It is not exactly traditional to speak about the education of Abraham. Pious tales of the patriarch regard him as a precocious monotheist even before God calls him, a man who smashed his father’s idols, a man who sprang forth fully pious and knowledgeable about the ways of God. But, in my view, a careful reading of the biblical text shows otherwise: Abraham indeed goes to school, God Himself is his major teacher, and Abraham’s adventures constitute his education, right up to his final exam, the binding of Isaac.
To appreciate God’s education of Abraham, it is necessary to grasp the pre-Abrahamic, which is to say the natural and uninstructed, human condition and to see just what needs educating and why. The necessary background is in fact presented in the opening eleven chapters of Genesis, and their proper study is indispensable for appreciating what follows.
The first eleven chapters of the Book of Genesis (more precisely, chapters 2-11) present an account of human beginnings largely in temporal sequence, seemingly as an unfolding account of early human history. But this temporal account is, in my view, also and more importantly a vehicle for conveying something atemporal and permanent about human life in the world. The narrative teaches about human beginnings in two other senses: first, it presents a universal anthropology, showing the elements—the psychic and social beginnings—of human life as human, possibly true for all times and places. The people we meet in these stories—Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and his sons—are prototypically, and not just ancestrally, human. Second, because the anthropological account has a moral-political intention, the stories introduce us to human life in all its moral ambiguity; we are meant to learn which human elements cause what sorts of moral or political trouble and why.
In this sense, the early chapters of Genesis begin the moral education of the reader. They picture mankind, living largely uninstructed, making a hash of one thing after another, from the loss of innocence in the Garden, to the fratricide of Cain, to the antediluvian violence of the generation of heroes, to the rebellion within the house of Noah, to the bold and impious project of the universal city, Babel. We learn especially about the dangers of human freedom and rationality, about the injustice that follows from excessive self-love and vanity, and about the evils born of human pride and the aspiration to full self-sufficiency. We see the troubles within the household: between man and woman, between brothers, between parents and children. We see the troubles in relation to outsiders, including both animals and other unrelated human beings. And we see the troubles in the relation between man and God.
By the time the careful reader has finished the first eleven chapters, he is well-nigh convinced that mankind, left to its own devices, is doomed to failure, destruction, and misery. He hopes that there is an alternative, that there might be a way of life different from the natural or uninstructed ways of men, a successful way in which mankind might flourish. According to the text, God more than shares both the reader’s dismay and the reader’s hopes. He decides to take a more direct role in the matter, beginning with Abraham. God Himself, as it were, will take Abraham by the hand, will serve as his tutor, and will educate him to be a new human being, one who will stand in right relation to his household, to other peoples, and to God—one who will set an example for countless generations, who, inspired by his story, will cleave to these righteous ways. Because of the moral education available to us through the first eleven chapters, when God calls Abraham we readers are also eager to listen.
I. Man and Woman: The Uninstructed Ways
The primordial relations of human life are the relations of the household, first among which is the relation of man and woman as husband and wife. The natural elements of this relation are revealed in the account of the primordial couple, living in the Garden of Eden. I here offer only the barest summary of human nature sexually considered, as it comes to light in this primal tale.*
First, beneath and prior to sexuality, there is the gender-neutral, needy, private, and self-loving animal interest in personal survival and well-being (represented by man in his solitary condition, before the creation of woman).
Next, we have the basic level of sexuality, founded in our sexual duality of male and female, experienced within as needy incompleteness, and issuing in an animal-like lust for bodily union. This aspect is expressed in the narcissistic and possessive speech of the man aroused by the first sight of the woman: “This at last is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh; and this shall be called woman (ishah) because from man (ish) this was taken.” (2:23) This first expression of (especially male?) desire is felt as the love of one’s own, more precisely, the love of one’s own flesh. The first element of sexual love is literally self-ish: the other appears lovable because it is (regarded as) same, because it is (or seems to be) oneself. This love (not uniquely human) possessively seeks merging, re-union, fusion-as if to restore some “lost” bodily wholeness, as if the other is beloved because she is really just a missing part of oneself. I call this element “The Love of One’s Own.”
The second element of sexuality, this one peculiarly human, is tied to human self-consciousness, which is judgmentally aware, first of all, of the shame-filled meaning of sexual nakedness; it is represented in our text by the eye-opening discovery of the meaning of nakedness that is the first result of gaining the dangerous knowledge of good and bad: “And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves girdles.” (3:6-7) Proudly self-conscious human beings recognize with chagrin that sexuality means needy dependence on another, one who is truly other and not one’s own, one who is not under our command; that sexuality means also enslavement to an ungovernable and disobedient appetite within, which embarrasses our claim to self-command and which wants of us more than we understand; that one’s sexuality finally means one’s perishability, for sexual activity is, willy-nilly, a vote in favor of our own demise, providing as it does for those who will replace us. This shame-filled sexual self-consciousness transforms the relation between man and woman, both of whom are now eager for approbation and afraid of rejection. Each seeks approval, praise, respect, and esteem—not just sexual gratification. The ugly is covered over (the fig leaf), the body is adorned and beautified, lust is transformed into eros, and the lovers—recognizing their true otherness—seek to transcend their apartness through mutual pursuit of beauty and nobility. I call this element “The Love of the Beautiful.”
The third element of sexuality is generativity. Beyond lust for union with “one’s own flesh,” beyond romance in the service of admiring and being admired, the meaning of man and woman has much to do with children, both their generation and their rearing. This goes along with painful childbirth for the woman, domestication of the man, division of labor and its attendant dangers of conflict, inequality, and rule, and yet also the creative, regenerative, and redemptive possibility of renewal through children. Through children, man and woman may finally achieve some genuine unification (beyond the mere sexual “union” which fails to do so): the two become as one through sharing generous love for this third being, seen as good. In the face of the harsh reality of human life, generativity—especially the woman’s power to bear—holds out hope for transcendence of privacy, duality, and perishability. This simultaneously divisive and unifying aspect of sexuality appears in our text with God’s grim forecast of the human future, vexingly different for woman and man, which contains only one glimmer of hope, a hope that is immediately seized upon by the man when he renames the woman “Eve,” “because she was the mother of all living.” The man here sees the woman in a new light, as a generous, generating, and creative force, with powers he can only look up to in awe and gratitude—or perhaps, rather, with envy and resentment because he has no share in it. I call this aspect of human sexuality “Generative or Generous Love.”
These natural elements of human sexuality—Love of One’s Own, Love of the Beautiful, Generative Love—with their frankly discordant tendencies, coexist warily side by side in the uninstructed relation between man and woman. Self-love and love of one’s own are at odds with the love of the other, whether simply as other or as beautiful; both are at odds with the self-sacrificing (even if creative and generous) love of a child, seen as one’s replacement; self-preservation and self-assertion are at odds with reproduction. Besides, each partner (as male or female) has nonidentical interests and desires, whose differences both incite union and threaten divorce.
Furthermore, none of the elements of human sexuality is unambiguously good: possessive male lust for union can be degrading to the woman, making her but an object of his satisfaction (as we shall soon see in the story of Pharaoh and Sarah); the pride-filled love of beauty and the concern for self-esteem (what Rousseau calls “amour-propre”) give rise to jealousy, discord, and bloodshed (as we see in the rapacious conduct of the sons of God toward the beautiful daughters of man [6:2], which, like the rape of Helen, heralds the chaotic battles of the heroes, leading God to flood the earth and start again with Noah); and womanly pride in her generative capacity can give rise to domestic strife, injustice, and impiety (as we see in Eve’s boastful celebration of the birth of Cain, who, bearing his mother’s pride, kills his brother out of wounded pride and jealousy). Man and woman, left to their own devices, are bound for trouble.
Taming the dangerous female pride in her generative powers, which led Eve to boast that “I have gotten a man [equally] with God,” is relatively easy: institute a prolonged period of barrenness before allowing childbirth, so that the woman (and her husband) will understand that a child is not the woman’s creation and possession, but an unmerited gift. But taming male possessive lust or the deformations incident on the man’s love of womanly beauty is more difficult, as is inducing him to stand rightly with respect to his wife as the prospective mother of his children—all the more so if he is personally ambitious for fame and glory. It is this aspect of the education of Abraham that we now intend to follow.
II. Who Is Abraham?
To know Abraham, we must begin with his father, Terah, a member of the ninth generation after Noah, a descendant of Shem, Noah’s most pious son. Terah is himself quite late to fatherhood; whereas his progenitors in the preceding seven generations begot their first-born son no older than 35 (35, 30, 34, 30, 32, 30, 29), Terah is a grandfatherly seventy years old when Abram, the first of his three sons, is born. He witnesses the death of his youngest son, Haran, father of Lot, and sometime afterwards leaves his homeland, Ur of the Chaldees (otherwise known as Babylonia), and heads for Canaan, taking with him his son Abram, his grandson Lot, and Sarai the wife of his son Abram.
Why Terah leaves we are not told; but even before Abram is called to Canaan, his father was, quite on his own, drawn toward what would become the promised land—away from the Tigris-Euphrates valley, away from the land famous for the worship of heaven, the land where man first learned to measure the motions of the heavenly bodies (astronomy) in the hope of learning how to predict and control terrestrial events (through astrology). But though he was something of a radical—perhaps even sensing that there was something wrong with heaven worship—Terah did not complete his journey, but settled in Haran, a city, we learn from non-biblical sources, that was, like Ur, a center of moon worship.
Abram, Terah’s first-born, given a proud name that perhaps means “lofty or exalted father” or “the father is exalted,” seems not to be bothered by the advanced age of his father. On the contrary, Abram goes with Terah on his wanderings toward Canaan, whereas his brother Nahor stays behind: Abram shows filial duty and/or shares his father’s reason to leave. When he goes, he goes a married man:
And took Abram and Nahor to themselves wives, and the name of Abram’s wife was Sarai (“princess”) and the name of Nahor’s wife was Milcah (“queen”), the daughter of Haran . . . . And Sarai was barren; she had no child. (11:29-30)The wives were “taken” by the brothers, but whereas we are told that Nahor took his orphaned niece, we are not given the parentage of Sarai. Instead of hearing of her origins, we learn here only that she is childless; soon, we shall learn that she is also very beautiful.
So who is Abram? He is a childless, rootless, homeland-less, perhaps godless, devoted son of an old wanderer and radical, one who has grown out of, but who may have outgrown, the Babylonian ways and gods. He is very far from the self-satisfied and secure condition of the builders of Babel whose story immediately precedes his own. We surmise that he longs for roots, land, home, settled ways, children, and something great, perhaps even for the divine. About the divine, we wonder whether he might even have intuited a thing or two as a result of his experience in Ur: on his own or perhaps following his father, he may have seen through the worship of heaven. He may have figured out that there must be a single, invisible, and intelligent source behind the many silent and dumb heavenly bodies, that the truth is not one city with many gods, but many cities in search of the one God. Closer to home, Abram stays long married to a childless (but beautiful) woman; he is still with her at age seventy-five when God first calls him. Hillel Fradkin argues from this fact that Abram’s childlessness is not altogether involuntary: he abstains from sowing seed with another wife because of his faithful love of Sarai, a love perhaps connected with her great beauty. In this erotic love Fradkin sees the basis of Abram’s educability, for eros generally directs the soul to something higher than oneself. We shall see to what extent this turns out to be so in Abram’s case, and whether Sarai’s beauty is the womanly asset of greatest importance from God’s point of view.
Of Abram’s initial character we know little, beyond these frankly speculative suggestions. The first real clue to what really moves his soul comes only when he responds to God’s call. God tells him to go forth, away from his land, his kinsmen, and his father’s house, to a land God will show him. With this demanding command comes a seven-fold promise:
”And I will make of thee a great nation,and I will bless thee,and I will make thy name great,and you shall be a blessing.And I will bless those [plural] that bless you,and harm him [singular] that curses you,and all the families of the earth shall be blessed through you.” (12:2-3)
Personally, Abram is promised that he will be the founder of a great (i.e., numerous and/or mighty and/or important) nation and that he will be prosperous, famous, and a standard by which a blessing is invoked. Those who wish him well will prosper, he who mistreats him will suffer, and all the world’s peoples shall flourish on his account. God appeals directly to Abram’s situation and to Abram’s longings and ambitions—the love of fame and glory, the love of gain, the aspiration to be a founder of a great nation.
God knew His customer: Abram, obeying the command, goes immediately, without hesitating and without so much as a tiny question. In apparent obedience, he continues the journey his father had begun on his own. Yet the text implies that Abram goes, leaving his father’s house and the life he knows, not, as the strictly pious interpretation would have it, because he is already a God-fearing and obedient man of faith who knows that the voice is the voice of God Almighty. He goes because, in his heart, he is an ambitious man with a desire for greatness who wants the promise, and he goes because, in his mind, he has some reason to believe that the voice that called him just might belong to a power great enough to deliver. For what kind of being is it that speaks but is not seen, and, more wondrous and more to the point, can see into my invisible soul, to know precisely what it is that I, Abram, most crave? Let’s take a walk with this voice and see what it can do.
You and I would probably ignore a voice that spoke to us in these terms. But not Abram. It is less that he has nothing to lose; in fact, he loses a great deal: his remaining attachments to land and family. It is rather that, as a great-hearted man, with large, even political, aspirations, he has much to gain. True, next to the statesmanly Moses, Abram will appear to be rather mild and contemplative; Moses the liberator and lawgiver is from the start more obviously political. But seen in his own terms, Abram is no less a political man; we have it, albeit indirectly, on God’s own authority: just look at how God chooses to catch this man. (Later, we will learn too of Abram’s remarkable military prowess, as he drives back the invading forces in the war of the kings.)
Many a man has a desire to found and to rule, many a man longs for a great name—especially one that could outlast his own extinction in death. These problematic aspirations, whose dangers have been alluded to in earlier stories in Genesis, God will exploit and then educate in the founding of His new way. Central to this education is an education about the indispensable role of women in the success of any great nation, even more, in any nation whose greatness is to be grounded in justice and whose institutions are to aspire to holiness.
How does a nation become great? It must, first of all, be able to preserve itself, to survive in a world threatened by its enemies and by those who would profit from its downfall. Accordingly, it requires leadership and manly prowess, to rule the unruly and to inspire the timid, at the very least in order to safeguard what is their own, perhaps even to expand and extend their influence and dominion. But virtuous leaders, indispensable especially for founding, cannot secure a nation’s greatness alone; nor can they alone preserve their own great name. Their own mortality—which is in large part a spur to their ambition—necessitates a concern for perpetuation, for progeny, for the next generation. However manly the man, founding a great nation is absolutely dependent on woman, on her generative power. She holds the key to the future, not only by her natural capacity to give birth but by her moral and educative influence over her children, an influence itself rooted in the powerful mother-child bond imposed by natural necessity. This educative influence is all the more important because natural manly excellence cannot be counted on in each generation: the sons of the founder rarely have the father’s virtue, yet they must be reared well enough to replace him and perpetuate his successes and his ways. Rearing becomes still more important—indeed, supremely important—if the ways of the fathers are to be not the typical ways of mankind uninstructed, but the ways of a people devoted to righteousness and holiness. For all these reasons, founding and sustaining a great and godly nation is absolutely dependent on women, and not just any women, but the right women: women who are able to attach their husbands to the high-minded and reverent rearing of the next generation.*
It should not surprise us that Abram, to begin with, does not understand this truth. Rarely do great men, with great dreams, like to acknowledge their dependence, least of all on the seemingly “weaker” sex. Before he can become a founder, and even a proper father, he must become a proper husband and appreciate Sarai as a wife.
In the course of educating him for the work of founding, God will exploit Abram’s childlessness to move him forward, holding the prospect of his own offspring before him as a carrot. In part to teach Sarah and Abraham that children are a gift, not a human achievement, God delays the birth of Isaac. But the delay is also indispensable for educating Abram regarding the importance of woman and, in particular, the meaning of wife. That he badly needs such education we learn in the episode that follows almost immediately after he responds to God’s call.
III. Abram in Egypt: Wife-Sister Story #1
Abram answers the call and goes as commanded. But he does not go alone, for “Lot went with him, and Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed out of Haran.” Perhaps out of responsibility for his dead brother’s son, perhaps because he still clings to his family of origin, but perhaps because he regards Lot as tacit heir-apparent, Abram takes Lot along on his divinely appointed mission. Whether Abram intends this or not, Lot, an as-it-were adopted son, represents perpetuation insurance, just in case God cannot provide him any other offspring. When he and his little band arrive in Canaan, “the Canaanite was then in the land.” In response both to Abram’s obedience in hearkening and to his likely perplexity in finding the land occupied, God appears to Abram, promising that he will (in the future) assign this land to Abram’s seed (by silent implication, not to him). Abram, presumably in gratitude and awe, builds an altar.
But the promised land proves even more unpromising, owing to famine. Abram goes, uninstructed, to Egypt, the fertile place, to gain food, that is, to secure his own preservation. In this place, Abram has his first real encounter with another nation. He acquires the experience of being a stranger in a strange land and encounters the decadent and unjust ways of the civilized alternative to what will be God’s new way. He learns what it is like to be treated unjustly because one is a stranger: he suffers first-hand the tension between the love of your own (self-love) and justice. But he acquiesces in this opposition by repeating it, in his dealings with his own wife.
And it came to pass, when he was come near to enter into Egypt, that he said unto Sarai his wife: “Behold please, I know thou art a woman beautiful to look upon. And it will come to pass, when the Egyptians shall see thee, that they will say: ‘This is his wife’; and they will kill me, but let you live. Say, I pray thee, that you are my sister, that it may go well with me for thy sake and that my soul may live because of you.” (12:11-13)
Fearing for his life, Abram asks Sarai to deny their marriage and to pose as his sister, fully expecting that the Egyptians will be attracted by her beauty and interested in having her. Events will show that his fears were well-founded, if anything, even underestimated: he hadn’t reckoned that it would be Pharaoh himself who would take her, sight unseen, on the recommendation of his henchmen who are apparently always on the prowl for their master, rounding up beautiful women for his harem. Abram has a genuine dilemma, with which one must sympathize: either he can try to save his own life at the expense of his wife’s honor, or he can risk his likely death, after which his wife will also be taken (only this time as a widow). Thinking about God’s promise, Abram reasons that it depends on his own survival even more than it depends on Sarai’s fidelity and marital chastity; and, should he have considered the matter, he probably concluded that there was no risk of confounding his lineage through adulterous union, for Sarai was barren. Abram in his heart willingly commits Sarai to adultery.
Some might say that Abram should have trusted in God to protect him, but they read with hindsight; Abram would have had no reason to rely on God. God had not sent him to Egypt, God did not promise to protect him. And, for all Abram knew, God might have no power in Egypt, which had its own gods, among them apparently Pharaoh himself. Under these circumstances, Abram’s conduct could be justified not only as a matter of prudence in the face of necessity; if the divine promise is to be fulfilled, Abram might even have an (inferred) duty to keep himself alive, at all costs. This is not only his opinion: Sarai, his wife, accedes to his request, willingly dishonoring herself for his sake.
The deception succeeds: Not only is Abram’s life spared; Pharaoh does well by Abram for her sake. In exchange for his “sister,” he acquires sheep, oxen, he-asses, menservants, maidservants, she-asses, and camels.
But Abram’s choice is at best unsavory, at worst criminal and unholy; and his own conduct aside, the fate of Sarai is offensive to the Lord, who “plagued Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai Abram’s wife.” (12:17; emphasis added) For Pharaoh she was a nameless beauty, for Abram she could be passed off as his sister, but for God she was Sarai, Abram’s wife. God intervenes to end this adulterous liaison because He cares for Sarai but for Sarai especially as Abram’s wife. God is concerned to defend the dignity of woman as wife. What this means, we—along with Abram—must gradually learn, for we—and he—are not here given any reasons, at least not by God.
After putting plague and plague together and coming up with adultery, Pharaoh—not God—rebukes Abram for his deception:
“What is this that thou hast done unto me? Why didst thou not tell me that she was thy wife? Why saidst thou, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her to be my wife?Pharaoh blames Abram, with justification, for Abram had lied, though he might also have faulted his own predatory behavior; and though Pharaoh tacitly offers the principle—no adultery—he does so only out of his current afflictions. We cannot be sure that, absent the plagues, he would have regretted the adultery, or that he would not have killed for the woman as Abram had feared.
Now therefore behold thy wife, take her and go!” (12:18-19)
Abram makes no response to Pharaoh’s complaint, but one should not conclude that he has learned his lesson. The reader has been told, but Abram was not, that God is behind Pharaoh’s change of heart and Sarai’s deliverance. True, Abram might harbor suspicions along these lines; he sees that there are limits to Pharaoh’s power, that this demi-god and ruler of the supreme human society must yield. But it is doubtful that Abram now knows that he himself must honor his wife. On the contrary, he leaves Egypt a wealthy man (12:16, 13:2); it has indeed “gone well with him on account of Sarai.” It may even seem to him that his newly acquired wealth constitutes the beginning of the fulfillment of God’s promised prosperity. (A truly nasty reader may even suspect that Abram has discovered the profit available in running “the oldest profession.”)
The attentive reader may learn from this story that though one may choose a wife, one cannot choose what “wife” means, that a wife is not transmutable into a sister or a concubine when it serves one’s purposes. But Abram is very likely quite impressed by his success in Egypt, even more than by any suspicion that the founder of a great nation must not be indifferent to who becomes the mother of his children (or who fathers the children born to his wife). Abram is not yet ready to become a father or a founder of God’s new way.
Yet there is perhaps one small sign of movement on Abram’s part. When Abram had left Haran, he “took Sarai, his wife, Lot his brother’s son, and all their substance that they had gathered, and the souls that they had gotten in Haran.” (12:5) But when he goes up out of Egypt, he goes first “with his wife, and all that he had,” and (last) “together with Lot.” (13:1) There seems to be a greater closeness to his wife and a beginning of distancing from Lot as possible heir, a distancing that is completed in the next story, when, thanks in part to the great wealth first accumulated in Egypt, Abram parts with Lot to avoid fratricidal conflict. (Lot, choosing first, takes the well-watered plain of the Jordan, which looked to him “like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt.” [13:10]) When this happens, Abram is left without even an adopted son.
IV. Hagar, the Egyptian: The Wife Surrogate
In his next adventure, Abram enters the war of the kings in order to rescue his nephew, Lot, who had been captured by the invading Babylonians when they conquered Sodom. Though he is not interested in extending his power or ruling his neighbors, Abram acquires and exercises the political-military power that great nationhood entails. He vanquishes his foes, rescues his kin (unlike Cain, Abram is his brother’s keeper), negotiates his own national independence, spurns the seductive gifts of his Canaanite beneficiaries, and establishes diplomatic relations with his neighbors, acting shrewdly, bravely, and justly. But all is not well. The encounter with death in battle has produced a change in Abram. When God appears to him in a vision after his victory and promises him a great reward, Abram, fearful, complains (for the first time) of his childlessness:
”O Lord God, what wilt Thou give me, seeing I shall die [literally, “I shall go”] childless, and the one in charge of my house is Eliezer of Damascus . . . . Behold, to me Thou has given no seed, and, lo, my steward will be my heir.” (15:2-3)God responds by saying that not the steward but “he that shall spring from your own loins shall be your heir.” (15:4) Encouraged by these remarks, Abram no doubt has this prophecy in mind when opportunity knocks, in a novel proposal tendered by Sarai, who is still, now ten years later (at age seventy-five), unable to conceive.
Now Sarai Abram’s wife bore him no children; and she had a handmaid, an Egyptian , whose name was Hagar. And Sarai said unto Abram: “Behold now, the Lord hath restrained me from bearing: go in, I pray thee, unto my handmaid; perhaps I shall be builded up [or “I shall have a son”] through her.” And Abram hearkened to the voice of Sarai. And Sarai Abram’s wife took Hagar the Egyptian, her handmaid, after Abram had dwelt ten years in the land of Canaan, and gave her to Abram her husband to be his wife [or “concubine”]. And he went in unto Hagar and she conceived. (16:2-4; emphasis added)
Sarai, frustrated by her inability to bear Abram an heir, offers Abram a concubine surrogate, following a custom well-documented in the ancient Near East. In a gesture seemingly self-effacing, she hopes instead to be builded up in his esteem and in her power. And Abram, not the last man to believe that God helps those who help themselves, readily accepts the offer: here is a chance for the promised son out of his own loins. But the narrator, in telling of this exchange, hints loudly at the difficulties. Sarai is twice said to be Abram’s wife and he her husband: how then can Hagar be his wife? And how can any resulting child be truly Sarai’s? How will the handmaid view her mistress—and her husband—should she bear the master’s child? We are forewarned: should Hagar became pregnant, the lineage will be confounded and marital harmony challenged. And there is more: Abram’s child will have an Egyptian mother—just as Sarai in Pharaoh’s house might have born a son to an Egyptian father.
Whether she knows it or not, Sarai is measure-for-measure repaying Abram for the near-adulterous liaison in Egypt. Just as Abram had pushed Sarai into adultery with Pharaoh, so Sarai pushes Abram into quasi-adultery with Hagar, this time casting herself, as it were, into the role of sister. Just as Abram had been moved by fear and the desire for gain, so Sarai is moved by shame and the desire for advancement: neither of them shows any regard for their joint future as husband and wife. Lest there be any doubt about the connection of the two episodes, Hagar is clearly identified as “Hagar the Egyptian,” a legacy and part of the “wealth” gained in the wife-sister misrepresentation with Pharaoh. Desirous of seed, Abram is induced to imitate Pharaoh in beginning a harem; he accepts a quasi-adulterous threat to his marriage—whereas, in Egypt, he had proposed it—for the sake of progeny. (We note, in passing, that the Bible’s first two episodes of adultery or near-adultery arise not from lust but from calculation. That they are nonetheless problematic shows that the law restraining adultery has more to do with protecting lineage and transmission than with preventing alienation of marital affections.)
The result is as we feared: the surrogacy stratagem backfires. Hagar conceives and, as a result, shows contempt for Sarai. Sarai, who had hoped to be builded up, is in fact lowered down. She petulantly blames her husband for this state of affairs and quarrels with him; to keep peace, he defers to her, telling her to do with the maid as she pleases (proving, by the way, that he cares not for Hagar herself; she was to him but a seed bed): at least at this point, Abram chooses his wife over the mother of his child-to-be. Sarai, in an inversion of the later Egyptian oppression of the Israelites, deals harshly with Hagar, but God intervenes to comfort Hagar and informs her that she will bear a son whose name shall be Ishmael (“God heareth”) who “shall be a wild ass of a man; his hand shall be against every man, and every man’s hand against him; and he shall dwell in the face of all his brethren.” (16:12) Ishmael is described as the utterly natural child that he is, conceived without regard to the permanence of marriage or to the difference between the ways of Egypt and the ways of God. Three times in the last two verses of the story (16:15-16) does the narrator rub our nose in the fact that it was Hagar, not Sarai, who bore a son, Ishmael, to Abram (when the latter was eighty-six years old).
The possibly innocent attempt to pinch-hit for the wife is, in result, anything but innocent. Not only is there still potential trouble in the household; worse, Abram will later be compelled to banish his first-born son, and the descendants of Ishmael will later make trouble for the descendants of Isaac—as they do until the present day. But for the time being, thanks to their error, both Abram and Sarai stand a bit closer to discovering the meaning of wife: Abram, that a wife is more than a seed-bed; Sarai, conversely, that bearing the child oneself is important; both of them, that joint rearing even more than bearing may be the true work of husband and wife. But before they can really be ready for the work of rearing, they will need even more to discover that the fulfillment of their relation as husband and wife depends finally on providence; they must remain open to procreation within the marriage, against all odds, trusting in higher than human powers to deliver the wished-for gift of life.
V. Abraham in Gerar: Wife-Sister Story #2
In the interests of space, I touch but lightly on some intervening episodes relevant to Abraham’s education regarding the meaning of wife, including the covenant involving circumcision, during which both Abram (age ninety-nine) and Sarai (age eighty-nine) are renamed by God as Abraham (“father of multitudes”) and Sarah (still “princess”) and during which God tells a disbelieving Abraham that He will give him a son by Sarah, that He will bless her, and that she will be a mother of nations, with kings of peoples springing from her. Abraham, incredulous, prefers the son in the flesh to the one in the mind. He says to God, “O that Ishmael might live before thee.” (17:18) But God, rebuking him, insists on the importance of the right son, by the right mother, which is to say by his wife: “Nay, but Sarah thy wife shall bear thee a son . . . and I will establish My covenant with him for an everlasting covenant for his seed after him.” (17:19; emphasis added) There is also the episode with the three strangers to whom Abraham offers superb hospitality, the excellence of which partly depends on the fact that Sarah is present to help out; this well-ordered household is sharply contrasted with that of Lot, living in Sodom, to whom the same strangers come. Here, Mrs. Lot, a native Sodomite, is out of the picture, and, in a parody of hospitality, the poorly wived Lot is compelled to offer his own daughters to a rapacious mob in order to try to save his guests from homosexual rape. (The same daughters will later commit incest upon their father.) And I also skip over the lovely scene in which the strangers announce directly to Sarah herself that she will bear a son within the year, and how God in repeating her response to Abraham (“After I am waxed old shall I have pleasure, my lord being so old?”) tactfully alters it to omit any reference to his, Abraham’s, advanced age (“Why did Sarah laugh, saying, ‘Shall I surely bear a child, I who am old?’” [18:13]). I move instead to the second wife-sister story, all the more remarkable because it is the sequel to this now-precise promise of a son to Sarah within the year.
Traveling in the land of Gerar, Abraham (although the narrator here again insists that she is his wife) announces to the nations that Sarah is his sister (20:2), and Abimelech (“father of the king”), king of Gerar, sends for Sarah and takes her for his harem. (Those who refuse to believe that an eighty-nine-year-old woman could attract a king’s desire have not properly imagined how extraordinarily beautiful Sarah really was, perhaps all the more so now that she is rejuvenated as a result of the news of her imminent motherhood. The less erotic may prefer, as an alternative, that the king may have sought through this union an alliance with Abraham for reasons of political or economic gain.) Given the announcement of Sarah’s impending pregnancy, Abraham’s conduct here is hard to fathom: perhaps, as he will later say when the lie is exposed, he still fears for his life; but he might also be imitating a practice that proved so profitable to him in Egypt. Whatever his motive, he displays a certain recklessness with the promise of Sarah’s restored fertility. Could it be that he was still banking on the ascendancy of Ishmael, his first-born? Could Abraham have doubted God’s word about Sarah?
Abimelech is a different man from Pharaoh, so God treats him not with plagues but with a prophetic dream, informing him that the woman is another man’s wife. Abimelech, who had not come near Sarah, protests his innocence and his concern for his people:
”Lord, wilt Thou slay even a righteous nation? Said he not himself unto me: ‘She is my sister’? and she, even she herself said: ‘He is my brother.’ In the simplicity of my heart and the innocency of my hands have I done this.” (20:4-5)God accepts Abimelech’s defense, adding that it was He who kept Abimelech from touching Sarah, to “withhold thee from sinning against Me” (20:6); but He insists that the man’s wife be restored under penalty of death. Afraid for his life, but armed with the knowledge that a powerful god stands opposed to (this) adultery, Abimelech confronts Abraham, as it were serving as God’s own messenger and witness:
”What hast thou done unto us? [cf. 12:18] and wherein have I sinned against thee, that thou hast brought on me and on my kingdom a great sin? Thou hast done unto me deeds that ought not be done.” (20:9; emphasis added)
Abimelech insists to Abraham that adultery is a great sin, a sin that stains an entire people, a deed that ought not to be done; and he begs for an explanation of how Abraham could have promoted such a heinous deed.
Abraham, who had said nothing on the previous occasion to the explosive Pharaoh, here responds with a two-fold defense. First, he was afraid of how he as a stranger would be treated:
”Because I thought: Surely the fear [or “awe”] of God is not in this place; and they will slay me for my wife’s sake.” (20:11)Abraham’s concern is not far-fetched. The love of your own and the mistrust (even hatred) of the stranger is the natural human way. Only when human beings come to realize that the stranger shares in a common humanity, all equally in the image of God—and, in this sense at least, that the stranger may in fact be a god in disguise—will strangers be treated justly (i.e., with the “fear-awe of God”).
But it is Abram’s second reason that comes as a complete surprise, at least to the reader:
”And moreover she is indeed my sister, the daughter of my father, but not the daughter of my mother; and she became my wife.” (20:12)Sarah was first of all his (half) sister, only later did she become his wife. As a defense, this speech is obviously defective. Even if Sarah is his (half) sister, Abraham’s announcement of that truth in fact amounts to a lie: he suppresses the only relevant fact, namely, that she is (also) his wife. Readers of the text who know that marrying your sister or half-sister is later forbidden (see, e.g., Leviticus 18:9 and 20:17) may assume, wrongly, that sister and wife are here mutually exclusive categories, and that Abraham had explicitly denied that Sarah was his wife when he announced that she was his sister. But, as we shall soon see, that is not the case, for Abimelech finds perfectly acceptable the fact that Sarah is both sister and wife. Abraham’s lie consists not in what he said but in what he did not say: he stated only half the truth and concealed the crucial other half.
Abraham concludes his apologia before Abimelech:
”And it came to pass when God [or “the gods”] caused [the verb is plural!] me to wander from my father’s house, that I said unto her: ‘This is the kindness which thou shalt show unto me; at every place whither we shall come, say of me: He is my brother.’” (20:13)
Abimelech, unimpressed with this defense, does not answer Abraham’s speech with words but with gifts (sheep, oxen, menservants, and maidservants), “restores him Sarah his wife” (20:14), and graciously allows him to dwell in the land where he pleases. His choice speech he reserves for Sarah:
”Behold, I have given thy brother a thousand pieces of silver; behold, it is for thee a covering of the eyes to all that are with thee; and before all men thou art righted.” (20:16; emphasis added)
Abimelech, a virtuous and magnanimous man, understands that Sarah has been shamed and compromised, even if with her consent. The gift of a thousand pieces of silver is intended to clear her name of all wrongdoing and impurity: to restore her reputation as a chaste and faithful wife (“the covering of her eyes,” a proof of modesty) and to close the eyes of others to what had taken place so as to spare her humiliation, in short, to vindicate her completely. In the noblest touch of all, in speaking with her Abimelech still plays along with the designation of Abraham as her brother; he spares her the shame that would come from her learning that he knew her true status.
Abraham, astonished by Abimelech’s delicate and noble response and by his obvious regard for Sarah as Abraham’s wife, prays to God—for the first and only time in Genesis. What he prayed for we do not know, but the act itself indicates Abraham’s returning to God and a tacit admission of having sinned. God responds by healing Abimelech, his wife, and his maidservants, who now all bear children, “for the Lord had fast closed up all the wombs of the house of Abimelech, because of Sarah, wife of Abraham.” (20:18; emphasis added)
This time around, thanks to the virtuous Abimelech who bears moral witness against Abraham and who displays a clear appreciation of the honor due to Sarah as a wife, Abraham is forced to confront the sinfulness of his own conduct. Very likely he sees what the reader is told, in so many words: that God insists on the dignity and honor of the woman as wife; and that the blessings of fertility and progeny—the promised great nation of innumerable descendants—depend upon man’s proper regard for the meaning of wife.
The time is now ripe for the long-promised birth of Abraham’s true heir, to Sarah, which happens in the immediate sequel:
The Lord took note of [or “remembered” or “visited”] Sarah as He had said, and the Lord did for Sarah as He had spoken. And Sarah conceived and bore to Abraham a son in his old age, at the set time of which God had spoken. And Abraham called the name of his son that was born unto him whom Sarah bore to him, Isaac. And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. (21:1-4; emphasis added)
Twenty-five years after he received God’s call, the first concrete evidence of the veracity of God’s promise is finally provided: the right son and heir, whose rightfulness as heir consists entirely in the fact that he is born to Abraham’s wife.
The complete reordering of the household now requires only the banishment of Hagar the Egyptian and her son Ishmael, a deed grievously painful to Abraham “because of his son,” but insisted on by Sarah (who had seen Ishmael “making sport”—the meaning is uncertain). God intervenes on Sarah’s side, though with due regard also for Ishmael:
And God said unto Abraham: “Let it not be grievous in thy sight because of the lad, and because of thy bondwoman; in all that Sarah saith unto thee, hearken unto her voice; for in Isaac shall seed be called to thee. And also of the son of thy bondwoman will I make a nation because he is thy seed.” (21:12-13; emphasis added)Abraham, hearkening now to the joint voice of both God and Sarah, acquiesces and banishes Ishmael and Hagar; he must trust that God will look after the lad. But Ishmael, hearkening to his own mother, becomes lost to God’s new way. In the last we hear of Ishmael (until he and Isaac together come to bury Abraham), his mother takes for him a wife out of the land of Egypt. In this allegedly patriarchal text, the maternal influence is hardly slighted.
VI. Wife or Sister? The Meaning of WifeIt is time to pull together some threads and to venture some generalizations about what Abraham—and what we—have learned on the subject of wife. Three times we have Abraham and Sarah involved in adventures that confound the meaning of wife—twice with sister, once with the Egyptian handmaiden or concubine. That Sarah is in fact Abraham’s half-sister as well as his wife is the clue to the deeper meaning of these adventures. So long as he is willing to treat her as a sister—which he does several times to avoid the consequences of her great beauty—Sarah remains barren. Only when he is prepared to look upon her simply as a wife does she in fact become one in the full and proper sense.
When Abraham and Sarah went to Egypt to escape the famine, Abraham asked Sarah to say that she was his sister so that “my soul may live because of you.” If Sarah appears as his wife, Abraham’s life will be in danger. The perceived threat is both literal and figurative: literal, in that the Egyptians may indeed kill him, in order to gain the beautiful Sarah; figurative, in that admitting to having a wife is tantamount to accepting the fact of one’s own mortality and one’s dependence on woman’s generative and nurturing powers. For as we learn along with Abraham, woman as wife means not “one’s own missing flesh,” nor even a beloved because beautiful adornment to one’s self-esteem, but one’s chosen and committed equal partner in generation and transmission, in providing for one’s own replacement, by making a home that will rear well the next generation. Abraham at the beginning acts as if the promise of becoming a great nation can be realized by himself acting alone; thus preoccupied with his own survival, he doubly “sacrifices” his wife—first by denying her wifeliness and then by abandoning her to Pharaoh’s harem—symbolically enacting his belief in his own self-sufficiency.
Years later, now preoccupied with his wish for an heir, Abraham accepts his need for woman but not yet his need for a wife. He sheds his wife again (albeit on her suggestion), this time to use the Egyptian handmaid as a surrogate womb. It is not enough to say that this was then a customary practice in the ancient Near East; such a practice has an inner meaning that God’s new way rejects. For a woman is not merely a seed-bed or even, to speak less luridly, just the creative “mother of all living” (as Adam had put it, thinking only of Eve’s natural power of generation). For these purely natural deeds, any woman will do. But because human procreation means rearing as well as bearing, the naturally loose relations of male and female must be transformed and fixed by the legal or conventional singular relation of husband and wife—that is, by marriage.
Woman as wife is a long-term partner in rearing, in transmitting the way of life that is the spiritual lifeblood of the family and the nation. As the story makes plain, it will not do, from the point of view of rearing and transmission, to sow one’s seed in culturally foreign soil, to have as the mother of one’s children a woman who follows other gods (or none at all). And one certainly cannot found or perpetuate God’s new way by “Egyptianizing” one’s descendants or, worse, by adopting Pharaoh’s own tyrannical practices, including those with respect to women.
But if the work of rearing the next generation is best conducted with a spouse who shares one’s customs, ways, and gods, why would not sister and brother be the marital ideal? For both share not only common origin and common blood, but, more important, common rearing and common mores. We who have lived so long with the taboo against brother-sister incest-a taboo we owe, by the way, to biblical religion and the new way begun with Abraham—take for granted that wife and sister are mutually exclusive categories, so much so that we cannot remember the reasons why this should be so—except perhaps for latter-day scientific arguments about the genetic dangers of inbreeding. We also have forgotten—or are too well brought up to consider—that brother-sister unions may in fact be the more natural and uninstructed way of the human race, as it is among our primate cousins.
Rousseau, a man not shy about such matters, paints a vivid picture of human generation in the earliest times:
No, there were families, but there were no Nations; there were domestic languages, but there were no popular languages; there were marriages, but there was no love. Each family was self-sufficient and propagated itself from its own stock alone: children of the same parents grew up together and gradually found ways to make themselves intelligible to one another; the distinction between the sexes appeared with age, natural inclinations sufficed to unite them, instinct served in lieu of passion, habit in lieu of predilection, people became man and wife without having ceased to be brother and sister. ( Essay on the Origin of Languages )
Rousseau’s account is in fact quite compatible with the anthropology of the early chapters of Genesis, which preserves delicate silence about, say, the wife of Cain, and which finally reveals that Abraham took to wife his own (half) sister. Rousseau, in a note appended to the just-quoted passage, adds this powerful moral (albeit utterly secular) commentary:
The first men had to marry their sisters. In view of the simplicity of the first morals, this practice continued without prejudice as long as families remained isolated and even after the most ancient peoples had come together; but the law that abolished it is no less sacred for being by human institution. Those who view it solely in terms of the bond it established between families fail to see its most important aspect. In view of the intimacy between the sexes that inevitably attends upon domestic life, the moment such a sacred law ceased to speak to the heart and to awe the senses, men would cease to be upright, and the most frightful morals would soon cause the destruction of mankind. (emphasis added)
The biblical author shares Rousseau’s view of the supreme importance of putting an end to incest. The promulgated law that explicitly forbids the practice, given later in Leviticus, is indeed held to be sacred, not only because it is God-given but because it is part of the so-called holiness code of the Children of Israel, who are enjoined to be holy as the Lord is holy. But the need for such a law is anticipated already in the stories of Abraham and Sarah, in which there is movement from the original sister-become-wife to wife-who-is-also-sister to wife, simply. Abraham is led from the natural toward the marital and legal, from an outlook that says that “incest is best” or that “any woman will do” to an outlook that makes instituted exogamous marriage the sacred norm. Let me exaggerate to make the point: Abraham is so to speak “given” a wife who is also his sister in order to educate him—and the reader—in the crucial difference between wife and sister and to lead him—and us—to embrace with understanding the singular meaning of woman as wife.
It remains only to attempt to specify just why this difference is so important. There are, of course, likely psychological and social difficulties with brother-sister sexuality and marriage, especially if there are more than two children. Sex between siblings confounds the sibling relation, which is a relation of parallel but kindred lives (in principle limitless in number) sprung from the same womb, and contaminates it with the exclusive and dyadic attempt to fuse two of these parallel lives in a merger that denies the meaning of “siblinghood.” To take a brother as a husband is as much an act of metaphorical fratricide as it is an act of metaphorical “wife-killing” to pass a wife off as a sister. Moreover, motives for literal fratricide are also amply provided by brother-sister sex, owing to sexual jealousy: what would a Cain do if his only sister rejected his advances in favor of an Abel’s? Family harmony is difficult enough to maintain without such provocations.
Deeper than these adverse psychosocial consequences lies the matter of how one stands in the world, whether as a child or as an adult. First, in incestuous unions there is no need to learn the adult restraint of sexual impulse, for, with an object of gratification near at hand, instinct spills over into satisfaction: “natural inclination suffice[s] to unite them.” More important, in brother-sister marriage, both partners cling as children to the family of origin, in a relation that harkens back to their common emergence out of the same womb, under the protection of the same parents. There is no brave stepping forth unprotected into the full meaning of adulthood, to say permanent good-bye to father and mother and to cleave to your wife, to accept their death and, what is more difficult, to accept your own mortality, the answer to which is not narcissistic sexual gratification but a sober and deliberate saying “yes” to reproduction, transmission, and perpetuation. To consciously take a wife from outside the nest is deliberately to establish a family of perpetuation, in at least tacit recognition that human maturity entails a willingness to die and a desire for renewal and continuity, through birth and cultural transmission.
Finally, in an incestuous union between brother and sister there is no experience of the other as truly other. There is no distance, no sexual strangeness, no need to overcome fumbling, embarrassment, shame: the inward-looking love of one’s own flesh is naked but it is not ashamed. For this reason, the other is taken for granted and approached in tacit expectation of full compliance with one’s desires; the other is not easily an object of respect. Because of familiarity there is likely to be contempt. There is little possibility of awe (what the Greeks called aidos) before the sexual other: awe before the uncanniness of sexual difference, of the radical independence and otherness of the other; awe before the uncanniness of sexual complementarity, of the remarkable possibility of mediating the sexual difference; awe before the mysterious generative power of sexuality, of the wondrous capacity to transcend sexual difference altogether in the creation of a child, who is the parents’ own commingled being externalized in a separate and persisting existence. And because there is no awe before the sexual other, there is less likelihood of awe before the divine Other in whose image created He them, male and female.
It is one of the remarkable features of human existence how things wondrous and awesome become familiar and banal, how we live in the world complacently and self-satisfiedly blind to its marvels. Such sightless trust is in some respects helpful, in some respects harmful, but it is nonetheless eerie how much of our lives are lived within this unknowing familiarity. To a child, his family (if it is a healthy family) is a given, a unity, something that appears to him to be as natural as the rising sun. He does not see, unless and until he goes out to make his own family, how what appears to be a natural “one” is in fact a two-made-to-become-one. He does not discover, save through the practice of exogamy, how the nursery of his own humanity was the product of deliberate human choice, not of blind nature, and the choice of one man and one woman to become husband and wife for precisely this purpose. Finally, only through exogamy is he likely to appreciate the deepest mysteries of being: the possibility of sameness through otherness, of life through death, of the eternal through the everyday. Man’s openness and willing submission to his counterpart properly understood as wife partakes of his openness and willing subordination to the One Who is truly other and Who inspires us—and commands us—to live knowingly, decently, and gratefully in this astonishing world.
(This is the first of a two-part essay. The second is The Meaning of Fatherhood)
Leon R. Kass is Addie Clark Harding Professor in the College and the Committee on Social Thought, the University of Chicago, and author of Toward a More Natural Science: Biology and Human Affairs and The Hungry Soul: Eating and the Perfecting of Our Nature. An earlier version of this essay was delivered as part of the Joseph Gregory McCarthy Lectures in the Department of Theology at Boston College, September 1993.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?