Saturday, October 13, 2007

As Sarah obeyed Abraham

Debunking Christianity (a blog run by ex-Christians who complain that Christians refuse to link to it) levels an interesting charge, considering that its target is not a Christian:
Furthermore, if Christians really believed the Bible ... the man would be the domineering patriarchal head of the house in which a wife is to “obey” her husband just like Sarah obeyed Abraham (I Peter 3: 6), even to the point of lying to save his life by having sex with another man (Genesis 12: 10-16) and by letting him sleep with another woman so he could have a child (Genesis 16).
Abram actually lied twice in the manner of Gen 12 (pretending Sarah was his sister rather than his wife), but as to whether Sarah actually had sex with Pharoah, I doubt it very much for a couple of reasons. The major one is that I don't think such a conclusion is supported by the text. Pharoah does say of Sarah, "I have taken her to wife," but in the context of royalty and of Genesis "taken" can just as easily mean that she was added into Pharoah's harem*. In fact, it is the Egyptian nobles who "commend" her to Pharoah, resulting in her being taken, but there is no indication that he personally even saw her.

So how do we choose which of the two mutually-exclusive posibilities is the more likely interpretation? By looking at the other example, in Gen 20:2-6. Same story, different king:
[Then] Abraham said of Sarah his wife, "She is my sister." So Abimelech king of Gerar sent for and took Sarah. But God came to Abimelech in a dream by night, and said to him, "You are a dead man: the woman you have taken (there's that word again - El B) is another man's wife."

But Abimelech had not come near her, and he said, "Lord, will you also slay a righteous nation? Did he not tell me, 'This woman is my sister'?" And did she not herself say, 'He is my brother'? I did this with an honest heart and innocent hands."

And God said unto him in the dream, "Yes, I know you did this with an honest heart. That is why I kept you from sinning against me by not allowing you to touch her."
I suspect that Pharoah got a similar wake-up call and that he touched her no more than did the king of Gerar. But that one, lacking any more specificity, may remain a matter of conjecture. The next one, that Sarah obeyed Abraham by "letting him sleep with another woman so he could have a child," is not.

Gen 16:1-3 reads this way:
Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. Now she had a household slave, an Egyptian, named Hagar**. And Sarai said to Abram, "The LORD has kept me from bearing children, therefore I ask you to go in to my maid; perhaps I may have children by her. And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai."
Now a lot of people today would think it a crazy idea that a woman would wish to share her husband while the rest probably think that because it was (likely) a man who is telling this story he suppressed Abram's libido-driven manipulation of his wife into such a position. After all, no woman would do this on her own.

Well, no modern woman anyway. But several of the aforementioned Nuzi tablets deal with the issue of spousal obligations in the 2nd millennium bc Middle East, and one in particular sheds some light on Sarah's actions:
"...Kelim-ninu has been given in marriage to Shennima. If Kelim-ninu bears children, Shennima shall not take another wife; but if Kelim-ninu does not bear, Kelim-ninu shall aquire a woman of the land of Lullu as wife for Shennima, and Kelim-ninu may not send the offspring away. Any son that may be born to Shennima from the womb of Kelim-ninu, to these shall be given the lands and buildings of every sort..."
-- ANET p. 220, Published by E. Chiera, HSS, v(1929), No. 67, Translated by E.A. Speiser, AASOR, x(1930), 31 ff
As in the case of Jacob and Laban, there are a number of interesting parallels***, but the main one here is obviously that of a barren woman providing her husband a surrogate spouse for the purpose of having children. And they were not just the husband's children, but the (original) wife's as well. Sarah expressed it this way, "that I may obtain children by her." The children of a slave were the children of a slaveowner. Sarah's slave, Sarah's children.

But why would she do such a thing? I don't join those, like Ray C. Stedman, a man whom I admire no little bit, who think that "to give him the son of his heart's desire, Sarai was willing to sacrifice that [monogamous] relationship. It was not only an act of real sacrifice, but also one of deep sincerity." I don't think that at all. I think that Sarah felt keenly the pain of her barrenness, felt that she was a failure**** as a wife and a woman for not accomplishing a major expectation of her culture. In other words, it was her desire for a child of her own, not a sincere concern for her husband's progeny, that causes her to propose this. It was not a selfless act, but a selfish one, and there is nothing in her words here or actions later that leads us to believe that she did it for any person other than herself.

Now, all manner of bad things came of the whole situation: family strife, hatred, violence, and eventual banishment of Hagar and her son. Perhaps, if Ishmael is indeed the father of today's Arabs, that strife carries into our own times. Therefore the supreme irony of the situation, getting back to the original criticism of Abram's "domineering" patriarchalism, is not that Sarah obeyed Abram, but that he obeyed her. Had Abram the stones to say no to his wife as he should have, a multitude of later problems never would have occurred.

* It's important to remember that the taking of "extra" wives by ancient royalty was mainly a matter of cementing alliances between friendly powers. Abram is noted elsewhere as being "very rich" and will later field a private army, so it is very probably the case that Pharoah's nobles thought they were setting up this manner of alliance and that Abram merely played along. He is, as we will see, not often in the habit of saying no.

** The text doesn't say this, but I think it probable that she was brought back when Abram was bum rushed out of Egypt. The name Hagar, according to Strong's, is of "uncertain (perhaps foreign) derivation."

*** and two of them, the practice of the original wife formally "sending away" such offspring and the legally-defined position of a natural son over a son born of such an arrangement, do not exist in later Hebrew culture and are obviously too detailed and too parallel with the findings of Archaeology for Genesis here to be anything other than a contemporary account.

**** And we will soon see how personally she takes slights related to that. As soon as Hagar becomes pregnant, she apparently lords the fact over Sarah. Sarah immediately begins to mistreat Hagar and eventually drives her out of the family.

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