Abraham and Sarah in Egypt: A Story Composed to Prefigure the Exodus
Stories of Prefiguration
The Bible expresses the interdependence of Israel’s past and present in writing tales of the great ancestor figures, Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David, etc., in such a way as to prefigure what will be in later times. The rabbis even categorize this as a principle: כל מה שאירע לאבות סימן לבנים “everything that happens to the ancestors is a sign for their descendants.”
The story of Abraham’s migration to Egypt in Genesis 12 (vv. 10–20) is a particularly strong example of this principle. Some midrashim recognised that the story anticipates the later fate of the people of God even in its details. כל מה שכתוב באבינו אברהם כתוב בבניו “Everything written in connection with our father Abraham is written in connection with his children,” says Genesis Rabbah 40:6, offering no fewer than eleven instances illustrating this principle.
In the words of the modern Jewish exegete Umberto Cassuto, “There is hardly a verse or half a verse in this section that does not remind us of a parallel statement in the narratives pertaining to the Israelites.” Indeed, a comparison of the phrases and elements of this narrative with other biblical narratives, especially that of the exodus, bears this out.
Sister-Wife Stories: Abraham in Egypt vs. Isaac in Gerar
The story where the patriarch gets into trouble in a foreign land because of his beautiful wife and can only save himself by lying, claiming that she is really his sister, is told three times in Genesis. The characters, settings, and plot details differ in each of the three:
- Abraham and Sarah in Egypt (Gen 12);
- Abraham and Sara in the Philistine city of Gerar, with king Abimelech as the antagonist (Gen 20);
- Isaac and Rebekah, again with Abimelech in Gerar (26:1–11).
At first glance, one is inclined to judge that this “must have been a very popular story in ancient Israel,” as John Skinner wrote in his commentary. But the strong similarities between the three stories, combined with significant differences, suggest that the variations are the result of intentional literary intervention.
Opinions differ as to which is the oldest version. Many scholars have advocated for the priority of the story in chapter 12, nevertheless, most of the evidence suggests that the motif originated in Genesis 26 and was transferred from there to Genesis 12.
First, it is clear that this story is a later addition into the text, as it interrupts the flow of Abram’s movements through Canaan, and is even framed by a resumptive repetition:
וַיִּסַּע אַבְרָם הָלוֹךְ וְנָסוֹעַ הַנֶּגְבָּה.
And Abram journeyed on by stages toward the Negeb.
וַיַּעַל אַבְרָם מִמִּצְרַיִם הוּא וְאִשְׁתּוֹ וְכָל אֲשֶׁר לוֹ וְלוֹט עִמּוֹ הַנֶּגְבָּה.
So Abram went up from Egypt, he and his wife, and all that he had, and Lot with him, toward the Negeb.
The translation above (based on the NRSV) renders Negeb as a proper noun, but generally, in the Bible, it means “southward.” While in the first verse, it makes sense for Abram to travel southward from Hebron into the Negev wilderness, this makes no sense when he is travelling northeast from Egypt. This is another indication that 13:1 is simply a resumptive repetition, allowing the earlier text to continue from where it left off before the detour into Egypt.
More importantly, as noted already by Marc Brettler, the wife-sister story of Genesis 12 has narrative gaps that would be inexplicable in an original narrative.
a) Why Does Abram Think They Will Be After His Wife?
In Genesis 26, the danger arises from a situation that is explained in detail:
בראשית כו:ו וַיֵּשֶׁב יִצְחָק בִּגְרָר. כו:ז וַיִּשְׁאֲלוּ אַנְשֵׁי הַמָּקוֹם לְאִשְׁתּוֹ וַיֹּאמֶר אֲחֹתִי הִוא כִּי יָרֵא לֵאמֹר אִשְׁתִּי פֶּן יַהַרְגֻנִי אַנְשֵׁי הַמָּקוֹם עַל רִבְקָה כִּי טוֹבַת מַרְאֶה הִיא.
Gen 26:6 Isaac dwelt in Gerar. 26:7 When the men of the place asked him about his wife, he said, “She is my sister,” for he was afraid to say “my wife,” thinking, “The men of the place might kill me on account of Rebekah, for she is beautiful.”
When the men of Gerar ask Isaac about Rebekah, he pretends that his wife is his sister in order to escape the danger they pose. In Genesis 12, in contrast, the danger does not arise from men showing interest. Instead, even before Abram reaches Egypt, he confesses his fear—which is given no narrative justification—to his wife Sarai:
בראשית יב:יא וַיְהִי כַּאֲשֶׁר הִקְרִיב לָבוֹא מִצְרָיְמָה וַיֹּאמֶר אֶל שָׂרַי אִשְׁתּוֹ הִנֵּה נָא יָדַעְתִּי כִּי אִשָּׁה יְפַת מַרְאֶה אָתְּ. יב:יב וְהָיָה כִּי יִרְאוּ אֹתָךְ הַמִּצְרִים וְאָמְרוּ אִשְׁתּוֹ זֹאת וְהָרְגוּ אֹתִי וְאֹתָךְ יְחַיּוּ. יב:יג אִמְרִי נָא אֲחֹתִי אָתְּ לְמַעַן יִיטַב לִי בַעֲבוּרֵךְ וְחָיְתָה נַפְשִׁי בִּגְלָלֵךְ.
Gen 12:11 As he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, “Behold, I recognize what a beautiful woman you are. 12:12 If the Egyptians see you, and think, ‘She is his wife,’ they will kill me and let you live. 12:13 Please say that you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that I may remain alive thanks to you.”
Abram’s concern about Sarai’s beauty being somehow life-threatening for him is artificial; the author of Genesis 12:10–20 finds the concern reasonable because he and his readers are already familiar with the story of Isaac and Rebekah in Gerar.
This problem inspired the Genesis Apocryphon (1Q20), a 1st cent. C.E. retelling of the Genesis stories, to add a prophetic dream into its version of the account (19:14–19):
וחלמת אנה אברם חלם בלילה מעלי̊ לאר̊ע̊ מ֗צ֗ר̊י֗ן ו֗ח֗ז֗י֗ת בח֗למ֗י֗ ו̊ה̊א ארז חד ותמרא חדא כ֗ח̊ד֗א֗ צ֗מ̊ח̊[ו] מ֗ן֗ ש̊ר֗[ש חד] וב֗[נ]י̊ אנ֗ו֗ש אתו֗ ובעי֗ן למקץ ולמעקר ל[א]ר֗זא ו֗למ֗ש֗ב֗ק֗ ת֗מרא בלחודיהה. ואכליא֗ת תמרתא ואמרת אל תקוצוֹ לא̊רזא ארי תרינא מן שרש֗ ח̊[ד] צ̊[מח]נ̊א וש̊ב֗יק ארזא בטלל תמרתא ולא֗ ק֗צ֗ו̊ה̊י̊.
Now I, Abram, dreamt a dream the night of my approach to the land of Egypt. And I saw in my dream that there was a single cedar and a single date palm having sprout[ed] together from [one] roo[t]. And so[ns of] humankind came seeking to cut down and uproot the [ce]dar, thereby leaving the date palm by itself. But the date palm cried out and said, “Do not cut the cedar down, for the two of us sp[rung] from o[ne] root!” So the cedar was left on account of the date palm, and they did not cut it down.
ואת֗ע֗ירת בליליא מן שנתי ואמרת לשרי אנתתי חלם ח֗למ֗ת֗ אנ֗ה̊ דחל מ̊[ן] ח̊למ֗א֗ דן֗ . ואמרת לי אש֗תע̊י לי חלמך ואנדע . ושרית לאשתעיא לה חלמא דן [וחוית] ל[ה פשר] חלמא דן ו̊א֗מר֗ת̊ ל[ה] מ֗[ ]ן̊ חלמא ד̊ן̊ א֗°°° °°ר̊ט̊ °°°ן̊ די יבעון למקטלני ולכי למשבק...
Then I awoke in the night from my sleep, and I said to my wife Sarai, “I dreamt a dream, °°° [f]rom this dream I am afraid.” And she said to me, “Tell me your dream so that I may know (about it).” So I began to tell her this dream […................] that they will seek to kill me, but to spare you…”
In this version, Abram’s fear is based on the knowledge he receives from heaven in the form of a prophetic dream.
Another significant clue to the secondary nature of the story in Genesis 12 is Abram’s use of the phrase הִנֵּה־נָא יָדַעְתִּי כִּי “behold, I recognise that” in explaining the problem to Sarai. Elsewhere, this phrase serves to introduce a new realization. For example, after Elisha cures Naaman the Aramean of his leprosy by having him dip in the Jordan River seven times, Naaman says:
מלכים ב ה:טו הִנֵּה נָא יָדַעְתִּי כִּי אֵין אֱלֹהִים בְּכָל הָאָרֶץ כִּי אִם בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל
2 Kgs 5:15 Now I know that there is no God in the whole world except in Israel!
Picking up on this, Rava (5th generation amora), in a midrashic gloss on Job 31:1, argues that Abraham had never looked at his wife before this moment (b. Baba Batra 16a):
ברית כרתי לעיני ומה אתבונן על בתולה - אמר רבא: עפרא לפומיה דאיוב, איהו באחרניתא, אברהם אפילו בדידיה לא איסתכל. דכתיב: הנה נא ידעתי כי אשה יפת מראה את, מכלל דמעיקרא לא הוה ידע לה.
“I have covenanted with my eyes not to gaze on a maiden” (Job 31:1)—Rava said: “Dirt in the mouth of Job, he [never looked] at another woman; Abraham never even looked at his own wife! For it says ‘Behold, I recognize what a beautiful woman you are’—deduce from this that, before this, he hadn’t known.”
This interpretation works well in hagiographic midrash, but in the context of Genesis, which never paints Abram (or any other patriarch) as having this kind of extreme modesty, it makes little sense. Instead, the use of the phrase here seems discordant, a strained attempt to make it seem as if Abraham realized something new.
b) Who Tells the Lie?
In Genesis 26, it is Isaac who lies when, feeling scared when men start asking him about Rebekah, he responds that she is his sister. In Genesis 12, Abram urges Sarai to make the false statement. The narrative never states whether Sarah complied with his request. In fact, Pharaoh’s rebuke implies that Abram told the lie:
בראשית יב:יח מַה זֹּאת עָשִׂיתָ לִּי לָמָּה לֹא הִגַּדְתָּ לִּי כִּי אִשְׁתְּךָ הִוא. יב:יט לָמָה אָמַרְתָּ אֲחֹתִי הִוא וָאֶקַּח אֹתָהּ לִי לְאִשָּׁה
Gen 12:18 What is this you have done to me! Why did you not tell me that she was your wife? 12:19 Why did you say, “She is my sister,” so that I took her as my wife?
This problem too is solved in the Genesis Apocryphon retelling (20:9–10), since here it is Sarai who says to Pharaoh that Abram is her brother. Nevertheless, this is absent in the original story. Instead, the plot of Genesis 12 returns to that of Genesis 26, its likely basis.
c) How Was the Lie Uncovered?
In Genesis 26, the lie is uncovered as part of the core narrative:
בראשית כו:ח וַיְהִי כִּי אָרְכוּ לוֹ שָׁם הַיָּמִים וַיַּשְׁקֵף אֲבִימֶלֶךְ מֶלֶךְ פְּלִשְׁתִּים בְּעַד הַחַלּוֹן וַיַּרְא וְהִנֵּה יִצְחָק מְצַחֵק אֵת רִבְקָה אִשְׁתּוֹ. כו:ט וַיִּקְרָא אֲבִימֶלֶךְ לְיִצְחָק וַיֹּאמֶר אַךְ הִנֵּה אִשְׁתְּךָ הִוא וְאֵיךְ אָמַרְתָּ אֲחֹתִי הִוא...
Gen 26:8 When some time had passed, Abimelech king of the Philistines, looking out of the window, saw Isaac fondling his wife Rebekah. 26:9 Abimelech sent for Isaac and said, “So she is your wife! Why then did you say: ‘She is my sister?’”
In contrast, Genesis 12 never clarifies how Pharaoh learns the truth of the matter. The text merely reports:
בראשית יב:יז וַיְנַגַּע יְ־הוָה אֶת פַּרְעֹה נְגָעִים גְּדֹלִים וְאֶת בֵּיתוֹ עַל דְּבַר שָׂרַי אֵשֶׁת אַבְרָם.
Gen 12:17 But YHWH afflicted Pharaoh and his household with mighty plagues on account of Sarai, the wife of Abram.
This is fundamentally problematic—unless he has already read Genesis 26, how is Pharaoh supposed to know that he is being afflicted “on account of Sarai, the wife of Abram”? To fill in this gap, Flavius Josephus writes (Antiquities of the Jews 1.164–165):
God thwarted his criminal passion by an outbreak of disease and political disturbance; and when he had sacrifices offered to discover a remedy, the priests declared that his calamity was due to the wrath of God, because he had wished to outrage the stranger’s wife. Terrified, he asked Sarah who she was and who was this man she had brought with her. On learning the truth he made his excuses to Abraham.
Josephus has created this story to fill in the gap in the text, highlighting what is missing from Genesis 12.
Abram Experiences Israel’s Future
These gaps suggest that the story of Abram and Sarai in Egypt depends on that of Isaac and Rebekah in Gerar. The former narrative was used and reshaped in such a way as to allow Abram and Sarai to prefigure the fate of the people of God in an exemplary way.
Abram does not move to Egypt voluntarily, but to avoid a famine.
בראשית יב:י וַיְהִי רָעָב בָּאָרֶץ וַיֵּרֶד אַבְרָם מִצְרַיְמָה לָגוּר שָׁם כִּי כָבֵד הָרָעָב בָּאָרֶץ.
Gen 12:10 There was a famine in the land, and Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there, for the famine was severe in the land.
As Cassuto notes, “Only because the famine was severe did Abram decide, against his will and with heartfelt grief, to leave the land.”
On one level, the inclusion of the famine builds on the Isaac story, who moves because of a famine. In fact, Genesis 26 has been reworked to make the connection to the “previous” Abram story explicit (note the redactor’s linking phrase in italics):
בראשית כו:א וַיְהִי רָעָב בָּאָרֶץ מִלְּבַד הָרָעָב הָרִאשׁוֹן אֲשֶׁר הָיָה בִּימֵי אַבְרָהָם וַיֵּלֶךְ יִצְחָק אֶל אֲבִימֶּלֶךְ מֶלֶךְ פְּלִשְׁתִּים גְּרָרָה.
Gen 26:1 There was a famine in the land aside from the previous famine that had occurred in the days of Abraham, and Isaac went to Abimelech, king of the Philistines, in Gerar.
The opening of the story in Gen 12:10 also prefigures the beginning of Israel’s sojourn in Egypt as recorded in the story of Jacob and his sons. After introducing the worldwide famine which Joseph prepares Egypt to meet (Gen 41:56–57), we are told:
בראשית מב:ג וַיֵּרְדוּ אֲחֵי יוֹסֵף עֲשָׂרָה לִשְׁבֹּר בָּר מִמִּצְרָיִם.
Gen 42:3 So ten of Joseph’s brothers went down to get grain rations in Egypt.
This remedy to solve their hunger is insufficient, as we soon learn:
בראשית מג:א וְהָרָעָב כָּבֵד בָּאָרֶץ. מג:ב וַיְהִי כַּאֲשֶׁר כִּלּוּ לֶאֱכֹל אֶת הַשֶּׁבֶר אֲשֶׁר הֵבִיאוּ מִמִּצְרָיִם וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵיהֶם אֲבִיהֶם שֻׁבוּ שִׁבְרוּ לָנוּ מְעַט אֹכֶל.
Gen 43:1 But the famine in the land was severe. 43:2 And when they had eaten up the rations which they had brought from Egypt, their father said to them, “Go again and procure some food for us.”
The brothers eventually comply (43:15), leading to the conciliation between Joseph and his brothers and the bringing of Jacob and the rest of the family to live in Egypt. The similarity between Abram and Sarah going to Egypt is meant to prefigure Jacob and his family going to Egypt. As the rabbi and biblical commentator Benno Jacob wrote:
The distress he and his wife suffer there is the first prelude to bondage, and their salvation and return is that to the deliverance of Israel, that God leads from Egypt to Canaan, and the Pharaoh of Abraham, defeated by plagues, is a forerunner of Moses’ Pharaoh.
The focus of the Genesis 12 story on pretelling the exodus explains several other changes that occurred in revising the Isaac and Rebekah story:
- Abimelech, king of the Philistines, has to be removed, and Pharaoh takes his place.
- The imagined danger in Gerar (no one ever takes Rebekah) becomes a real danger in Egypt.
- Pharaoh is not simply warned but punished by plagues.
- Pharaoh releases Abram and Sarai from Egypt.
To quote the Bible scholar, Michael Fishbane, “Thus, in all these various forms Abraham came to serve as the prototype of Israel for later generations.”
The Linguistic Building Blocks
The author has put together the story from a given set of linguistic building blocks. Using a metaphor from archaeology, one might say that a large part of the text consists of spolias (repurposed building stone).
A look at the overall structure already shows that the narrative does not go back to oral tradition. Instead, the author works with clearly demarcated scenes, following the rules of writing and composition, not oral performance. The story unfolds in exactly three steps. Two temporal clauses mark out the structure: וַיְהִי כַּאֲשֶׁר הִקְרִיב לָבוֹא מִצְרָיְמָה “When he was about to enter Egypt” and וַיְהִי כְּבוֹא אַבְרָם מִצְרָיְמָה “When Abram entered Egypt.” In the first act, Abraham predicts the crisis; in the second, it comes to a head.
The third act is the resolution, again in the form of a speech, this time from Pharaoh to Abram. Neither Abram’s speech to Sarai nor Pharaoh’s speech to Abram is answered. They are directed more to the listener/reader of the text than to the other actors on the narrative stage. This suggests that the main point of this story is didactic, instructing the readers rather than offering a story about the patriarch.
At the moment of crisis, God intervenes with plagues. This is immediately reminiscent of the Egyptian plagues. Although the noun נֶגַע “plague” is used in Exodus in reference to the plagues only once, it occurs at the decisive moment: to denote the last plague that causes the Pharaoh to let the people go:
שמות יא:א וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה עוֹד נֶגַע אֶחָד אָבִיא עַל פַּרְעֹה וְעַל מִצְרַיִם אַחֲרֵי כֵן יְשַׁלַּח אֶתְכֶם מִזֶּה...
Exod 11:1 YHWH said to Moses, “I’m going to bring still one more plague (negaʿ) upon Pharaoh and upon Egypt; afterwards he will let you go from here…”
This sentence undoubtedly served as a model.
Letting Go (ש.ל.ח)
The specific odd terminology used for deporting Abram and Sarai makes the correspondence to the plague narrative explicit. Again and again Exodus emphasizes that the plagues’ purpose is to let the people leave (Exod 3:20; 5:1; 6:1, 11; 7:2, 16, 26; 8:4, 16; 9:1, 13; 10:3, 7; 12:33).
After the plague in Genesis 12, Abram is called to stand before Pharaoh: וַיִּקְרָא פַרְעֹה לְאַבְרָם וַיֹּאמֶר “Pharaoh called Abram and said.” This precisely parallels the role of Moses (and Aaron) in the exodus story, for instance, after the second plague:
שמות ח:ד וַיִּקְרָא פַרְעֹה לְמֹשֶׁה וּלְאַהֲרֹן וַיֹּאמֶר הַעְתִּירוּ אֶל יְ־הוָה וְיָסֵר הַצְפַרְדְּעִים מִמֶּנִּי וּמֵעַמִּי וַאֲשַׁלְּחָה אֶת הָעָם
Exod 8:4 Pharaoh called Moses and Aaron and said: “Intercede with YHWH to take the frogs away from me and my people, and I will let the people go…”
What Pharaoh promises to do for Israel, and eventually does after the final plague, he does to Abram in Genesis 12:
בראשית יב:כ וַיְצַו עָלָיו פַּרְעֹה אֲנָשִׁים וַיְשַׁלְּחוּ אֹתוֹ וְאֶת אִשְׁתּוֹ וְאֶת כָּל אֲשֶׁר לוֹ.
Gen 12:20 And Pharaoh put men in charge of him, and they let him go with his wife and all that he possessed.
Abram then heads back to the Promised Land, as the Israelites would later.
A Bricolage of Biblical Stories
In addition to foreshadowing the exodus, the story of Abram and Sarai in Egypt reworks other biblical accounts.
The Sons of God See Beautiful Women and Take Them
Just as Abram fears, Sarai’s beauty is a danger to them in Egypt:
בראשית יב:יד וַיְהִי כְּבוֹא אַבְרָם מִצְרָיְמָה וַיִּרְאוּ הַמִּצְרִים אֶת הָאִשָּׁה כִּי יָפָה הִוא מְאֹד. יב:טו וַיִּרְאוּ אֹתָהּ שָׂרֵי פַרְעֹה וַיְהַלְלוּ אֹתָהּ אֶל פַּרְעֹה וַתֻּקַּח הָאִשָּׁה בֵּית פַּרְעֹה.
Gen 12:14 And it was when Abram entered Egypt, the Egyptians saw how very beautiful the woman was. 12:15 Pharaoh’s courtiers saw her and praised her to Pharaoh, and the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s palace.
This account corresponds closely to the episode of the so-called angel marriages in the primordial history:
בראשית ו:א וַיְהִי כִּי הֵחֵל הָאָדָם לָרֹב עַל פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה וּבָנוֹת יֻלְּדוּ לָהֶם. ו:ב וַיִּרְאוּ בְנֵי הָאֱלֹהִים אֶת בְּנוֹת הָאָדָם כִּי טֹבֹת הֵנָּה וַיִּקְחוּ לָהֶם נָשִׁים מִכֹּל אֲשֶׁר בָּחָרוּ.
Gen 6:1 And it was when men began to increase on earth and daughters were born to them, 6:2 the divine beings saw how lovely the daughters of men were and took wives from among those that pleased them.
The correspondence in both subject matter and repeated words is striking. The author of Genesis 12:10–20 is alluding to the event that caused the Flood. What the Egyptians are doing is a grave transgression that forced God to intervene. Abraham was rightly afraid of this crime.
Take and Go
When Pharaoh releases Sarah, he ends with הִנֵּה אִשְׁתְּךָ קַח וָלֵךְ “Now then, here is your wife! Take her, and go away!” These are the words with which Laban and Bethuel give Rebekah to the servant of Abraham:
בראשית כד:נא הִנֵּה רִבְקָה לְפָנֶיךָ קַח וָלֵךְ וּתְהִי אִשָּׁה לְבֶן אֲדֹנֶיךָ כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר יְ־הוָה.
Gen 24:51 Rebekah is here before you; take her and go, and let her be your master’s son’s wife, as YHWH has said.
The use of the parallel language in the Abram story implies to the reader that Sarai’s return (and thus her prior endangerment) follows the divine plan for the course of history “as YHWH has said.”
To Do Well with Me
When explaining to Sarai why he wants her to lie about their relationship, he says לְמַעַן יִיטַב־לִי בַעֲבוּרֵךְ “that it may go well with me because of you.” This is a phrase familiar from Deuteronomy, where it describes the reward for obedience to the (Deuteronomic) Torah. For example, in Deuteronomy’s version of the command to honor your parents, we are told to do so
דברים ה:טז ...לְמַעַן יַאֲרִיכֻן יָמֶיךָ וּלְמַעַן יִיטַב לָךְ עַל הָאֲדָמָה אֲשֶׁר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ.
Deut 5:16 …that you may long endure, and that you may fare well, in the land that YHWH your God is assigning to you.
The use of this phrase from Deuteronomy underlines how YHWH will protect Abraham in his distress and reward him for loyalty.
What Abram promised in his speech to Sarai, לְמַעַן יִיטַב־לִי בַעֲבוּרֵךְ “that it will go well with me” became truth shortly thereafter:
בראשית יב:טז וּלְאַבְרָם הֵיטִיב בַּעֲבוּרָהּ וַיְהִי לוֹ צֹאן וּבָקָר וַחֲמֹרִים וַעֲבָדִים וּשְׁפָחֹת וַאֲתֹנֹת וּגְמַלִּים.
Gen 12:16 He dealt well with Abram on her account, and he had flocks, cattle, jacks, male and female slaves, jennies, and camels.
The text leaves open who is the subject of הֵיטִיב “he dealt well.” Rashi thinks of the Pharaoh, and that certainly fits the scene. But a later episode in Genesis, where Abraham’s servant comes to Rebekah’s family, suggests that it is YHWH:
בראשית כד:כה וַי־הוָה בֵּרַךְ אֶת אֲדֹנִי מְאֹד וַיִּגְדָּל וַיִּתֶּן לוֹ צֹאן וּבָקָר וְכֶסֶף וְזָהָב וַעֲבָדִם וּשְׁפָחֹת וּגְמַלִּים וַחֲמֹרִים.
Gen 24:25 YHWH has greatly blessed my master, and he has become rich: He has given him flocks and cattle, silver and gold, male and female slaves, camels and donkeys.
Wealth is a reward from God, here fulfilling the promise of blessing that Abraham received in Gen 12:2 upon leaving his father’s house. And at the same time, it reflects the compensation the Israelites will receive through YHWH when they leave Egypt in exchange for their slave labor (Exod 12:35-36, compare Deut 15:13), about which Abram is informed in the Covenant between the Pieces.
The evidence adduced above suggests that Genesis 12:10–20 should be considered a bricolage, a term coined by the great twentieth century structural anthropologist Claude Levi-Straus to describe a work compiled from already standing building blocks or bricks.
Once we realize that this passage is an intertextual bricolage, it becomes clear that in studying it we have by no means drilled down to “the bed-rock of Hebrew folklore” (John Skinner)—to use another archaeological metaphor. Instead, we have unearthed a mosaic floor, a text composed from known texts, just as a mosaic is composed out of many existing stones.
Individual and Community: Past and Present
The story of Abram in Egypt begins with וַיֵּרֶד אַבְרָם מִצְרַיְמָה לָגוּר שָׁם “and Abram went down to Egypt to live there.” This phrase is recalled in the confession that every Israelite is to utter before YHWH when offering up the first fruits of the Promised Land:
דברים כו:ה אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי וַיֵּרֶד מִצְרַיְמָה וַיָּגָר שָׁם בִּמְתֵי מְעָט וַיְהִי שָׁם לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל עָצוּם וָרָב.
Deut 26:5 A wandering Aramean was my father; and he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous.
Usually this description is taken to refer to Jacob, and the continuation makes this clear—Abram did not stay in Egypt with his children. Nevertheless, the use of parallel language in Genesis 12 brings Abraham to the reader’s mind as well. He is the first of the fathers to go down to Egypt and live there.
Just as Abram experiences the exodus, so too, commands the Passover Haggadah, every Jew should experience it him/herself:
בכל דור ודור חייב אדם לראות את עצמו כאילו הוא יצא ממצרים
In every generation a person must see himself as if he left Egypt.
The line expresses a tension between the exodus as a story set in Israel’s distant past, and the exodus as a lived experience in the present. This tension lies at the core of the beginning of the Decalogue, perhaps the most important sentence of the Torah:
שמות כ:ב/דברים ה:ו אָנֹכִי יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִיךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים לֹא יִהְיֶה לְךָ אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים עַל פָּנָי.
Exod 20:2/Deut 5:6 I am YHWH your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You are to have no other gods before me.
In all three cases, the pronoun “you” is in the singular, and thus, the call to worship YHWH alone is addressed to every single person who hears it. Each individual must decide whether she or he wishes to hearken to the divine command. It cannot be otherwise. It is especially striking that the justification for this law, that YHWH freed Israel from bondage in Egypt, is phrased in the singular, even though the exodus affected the people as a whole.
A Story Designed to Foreshadow
The opening phrase of the Decalogue telescopes the time that has passed and asserts that the act of deliverance in the early days happened here and now. Abraham, as he is depicted in this story and in later Jewish tradition, embodies the same tension.
Abraham is a figure set in Israel’s distant past, but many aspects of his individual history are a reflection of the collective history of God with his people. Abraham’s fate becomes the God-guided path through life for all who see themselves—physically and spiritually—as his children. This is the main purpose of the story of Abram’s descent to Egypt in Genesis 12.
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October 28, 2020
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Prof. Christoph Levin is Professor (Emeritus) of Old Testament at the University of Munich. He received his Ph.D. and Dr.habil. from Goettingen university, as well as a honorary degree from Helsinki university. Two of his books have been translated into English, Re-reading the Scriptures: Essays on the Literary History of the Old Testament (2015), The Old Testament: A Brief Introduction (2005). In addition, he is the author of Entwurf einer Geschichte Israels (2017), Verheißung und Rechtfertiung (2013), Der Jahwist (1993), Verheißung des neuen Bundes (1985), Der Sturz der Königin Atalja (1982). At present he is preparing a commentary on the book of Genesis (HAT-series, Mohr Siebeck publishers). Levin is corresponding member of the Goettingen Academy of Sciences and Humanities as well as of the Academy of Finland. From 2010 to 2013, he was president of the International Organization for the Study of the Old Testament (IOSOT).
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