Lekh-lekha, Vayeira, & Toledot: The Wife/Sister Trick

November 19, 2014 at 11:19 am | Posted in Lekh Lekha, Toledot, Vayeira | 1 Comment
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by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

And it happened, as he approached coming into Egypt, [Abraham] said to Sarah, his wife:  Hey, please—I know that you are a beautiful-looking woman. And it will happen, when the Egyptians see you, then they will say: This is his wife. And they will kill me, but you they will keep alive.  Say, please, you are my sister, so that it will go well for me for your sake, and I will stay alive on account of you. (Genesis/Bereishit 12:11-13)

One way to get rich, in the book of Genesis/Bereishit, is to take your wife to another country and pretend she is your sister. Since she is beautiful, the king takes her, and gives you a generous bride-price for her. (A king can always afford another wife.) God afflicts the king and his household with an unmentionable disease, and the king finds out that his new acquisition is married to another man. (Polygamy is fine in Biblical times, but polyandry is out of the question.)  The king complains, but he returns your wife/sister, and lets you keep his gifts. You walk away with a clear profit.

A romantic view of Sarah's abduction

A romantic view of Sarah’s abduction

This story appears three times in the book of Genesis/Bereishit, beginning with the translation above in the Torah portion Lekh-lekha. In this first story, the trickster husband is Abraham, and the king of Egypt takes his wife Sarah. The second time, in Vayeira, Abraham pulls the same trick on the king of Gerar. The third and last time, in this week’s Torah portion, Toledot (“lineages”), Abraham’s son Isaac plays the trick, pretending to the king of Gerar that his wife Rebecca is his sister.

What are these sordid stories doing in the Torah?

Traditional commentators take the wife/sister stories at face value, concluding that the people of of Egypt and Gerar were indeed immoral, so Abraham and Isaac were justified in passing off their wives as their unmarried sisters. They believe that someone who would kill a husband to take a woman would leave a brother alone, and even pay him a bride-price. They conclude that Sarah and Rebecca were beautiful and virtuous, and all three times God protected them from being molested by a king.

At the time of the second story Sarah is 89 years old, but traditional commentary does not blink. Before Abraham takes his 89-year-old wife to Gerar, three angels announce that in a year she will have a son. (See my earlier post, Vayeira: Laughing in Disbelief.) In the Babylonian Talmud (Bava Metziah 87a), Rav Hisda explains that after the annunciation, Sarah’s worn and wrinkled skin is rejuvenated, and her beauty returns.

The traditional approach attempts to explain away inconsistencies in the wife/sister stories, but it offers no insight on why these stories are in the Torah.

This year, thanks to Reading the Lines (2002) by Pamela Tamarkin Reis, I noticed the stories’ broad humor. People listening to these stories would have rooted for each husband who tricks a king and walks away rich. They would have laughed when a king took a new wife and then could not get it up. On top of that, Reis wrote, the king paid a lot for a new wife, and then she turned out to be “no spring chicken”!

Suddenly it struck me that when the three wife/sister stories are taken together, without the narratives in between, they make a classic oral tale. As a storyteller myself, I spotted all the elements of a good folk tale.

The theme of the tale is one of the old standards: a poor man tricks rich man into giving him wealth. Folk tales love reversals, and the underdog is always the hero.

Another reversal is that in the ancient world you were supposed to give tribute to a king.  But in this tale, the kings give tribute to husbands.

Expecting a young virgin and discovering you have married an old woman is another reversal. If I were telling the three-part wife/sister tale, the royal officers in Egypt and Gerar would only glimpse Sarah and see her beautiful figure. She would enter each king’s house wearing the customary veil. (For example, Rebecca puts on a veil before she meets her fiance Isaac, and Leah wears a veil at her wedding to Jacob.)  Then when the king removes his bride’s veil—surprise! He sees an old woman!

Another common feature of folk tales is that the men never learn. Here, Abraham manages to escape Egypt with his wife and Pharaoh’s gifts. Then 25 years later, when God has promised Sarah a miraculous birth, Abraham casually goes to Gerar and tries the same trick. It never occurs to him that after Sarah’s son is born, someone might wonder whether he is really the father.Routes in 3 wife-sister stories

In most classic stories, the main action happens three times, each time with a different twist. In the three-part wife/sister tale, Abraham’s behavior is understandable the first time. There is a famine in Canaan, so he goes to Egypt. He notices men looking at Sarah’s figure, and he begs her to go along with his deception. She is 65, but she might be a young-looking 65.

Pharaoh only finds out Sarah is Abraham’s wife when God afflicts him and his household with disease. This upsets him, so he summons Abraham and complains:

Why did you say ‘She is my sister’ so I took her as mine for a wife? Hey now, take your wife and go! (Genesis 12:19)

The Torah never says that Pharaoh leaves Sarah untouched. It does say that he has Sarah and Abraham escorted out of the country—though they get to keep the bride-price.

In the second wife/sister story there is no famine, and Abraham has no excuse for moving to Gerar. He is supposed to be encouraging Sarah to return to his bed, so that he can give her the baby God promised, but he decides to repeat the wife/sister trick instead. He does not even speak to his wife before he tells the men of Gerar that she is his sister.

And Abraham said of Sarah, his wife: She is my sister.  And Avimelekh, king of Gerar, sent vayikach Sarah. (Genesis 20:2)

vayikach (וַָיִּקַּח) = and he took; and he took as a wife.

I can imagine Abraham cheerfully waving goodbye, anticipating the bride-price. The action in the king’s house is funnier the second time, since Sarah is now 89, and God afflicts the king and his household with impotence.

God tells the king in a dream that he will die because Sarah is already married.

But Avimelekh had not come close to her, and he saidWith purity of my heart and with nikyon kapai I did this! … (Genesis 20:4-5)

nikyon kapai (נִקְיֹן כַּפַּי) = innocence of my palms (i.e. clean hands).

God agrees about the pure heart, but points out that the “clean hands” are due to God-given impotence. Now only Abraham’s prayers can save him from death. I can imagine Avimelekh waking up and thinking “What did I do to deserve this?”

The next morning, he gives Abraham livestock and slaves, gives Sarah silver as a token of her chastity, and returns Sarah to Abraham. As in most folk tales, even though the hapless hero never learns, he still wins.

The third round

The wife/sister deception in this week’s Torah portion takes the tale in a new direction. Now the underdog hero is Isaac, the son of Abraham and Sarah. There is another famine in Canaan, and Isaac takes own wife, Rebecca, to Gerar, where the current king is also called Avimelekh.

Isaac settled in Gerar. And the men of the place asked about his wife, and he said: She is my sister—because he was afraid to say ‘my wife’, ‘lest the men of the place kill me over Rebecca, because she is good-looking’. (Genesis 26:6-7)

This time the king of Gerar does not immediately take Rebecca into his house, but waits and watches.  After a while Isaac gets tired of treating Rebecca like a sister.

 And it happened because the days were long for him; and Avimelekh …looked down from the window, and he saw—hey! Isaac was fooling around with Rebecca, his wife! (Genesis 26:6-8)

The king summons Isaac and scolds him for lying. And Avimelekh said: What is this you have done to us? One of the people almost lay down with your wife! Then you would have brought guilt upon us! (Genesis 26:10)

This king declares a death penalty for anyone who touches Isaac and Rebecca, and although he does not shower Isaac with gifts, he does let Isaac plant crops in the land of Gerar, and Isaac gets rich anyway.

What fascinates me about this three-part folktale is that although the husband never learns, the king does. The king of Egypt may well have “taken” Sarah all the way, but when he finds out she is Abraham’s wife he expresses no regret, and he expels Abraham and Sarah from his country. In the second story, the king of Gerar cares more about the purity of his own intentions than the Pharaoh did, and after discovering the truth he is careful to exonerate Sarah. The king in the third story wants his actions as well as his intentions to be beyond reproach, so he observes Isaac and Rebecca a long time to determine whether they really are brother and sister.

Now I think the wife/sister episodes teach a great lesson through their humor: that someone who seems to be a villain may not be so bad after all, and that anyone, even a foreign king, can learn and grow and improve.

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  1. […] my post Lekh-Lekha, Vayeira, and Toledot: The Wife-Sister Trick on the first two impersonations, and my post Vayeitzei: A Den of Thieves on the last […]


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