What were the cultural and marital standards of the time that caused the two men who claimed Sarah to be punished, rather than Abraham, even though he was the one perpetuating the lie?

Now that a new class section is starting, it’s time to dust this thing off and bring it back to life. There’s a Lazarus joke to be made somewhere in there, but quite frankly, I’m too lazy to make it.

Pharaoh_takes_SaraiAs I was reading through Genesis, two occurrences in the lives of Abraham and Sarah caught my attention. It first occurred in Genesis 12:11-20, which states: When he was about to enter Egypt, he said to Sarai his wife, “I know that you are a woman beautiful in appearance, and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me, but they will let you live. Say you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared for your sake.” When Abram entered Egypt, the Egyptians saw that the woman was very beautiful. And when the princes of Pharaoh saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh. And the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house. And for her sake he dealt well with Abram; and he had sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male servants, female servants, female donkeys, and camels. But the Lord afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife. So Pharaoh called Abram and said, “What is this you have done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife? Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her for my wife? Now then, here is your wife; take her, and go.” And Pharaoh gave men orders concerning him, and they sent him away with his wife and all that he had.”

A similar incident is repeated in Genesis 20:1-17, a portion of which states: From there Abraham journeyed toward the territory of the Negeb and lived between Kadesh and Shur; and he sojourned in Gerar. And Abraham said of Sarah his wife, “She is my sister.” And Abimelech king of Gerar sent and took Sarah. But God came to Abimelech in a dream by night and said to him, “Behold, you are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is a man’s wife.” Now Abimelech had not approached her. So he said, “Lord, will you kill an innocent people? Did he not himself say to me, ‘She is my sister’? And she herself said, ‘He is my brother.’ In the integrity of my heart and the innocence of my hands I have done this.” Then God said to him in the dream, “Yes, I know that you have done this in the integrity of your heart, and it was I who kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I did not let you touch her. Now then, return the man’s wife, for he is a prophet, so that he will pray for you, and you shall live. But if you do not return her, know that you shall surely die, you and all who are yours.” So Abimelech rose early in the morning and called all his servants and told them all these things. And the men were very much afraid. Then Abimelech called Abraham and said to him, “What have you done to us? And how have I sinned against you, that you have brought on me and my kingdom a great sin? You have done to me things that ought not to be done.””10740

These passages presented a bit of a quandary for me: for Abraham to be such a favored and blessed servant of the Lord, wasn’t it contradictory for others to be punished for acting on what they presumed to be the truth, when really Abraham was perpetuating the lie? This seems contradictory to other parts of the Bible where people are cautioned against lying and deceit, especially when taking into consideration that Abraham holds stature as one of God’s favored people. As I considered this question, I realized that I would have to address it from a position of understanding the marital and cultural dynamics of the time.

In addressing this, we must understand that women of the time held little real power and were viewed as property in much the same way that livestock and other worldly possessions were; they belonged to the men in their life, whether it was their father or later their husband.

This point is illustrated in “Divorce and remarriage in the Hebrew Scriptures (a.k.a. Old Testament),” which offers that “The Mosaic Law, which historical Christianity believes was handed by God to Moses, assigned a very low status to women. They were generally viewed as inferior to men, as sexual predators, and deceitful and untrustworthy. They were considered an item of property: A girl was considered to be owned by her father. At marriage, her ownership was transferred to her new husband…During biblical times, fathers could sell their daughters into slavery. Men could divorce their wives for various reasons. There was no reciprocal arrangement by which women could divorce their husbands.” This was reinforced by my readings in “Ancient Israelite Marriage Customs,” which stated “Though there are some cultures in the Ancient Near East which were matriarchal in structure, Israel’s was not one of them. Israel’s family life was dominated by the husband. When a marriage occurred the husband took his wife from her home and “ruled” over her…Because the husband was the dominant member of the family, he was given the title of lib (Ba’al) which meant “lord”, “master of the house”, “leader of the family circle”…”

I also found further evidence of this marital hierarchy in “Summary of Old Testament Teachings on Divorce and Re-Marriage,” which set forth: “In short, the Old Testament taught that marriage was intended to be a permanent, covenantal relationship between a man, who was to protect and provide for his wife, and a woman, who was to remain monogamous to her husband…The Law called for the execution of a woman who broke her marital vow, and when the practice of that punishment was discontinued, divorce became an accepted substitute, an act of discipline.”

abimelechabrahamThe article “Love and Marriage in the Bible” by Cynthia Astle raises an interesting point with this statement: “Women really weren’t considered equal players when it came to love and marriage in the Bible. The only way that a woman could have more than one husband was if she remarried after being widowed. Men could be simultaneous polygamists, but women had to be serial monogamists…”

While marriage was mutually beneficial for both men and women, women of the time still had less authority and agency in the situation as a whole. As Eric states in “Women and Marriage in the Old Testament,” “Women are always under the authority and protection of a man, with the possible exception of older women who outlive their husbands. This is initially their father and eventually their husband.” This highlights the disparity of power between men and women of the time, as he goes on to elaborate a few examples: women needed protection as they were often views as the spoils of war, a woman’s vow could be canceled by her father or husband, and if a woman was raped, then she had to marry her rapist or face even greater shame if she did not.

In all technicality, Sarah violated that ideal of the marital contract and vow within the customs of the time. The catch, of course, is that the violation was prompted by Abraham’s own commands, so as his wife, she was bound to obey. In this case, Abraham’s will and his assertion of his own agency seems to trump what was the custom of the time, in order to preserve his own well-being.

This seems like a lengthy divergence into the role of women in that age, but it’s essential to understand their role in order to make sense of the action taken against the Pharaoh and Abimelech when they took Sarah as their own. According to the standards of the time, they had violated something which belonged to Abraham.

In telling Sarah to lie about her relation to him, Abraham was only taking action with something that rightfully belonged to him, at least according to the standards of the time. However, this was still done by sowing deceit, which in turn led to the other men acting on the ‘facts’ that were presented to them. Abraham made assumptions about their actions if they discovered Sarah was his wife, and so he decided that the potential risk to his life was greater to him than the truth. Since Sarah had to bow to his authority, he was entitled to command her to present whatever story he instructed her to, even though it led to her being taken by the other men. After all, since women had very little real agency or authority of their own in that period, he was taking action with his ‘property’ in order to protect his own life and well-being. Even more, those men presented Abraham with gifts in order to seek his forgiveness, even though he had deceived them. Despite the deception, according to customs of the time and the punishment that was set upon them by the Lord, they were seen as being at fault and thus had to seek forgiveness.ketubah

It provides an interesting moral quandary (one which admittedly falls to the personal convictions and interpretations of each individual), but according to the laws and standards of the time, Abraham was within his rights in perpetuating the falsehood that he did with Sarah. In terms of the law and customs of the time, Abraham had every right to present that story about his wife. The moral boundaries of the situation aren’t quite so clearly defined, but they don’t negate the legality of it. Considering the depth and scope of the Bible especially, I found this to be a fascinating question in examining morality vs. legality, as well as the implications that those two might not always be aligned or easily reconciled with one another.

Interestingly enough, the same thing happens in Genesis 26:7-11, when Isaac perpetuated the same story about his wife, Rebekah. It must run in the family, huh? It seems Abimelech learned his lesson about that with Abraham and Sarah, however.

If all else fails, I guess Abraham could always fall back on the old “well, she’s really my half-sister.” When in doubt, skate by on a technicality!


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