(Warning: there’s a discussion about sexual violence in Genesis in this blog)
In our Google Hangout for this week Dr. Lester and Dr. Koenig continued our discussion about the Pentateuch. What I found particularly interesting was their discussion of the matriarchs and other women in the Pentateuch and how they are classically treated compared to the men.
The question was raised whether Sarai truly displays a lack of faith when she has Abram sleep with Hagar so that she may have a child with him. (Gen. 16) Could it be that Sarai knew of the promise God had just made with Abram and, knowing herself to be barren, did what she had to so that God’s promise would be fulfilled? This is a possibility, although when she then gets upset and drives Hagar into the wilderness we see something else. I’m not willing to say that she was or wasn’t trying to be an active participant in God’s plan because of that though. People are complicated beings and letting your husband sleep with another woman would certainly not have been incredibly easy.
Sarai/Sarah’s story is countered with the two occasions when Abram/Abraham passes her off as his sister and not as his wife. These stories take place both before and after Sarai sends Abram to sleep with Hagar. Just as Sarai had her spouse sleep with somebody else Abram’s declaration of Sarai as his sister is done knowing that she will be taken by other men and be forced to sleep with them (although the second time the man who takes her, Abimelech, doesn’t sleep with her).
Let’s be clear, Sarai does offer her slave to Abram, and even if she does do it out of a lack of faith, it is Abram who then rapes Hagar. But it is Abram/Abraham who concocts plan to call Sarai /Sarah his sister so that other men will take her and rape her. The first time Sarai is taken by Pharaoh who sleeps with her and as mentioned the second time Abimelech takes her but doesn’t sleep with her.(Gen. 12:10-20, Gen. 20) In both occasions it is either mentioned or implied that Abram/Abraham does this because he’s afraid people would kill him out of jealousy if they knew Sarai/Sarah was his wife so he protects himself and allows violence to come against her. Yet it is Sarai who is treated as not having faith, not Abram/Abraham who expects God would not keep him safe.
It’s worth mentioning that Abraham and Sarah’s son, Isaac, seems to have learned this trick from his father. (Gen. 26:1-11) When God sends Isaac to live in Gerar he tells everybody that his wife is his sister because he has the same fears Abraham did. When the king finds out he’s upset, but luckily nobody had taken Isaac’s wife yet. Funnily enough, the king in question is Abimelech who I imagine is tired of Abraham and his son’s ridiculous fear and the risk it puts them all in. In modern times I image he’d say something along the lines of “what is this? I can’t even…” Putting up with the line of Abraham was not the easiest thing to do.
To finish, I’d like to leave you with a quote from the hangout. While discussing the possibility to see the actions of women in the Old Testament in a new light Dr. Lester said, “women act in the ways that are available to them and they are not the same ways that are available to men. And so what often looks kind of like sneaky, deceptive, conniving behavior, if you look at… the constricted and warped shape of the social space in which women live… their actions, which look like corkscrews, are a straight line in the space in which they live.” We shouldn’t read the Old Testament as if women were allowed to take the same actions as men. We should read their stories as if they have to act and behave differently if they want to achieve their goals.