This week’s reading contains one particularly puzzling episode. After Abraham has arrived in Canaan, a famine strikes the land, and he and his wife Sarah are forced to travel down to Egypt in search of food. (Egypt, with the Nile’s abundant waters, rarely experienced droughts and famines.) When Abraham approaches the border with Egypt, he turns to Sarah and says:
“Now I know that you are a beautiful woman; when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘She’s his wife,’ and they will kill me and keep you alive [for themselves]. So say that you are my sister; in that way, it may go well with me because of you, and my life will be spared on your account.”
For ancient biblical interpreters, Abraham’s request was certainly surprising. If, as he asserts, Sarah was indeed a beautiful woman, then—in an age when lawlessness was often a fact of everyday life—his fears were certainly justified. As a landless wayfarer without a protecting family and clan, Abraham was particularly vulnerable. But how would Sarah’s asserting that she was Abraham’s sister resolve the situation? Surely an Egyptian struck by her beauty might just as easily decide to kill her “brother” as her husband.
The only thing that Abraham might have had in mind in asking Sarah to say that she was his sister was that she might then be legally married off to an Egyptian—which is pretty much what happens in the biblical account. Pharaoh, the Egyptian king, does indeed have her delivered to his royal harem, and far from being killed, Abraham seems to have benefited from his new status as Pharaoh’s de facto brother-in-law, receiving sheep, oxen, male and female donkeys, camels, and even some male and female slaves. It was only when Pharaoh was afflicted with various plagues that he came to understand what had happened, and he then quickly banished Abraham and Sarah from his land.
In light of all this, Abraham’s behavior seems not only cowardly but highly immoral. What could this episode be designed to teach later generations?
Sometimes it seems that rabbinic sages, when confronted with an irresolvable problem, turn their attention to a small detail, something that can be resolved easily. So it was in this case. Ancient midrash focused on Abraham’s words cited above, “Now I know that you’re a beautiful woman” to ask an obvious question: Hadn’t the pair already been married for some years? Why should Abraham say Now I know, implying that he had not known before?
(Incidentally, some Hebraists may object that the word hinne-na does not mean “now”: hinne usually means “behold!” while na- often means “please.” But hinne-na, like a great many such compounds, does not simply equal the sum of its parts. As modern scholars have recently shown, this word does often means “now”—and indeed, that is how this word was translated in the Aramaic targums.)
To resume: why did Abraham say, “Now I know”? One curt midrashic answer, later cited by Rashi, asserts that “traveling takes its toll on the traveler.” That is, deprived of the usual comforts of home, men and women both end up looking pretty grubby after a long voyage—but Sarah, apparently, was just as radiant at the end of their journey as she had been before, leaving Abraham to exclaim, “Now I know that you are a beautiful woman.” In another explanation, Abraham says, in effect, “I always knew you were the most beautiful person in our hometown of Ur. But now we have traveled the length and breadth of Mesopotamia and I have seen no one who can match your beauty—“Now I know that you are a beautiful woman.”
These are all interesting suggestions, but they leave unanswered the basic question: How could Abraham have done what he did?
A text found among the Dead Sea Scrolls offers an intriguing suggestion. It all goes back to a dream that Abraham had on the night before their entry into Egypt:
I saw in my dream that [there wa]s a cedar and a date-palm [. . .]; and some men came and wanted to cut down and uproot the cedar while leaving the date-palm alone. But the date-palm objected and said, “Don’t cut down the cedar, because the two of us are from the same root.” So the cedar was left alone, thanks to the date-palm, and it was not cut down. Then I woke up from my sleep and I said to my wife Sarai, I had a dream and [I am fr]ightened by this dream. She said to me: Tell me your dream so that I may know; so I began to tell her the dream. Then I [explained to] her [the meaning of that] dream and I sa[id]. . .who will wish to kill me and leave you alone. [N]ow here is the favor [that you might do for me:] Wherever [we may be, say] about me, “He is my brother.” In that way I will live thanks to you and my life will be spared because of you. . . And Sarai wept because of my words that night. (1Q 20 Genesis Apocryphon, col. 19)
In the biblical world, dreams were often divinely sent messages. If so, then the message of this dream was not hard to decipher: Abraham is the cedar and Tamar is the date-palm. Abraham is thus being instructed, nay commanded, by this dream to tell Sarah to say “He is my brother”—which, however reluctantly, she then does.
“Well,” you might say, “all this is well and good—but there is no mention of a dream in the biblical story. This Dead Sea Scrolls sage was just making it up.” But you would be wrong. It all goes back to Abraham’s words in the Torah, ““Now I know that you’re a beautiful woman; when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘She’s his wife,’ and they will kill me…” What Abraham now knows, according to this interpretation, is not that Sarah is a beautiful woman—he’s known that for years! But what he has just found out now, thanks to his dream, is that, since she is so beautiful, the Egyptians will try kill him and take her for themselves. And since this news was imparted to him in a divinely sent dream, he dare not disobey its implications. Moreover, given the dream’s divine provenance, Abraham also trusted that God would ultimately intervene to save him and her both. And so He did.