Bible as Literature: Abram’s Emigration and A Comedy of Errors (Genesis 12)

“I will bless those who bless you and curse him that curses you; And all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you.” – Genesis 12:3

The Lord tells Abram to leave his native land to emigrate to Canaan (modern day Israel and Palestine, for the most part). There he promises to bless his descendants and make them into a great nation.   Abram takes his wife, Sarai, and his nephew, Lot, with him on his journey. He builds a couple of altars to God at different spots. Then he detours to Egypt because of a famine. He tells his wife, Sarai, to pretend she is his sister because Sarai is so beautiful and he fears the Egyptians will kill him if they know she is his wife. The Pharaoh learns about her, sends for her, and gives Abram sheep, oxen, assess, male and female slaves, she-asses, and camels as presumably a price to have Sarai for his bride. Then God punishes pharaoh and his household with plagues because Sarai is a married woman. Pharaoh sends for Abram where the truth is revealed that Sarai is his wife, not his sister, prompting the pharaoh to express his frustration that Abram didn’t tell him the truth in the first place and spare him the trouble. Abram leaves Egypt with Sarai and all the new possessions Pharaoh gave him as a price for the bride.

Many scholars view the origins of this story not in the earliest history of Canaan, but a later date when the Israelites lived in exile from the land under the Babylonians and early Persian Empire. Often discussion about the Pentateuch focuses on the writers of the text (the Documentary Hypothesis), but in such discussion it is easy to forget about the primary audience of the text. Abram (later to be renamed Abraham) would have served as a model for those exiles, supporting the hope that one day they will return to their home land, and fostering a sense of hope that there will be a future for Israel. Imagine the effect of such narrative on a despondent, defeated nation living in exile. The opening lines where God tells Abram that He will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you add to the sense of hope that the defeated will soon be on top again. Even lines such as, “And the Canaanites were then in the land” suggest this later dating, implying the Canaanites were no longer in the land by the time the story was written.

The second half of the story in which Abram heads down to Egypt to wait out the famine has the elements of a trickster tale. He tells Sarai to lie and tell the Egyptians she is his sister. The events of the story suggest Abram’s caution is warranted. Pharaoh’s servants inform him about the beautiful Sarai and he does attempt to take her for his wife. Now if she wasn’t available because of an inconvenient fact like she is already married it is likely he would have had Abram killed in order to widow her and make her available for marriage. Since he is supposed to be her brother it is easier to just pay him a price to acquire the new bride. However, God sends a plague on Pharaoh and his household. After learning the truth, Pharaoh no longer wants Sarai or anything to do with Abram; he just wants them to get out of there as fast as possible. Abram gets to keep the animals (new found wealth) and his wife, leaving Pharaoh with nothing thanks to his lie/trick, which is what makes it a trickster tale.

The bible is often depicted as this serious solemn book with little humor, but this episode with Pharaoh is meant to be comical. There is a sense of challenging authority figures and poking fun at pharaoh who unwittingly marries this woman. This episode has a few laughs at the silliness of kings and rulers who far from being great leaders making good decisions are shown to be corrupt individuals driven by their unabashed greed and desires. It has a lot of tropes that we find in later comedies, such as those written by the Ancient Greeks and Shakespeare, with mistaken identity and withholding of crucial information leading to mishaps. In the story, Abram also seems to be testing his new relationship with God to see if He will actually protect him and his interests when trouble arises. This is important to note because a major theme of the Abraham cycle of tales and Genesis in general will be testing the boundaries of that relationship between man and God.

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