Yes, She Is My Sister
The fundamentalist position on the Bible — Jewish and Christian — is that every word comes directly from God on Sinai 3,300 years ago. The “critical” or the skeptical position is that it is all a man-written compilation of various authors and traditions.
In between these extremes, there is a range of different — perhaps we might call them more creative — positions. These different positions represent the fault lines within and between religions.
Here’s an illustration. Over the next few weeks, those reading the Torah will notice that one storyline is repeated three times with variations. The first version, in Genesis Chapter 12, tells how Avram and his entourage had to go down to Egypt because of a famine. He fears that he will be killed so the Egyptians can have his beautiful wife, Sarai, and therefore asks her to say that she is his sister. Sure enough, she is taken into Pharaoh’s palace, and Pharaoh enriches Avram in return. God intervenes and plagues Pharaoh’s household.
When Pharaoh discovers indirectly the truth about Sarai, he accuses Avram of being deceitful and banishes him, but not without enriching him.
One can take this at face value. Avram would have relied on God to see the events safely through to a satisfactory conclusion. He was, after all, promised that he would be blessed, and by implication protected. But this was another one of his 10 trials or tests. Faith in God does not immunize one from earthly troubles. Commentators emphasize the fact that saving life overrides most other concerns (though not adultery, of course).
It is only the more modern who might suggest that this was an example of a great man making the wrong decision out of fear. One might also point out the inconsistency of Avram’s moral stand in refusing money from the kings of Sodom while accepting wealth from Pharaoh. Feminists, of course, will be scandalized at Avram’s treatment of Sarai, even if he did beg her to agree. One might also notice how plaguing the Pharaoh started long before the Exodus. If one delves back into the cultures of the times, one will know that taking other peoples’ wives was a common transaction, often a sign of hospitality.
The same story is repeated with much greater detail in Chapter 20, except this time in Philistinia with a local boss called Avimelech. God intervenes directly with Avimelech in the middle of the night and warns him. Avimelech protests his innocence to God and then rebukes Avraham (his name has by now changed, and so has Sarah’s) for assuming that Avimelech’s regime was as bad as all the others and one in which such things could happen. Avraham excuses himself and says that, anyway, Sarah is his half-sister. But it all ends well, and Avraham is allowed to stay and prosper.
Consider the nuances. Pharaoh somehow guessed the true story, or perhaps, as with the later Pharaoh of Joseph’s era, he used his magicians, whereas God appears to Avimelech in a dream (and to Avraham when he is awake). Pharaoh kicks Avraham out, whereas Avimelech invites him to stay. Avimelech vaunts his country’s standards and morality, whereas Pharaoh is simply concerned with being misled. Avimelech uses similar language to Avraham when he appeals to God’s mercy in his plea to save the men of Sodom.
These two narratives become even more problematic to the rationalist, because of a third event a generation later recorded in Chapter 26. This, too, takes place in Philistinia with a king called Avimelech, but the protagonists are Yitzhak and Rivkah. It’s the same story, told more tersely. Avimelech finds out, because he actually observes intimacy between the two.
We might argue that in an idol-worshiping, corrupt Middle East, this sort of thing was likely to happen often. It’s not unlike the idea of the Droit De Seigneur, that a monarch or duke had the right to sleep with a girl living in his realm before she married. Women were often expendable in those days. Wives were often pawns, bought and sold or bartered or used in political alliances, much less powerful than sisters of important men. This fact is confirmed by excavations in Tel el-Amarna. One needs much more archaeological evidence to flesh out the true nature of what happened, and at this distance one can really only guess. And why should guesswork be any more reliable than a text?
Modern scholars might ask whether this could be one event that different traditions recorded differently or orally, and that the compiler of the final text chose to insert all versions. One reply to that might be that if there was an editor, he certainly did a pretty poor job. The name Avimelech could be a title used by lots of kings, as indeed the generic term Pharaoh was. And perhaps this is all a polemic to show how bad Egyptian society was compared to others, to explain the Exodus. Perhaps the core message is that there are different ways of discovering the truth, just as there are different ways of interacting with other cultures, and surviving.
In truth, to look at an ancient text through modern eyes is a risky business. We have no way of knowing for certain either the context or the intention when these stories were told 3,000 years ago. The traditionalists’ position has some merit. Take the text at face value, and examine it to see what moral or spiritual lessons can be learnt from the variations in it.
There is nothing inherently wrong with a fundamentalist viewpoint. I am a fundamentalist in the way that I regard the text as holy, and relate to it more spiritually than rationally. That is my choice. But I do not deny that there are other ways of looking at it. The fundamentalism I dissociate myself from is the one that says that there is only one way to read it, and that all others are either wrong or valueless. So, whether it was three separate events or one, the text (to follow Jacques Derrida) is all we’ve got. Some of us accept it. Others dismiss it. I would argue that we should treat it with reverence and try to find a message and relevance in the light of our own experiences.