She's not my wife
by: Rabbi Jeremy Rosen - Last updated: 2006-11-10
Rabbi Jeremy Rosen
The fundamentalist position on the bible, Jewish and Christian, is that every word comes directly from God on Sinai three thousand three hundred years ago.
The critical or the skeptics position is that it is all a man-written compilation of various authors and traditions. The process took an extended period of time and the text we have today was only finally complied by the Massoretes some fifteen hundred years ago.
In between these extremes there is a range of different, perhaps we might call them more creative positions. These differences represent the fault lines within religions and between them. Heres an illustration. Over the coming weeks those reading the Torah each week will notice that one storyline is repeated three times with variations. This is the first version.
Bereishit ( Genesis) Chapter 12.
And as they came nearer to Egypt Avram said to Sarai his wife I know that you are a beautiful woman. When the Egyptians see you they will say that you are my wife and they will kill me and keep you alive. Please say that you are my sister so that they will treat me well and I will live because of you. And when they came to Egypt the Egyptians saw how beautiful his wife was and they praised her to Pharaoh and she was taken into his palace. And he was kind to Avram because of her and gave him flocks and herds and donkeys servants and maid servants asses and camels. And God plagued Pharaoh and his household with awful diseases because of Sarai. And Pharaoh called Avram and said What have you done? Why did you not tell me she was your wife? And I took her to be my wife. Now here is your wife take her and go.
The straightforward believer will take this at face value. Avraham will have relied on God to see the events safely through to a satisfactory conclusion. He was after all promised he would be blessed but this was another one of his ten trials or tests. The commentator will emphasize the fact that saving life overrides most other concerns (though not adultery of course) and even perhaps that Avraham could take nothing for granted and had to try and defend himself. It is only the more modern commentator who might suggest that this was an example of a great man making the wrong decision out of fear. He might also point out the inconsistency of Avrahams moral stand in refusing money from the kings of Sodom while accepting wealth from Pharaoh. And of course he or she might wonder at what a close call it was if Sarai actually moved her toiletries into the harem.
But then the same story is repeated with much greater detail except this time in Philistinia with local boss this time called Avimelech.
Genesis Chapter 20
And Avraham traveled around the south between Kadesh and Shur and settled in Gerar. And Avraham said of Sara his wife that she is my sister and Avimelech the king of Gerar sent and took her to him. And God appeared to Avimelech in a dream at night and he said You will die because of this woman because she has already had intercourse with another man. And Avimelech did not touch her the whole of the night. And he said God, will you kill an innocent nation just like a wicked one? Both he and she said they were brother and sister. What I did was in complete innocence. And God replied in a dream at night I know that youacted innocently that is why I saved you and prevented you from touching her. But now you must return her to her husband for he is prophet and he will pray for you and you will live.Otherwise you and all yours will die...and Avimelech called Avraham and said How have I sinned against you? What have I done that you have brought this sin upon me and done things that in our kingdom that are not done? And Avraham replied I thought that this was a kingdom with no fear of God and they would kill me because of my wife. But anyway in fact she is my sister. She is the daughter of my father but not my mother. And as we traveled around I said to her Please do me this favour for me and wherever we go, say he is my brother. And Avimelech gave Avraham flocks and herds, servants and maid servants. He returned his wife Sara and he said My land is open to you, go where you wish...and Avraham prayed to Godand He cured Avimelech and his wife and his servants and they could conceive, for God had made them all barren.!
Consider the differences and the nuances. Pharaoh somehow guessed the true story or perhaps as with the later Pharaoh of Joephs era he used his magicians, whereas God appears to Avimelech in a dream (and to Avraham when he is awake). Pharaoh kicks Avraham out whereas Avimelech invites him to stay. Avimelech vaunts his countrys standards and morality whereas Pharaoh is simply concerned with being mislead. Avimelech uses similar language to Avraham in appealing to Gods mercy when he pleaded to save the men of Sodom. The link between the two usages also implies sexual impropriety. And there are other nuances such as the priorities and types of the gifts. And only to Avimelech does Avraham try to excuse himself with his justification.
We might argue that in an idol worshipping corrupt Middle East this sort of thing was likely to happen often, certainly to nomads entering the territory of a strong man. Its not impossible that this could happen several times any more than the Droit De Seigneur could have been exercised against the same family in Europe several times. Women were usually expendable and the status of wives was often as pawns, bought and sold or bartered or used in political alliances, much less powerful than sisters of important men. This fact is confirmed by excavations in Tel El Amarna. One needs much more archaelogical evidence to flesh out the true nature of what happened and at this distance one can really only guess. And why should guess work be any more reliable than a text?
These two narratives become even more problematic because of a third event a generation later as recorded in Genesis Chapter 26.
And Yitzchak was living in Gerar. And the men of the pace asked after his wife. And he said She is my sister because he was frightened to say that she was his wife for fear they would kill me over Rivkah for she was beautiful. And as the days went by Avimelech the king of the Philistines looked out of his window and he saw Yitzchak flirting with his wife Rivkah. And Avimelech called Yitzchak and said She is your wife. Why did you say she was your sister? And he said Because I thought Id be killed because of her. And Avimelech said What have you done? One of the people might have lain with your wife and you would have been responsible for our guilt. And Avimelech commanded everyone saying anyone who touches this mans or his wife, will die.
At this stage the critical position looks stronger. Surely this is one event that different traditions recorded and the compiler of the final text chose to insert all versions? One reply to that might be that if there was an editor he certainly did a pretty poor job. The name Avimelech could be a title used by lots of kings as indeed the generic term Pharaoh was. But in truth to look at an ancient text through modern eyes is a risky business.
The traditionalists position has some merit. Take the text at face value and examine it to see what moral or spiritual lessons can be learnt from the differences. Everything in the text has a didactic purpose, so be positive and look for what lies beneath the surface rather than try to recreate the process of transmission. The only weakness in such a position is if it denies any other possibility. And this is the point. There is nothing wrong in my view with a fundamentalist view point. I am a fundamentalist in that I regard the text as a holy text and relate to it more spiritually than rationally. That is my choice. But I do not deny that there are other ways of looking at the text.
The fundamentalism I dissociate myself from is the one that says that there is only one way and all others are either wrong or valueless. I might say that I value one way over all others but I would not say there is no merit in any of the rest altogether. So whether it was three separate events or one, the text, to follow Jaques Derrida, is all weve got. Lets treat it with reverence.
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