Friday, January 24, 2014

The Importance of Being Sarai

There are many hints in the Genesis account of Abraham's life that Sarai (later Sarah) is much more important than is explicitly stated.  Let me set out a few:

  1. Sarai/Sarah's name means "princess" or "my princess."  This is interesting in itself, but doubly interesting because Abraham's brother married Milcah, whose name means "queen."  What are we really being shown here, that these two brothers marry royal women?
  2. At the same time that Abram's name is changed to Abraham, Sarai's name is changed to Sarah.  A change in name reflects a change in status, for instance, a change in priesthood status.  Abraham isn't the only special one in this little family.
  3. There's an oddity about Abraham's tent.  In both Genesis 12 and Genesis 13, the King James tells us that Abraham pitched "his tent."  Oddly, the original Hebrew in both cases clearly says "her tent," and the rabbis felt so strongly that this was mistaken that they inserted vowels to change the reading.  Was the tent originally Sarai's?  Interestingly enough, there is also a camouflaged "her tent" in Genesis 9 -- it's the place where Noah gets drunk.  The fact that "tents" so commonly stand in for temples makes these passages extra provocative.
  4. Sarai is associated with the idea of goodness.  She has to lie to Pharaoh so that "it may be well" with Abram, yetav.  She lies, and Pharaoh "entreated Abram well," hetiv.  Tov is "good," and appears in the early chapters of Genesis in curious connections.  The first thing created is light, and it is tov.  Havilah, somehow connected with the Garden of Eden, is the land of "good" gold. And the tree in the Garden is also "good."  These chapters, so close together, suggest an association among Sarai, the Garden of Eden, the light of creation, and Havilah, the land of good gold.  How important is this idea of "goodness" to Nephi?  Seems important.
  5. There's an oddity in the marriage, again involving royalty, and also involving ambivalence between brother and husband and a swap of persons, perhaps with a pointer connecting us with Egypt.  I don't know what's going on here, but the upshot seems to be that because of Sarah, Abraham becomes a shepherd and also gets followers -- the men are called 'avadim, which can mean "workers" but may also indicate ordinance-performing priests, and the women are called shefachot, a word the dictionary tells us is synonymous with "handmaid," a word used to describe the mothers of both Samuel and Jesus, for instance.
Who is Sarai?  I don't know, but the OT tells us that she's royal, she's priestly, she's associated with temples, and she confers elevated status.  So it looks like Abram married well.

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