November 15th: Va’yera
THIS WEEK IN THE TORAH
Rabbi David E. Ostrich
There is a lot of excitement in this week’s Torah portion. God and two angels visit Abraham and Sarah and announce that a baby will be born to them in the next year—even though both are far beyond their fertile years. God discusses the situation in Sodom and Gomorrah with Abraham, sends two angels to investigate the wicked cities, and destroys them both with fire and brimstone, but saves the only righteous people there, Lot and his family. In the aftermath, Lot’s wife is turned into a pillar of salt (God told her not to look back!), and Lot’s daughters trick him into impregnating them—thinking that they are the only humans left. Then Sarah gets pregnant and gives birth to a son in her old age. She also decides that Abraham’s mistress Hagar and her son have no place in the camp, and she insists that Abraham send them away. God agrees, and Abraham experiences great pain expelling Hagar and their son Ishmael. Then, things get worse, God calls upon Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, and faith is put to the test. It is a very busy and theologically significant portion.
Tucked into the middle of all this drama is an obscure story—a strange incident that happens more than once in the Patriarchal period. Abraham and Sarah travel to a new place and, in the interest of security, they tell a lie: that Abraham and Sarah are not husband and wife, but rather brother and sister. It happens this week when they travel to Gerar—a city close to Beer Sheva in the Negev, and it happens in last week’s portion when they travel to Egypt.
In both cases, the beautiful Sarah is taken into the Pharaoh’s or King’s harem as a wife, but, in both cases, there is no sexual contact. God takes care of that. In last week’s portion (Genesis 12), God afflicts Pharaoh and his household “with mighty plagues on account of Sarah.” The Torah does not specify the plague, but the Rabbis suggest that it was universal impotence.
In this week’s case, with Abimelech of Gerar, God comes to Abimelech in a dream: “You are to die because of the woman that you have taken, for she is a married woman.” Abimelech answers God with, “O Lord, will you slay people even though they are innocent? Abraham himself told me that she is his sister, and she told me that he is her brother. When I took her into my house as a wife, my heart was blameless and my hands were clean.” God then answers him, as the dream continues: “I knew that you did this with a blameless heart, and so I kept you from sinning against Me. That was why I did not let you touch her. Therefore, restore the man’s wife—since he is a prophet, he will intercede for you—to save your life. If you fail to restore her, know that you shall die, you and all that are yours.” (Genesis 20.3-7)
(For what it’s worth, Isaac does essentially the same thing when he grows up and marries Rebekah. In Genesis 26, they journey to Gerar, and they tell King Abimelech—perhaps the same Abimelech as in the Abraham story; perhaps another king with the same name—that Rebekah is Isaac’s sister. In this case, God does not have to intervene: Abimelech happens to see Isaac and Rebekah fondling each other, and he figures out that something is fishy.)
The question for us is: Why would our ancient forefathers say that their wives are their sisters?
In all three cases, we have a similar explanation. Abraham and Isaac are afraid of the strangers among whom they are living, and they worry that the locals will kill them so they can marry their widows. Calling a wife a sister is thus a survival strategy in a hostile place—a plan based on an intense feeling of insecurity. It teaches us how tenuous our ancestors’ travels and travails were. Though we may look at them as giants of faith who never hesitated or faltered, theirs were lives of challenge and risk. They followed God’s mission because they were convinced of its importance, but they faced the same uncertainties and fears that we do. Life is not a sure thing, but with faith and resourcefulness, we do our best to rise to the occasions that greet us. May we search for faith and fortitude, and may God bless us and protect us.
There is one additional and curious detail. In the second incident, the one with Abraham and Sarah and Abimelech of Gerar, Abraham offers another explanation. When confronted by a visibly shaken and betrayed Abimelech, Abraham explains: “I thought that surely there is no fear of God in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife. And besides, she is in truth my sister, my father’s daughter though not my mother’s; and she became my wife. So, when God made me wander from my father’s house, I said to her, ‘Let this be the kindness that you shall do me: whatever place we come to, say there of me, He is my brother.’” (Genesis 20.11-13)
It could be that the laws of consanguinity were different in those days—though the contemporaneous story of Lot and his daughters decries incest and uses it as an insult to the Moabites and the Ammonites. Was the case of Abraham and Sarah just an exception? Or, could it explain why, after so many years of marriage, they had no children? Could their “marriage” have been less than a full marriage—as were some of the polygamous marriages of the early Mormons? Some wives were sexual partners, but others were simply members of the household. And, since I am speculating, could the arrival of Isaac be physically possible only after Abram’s and Sarai’s conversion and their marriage becomes complete? Whatever the real explanation, we are left scratching our heads.