Lekh-Lekha, Vayeira, & Toledot: The Wife-Sister Trick, Part 3

November 8, 2018 at 11:25 am | Posted in Lekh Lekha, Toledot, Vayeira | 1 Comment

Isaac and Rebekah, by Simeon Solomon, 1863

And Isaac stayed 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 on account of Rebecca, since she is good-looking.”  (Genesis 26:6-7)

Isaac’s father, Abraham, pulls the wife-sister trick twice, once in Egypt and once in Gerar(See The Wife-Sister Trick, Part 1 and Part 2.)  Now Isaac moves to Gerar and starts the process a third time in this week’s Torah portion, Toledot (“Lineages”).

The Torah tells us he is afraid; he believes that people in Gerar are so immoral they would kill a man in order to marry his wife—perhaps because he heard the story from his father.  (The assumption is that marrying an already-married woman is so sinful, not even foreigners would do it.  Murder is the lesser sin.)

Abraham’s feelings about passing off his wife as his sister are omitted; we do not even know if he believes he would be killed, or if he sees it as a way to get rich.  At least Abraham has a reason for moving to Egypt.

A famine happened in the land, and Abraham went down to Egypt lagur there, because the famine was heavy on the land.  (Genesis 12:10)

lagur (לָגוּר) = to live as a resident alien, to sojourn.1

In the second tale, Abraham goes to Gerar for no apparent reason—except maybe to get richer.

And Abraham pulled out from there to the land of the Negev, and he settled between Kadeish and Shur, vayagar in Gerar.  And Abraham said of Sarah, his wife: “She is my sister.”  And Avimelekh, king of Gerar sent and took Sarah. (Genesis 20:1-2)

vayagar (וַיַּגָר) = and he lived as a resident alien, and he sojourned.  (Another form of the verb lagur.)

After the king of Gerar discovers the ruse, he showers gifts on Abraham and Sarah in order to induce Abraham to pray for him and compensate Sarah for any loss of honor.

In the third iteration of the wife-sister tale, Isaac faces another famine, and goes to Gerar even though he believes the men of Gerar are exceptionally lusty and murderous.

Then a famine happened in the land, apart from the first famine that happened in the days of Abraham.  And Isaac went to Avimelekh, King of the Philistines, to Gerar.  And God appeared to him and said: “Do not go down to Egypt.  Stay in the land that I say to you.  Gur in this land and I will be with you and I will bless you, for I will give all these lands to you and your descendants, and I will establish the oath that I swore to Abraham, your father.”  (Genesis 26:1-3)

gur (גּוּר) = Live as a resident alien!  Sojourn!  (Another form of the verb lagur.)

What is “the land that I say to you”?  Canaan is the land God “shows” Abraham.2  But perhaps Isaac interprets God’s words as an order to stay in Gerar.

When Isaac tries Abraham’s wife-sister trick with the second Avimelekh3 of Gerar, the reader or listener expects the same outcome: the king will marry Rebecca, God will afflict the king and his household with a disease, and he will discover that the cause of the affliction is the sin of marrying an already-married woman.  Then the king will restore Rebecca to Isaac, along with some movable property as compensation, and they will return to Canaan richer than when they left.

But this time it does not happen.  The new king of Gerar merely watches and waits.  After a while Isaac gets tired of treating Rebecca like a sister.

Abimelech Spies Isaac Fondling Rebecca, by Bernard Salomon, 1558

And it happened because the days were long for him.  Then Avimelekh, the king of the Philistines, looked out the window, and he saw—hey!  Isaac was fooling around with Rebecca, his wife.  And Avimelekh summoned Isaac and said: “So hey!  She is your wife!  Then why did you say: ‘She is my sister?”

And Isaac said to him: “Because I said (to myself): ‘Lest I die on account of her.’”

And Avimelekh said: “What is this you have done to us?  Is it a small thing that one of the people might have lain down with your wife?  Then you would have brought guilt upon us!”  (Genesis 26:8-10)

Even though Rebecca is beautiful, not a single man in Gerar has attempted to bed her or marry her.  The only moral transgression that occurs is Isaac’s deception about their relationship.

Then Avimelekh commanded all the people, saying: “Anyone who touches this man or his wife will certainly be put to death.”  And Isaac sowed that land, and he obtained that year a hundredfold.  And God blessed him.  And the man became great, and he grew constantly greater until he became very great.  (Genesis 26:11-13)

This king does not need to shower Isaac with gifts.  God makes Isaac rich.

This new ending for the tale raises questions about all three explanations in The Wife-Sister Trick, Part 1 and Part 2.

Explanation A:  Exculpating the Patriarchs

Traditional commentators take the wife-sister tales as literal history, and also assume that Abraham and Sarah are more virtuous than any of the kings.  They do not question Abraham’s claims that the men of both Egypt and Gerar routinely seize beautiful female immigrants and kill their husbands if they happen to be married.

But when Isaac tries the wife-sister trick and nothing happens, their attempts to prove that the foreign king and his men are immoral prove feeble.  Nineteenth-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote: “Isaac’s concern was not unfounded; for as soon as the true relation between Rebecca and Isaac became known, Avimelech found it necessary to protect them by a decree of the death penalty for any assault.”4

However, Avimelekh might issue the order, “Anyone who touches this man or his wife will certainly be put to death” simply in order to reassure the fearful Isaac, not because there is any real danger.  If Rebecca were at risk for sexual assault, why would so much time pass without any man making the attempt?

Early commentary interprets Avimelekh’s question “Is it a small thing that one of the people might have lain down with your wife?” as proof that the king was at least planning to lie with Rebecca.  Rashi interpreted the phrase achad ha-am (אַחַד הָעָם),one of the people” as “the most prominent of the people, meaning the king”.5  And 16th-century rabbi Ovadiah Sforno claimed Avimelekh means he can bed Rebecca whenever he wants because the king “is singular among his people”.6

But although these commentators strained to paint the second Avimelekh in a bad light, the most they could say was that the king thinks about having sex with Rebecca, but does not do it.

Abimelech Sees Isaac and Rebecca, by Daniele Squaglia, 1649

Meanwhile, they find Isaac and Rebecca’s behavior scandalous.  Rashi, following Bereishit Rabbah, wrote that when Avimelekh saw Isaac and Rebecca “fooling around”, they were actually engaging in marital relations.7  They were doing it during the day where they could be seen; married couples are supposed to do it at night and in private.

Thus the efforts of traditional commentators to exculpate the patriarchs and matriarchs of Israel, and paint foreign kings and their male subjects as immoral, break down when it comes to the third wife-sister tale.  The king of Gerar and his men think about sex, but do not do anything wrong.  Isaac and Rebecca, on the other hand, are guilty of unseemly behavior in public.

Explanation B: Instilling Xenophobia

Modern scholars view the three wife-sister tales as three iterations of an ancient folk tale, casting first Abraham and then Isaac as the trickster husband.  But why did the people who wrote and edited most of Genesis during the 8th and 9th centuries B.C.E. choose to include these tales in the first place?  Perhaps they would encourage readers to believe  that the descendants of the patriarchs belong in Canaan, and that foreigners are dangerous.8  (See The Wife-Sister Trick, Part 2)

Alan Segal argued that the first wife-sister tale reinforces other warnings in the Hebrew Bible against dealing with Egyptians; the second tale “stresses God’s promise to live in the Canaanite land in which the patriarchs wander; the third shows that Hebrews were also invited to live on land controlled by the Philistines, both with their flocks and to raise crops.”9

Isaac does gur for some years in Gerar, which this Torah portion refers to as Philistine territory.10  There he copies his father by pretending his wife is his sister, and by redigging his father’s wells.11

Yet the second Avimelekh actually does not invite Isaac to stay.  Isaac apparently takes Avimelekh’s command to his people not to touch him or Rebecca as a free pass to engage in any lawful activity in Gerar.  The next sentence says he plants seeds and harvests an excellent crop.  The Torah does not say who, if anyone, owns the land Isaac farms, but it does say he uses wells that his father’s servants had dug during Abraham’s sojourn in Gerar.  As Isaac becomes richer, the native Philistines become envious, and they plug the wells with dirt.12

And Avimelekh said to Isaac: “Go away from us, because you have become much more mighty than we are.”  (Genesis 26:16)

This is the opposite of an invitation to stay.  Only after Isaac has moved to Beer-sheva does Avimelekh come over with his councilor and his army chief to make peace.  They say politely:

Abimelech Visits Isaac, by Wenceslas Hollar

“We see clearly that God is with you, and we say: Let there be, please, an obligation by oath between our sides, between us and you, and let us cut a covenant with you: that you will do no harm to us, as we have not touched you, and we did only good to you and sent you away in peace.  Now may you be blessed of God!”  (Genesis 26:28-29)

Thus the third wife-sister tale implies that the Israelite kingdoms can co-exist peacefully with Philistine states, not that Israelites have a right to use Philistine land.  The peace treaty, rather than instilling xenophobia, demonstrates that Israelites can get along with at least some outsiders.

Explanation C: Exploring Morality in a Trickster Tale

If the Torah is presenting three versions of a trickster tale as an entertaining way to teach a moral lesson, then the third wife-sister iteration must be the climax, the one with a turn that makes us think.

The new turn in the tale is that after the patriarch passes off his wife as his sister, nobody tries to get her into bed.  Every man of Gerar, including the king, is circumspect and sexually virtuous.  (I can imagine the second Avimelekh remembering what happened to his father, and being especially careful to avoid strange women.)

The funniest part of this version is when Isaac and Rebecca are fooling around right under the king of Gerar’s window, and the king pops his head out, looking outraged. Then he questions Isaac, just as the previous two kings questioned Abraham.  But he does not need to pay them anything, since he did nothing wrong, and God has not afflicted him.

All three kings in the three wife-sister tales respect the moral law that one must not poach a married man’s wife.  There is no indication that any of them resort to murder to fix their domestic affairs.  And when they find out they were deceived, none of them take revenge.  They ask the trickster to leave the country, but let him take his wife and his new riches with him.

The king in the bible who actually does kill a man in order to marry his wife is not a foreign king at all, but the second king of Israel, David.

David Sees Bathsheba, by Jean-Leon Gerome, 1889

While King David’s men are off fighting the Philistines, David looks down from his rooftop and sees “a very good-looking woman” bathing.  He finds out she is Bathsheba, another man’s wife, but he has her brought to his bed anyway.  After he has impregnated her, he tries to get her husband to spend a night with her, but he fails.  So David has her husband killed, and then marries her.13

Is it a coincidence that King David actually commits the moral crimes that Abraham and Isaac claim the kings of Egypt and Gerar would consider committing?  Or is the book of Genesis making an implicit criticism of Israel’s legendary king?

The wife-sister tale in Toledot demonstrates that a foreign king, even a king of Israel’s enemies the Philistines, can be more virtuous than an Israelite king.

It is not enough to say:

And you must love the geir, since you were geirim in the land of Egypt.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 10:19)

geir (גֵר) = foreigner, resident alien, sojourner.  Plural geirim (גֵרִים).  (From the same root as lagur.)

We should not only love foreigner and immigrants, but also remember that some of them are better than we are.

  1. All three patriarchs in the Torah are sojourners: temporary resident aliens, staying in countries where they are not citizens. After Abraham leaves Charan, his homeland in Mesopotamia, the bible describes him as “sojourning” in Egypt (Genesis 12:10), Gerar (20:1), Beersheba (21:34), and Hebron (35:27).  Isaac lives most of his life in Beer-sheva and Beer-lachai-roi, but he “sojourns” in Gerar (26:3) and Hebron (35:27).  Jacob grows up in Beer-sheva, then sojourns with his uncle Lavan in Charan during his prime (32:5), and in Egypt during his old age (47:4).
  2. Genesis 12:1, 12:5-7.
  3. Avimelekh can be translated as “My Father King”: avi (אֲבִי) = my father + melekh (מֶלֶךְ) = king. Avimelekh may be a title, like “Pharaoh”, and the second Avimelekh of Gerar may be the first one’s son and successor.
  4. Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash: Sefer Bereshis, English translation by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, 2002, p. 566.
  5. “Rashi” is the acronym for 11-century rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki.
  6. Ovadiah Sforno, Sforno: Commentary on the Torah, translation and notes by Rabbi Raphael Pelcovitz, Artscroll Mesorah Series, 1993, p. 136.
  7. Bereishit Rabbah, also called Genesis Rabbah, is a collection of commentary on the book of Genesis by rabbis from the Talmudic period of about 300-500 C.E. “Fooling around” is one translation of metzacheik (מְצַחֵק) = amusing oneself, fooling around, playing around with; from the root tzachak (צָחַק) = laughed, which is also the root of the name Isaac (יִצְחָק) = he laughs, he will laugh.
  8. Alan F. Segal, Sinning in the Hebrew Bible, Columbia University Press, New York, 2012, chapter one.
  9. Segal, p. 33.
  10. Scholars agree that the reference to Philistines (Plishtim) is an anachronism, since these people did not cross the Mediterranean and settle between the Negev and the sea until circa 1200 B.C.E., much later than the putative time of the three patriarchs. The Torah may use “Plishtim” here to indicate the geography, or remind the reader of one of Israel’s old enemies.  The term “Canaan” in the Torah refers to a region that always includes the west bank of the Jordan and the Negev desert, but only sometimes includes the Philistine states as well.
  11. Genesis 26:15-18.
  12. Genesis 26:14-15.
  13. 2 Samuel, chapter 11.

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  1. […] The third time a patriarch claims that his wife is his sister, the story takes a different turn.  See next week’s post, The Wife-Sister Trick, Part 3. […]


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