|"Sarai Is Taken to Pharaoh's Palace" by Jacques Joseph Tissot (1836-1902)|
Dollars to donuts no one reading this post has heard a sermon on this passage. (Unless you went to seminary. All bets are off, when it comes to seminary preaching.)
(Go ahead and read it here. I'll wait.)
Abram and Sarai and all their retinue are forced to migrate to Egypt because of famine.
(Forced immigration for the sake of survival. It's always been a thing.)
But as they're about to hand their passports to Mizrayim Border Patrol, Abram turns to his wife, and says, "You know, honey, you are just so beautiful...."
And proceeds to sell his wife. Literally, to sell her. To the pharaoh. For the purpose of her becoming... a concubine? A wife? A member of the royal harem?
That's not how Abram poses it to Sarai, of course. He avows that her beauty is so great, the Pharaoh will kill him (Abram) in order to possess her. Therefore, my love, won't you say that you're my sister?
Family relationship norms in the Ancient Near East were not what they are today. In fact, Sarai's being Abram's sister would only have prevented their marrying if they had been womb-siblings (children of one mother), who were considered too close a relation to marry. If they had been siblings by a father, there would have been no problem. (More on that later.)
In other words, Abram's logic is not entirely.... logical. But there you have it. Sarai (we must assume) agrees (we don't know how enthusiastically), the two enter Egypt, and word of Sarai's beauty travels quickly to Pharaoh, who promptly takes possession of her.
And Abram becomes a very, very rich man.
BUT. There is a promise of God, still echoing in the air. The promise is that Abram (and by inference, Sarai) will be blessed with a child or children, which will result in their becoming a "great nation."
This escapade puts the promise in serous jeopardy. Will Sarai lie with the Egyptian king? Will she become pregnant? What will that do to the promise of God?
I wonder: does this story reveal some anxiety about something that becomes a central marker of Judaism? By which I mean: matrilineal descent, the passing of Jewishness, not through the father, but through the mother. If covenant belonging is passed through the mother and not the father, then there is a certain lack of control on it, isn't there? Control by men, I mean. Which... as the biblical narrative unfolds, becomes more and more of a concern, at least if you think Leviticus reveals anything about it.
Another sign that this is a tremendous anxiety? This story is told, not once, but three times. In reference to Sarai/Sarah, here and in chapter 20, and about Rebekah in chapter 26! A completely different woman!
I find this fascinating.
(Another marker of the concern about how Jewishness is identified? Circumcision. See chapter 17.)
But here, as this story reveals, the power is with, and in, the woman. She is the one through whom descendants will (or won't) appear.
In the end, God intervenes on behalf of the covenant, in scripture's very first show of plagues. Pharaoh is, understandably, miffed, and calls Abram out on it. And Abram went on his way, "with his wife and all that he had."
A final note about matrilineal descent, from chabad.org. It a contemporary Jewish (Orthodox/ Hasidic) answer to the question, "Why is Jewishness passed through the mother?"
Jewishness is not in our DNA. It is in our soul. The reason it is passed down through the maternal line is not just because it is easier to identify who your mother is. It is because the soul identity is more directly shaped by the mother than the father.
From a purely physical perspective, a child is more directly connected to their mother. The father's contribution to the production of a child is instantaneous and remote. The mother, on the other hand, gives her very self to the child . The child is conceived inside the mother, develops inside the mother, is sustained and nourished by the mother, and is born from the mother.
This is not to say that a father and child are not intimately attached. Of course they are. But as deep and essential as the bond between father and child may be, the child's actual body was never a part of her father's body. But she was a part of her mother. Every child begins as an extension of their mother's body.
The children of Israel did indeed begin as an extension of Sarai's body. But not yet. There are more adventures-- and obstacles-- between now and then.