Issues in Genesis: The Trafficking of Sarah, Part 2

The Burial of Sarah Dore 1866
The Burial of Sarah, by Gustave Dore, 1866.   A short scroll through the posts on this blog will demonstrate my love for the work of Gustave Dore, but even this unbelievably prolific artist overlooked the story of Abram selling his wife to other men.  Our collective aversion to examination of this story is tragic because it prevents us from seeing a fundamental theme that will be repeated again and again and again from Genesis to Revelation.

 

Welcome to Part 2 of “The Trafficking of Sarah.”  In this part, we’re going to narrow the scope of our questions and put some context on this whole mess.  If you haven’t read the Introduction to the Issues in Genesis series or Part 1 of this “issue” (the selling of Sarai/Sarah to other men when Abram/Abraham feels threatened), please do that before diving in here.

Genesis 12, as a whole chapter, is referred to as “the Call of Abraham.”  It is the chapter in scripture where we are introduced to our third Adam figure (Adam, Noah, then Abram).  God has dealt with the total depravity of chapters 6 and 11, pouring out his wrath in the Flood and handing mankind over to its sinful desires (idolatry, specifically) with the scattering of nations from Babel.  Chapter 12 opens the story of God’s adoption of Israel as his chosen people, and it begins in verse one with the calling of Abram out of the land of Babylon.

If you’ve heard chapter 12 quoted or used in a lesson on a Sunday morning, it’s likely been a passage from verses 1-9.  I have literally never heard 12:10-20 quoted in church.  I’ve never seen it used to teach in an open, public Christian space.  My hope is that my experience with this type of scripture is merely the result of my only having been a regular churchgoer for a short time (3 years, give or take).  If, however, the church really doesn’t ever preach from this kind of sin example, then that isn’t okay.

My goal for this post is to declutter our minds of all the modern questions we bring to this text by answering them. The second half of Genesis 12 is here for a reason.  It is here to present a very clear, very important image that we are meant to be looking for in the ENTIRE arc from Genesis-Revelation.  So let’s take out the trash so we can get down into the real meaning.

Open your Bible to Genesis 12, and we’ll start by dealing with a big question that comes up in verse 11.

Abraham Into Canaan Dore

When he was about to enter Egypt, [Abram] 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.”
Genesis 12:11-12, ESV

Did Abram Really Fear for His Life Because of Sarai’s Physical Beauty?
This is a crucial question to consider.  Once I noticed that Sarai was 65 years old when Abram is first recorded saying this, I became laser-focused on his statement.  I experienced a very unsettling brand of angry disbelief because my modern experience of this kind of dynamic made me doubt.  It sounded to me like flattery to gain compliance.  It sounded to me like a greedy man trying to justify seeking a monetary payout.  It sounded to me like a cowardly man trying to make excuses for throwing his woman to the wolves.

But you’re so beautiful, baby!  They’ll kill me if you don’t sleep with the king to fetch me a fat bride price–I mean, “to save my life.”

This is how I read it, and I couldn’t shake that terrible thought.

It sounded like a lie because of what I know about men who talk to women like this today.  It sounded like a lie because men of Abram’s era valued women for two things alone–lust and the production of male heirs.  There is no way men of that world would consider a 65 year-old, menopausal woman to be “a catch.” The beauty excuse seemed like a horrifying and dehumanizing lie, and I resented it.

Thankfully, I stuck with it, and if you go back to the passage with an open mind, there are several other ways to look at it.  Any (or all) of them could be correct.

Maybe Sarai Really Was That Pretty
There are a lot of ladies over 60 with universal sex appeal to men.  So maybe–just maybe–we should consider that Sarai really was that beautiful.  Is it so far-fetched to just take Genesis 12:11-12 at face value?  To believe that Sarai was half-sister to a powerful man and beautiful enough to make her an object of desire?  I’ll just provide these celebrity photos for consideration:

 

Each of these women (Angela Bassett, Helen Mirren, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Lynn Whitfield, and Michelle Pfeiffer) is over 60 years of age today.  Men of all ages and nations find these women exceptionally beautiful.  They are the very standard of modern beauty.  Just walking around in the world, we could find plenty of examples of women over 60 who have physical beauty with wide appeal.

I don’t think it’s irrational at all to assume that Sarai (“the princess”), daughter of Terah (a rich man) and half-sister/wife to Abram (a rich man) was very, very appealing to any man who met her.

Wealth and beauty have always been a powerful combination.

Maybe People Just Aged Differently
It’s possible that people living longer lives is in the author’s view here.  If you google this question of Sarai’s age, you’ll find all kinds of scholars and pastors and bloggers contemplating the notion that 65 in Genesis didn’t look like 65 in 2019.  The concept of corrupted DNA moving farther away from Adam and farther away from Eden has a certain logical appeal, whether you consider Genesis a literal story or a figurative one.

You know I can’t resist an LotR reference, so consider this for illustration:
The Dúnedain (blood of Númenór) are a similar concept explored in The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien.  They are a race of humans descended from the earliest human kings, and they live for many centuries as opposed to the normal human lifespans of recent generations.  Aragorn, a main character in the story, is one of the last of the Dúnedain, and the whole thing is a very biblical notion of shrinking lifespans as humanity’s generations move farther and farther from the purest humans of creation.

It’s certainly a theory with a lot of support in biblical genealogies (Genesis 5 & 10) that list men with centuries-long lives.  In them, we read that each generation lived a shorter span than the last.  If that’s the case, then we should seriously consider that we’re meant to see Sarai’s age as a midlife season rather than the beginning of her dotage.

I Don’t Believe Abram is Trying to Trick Sarai Here
I think that if these verses were about Abram pretending to be afraid just to get some bride price money, the Bible would have indicated that.  Scripture tells us that lies are lies on a regular basis, but it doesn’t say that here.  Abram will use this same excuse in Genesis 20, and his son, Isaac, will use it in Genesis 26 about his wife, Rebekah. Clearly, there is a pattern here, and we should consider whether there is a cultural context we’re not seeing as 21st-century readers.

I’ve come to make sense of this question by comparing it to a similar fear that modern rich men legitimately face: kidnapping for ransom

In many developing and war-torn nations, kidnapping for ransom or trafficking is common.  Rich families have ransom insurance and hire private security to protect against the event of a child or spouse being taken.  It is a fear they live with every day, and it is not an irrational fear.  It happens all the time, and though it is still primarily the wealthy who are taken, poor families are increasingly at risk, too.

What if this fear of Abram’s was a real thing that happened in his time and place?  What if this notion of killing a man so that his wealth (transferred through the wife) could be stolen by forced marriage…was a common thing?

There is a far more important and supportable reason that Abram chose–twice–to offer his wife to another man, but before I get to that, I felt it was really vital to address this first doubt I experienced.

Was he lying?

Was he just in this for money?

Did he really regard his sister/wife so lightly?

I think the answer to all of these is, “no.”

If we remove our 21st-century morality and logic from this passage, the other answers that emerge are far more reasonable.  They are easier to see, and they are more convincing.  Abram really was afraid for his life, and he really did think Sarai was a powerful liability and temptation.  Let’s get into the rest of the questions so you can see how I got from resentful disbelief…to everything I just said in this paragraph.

God's Plan
This is a photo of a greeting card from Emily McDowell & Friends.  I think it’s perfect for this next discussion.

 

Was the Trafficking of Sarah a Part of God’s Plan?
When I first started expressing my discomfort with this passage back in 2017, I had a lot of well-meaning Christians wave it away by saying that “everything happens for a reason,” and that “it was all a part of God’s plan for raising Abram to a powerful position in the land.”  I even read a blog article from a Christian woman who said that Sarai’s obedience in leaving Abram to marry the pharaoh was an example of godly womanhood.

That, my friends, is blasphemy.  Promise me that, if you have looked at it this way in the past, you will not say any of these things ever, ever again.  It’s blasphemy.  Full stop.  I’ll explain, but you must promise to stop using statements and trains of thought that excuse biblical sin like this.  It’s wrong.  It damages your witness of Christ.  It disparages the name, power, and glory of the Living God we serve.

  • God doesn’t need our sin.  His good plan for us does not include sin.
  • God didn’t create us to be sinners.  He hates our sin and has relentlessly pursued us since the Fall to restore us to holiness.
  • God redeems our sin and the sins committed against us; He doesn’t make them a part of his perfect plans.

This kind of thing is foundational to really vital questions like, “If God exists, and if God is good, then why does he allow X or Y to happen?”  You can’t come back with, “Well, he needed your baby cousin to die of leukemia,” or, “Well, he needed your ex-husband to beat you” in order to work out his good plan.”  Do you see it?  Please tell me you see why that logic is wrong. Please tell me that you see why it is blasphemous (insulting to God or defamatory to His name) to say such things.  We don’t say it to suffering people in front of us, so we shouldn’t paint it all over the people of the Bible’s story, either.

God promised to make Abram a nation and give him a great name.  He would have given Abram sufficient wealth without Abram pimping his wife out to kings.  He would have given Abram a son without Sarah forcing her slave to have sex with Abraham.  He would have made Israel into a great nation without the sins of Israel.  He used the lives of these people to work his good plan, but their sin was not a requirement, and their sin was not God’s will.

God is not the author of sin and sufferingWe are.  We corrupted ourselves by choosing the guile of the serpent over the love of God.  We did that to ourselves in Eden, and we do it to ourselves today with every foul thought, impure word, or disgraceful action.  When human beings commit evil in this world, God has nothing to do with it.  He can use it.  He can redeem it.  He did not need it.  He did not want it.  He did not plan it.

I’m a layperson, but you don’t need seminary to know these things.  Speak with a pastor if you struggle with finding your way out of this kind of disordered view.  Get rid of that mess.  The Bible has a much more beautiful message for us than that.

How Can We Know that God Didn’t Approve of This?
Abram, later named Abraham, is never specifically read the riot act by God on this subject.  God never says, “Abraham, I am displeased with you for giving your wife over to other men.”  No, it’s subtler (and bigger) than that.

God stepped in to stop it in one case and prevented it in the others.  In Genesis 12:10-20, we see Sarai actually marry the pharaoh (he says he “took her” as “his wife”).  God didn’t stop it from happening, but he put a swift end to it by sending a plague into the pharaoh’s house.  In Genesis 20 and 26, God doesn’t even let it go that far.  He prevents actual sex from happening by a prophetic dream in one case and allowing the king to see Isaac kissing his “sister” wife in the other.  There is a very specific reason he merely ended it in the first case and prevented it altogether in the latter two (we’ll get there), but God’s displeasure at the entire scenario is made plain by the plague and prophetic dream he brings on to stop it.  

Marriages like Abram and Sarai’s are outlawed in Torah/the Pentateuch.  In Leviticus 18:6-11, you see laws regarding sex (and, therefore, marriage) that forbid a marriage between a stepsister or half-sister and the brother.  I think the reasons for this law are made clear in Genesis, are they not?  Incest is commonly practiced in all of the nations surrounding Israel throughout the Old Testament, and God forbids any emulation of those marriages and sexual relationships.  We know he did not approve of what Abram is doing here, and we are shown the misery and sin that comes from a brother and sister trying to live a marital relationship.  The imagery and purpose of marriage is so fundamentally different from the natural sibling affection, and this causes each of them to hold the other in lower esteem than a spouse.  The corruption is plain, and so is God’s disapproval of it.

Never forget where Abraham and Sarah come from.  They come from Ur of the Chaldeans.  They were polytheistic pagans–idol worshippers from the very heart of Babylon.  Babylon is not just a future foe of Israel; it is also used throughout the Bible as the symbol of rebellion against God.  In Leviticus, the law against brother-sister marriage is contained in a list of “pagan practices” that Israel is commanded to avoid.  First and foremost, Israel was to be set apart from the pagans.  Abram and Sarai…were pagans before God led them out.  They had a lot of pagan habits and ideas that had to be undone over a lifetime following the God of the Bible.  Never get too far from that perspective on what God is doing in their lives.

God chose Abram and his wife Sarai to be his new Adam and Eve.  They were sinners.  He knew that.  He called them out of Babylon and used them to create his earthly Covenant People.  He loved Abram and Sarai (as he loves all people), but he hated their sin. Genesis 12:10-20 is a story about sin–and it’s a much more important story of sin than you might realize.

Genesis 3:15
Image from Logos Bible Software and Faithlife

 

Okay, so that was the bulk of my struggle with Genesis 12:10-20.  I didn’t understand this passage or what role it played in the whole-Bible narrative until after I’d been able to clear that mental clutter away.  The struggle was good for me.  It was productive, and I hope that finding satisfactory answers to the struggle is helpful for some of you, too.  I hope it allows you to really engage with this passage the way we are meant to engage with it–to see what we’re supposed to see in it.

In Part 3, I will show you what this passage really means.  I will show you why we’re told this part of the story and how it builds on a theme from Genesis 3:15.  It’s an important part of the narrative and thematic arcs of Genesis – Revelation, so before you read part 3, go to Genesis 3.  Read it.  See if you can figure out what it has to do with Genesis 12, 20, and 26.

See you next time.

 


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