Saturday, August 29, 2015

The breakdown of family in ancient Egypt


22 And it came to pass when I was come near to enter into Egypt, the Lord said unto me: Behold, Sarai, thy wife, is a very fair woman to look upon;
23 Therefore it shall come to pass, when the Egyptians shall see her, they will say—She is his wife; and they will kill you, but they will save her alive; therefore see that ye do on this wise:
24 Let her say unto the Egyptians, she is thy sister, and thy soul shall live.
25 And it came to pass that I, Abraham, told Sarai, my wife, all that the Lord had said unto me—Therefore say unto them, I pray thee, thou art my sister, that it may be well with me for thy sake, and my soul shall live because of thee. (Abraham 2:22-25)

I’ve written about this incident several times I think, but this last time when I came across it I was struck by how this danger to Abraham indicated a breakdown of family in Egyptian society.  It was a society in which those with power were not honoring others’ marriages, but breaking them up by killing one spouse to free the other to marry again, to marry the power player who wanted them.  (I have to wonder if this was a different kind of family breakdown, or the same family breakdown, just further along the path to destruction.)

It is interesting to me that Sarai’s beauty was notable, but Abraham’s looks are never mentioned.  It makes me think that perhaps Abraham was rather plain. And if so, that means Sarai married him because she was able to look below the surface to see his goodness, and she cared more about his good character than marrying someone with good looks.  And the fact that he (a righteous man) chose her too shows that he knew she was a good woman, not just a pretty face.

In contrast to Sarai and Abraham’s relationship that valued character, the Egyptians were really shallow, valuing Sarai only for her looks and for nothing else.  I have to wonder if they thought only good-looking men deserved beautiful women, or whether they thought only Egyptians with sufficient force were allowed to have beautiful women. 

Also, the Egyptians seem to have been hanging on to some semblance of marriage permanence; you can tell at bottom they believed it should last until death, but their society had been corrupted to the point that they were willing to hurry death up to free a beautiful woman from her inconvenient husband.  This is pretty barbaric, and I don’t think that started all at once, but with a gradual slide—obsession with the sensual, loss of emphasis on character, focusing too much on outer appearance, indulgence of desire, and law winking at those taking license.   

The fact that the Lord warned Abraham of the danger and told him how they could protect themselves is very reassuring.  It shows the Lord really does know how to protect marriages and families, and He gives instructions designed for the circumstances.  

 It also struck me recently that the instruction to say that Sarai was his sister may have just seemed like a ruse to protect from the physical danger, but it was actually a spiritual safeguard as well, an important principle for relationships that can actually help men and women keep from falling into the error of objectifying the opposite sex. 

Seeing and treating someone as a brother or sister takes you back to the most basic ways of relating, that of sibling relationships.  Everything about learning to be close and learning to love is there except for the sexual aspect.  (And I’m assuming that those reading have learned to love their siblings and know what I am talking about.)

Perhaps if we find ourselves getting pulled into an objectifying pattern of thinking, we need to practice the sibling frame of reference for a while.  Take a page from Abraham’s experience and say, “She is my sister.”  Or learn from Sarai’s patience with that difficult situation and say, “He is my brother.”  In the church, we do this naturally among those we are not related to; we call each other Sister Johnson or Sister Emily or Brother Clark or Brother Bruce.  We realize we are all brothers and sisters, children of God.  That awareness of the brotherhood and sisterhood of all of us can also help us in our relationships and marriages, though we don’t have to necessarily call each other brother and sister.

 During the time that Abraham and Sarai treated each other as brother and sister, they were an example to the Egyptians. There came a time when it was safe to reveal they were married, and if the Egyptians thought back over how Abraham and Sarai had interacted, they would see how a good marriage is about more than looks and sex. Maybe Abraham and Sarai became instruments in helping improve Egyptian marriage culture through their good example, since examples are the best way to catch the vision of what improvement is possible.

Maybe our good examples of marriage can help today too.