Now there was a famine in the land. So Abram went down to Egypt to reside there as an alien, for the famine was severe in the land. When he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, ‘I know well that you are a woman beautiful in appearance; and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, “This is his wife”; then they will kill me, but they will let you live. Say you are my sister, so that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared on your account.’ When Abram entered Egypt the Egyptians saw that the woman was very beautiful. When the officials of Pharaoh saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh. And the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house. And for her sake he dealt well with Abram; and he had sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male and female slaves, female donkeys, and camels. But the Lord afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife. So Pharaoh called Abram, and said, ‘What is this you have done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife? Why did you say, “She is my sister”, so that I took her for my wife? Now then, here is your wife; take her, and be gone.’ And Pharaoh gave his men orders concerning him; and they set him on the way, with his wife and all that he had.
This isn’t a passage you often hear on a Sunday morning; it really isn’t the type of passage you’d want the kids to listen to. Abram, the one we think of as a great patriarch, the progenitor of the Jews, and spiritual ancestor of Christians and Muslims, prostituted his wife to ensure their survival. Not only that, he pimped her out to Pharaoh of all people – and did rather well as a result. We don’t know what Sarai thought of it all. Her voice is silent – we read of Abram telling her what he’s planning, we hear of God’s displeasure (with Pharaoh not Abram!) and we read of the riches that Abram took from the deal but from Sarai we hear nothing.
Was Sarai, like so many women today, coerced into this arrangement which suited Abram rather well?
Did Sarai feel, like so many women today, she had no choice in order to survive?
Maybe Sarai, like so many women today, was forced to bear the cost of Abram’s wealth and success?
The story leaves us with more questions than answers – why did God’s wrath not afflict Abram (who knew what he was doing) when it afflicted Pharoah (who didn’t)? What did the ancient writers expect us to learn from this story? What did Sarai think? We can only speculate on the story and the motives of the actors within it. However, we can do more than speculate about poverty and prostitution now:
we can donate to Women’s Aid,
we can uphold in prayer, love, and practical action those agencies which work with women who have to sell themselves,
we can make our churches safer places for women by having Women’s Aid posters on the back of loo doors (often the only place a woman can be truly alone),
and we can call out male violence and power against women at a time when many of our institutions, like Abram of old, betray women.
God of Sarah, we lift to You women who:
have to sell themselves in order to survive;
are subject to male violence and power;
are silenced from our civic and religious life and stories;
and who are denied their own agency.
God of Abraham, we lift to You men who pimp and abuse and silence women, that you bring them to justice. Amen.
The Rev’d Andy Braunston is the URC’s Minister for Digital Worship and member of the Peedie Kirk URC in Orkney.