Parashat Lech L’cha contains the first of three wife-sister episodes in the Book of Genesis. These moments are disturbing. As the original patriarch and matriarch of the Jewish people, we want to see a strong and loving relationship between Abraham and Sarah. We want them to love and respect each other. We want them to serve as role models for us. Unfortunately, these incidents show us an uncomfortable side of their relationship that few of us would like to emulate.
As they travel toward the Negev there is a famine, so Abram and Sarai (their original names) turn toward Egypt. Fearing for their safety there, Abram says to Sarai, “I know what a beautiful woman you are! So when the Egyptians see you, and say: ‘This is his wife,’ they may kill me; but you they shall keep alive. Please say that you are my sister, that on your account it may go well for me, and that my life may be spared because of you” (Genesis 12:11–13). Sarai agrees, and when they enter Egypt it is just as Abram predicted. Sarai’s beauty is noticed, and she is taken to the Pharaoh’s palace. Abram then acquires “sheep, cattle, and asses, male and female slaves, she-asses and camels” because of her (Genesis 12:15).
This story is disturbing on so many levels. Why would Abram be so willing to offer Sarai to the Egyptians? Why would Sarai agree to such an arrangement? How could Abram (whom we expect to have high moral standards) accept riches for the taking of Sarai? Also, we understand the ancient system of marriage to be about protecting women sexually: through marriage a woman is to be protected from the advances of others. However, in this case her husband predicts what will happen and protects himself by hiding the true nature of their relationship, leaving Sarai as vulnerable as a woman traveling alone.
The biblical scholar Tikva Frymer-Kensky notes:
These narratives relate the story as most biblical stories are related, matter-of-factly, without moral judgment. But the choice of words indicates clearly what is going on. When he drew close . . . when Abram arrived in Egypt [Genesis 12:11–14]. The story uses the masculine singular of the verbs even though Abram was traveling with Sarai and probably with an entire entourage. This is a story about Abram, focused on Abram and told as if through Abram’s eyes. Abram is going, Sarai and the household move with him until the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house [Genesis 12:15]. The very rare passive “was taken” [vatukach] emphasizes that she no longer has independent volition. She is also stripped of her individuality, no longer recognized as a person, for both Abram and Pharaoh treat her as “a woman”—an unspecified generic object of desire. Sarai has been commodified, and nobody in these stories uses her name. No longer Sarai, she is “she” or “wife” or “this one” or “woman,” an object being transferred from Abram’s household to Pharaoh’s, there to be a slave-concubine. But God has other plans. (Reading the Women of the Bible, Tikvah Frymer-Kensky [New York: Schocken Books, 2002], pp. 94–95. Chapter and verse references and transliteration here is mine.)
Frymer-Kensky notes for us the way the language here can help us to better understand this story. It is not Sarai’s story, it is Abram’s. Sarai is the object not the subject, and as the object her experience is irrelevant. Her sacrifice for her husband goes unnoticed as a sacrifice. As Frymer-Kensky also notes, “A patriarchy is, after all, a patriarchy” (ibid. p. 98). Sarai is not a wife in the same way that we, with our modern minds and relationships, understand “wife”; Sarai is property and is treated reasonably as such.
But of course, we cannot leave things there comfortably. If we are to find meaning and substance in our stories, then we cannot merely end the conversation by saying: “That’s how it was then; who are we to judge”? We must judge, we must struggle, we must wrestle meaning especially from these disturbing instances, or else we risk allowing the uncomfortable scenes to disappear: these too are a part of our story and I believe they must be explored.
There is some redemption here. While Abram and Pharaoh negotiate the value of “the woman,” and see her only as one more possession, God does not. The story continues, “But the Lord afflicted Pharaoh and his household with mighty plagues on account of Sarai, the wife of Abram” (Genesis 12:17). For God, Sarai is the subject. For God, Sarai’s experience is important. For God, Sarai is far more than a mere possession to be bought and sold. For God, she is not “the woman,” she is Sarai; a unique and special human being and the subject of her story. God afflicts Pharaoh for her. Her suffering is meaningful to God, if not to her husband.
“A patriarchy is, after all, a patriarchy,” but that need not be the end of the story. When a person has been mistreated, underestimated, ignored, and so on, it may lead him or her to feel unworthy and forgotten. Sarai’s humanity and individual personhood was recognized and remembered by God. I believe this is true for all of us. God recognizes the value and worth of each of us. For God, we are each unique and important. For God, we each have a name. For God, we are each the subject rather than the object. If only we as humans could also recognize the unique value of every other human and keep far from the objectification of others that continues to plague our species, we might create relationships that future generations will look to emulate. What a world we would create then!
Rabbi Elizabeth Dunsker joyfully serves as the rabbi for Congregation Kol Ami in Vancouver, Washington.