Endangering Sarai in Egypt

Exegetical Approaches

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The commentators' evaluations of Avram's actions in Egypt vary widely.   The vast majority, no doubt hesitant to view Avram's earliest recorded actions negatively, attempt to justify his behavior. Most of these assume that Avram had not meant to endanger Sarai at all. Radak, thus, asserts that Avram acted unintentionally; he was simply unaware of the danger that his wife's beauty would bring to them in Egypt.  R. Nissim, in contrast, portrays a very aware and calculating Avram, who had devised a ruse to avoid the potential danger, though it proved to be unsuccessful.

A third group of commentators maintain that Avram knowingly endangered Sarai's honor, but this was justified due to his desire to save his own life.  According to this position, preservation of human life trumps all other considerations.  Finally, Ramban and Cassuto each fault Avram for his actions in this story, criticizing his lack of faith in Hashem.  Ramban deplores both Avram's decision to leave Israel and the endangering of Sarai, while Cassuto criticizes his deceiving of Paroh and the Egyptians.

Endangered Unwittingly

Avram never intended to place his wife in danger and had not thought that she would be taken to Paroh's palace.  This position subdivides regarding what Avram was thinking in acting as he did:

Unaware of Danger

Avram simply did not recognize that going down to Egypt would endanger Sarai until it was too late.

Descent to Egypt – Most of these commentators assert that Avram only left the land promised to him by Hashem because the severe conditions brought about by the famine left him no choice.3  As such, his actions are not problematic. Both Radak and Abarbanel further stress that Avram only planned to leave temporarily and was thus not rejecting Hashem's chosen land.
"הִנֵּה נָא יָדַעְתִּי...‏" – Most of these commentators define the word "נָא" in this verse as  "now".4 Avram had either truly never noticed Sarai's beauty beforehand,5 or only first appreciated its ramifications now, when contrasting Sarai with the Egyptians.6 It was thus, only upon entry into Egypt, that Avram recognized that there was potential danger.7  Radak and Abarbanel maintain that had he known sooner, Avram would never have gone down.
"וְהָרְגוּ אֹתִי וְאֹתָךְ יְחַיּוּ" – According to Radak, Akeidat Yitzchak, and Abarbanel, in these words, Avram is pointing to the dangers that faced both him and Sarai – for him, death, and for her, an equally terrible fate, to be left alive so as to be raped.
"וְחָיְתָה נַפְשִׁי" – Is his life more important? Radak explains that Avram thought that Sarai would be in worse danger if he were dead rather than alive.  Although the Egyptians might take her either way, Avram's presence would shame them into minimizing their base actions, whereas his death would leave Sarai at the mercy of their whims.8
Why a sister specifically? Radak might maintain that Avram thought he could best watch over Sarai if others believed that they were related (but not married).  This way they could live together, and their kinship would help ensure that the Egyptians acted with at least a modicum of conscience.9
Lying and leading Egypt to sin – Most of these commentators would likely maintain that lying is not problematic if it will help save a life, and that telling the truth would not have stopped the Egyptians from sinning anyway.10 Akeidat Yitzchak suggests that even Paroh agreed that the ruse was valid in light of the Egyptians' reputation, and that he complained only that Avram had not disclosed the truth to him on an individual level.
"לְמַעַן יִיטַב לִי בַעֲבוּרֵךְ" – Asking for riches? Radak, Akeidat Yitzchak, and Abarbanel explain that this clause is parallel to and defined by the immediately following one, "וְחָיְתָה נַפְשִׁי בִּגְלָלֵךְ".‎11  It is inconceivable that Avram would desire to get rich off the shame of his wife.12  Moreover, he had no need of riches, being independently wealthy.  The only reason he even accepted Paroh's gifts was his fear of displeasing him.13
Why punish Paroh? Radak and Akeidat Yitzchak suggest that the plague should be viewed as a deterrent that prevented Paroh from touching Sarai, rather than a punishment for doing wrong.14
Why does Avram repeat his actions in Gerar? The repeated actions in Gerar are difficult for this position as it would be hard to say that there too Avram was taken by surprise.15

Hoped to Avert Danger

Avram's actions were part of a calculated plan which was meant to protect Sarai and prevent her from being forcibly taken by the Egyptians.

The Plan
  • Prolong marital negotiations ­­– Most of these commentators assert that Avram meant to act as Sarai's guardian who could negotiate her nuptials,16 and planned to ask for such a high dowry that no one would be able to meet it.  During the prolonged discussions, Avram would be able to get provisions enabling him to return to Israel before any harm was brought to Sarai.17
  • Pass Sarai off as married ­­– Chizkuni, instead, suggests that Avram told the Egyptians that Sarai was indeed married but that her husband was overseas. Unable to kill her spouse, and fearful of committing adultery, they would thus leave Sarai alone.18
  • Hide Sarai ­­– According to Bereshit Rabbah, Tanchuma, and Rashi, Avram was hoping to hide Sarai during their stay.19
Descent to Egypt

All of these sources justify Avram's decision, but for different reasons:

  • Test from Hashem ­­–  Rashi, Ran, and Malbim count the famine as one of Avram's ten trials,20 asserting that Hashem was testing whether Avram would complain when forced out of the land.  As such, they assume that Hashem intended Avram to leave and viewed his acceptance of the situation as a show of faith, rather than a lack thereof.21
  • No reliance on miracles ­­– R. Hirsch and Malbim maintain that one is not supposed to rely on miracles,22 but must make whatever efforts one can to deal with a problematic situation.23
  • Caring for others ­­– The Ran suggests that had Avram only needed to care for himself and Sarai, he would likely not have descended to Egypt, but since he felt responsible for many others and desired to continue his hospitable ways, he chose to go down.
  • Plan to save Sarai ­­– Ran points out, though, that even the necessity to escape death from famine can neither explain nor justify a decision to endanger Sarai's honor, leading him to conclude that Avram descended with a ruse which he thought would prevent any problems.
"הִנֵּה נָא יָדַעְתִּי...‏" – These commentators split, with some24 suggesting that "נָא" means "now",25 and others viewing the term as a figure of speech or a sign of emphasis.26  If the latter, Avram is simply saying, "behold, I know you are beautiful..." as a preface to the discussion of this fact's ramifications.
"וְהָרְגוּ אֹתִי וְאֹתָךְ יְחַיּוּ" – Ran and R. Hirsch assert that Avram is equating the potential fates of both himself and his wife; Avram will die, and Sarai be left alive to have her honor harmed. When he requests that Sarai pose as his sister, his purpose is to save them both.
"לְמַעַן יִיטַב לִי בַעֲבוּרֵךְ" – Asking for riches? Most of these commentators could say, like Seforno, that Avram is referring to the dowry that he plans to ask of the Egyptians who seek to marry Sarai.27 Malbim defends this reading by pointing out that the word "בַעֲבוּרֵךְ" means "on your behalf", rather than "because of you" ("בִּגְלָלֵךְ‎").28
"וְחָיְתָה נַפְשִׁי" – Is his life more important? Avram was not planning on saving himself at Sarai's expense, but rather trying to save both.
Why a sister specifically? For most of these commentators, Avram chose to pass himself off as Sarai's brother since only such a relative could negotiate her dowry and push off potential suitors.
Lying and leading Egypt to sin – This position would likely suggest that in cases of potential loss of life, lying is permissible.  In addition, according to most of these commentators, since Avram's goal was to deflect potential suitors, there is no issue of leading others into sin.
Why punish Paroh? According to Chizkuni, Paroh believed that Sarai was married and nonetheless took her. The fact that he did not know that Avram specifically was her spouse is irrelevant.
Why does Avram repeat the actions in Gerar? Since Avram's plan was actually a logical one which could have worked in most situations, it made sense to try again.29

Knowingly Endangered

Avram knowingly looked to save himself rather than Sarai despite the potential danger to her honor. This was justified since preserving human life is more important than preventing forced sexual activity in a case where relations are not a Torah offense.

"וְחָיְתָה נַפְשִׁי" – Is Avram's life more important? Although these commentators agree that Avram was placing his life before the honor of his wife, they differ in the justifications they offer for this:
  • Preservation of life most important – Pirkoi b. Baboi asserts that all other transgressions can be violated in order to save a life.30  Even potential danger to life overrides a potential prohibition of relations,31 in a case where the prohibited act is being coerced.32
  • Divorce removed prohibition of sexual relations – R. Saadia Gaon, instead, posits that Avram had divorced Sarai in anticipation of the Egyptian desires, thus ensuring that neither she nor the Egyptians transgressed any prohibition.  R. Saadia's Avram is mainly concerned with preventing others from sinning, rather than looking out for the emotional welfare of his wife.
Descent to Egypt – Ralbag lauds Avram's decision to escape the almost certain death due to famine, rather than stay in Israel and trust that Hashem would save him.33  Since commandments were given to live by, temporarily leaving the land to save one's self is seen, not as a transgression, but rather as an act to be emulated.34
"הִנֵּה נָא יָדַעְתִּי...‏" – Ralbag does not read any significance into the word "נָא", and he assumes that Avram had always recognized Sarai's beauty.  Avram is simply remarking upon it now in the context of the danger that this fact brings to his life.35
"וְהָרְגוּ אֹתִי וְאֹתָךְ יְחַיּוּ" – According to Ralbag, the two parts of the phrase are a contrast to each other.  Avram is telling his Sarai that the Egyptians will kill him,  leaving only her alive, and thus emphasizing that the danger is only to him rather than to Sarai.
Why a sister specifically? According to R. Saadia, Avram referred to Sarai as his sister specifically due to the ambiguity in the word's meaning.  Since it has a secondary definition of relative, Avram did not actively lie.36  According to the others, there was no special need for Avram and Sarai to claim a sibling relationship, but the ruse would easily enable them to continue living together
Lying and leading Egypt to sin
  • Lying permissible – Ralbag would likely say that lying is permissible in face of danger to one's life, even if it causes a stumbling block for another. 
  • No deception – In contrast, R. Saadia Gaon claims that not only did Avram not lie,37 his actions were actually intended to keep the Egyptians from sin:
    • Ambiguous meaning – Avram chose to refer to Sarai as his "sister", a word which has a dual meaning, and can refer not only to one's sister but also to one's relative.  In cases of danger to life, such ambiguity (despite the modicum of inherent deception) is allowed.  Moreover, Avram hoped that in presenting Sarai in this manner he would save the Egyptians from punishment, for if they did take Sarai, at least they would only be sinning inadvertently, rather than intentionally.
    • Divorce – R. Saadia also raises the possibility that Avram did not deceive the Egyptians at all. Avram had have given Sarai a divorce,38 and thus they were in truth not married, and Sarai was legally available for the taking.
"לְמַעַן יִיטַב לִי בַעֲבוּרֵךְ" – Asking for riches? Ralbag seems to suggest that Avram is alluding to presents or honor that would be given to him by the Egyptians who desired Sarai.  He does not address the issue of the insensitivity of such an action.
Why punish Paroh? According to R. Saadia, Paroh was not punished.  The words "וַיְנַגַּע ה' אֶת פַּרְעֹה" mean only that Hashem warned Paroh that He will plague him, but not that He actually did so.39
Why does Avram repeat the actions in Gerar? According to Pirkoi b. Baboi and Ralbag, since preservation of life trumps all, it is not surprising that Avram acted similarly any time he found himself in a life-threatening situation.

Avram Sinned

Avram's actions in descending to Egypt and endangering Sarai were problematic, and Avram was punished for them.

Descent to Egypt – Ramban views Avram's decision to leave Israel as an expression of lack of faith in Hashem.41  He claims that Avram was, in fact, punished severely for his actions, and the decree of slavery in Egypt was a direct outcome of this story.42  As evidence, he points to the many parallels43 between the two episodes,44 suggesting that the enslavement was a measure for measure punishment for Avram's deeds.
"וְחָיְתָה נַפְשִׁי" – Is Avram's life more important? Ramban and Cassuto fault Avram for trying to save himself at the expense of endangering Sarai, claiming that Avram should instead have trusted in Hashem to save them both.45
"הִנֵּה נָא יָדַעְתִּי...‏" – Ramban  maintains that the word "נָא" describes any fact which is a continuous truth,46 pointing to its usage in Bereshit 16:2 and 19:8.  The phrase does not connote that Avram first came to recognize Sarai's beauty upon entry into Egypt, but rather that he had known it all along.
"וְהָרְגוּ אֹתִי וְאֹתָךְ יְחַיּוּ" – Cassuto suggests that, in these words, Avram is alluding to two evils, that he will be killed, and worse, that Sarai will be left alive, without his protection, to be raped.
Why a sister specifically? Cassuto maintains, like the Ran above, that Avram was hoping to pass as Sarai's guardian so as to negotiate her nuptials and thus deflect potential suitors.  In contrast to the Ran, though, he views this ruse as problematic, asserting that Avram should not have trusted in his own cleverness (which in the end failed him), but in Hashem.
Lying and leading Egypt to sin – Cassuto views this as Avram's main sin. He should have had faith in Hashem's salvation rather than resort to trickery and his own ability to outwit the Egyptians.  Cassuto asserts that, in the end, Avram's plan totally backfired. His fear that the Egyptians might take Sarai never materialized, and what he had not planned for, that Paroh might be interested in his wife, did occur.  In the end, it was Avram's lie itself that endangered Sarai.  Passing himself off as Sarai's brother is what enabled Paroh to take his wife.47
"לְמַעַן יִיטַב לִי בַעֲבוּרֵךְ" – Asking for riches? Ramban minimizes the possible negative connotations of Avram's words by explaining that the good refers to  the provision of sustenance during the famine, not riches. In addition, in paraphrasing Avram's thoughts, Ramban puts them into plural language, thereby having Avram include Sarai as a beneficiary of this "good".48 Cassuto alternatively suggests that the good that Avram speaks of refers to the saving of his life.49
Why punish Paroh? According to both Ramban and Cassuto, Paroh took Sarai without first asking about her marital status, and as such was responsible for his actions.50
Why does Avram repeat the actions in Gerar? Due to this point, Ran rejects Ramban's criticism of Avram, asking how is it possible that Avram, after being punished, would have repeated his sin only a few chapters later. Ramban, in his Derashat Torat Hashem Temimah,51 anticipates this objection and suggests that Avram never knew for what he was being punished in the Covenant of the Pieces, and as a result he repeated his error.