Jewish Thought and Literature
October 9, 2009
The Genesis Apocrypha: Painting Abram an Honorable Man
While the two accounts of the wife/sister stories of Abraham and Sarah found in Genesis (Genesis 12:10-20 and Genesis 20) at first appear to be two very distinct stories occurring in different settings both geographically and chronologically, the general portrait painted of Abraham in both the Genesis accounts is quite similar in contrast with the portrayal of Abraham in the Apocryphal text. The manuscript of the Genesis Apocryphon is considered to have been written late in the first century BCE or early in the first century CE, approximately five hundred years after the compilation of the Torah was completed, probably sometime between 586 and 528 BCE (Brettler, JSB 6). This later version in the Apocryphon recounts the wife/sister story such that Abraham is, throughout, a sympathetic protagonist whose beloved wife, forcibly taken from him, misleadingly calls him her brother in order to save his life. The writer of the Apocryphon has redeemed the character of Abraham in order to uphold him as a righteous and honorable man who has a special relationship to God, whereas the Genesis accounts leave his character shallow and fearful at best, manipulative and cunning at worst.
Accredited to the J-Source, Genesis 12:10-20 narrates a wife/sister story in which Abram, who has gone to Egypt because of famine, asks Sarai to lie about her relationship to him, “that it may go well with me because of you, and that I may remain alive thanks to you” (v. 13). Abram’s motivation, we are told, is fear for his life. However, the benefits from Sarai’s marriage to the Pharaoh extend beyond saving Abram’s life to his acquisition of great wealth (v. 16). Adonai enters this story to punish Pharaoh on Sarai’s behalf, bringing plagues upon the Pharaoh and the Pharaoh’s house (v. 17). When Pharaoh calls Abram to him and asks why Abram lied about Sarai’s relationship to him, the text does not mention Abram’s attempt to answer Pharaoh’s questions. Instead, the Pharaoh simply sends Abram away “with his wife and all that he possessed” (v. 20). While the paragraph breaks in the account were added much later than the text’s redaction, as it stands, each paragraph of this section ends with Abram benefiting from the deceit of claiming that Sarai is his sister instead of his wife: in verse 13, Abram remains alive thanks to Sarai; in verse 16 he gains great wealth, and in verse 20 Abram is allowed to leave Egypt with his wife and all that he has accumulated during his time in Egypt. Abram is thus rewarded for the dishonesty with which he acts, and punishment is meted out by Adonai to the Pharaoh, who has acted unknowingly. Initially this account seems to completely disempower Sarai who has no voice and whose primary purpose seems to act as an (material) asset to Abram, being virtually sold by him into marriage with the Pharaoh and thus saving his life. However, Adonai’s action in this story, afflicting “Pharaoh and Pharaoh’s household with mighty plagues” is done on account of Sarai (v. 17). Thus we see the divine act in the interest of a married woman whose fearful husband marries her off to yet another man.
The Genesis 20 account of the wife/sister story goes straight into the dilemma of a Gentile king (notes on v. 9-10, JSB pg 43) unknowingly married to a married woman. After Abraham states that Sarah is his sister, King Abimelech of Gerar has Sarah brought to him. While Adonai’s actions in chapter 12 are primarily directed toward Sarah, in this account, God speaks to King Abimelech warning him of the consequences of approaching Sarah, a married woman (v. 3). Abimelech responds acknowledging God as Lord and also defending his own innocence, and we learn that both Abraham and Sarah have stated that they are brother and sister (v. 4-5). This account highlights the powers of both Abraham, whom God calls a prophet (v. 7), and of God, for when Abimelech recounts to his servants what has happened, they respond with fear (v. 8). However, this account does not depict any explicit communication between God and Abraham. Much of the body of this account is dedicated to Abimelech’s righteousness: he marries Sarah because he believes she is Abraham’s sister; God comes to Abimelech in a dream and Abimelech then pleads his innocence to God; Abimelech acts in response to his servants’ fears and summons Abraham to him; and finally Abimelech recognizes his wrong-doing in taking a married woman to be his wife and pays reparations for this wrong, bestowing wealth upon both Abraham and Sarah (even if this action is done out of a fear of God).
Abraham’s responses to Abimelech’s questions about his motives in this act of deceit prove weak. First, Abraham’s perception that the people of Gerar do not fear God has already been falsified by Abimelech and his slave’s response to Abimelech’s dream (commentary on v. 8 in JSB, pg 43). Next, Abraham defends himself saying Sarah is in fact his half sister (Biblical scholars contend this point, and I will not pursue it here.) Finally, Abraham blames God for the need for such deceit in the first place, for it is God who “‘made me wander from my father’s house,’” and thus caused Abraham to request that Sarah claim that he is her brother (v. 13). Despite Abraham’s weak defense of his actions, he makes great material gains. Abraham’s one redemptive act in this account is to pray to God for Abimelech’s sake, freeing Abimelech’s household from the infertility that had been cast upon it during Sarah’s stay (v. 17-18). When we come to read the third account found in the Genesis Apocryphon, we find a very different style of narrative. The writing of this account, written significantly later than the first two accounts, portrays Abram as the sympathetic protagonist whose fear of being killed is based in an explicit threat to his life and whose relationship to Sarai is described as one of mutual care and reliance. One technique used to this end is the first person narration from Abraham’s perspective, a tool often used literarily to help readers empathize with a character. Abraham’s fear of death in this account is justified both by his dream during his first night in Egypt, a dream he interprets as meaning that the Egyptians will seek to kill him while allowing Sarah to live (Vermes, 19: 14-19), and later by Pharaoh’s desire for Sarai which leads Pharaoh to want to kill Abram. Abram communicates this fear to Sarai when she asks him about his dream, and he asks her to say that he is her brother. Sarai clearly understands the implications of such a claim, for she “wept that night on account of my words” (Vermes, 19:21).
In the Apocryphal account even more so than in Genesis 12, Sarai’s beauty is described in great detail, and it is because of her beauty that the King takes Sarai to be his wife. In order to do so, the King must kill her husband, and it is with this knowledge that Sarai tells the King that Abram is her brother (Vermes 20:7-10). The description of Abram’s loss, his sadness at having his wife taken from him by force, depicts him as an honorable and loving husband. Unlike in either Genesis account, in the Genesis Apocryphon, Abram turns to God, beseeching God for help and for retribution against the King who has forcefully taken Sarai from him. God sends a scourge upon the King in response to Abram’s plea and thus acts explicitly in relation to Abram. The scourge on the King and the King’s household lasts for two years during which time the King cannot consummate his marriage to Sarai (Vermes 20:17-18). After two years without relief from the scourge, the King has a dream and, in response to this dream, sends a messenger to ask Abram to come pray that he may be freed of the scourge God has sent. Abram’s nephew Lot is the one to tell the messenger that Sarai is actually Abram’s wife and must be reunited with her husband before the scourge will end. The King calls Abram, demands that Abram pray for him, and, having been healed from the scourge, sends Abram forth with Sarai and riches aplenty for them, for Hagar (who is mentioned in neither of the other accounts) and for Lot.
The Genesis Apocryphon justifies Abram’s fear of death, twice giving weight to it. This account depicts Abram as a loving husband who communicates with Sarai, who allows her to choose whether or not to claim him as her brother (he requests this of her and then she is the one to follow through with this action when Abram’s life is endangered by the King’s desire for her), who grieves when she is forcefully taken from him, and who beseeches God to prevent the King from defiling Sarai (in order that she not be separated from Abram). Abram is also depicted as the individual with a special connection with God, and God’s actions are in response to Abram: putting the scourge on the King and also removing the scourge from the King. It should be noted that the King’s dream could potentially come from God, but this part of the text has been lost. In the first Genesis account Adonai and Abram have no explicit direct interaction, and in the second account, their interaction is initiated by God’s appearance to King Abimelech in a dream. It is really this final account of the sister/wife story in the Genesis Apocryphon that depicts Abram as an honorable man and not simply one whose actions are governed by fear and greed.
Vermes, Geza. The Dead Sea Scrolls in English. 4th ed. London: Penguin Books, 1995.
Berlin, Adele and Marc Z. Brettler, ed. The Jewish Study Bible. Oxford/New York: Oxford University press, 2004. (JSB)