by David Bidnell.
The continuous lectionary cycle currently invites us to explore some episodes from Genesis, taking us through the stories of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob, Leah and Rachel. There is much ground to cover here, and so there is a certain inevitability that some narratives are omitted. The frustrating aspect to this, however, is that we are left with what are deemed to be the major stories, while others, which are perhaps equally significant from the point of view of human relationships and human society, are not given quite the same prominence.
This, then, is an opportunity to look at the narrative of Sarah and Abraham in a foreign land. When we meet them at the gates of Egypt it would seem that Abraham’s world is at collapsing point. Having previously been told that he is to be handsomely blessed (Genesis 12:1-9) famine has now struck, and Abraham, Sarah and Lot have travelled to Egypt in search of survival. Anxious about the impact of Sarah’s beauty on his own future, Abraham attempts to disown her as his wife, leaving us to try and work out what exactly his intentions are, for there are at least three possibilities.
One approach is to take Abraham at his word and to acknowledge in part at least what may be a very genuine fear. We might struggle with his attitude to his wife, prepared, as he is, to abandon her to her fate in a land and culture which is not her own. We can almost hear him saying to himself: “It’s your fault for being so beautiful.” But what lies before them is a struggle to survive in a highly precarious situation, and perhaps Abraham believes this is the best way, possibly the only way, to secure a future for them both.
A second approach suggests that Abraham is concocting a cunning plan in order to enrich himself. He is not at all concerned about Sarah and what might lie ahead for her. His priority is to ensure not only his own survival, but his future prosperity. Sarah ends up in Pharaoh’s house and Abraham does very well out of it. Life is looking good for Abraham, even if it is at the expense of his wife’s honour, dignity and well-being, and we are left to wonder how Abraham actually feels about losing Sarah.
A third approach proposes that Abraham sees this as an opportunity to dispense with Sarah. He may even think that this is a necessity. He has been told that he is to be a great nation, that he is to have many descendants, but how is this going to happen if Sarah cannot have children? Perhaps Abraham senses some responsibility for the fulfilment of the promise made to him, and the only way he can see of realising this is by freeing himself to take a new wife, with whom it will be possible to have children.
However we choose to understand Abraham’s motives, the outcome is clear. Sarah now belongs to Pharaoh, and Abraham is a wealthy man. But our uneasiness about this situation stems not only from Abraham’s abuse of Sarah, but from his lack of honesty. After all, as Pharaoh points out, it is Abraham himself who has lied to the Egyptian ruler (Genesis 12:18-19). Can we trust Abraham?
This tale features two techniques of Hebrew story-telling. First, it alludes to a much larger narrative, in this case the overarching chronicle of Israel’s relationship with Egypt and the Exodus. There are frequent reminders of this defining plot of slavery and liberation through multiple connections – Israel ends up in Egypt as a result of famine in Canaan; Egypt is a place of threat; Moses is taken to Pharaoh’s house; there is conflict with Pharaoh; there are plagues, Israel is ordered by Pharaoh to leave. With this in mind, if we then interpret our present story in the light of Moses, we unearth a potential fourth motivation for Abraham’s action. In similarly precarious circumstances the vulnerable Moses is cast adrift on the water, his sister and mother hoping that he may be taken by Pharaoh’s daughter to be brought up in security and privilege, close to the seat of power. Is it not possible that this is reflected in Abraham’s intention? In Pharaoh’s court of power, the vulnerable Sarah has secure and privileged status – and her brother, Abraham, too!
The foiling of this attempt highlights the second technique, the deliberate leaving of gaps in the story, inviting questions. The gaping silence for us to ponder here is this. How does Pharaoh know to blame Abraham for the plagues? Who tells him the truth? There must be every chance that it is Sarah who has disclosed this. Amid Abraham’s deceit, Pharaoh’s power and the narrator’s silencing, still we are able to hear Sarah’s voice, which refuses to conceal her true identity and is persuasive enough to convince Pharaoh of a connection between the plagues and her predicament. It is Sarah who secures freedom.
But why would she ever trust Abraham again?