1210 It happened, there was famine in the land. Abram sojourned to Egypt because the famine was severe. 11 Just before arriving in Egypt, Abram said to his wife Sarai, “You’re a beautiful woman. 12 When the Egyptians see you, they will say, “She is his wife,” and kill me and let you live. 13 Please say you are my sister so that it will go well with me and I will live, thanks to you.”
14 It happened that when Abram came to Egypt, the Egyptians did see the woman was very beautiful. 15 Pharaoh’s courtiers praised her to Pharaoh, and the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s household. 16 It went well with Abram. He received sheep, cattle, donkey, she-asses, camels, male and female slaves.
17 Then YHWH afflicted Pharaoh and his house with terrible plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife. 18 Pharaoh summoned Abram and said, “What have you done to me? Why didn’t you tell me she was your wife? 19 Why did you say, ‘She’s my sister,” so I took her as a wife? Here’s your wife, take her and go!” 20 Pharaoh gave orders, and Abram was escorted out of Egypt, with his wife and all he had.
Here is a doubly important passage containing both an archetype and a foreshadowing of an archetype.
First, the foreshadowing: Exile leading to Exodus. Famine for both Abram and, later, Jacob, the lack of successful tilling, will lead both to Egypt and the fertility of the Nile River floodplain. They will experience the power of the Pharaoh and his threat to male life. There will be interventions by “the Lord.” There will be plagues. There will be riches gained.
Readers still remembering Noah and the wilderness of evil (vs. a wilderness of famine) may catch a peripheral glimpse of a rainbow when G*D saw and came to help, not to ignore or otherwise further curse. This is not a fully memorable exodus, but a step on its way.
The story of betrayal goes back to a belated recognition of loneliness and attempt to rectify this through an ancient tradition of “something borrowed.” Issues of betrayal of self and others continue to this day.
Abram, passing his wife, Sarai, off as his sister is the first of three recounting of this patriarchal game of self-preservation, risking the loss of their loneliness cure for the substitute of wealth. We will find a repeat of this by Abraham (a special name change won’t fix this trait) in Chapter 20 and by Isaac (Abraham’s privileged son) recapitulating it in Chapter 26.
The details of how Sarai is both wife and sister to Abram won’t come out until the next time Abram tries this gambit. For now, the emphasis is upon setting up a later story of exodus and nation-building. [Note: This story persists with a later privileged influx and nation-building of Israel, also displacing those living in Canaan/Palestine.]
Readers will have to decide for themselves whether Sarai was simply in Pharaoh’s house as a beautifying trophy wife or whether the Pharaoh also “knew” her. The storyteller leaves this an open question. I tend toward a carnal engagement (which got G*D’s attention) and accords with what might be considered a bride-price paid to Abram, who makes out like a bandit with his increase in sheep, cattle, donkeys, she-asses, camels (possible anachronism?), and slaves (both male and female). Abram plays the part of a pimp and profits.