Essay: Genesis Comparing and Contrasting Genesis 12

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Genesis

Comparing and Contrasting Genesis 12 and Genesis 20

One of the most taboo topics, even in our own society, is the question of what constitutes incest. In Genesis, this topic is addressed not once, but twice in Genesis 12 and Genesis 20. These incidents in the life of the patriarch Abraham (Abram) and his wife Sarah (Sarai) are, like other significant episodes in the first book of the Pentateuch, told and retold, virtually right after one another in ways that are similar but with some critical differences in plot and tone. Like the theoretical, dispassionate account of creation in Genesis 1, as contrasted with the chattier, more episodic version of creation in Genesis 2, these two different versions of the same incident of the life of Abraham and Sarah are used to shed new light upon the meaning of the same anecdote, and carry slightly different metaphorical resonances. One is a demonstration of God's willingness to make good on His promises to Abraham; the other is an illustration of Abraham's character as an individual.

Both narratives take place in a time of exile. The exiled, wandering protagonists are lands where they fear that their God and their marriage will not be respected and this fear motivates the deception. Abraham goes forth in search of a new nation, with a promise from the Lord: "And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing. And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed" (Genesis 12:2-3). These words are a foreshadowing of what will occur later in the incident, where the Pharaoh is plagued with curses. Those who offend Abraham are cursed, and those who honor Abraham, and honor the ways of the Lord, are blessed.

The origin of the curses against Pharaoh lies in his violation, however unwittingly, of the demand that a man's wife be respected and not coveted. The story begins when Abraham, to protect his life, decides to engage in a deception. "And it came to pass, when he was come near to enter into Egypt, that he said unto Sarai his wife, Behold now, I know that thou art a fair woman to look upon: Therefore it shall come to pass, when the Egyptians shall see thee, that they shall say, This is his wife: and they will kill me, but they will save thee alive. Say, I pray thee, thou art my sister: that it may be well with me for thy sake; and my soul shall live because of thee" (Genesis 12:10-13).

Abraham believes that as a woman, Sarah's life (still Sarai) will be protected although very likely she will be violated, if the two of them are known to be married. He fears his own life will be at risk. But if the two are taken to be unmarried strangers, the Egyptians will be less hostile to them as foreigners. He anticipates her resistance to this idea (as it may still put her chastity in danger) but begs her to do so, so his soul might live. Abraham seems to make a plea that this is a God-fearing thing to do by invoking the soul, rather than merely asking his wife to engage in a potentially immoral deception to save his life.

Interestingly, in both versions of the incidents, Abraham is not blamed for his deception by either his wife, the man he deceives, or the Lord, even though it places Sarai's life at risk, not his own. Also, in neither version is it suggested that God asks him to perform this potentially immoral act unlike; for example, Abraham's forestalled command to kill Isaac. In Genesis 12, the duped Pharaoh later reproaches Abraham for the deception: "Pharaoh called Abram and said, 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 I might have taken her to me to wife: now therefore behold thy wife, take her, and go thy way" (Genesis 10:18-19).

Although Abraham was correct in saying that his wife would be judged "fair" by the Egyptians, their reactions seem more balanced than he anticipated, as Pharaoh's men do not try to harm him, even after the deception. However, the reason for this protection might be fear of what they will do if they do not, as clearly Abraham has demonstrated that he has a powerful authority at his side in the form of the Lord, who avenges the wrong done to Abraham that he has orchestrated. This also suggests to the Egyptians that Abraham's God is more powerful than their gods, their law, or the desire of their monarchs, as none of these things can protect them against the plagues that punish the Pharaoh.

Genesis 12 is thus a fairly straightforward account of God making a promise to Abraham and making good on that promise. It illustrates Abraham's deception to protect his life that seems to be calculated to make a show of God's power on earth in service of Abraham. The plagues that are visited upon Pharaoh and Pharaoh's apology comes because of a demonstration of the implied power of Abraham's God and God's ability to intervene on Abraham's behalf, on earth. It is not specified how Pharaoh knows that the reasons for the plague are because he is violating a man's wife, by taking her into his house, nor does he ask Abraham why he deceived him. It is merely suggested that he knows that the punishment comes from a divine authority.

The Egyptian setting of exile would be especially interesting for those readers (as the ancient Israelites almost certainly would have been) who were reading this early narrative with anticipation of the plagues that would be visited upon the Pharaoh when Moses importuned the Pharaoh for his freedom. The early struggles of Abraham to survive in Egypt thus make Abraham a kind of prototypical Mosaic figure, underlining the fact that God was always intervening on Israel's behalf in Egypt, since virtually time immemorial.

However, in Genesis 20, when Abraham again deploys the same ruse once again in exile, not in Egypt, but in the less significant kingdom of Gerar, Abraham does not even initially detail his reasoning, his fear of outsiders, or his certainty that God will protect Sarah's chastity. He only does so later in dialogue with the king of the land. At the beginning of the story, he is merely depicted as saying to Abimelech king of Gerar that Sarah is his sister, and Sarah is taken as the king's wife. The incident thus lacks the Mosaic parallels with Egypt and the search for a homeland, as it is not immediately framed with the promise of a homeland either, merely of wandering, unlike Genesis 10. Gerar does not have the significance of Egypt in terms of the rest of the Pentateuch narrative.

Also, instead of a God that makes knowing pronouncements about the future of Abraham's people, the God of Genesis 20 is more of an active, involved participant, interested in engaging with the moment-to-moment action of what transpires, rather than focusing on what will happen in the future, and Abraham's realization of the Promised Land. For example, instead of merely noting that plagues were visited upon the offending foreign monarch who took Sarah as his wife, the God of Genesis 20 is shown to be in direct dialogue with the earth throughout the incident regarding small details: "But God came to Abimelech in a dream by night, and said to him, Behold, thou art but a dead man, for the woman which thou hast taken; for she is a man's wife (Genesis 20:3).

For the king, who has been told (and has no reason not to suspect otherwise) that Sarah is Abraham's sister, this intervention is like a mystery, an uncomfortable mystery, as he does not know who that husband might be at first. The story takes on a kind of drama lacking in the more straightforward Genesis 12. Also, the storyteller is more interested in dealing with the character and details of the narrative that might concern someone reading for plot. For example, in Genesis 20 exactly how the royal authority who wishes to marry Sarah is deduced through trial and error, like it might be in a novel, unlike Genesis 12, where Pharaoh suddenly intuits the situation, and observes Abraham's power.

The author of Genesis 12 is more concerned with the meaning of the event, and its parallels with the Mosaic narrative and covenant, rather than telling a good tale, unlike the guiding authorial hand of Genesis 20. In Genesis 20, moreover, God can be argued with and moved. For example, quite justifiably, Abimelech protests: "Said he not unto me, She is my sister? And she, even she herself said, He is my… [END OF PREVIEW]

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