Lekh Lekhah: Why Sarah poses as Abrahams sister

Lekh Lekhah

Genesis 12:1-17:27

Isaiah 40:27-41:16

A most enigmatic story: Twice the Bible records that Abraham, on entering a foreign kingdom, asks his wife to identify herself as his sister. (A similar story also occurs with Isaac in Genesis 26.)

In the first story in Genesis 12, part of this week's Torah portion, Pharaoh's courtiers take the Matriarch Sarai into his harem, while Pharaoh gives extensive gifts as a sort of bride-price to Avram (Don't be distracted by the names: This incident occurs before their names change to Abraham or Avraham and Sarah). But then Pharaoh suffers terrible plagues. Somehow realizing what has gone wrong, Pharaoh sends Sarai away.

In the second story in Genesis 20, when Avimelekh, the king of the Philistine city Gerar, takes Sarah into his harem, God appears to Avimelekh in a dream and explains the situation. Here, too, God imposes a physical disability on the Philistines. As a result, Avimelekh sends Sarah away but criticizes Avram for having lied about his relationship with her. Then Avimelekh gives Abraham extensive gifts, apparently as a kind of restitution, as U. C. Berkeley Professor Robert Alter observes in his notes on his new translation of Genesis.

What I want to know is, what does Avram expect to happen? How does Avram (Abraham) envision events turning out, once Sarah or he has told the lie?

Burton Visotzky, in Bill Moyers' new book on Genesis, argues that Abraham and Sarah anticipate what will happen. The plan works to their benefit. They leave Egypt, and later they leave Gerar, with great wealth.

Visotzky notes that when Avram first proposes the idea to Sarai, "Say, please, that you are my sister," he has two goals in mind, "that it will go well with me on your count and I shall stay alive because of you" (Gen. 12:13). Fear of death might justify such a drastic lie, but Abraham also admits to wanting her to lie to make "it go well with me," which Visotzky takes as a polite euphemism for, "I stand to gain much wealth."

If this reading stands, Abraham indeed deserves terrible condemnation, as does Sarah. The original patriarch, selling his wife into a harem! The original matriarch, willingly moving into a harem! Just for the money! But the reading does not stand.

For one thing, the scam depends on divine intervention to work. In each of these stories, God miraculously protects Sarah in the king's harem. If this really were a scam, Abraham and Sarah would have to know beforehand that God would intervene, and count on that intervention to enable them to disappear with their money at the end. It does not seem likely that a scam can depend on the timely appearance of the Deity, or that the Deity would accede to such use.

Furthermore, Abraham fears that, in these lawless cities, the inhabitants would kill a man to take his wife. His fears seem justified by the way the leaders claim unattached women as their own. Pharaoh has courtiers who take beautiful women into his harem (Gen. 12:15), and even the far more decorous Avimelekh "sends and takes" an attractive woman without any consultation (Gen. 20:2). And yet the supposed scam depends on knowing that, when these leaders find out that the woman has a husband, suddenly they will appease the husband and let the wife go. It seems more likely that these tyrants would just as happily keep the wife, and kill the husband if he makes too much trouble.

So what does Abraham expect to happen? I think he expects the king and the inhabitants to become interested in his beautiful wife, and to begin talking about matchmaking with him. As her supposed brother, he could expect to play the key role in negotiating her marriage. To escape without getting killed, and without losing his wife to a tyrant's harem, Abraham has to keep bargaining. So as long as he can keep on negotiating in bad faith, making sure not to reach an agreement, he remains safe and Sarah remains out of the harem. His plan gets overwhelmed in these two stories when the lawless leaders just take Sarah, without asking any questions.

Sometimes people have to negotiate in order not to reach an agreement.