The Sacrifice of Sarah
The Sacrifice of Sarah
A Fateful Journey
The history of Palestine has been to a remarkable degree a story of “boom
and bust,” from prehistoric times down to the present; and that happy
and unhappy land has never had a greater boom or a more spectacular bust than
occurred in the days of Abraham. Hebron was a brand new city, bustling with
activity, when Abraham and his family settled there.1 Just to the east were the even more thriving cities of the
valley, to which Lot migrated to improve his fortune. Preliminary rumblings
and prophetic warnings of things to come went unheeded by a populace enjoying
unprecedented prosperity (today this is called “nuclear incredulity”),
but nonetheless, the area was hit hard by a famine that forced Abraham to
move out of Hebron after he had lived there only two years. Everybody was
moving to Egypt and settling in the area nearest to Canaan and most closely
resembling the geography and economy of the Jordan depression, namely, “the
land of Egypt, as thou comest to Zoan,” in the eastern Delta, where there
had always been camps and villages of Canaanites sojourning in the land. Abraham
settled in Zoan, the local capital, a city of Asiatic immigrants that was
even newer, by seven years, than Hebron—practically a tent city. There
the family lived for five years before they attracted the dangerous interest
The story of how Sarah ended up in the royal palace is now available in the
recently discovered Genesis Apocryphon, and the account is a thoroughly plausible one. Pharaoh’s regular title
in this document, “Pharaoh Zoan, King of Egypt,” shows him to be
one of those many Asiatics who ruled in the Delta from time to time while
claiming, and sometimes holding, the legitimate crown of all Egypt. The short
journey from Canaan into his Egyptian domain is described in significant terms:
“now we crossed (the border of) our land and entered the land of the
sons of Ham, the land of Egypt,” as if the family was definitely moving
from one spiritual and cultural domain to another.3
This is interesting because the Book of Abraham lays peculiar emphasis on
the Hamitic blood of this particular pharaoh as well as his anxious concern
to establish his authority—always a touchy point with the Delta pharaohs,
whose right to rule was often challenged by the priests and the people of
Upper Egypt. In his new home, Abraham, an international figure in the caravan
business, entertained local officials both as a matter of policy and from
his own celebrated love of hospitality and of people.
One day he was entertaining three men, courtiers of Pharaoh Zoan, at dinner.4 Abraham would host such special delegations
again, in Canaan: there would be the three heavenly visitors whom he would
feast “in the plains of Mamre” (Genesis 18:1—8), and the “three
Amorite brothers” whom he would have as guests.5 The
names of these last three were Mamre, Armen, and Eshkol. Mamre and Eshkol
are well-known place names, and if we look for Armen, it is a place
name, too, for in the Ugaritic ritual-epic tale of Aqhat, it is the “man
of Hrnmy” who hosts “the Lords of Hkpt [Ht-ka-ptah = Egypt, i.e.,
Memphis]” who come from afar.6 If this seems to put Abraham’s party
in a ritual setting, its historicity is vindicated by the name of the leader
of the palace delegation, who is called ḤRQNWŠ.
B. Z. Wacholder explains this as “an early transliteration of archōnēs,” designating
its bearer as “the archon, the head of the household,” and obviously
indicating Hellenistic influence.7 But
is neither a name nor a title, and the “early transliteration” leaves
much to be desired. On the other hand, we find in Pharaonic times, in the
employ of Sshmt.t, the divine
lady of the eastern Delta, the very district where our little drama is taking
place, a busy official and agent bearing the title of Hr-hknw, “the Lord
of Protection,” whose business was to police the area and keep an eye
on foreigners, with whom he was Pharaoh’s contact man; he is, in fact, according
to Hermann Kees, none other than our old friend Nefertem,8 the immemorial frontier guard of the northeastern boundary,
the official host, border inspector, and watchdog (or rather watch lion) of
the foreigners coming to Egypt—especially from Canaan. Nothing could
be more natural than to have this conscientious border official checking up
on Abraham from time to time and enjoying his hospitality. And since it was
his duty to report to Pharaoh whatever he considered of interest or significance
on his beat, it is not surprising that a report of ḤRQNWŠ and his aides to the king contained a glowing account
of Abraham’s dazzling wife. Her beauty had already caused a sensation at the
custom house, according to a famous legend.9 If nothing else, her blondness would have attracted attention
among the dark Egyptians: the Midrash reports, in fact, that Abraham had warned
her against this very thing: “We are now about to enter a country whose
inhabitants are dark-complexioned—say that you are my sister wherever
we go!”10 This admonition was given as the family
passed from Abraham’s homeland in northern Mesopotamia (Aram Naharaim and
Aram Nahor) into Canaan—clearly indicating that the people of Abraham’s
own country were light-complexioned.11
In reporting to Pharaoh, his three agents, while singing the praises of Sarah’s
beauty in the set terms of the most sensuous Oriental love poetry,12 make a special point of mentioning
that “with all her beauty there is much wisdom in her,”13 lauding
her “kindness, wisdom, and truth” even above her other qualities.14 They went all out in
their description not only because the subject was worthy of their best efforts,
but because they hoped to put themselves in good stead with the king by both
whetting and satisfying his desire.15 The royal reaction was immediate. Asiatic pharaohs were polygamous
and aggressive: “Sarah was taken from me by force”;16 without further ado the king “took
her to him to wife and sought to slay me.”17 Josephus says that
this pharaoh deserved the punishment he got because of his high-handed manner
towards the wife of a stranger.18 But as we all know, Abraham was saved
when Pharaoh was assured by Sarah herself that he was her brother and would
thus not stand in the way of their marriage; instead of being liquidated,
he was, therefore, as the brother of the favorite wife, “entreated . . .
well for her sake” (Genesis 12:16).
Sarah on the Lion Couch
Abraham was saved and Pharaoh was pleased and everything was all right except
for poor Sarah. It was now her turn to face the test of the lion couch! As
we have seen, not only the royal altar but also the royal bed was a lion couch.
And this was to be more than a test of Sarah’s virtue, for should she refuse,
the king would be mortally offended—with predictable results for the
lady. His unhesitating move to put Abraham out of the way had made it clear
enough that His Majesty was playing for keeps. After all, three princesses
of the royal line had already been put to death on the lion altar for refusing
to compromise their virtue (Abraham 1:11), and there was no indication that
Sarah would be an exception.
The story of Sarah’s delivery from her plight follows the same order as the
stories of Abraham and Isaac. First of all, being brought to the royal bed
“by force,” she weeps and calls upon the Lord to save her, at which
time Abraham also “prayed and entreated and begged . . . as
my tears fell.”19 As he had prayed for
himself, so the patriarch “prayed the Lord to save her from the hands
And though experience may have rendered him perfectly confident in the results, it was the less-experienced Sarah
who was being tested. The prayer for deliverance closely matches that on the
first lion couch: “Blessed art thou, Most High God, Lord of all the worlds,
because Thou art Lord and master of all and ruler of all the kings of the
earth, and of whom thou judgest. Behold now I cry before Thee, my Lord, against
Pharaoh Zoan, king of Egypt, because my wife has been taken from me by force.
Judge him for me and let me behold Thy mighty hand descend upon him.”21 Even so Abraham had
prayed for deliverance from the altar of “Nimrod”: “O God,
Thou seest what this wicked man is doing to me,” with the whole emphasis
on the king’s blasphemous claims to possess the ultimate power in the world:
in both cases Abraham is helpless against the authority and might of Pharaoh,
but still he will recognize only one king, and he calls for a showdown: “that
night I prayed and begged and said in sorrow . . . let thy mighty
hand descend upon him . . . and men shall know, my Lord, that Thou
art the Lord of all the kings of the earth!”22 This is exactly the point of Abraham’s prayer in the Maʿaseh Abraham Abinu23 and
Abraham 1:17, where God says, “I have come down . . . to destroy
him who hath lifted up his hand against thee, Abraham, my son.”
So while all “that night Sarah lay upon her face,” calling upon
God, Abraham “without the prison” also prayed24 “that he may not this night defile
my wife.”25 It was, as one might by now expect,
just at the moment that Pharaoh assayed to seize Sarah that an angel came
to the rescue, whip in hand: “As Pharaoh was about to possess Sarah,
she turned to the angel who stood at her side (visible only to her) and immediately
Pharaoh fell to the ground; all his house was then smitten with plague, with
leprosy on the walls, the pillars, and furniture.”26 Whenever Pharaoh would
make a move toward Sarah, the invisible angel would strike him down.27 To justify such rough treatment of
the poor unsuspecting Pharaoh, the Midrash explains that he was not unsuspecting
at all: “an angel stood with a whip” to defend her, because she
told Pharaoh that she was a married woman, and he still would not leave her
alone.28 According to all other accounts, however, that is exactly what
she did not tell him, having her husband’s safety in mind. The almost comical
humiliation of the mighty king in the very moment of his triumph is an exact
counterpart of the crushing overthrow of “Nimrod” at the instant
of his supreme triumph over Abraham. “His illicit lust was checked,”
says Josephus, “by disease and stasis—revolution,”29 suggesting that his kingly authority
was overthrown along with his royal dignity and prowess.
What saved Sarah, according to the Aramaic Genesis Apocryphon,30 was
the sending by El Elyon, the Most High God, of a rwḥ mkdš or rwḥ bʾyšʾ,
which Avigad and Yadin render “a pestilential wind” and “a
wind that was evil,” respectively. Other scholars however, prefer “spirit”
(of plague) to “wind,”31 and while mkdš is not found in the dictionary, miqdāsh, which sounds exactly the same, is a very common word indicating the
dwelling place of God, so that rwḥ
mkdš suggests to the ear “the
angel of the presence,” such as came to rescue both Abraham and Isaac
on the altar. Rwḥ bʾyšʾ in turn suggests to the ear “the spirit of
fire,” reminding us of a number of accounts of a mysterious being who
stood with Abraham in the flames when he rescued him from the altar. The confusion
of the rescuing angel with the wind is readily explained if our Aramaic text
was written from dictation, as many ancient documents were.
The smiting of all of Pharaoh’s house simultaneously with his own affliction
is insisted on by all sources and recalls the “great mourning in Chaldea,
and also in the court of Pharaoh” in Abraham 1:20. And just as the king
in the Abraham story, when he is faced with the undeniable evidence of a power
greater than his own, admits the superiority of Abraham’s God and even offers
to worship him, so he tells the woman Hagar when Sarah is saved, “It
is better to be a maid in Sarah’s house than to be Queen in my house!”32 The showdown between the two religions
is staged in both stories by the king himself when he pits his own priests
and diviners against the wisdom of the stranger and his God, the test being
which of the two is able to cure him and his house. An early writer quoted
by Eusebius says, “Abraham went to Egypt with all his household and lived
there, his wife being married to the king of Egypt who, however, could not
approach her. . . . And when it came about that his people and his house were
being destroyed he called for the diviners (Greek manteis),
who told him that Sarah was not a widow, and so he knew that she was Abraham’s
wife and gave her back to him.”33 The
first part of the statement is supported by the Genesis Apocryphon, which says that Sarah lived two years in Pharaoh’s
house, during which time he was unable to approach her. During that time she
was in no danger of his wrath, however, since as far as Pharaoh was concerned
it was not her reluctance but only his illness that kept them apart.34
Though Pharaoh’s doctors and soothsayers gave him useful advice, as they do
“Nimrod” in his dealings with Abraham, it is the healing that is
the real test: “And he sent and called of all the wise men of Egypt and
all the wizards and all the physicians of Egypt, if perchance they might heal
him from that pestilence, him and his house. And all the physicians and wizards
and wise men could not heal him, for the wind [spirit, angel] smote them all
and they fled”35—just as the host
of wise men summoned by Nimrod to advise him on how to get rid of Abraham
were forced to flee ignominiously in all directions by the miraculous fire
which left Abraham unscathed. All the wisdom and divinity of Egypt having
failed, Pharaoh’s agent ḤRQNWŠ went straight to Abraham “and besought [him]
to come and to pray for the king and to lay [his] hands upon him that he might
live.”36 To this request Abraham
magnanimously complied after Sarah was returned to him: “I laid my hand
upon his head and the plague departed from him and the evil [wind spirit]
was gone and he was cured [lived].”37 When the healing power of Abraham’s God, in contrast to the weakness
of his own, became apparent, Pharaoh forthwith recognized Abraham by the bestowal
of royal honors—even as “Nimrod” had done when Abraham stepped
before him unscathed.38
That these stories are more than belated inventions of the rabbinic imagination
is apparent from the significant parallels with which Egyptian literature
fairly swarms. A veritable library of familiar motifs is contained in the
late Ptolemaic Tales of Khamuas. They begin with “Ahure’s Story,”
telling how an aging pharaoh, in order to assure the royal succession, wanted
to force the princess Ahure to renounce marriage with her beloved brother
Neneferkaptah and wed the son of a general, contrary to “the law of Egypt”
but consistent with the practice of the Asiatic pharaohs.39 The damsel goes weeping to her wedding,40 but at the last moment the old king changes his mind, the princess
marries her true love, and the couple is showered with royal gifts and honors.41 They have a child, but Neneferkaptah
in his zeal for knowledge steals a heavenly book from Thoth and, as a result,
first the child, then the mother, and finally the father pay for the guilt
of Neneferkaptah by falling into the Nile, all duly ending up “in the
necropolis-hill of Coptos.”42
In these episodes one can hardly fail to recognize the legends of Abraham
in Egypt: the true lovers separated by Pharaoh only to be reunited; father,
mother, and son as sacrificial victims; the king paying for the blight on
the land until a foreign substitute can be found; the humiliation of Pharaoh,
etc. Most significant, perhaps, is that these are consciously recurring motifs,
with the same characters turning up in a succession of episodes centuries
apart. And the fictitious situations are not without historical parallels.
Here we have a well-attested historical account of a pharaoh who married a
fabulously beautiful princess from the north who thought of herself as a missionary,
and to whose religion the king was converted by a miraculous healing, showing
us at the very least the sort of thing that could have happened in Sarah’s time. The healing of Pharaoh
by the laying on of hands described in the Genesis Apocryphon is a thing which appears absolutely nowhere else
in any of the known records dealing with Abraham and should be studied with
great care. Without the evidence of the New Testament, we should never suspect
that there was any ancient and established tradition behind it: “The
healing of the sick by expelling, with the laying on of hands, the evil spirits,”
writes Vermes, “is unknown in the Old Testament but a familiar rite in
the Gospels. . . . The nearest Old Testament parallel is 2 Kings,
That we are dealing here with ritually conditioned events rather than unique
historical occurrences is apparent from the complete repetition of Sarah’s
Egyptian experience with another
king many years later. Abimelech, the king of Gerar, a small state lying between
Canaan and Egypt, also took Sarah to wife and would have put Abraham to death
had she not again announced that he was her brother.44 Again Sarah prayed and again an angel
appeared, this time with a sword, to save her.45 At the same time, according to one
tradition, “the voice of a great crying was heard in the whole land of
the Philistines, for they saw the figure of a man walking about, with a sword
in his hand, slaying all that came in his way.”46 This was “on the
fatal night of the Paschal feast,” i.e., at the time of the drama of
the Suffering Servant, and the king became so ill that the doctors despaired
of his life.47 Just
as Pharaoh had done, the king summoned all his wise counselors and again they
were helpless and abashed (Genesis 20:8); again Abraham’s wife was restored
to him (Genesis 20:14), and again “Abraham prayed unto God: and God healed
Abimelech” (Genesis 20:17).
What is behind all this is indicated in the nature of the illness that afflicted
the houses of both Abimelech and Pharaoh. As to the first, “the Lord
had fast closed up all the wombs of the house of Abimelech, because of Sarah
Abraham’s wife” (Genesis 20:18). The legends elaborate on this: “in
men and beast alike all the apertures of the body closed up, and the land
was seized with indescribable excitement.”48 In short, every creature was rendered sterile until Abraham administered
to Abimelech, whereupon “all his house were healed, and the women could
bear children with no pain, and they could have male children”; at the
same moment, Sarah, barren until then, became fruitful, “the blind, deaf,
lame, etc., were healed, and the sun shone out 48 times brighter than usual,
even as on the first day of creation.”49 To celebrate the birth of Isaac, all the kings of the earth were
invited to Abraham’s house, and during the festivities Sarah gave milk to
all the gentile babies whose mothers had none, and “all proselytes and
pious heathen are the descendants of these infants.”50 As for Pharaoh, the common tradition is that the plague which
smote his house, whether leprosy or some other disease, rendered all the people
impotent and sterile.51
That this was the nature of the complaint is implied in the tradition that
Abraham’s powers of healing the sick by prayer were especially devoted to
the healing of barren women.52 By emerging victorious
from the contests with Pharaoh and Abimelech, both Sarah and Abraham by their
mutual faithfulness reversed the blows of death, so that they became new again
and had children in their old age.53 As the Zohar puts it, Abraham received a new grade of knowledge
and henceforth “begat children [on a] higher plane.”54
Here Sarah appears as the central figure in that ritual complex that marks
the New Year all over the ancient world and has been noticed in these studies
in its form of the Egyptian Sed
festival. The theme of Sarah’s royal marriages is not lust but the desire
of Pharaoh and Abimelech to establish a kingly line. Sarah was at least 61
when she left the house of Pharaoh and 89 when she visited Abimelech. Pharaoh’s
only interest in Sarah, Josephus insists, was to establish a royal line; or,
as Bernhard Beer puts it, “his object was rather to become related to
Abraham by marriage,” i.e., he wanted Abraham’s glory, and that was the
only way he could get it.55 Abimelech’s interest
is completely dominated by the fertility motif, for he contests with Abraham
over “a well of water, which Abimelech’s servants had violently taken
away” (Genesis 21:25), even as Sarah had been violently taken away; and
just as Abimelech surrendered and pleaded his innocence in the case of Sarah
(Genesis 20:9), so he pleads ignorance also in the case of the well and even
chides Abraham again for not enlightening him: “I wot not who hath done
this thing: neither didst thou tell me, neither yet heard I of it, but to
day” (Genesis 21:26). To complete the scene, Abraham concludes the episode
by planting one of his groves in the land of the Philistines (Genesis 21:33).
If Sarah is the bounteous and child-giving mother, Abraham no less presides
over the life-giving waters.
That this is the ritual setting of the Abimelech episode is confirmed by documents
probably as old as Abraham that describe the goings-on among the Canaanites
on the coast to the north of Gerar. These are the famous Ugaritic texts from
Ras Shamra, and the best known of them is the story of Krt. The latest critical
study of the Krt drama maintains that it is both a ritual and a historical
document, “the subject of the first tablet” being “the rehabilitation
of the royal house after disaster, with the wooing of Krt,” while the
second tablet describes the royal wedding and in the third we have “the
illness and threatened eclipse of Krt” (the ritual king), when his “oldest
son Yṣb takes advantage to seek to supplant him.”56 The drama has a definite moral and
social object, according to Gray, “such as the securing of a legitimate
queen and the establishment of the royal line.”57 In the Krt story the
powers of the old king are failing, and he is told by his youthful would-be
successor: “In the sepulchral cave thou wilt abide. . . .
Sickness is as (thy) bedfellow, Disease (thy) concubine.”58 Just so Abimelech is
told that if he takes Sarah to wife, “thou art a dead man!” (Genesis
20:3). After three months of sickness, “Krt is passing away, . . .
[in the] sepulchral chamber, like a treasury with a gate”—it is
so much like the lion-couch scene in the Sed festival that we are not surprised to learn that
Krt is first frantically mourned and then revived by two ladies.59 The cure is effected by the lady Qudshu,
whom we have already learned to know as the common heirodule of Egypt and
Canaan (fig. 47).60 First she arrives weeping at the house
of Krt. “Shrieking, she enters the inmost chambers”; but then she
starts to revive the king, who is not completely dead yet,61 and
finally “she returns, she washes him. She has given him a new appetite
for meat, she opens his desire for food.”62 The king rises from his bier, victorious: “As for Death,
he is confounded; as for ḥʿtqt, she has prevailed!” So of course there is
a great feast as the king “takes his seat on his royal throne, even on
the dais, the seat of his government.”63 It is the lion-couch drama all over again, but the Abimelech elements
are prominent too, as when the king’s wise men and counselors all are summoned
and asked, “Who among the gods will abolish the disease, driving out
all the sickness?” Seven times the challenge is put, but “there
is none among the gods who answers him”—the doctors are abashed.
They must yield to the true god, El the Merciful, who says, “I myself
. . . shall provide that which will abolish the disease”—and he
does.64 Of course, it rains and everything
grows at last (Mot, the name of the adversary, means both death and drought);
Krt on his bier is even called “Sprouts”—a vivid reminder
of the Egyptian “Osiris beds” (fig. 48).65
The Ugaritic Krt Text gives strong indication that the adventures of Sarah
with Egyptian and Palestinian kings follow the common ritual pattern of Palestine
and Egypt; indeed, the point of both stories is that Sarah and Abraham resist
and overcome powerful and insidious attempts to involve them in the very practices
of the idolatrous nations which Abraham had been denouncing since his youth.
It would be impossible to avoid coming face to face with such practices in
any comprehensive account of either Abraham or Sarah, and one of the best
and most vivid descriptions of the rites is contained in the Book of Abraham.
We are dealing here with a worldwide ritual complex of whose existence no
one dreamed in 1912 and which is still largely ignored by Egyptologists.66 It is not only the idea of romantic
love that is one of the special marks of the patriarchal narratives, as Gordon
points out; even more conspicuous is the repeated recurrence of a ritual love
triangle in which a third party threatens to break up a devoted couple. Such
is the story of Hagar, who sought to supplant Sarah in Abraham’s household
and was turned out into the desert to perish of thirst—always the water
motif! Being in imminent danger of death, Hagar prays, “Look upon my
misery”—which happens to be the opening line of Abraham’s prayer
on the altar67—whereupon an angel appears and tells her, “God has
heard your prayer,” promising her a son (Genesis 16:11). So here, to
cut it short, we have Hagar praying for deliverance from a heat death, visited
by an angel, and promised the same blessing in her hour of crisis as was given
to Sarah and Abraham in theirs. There is a difference, of course: by “despising”
and taunting her afflicted mistress and then by deserting her, Hagar had not been true and faithful, and the angel sternly ordered
her back to the path of duty, while the promises given to her offspring are
heavy with qualifications and limitations. The issue is as ever one of authority,
for, as Josephus puts it, Hagar sought precedence over Sarah, and the angel
told her to return to her “rulers” (despotas) or else she would perish, but if she obeyed she
would bear a son who would rule in that desert land.68 She too founded a royal line.
In maintaining that “Abraham’s marriage with Keturah (Genesis 25:1—6)
can have no historical foundation,”69 scholars have overlooked the ritual
foundation of the story, clearly indicated by the name of Keturah, which enjoys
a prominent place in the Adonis ritual cycles of Phoenicia and Syria.70 As Gray points out in his study of
Krt, these ritual events could very well become history as well when the sacrifices
and marriages were repeated at “the accession of each new king”
and “at royal weddings.”71 The ritual content of the thing, far
from discrediting it as history, is the best possible evidence for some sort
of historical reality behind it. The ritual triangle is repeated when Bethuel
the king of Haran tries to take the beautiful Rebekah away from Isaac’s agent,
Eliezer (who, we are told was the exact image of Abraham); the wicked king
was slain by his own treachery and the noble couple departed laden with royal
The Humiliation of the King
In this last story the real hero is Eliezer, while the bridegroom-to-be, Isaac,
lurks ignobly in the background. Abraham likewise in the affairs with Pharaoh
and Abimelech not only takes a back seat but appears in a rather uncomplimentary,
if not actually degrading, position. This is an indispensable element of the
year-drama everywhere: the temporary humiliation of the true king while a
rival and substitute displaces him on the throne and in the queen’s favor.
We have seen both Abraham and Isaac in the roles of substitute kings or “Suffering
Servants,” and now we must make room for Sarah on the stage, for the
play cannot take place without her. The Suffering Servant is the true king
during the period of his ritual humiliation, representing his death; at that
time his place is taken by a pretender, an interrex, tanist, Lord of Misrule,
etc., who turns out to be the real substitute when the time for his death arrives.
Both are substitutes but in different capacities: the one king sits on a real
throne but suffers a make-believe burial; the other sits on a make-believe
throne but suffers a real burial. As we saw in the Sed festival, the main purpose of all this shuffling
is to spare the real king the discomfort of a premature demise: the true king
is always vindicated in the end. If Abraham was rudely thrust aside by his
royal rivals in Egypt and Palestine, and if Sarah was made the unwilling victim
of their kingly arrogance, it was only to show who the real king was—they, as it turned out, were for all their pride and
power the pretenders, claiming the divine honors that really belonged to Abraham.
Abraham is the rival of Pharaoh and Abimelech, both of whom are ready to put
him to death in order to raise up a royal line by Sarah.72 That he is the real king, restored
to his rightful queen in the end, is made perfectly clear in the almost comical
complaints of the two kings that they, who had contemptuously thrust the helpless
Abraham aside, were actually the victims of his power: “And Pharaoh called
Abram, and said, What is this that thou
hast done unto me?” (Genesis 12:18, emphasis added), while Abimelech
echoes his words: “Then Abimelech called Abraham, and said unto him,
What hast thou done unto us? . . . thou has done deeds unto me that
ought not to be done” (Genesis 20:9). The roles of victim and victor
are almost ludicrously reversed. And just as Pharaoh-Nimrod complained that
Abraham had escaped the altar by a trick, so does Pharaoh-Zoan complain that
Sarah has escaped his couch by a ruse: “why didst thou not tell me that
she was thy wife? . . . Now therefore behold thy wife, take
her, and go thy way” (Genesis 12:18—19).
The Sarah story starts out with Abraham and Sarah alike at the mercy of the
triumphant and irresistible king, and it ends up with the king humiliated
by pain and impotence, humbly suing Abraham for succor and then acknowledging
that superior power and priesthood of his rival. There is no injustice here:
Abraham does not invade their kingdoms or seek their thrones, but the other
way around—they coveted his rightful domain and were properly rebuked.
While the humiliation of the rightful king before his return to the throne
is a central episode of the great year-rites throughout the ancient east,73 the queen plays quite a different
role: she is ageless and immortal, the Mother Earth itself, taking a new spouse
at each cycle of renewal and disposing of the old one.74 This makes her the dominant figure
of the rites, which have a distinctly matriarchal background—as is clearly
indicated in the Book of Abraham, where, moreover, the tension between the
old matriarchal and rival patriarchal orders is vividly set forth: While Abraham
is completely devoted to the authority of “the fathers, . . .
even the right of the first-born” (Abraham 1:3), Pharaoh was put on the
throne by his mother (Abraham 1:23—25), so that though he “would
fain claim” patriarchal authority (Abraham 1:27), “seeking earnestly
to imitate that order established by the fathers” (Abraham 1:26), the
importance of the female line still outweighed that of the fathers, as it
always did in Egypt. The conflict between Pharaoh’s would-be patriarchal role
and the claims of the matriarchy is further reflected in the putting to death
of three princesses of royal blood who refused to play the game Pharaoh’s
way and compromise their virtue (Abraham 1:11—12). Abraham opposes the
royal claims that his father ardently supported, in secure possession of “the
records of thy fathers, even the patriarchs, concerning the right of Priesthood,”
which records “God preserved in mine own hands” (Abraham 1:31).
And in return Terah volunteered his own son as a victim in the sacrificial
rites (Abraham 1:30). This should be enough to explain how Sarah and Abraham
get involved in all these very pagan goings-on.
Recently Cyrus Gordon has demonstrated the singularly close parallelism between
the stories of Sarah and Helen of Troy, the main theme of both being the winning
back of the captive queen by her rightful husband: In turn each of the rival
husbands is made to look rather ridiculous as the lady leaves first one and
then the other.75 In the earliest Babylonian
depictions of the year-motif we see the “imprisoned or buried” bridegroom,
whom the bride must rescue and revive,76 even as Isis rescues and revives her
husband and brother Osiris in the Egyptian versions. And so we have Abraham
in an oddly unheroic role, gratefully accepting the presents and favors that
Pharaoh bestows upon him as the brother of Sarah the king’s favorite wife!77
Brother and Sister
Still less heroic is the supposed subterfuge by which Abraham got himself
into that undignified position. The best biblical scholars in Joseph Smith’s
day as well as our own have found nothing to condone in what is generally
considered an unedifying maneuver on the part of Abraham to save his skin
at the expense of both Sarah and Pharaoh. “Abram appears to have laboured
under a temporary suspension of faith,” wrote the most learned commentator
of Joseph Smith’s time, “and to have stooped to the mean and foolish
prevarication of denying his wife. . . . And had not the Lord miraculously
interposed, . . . Abraham must have sunk under his timidity, and forfeited
his title to the covenant.”78 How they all missed
the point! Far from denoting a suspension of faith, the turning over of his
wife to another required the greatest faith yet, and that is where the Book
of Abraham puts the whole story on a meaningful and edifying footing. For
it was God who commanded Abraham: “see that ye do on this wise: Let her
say unto the Egyptians, she is thy sister, and thy soul shall live” (Abraham
2:23—24). As to the “lie” about the family relationship of
Abraham and Sarah, a number of factors must be considered. Technically, the
Bible explains, Sarah was indeed Abraham’s half-sister on his father’s side
(Genesis 20:12). To this physical relationship, the Zohar adds a spiritual,
reporting that “Abraham always called her ‘sister’ because he was attached
to her inseparably. . . . For the marital bond can be dissolved,
but not that between brother and sister”—so by an eternal marriage
that the world did not understand they were brother and sister.79 More to the point, in Syria, Canaan,
and Egypt at the time it was the common custom to refer to one’s wife as one’s
“sister,” and Abraham’s life reflects both the Semitic and the Hurrian
cultural and legal patterns,80 so that “Sarah was . . .
a ‘sister-wife,’ an official Hurrian term signifying the highest social rating.”81 On the other hand, everyone knows that it was custom for pharaohs
of Egypt to marry their sisters, and in the Egyptian love songs the nonroyal
lovers regularly address each other as “my sister” and “my
brother.” The same custom appears in Canaan and even in the Genesis
Apocryphon, the opening fragments
of which show us the mother of Noah berating her husband Lamech for suspecting
her virtue, but addressing him throughout the scene as “my Brother and
my Lord.”82 Indeed, in Abraham’s
day “both in Egypt and Canaan,” according to Albright, “the
notion of incest scarcely existed. In fact, Phoenicia and Egypt shared a general
tendency to use ‘sister’ and ‘wife’ simultaneously.”83
But whatever the reservation mentale
behind the statement that Abraham and Sarah were brother and sister, the point
of the story is that it was meant to convey to the kings that the two were
not married—the sophistry of the thing would only
render it more unsavory did we not have the real explanation in the Pearl
of Great Price.
Sarah on Her Own
By telling Pharaoh and Abimelech that Abraham really was her brother, Sarah
put the two kings in the clear. From then on they, at least, were acting in good faith. The Bible
makes this very clear: the moment Pharaoh learns the truth, he lets Sarah
go, saying to Abraham, “why didst thou not tell me that she was thy wife?
Why saidst thou, She is my sister? so I might have taken her to me to wife”
(Genesis 12:18—19). “I did what I did,” says Abimelech, “with
perfect heart and pure hand,” to which the Lord replies in a dream, “I
knew that, and I forgave thee” (cf. Genesis 20:5—6). So it is made
perfectly explicit that it is not the kings who are being tested—God
honors and rewards them both for their behavior, which is strictly correct
according to the customs of the times.
It must be Abraham and Sarah who are being tested then. But Abraham too is
out of it, for, as we have seen, the Lord commands him to ask Sarah to say he is her brother, and he
obeys. But no one commands Sarah—the whole thing is left up to her as
a matter of free choice. It is she and she alone who is being tested on the
lion couch this time. It is incorrect to say with Graves that “Abraham
gave Sarah to Pharaoh,”84 for
he was in no position to do so: he was completely in Pharaoh’s power—he
had already taken Sarah by force—and Pharaoh was listening only to Sarah!
The rabbis who knew the ancient law say that only unmarried women were taken
into the harem of Pharaoh, and that these could not be approached by the king
without their own consent.85 It might mean death to her if she refused, but still to refuse
was within her power, while Abraham was helpless to save her and Pharaoh was
acting in good faith—throughout the story every crucial decision rests
with Sarah and Sarah alone.
Why do we say that no one commands Sarah? God commanded Abraham to propose
a course of action to Sarah, but Abraham did not command Sarah—he asked
her humbly for a personal favor: “Therefore say unto them, I pray
thee, thou art my sister, that it may be well with me for thy sake, and my soul
shall live because of thee” (Abraham 2:25; Genesis 12:13, emphasis added).
He explained the situation to her—”I, Abraham, told Sarai, my wife,
all that the Lord had said unto me”—but the decision was entirely
up to her. According to the Midrash,
on this occasion Abraham “made himself of secondary importance, . . .
whereupon he really became subordinate to Sarah.”86 Everything was done for her sake:
“the Lord plagued Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of
[Sarah]” (Genesis 12:17).87 Abraham was given both life and property
“for Sarah’s sake,” and the king “entreated Abram well for
her sake” (Genesis 12:16). Sarah was legally and lawfully married to
both kings and was thus the legitimate recipient of their bounty. Pharaoh,
according to Rabbi Eliezer, “wrote for Sarah a marriage document, (giving
her) all his wealth, . . . [including] the land of Goshen.”88 He
“took her to him to wife and sought to slay me,” says Abraham in
the Genesis Apocryphon,89 “and I, Abraham, was saved because
of her and was not slain.”90 From this Vermes concludes that Abraham
was indebted to Sarah for his life but not for his prosperity, having received
riches in return for healing Pharaoh.91 But the verses on which he bases this
view may be more easily interpreted as meaning that it was to Sarah rather
than Abraham that the pharaoh gave the treasures, the badly damaged lines
31. . . . And the King gave him a large . . . the gift
much and much raiment of fine linen and purple [several words missing]
32. . . . before her, and also Hagar [several words obscured]
. . . and appointed men for me who would escort out [several words
Now the Jewish traditions are quite explicit that it was to Sarah that Pharaoh
gave the royal raiment and the maid Hagar. Since Abraham is writing in the
first person, it is not absolutely certain who the “him” is in line
31, but the “her” in the next line is certainly Sarah, and there
is no indication that the gifts and Hagar were not for her. The Bible clearly
states that Abraham came into possession of Hagar only later when Sarah “gave
her to her husband Abram to be his wife” (Genesis 16:3), i.e., Sarah
gave more than permission to marry—she actually handed over her property
to him, for Hagar was her personal maid (Genesis 16:1). And when Hagar behaved
badly, Abraham, to keep peace, gave her back to Sarah again: “Behold,
thy maid is in thine hand; do to her as it pleaseth thee” (Genesis 16:6).
When Sarah sent Isaac forth to school (as she thought) or to the rites on
Mt. Moriah, “she dressed him in the royal garments and crown that Abimelech
had given her.”93 Everything indicates
that she was a princess in her own right—the gifts of her royal husbands
did not so much bestow as recognize her royalty, for which they eagerly sought
her hand in the first place, hoping to raise up kingly lines by her. Before
her name was changed to Sarah, “Princess of all people,” it had
already been Sarai, “Princess of her own people,” according to the
Midrash; and before she ever married Abraham she was well known by the name
of Jiska, “the Seeress,” either because she had the gift of prophecy
or because of her shining beauty, or both.94
The rabbis have resented the superior rating of Sarah with its matriarchal
implications and attempted to cover it up. Granted that everything that Pharaoh
gave to Abraham was for Sarah’s sake, the doctors must conclude that Pharaoh
acted unwisely, and they hold up as a proper example the case of Abimelech,
who, according to them, gave his gifts to Abraham rather than Sarah. Yet these
same authorities report that this same Abimelech gave to Sarah “a costly
robe that covered her whole person, . . . a reproach to Abraham, that he had
not fitted Sarah out with the splendor due his wife”—it would seem
that Sarah has her royal claims after all.95
Actually the idea of rivalry between Abraham and Sarah is as baseless as that
between Abraham and Isaac when we understand the true situation, in which
neither party can fulfill his or her proper function without the other. Having
been commanded of the Lord, Abraham explained his situation to his wife and
asked her whether she would be willing to go along (Abraham 2:25). According
to the Genesis Apocryphon,
he did not like the idea at all—it was a terrible sacrifice for him:
“And I wept, I Abram, with grievous weeping.”96 Would he have wept so for his own life, which he had so often
been willing to risk? Why, then, did he ask Sarah to risk her person to save
him: “say unto them, I pray thee, thou art my sister . . .
and my soul shall live because of thee”? Plainly because nothing else
would move Sarah to take such a step. There was nothing in the world to keep
her from exchanging her hard life with Abraham for a life of unlimited ease
and influence as Pharaoh’s favorite except her loyalty to her husband. By
a special order from heaven Abraham had stepped out of the picture and Pharaoh
had been placed in a legally and ethically flawless position, and Sarah knew
it: “I Abraham, told Sarai, my wife, all that the Lord had said to me.”
Why is the brilliant prospect of being Queen of Egypt never mentioned as an
inducement or even a lightening of Sarah’s burden? Sarah apparently never
thinks of that, for she was as upset as Abraham: “Sarai wept at my words
that night.”97 Still, the proposition was never put
to her as a command, but only as a personal request from Abraham: “Please
say you are my sister for the sake of my well being, so that through your
ministration I shall be saved, and owe my life to you!” (cf. Genesis
12:13); and so with Abimelech: “This will be a special favor which I
am asking of you in my behalf” (cf. Genesis 20:13). Abraham is abiding
by the law of God; the whole question now is, Will Sarah abide by the law
of her husband? And she proved that she would, even if necessary
at the risk of her life. It was as great a sacrifice as Abraham’s and Isaac’s,
and of the same type.
The Cedar and the Palm: A Romantic Interlude
Some famous episodes are associated with the crossing of the border into Egypt,
such as Abraham’s beholding Sarah’s beauty for the first time as they wade
the stream—”In comparison with her, all other beauties were like
apes compared with men.”98 It was under like circumstances
that King Solomon is said to have first beheld the beauty of the Queen of
Abraham concealed his wife’s beauty by trying to smuggle her across the border
in a trunk, on which he was willing to pay any amount of duty provided the
officials would not open it; of course, they could not resist the temptation
and were quite overpowered by this Pandora’s box in reverse.100
But the story of the cedar and the palm has the most interesting parallels
of all: “And I, Abram, dreamed a dream in the night of our going up into
the land of Egypt, and what I beheld in my dream was a cedar tree and a palm-tree
. . . [words missing] and men came and tried to cut down and uproot
the cedar while leaving the palm standing alone. And the palm tree called
out and said, ‘Do not cut the cedar! Cursed and shamed whoever [words missing].’
So the cedar was spared in the shelter of the palm.”101 We have seen that Abraham was often
compared with a cedar, and that the palm could be either Sarah or the hospitable
Pharaoh.102 But when we read in the Genesis Apocryphon that “for the sake of the palm the cedar was saved,”103 we recall the unforgettable image
of the mighty Odysseus, clad only in evergreen branches, facing the lovely
princess Nausicaa, as in an exquisitely diplomatic speech he compares her
with the tall sacred palm standing in the courtyard of the temple at Delos.
In return for the compliment, the princess dresses the hero in royal garments
and conducts him to the palace. Later, when the two meet for the last time,
the damsel makes good-natured fun of the way she had saved the mightiest man
alive, but in return Odysseus solemnly tells her that it was no joke: “For
you really did save my life, lady, and I shall never forget it!”104
Here, then, the palm again saved the cedar. If scholars are now inclined to
compare Sarah with Helen of Troy, it is pleasanter and even more appropriate
to compare her with the chaste and clever Nausicaa, the most delightful of
The humiliation of Odysseus, who appears first supplicating the princess while
covered with dirt and leaves and then trails after her wagon publicly dressed
in women’s clothes, is a moment of matriarchal victory, as is the humiliation
of Abraham. The meeting ground of the two stories is appropriately Egypt,
for in the Tale of the Two Brothers,
in which scholars have discerned the background of a wealth of biblical motifs,
especially those of the patriarchal stories, we meet the same strange combination
of elements: the hero as a cedar tree threatened with destruction, the royal
laundry ladies by the river, the trip to the palace, the humiliation of the
king and his ultimate restoration, and all the rest.105 The felling of the cedar is also
the fall of Adonis in the Attis-Adonis cult, related in turn to the Osiris
mysteries and the cult of Sirius. Already in the pyramid texts Osiris is the
king “who takes men’s wives from them”—why should not Pharaoh
be an Osiris in this as in other dramatic situations?106
When Sarah died “hospitality ceased; but when Rebekah came the gates
were again opened.”107
In all these operations Rebekah, we are assured, “was the counterpart
of Sarah in person and spirit,” the living image of Sarah.108 Sarah is thus the ageless mother
and perennial bride: the whole point of the birth of Isaac is that she becomes
young again—”Is any thing too hard for the Lord?” (Genesis
18:14). Firmicus Maternus informs us that the early Christians saw in the
Egyptian cult of Serapis, the last stage of the Osiris mysteries, the celebration
of the Sarras-pais, “the son of Sarah,” with Sarah as the mother
of the new king.109 Which may not be so farfetched, since
that was exactly Pharaoh’s intention in taking her to wife, according to Josephus.
Here it is in order to note that the legends of Abraham’s birth and childhood
are dominated by the conflict between matriarchy and patriarchy, with Abraham’s
mortal foe and rival, Nimrod, as the archdefender of the matriarchy. To forestall
the birth of Abraham, foretold by the stars, he first attempts to bar all
contact between men and women; then he orders all expectant mothers shut up
in a great castle: when a girl baby is born, she and her mother are sent far
from the castle showered with gifts and crowned like queens, while all boy
babies are immediately put to death.110 And while Abraham’s father supports Nimrod and tries to destroy
the infant, his mother saves him by hiding him in a cave. Her name, Emtelai,
is a reminder that this is the age-old Amalthea motif.
Breaking the Mold
Facsimile 1 and the explanation thereof admonish the student not to be too
surprised to find Father Abraham deeply involved in the abominable rites of
the heathen. This, admittedly, is not a healthy situation, but then the point
of the whole thing is that Abraham is fighting the system, and his is a lifelong
struggle. In the process of meeting the foe on his own ground he finds himself
in one unpleasant situation after another—unpleasant and strangely familiar.
The familiarity of the setting, as we have insisted all along, vouches for
the authenticity of the tradition. The Abraham stories are poured into an
ancient mold—but Abraham cracks the mold. One of the most striking examples
of the shattered mold is the famous romance of Joseph and Asenath, a reediting
of the story of Abraham and Sarah in an authentic Egyptian setting.
Everything in this romantic tale reverses the order of the conventional Near
Eastern romance. True, it begins with the maiden locked up in her tower, the
proud heiress of the matriarchy disdaining all men and rejecting all lovers,
according to the standard fairy-tale formula going back as far as the Egyptian
romances of the Doomed Prince and the Two Brothers. But presently she falls
desperately in love with Joseph, of whose love she feels abjectly unworthy.
Gerhard von Rad insists that the Joseph stories are the purest fiction,
“durch und durch novellistisch,”
and have no place in the patriarchal histories.111 But he overlooks the all-important ritual element that places
Joseph and Asenath in the long line of holy couples: Adam and Eve, Abraham
and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel, Moses and Zippora, Aaron and
Elisheba, etc.112 The undeniable link between the Abraham
and the Joseph romances is the key name of Potiphar; for just as the testing
of Abraham takes place at Potiphar’s Hill, so the triumph of Joseph over the
practices of the heathen and the wicked prince of Egypt takes place at Potiphar’s
castle, Potiphar being none other than the father of Asenath. In the rites
of the sacred marriage (the hieros gamos),
an angel instructed Asenath to change her black garment of death to a pure
white wedding dress, the most ancient, primal wedding garment, whereupon she
kisses the feet of the heavenly visitor (who, incidentally, is in the exact
image of Joseph!), who takes her by the hand and leads her out of the darkness
into the light.113 The two then sit upon her undefiled
bed to partake of bread and wine supplied by the bride while the angel miraculously
produces a honeycomb for a true love feast in the manner of the primitive
If one compares this with the “Setne” romance or the tales of the Two Brothers or the Doomed Prince,
or with the stories of Aqhat or Krt, or numerous Greek myths, one will recognize
at every turn the same elements in the same combination—but what a difference!
The heathen versions are full of violence and bestiality, with one brother
murdering another and the lady deceiving and destroying her lovers: there
is no better example of both the ritual and historical situation than the
account in the eighth chapter of Ether where the throne is transmitted after
the manner of “them of old” by a series of ritual murders supervised
by the queen. In the Sed festival, Moret points out, the king’s wife represented the unfailing
fecundity of the earth, while the pharaoh was one whose failing powers were
arrested by a sacrificial death, effected since the middle of the fourth millennium
B.C., by the use of a substitute.115 This is the sort of
thing in which Abraham and Sarah become unwillingly involved—a desperate
perversion of the true order of things. The first pharaoh, being a good man
who “judged his people wisely and justly all his days,” had tried
hard to do things right, would “fain claim” the right of the priesthood,
and was always “seeking . . . to imitate that order established by the
fathers” (Abraham 1:26—27). But the best he could come up with
was an imitation, being “cursed
. . . as pertaining to the Priesthood.” Abraham, possessed
of the authentic records (Abraham 1:28), knew Pharaoh’s secret—that
his authority was stolen and his glory simulated—and refused to cooperate,
turning to God instead for the knowledge and the permission necessary to restore
the ancient order (Abraham 1:2). For this he was rewarded and received the
desire of his heart, but only after being put to the severest possible tests.
Forced against his will to participate in the false ordinances, he resisted
them at every step, even to the point of death. What breaks the mold is the
sudden, unexpected, and violent intervention of a destroying angel, which
puts an end to sacrificial rites and in their place restores an ordinance
of token sacrifice only, looking forward to the great atonement. Neither Abraham,
Isaac, nor Sarah had to pay the supreme price, though each confidently expected
to, and was accordingly given full credit and forgiveness of sins through
the atoning sacrifice of the Lord. In them the proper order and purpose of
sacrifice was restored after the world had departed as far from the ancient
plan as it was possible to get.
In their three sacrifices the classic rivalry and tension between father and
son, patriarchy and matriarchy are resolved in a perfect equality. On Mt.
Moriah, Isaac showed that he was willing to suffer on the altar as Abraham
had been; in Egypt it was made perfectly clear that Sarah was Abraham’s equal
and that he was as dependent on her for his eternal progress as she was on
him. The two kings knew that without Sarah they could not attain to the glory
of Abraham, but she knew that without Abraham her glory would be nothing,
and she refused all substitutes. “Do this,” says Abraham to his
wife at the beginning of the story, “for the sake of benefitting me,
[and] for your own advantage”—[ lə-maʿan
yîṭab lî ba-ʿabûrek] (cf. Genesis 12:13). According to the Midrash, Abraham and Sarah kept the whole law from ʾalef to taw, “not under compulsion, but with delight.”116 They kept the law
fully and they kept it together. Why is it, asks the archaeologist André Parrot,
that we never read of the God of Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel, but only of the
God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? The answer is given in Abraham 2:22—25,
where Abraham obeys a direct command from God, though he is free to reject
it if he will, while Sarah receives it as the law of her husband, being likewise
under no compulsion. It is indeed the God of Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel to
whom they pray directly, but they covenant with him through their husbands.
“If . . . he guards [the holy imprint],” says the Zohar, speaking
of the ordinances of Abraham, “then the Shekhinah does not depart from
him”—but how can he be sure he has guarded it? “He cannot
be sure of it until he is married. . . . When the man and wife
are joined together and are called by one name, then the celestial favor rests
upon them . . . and is embraced in the male, so that the female
also is firmly established.”117
It was by their usual faithfulness, according to rabbinic teaching, that Abraham
and Sarah reversed the blows of death, so that they became new again and had
children in their old age.118 Just so, when Asenath was anointed with the oil of incorruptibility
and then became the bride of Joseph, she was told, “from this time on
art thou created anew, formed anew, given a new life.”119 When Sarah had passed through the
valley of the shadow in order to save her husband’s life, Abraham received
a new grade of knowledge, after which he “begat children [on a] higher
plane.”120 This is that measure of exaltation promised in Abraham 2:10—11:
“for as many as receive this Gospel shall be called after thy name, and
shall be accounted thy seed. . . . And in thy seed after thee (that is to
say, the literal seed, or the seed of the body) shall all the families of
the earth be blessed, even with the blessings of the Gospel . . .
even of life eternal.” It was this doctrine that led to the discussions
among the Jewish doctors on whether Abraham and Sarah were actually given
the power to create souls.121 “Abraham obtained
the possession of both worlds,” says an ancient formula, “for his
sake this world and the world to come were created.”122 Abraham’s covenant,
as André Caquot observes with wonder, “appears to be outside of time
Or as the Prophet Joseph Smith put it, “Let us seek for the glory of
Abraham, Noah, Adam, the Apostles,” naming Abraham first of all.124
And Abraham earned his glory: “The sacrifice required of Abraham in the
offering up of Isaac, shows that if a man would attain to the keys of the
kingdom of an endless life, he must sacrifice all things.”125 But Isaac was in on it too—the
stories of Isaac and Sarah teach us that salvation is a family affair, in
which, however, each member acts as an individual and makes his own choice,
for each must decide for himself when it is a matter of giving up all things,
including life itself, if necessary. But “when the Lord has thoroughly
proved him, and finds that the man is determined to serve Him at all hazards,”
only then “the visions of the heavens will be opened unto him,”
as they were to Abraham, “and the Lord will teach him face to face, and
he may have a perfect knowledge of the mysteries of the Kingdom of God.”126 If Abraham knew that “God would provide a sacrifice,”
Isaac did not; if he was perfectly sure of his wife, she was not and prayed
desperately for help—husband, wife, and son each had to undergo the
terrible test alone.
But every test is only a sampling: as a few drops of blood are enough for
a blood test, so, as Morgenstern points out, the rite of circumcision demanded
of Abraham expressed the idea that a token shedding of blood “redeems
Circumcision, then, is an arrested sacrifice. When one reaches a critical
point in an act of obedience at which it becomes apparent that one is willing
to go all the way, it is not necessary to go any farther and make the costly
sacrifice. Abraham called the spot where he sacrificed Isaac “Jehovahjireh,”
signifying that God was perfectly aware all the time of what was going on
and knew exactly where Abraham stood: “For now I know that thou fearest
God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son.”128 He knew that Abraham would certainly
carry out the sacrifice, and he let him go as far as possible for the sake
of his instruction, and then he had him complete the ordinance with a token
sacrifice, which was to be repeated by his progeny in the temple.129
Cyril, the last “primitive” Christian bishop of Jerusalem, has left
us a report on how the early Christians thought of this token sacrifice. The first step in becoming a Christian,
he says, is to renounce all the idols (as Abraham did); next, one must escape
the power of Satan, described as a ravening lion; then come baptism, anointing,
and the receiving of a garment;130 the candidate is then buried again
three times in water, to signify Christ’s three days in the tomb. “We
do not really die,” Cyril explains, “nor are we really buried, nor
do we actually rise again after being crucified. It is a token following of
instructions (en eiponi hē mimēsis), though the salvation is real. Christ was really
crucified and buried and literally rose again. And all these things are for
our benefit, and we can share in his sufferings by imitating them while enjoying
the rewards in reality. O how everflowing is God’s love for man! Christ received
the nails in blameless hands and feet, . . . while I may share in the suffering
and reward of salvation without the pain or suffering!”131 He goes on to note that one then
becomes “a Christ,” an adopted, but nonetheless a real, son of God,
“receiving the very form of the Son of God.”132
Cyril describes the priesthood standing in a circle around the altar (“leave
the altar if thy brother hath aught against thee”), the mutual embracing
“which signifies a complete fusion of spirits,” and then “that
thrilling hour when one must enter spiritually into the presence of God.”133 Throughout this ancient and forgotten
discourse the emphasis is on the token or mimetic nature of the ordinances,
along with the quite real and necessary part they play in achieving salvation.
Julius Maternus, describing the same rites, says that they match the Osirian
mysteries very closely, and he accuses the Egyptians of stealing their ordinances
from Israel back in the days of Moses.134
The important thing in the early Christian rites is that every individual
must imitate the suffering and burial of Christ; this
is the great essential of the ordinances, as it is the fundamental principle
of all Jewish sacrifice as well. This we learn from the sacrifices of Abraham,
Isaac, and Sarah; each was interrupted and by the providing of a substitute
became a token sacrifice, acceptable to God because of the demonstrated intention
of each of the three to offer his or her life if necessary. The perfect consistency
of the three sacrifices is a powerful confirmation of the authenticity of
the Book of Abraham.
Jubilees 13:10; Genesis Apocryphon 19:9—10.
Genesis Apocryphon 19:23.
Ibid., 19:24, 27.
Cyrus H. Gordon, The Common Background of Greek and Hebrew Civilization (New York: Norton, 1965), 159—60.
Ben Zion Wacholder, “Pseudo-Eupolemus’ Two Greek Fragments on the Life
of Abraham,” Hebrew Union College Annual 34 (1963): 110—11.
Hermann Kees, “Bubastis,” Orientalische Literaturzeitung 53 (1958): 311; see also Hermann Kees, “Ein
alter Götterhymnus als Begleittext zur Opfertafel,” ZÄS 57 (1922): 117—19.
The story of Sarah in the trunk, Genesis Rabbah 40:5, in Midrash Rabbah:
Genesis, trans. Harry Freedman,
10 vols. (London: Soncino 1939), 1:328—29.
Cf. Nibley’s translation here with Genesis Rabbah 40:4, in Freedman, Midrash
Rabbah: Genesis, 1:328.
Genesis Apocryphon 20:2—8.
They held an auction, each trying to buy her in order to make a gift of her
to Pharaoh, Genesis Rabbah 40:5, in Freedman, Midrash Rabbah: Genesis, 1:329—30.
Genesis Apocryphon 20:11.
Josephus, Antiquities I,
Genesis Apocryphon 20:12.
Sefer ha-Yashar, cited in
Geza Vermes, Scripture and Tradition in Judaism,
2nd ed. (Leiden: Brill, 1973), 113.
Genesis Apocryphon 20:12—15.
Maʿaseh Abraham Abinu, in Adolph Jellinek, Bet ha-Midrasch, 6 vols. (1853—77; reprint, Jerusalem: Wahrmann,
Genesis Rabbah 41:2, in Freedman, Midrash Rabbah: Genesis, 1:333.
Genesis Apocryphon 20:15.
Bernhard Beer, Leben Abraham’s nach Auffassung der jüdischen Sage (Leipzig: Leiner, 1859), 25, discussing sources
on 128 n. 219.
Robert Graves and Raphael Patai, Hebrew Myths: The Book of Genesis (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964), 144.
Genesis Rabbah 41:2, in Freedman, Midrash Rabbah: Genesis, 1:333—34.
Josephus, Antiquities I,
Genesis Apocryphon 20:16.
So Eva Osswald, “Beobachtungen zur Erzählung von Abrahams Aufenthalt
in Ägypten im ‘Genesis Apokryphon,'” Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche
Wissenschaft 72 (1960): 15, 19.
Micha J. bin Gorion, Die Sagen der Juden,
5 vols. (Frankfurt: Rütten & Loening, 1913—27), 2:158.
Eusebius, Praeparatio Evangelica (Preparation for the Gospel) IX, 17, in PG 21:708.
Genesis Apocryphon 20:17—18.
Ibid., 20:30—34, cf. Louis Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, 7 vols. (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society,
1909—1938), 1:203; cf. bin Gorion, Sagen der Juden, 2:97; Maʿaseh Abraham Abinu, in Jellinek, Bet-ha-Midrasch, 1:35, 41; Thaʿlabī,
Kitāb Qiṣaṣ al-Anbiyāʾ
(Cairo: Muṣ afā al-Bābi al-Ḥalibī wa-Awlāduhu, 1340 a.h.), 55; Vermes,
Scripture and Tradition in Judaism, 73; Beer, Leben Abraham’s, 18; 113 n. 136.
F. L. Griffith, Stories of the High Priests of Memphis (Oxford: Clarendon, 1900), 16—19.
First Tale of Khamuas 3:3, in ibid., 18.
First Tale of Khamuas 3:5—6, in ibid.
Griffith, Stories of the High Priests of Memphis, 27.
Vermes, Scripture and Tradition in Judaism,
115 n. 2.
Nahman Avigad and Yigael Yadin, A Genesis Apocryphon [Hebrew and English] (Jerusalem: Hebrew University,
1956), 26, note that the Genesis Apocryphon version of the affliction and healing of Pharaoh
“is actually much closer to Genesis xx, dealing with Sarah and Abimelech.”
Bin Gorion, Sagen der Juden,
Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews,
Beer, Leben Abraham’s, 45.
Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews,
Beer, Leben Abraham’s, 46—47.
Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews,
Beer, Leben Abraham’s, 128
n. 219; Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews,
Genesis Rabbah 39:11, in Freedman, Midrash Rabbah: Genesis, 1:321.
Ferdinand W. Weber, System der altsynagogalen palästinischen Theologie
aus Targum, Midrasch und Talmud
(Leipzig: Dörffling & Franke, 1880), 256.
Zohar, Vayera 103b, in The
Zohar, trans. Harry Sperling and Maurice Simon, 5 vols.
(London: Soncino, 1984), 1:333.
Josephus, Antiquities I,
8, 1. Sarah was ten years younger than Abraham; cf. Beer, Leben Abraham’s, 25.
John Gray, The Krt Text in the Literature of Ras Shamra, 2nd ed. (Leiden: Brill, 1964), 2.
Ibid., 28, lines 31, 35—36.
Ibid., 24, lines 86, 88—89.
See Hugh W. Nibley, “A New Look at the Pearl of Great Price,” IE 72 (September 1969): 92; see John Gray, The Legacy
of Canaan (Leiden: Brill, 1965),
25 n. 5.
Gray, Krt Text, 28, line
Ibid., 28, lines 10—12.
Ibid., 28, lines 13—14, 23—24.
Ibid., 27, lines 26—27. The word for “do” is here ʾeḥtrš, meaning to perform
Ibid., 26, lines 4—12.
See Claas J. Bleeker, Egyptian Festivals: Enactments of Religious Renewal (Leiden: Brill, 1967), 37—43.
Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews,
5 n. 308; Maʿaseh Abraham Abinu, in Jellinek, Bet ha-Midrasch, 1:32.
Josephus, Antiquities I,
So Frederick J. Foakes-Jackson, The Biblical History of the Hebrews (Cambridge: Heffer & Sons, 1917), 25, noting
at the same time that Isaac is “no more than a tribe-name.”
W. F. Albright, Yahweh and the Gods of Canaan (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1968), 147—48.
Gray, Krt Text, 10.
Josephus, Antiquities I,
8, 1; bin Gorion, Sagen der Juden,
Gray, Krt Text, 5.
Cf. James G. Frazer, The New Golden Bough, ed. Theodor H. Gaster (New York: Anchor, 1961), 172—73; Claas
J. Bleeker, “The Position of Queen in Ancient Egypt,” in The
Sacral Kingship (Leiden: Brill,
Cyrus H. Gordon, Before the Bible
(New York: Harper and Row, 1962), 143, 147; cf. Herbert Haag, “Der gegenwärtige
Stand der Erforschung der Beziehungen zwischen Homer und dem alten Testament,”
JEOL 19 (1965—66):
517; Cyrus H. Gordon, Ugarit and Minoan Crete (New York: Norton, 1966), 151.
E. Douglas Van Buren, “The Sacred Marriage in Early Times in Mesopotamia,”
Orientalia 13 (1944): 15.
Beer, Leben Abraham’s, 25.
William Hales, A New Analysis of Chronology and Geography, History and
Prophecy, 4 vols. (London: Rivington, 1830), 2:111.
Zohar, Vayera 112a, in Sperling
and Simon, Zohar, 1:353.
Ephraim A. Speiser, “The Wife-Sister Motif in the Patriarchal Narratives,”
in Biblical and Other Studies,
ed. Alexander Altmann (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1963), 18.
James L. Kelso, “Life in the Patriarchal Age,” Christianity Today 12 (21 June 1968): 918.
Genesis Apocryphon 2:9.
Albright, Yahweh and the Gods of Canaan,
Robert Graves, King Jesus
(London: Cassell, 1950), 59.
Discussed by Beer, Leben Abraham’s,
126—27 n. 206.
Genesis Rabbah 40:4, in Freedman, Midrash Rabbah: Genesis, 1:329.
Cf. Genesis Apocryphon 20:24—25.
Gerald Friedlander, Pirkê de Rabbi Eliezer
(New York: Hermon, 1965), 190.
Genesis Apocryphon 20:9.
Vermes, Scripture and Tradition in Judaism,
Genesis Apocryphon 20:31—32.
Beer, Leben Abraham’s, 61.
Ibid., 18. “Indeed, in prophetical power she ranked higher than her husband,”
Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews,
Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews,
Genesis Apocryphon 20:10—11.
Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews,
Thaʿlabī, Qiṣaṣ al-Anbiyāʾ, 223.
Beer, Leben Abraham’s, 24,
127 n. 214.
Genesis Apocryphon 19:14—16.
See Nibley, “A New Look at the Pearl of Great Price,” IE 72 (September 1969): 94 n. 162: In a number of cases
the hospitable lotus is identified with the royal palm, suggesting the palm
branch as a symbol of honorable reception.
Genesis Apocryphon 19:16.
Homer, Odyssey VIII, 461—68.
The story has recently been made available in paperback by Adolf Erman, The
Ancient Egyptians, trans. Aylward
M. Blackman (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1966), 150—61.
Alexandre Moret, La mise à mort du dieu en Égypte (Paris: Geuthner, 1927), 13.
Bin Gorion, Sagen der Juden,
Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews,
Firmicus Maternus, De Errore Profanarum Religionum (The Error of the Pagan Religions) XIII, 1—2, in Theodor Hopfner, Fontes Historiae
Religionis Aegyptiacae (Bonn:
Marcus and Weber, 1922), 520.
Beer, Leben Abraham’s, 2—3;
101 n. 18.
Gerhard von Rad, “Josephsgeschichte und ältere Chokma,” Vetus
Testamentum, Supplement 1 (Leiden: Brill, 1953): 120.
Leon Nemoy, Karaite Anthology: Excerpts from the Early Literature (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1952), 300.
Joseph and Asenath 15:10—11.
Ibid., 15:14; 16:1—11.
Moret, Mise à mort du dieu en Égypte,
Midrash on Psalms 112:1,
in Midrash on Psalms, ed.
William G. Braude, 2 vols. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959), 2:210.
Zohar, Lech Lecha 94a, in
Sperling and Simon, Zohar,
Weber, System der altsynagogalen palästinischen Theologie, 256.
Joseph and Asenath 15:4—6.
Zohar, Vayera 103b, in Sperling
and Simon, Zohar, 1:333.
Gershom G. Scholem, On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism (New York: Schocken, 1965), 170—72, with sources.
George F. Moore, Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era: The
Age of the Tannaim, 3 vols.
(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1927), 1:538.
André Caquot, “L’alliance avec Abram,” Semitica 12 (1962): 62.
Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 162.
Julian Morgenstern, “The ‘Bloody Husband’ (Exod. 4:24—26) Once
Again,” Hebrew Union College Annual 34 (1963): 39.
Genesis 22:14; Beer, Leben Abraham’s,
71, on the meaning of the name.
Vermes, Scripture and Tradition in Judaism,
194—95; bin Gorion, Sagen der Juden, 2:308.
Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechesis
XIX [I], 1—11, in PG
Ibid., XX [II], 5, in PG
Ibid., XXI [III], 1, in PG
133. Ibid., XXIII [V], 3—4,
in PG 33:1112.
Firmicus Maternus, The Error of the Pagan Religions 14, in PL 12:1012.