Sarai Suffers in Pharaoh’s Palace, and Abram Is Rewarded?!
A Text of Terror
In my classes on the history of biblical interpretation, we often start by wrestling with ancient sources whose message seems at odds with our moral sensibilities today. One such text is the story of when Abram and Sarai are forced to migrate to Egypt to survive a famine. Abram tells his wife to pretend they are sister and brother, anticipating the jealousy of Egyptians regarding her great beauty.
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, “I know 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.”
The story that unfolds thereafter constitutes what some scholars have come to call a “text of terror” due to the implied violence against the female character.
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 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.
Our moral outrage comes not just from the fact that the Abram gives his wife to Pharaoh to save his own life, but the fact that he is rewarded for this behavior with great wealth:
בראשית יב:טז וּלְאַבְרָם הֵיטִיב בַּעֲבוּרָהּ וַיְהִי לוֹ צֹאן וּבָקָר וַחֲמֹרִים וַעֲבָדִים וּשְׁפָחֹת וַאֲתֹנֹת וּגְמַלִּים.
Gen 12:16 And because of her, it went well with Abram; he acquired sheep, oxen, asses, male and female slaves, she-asses, and camels.
It is as though divine providence itself had this plot in hand all along: the sacrifice of Sarai’s safety for the sake of Abram’s survival and success.
As we read on, we learn that the figure who receives the penalty for this trickery isn’t Abram, but Pharaoh, the target of Abram’s lies:
בראשית יב:יז וַיְנַגַּע יְ־הֹוָה 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.
Most notably, the experience of Sarai herself is not mentioned, nor does the text refer to any distress or suffering she may have experienced in the house of Pharaoh—this is left to our imagination. Moreover, Pharaoh has not displayed behavior deserving of the punishment allotted:
בראשית יב:יח וַיִּקְרָא פַרְעֹה לְאַבְרָם וַיֹּאמֶר מַה זֹּאת עָשִׂיתָ לִּי לָמָּה לֹא הִגַּדְתָּ לִּי כִּי אִשְׁתְּךָ הִוא. יב:יט לָמָה אָמַרְתָּ אֲחֹתִי הִוא וָאֶקַּח אֹתָהּ לִי לְאִשָּׁה וְעַתָּה הִנֵּה אִשְׁתְּךָ קַח וָלֵךְ. יב:כ וַיְצַו עָלָיו פַּרְעֹה אֲנָשִׁים וַיְשַׁלְּחוּ אֹתוֹ וְאֶת אִשְׁתּוֹ וְאֶת כׇּל אֲשֶׁר לוֹ.
Gen 12:18 Pharaoh sent for Abram and said, “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? Now, here is your wife; take her and begone!” 12:20 And Pharaoh put agents in charge of him, and they sent him off with his wife and all that he possessed.
Contemporary interpreters of this text are quick to point to its troubling implications. Wilda Gafney, for instance, writes that “there is value in honoring Sarah as a survivor of sexual violence and domestic abuse and acknowledging her partner’s complicity in that abuse.” Honesty about the brutality implicit in the text is necessary lest it be used to justify or minimize brutality perpetrated by its readers.
What has fascinated my students and I, in considering the reception history of these verses from Genesis, is the fact that readers in antiquity seem to have been just as bothered by them, and for the same reasons.
Sarai Hidden and Revealed
In a remarkable exchange from Genesis Rabbah, the rabbis put the tools of midrash to the task of justifying Abram; he does not intentionally put Sarai into harm’s way, but first attempts to protect her by concealing her:
בראשית רבה מ ויהי כבוא אברם מצרימה ויראו המצרים (בראשית יב, יד), ושרה היכן היתה, נתנה בתבה ונעל בפניה.
Gen Rab 40:5 “When Abram entered Egypt, and the Egyptians saw” (vs. 14). And where was Sarah? He had put her in a box and locked her in it.
Building on the phrase “Abram entered Egypt,” in this version of the story, Abram arrives in Egypt alone with his cargo and negotiates with customs officials over the tax to be paid on his crate:
בראשית רבה מ כיון דמטא למכסא, אמרין ליה הב מכסא, אמר אנא יהיב מכסא.
Gen Rab 40:5 When he came to the customs-house, he [the customs officer] demanded, “Pay the custom dues.” “I will pay,” he replied.
As Abram haggles with the officials, the value of the cargo is at first minimized, but increases as the officials sense that something of greater value must be hidden inside:
בראשית רבה מ אמרין ליה מאנין את טעין, אמר אנא יהיב דמאנין. אמרין ליה דהב את טעין, אמר אנא יהיב מן דדהב. אמרו ליה מטכסין את טעין, אמר דמטכסי אנא יהיב. מרגלין את טעון, אמר אנא יהיב דמרגלין. אמרין ליה לא אפשר אלא דפתחת וחמית לן מה בגוה.
Gen Rab 40:5 “You carry garments in that box,” said he. “I will pay the dues on garments.” “You are carrying silks,” he asserted. “I will pay on silks.” “You are carrying precious stones.” “I will pay on precious stones.” “It is imperative that you open it and we see what it contains,” he insisted.
Finally, Abram is forced to open the box and reveal its contents, but it is her beauty, rather than her husband’s cunning, that reveals her presence:
בראשית רבה מ כיון שפתחה הבהיקה כל ארץ מצרים מזיוה. רבי עזריה ורבי יונתן בר חגי משם רבי יצחק אמרי איקונין של חוה נמסרו לראשי הדורות.
Gen Rab 40:5 As soon as he opened it the land of Egypt was irradiated with her lustre [beauty]. R. Azariah and R. Jonathan in R. Isaac’s name said: Eve’s image was transmitted to the reigning beauties of each generation.
The true value of Abram’s cargo is revealed, and it is immeasurable, as indicated by Sarai’s overwhelming beauty. In fact, she bears the glory of humanity’s first mother, Eve, a beauty that has been passed on to the most important woman in each generation. Furthermore, the power of her beauty is redirected in the midrash, which avoids mentioning her sexual allure or the jealousy she might inspire, and instead reveals Sarai’s true greatness, that she bore the glory of Eve, connecting the generations between them.
Sarai Cries out at the Injustice and God Responds
This midrash subsequently takes up the problem of Sarai’s capture in the house of Pharaoh. The rabbis take literally the idea that the house itself was plagued, saying that even the beams were afflicted:
בראשית רבה מא אמר רבי אחא אפלו קורות ביתו לקו, והכל היו אומרים על דבר שרי אשת אברם.
Gen Rab 41:2 R. Aha said: Even the beams of his house were smitten, and all exclaimed, “It is because of Sarai Abram’s wife.”
Whereas the narrative is silent about Sarai’s experience in Pharaoh’s house, the midrash has the walls of house broadcasting it.
With the lens pointed at Sarai then, we learn of her efforts to save her own life, which initiates a drama on a cosmic scale. We learn that Sarai cried out to God all night long, lamenting the fact that she is imprisoned, awaiting Pharaoh’s approach, while her husband walks free:
בראשית רבה מא אמר רבי ברכיה עלו דטולמוסין למקרב למסאנא דמטרונא. וכל אותו הלילה היתה שרה שטוחה על פניה ואומרת, רבון העולמים אברהם יצא בהבטחה, ואני יצאתי באמונה. אברהם יצא חוץ לסירה, ואני בתוך הסירה.
Gen Rab 41:2 R. Berekiah said: Because he dared to approach the shoe of that lady. And the whole of that night Sarah lay prostrate on her face, crying, “Sovereign of the Universe! Abraham went forth [from his land] on Your assurance, and I went forth with faith; Abraham has departed outside this prison while I am within!”
We sense the longing, on the part of these rabbis, to cry out themselves at such an injustice. Abram’s wellbeing is juxtaposed with her suffering, requiring, if God is just, divine intervention. According to this midrashic interpretation, God not only hears her, but responds to her directly, making Sarai’s centrality a refrain in the story:
בראשית רבה מא אמר לה הקדוש ברוך הוא כל מה שאני עושה בשבילך אני עושה, והכל אומרים על דבר שרי אשת אברם.
Gen Rab 41:2 Said the Holy One, blessed be He, to her: “Whatever I do, I do for your sake, and all will say, ‘It is Because of Sarai Abram’s wife.’”
An Angel at the Command of Sarai
This midrash interprets the declaration that all will be done because of Sarai to mean that Sarah would control the plagues completely, with the help of a heavenly agent:
בראשית רבה מא אמר רבי לוי כל אותו הלילה היה מלאך עומד ומגלב בידו, הוה אמר לה אין אמרת מחי מחינא, אין אמרת נשבוק שביקנא.
Gen Rab 41:2 R. Levi said: The whole of that night an angel stood with a whip in his hand; when she ordered, “Strike,” he struck, and when she ordered, “Desist,” he desisted.
Sarai is not only spared the sexual violence suggested by the text—in the end not even her shoe is touched—she is empowered with the strength of angels and with God’s blessing to protect herself.
Centering Women’s Experience
Aviva Zornberg explains that women are key to accessing subconscious layers of the biblical narrative, and midrash is the technique by which these layers are brought to the surface. Midrash constructs a counter-reality that centers women’s experience:
[It] is precisely in the midrash that women figure as having a separate, hidden history. In effect, the midrash makes the reader aware of a mistaken reading: all along, women have been really absent, really elsewhere. An alternative history, the midrashic history of women, would take us, at least at the most significant moments in the narrative, beyond the margins of the biblical account.
In the case of Sarai, midrash endows her with all the same powers that seem to have been stripped from her in the plain sense of the text. The Torah never mentions her experience; but in the midrash her experience constitutes the central narrative. In the Torah she has no voice; in the midrash she not only speaks but has a direct encounter with God. In the Torah she is a passive object of exchange; in the midrash she is endowed with cosmic powers to enact vengeance or mercy as she sees fit.
The kind of interpretive activity we read in midrashic sources responds to the very problems of moral offence in the biblical text that bother modern readers. It thus connects us to a community of readers reaching back into antiquity, who asked the same questions about Sarai’s agency in the story, and who used the tools of interpretation available to them, to respond with a powerful counter-narrative. This biblical matriarch comes out the other side of midrash being the most divinely empowered character in the story, drawing on the glory of all women who come before her, and on the strength of angels.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
October 23, 2023
February 26, 2024
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series
Prof. Rebecca K. Esterson is the Dean of the Center for Swedenborgian Studies and the chair of the Department of Sacred Texts and Their Interpretation at the Graduate Theological Union, where she teaches courses on the history of biblical interpretation and the history of Jewish-Christian relations. She earned her Ph.D. from the Graduate Division of Religious Studies at Boston University, and her M.T.S. from Harvard Divinity School. Esterson’s book Jewish Allegory in Eighteenth-Century Christian Imagination (Society of Biblical Literature Press, 2023) explores the how the relationship between self and other figured in the discourse about biblical literalism and biblical allegory in early modernity.
Essays on Related Topics: