Nelly Shulman
Nelly Shulman

A Preventative Measure

I repeat that the lady is his wife and not his sister.”
“But why this elaborate deception?”
“Because he foresaw that she would be very much more useful to him in the character of a free woman.”

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was undoubtedly familiar with the three wife-sister narratives in the Book of Genesis. In our current Torah portion, we meet with the first one, describing the deception of Abraham, traveling to Egypt due to the great famine. Concerned with his fate as a husband of a beautiful woman in the potentially hostile environment, he asks Sarah to play the role of his sister.

The scholars point out that political marriage was a custom in the Ancient Near East. A resident alien offered his daughter or daughters to the monarch as a sign of good intentions and protection of the family. Abraham, being aware of this practice, chooses the lesser evil. He had known that a beautiful sister would also attract the attention of the ruler.

The Pharaon, having been smitten by Sarah, whose beauty, according to Midrash, was so luminous that it has lit up the whole of Egypt, wants to marry her and does so. However, before he even touches Sarah, he is already suffering from a plague, as Torah calls it. The commentators ask a logical question – why Pharaon was punished, bearing in mind that he was not aware of the deception and has not done anything to Sarah yet.

Ah, but this is a preventative measure. As Radak explains, “Pharaoh searched in his mind why this should have happened to him, and it eventually occurred to him that Sarai might have been a married woman”.

Each one of us has our preventative measures. Their nature might be different, but the purpose is the same. God does not strike out of the blue but wants us to understand the reasons for events happening to us.

About the Author
Nelly Shulman is a journalist and writer currently based in Berlin. She is an author of four popular historical novels in the Russian language. She is working on the fifth novel in this series and on her first English-language novel, a historical thriller set during the Siege of Leningrad. She a Hawthornden Fellow and an alumna of the Nachum Goldmann Fellowship.
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