Recently, while doing some translating, I came across an interesting little feature in the narrative of Genesis 12:11-20. This passage records the account of Abraham’s journey to Egypt during a time of severe famine in his new home of Canaan. Abraham’s wife, Sarai, was very beautiful, and he feared that the Egyptians would kill him and make her one of Pharaoh’s concubines. So, to allay his fears, he convinced Sarah to lie and tell everyone that she was Abraham’s sister. A tension then arises in the text, as the lie goes into effect and Sarah is taken into the house of Pharaoh.
What caught my eye was the way in which the narrator (Moses, I would say) chooses to refer to Sarai throughout the account. Sarai is only referred to by name twice in the account, once when she is first mentioned (v.11) and again in the pivotal v.17. Throughout the rest of the narrative (10 times) she is referred to by the Hebrew term ‘ishah, which can mean either “wife” or “woman”. I would suggest that by playing on the varied meanings and identical sound of ‘ishah, the author is highlighting, by literary means, the tensions and ambiguities brought about by Abraham’s lie. To illustrate this, let’s look at each occurrence of ‘ishah in this passage.
In v.11 Sarai is introduced as Abram’s (Abraham’s name before God changed it) wife (‘ishto). Abram observes that Sarai is a beautiful woman (‘ishah). Then, in v.12, as he paints the hypothetical scenario necessitating their lie, Abram anticipates that the Egyptians will realize this beautiful lady is his wife (‘ishto), and so kill him. So, far the uses of ‘ishah are pretty straight forward, which sets the stage for a reversal of meaning in v.14.
In vv.14-15, Abram’s fears are realized as the Egyptians see Sarai, believe the lie and spare Abram, and take Sarai to Pharaoh’s house. However, in these verses Sarai is referred to merely as “the woman” (ha’ishah). It is here, I suggest, that we see the author’s literary skill. By previously referring to Sarai as Abram’s “wife” (‘ishah), the narrator introduces an ambiguity here by referring to her as “the woman” (‘ishah). The effect of this subtle wordplay is to heighten the tension of the situation. From the Egyptians’ perspective (and from what they are told), this attractive lady is just some woman (‘ishah), yet we the reader know she is actually Abram’s wife (‘ishah). The use of the identical Hebrew word, then, brings the reader much more into the messiness of this tense situation. A word with a possibly ambiguous meaning is used to heighten the ambiguity of the scene.
In v.17, Sarai is once again named, as she is referred to as “Sarai, the wife of Abram” (‘eshet Abram). It is here that the narrative turns, and Abram’s lie is foiled, as the Lord sends plagues on Pharaoh’s house because of the lie. I would say that Sarai is referred to by name, in order to highlight the fact that the jig is up, the lie is exposed, and everyone knows that Sarai is not an eligible woman, but Abram’s wife.
For the rest of the narrative (vv.18-20), Sarai is referred to four more times, each by the term “wife” (‘ishah). The play on the term ‘ishah is especially brought to the fore in v.19, when Pharaoh exclaims that he was going to take Sarai as his wife (‘ishah). After all, as the reader is well aware, he assumed she was an available woman (‘ishah)! Then, to drive home the deviousness of Abram’s lie Pharaoh tersely proclaims, “Behold your wife! (hinneh ‘ishetka) Take her and go!”. The ambiguity now gone, Pharaoh declares the truth of Sarai’s identity and brings the force of the wordplay fully to bear, as if to say, “She’s not just a woman, she’s your wife! Now take your lying self and go!”
While no great theological point is at stake if we miss this wordplay, I think this subtle tool reveals a lot about the way that the inspired Biblical authors operated. First, it demonstrates that they were masters of their language, able to faithfully recount historical events in a way that artfully and cogently expressed the truth and message in those events. Second, it reminds us to be careful readers of the text of the Bible. Third, it demonstrates how God chose to reveal His truth in both a meaningful and creative way (and that is just cool to me).
You don’t need to know Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek to be a careful reader (although those are good, helpful things). If we will slow down, and become observant readers, aware that the authors used the literary techniques at their disposal, we will gain a deeper and fuller understanding of the Bible’s truth. So, read on, read with care, and remember in the Bible, nothing is written by accident, even the little things matter!