WIFE? SISTER! Gen 12:10-13:1; 20; 26

CONTEXT:  Patriarchs claiming they had married their sisters?   Incest?  (Ctr Lev 18:9, Dt 27:22) What a strange story, twice about Abraham and Sarah and once about Isaac and Rebecca. It must have been a popular “memory” to have been thus retold. I present the three in parallel columns the better to compare and enjoy them.  
Assyriologist Ephriam Speiser, in his Anchor Bible commentary, 1964, offered a charming and plausible explanation for the repeated, though unconvincing (to say the least), themes of deceit and putting your wife at risk to save your life. Speiser argues that the stories were told so long after the events are said to have occurred, a millennium and more, that the writers had lost touch with the ancient meaning and function of the subject. To wit:
In Hurrian society (Bronze age northern Messopotamia) the bonds of marriage were strongest and most solemn when the wife had simultaneously the juridical status of a sister, regardless of actual blood ties. A man would sometimes marry a girl and adopt her as his sister at the same time in two separate steps recorded in independent legal documents. The wife-sister relationship is attested primarily among the upper strata of Hurrian society.  Abraham by legend originated from Western Semites who lived alongside the Hurrians with this peculiar practice, uncountenanced by other cultures and certainly by the later Israelites. But what remained in folk memory was the meme of an ancestor occasionally referring to the woman he lived with as his sister. The threat situation in the three stories would then be a literary device invented as an understandable, if far fetched, justification.
GLOSSARY: Note that אשה, ishah, in these stories and elsewhere, means simply “woman,” and the practice in this translation is to leave to the reader or hearer its interpretation as “wife.” The E version uses a strong idiom for a married woman: “owned of an owner/mastered to a master/lorded by a lord,” b’ulat ba’al, בעולת בעל, (cf Deuteronomy 22:22). As ishah is frequently translated “wife,” so is ba’al frequently translated “husband,” a loss of intent and context. Ironically, B’ulah appears as a tender and loving appellation in Isaiah 62:9.
            Sheva, שבע, means both “seven” and “sware.” With this word, the final story conflates the oath between Yitschak and Avimelech, the newly dug well where water was found, and the name “to this day” of B’er Sheva.

Gen 12:10-13:1     J

            10There was a famine in the land. Avram went down towards Mitsrayim to reside there as an alien for the famine lay heavy on the land. 

11It was when he was approaching Mitsrayim

that he said to Sarai, his woman, “Consider this: I have long known that you are a beautiful woman.  12When the Mitsrim see you they’ll say, ‘This is his woman,’ and they’ll kill me and keep you. 13Please, tell them you are my sister. So it’ll be good for me for your sake.  I’ll survive on account of you.”
            14It happened as Avram arrived at Mitsrayim the Mitsrim saw the woman as very pretty.  15Paroh’s courtiers saw her and praised her to him. The woman was taken to the house of Paroh and 16he treated Avram well for her sake, giving him flocks, cattle, and asses, slaves and handmaids, she asses and camels. 

            17Then Yah struck Paroh and his house with great plagues over the matter of Avram’s woman Sarai.

18Paroh summoned Avram: “What is this you have done to me!? Why didn’t you tell me she is your woman? 19Why did you say, ‘She’s my sister?’ so that I should take her to myself as woman? Now here’s your woman.  Take and go!”

            20Paroh commanded people for him and they sent him away, his woman and all that he had. 13:1Avram went up from Mitsrayim back to the Negev, along with his woman, all that he had, and Lot, as well.

Gen 20                        E

            1From there (Eloney Mamre, Hevron) Avraham traveled to the land of the Negev and settled between Kadesh and Shur.  He sojourned in G’rar. 

            2Of Sarah his woman, he said: “She is my sister.” 

So Avimelech, king of G’rar, sent for and took Sarah.

            3God came to Avimelech in a dream that night and said to him: “Look at you, dying over the woman you took, for she is owned by a master.”
            4Avimelech, having not approached her, said: “My lord, would You slay folk even when righteous? 5Did not he say to me: ‘She is my sister?’ She too said to me; ‘He is my brother.’ I did this with my mind simple and my hand clean.”
            6Said God in the dream: “I too. I knew that you did this with your mind simple so I too prevented you from sinning against Me. That’s why I didn’t grant you to touch her. 7Now return the man’s woman, for he is a prophet and will pray for you. So, live! And, if you do not make the return, know that you and all of yours will die dead.”
            8Avimelech got up early in the morning and called all his servants and spoke all these words in their hearing. The men were much afraid. 
            9Avimelech summoned Avraham and said to him: “What have you done to us?  How have I sinned against you that you brought on me and my kingdom a great sin? You have done with me acts that shouldn’t be done! 10What did you see that you did this thing?”
            11Avraham said: “It’s just that I said that there is no fear of God in this place and they will kill me over the matter of my woman.  12And indeed she is my sister, daughter of my father, though not of my mother, and she became mine as woman. 13And when God made me wander from my father’s house I said to her: “This is your favor you can do for me: wherever we go, say of me, ‘He is my brother.’”
            14Avimelech took sheep and cattle, and slaves and maidservants and gave to Avraham. And he returned Sarah his woman to him. 15Avimelech said: “Here lies my land before you. Settle wherever is good in your eyes.”
            16To Sarah he said: “See, I have given a thousand of silver to your brother. See, it is yours, an eye covering for anyone with you.  With all you are vindicated.”
            17Avraham prayed to the god and God cured Avimelech and his woman and his concubines so that they could birth. (18For Yah had stopped up every womb of the house of Avimelech over the matter of Sarah, Avraham’s woman.)

Genesis 26   Late JE

            1There was famine in the land, apart from the first famine, that occurred in the days of Avraham. Yitschak went to Avimelech, king of P’lishtim in G’rar.
            2Yahh appeared to him and said “Do not go down to Mitsrayim. Dwell in the land I shall say to you. 3Sojourn in this land and I shall be with you and bless you. For to you and your seed I shall give all these lands and I shall uphold the promise I made to your father Avraham. 4I shall multiply your seed as the stars of the sky and I shall give your seed all these lands. By your seed will all the nations of the land bless themselves. 5A consequence of Avraham’s having listened to my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, My laws, My torah messages.”
            6So Yitschak settled in G’rar. 7The men of the place asked about his woman and he said: “She is my sister.” This was because he was afraid to say “my woman,” lest the men of the place kill me over Rivkah, for she is good looking.

            8And it happened as the days drew out there, that Avimelech, king of Philistines, looked out of the window and saw: there was Yitschak sporting Rivkah, his woman.

            9Avimelech summoned Yitschak: “I see indeed she is your woman. How could you say, “She is my sister?’”

            Yitschak replied: “Because I said it lest I die over her.”
            10Avimelech: “What is this you have done to us?! One of the people almost lay with your woman: and you would have brought guilt on us!”

            11Avimelech then commanded all the people: “Whoever touches this man or his woman will die dead.”
            12Yitschak sowed in that land and found the same year a hundred measures, for Yahh had blessed him. 13The man grew great and he continued growing greater, till he was very great. 14He had livestock in sheep and goats, and in cattle, and a great workforce. P’lishtim were jealous of him.
            15All the wells his father’s servants had dug in the days of Avraham, P’lishtim plugged, filling them with dirt.  16Avimelech said to Yitschak: “Go from us, for you have become enormous for us.”
17Yitschak went from there and camped in Nachal G’rar and settled there.  18Having settled, he dug the water wells that they had dug in the days of his father, Avraham.  (P’lishtim had plugged them after the death of Avraham.) He called them by names like the names his father had called them. 19Yitschak’s servants dug in the valley and found there a well of living water. 20The shepherds of G’rar disputed with Yitschak’s shepherds, saying: “The water is ours!”  So he named that well Esek (“business”) for they had haggled with him.
21They dug another well and disputed over it as well, so he named it Sitnah (“adversarial”).
22He pulled up stakes from there and dug another well and they did not dispute over it. So he named it R’chovot (“broadnesses”), saying; “Because now Yahh has broadened our space and we shall be fruitful in the land.”
            23From there he went up to B’er Sheva. 24Yahh appeared to him that night, saying:
I am the god of your father, Avraham.
            Fear not, for I am with you.                 I have blessed you and multiplied your seed.
                        For the sake of Avraham, my servant.
There he built an altar and called out in Yahh’s name. There he pitched his tent. There Yitschaq’s servants dug a well.
26Avimelech went to him from G’rar, with Achuzat his companion and Pichol, chief of his army.
27“Why did your come to me?” said Yitschak. “You, you hated me and sent me from being with you.”
28“We clearly saw,” he said, “that Yahh was with you. There should be,” we said. “an oath between us–between us an you. We shall cut a covenant with you, 29lest you do us bad. Just as we did not strike you, just as we did only good to you in sending you off in shalom, you are now blessed of Yahh.”
30So he made them a drinking party–they ate and drank. 31They rose early in the morning and swore, one to his brother. Thus Yitschak sent them off. They went from him in shalom.
32That day, servants of Yitschak came and told him about the well they had dug. “We found water,” they said. 33He called it Shiv’ah. That’s why, to this day, the name of the town is “B’er Sheva.
34(It happened, when Esav was 40 years old, that he took a woman, Y’hudit batB’eri the Chiti, and Bosmat batElon the Chiti. They were embitterment to Yitschak and Rivqah.)

©Rabbi David L. Kline            http://good-to-be-a-jew.blogspot.com/

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