My Wife, My Sister

Three times in Genesis, wives are "passed off" as sisters.

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Literary Approach

An alternative approach builds upon the literary analysis of Robert Alter (The Art of Biblical Narrative); these three repeated episodes should be understood as “type scenes.” For an example of what constitutes a type scene, Alter uses the three scenes where people meet their wives at the well.  Because the scenes appear so repetitive, one could say the biblical author is resorting to a formulaic motif to show couples getting married, but in fact far from formulaic, the biblical author is showing a nuanced literary sensibility.

Alter claims that the way to interpret these scenes is to determine how the scenes differ from each other; this may give some insight about the biblical character. When Moses meets Zipporah, he gets into a fight with the other shepherds, the only scene where there is a fight.  Alter points out that this is emblematic of Moses’ character; he is quick to anger, having killed the Egyptian taskmaster.  When Isaac’s servant meets Rebekah, Alter notes that Rebekah is the only woman in the scenes to deliver water to the man, emblematic of her role as the woman who manipulates the situation regarding her sons Jacob and Esau.

Utilizing this same literary technique in viewing the wife-as-sister scenes offers some intriguing insights. The scene where Isaac passes Rebekah off is perhaps the most difficult of the scenes because it directly interrupts the flow of the biblical narrative. It occurs in the middle of the stories about Jacob and Esau and seems to be completely out of place.  The narrative seems to move back in time, because there is no mention of Jacob and Esau and yet we have just had the scene where Esau sells his birthright.

Differences in the Three Scenes

Looking at all three scenes, as Alter suggests, we see that the dramatic difference between the Isaac-Rebekah scene and the other two scenes is that God does not intervene at all.  It is the only scene where the king discovers the real nature of the relationship by seeing Isaac and Rebekah being intimate with each other [the biblical text uses the euphemism of “playing” with each other]. Why does this scene in particular not have God in the scene? Each of these scenes is about deception. 

In the other two scenes God reveals the deception.  In the Isaac scene, God is not present because the text is a foretelling of what is about to happen in Isaac’s life.  He is about to be deceived by his son Jacob dressing up as his son Esau.  God will similarly not be present in his life to tell him the real identities of his sons.     

In the second scene with Abraham, Genesis 20, the significant differences are God's  appearance in a dream to tell Abimelech the true situation, and Abimelech's gifts to Abraham as he depart from Gerar.  This scene appears just before the akedah, the aborted command to sacrifice Isaac, which is another scene of deception. God intervenes here through Abimelekh, just as God will, in short order, intervene through an angel and a ram. Abraham’s reward in the wife-sister scene is rather odd, because he certainly did not do anything worthy of reward.

To the contrary, one might assume that he should have been held accountable for his deception. Similarly we find in the akedah that Abraham is rewarded for deceiving Isaac; he receives no chastisement as much as the reader would like to know how he could not have told his son the truth.  But we are reminded here that a divinely ordained deception will work out with divine rewards.

Working back to the first wife-as-sister scene (Genesis 12), the outstanding difference is its setting; this scene takes place in Egypt while the other scenes take place in Gerar. Abraham in fact goes down to Egypt when he has just been told that the land of Canaan was going to be his inheritance.  God intervenes to show Abraham that his rightful place is back in Canaan.  Nahmanides saw that Abraham's deception was tied to the future punishment of having Abraham's descendants become slaves in Egypt. Abraham's deception of Pharoah in his generation foreshadows many future deceptions in Egypt, like Joseph deceiving his brothers; there will, of course, be future plagues in Egypt as Pharoah is plagued here, and Israel will leave with property in hand.  Egypt is a dangerous place, but, as Abraham's first experience shows and foreshadows, God will redeem his people from Egypt.

The power of Alter’s technique is to show the coherence and artistry of the biblical text.  On first blush the scenes seem obscure, but in viewing them from a literary perspective, we know that the biblical author repeatedly comes back to the theme of deception--Joseph deceiving his brothers, Joseph’s brothers deceiving Jacob, Jacob deceiving Isaac, etc. The wife-sister acts of deception fit into this general motif and each scene uniquely foreshadows the future deceptions which befall the biblical characters.

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Rabbi Dan Judson

Rabbi Dan Judson is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth David in Canton, MA. He is the co-author of two books, The Rituals and Practices of a Jewish Life:  A Handbook for Personal Spiritual Renewal (Jewish Lights Press, 2002) and Meeting at the Well:  A Jewish Spiritual Guide to Being Engaged (UAHC Press, 2002).