Last week, Abram and Sarai set out for a new land. They travelled with Abrams’s father and his nephew Lot. They settled in Haran. They stayed there for a while before God told them to move on again. They travelled around heading in the direction of the Negeb.
And here our story picks up again in Genesis 12:10-20. There was a famine in the area so Abram and Sarai head to Egypt. As they get closer to Egypt Abram decides that Sarai should pretend to be his sister. I suspect that Sarai didn’t have much say in the matter. She is taken by Pharaoh and Abram gets rich. Sarai as a person doesn’t seem to be particularly important to Abram. She was no good for childbearing but her beauty could be used to acquire wealth. Sarai was only important for what she could get for Abram.
Many commentaries about this passage focus on Abram’s lack of faith in God and God’s promise but I’m more interested in Sarai’s place in this story. Vered Tohar examines how this story has changed through time and offers commentary on the Midrash passed down through centuries. One version of the story, Midrash Genesis Rabbah, says that Abram put Sarai in a box before trying to cross the border into Egypt. He was willing to pay customs on the goods (clothing, silk, jewels) that were in the box. The customs official insisted on opening the box and discovered Sarai hiding inside. See Vered Tohar’s full article here.
There are several ways to look at this. Maybe Abram was engaged in a little human trafficking. She wasn’t any good to him since she was barren so at least if he could sell her he would get some money out of it. Perhaps he intended Sarai as a gift to the pharaoh. As I read this account I had the image of Sarai being gift wrapped.
We are not told what Sarai thought about all this. Did she go along with Abram’s plan willingly? Was she afraid for her life? Did she see being at the palace as a way out of her life with Abram? I wonder what Sarah’s relationship with God was like. Abram had already received a promise from God that he would be a great nation. Did Sarai see herself included in that promise? Perhaps since she was barren she felt like she had no connection to that promise. What did Sarai think about God as she was passed back and forth? Did Sarai trust this God or did she pray to the gods of her family instead? Did she have anything to believe in?
For many centuries, women have been the property of men and were passed around as the men in their lives saw fit. It is easy to believe that this type of behaviour is in the past but what happened to Sarai still happens. There are still places in our own time where this happens. Sometimes, the women involved see it as normal—they don’t know any different. Sometimes it is a way to survive. I’m thinking of young women being groomed for prostitution. It might start out as what feels like a real relationship and then the women find themselves being shared. By the time they realize that the relationship isn’t real, it is too late and they are trapped.
International Labor Organization and Walk Free Foundation found that there were almost 25 million people trapped in slavery in 2017. Of these, 4.8 million were sexually exploited. Sexual exploitation earned $99 billion in 2017. There’s big money involved in sex trafficking and that hasn’t changed. Abram saw an opportunity to profit by giving away his barren wife. He wouldn’t have to feed her anymore and she wouldn’t be a burden to him. She was still beautiful (apparently) so she could be a gift. In exchange, Abram would receive sheep, oxen, donkeys, slaves and camels. He became a very rich man out of this exchange.
Somehow, Pharaoh became aware that Sarai was Abram’s wife. We are told he had great plagues. Maybe Sarai passed on an STD to him which she, in turn, had received from Abram. It could have been something the Egyptians hadn’t encountered before. Pharaoh sends them away with all the wealth he had given Abram.
And Sarai is back with Abram whether she likes it or not. She is left with no options but to go where the men tell her. Sarai continues to be barren and she has the added stigma of being with someone other than her husband—even if it was Pharaoh. I wonder how Abram treats her now. Sarai is a strong woman who, like many other women–past and present–live through violence and trafficking. She is a woman who can give courage to others. Sarai survived and went on to become a central character in our faith story.
As with many biblical women, we need to hear their story and reflect on how the story might sound from their perspective. This story continues to focus on the men—Abram and Lot and their interactions with the people around them. I’ll be following Abram and Lot’s adventures for the next few weeks as the lectionaries skip over a few more stories. I’ll come back to Sarai in a few weeks with the birth of Ismael.