Genesis 12:10–20; 20:1–18
Partners in Crime
Commentary by Nyasha Junior
The Return of Sarah is one of a set of ten tapestries that make up the Story of Abraham series. It is a sumptuous work woven in wool and silk, and incorporating gold thread. The Latin inscription at the top of the work translates as: ‘Sarah is kidnapped by the Egyptians, restored with gifts, God shows Abraham the land of Canaan’. It is likely that the tapestry was commissioned by Henry VIII. It has been displayed at coronation ceremonies and was also used to furnish the king’s bedchamber during the reign of William III.
There is no hint of disapproval or admonition in this depiction of Sarah’s return. Also, there is no exploration of the distress caused by the infertility of the house of Abimelech (Genesis 20:17–18). This composition focusses on Abraham and Sarah as a couple. Sarah’s arm is linked with Abraham’s, and they stand together facing the courtiers. The courtiers bow respectfully with a trunk full of precious items and jewels. They are surrounded by additional spoils, including people, gifts, and even a camel.
Just as this luxurious tapestry provided a way for royalty to display their wealth, it also depicts the riches procured by Abraham and Sarah.
In this depiction of Sarah’s return, it seems that Sarah has chosen to be part of the deception. They both benefit, especially as Abimelech provides an additional 1000 pieces of silver just for Sarah (20:16). Both she and Abraham appear unconcerned with any past or potential future danger. They are a team, and their teamwork has paid off in this latest scheme.
A Question of Consent
Commentary by Nyasha Junior
Italian sculptor Giovanni Strazza created The Veiled Virgin in the 1850s. As part of the risorgimento (‘rising again’), or Italian unification movement, this sculpture of the Virgin Mary became a patriotic symbol representing a unified Italy.
With her youthful appearance and downcast eyes, Mary seems perhaps to be in prayer, or grieving. The stone is wondrously sculpted to give the effect of a diaphanous veil caressing Mary’s face. Mary is not depicted with Gabriel, Jesus, Joseph, or other women. She appears innocent, mysterious, and alone.
The Veiled Virgin invites us to consider the experiences of silence and isolation of other biblical women. The text does not give us much insight into Sarai’s feelings and experiences in Genesis 12. Since we have such limited information, this sculpture highlights the mystery surrounding her time in Pharaoh’s house. Engaging with The Veiled Virgin could lead us to consider Sarai’s position after Abram deposits her at Pharaoh’s gate, as she waits for her introduction to Pharaoh, or perhaps after Pharaoh has cast her out and she awaits Abram’s return.
In Genesis 12, we assume that Sarai went along with the deception since it is successful. Still, it is not clear that she had the choice to consent to this ruse fully and freely. We do not know whether she has been physically harmed or psychologically traumatized. She is a pawn between men.
For both Sarai and Mary, their acquiescence has enormous consequences. At the Annunciation (Luke 1:26–38), Mary learns that she will become the mother of God. For Sarai, this incident provides wealth for her husband. We know what happens later to Mary and her child. We do not know the secrets that Sarai carries with her into or out of Pharaoh’s house.
An Exchange of Goods
Commentary by Nyasha Junior
Isaac Isaacsz was a Dutch painter and the son of Pieter Isaacsz, who served as a court artist for Christian IV, King of Denmark and Norway.
This richly detailed painting portrays Sarah being returned by Pharaoh (Genesis 12), and yet the work’s title uses the name ‘Abraham’, allowing us also to link it with the Genesis 20 narrative in which it is Abimelech of Gerar who returns Sarah to Abraham.
The painting emphasizes the extraordinary wealth of the ruler: he is draped in a fur cape and wears sumptuous clothing, topped with a feathered and bejewelled turban. He is the tallest human figure in the composition with soldiers and courtiers behind him, including a small page holding the train of his cape. Despite Abraham’s own luxurious cape and fine boots, the painting depicts the disparity in power between Abraham and the monarch who towers over him.
Standing on the steps outside of his home, the ruler extends his staff toward Sarah who is turned toward Abraham. Unlike the Genesis 12 narrative, Genesis 20 specifies that God prevents Abimelech from having sex with Sarah. This potentate’s gesture may suggest to us that he has not touched Sarah. Abraham partially embraces Sarah and holds her hand. His gaze may suggest anxiety or relief.
Unlike other depictions that focus on the wealth that Abraham extracts, this painting centres upon Sarah and draws our attention to her well-being. Although Abimelech did not touch her, she has still been exchanged between men as an item of property.
The ruler here may be unconcerned with Sarah, or perhaps simply more concerned with his own prospects and those of his household. About her feelings we are uncertain as she looks toward Abraham. We do not know what she encountered in Abimelech’s house. Although Sarah is being returned, the artist does not make evident her response to this reunion.
Woven by Willem de Pannemaker after designs by Pieter Coecke van Aelst the Elder :
The Return of Sarah by the Egyptians, from The Story of Abraham Series, 1540–43 , Woven wool and silk tapestry with gilt metal-wrapped thread
Giovanni Strazza :
The Veiled Virgin, 1850s , Marble
Isaac Isaacsz. :
Pharaoh gives Sarah back to Abraham, 1640 , Oil on canvas
Endangered and Enigmatic
Commentary by Nyasha Junior
What choice do we have? When we think of choices, we often think of individual decisions without considering other limitations or external influences. These three distinctive artworks highlight questions surrounding the choices made by Abram the patriarch and especially those made by his wife.
Fleeing a famine, Abram takes his family to Egypt in Genesis 12. As a stranger in the land, Abram is without family support and protection. He claims that he fears that the Egyptians will kill him in order to take his beautiful wife, Sarai (v.12). So, Abram tells Sarai to say that she is his sister, and an unnamed Egyptian Pharaoh takes her as his wife.
Sometimes called the endangered ancestress motif (Carl Keller ‘Die Gefährdung der Ahnfrau’) a similar story takes place in two other biblical texts. In Genesis 20:1–18 Abraham (renamed in Genesis 17:5) and Sarah (renamed in Genesis 17:15) are not in immediate danger, but Abimelech, king of Gerar, takes Sarah as his wife. In Genesis 26:1–33, Abimelech, king of the Philistines, discovers Abraham and Sarah’s adult son, Isaac, fondling his wife Rebekah, whom he claimed was his sister. Some biblical scholars attribute the differences in these texts to different source material. Thus, Genesis 12 and 26 are identified as belonging to a Yahwistic or ‘J’ source, while Genesis 20 is linked with an Elohistic or ‘E’ source.
In Genesis 12, Sarai is silent. She does not respond to Abram’s proposal to say that she is his sister. We hear no tender goodbyes when she is taken into Pharaoh’s house. Nor do we have a tearful reunion when Pharaoh returns her to Abram. Although deception works for some period of time, the text does not provide details on how this is accomplished or Sarai’s role in it. The impression of an isolated woman which can be read in Strazza’s The Veiled Virgin helps to highlight the silence of a woman who may not have had a choice and whose feelings are not divulged.
In Genesis 20, the text does not offer details on Sarah’s time in the king’s house, although it mentions that Abimelech did not touch Sarah. It is not clear how long Abimelech and his people had endured the consequences of this religious, political, and public health incident.
In Isaac Isaacsz’s work (if read in conjunction with chapter 20 rather than chapter 12 of Genesis), Sarah again appears to be without agency. Abraham’s choice to put Sarah in danger is followed by the action of the ruler to give her back again. An already wealthy man, Abraham gains additional wealth with the return of Sarah. The monarch seems distraught at taking another man’s wife and genuinely outraged by this duplicity.
In contrast, in the tapestry, The Return of Sarah, we are mindful of the possibility of Sarah as Abraham’s partner in crime. It is not Abimelech but his courtiers who send off the couple. Sarah and Abraham appear as a duo making off with the loot procured by their practised con.
While the text does not provide details regarding Sarai/Sarah’s time away from Abram/Abraham, these three artworks offer us a range of possible reactions. Despite her silence, these artistic interpretations help us to raise questions about what she encountered and the possible choices or lack of choices that she faced both when entering and exiting these monarch’s residence.