Trading Your Wife for Your Life?
Bereshit 12 describes the first trials Avram and Sarai face after arriving in Canaan. When heavy famine forces them to leave Israel, they travel to Egypt. On the way, Avram realizes that Sarai's beauty is a threat to his life, as the Egyptians will have no qualms about killing him in order to marry her. He, thus, requests that she pass herself off as his sister so that he will be saved.
(י) וַיְהִי רָעָב בָּאָרֶץ וַיֵּרֶד אַבְרָם מִצְרַיְמָה לָגוּר שָׁם כִּי כָבֵד הָרָעָב בָּאָרֶץ. (יא) וַיְהִי כַּאֲשֶׁר הִקְרִיב לָבוֹא מִצְרָיְמָה וַיֹּאמֶר אֶל שָׂרַי אִשְׁתּוֹ הִנֵּה נָא יָדַעְתִּי כִּי אִשָּׁה יְפַת מַרְאֶה אָתְּ. (יב) וְהָיָה כִּי יִרְאוּ אֹתָךְ הַמִּצְרִים וְאָמְרוּ אִשְׁתּוֹ זֹאת וְהָרְגוּ אֹתִי וְאֹתָךְ יְחַיּוּ. (יג) אִמְרִי נָא אֲחֹתִי אָתְּ לְמַעַן יִיטַב לִי בַעֲבוּרֵךְ וְחָיְתָה נַפְשִׁי בִּגְלָלֵךְ.
(10) There was a famine in the land. Abram went down into Egypt to live as a foreigner there, for the famine was severe in the land. (11) It happened, when he had come near to enter Egypt, that he said to Sarai his wife, “See now, I know that you are a beautiful woman to look at. (12) It will happen, when the Egyptians will see you, that they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ They will kill me, but they will save you alive. (13) Please say that you are my sister, that it may be well with me for your sake, and that my soul may live because of you.”
Almost every line of the story raises questions regarding the propriety of Avram's conduct:
- "וַיֵּרֶד אַבְרָם מִצְרַיְמָה" – Should Avram have left the land so recently promised to him by Hashem, or should he have trusted in God and stayed put?
- "וְחָיְתָה נַפְשִׁי בִּגְלָלֵךְ" – Was it proper to go to Egypt if doing so would endanger Sarai? How could Avram try to save his own life by suggesting that Sarai present herself as available, given the possibility that she would be taken by the Egyptians?
- "לְמַעַן יִיטַב לִי בַעֲבוּרֵךְ" – These words are almost identical to those used when Paroh enriches Avram, "וּלְאַבְרָם הֵיטִיב בַּעֲבוּרָהּ" (v.16). Did Avram actually suggest that Sarai endanger her honor so that he could benefit from material gifts?
- "אִמְרִי נָא אֲחֹתִי אָתְּ" – Is lying allowed in such circumstances? Did it not put an obstacle in front of the Egyptians, leading them to sin? Additionally, if Paroh acted innocently, and truly believed that Sarai was unmarried, why was he punished by Hashem?
Did Avram Have a Plan?
Two other aspects of the story make one wonder what Avram was thinking. En route to Egypt, Avram tells Sarai "Behold, now I know that you are beautiful", perhaps suggesting that he had never before realized this. Is it possible that Avram was really oblivious to this fact until now, and that, had he known earlier, he never would have taken this course of action?
Furthermore, why did Avram specifically request that Sarai pretend that she is his sister? Was this simply the easiest way of disguising Avram's status as husband while still explaining why they were traveling together? Or, was there some other advantage to being viewed specifically as siblings? Was Avram looking to save only himself, or was this part of a ruse whereby he hoped to save Sarai as well?
Another troubling aspect of the story is the fact that an almost identical incident occurs in Bereshit 20, when Avram moves to Gerar. There, too, Sarai passes herself off as Avram's sister just to be taken by the king. Given the near disastrous results the first time around, how could Avram repeat the same error? Did he not learn from his mistakes, or did he have reason to believe that his actions would produce better results the second time around?