Sarah In Egypt Royal Rights Over Women Genesis 12:10-20

Genesis 12:10-20

Abraham had not been long in Canaan before a severe famine in that land constrained him to withdraw into Egypt. The scarcity, as usual in that country, was doubtless occasioned by a season of drought; and the exemption of Egypt, then and in after ages, from a visitation, which afflicted all the neighboring countries, must be ascribed to the fact that its productiveness depends, not upon rains, but upon the periodical overflowing of its river. It was doubtless owing to the same physical advantages that Egypt had already become the place of a wealthy, if not of a great nation, and the seat of an organized kingly government and of a luxurious court. The intimation of these facts, which we owe to the mention of Abraham’s visit to that country, is abundantly confirmed by its own authentic monuments. 

But now a new and strange matter comes to light. Abraham, who had dwelt without fear in the thinly-peopled land of Canaan, whose unappropriated lands were still open to nomad pastors, and which seems to have been subject to a number of petty princes or chiefs, not singly more powerful than himself, became alarmed for his safety in going down to Egypt; and the cause of his fear enables us to see that woman had already fallen to that low place—valuable only as the property of man—which she has ever since occupied among the settled nations of the East.

Abraham knew that his wife was very beautiful, and his judgment in that respect is confirmed by the dangers into which more than once she was brought by her comeliness. Some persons have ventured to make themselves merry with the idea of Sarah’s dangerous beauty at the mature age of sixty-five, and again, much later, when she was ninety years old. Such sneerers forget Ninon de l’Enclos—they forget also Madame de Valentinis, of whom Brantome declares that at the age of seventy her countenance was as beautiful, as fresh, and as engaging as if she had been but thirty years old. But it is not necessary to suppose that Sarah was the De l’Enclos or De Valentinis of her age. The life of man was still twice its present length, and according to that, a woman at sixty, or even ninety, years old, was still in the prime of life. We are also to remember that Sarah was childless, and had therefore been exempt from that wearing down, which the bearing and nutrition of children produce. Nor is it to be forgotten that she came from a region where the women have fresh and clear complexions, which was likely to be a rare endowment and singular attraction in the eyes of the dusky inhabitants of Egypt, who, if their own monuments do not belie them, were a copper-colored and not remarkably handsome race.

The apprehension of Abraham was no less than that he should be put to death by some of the great ones in Egypt, who might desire to obtain possession of his wife. This apprehension appears to indicate, that he knew there was such  a respect for the conjugal tie, as would prevent the hand of power from taking his wife by violence from him; and it was more to be feared that they would dissolve that tie, by making her a widow. This is illustrated by the existing practice of the East, where, although the sovereign may take possession of the sisters or daughters of a subject at his pleasure, and without being regarded as having committed an unseemly act of power—to take a man’s wife from him against his will, would be such an outrage, as even the oriental habit of submission to sovereign power, would not long endure.

In this emergency the faith of Abraham failed him, and he resorted to an unworthy expedient, which the emergency may palliate, but cannot justify. He desired his wife to declare that she was his sister. Now it is true that she was the daughter of his half-brother Haran; a relationship which might, according to the eastern usage, be properly so described, even as Abraham himself elsewhere calls his nephew Lot his “brother.” But the declaration was intended to be taken as a denial that she was his wife, and it was so taken; and it cannot therefore be regarded otherwise than as an equivocation, unbecoming the high character of the patriarch. The Jewish writers themselves, who are naturally very anxious to defend the character of their great ancestor, do not generally rest their defence on this ground. They allege that he went down into Egypt without authority of God; and that, thinking he had no special claim to the Divine protection out of the land of Canaan, in which he had been commanded to sojourn, he was, from the influence of this doubt, led to expedients of human policy and prudence. From this, if true, an important lesson might be drawn; but it is merely a conjecture, founded upon the absence of any intimation that Abraham received express permission to take this important step.

Abraham had not misapprehended the character of the Egyptian court. The arrival of such a large camp as that of himself and Lot, could not but excite attention. “The  princes of Pharaoh” saw Sarah, and “commended her before Pharaoh; and the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house.” “Of how large a picture,” says a recent writer, “may these be faint outlines!” The princes of Egypt are struck by the beauty of Sarah; but they are courtiers—they know no passion but that of gain—they feel no desire but that of standing well with their king—and to his presence they hurry. They tell him of the fair stranger; they speak of her with the warmth of lovers; their words burn, though their hearts be cold; they are poets in her praise, and the devoted slaves of their sovereign. And what is their object? What their motive? They seek to supplant some favorite sultana, or to supply her loss; to give to a Maintenon the place of a Montespau, or to find a Barry for a Pampadour, and thus to work their way to court honors, court favors, and court pensions. In these princes of Pharaoh we may see the prototypes of the titled valets of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Louis; and in this short verse the character of the court memoirs of the seventeenth century.

This which had happened was clearly beyond the calculations of Abraham. He had feared that some powerful and lawless noble might be attracted by the beauty of Sarah, and endeavor to get rid of him if it were known that she was his wife; but that, by passing for his sister, any such person would make proposals to him for her; and he probably reckoned that he might temporize with the suitor, on questions of dower and other matters, until the famine ceased. But if he could have foreseen that the king himself would have sought her, he would have known it to be safer that she should appear as his wife than as his sister. The king, in his high public capacity, would hardly have dared to outrage public opinion, by rending a wife from the bosom of her husband. But a sister he might, as public opinion went, take without offence, without the consciousness of wrong-doing, and without parties having any right to complain. We see this more clearly still, in the later but quite parallel case of Abimelech king of Gerar, who, although he must certainly have taken  Sarah away, under the same apprehension, without seeking the consent of either party, is acknowledged to have done this “in the integrity of his heart, and the innocency of his hands.” Awful it is to think, that such grievous infraction, of personal liberty, and encroachments upon the dignity and delicacy of women, should, even in this early age, have come to be regarded as a public right. It is probable, however, that Pharaoh felt he had stretched his power rather strongly, in dealing thus with a great pastoral chief, who was no subject of his, and had only come to sojourn for a short time in his land. And this consciousness may account for his princely munificence to Abraham, whom he treated well for his sister’s sake, and bestowed upon him a large abundance of property suited to his condition—sheep, oxen, asses, camels, and slaves.

But although Abraham, by his resort to human policies, had made too light of God’s protection—that God had not forgotten his servant, nor left him to the consequences of his own acts. The house of the Egyptian king was smitten with a disease which made him see that he was under a Divine judgment. His inquiries, probably, led Sarah to disclose that she was Abraham’s wife; and on learning this fact, he forthwith sent to him, and the words which he uttered must have been felt by the patriarch as a strong rebuke: “What is this that thou hast done unto me? Why didst thou not tell me that she is thy wife? Why saidst thou ‘she is my sister,’ so that I took her unto me to be my wife: but now, here is thy wife, take her and go.” And in fact he was hurried out of the country, with all belonging to him: the king being apparently fearful that it should transpire among his own people that he had, even unwittingly, taken away a man’s wife from him.