Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Peshat and Intentional Adultery

There is a verse that is quite morally disturbing but that offers us a lesson in what peshat means. When Avram goes down to Egypt, he is concerned that the Egyptians might take Sarai, his wife, and kill him. So he asks Sarai to say that she is his sister. How will that help? Gen. 12:13:

אמרי נא אחתי את למען ייטב לי בעבורך וחיתה נפשי בגללך
Please say that you are my sister, that it will be good for me for your sake, and that my soul shall live because of you
If you translate this word-for-word, Avram seems to be saying that he will trade Sarai for money.

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If you translate this word-for-word, Avram seems to be saying that he will trade Sarai for money. Since the Egyptians are going to take her anyway, she should say that she is his sister so that they will let him live and even enrich him. ייטב לי means that "it will be good for me" and בעבורך means "for you," i.e. in exchange for you. In other words, the Egyptians will pay him good money for her. This is somewhat confirmed later in the chapter (v. 16) where Avram is given wealth on Sarai's account.

However, that is not the only way to translate it and is not how the commentators understand it. Certainly the traditional Jewish commentators do not but also Christian and non-traditional Jewish commentators, and many secular commentators as well. The way they see it, peshat is not just the most literal translation but it also has to take into account the context and flow of the story.

For example, v. 23 has Avram refusing to accept money from the king of Sedom so that he will not be able to say that he enriched Avram. That seems to argue against Avram wanting to become rich from an Egyptian, who would also be able to say that he enriched Avram. Additionally, in the verse immediately preceding ours (v. 12), Avram seems entirely focused on his and Sarai's surviving this ordeal alive, not on acquiring wealth. Therefore, commentators have looked for explanations that are literal but also work well in the context.

Radak explains בעבורך as "because of you" and then interprets away the problem. He says that the "good for me" is explained by the end of the verse, "that my soul shall live." The Egyptians will allow him to live because of her. So he is not bartering her away. Rather, either way they will take her, but if she says that Avram is her brother then at least he will live because of her. This is also the way the Abarbanel explains the verse. The Netziv adds that he can only try to save her if he is kept alive. A.S. Hartom adds that בעבורך can mean "for you" or "because of you." Either way works within this approach. They will keep Avram alive for Sarai, i.e. to save her, or because of her saying that she is his sister.

The Ran, quoted by the Abarbanel, takes the "good for me" to mean money. However, he says that Avram intended that the Egyptians will start bidding for Sarai. Avram can then take time to consider the various offers, which would allow him to strategize and even to flee the country, if necessary. This is similar to other cases in Genesis where brothers tried to delay their sisters' marriage (Gen. 25:55, 34:13-17). However, he was surprised when Pharaoh himself stepped in. No one would bid against Pharaoh, which undermined Avram's plan. This is also how the Seforno, Shadal and Malbim explains the verse.

The latter was also the approach of Hartom's brother-in-law, Prof. Umberto Cassuto. However, before he got to that, he raised three points that he thinks rebut the claim that Avram wanted to be paid in exchange for Sarai:
  1. The verse should first have said that Avram would live and only afterward mention that he will be paid
  2. From verses 11-12 it seems clear that Avram's concern in all this is to avoid being killed. He would not have immediately changed his goal to becoming rich in mid-paragraph.
  3. If he really wanted to sell Sarai, he wouldn't have to say that they weren't married. No one would kill him if he was willing to sell his wife.
Among Christians, there is a real concern that Avram lied. For us this isn't a huge problem, because he did it in order to save lives. But they are still troubled by it. Regardless, Gordon Wenham (Word Biblical Commentary) quotes Cassuto and endorses his explanation. Jon Hartley (New International Biblical Commentary) explains similarly. The footnote to the NetBible (link) also adopts this approach.

What is consistent in all of the above approaches is that they do not simply translate the words in the simplest possible way, in a vacuum. Rather, they take into account the context and the greater flow of the narrative. Peshat does not mean just the "literal meaning" but the "simplest meaning," taking into account the broader picture.

This is not to say that there are no modern commentators who prefer the literal translation that Avram tried to barter Sarai away for money. There are some. One even accuses Avram of "intentional adultery" (G.W. Coats). However, I am not convinced that this is a peshat more faithful to the text than the approaches discussed above.

[As an aside, I should add that it is common for discussion of this passage to include E.A. Speiser's suggestion that this refers to the Hurrian wife-sister practice, in which a wife is adopted as a sister. In this way, Avram was asking Sarai to truthfully say that her was his brother (also quoted by Sarna in Understanding Genesis, pp. 102-103). This idea has been thoroughly refuted by later scholars who object that Speiser misread the Nuzi texts and anyway misapplied it to Avram and Sarai (Gordon Wenham; Victor P. Hamilton in The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, quoting J. Van Seters, C.J.M. Weir and others).]

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Did Avram try to trade Sarai for money? No, that's not peshat

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