But God came to Abimelech 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.” Now Abimelech had not approached her. So he said, “Lord, will you kill an innocent people? Did 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.” Then 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.” – Genesis 20:3-6
I recently read “Le Morte d’Arthur,” the late medieval compilation of Arthurian tales by Sir Thomas Malory. Stories of King Arthur are collectively called the Arthurian “cycle.” I always thought that was an evocative word, but I didn’t really know what it meant in that context. I thought it might have something to do with the “once and future king” business, the idea that Arthur, though slain, will return someday, possibly after a long period of recuperation on the island of Avalon. (Perhaps I’ll have occasion to bring this up again in a different context later in the Bible, wink-wink-nudge-nudge.) By the time I was 75% or 80% of the way through Malory’s version of events, though, it finally occurred to me that it’s called a “cycle” because it repeats itself. Over and over and over. The same characters find themselves in the same kinds of situations that resolve in pretty much the same way every time. I took inordinate pleasure in this repetition. To me it seemed to bespeak deep truths about the authors of the story and the world they described, if only I could learn to see things from their pre-modern perspective. I’m sure I never managed to do that, yet I found it a very entertaining narrative device, at once humorous and poignant.
I didn’t expect the Bible to follow the same pattern. And it hasn’t; at least, not to the same degree. We’re moving distinctly forward in time, sometimes by leaps and bounds, and new people come and old people go with almost each new chapter. But I can’t help but notice a slight echo effect in this middle portion of Genesis.
Take Lot and Noah. I didn’t go into great detail about Noah before, and I won’t go into great detail about Lot either. Basically, both men are saved from massive destruction (Noah from the Flood, Lot from Sodom) along with their immediate families. After the Flood, Noah gets drunk and one of his sons sees him naked. After the devastation of Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot’s daughters get him drunk in order to conceive children by him. I’d rather not dwell on that, I just wanted to note the similarities in the stories: saved from destruction, alcohol, weird encounters with offspring.
Now take Abraham and Sarah (formerly Abram and Sarai). I wrote last time about their trip to Egypt. Well, they had almost the same adventure again. They go into a new land and tell everyone they’re brother and sister, and the king takes Sarah for a concubine. This time, though, instead of sending a plague, God comes to the king in a dream. He warns the king, whose name is Abimelech, that he and his people will die because a woman has been taken from her husband. Abimelech explains that he was ignorant of her identity, which seems to be true, and that he has not yet “approached” her, which is also true. God agrees that Abimelech is innocent of any wrongdoing, thanks in large part to his own timely dream intervention. Abimelech gives Abraham lots of goodies, and Abraham and Sarah come out of the situation better off than they were before, much like they did at the end of the Egypt story.
While reading the Arthurian cycle I noticed that the recurrence of events had the effect of focusing my attention on subtle differences that crept in after many repetitions. Launcelot, for example, almost always unhorses his jousting rivals with no difficulty. So on the rare occasions when he suffers an injury, even if he goes on to win the contest, you know the injury carries great significance. If I hadn’t already read the story of Abraham and Sarah’s trip to Egypt, nothing about the Abimelech story would have struck me as particularly remarkable. But because the two events are so similar yet slightly different, the details took on extra meaning. God gave Abimelech a chance to state his innocence and correct his mistake, and Abimelech wasn’t foolish enough to pass on the opportunity. This alone was a departure. Noah’s son didn’t have the chance to claim innocence after accidentally seeing his father in the nude (which I guess was a big deal). Adam and Eve certainly didn’t get a second chance. The Pharaoh didn’t receive any last-minute warnings about Sarah’s marital status. Abimelech’s story was just a little different, and that little bit of difference probably means a lot. I think the message here is that you’re bound to make mistakes out of ignorance or stupidity and if you’re lucky God might bail you out. If God doesn’t, well, they’re still serious mistakes and you’ll still probably be punished for them. There’s no reason to expect God to help you out of your jams, but if you are one of the lucky ones be sure to seize the chance.
There’s a lot more to say about the soap opera of Abraham and Sarah. An out-of-wedlock child, an apparently semi-immaculate conception, a group circumcision, a near human sacrifice; I can’t write about everything I read during a sitting, and sometimes I’ll focus on the wrong things, but in this case I feel fortunate to have written about the trips to Egypt and Abimelech’s kingdom instead of the more salacious stuff. Not only because it gave me a chance to bring up Malory’s book, which I love, but because I think it helped me get a dim sense of the authorial intent behind this frequently bizarre segment of the Bible.