously remarkable, in both senses of the word. And as it is doubly impressed upon us, we can also assume it is an extreme, possessive passion.

David has many wives and concubines. We are not told that Michal resents any of them. Perhaps she knows that they do not count in David's heart, that his greatest love, his only true love, is for his bride, all Israel's bride, the word of God. Michal looks out of a window and, obsessively, sees David embracing her only rival. We learn that she herself is not God-fearing, as she uses teraphim (small idols) to make a dummy in David's bed, which fools her father's henchmen and saves David's life (I Sam. 19:13).

God, not Abimelech, causes Isaac to prosper at the end of the third wife/sister story (Gen. 26:12). Because of David's love for God, he, too, is rewarded with military victory again and again, and his failings are forgiven. Because of Michal's jealousy of this love, she "had no child unto the day of her death" (I Sam. 6:23). One might think that she remained childless because David, offended by her outburst, would not live with her as husband and wife. If this were the case, Scripture would have said something like, "And David went in to her no longer." We would not be told simply that she was childless, because childlessness, the Bible has shown us repeatedly, is caused not by man but by God. It is not clear whether Michael remained barren or died in childbirth, but either fate may be regarded as God's judgment.


The three wife/sister stories may all be historical fact. They may be a skillful inter-weaving of pre-existent stories, or they may be elaborated from a single, more primitive, folk-tale. Perhaps they are an ingenious creation of the redactor. However they come to us, each has its own function in the Biblical narrative, and is inventively used to justify the ill-feeling between the Israelites, the Egyptians, and the Philistines; to explain why these enemies of the Hebrews are never consigned by God to oblivion as are other peoples; to warrant the seemingly cruel and devious actions of Sarah and Rebecca; and to make the theological point that the love of God is a surpassing virtue. The three stories are not repeated by mistake.
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Title Annotation:three stories on passing off wives as sisters in the Torah
Author:Reis, Pamela Tamarkin
Publication:Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought
Date:Sep 22, 1992
Next Article:Footprints, traces, remnants: the operations of memory in Dan Pagis' "Aqebot." (poem discussing narrator's journey through past and return to present...

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