Lekh Lekha From a Feminist Point of View

In this Midrash, Dr. Bonna Devora Haberman discusses Lekh Lekha from a feminist point of view.

by Dr. Bonna Devora Haberman

Context & Issues

God addresses Avram (who will soon be renamed Avraham) with the command to leave his home and kin to travel on a journey to an unknown destination. With the promise of blessing, he and Sarai (who will soon be renamed Sarah) head off to Canaan. Fleeing from famine in the land, they descend to Egypt. Returning to the Negev, Avram divides the land and separates from his nephew, Lot. Lot is taken captive by warring kings. He battles for Lot's rescue, and defeats Chedorlaomer and his allies. Avram prospers, but has not born children. God promises that he will have offspring as numerous as the stars. In an extraordinary vision, “between the pieces”, God makes a covenant to assign the land to Avram's descendants.

In an effort to fulfill the promise, Sarai, who has not given birth, offers her maid Hagar to Avram. Once pregnant, Hagar behaves disrespectfully to Sarai who responds harshly. Hagar runs away to a spring where an angel comforts her and bids that she return to Sarai's harsh treatment. Hagar bears a child whom Avram names Ishmael.

God appears again to Avram to strengthen the covenant about the land, to command him to circumcise himself and every male as a sign of the covenant, to rename him Avraham, and Sarai, Sara. Sarah will bear the child Yitzchak who will inherit the covenant; Ishmael will bear 12 princes. Avraham circumcises himself and all males among his community.

Explorations

While the Torah explains the choice of Noah as a special person in his generation who “walks with God”, the text gives no clear reason for choosing Avram as a father of the Jewish people.

Many traditions explain that he initiated belief in One God. Stories tell of how he recognizes the Creator who caused the world and all that is in it, and that he smashes the idols in his father's shop. Mainly, this parasha reveals Avram's character as a faithful, willing, obedient and attentive person, a leader and warrior who has principles. Charged with the responsibility to start a new people and bring awareness of the divine Creator into the world, Avraham and Sarah take on the task with dedication and faith. There is one scene in our parasha that disturbs the ideal of Avraham-- when he and Sarah descend to Egypt.

On the way, Avraham anticipates that the Egyptians will find Sarah's beauty irresistible. He makes a plan to fool the Egyptians, hoping, he says, to save himself and to profit from their lust. He asks Sarah to pretend to be his sister. Avraham states his motives outright, “that it may go well with me because of you, and that I may remain alive thanks to you." At the same time that Avraham fears for his life, he sees in Sarah's beauty an opportunity to benefit. The text does not explain more about the grounds for Avraham's fears, how he expects the scene to unfold, or what might happen to Sarah. She might well be terrified of what awaits her in Egypt—the Torah does not inform us about her feelings. The next thing we know, the Egyptian courtiers are praising her beauty, and Sarah is taken to Pharaoh. In the text, Avraham offers no resistance; he does not try to protect Sarah. Captive under Pharaoh’s control, Sarah is alone, afraid, betrayed, and vulnerable. In the words of a midrash (in Tanchuma on Lekh Lekha 5; also in Genesis Rabba 40 (41) 2),

she expresses her anguish, “Now I have been separated from my father, my mother, and my spouse, and this evil man will approach me and abuse me. Act for the sake of Your great name, and because of my trust in Your word.”

Immediately in the next verse, Avraham “acquired sheep, oxen, asses, male and female slaves, she-asses, and camels. His expectations about Sarah's beauty, about the Egyptians, and about his benefit are fulfilled.

Meanwhile, Pharaoh suffers plagues. The text explains that the plagues come, "al devar -- on account/on the word of Sarai." Most traditional commentaries interpret that Sarah brings the plagues—in her captivity, she takes her destiny in her hands. According to Midrash and Rashi, she summons divine help when Pharaoh approaches her for sex. Midrash describes the scene: What does the phrase Because of the word of Sarai mean? An angel descended with a staff from heaven at that moment, and when Pharaoh approached Sarai to remove her shoe, the angel struck him upon the hand, and when he approached to touch her clothing, the angel struck him again. (Midrash Tanchuma on Lekh Lekha 5; also in Genesis Rabba 40 (41) 2)

Rashi says, "according to her [Sarah's] word [God brought the plague], she tells the angel 'strike' and s/he strikes.”

Against Avraham's instruction, Sarah reveals to Pharaoh that she is married to Avraham. Once Pharaoh learns the ruse, he accuses Avraham of lying. Pharaoh shows his integrity in his disgust with Avraham's behavior, and reveals that there was no basis for Avraham's fear for his life. Pharaoh sends them both away with an escort and Avraham keeps his profits.

Sarah being “taken” leads directly to Avraham's winning riches. From the beginning, he expects to profit. By contrast with his willingness to take the goods from Pharaoh when Sarah is taken, a few verses later, after his victory in war, Avraham refuses to accept gifts from the king of Sodom, "I swear to the Lord, God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth: I will not take so much as a thread or a sandal strap of what is yours; you shall not say, 'It is I who made Abram rich” (Genesis 14:22-23).

Avraham endangers Sarah's safety. By asking her to lie, and submitting her to captivity in the hands of a foreign king, he also undermines her dignity. Avraham relates to his own spouse, our foremother Sarah as an object of beauty for male pleasure, and participates willingly in using her as an instrument for his benefit. Taking into account the textual and midrashic evidence, it is hard to avoid the painful possibility that Avraham pimps Sara.

Soon after this incident in Egypt, God reveals for the first time the future destiny of the Israelites to be enslaved. Perhaps the enslavement comes on account of Avraham's behavior. According to the medieval bible commentator, Ramban, the patriarch’s action is a “sign” to his descendants—his behavior affects those who come after him. Ramban relates the 400 years of exile and slavery that the descendants of Sarah and Avraham-- the biblical Israelites'-- suffer at the hands of Pharaoh directly to Avraham's sin.

This text is a family version of the national story told in the biblical Book of Exodus and at our Passover seder tables. This version demonstrates how behavior between spouses affects society, how “the personal is political”--an idea coined in 1970 by Carol Hanisch, a feminist social critic and activist. Avraham abuses his male power over Sarah. Such behavior, betraying the trust, dignity, and respect of a human being, and exploiting her—these acts are at the core of gender, race, and class oppression.

Generations later, Avraham’s offspring descend into Egypt and live out this story—suffering slavery at Pharaoh's hands, divine intervention with plagues, and redemption from Egypt with riches. Generations later still, many Jews and non-Jews continue to practice the same abuses in our families, communities, and between nations. This parasha offers the opportunity to face these difficult scenes in the Torah and our lives critically. In these early chapters in the lives of our forebearers, they are at the core of the unfolding of our people and our destiny.

This is one of the 54-parashiot of the ICJW- International Council of Jewish Women’s Bea Zucker Online Bible Study Program “The Five Books of Moses: Contemporary Issues and Classic Perspectives” written by Dr. Bonna Devora Haberman.