Sarah: blinded by her outward appearance we miss the person within

Deception and beauty, the bible is fascinated by the interaction of the two.

When Avram, having left Canaan because of the famine, arrived in Egypt he feared that the beauty of his wife Sarai would mean that the Egyptians would kill him in order to take her for themselves, and so he asks her to lie, to say that she is his sister “that it will be well with me for your sake, and so my soul may live because of you”. And certainly his fear is grounded, because the Egyptians see Sarai’s exceptional beauty,“ki yafah hi me’od”. The princes of Pharaoh see her, sing her praises to him, and she is taken into Pharaoh’s house. Pharoah gives a great deal of wealth to Abram as dowry, but God intervenes, plagues Pharaoh and his house on account of Sarai, until Pharaoh understands that he has taken Avram’s wife and arranges for her to go back to him, and for Avram and Sarai to go on their way with their accumulated gains.

This is the first of three wife-sister deception narratives in Genesis, the others being with Sarah and Abimelech and with Rebecca and Abimelech.  The repeated retelling seems to imply that these are not historical reportage, but a motif to give us a deeper understanding of our patriarchs and matriarchs.

Any number of questions emerge from even a cursory reading of this text. We already know that Avram married Sarai (Gen 11:29) yet surprisingly her ancestry is not given, while that of Milcah, who married Nahor Abram’s brother is given her full background. Immediately we are told that Sarai is barren, she had no child – an enormous economic disbenefit for any wife in that society and that she went with her father in Law Terach, with her husband and with Lot the son of Abram’s dead brother, from Ur Kasdim towards Canaan, leaving behind Nahor and Milcah. (Gen 11:29-31)

Sarai’s great beauty is only told to us in the following chapter – which seem surprising if it were really so extraordinary. Her passivity – travelling with the family including the heir apparent Lot – leaving Ur Kasdim to go to Canaan but settling in Haran in the interim – seems to be the expected role of women, yet clearly the family did well, making great wealth, and the plural form is used – “all the wealth THEY had gathered, and the souls THEY had made” from which the midrash develops the idea of Avram and Sarai as the great models of inclusivity and openness, who between them had converted both men and women to the one God of Judaism.

So maybe Sarai was not so passive, but was a valued working partner in the relationship. And yet, as soon as they come near to Egypt she is prevailed upon not only to lie about her relationship to Avram, but essentially to become adulterous in order both to protect his life and increase his wealth.  She does not speak, she does not seem to object, and while one can see what is in the deal for Avram it is not so clear what is in it for her – except maybe that as a widow captured after her husband’s death she may be even more unprotected and powerless than as the sister of a living and wealthy man.

She doesn’t even seem to speak to Pharaoh, who, plagued by God, realises all by himself that the cause of his troubles is that he has taken the wife of another man into his household. Clearly at the beginning if she has bought Avram’s reasoning that this will save his life it is important that she keep the secret, but what about later when it is obvious that something is deeply wrong?  She is returned, as passive as ever, into the safekeeping of Avram her husband, and they are sent on their way, greatly enriched by the whole adventure.

Yet this story, with its overtones of sexual trafficking for gain cannot be left here – there is the repeated retelling with some alterations with a different king Abimelech, and then later with her daughter in law Rebecca and Abimelech. And there is the persistent motif of great beauty and deception.

Others are described in bible in almost the same words as having extraordinary beauty, the most prominent being Sarah’s daughter in law Rebecca, described as being tovat mar’eh me’od (24:16 and 26:7), Rebecca’s daughter in law Rachel about whom we hear “V’einei Leah rakot; v’Rachel hay’ta y’fat to’ar, vi’fat mareh” – The eyes of Leah were soft/ weak,  and Rachel was beautiful of form and beautiful in appearance. (Gen 29:17, and her older son Joseph who is “y’fei to’ar vi’fei mar’eh” (Gen 39:6)

Three matriarchs and the favoured son Joseph all described in bible in terms of their exceptional beauty. And all of them recorded in bible as deceiving in ways that change the narrative profoundly. Sarah and Rebecca are the objects of the their husband’s deception in the wife-sister narratives, but Rebecca goes on to deceive her blind husband in order to gain the major blessing for her favourite son Jacob, when he intends and expects to give it to Esau.

Rachel deceives her father and husband about having taken the household gods when they left Haran, an act that will bring about her early death. And her elder son Joseph, also described as beautiful, deceives his brothers who come to buy food, putting them through a horrible ordeal as they contemplated their father’s devastated reactions.

It is strange that on the whole we don’t know much about the physical appearance of the main characters in the narrative. What does Avram look like? We are not told. Likewise Isaac and Jacob, though we are aware of the physicality of Ishmael and Esau who are earthy,  athletic and skilful hunters.

It seems that only ‘outsiders’ and women are worthy of comment about their appearance. And then, as now, such comment serves to objectify, to limit in some way, to categorise. We no longer see the person, nor do we see their abilities or potential, we see the colour, the gender, the beauty (or lack of) and we make a judgement.

Later on in the narrative we will be able to see Sarah a little better – we will see her as the strong and independently minded woman trying to give her husband his much desired heir, however problematic that intervention is. We will see her as the woman who is visited by God, who laughs on hearing God’s voice telling her and her husband that she too will bear a child, and who speaks directly to God’s challenge to her, albeit to dissemble rather than be upfront with her views. We will see her as the mother determined to protect her child even if it means asking her husband to disown his older child – and ensuring that he does. We will see that her name is changed by God along with that of her husband. We will see that she lives away from her husband after the Akedah until her death when he has to travel to organise her funeral.

Sarah is the matriarch to match Abraham’s role – the promise of the heir who would receive God’s blessing is clearly as much to her as to him – it is Isaac son of Sarah who will inherit the blessing and take on the chain of tradition. She saves Abraham’s life at least twice, she helps him to increase his wealth, she directs the family life.

What is her beauty? The deception of Sarah’s beauty seems to be not so much what she does, but that it hides the strong and independent character within, the personal connection with God that she develops, the innovative and formative life that she lives. Her antecedents are shrouded in mystery, unlike Abraham’s, but their descendants are as much hers as his.

Proverbs tells us “charm deceives and beauty fades” when describing the perfect woman (Eshet Chayil) (31:30) and we should read the narrative of lech lecha with this in mind – if we only see the outward passivity and the blinding beauty that Abraham fears Pharaoh will see, then we miss what is important about Sarah.

Yet plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose. Those who only see the outward appearance and the gender will layer on their own perceptions, their own beliefs about what they see, and will miss the gold that lies within.

Toledot: lessons on the control of resources and why we should resist the power


Within the powerful narrative of sibling rivalry and family betrayal of parashat Toledot there runs another, equally powerful and important theme – the control of resources of food and water and how the manipulation of this control distorts everything around it.

Two stories of deception and duplicity frame this sidra, both pivot on the manipulation of food and drink. In Genesis 25:27-34 we have the story of Esau coming in hungry from his venison hunting, and selling his birthright blessing to Jacob for the red lentil stew that Jacob has cooked and whose savoury smell tempted Esau whose appetite was so sharp he felt he would die if he did not eat it. In Genesis 27 we have the story of the blind and ailing Isaac asking Esau to go and hunt him a last meal of venison, after which he would give him the blessing of the firstborn before he died. The same motifs and words come up again and again: blessing; death; venison; In one story food is withheld until the blessing sworn over, in the other the blessing is withheld until the food is eaten. The stories play with each, resonate and mirror each other, but each of them uses food and the control of resource to put one party at a disadvantage to the other.

In the middle of these two stories of blessing and feasting, of manipulation and betrayal comes quite a different narrative. In Chapter 26 we have a story that begins with famine, specifically a new famine that is not the one faced by Abraham and Sarah, and Isaac and Rebecca go to the Philistine Abimelech king of Gerar to find food. God tells Isaac not to leave for Egypt as his parents had done in the previous famine, but to stay on the land and the blessing first given to Abraham would be his. Isaac stays in Gerar, but in a parallel to the story of his parents he tells everyone that Rebecca is his sister rather than his wife, as he clearly fears for his life should the truth be known. Abimelech notices the relationship between Isaac and Rebecca and chastises Isaac – someone could easily have taken Rebecca for a wife and the community would have been punished, and Abimelech places his protection on the couple. The result was that Isaac sowed the land and immediately reaped “me’ah she’arim” a hundredfold return on his work, and God blessed him and all his work. He became richer and richer, with huge flocks and herds, a great household, and this drew the envy of the surrounding Philistines.

I must confess that I find this extraordinary – why should he reap so much for his work? Surely enough would have been enough, and it would surely have been inevitable that such astonishing wealth would attract the unwelcome interest of those who had less than he, but let us pass on for now…

There follows a rather sad narrative of Isaac and the herdsmen of Gerar fighting for the wells that had belonged to Abraham and should therefore now belong to his son. Bible rather laconically tells us that “All the wells which his father’s servants had dug in the days of Abraham his father, the Philistines had stopped them, and filled them with earth”. It is not clear if this was an earlier event to prevent others taking the water after Abraham had left, or if this was a reprisal motivated by jealousy of Isaac’s wealth, or even if this was an attempt to erase any historical roots that Isaac would have had to the area. The wells don’t seem to have been taken over, strange in a world where water is so precious, but filled in – at least until re-dug by Isaac’s men when the fight over the water between the herdsmen became serious. Finally Isaac moved far enough away – first to Rehovot (meaning wide or spacious) and then to Beersheba (meaning 7 wells) – and an uneasy truce prevailed, cemented by Abimelech making a treaty with him having seen that God was with him – a curious treaty hedged with diplomatic ambiguity, asking that Isaac not hurt the people of Gerar, “as we have not touched you and as we have done you nothing but good, and have sent you away in peace…..” (v29)

In this curious narrative, resonant of the earlier stories of Abraham and Sarah, showing Isaac as both a hungry frightened migrant and as a wealthy possessor of animals and land, and finally as a synthesis of these – wealthy but insecure on the land and moved on further and further into the desert, we have the crux of the story. Control of necessary resources is everything. It doesn’t matter how much you possess if you don’t possess the basics of food, water and space to live on. You can be manipulated and dealt out of your rights by the person or group who has control over these, and who can take everything else of value from you. For all that Isaac reaped a hundredfold from his first planting, his wealth meant nothing as long as he was not secure for his immediate needs. Ultimately we are all in thrall to our basic needs. Bible already recognises what Abraham Maslow later put into his theory of the hierarchy of needs – that to live our lives fully we must first meet certain criteria: his first two sets are “Biological and Physiological needs – air, food, drink, shelter, warmth, sex, sleep.” And when these are met, then “Safety needs – protection from elements, security, order, law, stability, freedom from fear.” Only then are we in a place where we can grow well.

Why does bible frame the narrative of the Philistine King Abimelech and Isaac between the two stories of family manipulation and betrayal which both use food and immediate desire/need to control events?

One can only guess at the mind of the editor of the text. But in my mind I see that controlling others through controlling the access to resources they need is a human behaviour done to both those we are in close relationship with and those with whom we do not have such relationship. It is an atavistic strategy hard-wired into us, presumably for survival, but it is not a laudable strategy, and it seems to me that the structure of the biblical narrative is trying to remind us of this. The alienation of Jacob and Esau is painfully intensified through this behaviour. The pain between Isaac and Rebecca, and each of the participants in the deceptions reverberates through the text, as does the frustration and impotence of Isaac trying to claim his father’s wells and being chased off his land with violent encounters. There is nothing good to come out of this story except by negative example. We who control resources may wish to use them to control the behaviour of others, but we should think hard and long about giving in to this strategy. For history teaches that empires come and empires go, that there is a turning and a spinning of the world, and that what is in our grasp now may not be in our grasp in the future. How would we want those who control the resources to behave to us? As the famous first century rabbi Hillel framed the golden rule ‘That which is hateful to you do not do to your neighbour. This is the whole of the Torah, The rest is commentary. Go forth and study.’ (BT. Shabbat 31a)


both cartoons by the wonderful Jacky Fleming

Parashat Behar:different kinds of deception and the obligation to avoid them

In sidra Behar we find the source texts for the prohibitions against two different kinds of deception – ona’at mammon and ona’at devarim. The verb ona’ah literally means “to overreach”, and describes the act of wronging another by selling an article for more than its real worth, or conversely, by purchasing an article for less than its real worth.

              The proscription is based on the verse in this sidra (25:14) “when you sell anything to your neighbour, or buy anything from your neighbour, you shall not deceive one another”. Talmud (Baba Metzia 49b) specifies what level of price variation is valid and what is not. For the merchants among us, it is deemed permissible to make a fair profit (seen as charging less than one sixth above the accepted price), but it is not permissible to overcharge and deceive a customer.
              The ban on verbal deception arises from a statement three verses later where we read (25:17) “Do not deceive one another but fear your God, for I the Eternal am your God”. Since the previous verse explicitly mentions monetary deception, the rabbis decided that this verse must refer to another kind of fraud – that of verbal dishonesty. The Mishnah (Baba Metzia 4:10) tells us “Just as there is deception in buying and selling, so too there is deception in words”
              The example that is given is the raising of the expectations of the merchant that he has a sale when the person posing as a buyer has no intention of such a transaction, something I suspect we may all have been guilty of doing, when we look at an item on the High Street but then go on to buy it on the internet at a discounted rate. But of course verbal dishonesty is a great deal more than the behaviour of people around a transaction and I find it curious that the Talmudic tradition stayed so close to the mercantile metaphors.

               Verbal dishonesty is so ingrained a habit in our behaviours that we can often barely notice it, from the telling of “little white lies” through to being “economical with the actualite” in an effort to stave off embarrassment or worse. We have all learned to speak “diplomatically” or “tactically” or “strategically”. We can hide behind many a circumlocution in order not to say what should really be honestly and transparently available to the people with whom we “do business”.

I am not suggesting we all suddenly become aficionados of what is sometimes called “blunt speaking” – that is another way in which we can bludgeon the other into not taking on board the whole meaning. I am however suggesting that we look seriously at how we communicate with each other, at what we choose to communicate and to whom. To hear second or third hand about a matter that is important to you; to be the subject of gossip or speculation – even to be forced into issuing public denials; to be told that “people are saying about you…” rather than “I think…”; these are all forms of verbal dishonesty that do more than to raise expectations unfairly qua the Mishnah – they are forms of dishonesty that start to destroy the soul of the people deceived and of the people deceiving.

We are in the Omer period, a time of reflection and sombre thoughtfulness before Shavuot when we will celebrate the giving of Torah. Sidra Behar actually refers back in time to the words that Moses was given by God on Mount Sinai – in particular the Asseret haDibrot, the Ten Matters or Words sometimes called the Ten Commandments. Now would be a good time to examine ourselves and our behaviour in the light of the prohibition against ona’at Devarim – the use of words to deceive each other.