The Genesis:3 Project
God came to Abimelech in a dream of the night, and said to him: 'Behold, are going to die, because of the woman whom you have taken; for she is a man's wife.' Genesis 20:3
I just heard the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development say that the slaves of colonial and ante-bellum times were immigrants who came to the North America in the bottom of slave ships and dreamed of a better life for their children and grandchildren in this land of opportunity. And they worked hard for less in order to make that happen.
As Dave Barry says, “I am not making this up.”
I am not sure exactly how many things are wrong with Secretary Dr. Carson’s revisionist approach to slavery, but it helps to illustrate how difficult it is for some folks to face basic facts that are inconvenient. And when they have a platform to expound on their nonsense, it is sometimes enough to make me wonder whether I have things mixed up in my own mind.
I know I have written about this dilemma before, but when I looked at the verse that frames this column, I knew that I am not immune from rationalization and justification myself.
Abimelech, local king and frenemy to Abram, cast his eyes upon the beautiful Sarai who was Abram’s wife and, like any self-respecting king, he took her into his household. His intentions were carnal in nature, but his good luck was that he waited a night before pursuing his desires. In his “defense,” he was informed that Sarai was Abram’s sister, not his wife, and in a scene anticipating the end of the movie “Chinatown,” Sarai ‘fesses up that she is sort of both.
In the middle of this mess comes this verse to tell us that God appeared in a night-dream to protect the honor of Sarai because she is another man’s wife. Actually, the phrase “man’s wife” is nowhere near that gentle. There nearest I can come to a family-friendly translation is that Sarai was “mastered by a master.” Use your imagination.
Reading contemporary sensibilities back into a text that is thousands of years old is dishonest if the desire is to understand the text in its own origins. In a society that assigned a formally subservient role to women and validated the privilege of men to acquire them based on a hierarchy, the story of Abram and Sarai playing a little con game to save both of their lives may seem admirable, and God’s intervention affirms Abimelech’s noble(-ish) intentions…in the original context.
But imagine if you can this scenario as justification for the treatment of any human being. Maybe it is the plot of a “Law and Order” episode, but in real life it is sex trafficking.
Instead, the night-dream of Abimelech helps us understand the nightmare of all the Sarais in the world. The lessons we draw from it as the inheritors not only of the Biblical text but also of human experience include the unacceptability of “taking” another human being and how certain standards – beauty, privilege, self-preservation, “mastery” – can and should be replaced.
Sarai was not a free-spirited vixen in an open marriage, pushing the boundaries of sexual propriety and worming her way into a position of power by playing on the emotions of a libidinous potentate. She had no choices. Back then she was a human being assigned a status, and back then that status was defined by her relationship with men. In other words, she was not a free agent, she was not a partner in her marriage and she was not a tourist who came along for a ride on Abram’s caravan looking for adventure or a better life. She was enslaved.
What was legal and even moral in those olden days is not justifiable according to the values that have evolved from people who read the Bible for moral growth rather than for self-justification.
Which brings me back to a man who is a brilliant surgeon but otherwise, forgive my incivility, a blithering idiot. A person taken by force and transported across an ocean to be sold as free labor is never, never, never to be called an immigrant. Immigrants choose, by desire or circumstance, to relocate. There is no choice in slavery.
“Taking” another human being is unacceptable, and though the stories of struggle and resistance by individual slaves provide an insight into the human spirit, they do not constitute a lesson in how hard work for low pay is worth it if your children and grandchildren enjoy a better life. Ever.