This portion includes an episode (Breishit/Genesis 26:1-11), beginning “Now there was a famine in the land,” which closely mirrors a similar story in Breishit/Genesis 12:10-20. Isaac involves Rebecca in a “say you’re my sister” experience in Gerar which is very akin to the one through which Abraham put Sarah in Egypt.
Many commentators note the similarities of the two stories. Fox,* among others, mentions one notable difference: This episode’s “individual coloring is supplied by the ‘laughing-and-loving’ of v.8, playing on Yitzhak’s name.”
While many interpretations have been offered over the centuries — not all exonerating Isaac and Abraham for placing their wives in such precarious positions — only one makes the slightest sense to me, in a simple narrative sense:
If Abram was prepared to engage in the vile business with which many commentators charge him, there would have been no need to say that Sarai was his sister, for a man who is concerned to protect his wife’s honour may be killed but not one who is prepared to abandon his spouse for the sake of gain….
…If any one desires you, it will not occur to him to kill your brother in order to obtain you, but he will ask him to give you to him in marriage, and then it will not be difficult for your brother to put him off with words for a time, until the famine is over and we shall be able to return to Canaan….
–p. 350, Cassuto, From Noah to Abraham,* based on an explanation “given by several medieval commentators (in modern times, by S.D. Luzzatto)”
Abraham’s ploy is thwarted, though, when Pharoah — who feels no need to negotiate, as would an ordinary man — fancies Sarah; like many a con-man, Abraham is tripped up by his inability to prepare for all contingencies: “So Abram learns, and with him the reader of his biography, that a man must have implicit faith in God’s help, and that he is forbidden to rely on his cleverness alone…” (p. 353).
Cassutto’s commentary (which his death cut short) does not reach the Rebecca/Isaac cycle, unfortunately. Nonetheless, I believe his notes on the Abraham-Sarah version of this tale illuminate an essential theme evident in the larger Abraham-Sarah and Isaac-Rebecca stories: how much human conniving — such as having Hagar bear a child for Sarah or tricking Isaac into giving the blessing to Jacob — is necessary for the unfolding of God’s plans?
*Please see Source Materials for complete citations and more details.
The “Opening the Book” series was originally presented in cooperation with the independent, cross-community Jewish Study Center and with Kol Isha, an open group that for many years pursued spirituality from a woman’s perspective at Temple Micah (Reform). “A Song Every Day” is an independent blog, however, and all views, mistakes, etc. are the author’s.