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