Abram, Sarai, and Pharaoh


Here’s the story: a reverend and a rabbi start a blog.
In 2008, Baptist minister Michael Smith and Jewish rabbi Rami M. Shapiro began a virtual conversation via blogspot.com. Called “Mount and Mountain,” the blog recorded a long-running dialogue between Mike and Rami in which the pair interpreted, argued about, and interrogated key texts drawn from the canons of their respective religions: the Ten Commandments from the Torah, the Sermon on the Mount from the Gospel of St. Matthew, and now, in their newest collaboration, the stories of Genesis.

Genesis 12:10-20

Mike: The Genesis storyline takes a turn when famine strikes. Abram goes to Egypt to live as a resident alien. Before they reach the border crossing, Abram starts to worry that the Egyptians might kill him in order to take his wife Sarai for their own. He tells her to pretend to be his sister. Sarai goes along with the plan. Eventually, Pharaoh’s officials notice her and claim her for his harem. In exchange, Pharaoh showers Abram with sheep, oxen, donkeys, slaves, and camels.

The plan goes awry when God acts and afflicts the house of Pharaoh with plagues. Somehow, Pharaoh discerns that his house is under threat because Sarai is actually the wife of Abram. Pharaoh chides Abram for his deception, returns Sarai, and forces Abram to leave Egypt.

I’ll be quite interested to hear your take on the story. In the meantime, I offer the following thoughts.

Insofar as I can remember, this is the first mention of Egypt in Genesis. Given subsequent stories, I imagine those listening to the story in later eras flinched when they heard, “So Abram went down into Egypt.” “Egypt” functions almost as code for a place where God’s people get hemmed in or enslaved literally and spiritually. I can hear listeners thinking, “Don’t go there, Abram. That’s not a good idea.”

Egypt, though, also fills another role in the biblical narrative: a place of refuge in time of famine and trouble. There, with a bit of luck or for the right funding, an outsider finds a kind of welcome and food enough to survive. Even as late as the New Testament Gospels, Joseph is said to have fled to Egypt with the young Jesus in order to avoid Herod’s slaughter of the innocents.

Egypt, in the story before us, seems surprisingly neutral. It is what it is: a kingdom set apart by history and policy from the other peoples, possessed of a relatively advanced civilization that can ride out famine times better than most other cultures and, within limits, provide a safe refuge for “aliens.”

In this particular case, Abram creates his own problems. Whereas before he journeyed to and in the land God showed him, he now follows custom and goes down to Egypt in a time of crisis. He displays considerable courage and trust when he chooses to leave his home city and journey with God, but now he grows afraid on the border of Egypt and starts to spin his own plans for his safety. This will not be the last time he or Sarai adopts such a strategy, and it always leads to problems.

At first Abram’s ploy works well for all involved (with the possible exception of Sarai). Pharaoh is happy, and he gives generous gifts to the supposed brother of Sarai. It looks as if Abram may have found a “promised land” after all, one rich in sheep, oxen, donkeys, camels, and slaves. He seems well on his way to becoming an Egyptian, or at least the head of a favored alien people among the Egyptians.

God uses Pharaoh, to whom Abram now looks for security, to shake things up. When God’s plagues strike his household, Pharaoh pays attention, discerns what is afoot, and acts to rectify the situation. Strangely enough, Pharaoh is more attuned to God than Abram. Pharaoh forces Abram back on the road, where God will continue to challenge and mold him. For the moment, the promise and the journey survive.

We no doubt will name and explore a number of themes suggested by the story, but I want to pause at this point and hear what you have to say.

Rami: Honestly, Mike, I don’t have a whole lot to say about this story. I like your homiletic spin, however, and agree that “the promise and the journey survive,” but I find nothing of import in these tales and yield to your concern with them.

On the other hand, maybe this story foreshadows the emergence of the darker side of Abram’s character. Not only does he twice prostitute his wife, once to Pharaoh in Genesis 12 and again to Abimelech in Genesis 20, but he also risks the lives of Hagar and Ishmael (Gen 21:9-13) and plots to murder his other son, Isaac, in an act of human sacrifice (Gen 22). So, again, we have Torah embracing a hero who is far from perfect.

As for the role Egypt plays in Torah, I agree with you that there is nothing intrinsically evil about it. Most of the time Egypt is a place of refuge, and even the Egyptians’ great crime, the enslavement of the Hebrews, is mere turnabout given the prior enslavement of the Egyptians enacted under the auspices of the Hebrew Joseph.

Mike: Like you, I once found little useful in the story. My opinion changed over the past twenty years or so, mostly as I thought more carefully about structure, humanity, and culture.

Let’s start with structure. Genesis 12:1-9 and 12:10-20 combine to paint the first portrait of Abram, who will become Abraham. They establish a pattern we see repeated over the course of the Abram tales. Abram trusts God enough to journey with God on the basis of a call and a promise, yet Abram finds it almost impossible to trust God with specific, challenging situations. You aptly point to the Abimelech story in Genesis 20, in which Abram faces a similar danger and repeats the strategy of putting Sarai at risk. The storyteller uses this two-fold pattern quite consciously, I think. We cannot know what the storyteller had in mind, but to my way of thinking, the structure brings Abram to life and makes him a believable character. Abram is “everyone” who must deal with life as it is and the living God.

Which brings me to humanity: I see Abram’s complete story as a kind of biblical case study, the first epic-length account of the challenges of a genuine interface between God and an individual. The previous Genesis stories are snapshots compared to the Abram narrative. You note the story may reveal something about the darker side of Abram’s character, and I do not disagree. I tend to describe the matter in a different way. I would say the two stories in Genesis 12 establish Abram’s humanity, that fascinating and frustrating mix of spiritual intuition, cultural and personal habits of thought, intention, carelessness, courage, and fear that are found in all of us. The ancient Greeks gave us the hero with a tragic flaw, but the Genesis author surpasses their accomplishment in Abram, the hero who is but a human yet in whom lies the hope of humanity.

Abram does not live in a vacuum. He is the product of a culture, which ingrained in him certain ways of seeing life, conducting business, dealing with powerful people, and charting his course. Both of us believe Abram was a substantial person before he set out on his journey. Such persons usually are skilled in the ways of their home culture, successful at using it to advance or protect themselves and those they love.

The long story of Abram’s journey with God may be read in any number of ways, but one approach I find useful is to note how many of the accounts feature Abram confronting a dangerous or befuddling situation and deciding how to handle it. More often than not, his first impulse is to do what he knows how to do, what culture has taught him, and it is this impulse that he must overcome, or that God must intervene to help him overcome. Clearly, God is at work to habituate Abram to a new way of seeing and living life, but such change does not come easy!

Does the cultural question offer any possible insights on the story of Abram, Sarai, and Pharaoh? I’ll throw a possibility on the table. Suppose this is not a story about sex but about power and the conventions of the day. For example, throughout history rulers have often taken family hostages in order to ensure the good behavior of powerful resident aliens, allies, and such. I wonder if we might be dealing with something similar here. When a considerable clan or tribe arrived on the borders of Egypt, might their entry into the land have required that they send hostages to Pharaoh’s court as a pledge of their good behavior? Normally, in such situations, one’s sons, daughters, or siblings would have been taken. Abram had no such hostages to offer. Only Sarai was on hand, so to protect their lives and gain entrance into the refuge of Egypt, Abram used deception to become eligible to participate in the established cultural game of hostage taking.

Of course, it may be that an entirely different culturally driven game was in play. My point is not tied to a specific cultural structure. I only stress how difficult it is for any of us to imagine playing any game other than those we’ve absorbed or been taught by our cultures. Abram is not exempt. Still, God is determined to birth and fashion a new culture, a new game, and Abram and Sarai are the ones selected by God to launch the endeavor. Thus, God uses someone (Pharaoh) on the edges of the new game to force the main players to follow the new rules. It will not be the last time God intervenes through other humans, beings, or creatures to help Abram find his way.

Rami: I can see you don’t want to let this story go without some comment from me, and since you bring up the cultural element, let me start with that. Your notion that this story could reflect a power play motivated by fear of an alien tribe coming into one’s land is an intriguing one. It would certainly explain the story. The question we would have to ask is whether or not Abram and company was a large enough group to cause Pharaoh to fear their entry into Egypt. Nothing in the previous verses, however, suggests that they are. It is only after they leave Egypt, taking the gifts of Pharaoh with them, that Torah says, “Abram was very wealthy in herds, silver, and in gold” (Gen 13:1).

If we stick with the notion that the story is about sex rather than fear of an intruding stranger, I would offer this insight: Jewish commentators on this story often speak of the danger married women faced when entering Egypt with their husbands. According to tradition, married women traveling with their husbands were in more danger than single women entering with their brothers. The custom (according to Jewish commentators, and not according to Egyptian records) was for the Egyptians to murder the husband, rape the wife, and then kill her as well. But if the woman was not married, the custom was to shower the brother with gifts in the hope that he would give his sister to her suitor out of gratitude. Knowing this, Abram may have used the strategy he did to protect Sarai as well as himself. This would explain why Abram adopts the same strategy vis-à-vis the Philistines (assuming he believed Philistine custom to be the same as Egyptian custom), as well as why his son Isaac takes the same tack with the Pharaoh of his day. In short, it may be the rational thing to do.

Further support for this reading can be found in the order of Pharaoh’s gifts to Abram. Pharaoh sent Abram “sheep and oxen and he-asses and menservants and maidservants and she-asses and camels” (Gen 12:16). Asses were considered beasts of burden and were not as valuable as servants, so one would expect Pharaoh to send servants before asses—or, if he is going to start with asses, to send male and female donkeys together. The chaotic way the gifts are given suggests to some that Pharaoh is just tossing whatever he had on hand at Abram: one day a sheep, the next day an ox, then a male donkey, then a man-servant, etc., hoping that at some point Abram would find something he wanted and give Sarai in exchange. Abram accepted each day’s gift, for to refuse would have meant the end of the bargaining and, since Abram had not yet given Sarai to Pharaoh, Abram’s certain death.

Now let me comment briefly on the “trust in God” alternative. True, Abram could have relied on God to provide food and not gone into Egypt, but that isn’t the normative path in Judaism. We don’t test God this way. We are taught that God created humanity with the capacity to figure things out for ourselves and only intervenes if and when we make a mess of things.

Look at what God says to Moses when the Hebrew people are trapped between the Reed (or Red) Sea and the Egyptian army. Facing certain death at the hands of the Egyptians, Moses says to the Israelites, “YHVH will make war for you, and you shall remain silent” (Exod 14:14). But God says to Moses, “Why do you call out to me? Speak to the Children of Israel and let them journey forth [into the sea]” (Exod 14:15). This is shocking! God has rescued the people from slavery, and now when they turn to God for help once again, God says, “What are you bothering me for? Just keep marching into the sea.”

Of course, God does save the people with the parting of the waters, but only after the people make the first move on their own. According to rabbinic lore, Nachshon ben Aminadav, Aaron’s brother-in-law, preferring death by drowning to being dragged back into Egyptian slavery, marched into the sea on his own. He waded out until the water was at his throat, and only then did the sea recede before him. The point is that faith in God does not mean waiting on God to save you. You have to act, like Nachshon, even when such action seems hopeless. In fact, in Yiddish there is a phrase “to be a Nachshon,” meaning to be a bold initiator of action. We should all be so bold.

This post originally appeared as chapter 7 in Beginnings: A Reverend and a Rabbi Talk About the Stories of Genesis by Michael Smith and Rami Shapiro.

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