I was watching a televised debate between two politicians. The female candidate urged her incumbent male opponent “to man up,” while adjuring him to take a stand on a policy issue she felt he needed to address. Could it be that our biblical matriarch Sarah thought such words when she stood next to her husband Abraham before Pharaoh in Egypt at the moment when Abraham identified her as his sister instead of as his wife?
Why did he do that? What is the point of that strategy and did it work? First, let’s set the stage of what happened. We read this story in chapter 12 in this week’s parasha entitled Lech L’chah. After God has made all the promises to Abram for progeny and the covenant to the land forever, the Torah story describes a famine in the land. How ironic? The next thing we see is that Abram and Sarai leave the land of Canaan and head down to Egypt. Remember this same famine story occurred to Isaac and his wife Rebecca later on in Genesis. The problem is not the famine but what happened when they appeared before Pharaoh.
I can picture the scene. They are about to enter the palace of Pharaoh and the world traveler Abram, savvy in the ways of the world of Haran, tells Sarai how they are going to play this appearance. He tells her, “I know what a beautiful woman you are. If the Egyptians see you, and think, ‘she is his wife,’ they will kill me and let you live. Please say that you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that May remain alive thanks to you.” (ch. 12:12-13)
What happened after that vignette? Exactly as Abram predicted for as soon as the Egyptian officials saw the beauty of Sarai they took her away from her alleged brother Abram. Then in exchange for this trade they gave Abram sheep, oxen assess, male and female slaves, she-asses and camels. The story ends and all turns out well for Sarai and Abram when God strikes Pharaoh court with a plague because of Sarai.
Pharaoh is not stupid. He figures out what is going on and summons Abram. He gives Abram a ‘what for’ and gets him to admit that Sarai was his wife and not his sister. So then what? Pharaoh hands her back to Abram and angrily deports them even with all the possessions Abram acquired.
That is it. Nothing else on the episode. One would think Sarai would have torn into her husband with even more emotion and anger than Pharaoh showed. I can hear Abram pleading with her to calm down so he could explain it all. Basically Abram lies about Sarai and trades her to Pharaoh into servitude for the material possession. But did he Abram know that his ace in the hole was God? Certainly this story does not sit well with women today nor should it sit well with men either. Abram is thinking strategically and Sarai gives in because she understands that in public she will respect her husband’s wishes even though she was probably boiling in anger and scared to death as well.
One rabbinical commentator, Moses ben Nachman, or RAMBAN who lived in the 15th century in Spain said, Abraham inadvertently committed a great sin. He should have trusted in God to save him, his wife and all he had, for god has the power to help and to save.” Other commentators see Moses caught in the middle in a moral dilemma between two evils. If he discloses the truth then they will kill him and take Sarai anyway. If he lies, as he in fact did do, then she may be violated by some Egyptian, but at least husband and wife would survive. How realistic would it have been to rely on a miracle in this kind of situation?
So the moral question that Abram faces is between human life and human dignity within a hierarchy of values. But we must understand how the culture of the Middle East plays a role in our understanding of the moral dilemma. Remember if we go to chapter 20 there is a verse where Abram says that Sarai is the daughter of his father but of another mother which is why he calls her sister. He is, therefore, telling the truth when he calls her his sister. Second, in the ancient near east, it was common language for a man to refer to his wife as his sister because the word for sister was considered an affectionate expression or a term of endearment. One further point is that in the ancient Middle East when there was no father present the brother assumes legal guardianship of his sister. Therefore, whoever wished to take Sarai to wife would have to negotiate with her brother. In this way Abram could gain time to plan escape. Of course, this went awry when the Egyptian turned out to be Pharaoh himself.
I suppose that Abram didn’t man-up by our society’s view of what masculinity is all about. Yet the truth is that people will do things that they have to do when their survival is on the line. Yes, Abram gambled and when we think about it he may have been thinking that he was playing for time. Did he believe that he would buy her back or cajole the Egyptian officials to trade for her even though she was considered to be quite beautiful? All these questions we cannot answer. We know that this story repeats itself with Abram and Sarai in chapter 20 and, as I mentioned earlier, it also occurs to Isaac and Rebecca. The bottom line in this story is managing the risk that short term sacrifices will produce long term benefits.
Some say that Moses’ brother Aaron had the same kind of moral dilemma when he constructed the Golden Calf. He did it not because he believed in the calf as a God but because he too was playing for time until Moses descended from being on Mt. Sinai for 40days. Will we believe that line?
The bottom line is that defining the greater good moral standard is not easy. Yes, like in politics so too it is in religion and in the personal ethos for all of us that there are times and situations when one decision is not clearly good and the other clearly bad. We have to take the risk and see the consequences play themselves out. It is a risk situation we all must face in a lifetime. We can wait for God’s intervention but not abdicate our own best judgment.