Genesis 12:10–20; 20:1–18


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, 482 x 770 cm, The Royal Collection Trust; RCIN 1046.2, Royal Collection Trust / ©️ Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2022

Partners in Crime

Commentary by Nyasha Junior

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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.

Isaac Isaacsz.

Pharaoh gives Sarah back to Abraham, 1640, Oil on canvas, 96.9 x 129.6 cm, The Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam; Gift of A. Bredius, The Hague, SK-A-1191, Courtesy of Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

An Exchange of Goods

Commentary by Nyasha Junior

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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

Comparative commentary by Nyasha Junior

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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.

Next exhibition: Genesis 14:1–17 Next exhibition: Genesis 21:8–21

Genesis 12:10–20; 20:1–18

Revised Standard Version

Genesis 12

10 Now there was a famine in the land. So Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there, for the famine was severe in the land. 11When he was about to enter Egypt, he said to Sarʹai his wife, “I know that you are a woman beautiful to behold; 12and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife’; then they will kill me, but they will let you live. 13Say you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared on your account.” 14When Abram entered Egypt the Egyptians saw that the woman was very beautiful. 15And when the princes of Pharaoh saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh. And the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house. 16And for her sake he dealt well with Abram; and he had sheep, oxen, he-asses, menservants, maidservants, she-asses, and camels.

17 But the Lord afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarʹai, Abram’s wife. 18So Pharaoh called Abram, and said, “What is this you have done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife? 19Why 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.” 20And Pharaoh gave men orders concerning him; and they set him on the way, with his wife and all that he had.

20 From there Abraham journeyed toward the territory of the Negeb, and dwelt between Kadesh and Shur; and he sojourned in Gerar. 2And Abraham said of Sarah his wife, “She is my sister.” And Abimʹelech king of Gerar sent and took Sarah. 3But God came to Abimʹelech in a dream by night, and said to him, “Behold, you are a dead man, because of the woman whom you have taken; for she is a man’s wife.” 4Now Abimʹelech had not approached her; so he said, “Lord, wilt thou slay an innocent people? 5Did he not himself say to me, ‘She is my sister’? And she herself said, ‘He is my brother.’ In the integrity of my heart and the innocence of my hands I have done this.” 6Then God said to him in the dream, “Yes, I know that you have done this in the integrity of your heart, and it was I who kept you from sinning against me; therefore I did not let you touch her. 7Now then restore the man’s wife; for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you, and you shall live. But if you do not restore her, know that you shall surely die, you, and all that are yours.”

8 So Abimʹelech rose early in the morning, and called all his servants, and told them all these things; and the men were very much afraid. 9Then Abimʹelech called Abraham, and said to him, “What have you done to us? And how have I sinned against you, that you have brought on me and my kingdom a great sin? You have done to me things that ought not to be done.” 10And Abimʹelech said to Abraham, “What were you thinking of, that you did this thing?” 11Abraham said, “I did it because I thought, There is no fear of God at all in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife. 12Besides she is indeed my sister, the daughter of my father but not the daughter of my mother; and she became my wife. 13And when God caused me to wander from my father’s house, I said to her, ‘This is the kindness you must do me: at every place to which we come, say of me, He is my brother.’ ” 14Then Abimʹelech took sheep and oxen, and male and female slaves, and gave them to Abraham, and restored Sarah his wife to him. 15And Abimʹelech said, “Behold, my land is before you; dwell where it pleases you.” 16To Sarah he said, “Behold, I have given your brother a thousand pieces of silver; it is your vindication in the eyes of all who are with you; and before every one you are righted.” 17Then Abraham prayed to God; and God healed Abimʹelech, and also healed his wife and female slaves so that they bore children. 18For the Lord had closed all the wombs of the house of Abimʹelech because of Sarah, Abraham’s wife.