Tuesday, August 31, 2010

More on Marriage in Genesis

Marriage didn’t end in the garden…the story continues.

What is the marriage of Abram and Sarai like? In Chapter 11, she does sustain him: she enables them both to prosper and him to stay alive. They are con artists of a sort, deceiving Pharaoh, who ejects them from Egypt. The “she’s my sister” routine brings up a question: what is the difference between a wife and a sister? Male royalty in some cultures (including the Egyptian!) married their sisters. A sister is familiar from birth—if she is a full sister, she is in a sense “one flesh,” made of the same biological stuff. (We will find out in Chapter 20, very late in the game, that Sarah is in fact Abraham’s half-sister.) A wife or husband, by contrast, is an alien being. She (he) has her (his) own interests and desires. Marriage is a partnership of a kind that cannot take place between a brother and a sister.

Is the marriage of Abram and Sarai similar to a pharaonic marriage; does Abram have a harem (as was true of Egypt’s pharaoh)? The answer is no, as it turns out. Sarai has an idea in Chapter 16: that Hagar the slavegirl become a surrogate mother, since Sarai is barren. (Significantly, Hagar is an Egyptian, part of the wealth that Abram has won in Egypt; the couple’s use of her suggests the way things are done in Egypt.)

In 16:5, Hagar is triumphant. After she has conceived with Abram, her mistress Sarai seems “slight in her eyes.” Sarai’s statement in 16:5 is rich, vexed, even self-contradictory: she acknowledges that the surrogate motherhood was her own idea, but she blames Abram. We have here a very human portrait of Sarai: we are deeply sympathetic to her; we too might be unfair in a similar situation, and blame Abram. What comes next, however, is more troubling. Abram gives control of the situation to Sarai—do to Hagar whatever you think fit, he says—and Sarai proceeds to harass Hagar, causing her to flee. How are we meant to view Sarai’s persecution of Hagar?

—David Mikics

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