AND God said unto Abraham, as for Sarai thy wife, thou shalt not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall her name be, And I will bless her and give thee a son also of her . . . and she shall be a mother of nations: kings of people shall be of her.
Genesis 17:15, 16
ABRAHAM, SARAH AND PHARAOH
More than 50 centuries ago, from their very early history, Egyptians believed that a human being consisted of spiritual as well as physical elements. They regarded death as the departure of the spiritual element from the body but also believed, provided the physical being could be kept safe and protected, that the spirit would return to the body at some point in the future and the deceased would then lead a second life. That is why they devoted such care to preserving a dead body by mummification and building a secure tomb to keep it safe. They also believed in the divinity of their anointed kings. An Egyptian pharaoh was regarded as the personification of the god Horus, his father being Ra, the sun god. The Egyptians were the first nation to build temples for their many gods, and to establish an organized priesthood that performed daily rites and supervised the annual festivals. The great pyramids still stand, after 47 centuries, as witness to the divine power of the kings and are a lasting symbol of man's attempts to reach the universal cosmos. Astronomy was an important branch of Egyptian knowledge from the early part of their history and it can no longer be denied that the Great Pyramid was constructed in a way intended to help with the observation of the stars and provide a reading for their movements. Ancient Egyptians believed that the movements and position of the stars at a given moment would have particular effects on a man's behavior and his destiny.
The Hebrew tribe made its first appearance in history in the fifteenth century B.C., the time of Abraham, who has been regarded by Jews and
Christians alike as the founding father of the 12 tribes of Israel. In this chapter I shall argue that Abraham's patriarchy is by no means actual: rather it is of symbolic importance to the Israelites and to their descendants, and, indeed, to Christians.
Abram and his wife Sarai (to give them their original names) began their journey into history, according to the Bible, at Ur (modern Tell Muqayyar) in southern Mesopotamia, an important city 200 miles to the southeast of modern Baghdad, the capital of Iraq. The party, led by Terah, the father of Abram, also included Lot, Terah's grandson and Abram's nephew. The Book of Genesis gives no explanation of the reasons that prompted Terah and his family to set out on the great trade route that followed the valley of the Euphrates northwest through Babylon, sweeping west through Canaan to link with the ports of the eastern Mediterranean. Nor, as is usual in the Bible, is there any indication of the date when this migratory journey began. Because descendants of Abram and Sarai—Joseph and Moses—can be identified as living in the fourteenth century B.C., it is a reasonable deduction that Terah and his family departed from Ur at the very end of the sixteenth century B.C. or, more probably, in the early years of the fifteenth.
It is more than 700 miles from Ur to Canaan, which at that time occupied much the same area as modern Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. The family made the journey in two stages, settling for an unspecified time at Haran in the middle of the valley of the Euphrates, where Terah died. We are then offered the first intimation of a special relationship between Abram's family and God. The Lord is said to have told Abram: "Get thee out of thy country . . . unto, a land that I will shew thee. . . . And I will make of thee a great nation . . ." (Genesis 12:1-2).
in response to this promise, they continued their journey to Canaan, the ancient land of Palestine, a country where the sudden appearance of strangers was a common occurrence. Traders used its coastal plain for their commercial journeys south to, and north from, Arabia and Egypt. it also afforded passage to armies during the recurrent imperialist rivalries between Egypt on the one hand and the Mesopotamian kingdoms of Mitanni, Assyria and Babylon on the other. In addition, at times of semi-drought the country suffered recurrent mini-invasions by tribesmen from the neighboring Arabian desert, as attested by the Amarna letters.*
For anyone trying to make a living from the soil, the hills of Canaan posed an intimidating challenge. The climate was hostile. In summer the country was scorched by the sun and the hot, sand-laden sirocco wind. The late autumn rains, which made it possible to plough the baked soil, were followed by wet, and often bitterly cold, winters. Then, as the sun grew in strength, the gentler rains of March and April provided a little fresh pasture for sheep, goats and cattle before the onset of another dry season.
Grain could be grown only on the coastal plain and in the valleys, and the staple agricultural products of the country, all that the inhospitable stony hills would support, were the olive and the vine. Times of famine were common**— and it was at a time of famine that Abram and Sarai are said to have set out on their travels again from Haran, making their way south, a journey that was to forge the first links between this Semitic tribe and the royal house of Egypt, and ensured for Abram's family an enduring place in world history.
Compared with Canaan, Egypt was a rich and sophisticated country. While the greater part of it was desert, the land on either side of the Nile (watered by an intricate system of irrigation canals and dikes) and the land
*The Amarna letters, written in Akkadian by the rulers of Canaan to the Pharaoh of Egypt during the fourteenth century B.C., speak of different invasion attempts on their cities, by tribal groups.
**The Book of Genesis talks twice about famine: the first took place during the time of Abraham and the second when Joseph was in Egypt, and archaeological evidence of migration during ancient times, as well as the nature of the climate, indicates the occurrence of such famines.
of the river's delta (flooded each year by the inundation that followed heavy rains and melting snows in the Ethiopian highlands) were exceptionally fertile. The inundation, attributed to a teardrop from the goddess Isis, was a particularly important feature of Egyptian life. Religious festivals were held in her honor, and even today, when the Nile begins to flood, 17 June is known as "the night of the drop."
Major Egyptian crops included wheat (for bread), barley (for beer), vegetables, fruit (including grapes for wine) and flax (for linseed oil and linen thread). The soil was so rich that two crops could often be harvested in the same growing season. The Egyptians also kept pigs, goats, sheep, geese and ducks and could supplement their diet with fish from the Nile, wild fowl from the marshes and game from the desert. Although Abram and Sarai are said by the Bible to have set out for Egypt at a time of famine, it may have been some other motive—trade, perhaps—that caused them to make the journey. Certainly they did not stay in the Eastern Delta of the Nile— which one might have expected had they simply been seeking food— but made their way to wherever the Pharaoh of the time (whom I believe to be Tuthmosis III, as will be demonstrated later) was holding court.
At this period, this could have been any one of three places—Memphis, Heliopolis or Thebes. Memphis, 12 miles south of modern Cairo, was an important trade center, graced by the Great Temple of Ptah, patron of craftsmen and artisans. Heliopolis—known in the Bible as On, from the Greek—was the original Egyptian holy city, situated a short distance to the north of modern Cairo and chief center of worship of the sun-god Ra. Both of these northern cities were used by the court to escape the worst of the blistering heat of an Egyptian summer. During the Eighteenth Dynasty (1575-1335 B.C.), however, Heliopolis declined in importance as Thebes— modern Luxor, some 300 miles to the south, on the east bank of the Nile opposite the Valley of the Kings, and the main center of worship of the state god Amun-Ra—developed as the main capital of The Two Lands of Egypt.*
Wherever Abram and Sarai went, and for whatever purpose, we are simply told that Sarai was "a fair woman to look upon" and, as they approached Egypt, Abram, fearing that he might be killed if it were known that Sarai was his wife and Pharaoh took a fancy to her, said: "Say, I pray thee, thou art my sister . . . and my soul shall live because of thee" (12:13).
*Egypt was called The Two Lands as a result of the union between the red desert and the black valley of the Nile.
This, according to the Book of Genesis, proved a wise precaution. Courtiers advised Pharaoh of the "fair woman" who had appeared in their midst and he "took her into Pharaoh's house" and married her. Abram was well rewarded for the hand in marriage of his "sister," with sheep, oxen, donkeys and servants.* The idyll did not last, however. The Bible tells us that "great plagues" descended on the House of Pharaoh because he had married another man's wife, and Pharaoh sent for Abram and asked him: "What is this that thou hast done unto me? Why didst thou not tell me that she was thy wife? Why saidst thou, She is my sister . . . now therefore behold thy wife, take her, and go thy way" (12:18-19).
Abram and Sarai were sent back to Canaan with generous gifts. Pharaoh also provided Sarai with an Egyptian maid, Hagar, and, once they had returned safely to Canaan, Sarai gave birth to a son, Isaac. The essence of the biblical account of the journey to Egypt is that Sarai, the wife of Abram, also became the wife of the ruling Pharaoh. This, in the custom of the time, would not only have involved the paying of the bride-price to Abram for the hand of his "sister" but sexual intercourse on the same night as the actual marriage ceremony. The question therefore arises: who was the real father of Isaac?
The available evidence—the marriage; Abram's pose as Sarai's brother; Sarai being seen by the princes of Pharaoh who commended her beauty to their king; her being taken into the royal palace; the king's marriage to her and his generous treatment of Abram (presents of sheep, oxen, etc.); the gift to Sari of the maid Hagar; the elaborate efforts (as I shall show below) of the biblical narrator to put as many years as possible between the couple's return to Canaan and Isaac's birth; textual references in the Talmud (the most important work of religious law in postbiblical Judaism), regarded as next in authority to the Old Testament in its account of the early history of the Israelites, and in the Koran, sacred book of Islam; the history of Isaac's immediate descendants—points to the Pharaoh, not Abram, as Isaac's father.
(The efforts of the biblical narrator to disguise the truth about Isaac's parenthood have, I believe, historical roots that go beyond the fact that he
*In passing, it is worth noting that Abram may not have been lying when he introduced Sarai in Egypt as his sister. The wife-sister relationship was very rare outside Egypt in ancient times, but the Nuzi documents show that in the Human society, of which both Nuzi and Haran in the middle of the Euphrates valley were part, a wife-sister judicial relationship existed whereby a woman, in addition to becoming a man's wife, was adopted by him as a sister and, as a result, merited higher social status and greater privileges than those enjoyed by an ordinary wife.
was the son of a second, "sinful" marriage. In the course of the years that followed, the Israelites were to return to Egypt, where they remained for four generations until the Exodus when, burdened by harsh treatment and persecution by their Egyptian taskmasters, they were led out of the country by Moses on the first stage of their journey to the Promised Land. Many more centuries passed before an account of these events was put down in writing [the Egyptians did not chronicle this in any way], by which time Egypt and its Pharaoh had become a symbol of hatred for the Israelites. The biblical narrator was therefore at pains to conceal any family connections between Israel and Egypt. But to return to the immediate story . . .)
After the couple's return to Canaan, we read in the Book of Genesis of a series of prophecies in which, initially, Abram is given greater prominence than Sarai. The Lord is said to have appeared to Abram in a vision and told him: "Know of a surety that thy seed [descendants] shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them . . . But in the fourth generation they shall come hither again" (Genesis 15:13, 16). God also made a covenant with Abram, saying: "Unto thy seed have I given this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates" (15:18).
At this point the biblical narrator is at pains to make the point that Sarai was unable to have children: "And Sarai . . . took Hagar her maid, the Egyptian, after Abram had dwelt ten years in the land of Canaan, and gave her to her husband Abram to be his wife" (16:3). Shortly afterward (we learn) Hagar conceived, and an angel of the Lord appeared to her with the news that she would bear a son and "call his name Ishmael" (16:11).
Abram, we are told, was 86 when Ishmael was born.* Another 13 years are allowed to pass before the account of another visitation—again to Abram—which resulted in his name and Sarai's being changed: "Neither shall thy name any more be called Abram, but thy name shall be Abraham; for a father of many nations have I made thee . . . and kings shall come out of thee" (17:5, 6). The Lord also said: "Every man child among you shall be circumcised" (17:10). This command, which Abraham carried out, forged another link between the Hebrew tribes and Egypt, for until that time only Egypt among the eastern nations had adopted the custom of circumcision (the practice had appeared early in Egyptian history, as can be seen from surviving mummies). At the same time God said to Abraham:
*Such ages are not at all reliable. According to bone remains belonging to this period, the average life-span at the time was around 30. Very few people lived to the age of 80 or 90, and even if they did, would not be able to father children at that age.
"As for Sarai thy wife . . . thou shalt not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall her name be. And I will bless her and give thee a son also of her . . . kings of people shall be of her" (17:15-16). On the matter of the change of names, sar in Hebrew means "prince" and Sarah is the feminine form, which can even be interpreted to mean "the queen."
On hearing the news that Sarah, as she was now called, was at last to bear a child Abraham "fell upon his face, and laughed, and said in his heart, Shall a child be born unto him that is an hundred years old? and shall Sarah, that is ninety years old, bear?" (17:17). God reassured him with the words: "Sarah thy wife shall bear thee a son indeed; and thou shalt call his name Isaac . . ." (17:19).
Even then the biblical narrator did not feel it prudent to introduce the birth of Isaac. He interpolated two more stories to dispel any possible doubt about the identity of the father of Isaac by placing a long gap)—i.e., more than nine months— between Sarah's departure from Egypt and the birth of Isaac. Firstly, he described how Abraham sought to free his nephew Lot, who had been captured by some enemies. Then, on a visit to Gerar in southern Canaan (where, we are told, Abraham again took the precaution of claiming that Sarah was his sister), the king fell in love with her, despite her great age, and was about to marry her when the Lord appeared to him in a dream and warned him not to marry a woman who was already someone else's wife. It is only now, after the passage of many years since the return from Egypt, that we are finally allowed to learn of the birth of Isaac, a year after the Lord's promise to Abraham.
The chronology presented by the biblical narrator means that Ishmael must have been 14 years older than Isaac. One aspect of its unreliability becomes clear, however, with the account of how, after the birth of her son, Sarah banished Hagar and Ishmael after she saw him "mocking" Isaac. The narrative that follows indicates that Ishmael was not old enough to be able to walk, let alone mock anyone:
And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and took bread, and a bottle of water, and gave it unto Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, and the child, and sent her away . . . she . . . wandered in the wilderness of Beersheba. And the water was spent in the bottle, and she cast the child under one of the shrubs. And she went, and sat her down over against him a good way off, as it were a bowshot: for she said, Let me not see the death of the child. And she ... lifted up her voice and wept. And God heard the voice of the lad; and the angel of God called to Hagar out of Heaven, and said unto her, What aileth thee, Hagar?
fear not; for God hath heard the voice of the lad . . . And God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water; and she went and filled the bottle with water, and gave the lad drink.
Although this story is not mentioned in the Koran, Islamic tradition* agrees with the Bible, representing Ishmael as a mere baby, carried by his mother and unable to move from the spot where she placed him, but a fountain of water appeared suddenly beneath his feet.
In all of the accounts of visitations before the birth of Isaac, with the exception of the change of Sarah's name and the promise that "kings of people shall be of her," Abraham is presented as the principal figure. Once Isaac appears on the scene, there is a change of emphasis. The account of another appearance of the Lord to Abraham reads: "in all that Sarah has said unto thee, hearken unto her, for in Isaac shall thy seed be called" (21:12). The literal sense of the Hebrew text in this verse does not necessarily mean that Isaac was Abraham's physical son, but that he was the adoptive father. It is also significant that, from this time, and even to the present day, a child cannot be regarded as a Jew, no matter who the father may have been, unless the mother is herself Jewish. This appearance of the Lord is followed by an account (Genesis 22:9-12) of how Abraham took Isaac to the top of a mountain where he proposed to sacrifice him as a burnt offering, a curious decision if Isaac had been his own son. However, Abraham sacrificed a sheep instead of Isaac after an angel of the Lord warned him: "Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him ..."
Identification of Isaac as a prince of Egypt does not depend solely on this analysis of the Book of Genesis account. Nonbiblical sources point to the fact that, in the case of Isaac, Abraham—who had seven other sons (Ishmael by Hagar and six by another wife, Keturah)—was to be regarded as the adoptive father. The Talmud preserves a tradition that nobody who knew Abraham believed that Isaac was his son:
"On the day that Abraham weaned his son Isaac, he made a great banquet, and all the peoples of the world derided him, saying: 'Have you seen that old man and woman who brought a foundling from the street, and now
*The sources of Islamic tradition are mainly biblical, Talmudic and other Jewish literature. They are reliable in showing how old Jewish accounts were different from biblical ones in some cases, but they cannot be regarded as historical.
claim him as their son . . . ?'" (The Babylonian Talmud, Isidore Epstein, London 1952.) A verse in the Koran (The Prophets, Chapter [Sura] 21:72) says of Abraham:
We bestowed on him Isaac and, as an additional gift, (A grandson), Jacob . . .
The verse indicates that Isaac and Jacob, the grandson who had not been born when Abraham died, were not his originally. Another chapter of the Koran, having mentioned three of the prophets—Moses, Aaron and Ishmael—speaks of them in Mary, Chapter 19:58 as being:
The posterity of Abraham And Israel (Jacob). . .*
The only possible explanation of this verse is that some of these prophets— Moses, Aaron and Ishmael—were descendants of Jacob, but not of Abraham. To elaborate on this point, we have two named ancestors (Abraham and Jacob) and three named descendants (Moses, Aaron and Ishmael). It is obvious that, had Jacob been a descendant of Abraham, he would have been named in the list of descendants rather than, together with Abraham, as an ancestor.
Who was the Pharaoh who contracted a bigamous marriage with Sarai and fathered Isaac? The evidence, and, in particular, the chronology of Sarah's descendants (Isaac, Jacob, Joseph and Moses—i.e., four generations separating Sarah and Moses), points to Tuthmosis III (c. 1490-1436 B.C.), fifth Pharaoh of the Eighteenth Dynasty, the greatest warrior of the ancient world (and four generations before Akhenaten)**—and, as we shall see in the next chapter, the same person as the royal ancestor David from whose House, both the Old and New Testaments assure us, the promised Messiah (Christ the Redeemer) would come.
*Jacob's name had been changed by the Lord, who is said to have told him: "Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men . . ." (32:28).
**Furthermore, he was the first Pharaoh to establish an empire between the Nile and the Euphrates, which the Bible promised as an inheritance for his descendants.
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