#MeToo in the Bible - Session Three: The Matriarchs
Sarah and Pharaoh: 10 Now there was a famine in the land, and Abram went down to Egypt to live there for a while because the famine was severe.
14 When Abram came to Egypt, the Egyptians saw that Sarai was a very beautiful woman.
Nahum Sarna, amongst others, says that there is evidence from Hurrian society, of which Abraham and Sarah might have participated, that there was a status known as “wife-sistership.” A Hurrian could adopt his wife as his sister and give her special status and she would be treated as a blood relative of the husband’s family. Abraham asked Sarah to tell the Egyptians that she was of this special class, and the Egyptians understood this legality and did not harm the couple. As knowledge of this custom faded, the story is now understood to be about the patriarch’s lying but its initial theme concerned recognition of this special status. This theory does not explain the wife-sister motif. It strains credulity to believe that these stories were initially not about deceit because the kings in each story respond as if they are being deceived.
Nahmanides says directly that the patriarchs simply erred: “Know that Abraham our father unintentionally committed a great sin by bringing his righteous wife to a stumbling-block of sin on account of his fear for his life. He should have trusted that God would save him and his wife and all his belongings for God surely has the power to help and to save. His leaving the Land, concerning which he had been commanded from the beginning, on account of the famine, was also a sin he committed, for in famine God would redeem him from death. It was because of this deed that the exile in the land of Egypt at the hand of Pharaoh was decreed for his children.”
Gen. Rabbah 40:5; and Tanhuma, Lekh Lekha 5: Abraham put Sarah in a chest so she wouldn’t be seen. When the tax officials come to determine what Abraham is bringing into Egypt, they insist he open the box even after he offers to pay anything to keep it closed. The midrash presents Abraham as one who cherishes his wife and is not willing to part with her. Sarah, in turn, is portrayed as someone whose value is greater than all the money in the world. When the tax officials see Sarah, they exclaim: “This one is not suitable for a commoner, but for the king”
When Abraham saw that Sarah had been taken to the palace of Pharaoh, he began to weep and pray to God. Sarah, too, cried out, saying: “Master of the Universe! when I heard from Abraham that You had told him, ‘Go forth,’ I believed in what You said. Now I remain alone, apart from my father, my mother, and my husband. Will this wicked one come and abuse me? Act for Your great name, and for my trust in Your words.” God replied: “By your life, nothing untoward will happen to you and your husband.” At that moment, an angel descended from Heaven with a whip in his hand. Pharaoh came to remove Sarah’s shoe—he hit him on the hand. He wanted to touch her clothing—he smote him. Even though Sarah told Pharaoh: “I am a married woman,” he did not desist from his efforts to touch her (Gen. Rabbah 41:2).
Maimonides, “The Ten Trials of Abraham”:
1. Abraham leaves his homeland.
2. Abraham’s exile to Egypt.
3. Because of Abraham’s fear, Sarah is abducted.
4. Abraham’s battle against “the four kings”
5. Abraham’s takes Hagar as concubine
6. Abraham’s being commanded to circumcise himself
7. Sarah’s abduction by Abimelech
8. Abraham’s decision to expel Hagar and Ishmael
9. The binding and near slaughter of Isaac
10. Abraham’s purchase of a plot for Sarah
R. Peretz Wolf-Prusan “The Ten Tests of Sarah”:
1. Sarah, trusts Abraham to go to Israel.
2. Sarah’s is forced into exile in Egypt
3. Sarah’s husband, fearing for his life, declares her to be his sister and Sarah is taken to Pharaoh
4. Sarah is left while Abraham battles the 4 kings
5. Childless, Sarah becomes a sister-wife to Hagar, her maidservant
6. Sarah being informed that she, in her old age, will have a child, laughs.
7. Sarah is again abducted, by Abimelech
8. Sarah exiles Hagar and Ishmael
9. Abraham has taken Isaac to Mt Moriah
10. Sarah dies.
Rebekah, Jacob, Isaac and Esau: 5 Now Rebekah was listening as Isaac spoke to his son Esau. When Esau left for the open country to hunt game and bring it back, 6 Rebekah said to her son Jacob, “Look, I overheard your father say to your brother Esau, 7 ‘Bring me some game and prepare me some tasty food to eat, so that I may give you my blessing in the presence of the Lord before I die.’ 8 Now, my son, listen carefully and do what I tell you: 9 Go out to the flock and bring me two choice young goats, so I can prepare some tasty food for your father, just the way he likes it. 10 Then take it to your father to eat, so that he may give you his blessing before he dies.”
11 Jacob said to Rebekah his mother, “But my brother Esau is a hairy man, while I have smooth skin. 12 What if my father touches me? I would appear to be tricking him and would bring down a curse on myself rather than a blessing.” 13 His mother said to him, “My son, let the curse fall on me. Just do what I say; go and get them for me.” (Gen. 27:5-13)
As far as the text tells us, Rebekah does not have any further contact with the son she loves. The obvious question to ask is: Why did Rebekah not approach Isaac with the prophecy? At least one midrash appears to imply that time was of the essence and she could not take the time to speak to Isaac because Esau could return any minute. Rebekah assumed that if her conversation with her husband failed, she would not have enough time to prepare the meal and send Jacob in. However, hunting, skinning, and preparing the meal cannot take less time than having a conversation.
The method selected by Rebekah to carry out God's message to her when she was pregnant teaches that the ends justify the means. God's will must be carried out by human beings at all cost. If this means that one must lie and use trickery to make sure that God's will is fulfilled, so be it. Nahmanides (1194-1270) is somewhat perplexed as to why Rebekah did not tell Isaac of the prophecy prior to the birth of the twins. He ends with the following: By Him actions are measured (I Sam. 2:3). That is, God is all knowing, and He alone understands human actions.
Rebekah and Jacob both face the consequences of their actions regardless of their intent. The consequences in both cases must have been emotionally draining and traumatic. It should be noted that the majority of the traditional commentators on this story attempt to solve the problems raised in the paper by arguing that Rebekah and Jacob did not trick Isaac, or that the trick was necessary in order to achieve a greater good.
Rashi, for example, comments that Jacob did not lie to his father; rather, when Isaac asks Jacob who is he, Jacob says, 'I am bringing you [the food] while Esau is your first-born.' Ibn Ezra dismisses this interpretation completely. According to his reading of the story, Jacob did lie and it is permissible for him to lie since there is a greater good involved.
It is interesting that both classical rabbinic interpretations of the text and medieval Jewish commentators do not fault Rebekah at all for this. Rebekah, so it seems, was justified in carrying out the hoax because of God's message to her.
To conclude, Rebekah's actions were intended to fulfill God's message which she heard. As the story unfolds, one is aware that although God has established an end, there is no course of action that God recommends. Rebekah, as the initiator, decides to create an elaborate hoax, thereby setting a chain of events. Isaac must live knowing that both his wife and his son tricked him. Rebekah is never again to see her beloved son. Jacob succeeds in stealing the blessing from his brother Esau but then is forced to flee to the house of his uncle who tricks him by switching an older sister for the woman Jacob wants. Later in the story, Jacob is deceived by his children who sold their brother into slavery. Yet the act of selling Joseph to a passing caravan secured a future for Jacob and his children, as the end of the Book of Genesis shows. Although I argued that the actions of Rebekah and Jacob were not sanctioned by the Torah, if one follows the Jacob saga to its conclusion the narrative shows, without the critical incident – the hoax – the Exodus from Egypt would not have taken place. The end toward which God guides the patriarchs was foretold to Abraham (15:13-14). The means by which this is achieved is fraught with inappropriate ethical decisions by the patriarchs as discussed above.
Laban, Leah, Rachel and Jacob: 16 Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the older was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. 17 Leah had weak eyes, but Rachel had a lovely figure and was beautiful. 18 Jacob was in love with Rachel and said, “I’ll work for you seven years in return for your younger daughter Rachel.”
19 Laban said, “It’s better that I give her to you than to some other man. Stay here with me.” 20 So Jacob served seven years to get Rachel, but they seemed like only a few days to him because of his love for her.
21 Then Jacob said to Laban, “Give me my wife. My time is completed, and I want to make love to her.”
22 So Laban brought together all the people of the place and gave a feast. 23 But when evening came, he took his daughter Leah and brought her to Jacob, and Jacob made love to her. 24 And Laban gave his servant Zilpah to his daughter as her attendant.
25 When morning came, there was Leah! So Jacob said to Laban, “What is this you have done to me? I served you for Rachel, didn’t I? Why have you deceived me?”
26 Laban replied, “It is not our custom here to give the younger daughter in marriage before the older one. 27 Finish this daughter’s bridal week; then we will give you the younger one also, in return for another seven years of work.”
28 And Jacob did so. He finished the week with Leah, and then Laban gave him his daughter Rachel to be his wife. 29 Laban gave his servant Bilhah to his daughter Rachel as her attendant. 30 Jacob made love to Rachel also, and his love for Rachel was greater than his love for Leah. He worked for Laban another seven years. (Gen. 29:16-30)
Option One: Jacob was intended for Rachel: According to one tradition, Jacob asked to marry Rachel because he knew that Leah was intended for Esau. Jacob therefore asked Laban to give him Rachel’s hand in matrimony. Laban, also, saw that Esau had married Mahalath, and he worried about Leah’s marriage. Consequently, he decided to immediately give Jacob his elder daughter.
Option Two: Jacob had already fallen in love with Rachel: Jacob asked Rachel: “Will you marry me?” She answered: “Yes, but my father is a deceiver, and you will not be able to best him. I have an older sister, and he will not marry me off before her.” He said: “I am his brother in deceit.” Jacob gave Rachel signs (so that he would be able to recognize her on the wedding night). When Leah was brought under the wedding canopy, Rachel thought: “Now my sister will be shamed.” She gave the signs to Leah. (BT Bava Batra).
Yet the Rabbis believe Jacob saw her as having been part of the deception, motivated to avoid a marriage to the wicked Esau. For this, they say, Jacob wanted to divorce her (Gen. Rabbah 96:31). She was unloved not only by her husband; everyone sneered at her. Sea voyagers would sneer at her, those traveling on the roads would sneer at her. All would say: “This Leah, what she hides is not as what she reveals. She appears righteous, but she is not such a one. If she were righteous, would she have defrauded her sister?” (Gen. Rabbah 71:2). When Jacob saw that God had remembered Leah with children, he said: “Will I divorce the mother of these?” (Gen. Rabbah 96:31). (The tribes of Levi and Judah, the two tribes that were superior to all the rest, descended from her.)