By Jamie Bornstein
In light of the #MeToo campaign and the ongoing soul searching that we are doing as a country about sexual harassment, I have shared some thoughts below on Parashat Vayera, the fourth Torah portion of Sefer Bereishit, the Book of Genesis. In this Torah portion there is a very jarring string of sexually charged scenarios, starting with the story of Lot and concluding with the birth of Isaac. These stories demonstrate the Bible’s direct recognition of abuse in its many forms, how abuse can be perpetrated by people in very different stations within society, and can likewise be inflicted upon anyone; the young, the old, men and women.
I share my thoughts here, on the Mental Health Safe Space blog, because the mental health implications for victims of sexual abuse are significant. In her recent article This Is Survival, Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman very candidly describes how her life and mental health continues to be impacted as result of being sexually abused. Her story is worth reading. It is just one modern example of an ancient blight.
The Biblical stories I present here reflect a gradation of sexual behavior, starting with the reprehensible and concluding with the holy, and demonstrate the complexities of power, agency, voice and consent, all themes that are as relevant today as they were in the times of the bible. Above all, these stories teach us the devastating cost of seeing and treating people as objects, and the revelatory power of seeing and treating people as humans.
Scene One – Rape
וַיִּקְרְא֤וּ אֶל־לוֹט֙ וַיֹּ֣אמְרוּ ל֔וֹ אַיֵּ֧ה הָאֲנָשִׁ֛ים אֲשֶׁר־בָּ֥אוּ אֵלֶ֖יךָ הַלָּ֑יְלָה הוֹצִיאֵ֣ם אֵלֵ֔ינוּ וְנֵדְעָ֖ה אֹתָֽם׃
“And they shouted to Lot and said to him, ‘Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, that we may be intimate with them.’” (Genesis 19:5)
The first scenario takes place in Sodom, the infamous hotbed of licentiousness and depravity, where Lot, Abraham’s nephew, has made his home. While Lot traveled to Canaan along with Abraham, framing him as a potential co-star in the establishment of the covenant, he was cut from a different cloth. Everything that Abraham is, Lot is not, and his choice of home is a striking reflection of this.
One evening, as Lot is sitting at the city gates of Sodom, two angels appear. Lot, showing perhaps a glimmer of latent goodness, invites the men to spend the night in his home. They agree, but only three verses later we see that a mob of Sodomites have gathered around Lot’s home and are demanding Lot to release the angels to them.
“Bring them out to us, that we may ‘know’ them.” The word “know” has previously appeared in Genesis as a reference to sexual relations. It seems we are witnessing the Bible’s first instance of attempted rape. The mob is seeking a violent and non-consensual sexual encounter with the two visitors, whose lack of agency at this moment is further illustrated by their silence in the text itself.
Scene Two – Sexual Exploitation
הִנֵּה־נָ֨א לִ֜י שְׁתֵּ֣י בָנ֗וֹת אֲשֶׁ֤ר לֹֽא־יָדְעוּ֙ אִ֔ישׁ אוֹצִֽיאָה־נָּ֤א אֶתְהֶן֙ אֲלֵיכֶ֔ם וַעֲשׂ֣וּ לָהֶ֔ן כַּטּ֖וֹב בְּעֵינֵיכֶ֑ם רַ֠ק לָֽאֲנָשִׁ֤ים הָאֵל֙ אַל־תַּעֲשׂ֣וּ דָבָ֔ר כִּֽי־עַל־כֵּ֥ן בָּ֖אוּ בְּצֵ֥ל קֹרָתִֽי׃
“Look, I have two daughters who have not known a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you may do to them as you please; but do not do anything to these men, since they have come under the shelter of my roof.” (Genesis 19:8)
For a brief moment we believe that Lot might know right from wrong. “I beg you my friends, do not commit such a wrong!” he cries to the mob in verse 7. But seemingly without pausing for an answer, without any additional attempt to negotiate or persuade the mob to disband beyond his woefully insufficient four Hebrew words of protest (in English, “I beg you brothers, do not act wickedly”), Lot follows up his entreaty in the very next verse with the shocking suggestion that the mob instead take his two maiden daughters to “do to them as you please.”
Just three verses after the bible’s first instance of attempted rape, we see the bible’s first instance of attempted forced sexual exploitation. Like the angels, the daughters are discussed as nothing more than objects for a violent and non-consensual sexual encounter.
In the end, the angels do exhibit agency by pulling Lot back into the house as the mob pressed forward to break down the door. Still, they remain voiceless in the text. The daughters, on the other hand, exhibit no agency and have no voice within the text. In fact, we never even learn their names.
Scene Three – Drug Facilitated Rape
וַתַּשְׁקֶ֧יןָ אֶת־אֲבִיהֶ֛ן יַ֖יִן בַּלַּ֣יְלָה ה֑וּא וַתָּבֹ֤א הַבְּכִירָה֙ וַתִּשְׁכַּ֣ב אֶת־אָבִ֔יהָ וְלֹֽא־יָדַ֥ע בְּשִׁכְבָ֖הּ וּבְקׄוּמָֽהּ׃
“That night they made their father drink wine, and the older one went in and lay with her father; he did not know when she lay down or when she rose.” (Genesis 19:33)
וַתַּשְׁקֶ֜יןָ גַּ֣ם בַּלַּ֧יְלָה הַה֛וּא אֶת־אֲבִיהֶ֖ן יָ֑יִן וַתָּ֤קָם הַצְּעִירָה֙ וַתִּשְׁכַּ֣ב עִמּ֔וֹ וְלֹֽא־יָדַ֥ע בְּשִׁכְבָ֖הּ וּבְקֻמָֽהּ׃
“That night also they made their father drink wine, and the younger one went and lay with him; he did not know when she lay down or when she rose.” (Genesis 19:35)
Despite Lot’s horrifying attempt to pacify the mob through the exploitation of his own daughters, the angels remain faithful to their mission. While Lot tarries, he does eventually flee Sodom with his wife and two daughters. Famously, Lot’s wife looks backwards towards Sodom despite the angels’ warning and turns into a pillar of salt, leaving Lot and his daughters as the only Sodomite survivors of the destruction. After passing through the city of Zoar, where he could have lived, Lot decides to live in isolation, and he and his daughters take refuge in a cave in the hill country.
While in the cave, the elder daughter approaches the younger with an incestuous plan. Believing that there are no men available to impregnate them, she suggests that they get their father drunk and sleep with him. Why they believe there are no men is not entirely clear. Many commentators argue that the daughters simply think the world was destroyed and they are the only ones remaining. We read moments before, though, that they passed through the town of Zoar.
The daughters must be aware that humanity in its entirety has not been destroyed, and this is the position of the Radak (Rabbi David Kimchi, Provence, 1160 – 1235): “the elder sister told her younger sister that none of the remaining men of the world would want to marry them, seeing they had lived in the wicked city of Sodom. People would not want to associate with anyone who had only narrowly escaped the fate of the Sodomites.”
Whatever their motivation for the incestuous plan was, it works, and as the verses tells us, Lot was unaware.
One can’t help feel a sense of poetic justice here. Lot’s daughters, who were nothing more than sexual bargaining chips earlier in the chapter, are now in a position of power. Unfortunately, their behavior is as depraved and confused as their father’s. Lot’s attempt to shield the angels from harm seemed laudable, but the ease with which he offered his daughters in their stead revealed his underlying moral debasement. Similarly, the daughters’ inclination to perpetuate their family line was laudable, but their method of doing so likewise revealed their upside-down understanding of morality and justice.
The two daughters, who were moments away from being raped, who had no voice, themselves become rapists. Not only are they rapists, they commit incest and do so through what is today know as drug-facilitated sexual assault. This is not an insignificant layer to the story, revealing the Torah’s recognition that sex can be stolen in a variety of awful ways. Finally, in keeping with the previous cases outlined above, Lot, the victim of this sexual assault, is silent in the text.
There is, however, one very interesting textual variation between the rape committed by the older daughter and that of the younger daughter, which raises the question of consent in this story. When the older daughter, the one who instigates the plan to sleep with Lot, commits the rape the text reads “vatishkav ET aviha.” When the younger daughter, though, commits the rape, the text reads “vatishkav IMO.”
The striking difference here is the use of “et” in the first rape and “imo” in the second.
The preeminent Biblical commentator Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, France, 1040 – 1105) argues that:
“In the case of the younger daughter it is written (Genesis 19:35) ‘and she lay with him,’ and it does not state ‘she lay with her father.’ But because the younger did not originate this unchaste conduct but her sister taught it to her, Scripture glosses over her sin and does not explicitly make mention of her shame; but since the elder originated this unchaste conduct Scripture exposes her fully.”
In other words, Rashi is saying that the Torah is more harshly judging the older daughter, the one who devised the plan, by explicitly calling attention to the incestuous nature of the act, “and she slept with her father,” whereas the Torah is more subtle regarding the younger daughter, hiding the reality of incest behind the pronoun “with him.”
I have an alternative reading. While Et in Hebrew grammar can be read as the preposition “with,” it can also act as a definite direct object marker, which is “a word or group of words representing the person or thing upon which the action of a verb is performed or toward which it is directed.” (dictionary.com)
In other words, the use of “et” might reinforce the idea that the older daughter is unilaterally imposing sex upon her father. Meanwhile, the use of the word “imo,” which translates to mean “with him,” might indicate that, while the younger daughter is clearly doing something quite dreadful (drug-facilitated sexual assault and incest), it might not be rape to the same degree as her sister’s actions. With this reading, there is a glimmer of progress, the first indication of possible consensual sex, we have in this string of otherwise brutish sexual encounters thus far.
Scene Four – Abduction
וַיֹּ֧אמֶר אַבְרָהָ֛ם אֶל־שָׂרָ֥ה אִשְׁתּ֖וֹ אֲחֹ֣תִי הִ֑וא וַיִּשְׁלַ֗ח אֲבִימֶ֙לֶךְ֙ מֶ֣לֶךְ גְּרָ֔ר וַיִּקַּ֖ח אֶת־שָׂרָֽה׃
“Abraham said of Sarah his wife, “She is my sister.” So King Abimelech of Gerar sent and took Sarah.” (Genesis 20:2)
With Lot now out of the picture, the spotlight returns to Abraham, who journeys south to Gerar. Upon arrival the Torah tells us, “Abraham said of Sarah his wife, ‘She is my sister.’ So King Abimelech of Gerar sent and took Sarah.”
To better understand this verse it is helpful to compare it to a very similar scenario that takes place earlier, in Parashat Lech Lecha:
“As he [Abraham] was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, ‘I know what a beautiful woman you are. If the Egyptians see you, and think, ‘She is his wife,’ they will kill me and let you live. Please say that you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that I may remain alive thanks to you.’”
The commentators pick up on the fact that in Egypt Abraham directly asks Sarah to pose as his sister, but in Gerar he does not ask her. Rashi writes, “This time he did not ask her consent but forcibly and against her inclination he stated that she was his sister, because she had already been taken once to Pharaoh’s house on account of this.”
Rashi’s response is intriguing. On one hand he points out that a precedent was set in Egypt for Sarah to pose as Abraham’s sister. On the other hand he insists that not asking her permission in Gerar amounted to a non-consensual and forcible act. Rashi’s language sounds like the language one uses to describe rape!
Following the Lot stories, which each involve forcible and non-consensual sexual encounters, perhaps Rashi is pointing out that agency and consent are not only important with regard to sex; that they are important to all areas of life where one’s decisions directly impact another’s life. Perhaps this was a moment of failure for Abraham.
More to the point, Sarah is abducted by King Abimelech. Similar to the parallel Egypt story, God intervenes: “But God came to Abimelech in a dream by night and said to him, ‘You are to die because of the woman that you have taken, for she is a married woman.’ Now Abimelech had not approached her. He said, ‘O Lord, will You slay people even though innocent?’” (Genesis 20:3-4)
While “had not approached her” does not explicitly indicate a sexual approach, the fact that God’s admonition cites Sarah’s marital status seems to clarify that the issue here is, in fact, related to sex, specifically abduction for sexual purposes. And yet again the victim has no voice in the story. (In fact, Sarah’s voice is not heard again until Genesis 21:6, after the birth of Isaac.)
It is hard to look past Abraham’s disingenuous misrepresentation of his wife. Still, abduction is abduction, be it abduction of a wife or abduction of a sister. In either case, Sarah’s permission is not sought.
Furthermore, what makes the story of Abimelech strikingly different from the previous stories of sexual immorality discussed above is Abimelech’s direct recognition of his error, and immediate attempts to offer restitution. More importantly, Abimelech does not only offer restitution to Abraham, he speaks directly to Sarah as well: “And to Sarah he said, ‘I herewith give your brother a thousand pieces of silver; this will serve you as vindication before all who are with you, and you are cleared before everyone.’” (Genesis 20:16)
Abimelech’s response is remarkably different from that of Pharaoh’s in Egypt: “Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her as my wife? Now, here is your wife; take her and be gone!” And Pharaoh put men in charge of him, and they sent him off with his wife and all that he possessed.”
Whereas Pharaoh exhibits no sign of contrition and ejects them, Abimelech owns up to his error and compensates them. In this moment, Sarah becomes the first victim of abuse whose status becomes reestablished in the eyes of the abuser as a human being who has both agency and dignity.
The theme that runs though these stories is the silence of the victims. While each scenario represents a different type of abuse and a different type of victim, what links the angels, Lot’s daughters, Lot himself and Sarah is how they are each objectified, generally stripped of agency and voiceless.
To use Buber’s terminology, each case is an example of an I/It relationship, where the victims are perceived as nothing more than objects to be experienced. They are effectively subhuman, and there is certainly no true relational aspect to the encounters…that is, until we read of Lot’s younger daughter. In that moment, with the use of “imo” instead of “et” we see the possible seeds of an I/Thou encounter. Yes, it is incest and it is rape, but there is a hint that it might not be purely one-sided.
The story of Abimelech, though, is the true transition point in this series of stories. In addition to contrition and restitution, which was not seen in the previous stories, we see something else. God. Only in the story of Abimelech is God present as an actor.
For Buber God is the Eternal Thou. God is something above words, and above things. God is not an It. As such, when we come into a true and deep relationship with another individual (an I/Thou relationship), that experience too transcends words. In fact, it is through that I/Thou relationship that we access God. As Jean Valjean says poignantly in the musical adaptation of Les Miserables, “To love another person is to see the face of God.”
Abimelech heeds God’s voice. It’s not clear if Abimelech has truly internalized and accepted God as an actor in his life, but he hears God, and in doing so, he sees Sarah for who she is: a human being. A thou.
וַֽיהוָ֛ה פָּקַ֥ד אֶת־שָׂרָ֖ה כַּאֲשֶׁ֣ר אָמָ֑ר וַיַּ֧עַשׂ יְהוָ֛ה לְשָׂרָ֖ה כַּאֲשֶׁ֥ר דִּבֵּֽר׃ וַתַּהַר֩ וַתֵּ֨לֶד שָׂרָ֧ה לְאַבְרָהָ֛ם בֵּ֖ן לִזְקֻנָ֑יו לַמּוֹעֵ֕ד אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּ֥ר אֹת֖וֹ אֱלֹהִֽים׃
“The LORD took note of Sarah as He had promised, and the LORD did for Sarah as He had spoken. Sarah conceived and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the set time of which God had spoken.” (Genesis 21:2-3)
After the heart wrenching litany of abuse and immorality presented to us in the previous two chapters, the story reaches a spectacular emotional apex. Sarah, barren during the entirety of her natural child-bearing years, miraculously becomes pregnant and gives birth to Isaac.
Pregnancy, of course, is the product of a sexual encounter, yet the language describing Sarah’s conception is remarkably devoid of sexual language, which comes in striking contrast to the preceding sexually charged stories. There are words that have already been used in Genesis to discuss intercourse which could have been used here:
“And the man [Adam] knew his wife Eve…” (Genesis 4:1)
“He [Abraham] came to Hagar and she conceived” (Genesis 16:4)
Here, though, while “knew” or “came” does not appear, another word, which did not appear with Adam/Eve or Abraham/Hagar, does appear in the verse: God.
In the case of Sarah’s conception God appears alongside Abraham and Sarah within the same verse: “Sarah conceived and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the set time of which God had spoken.”
Adam/Eve and Abraham/Hagar were transactional sexual encounters. While they are not framed as rape (certainly we could debate the morality of keeping a concubine), the absence of God seems to paint the encounters as I/It. They are not about Thou, and as such, they are not revelatory.
Sarah and Abraham, the text is teaching us, were the bible’s first I/Thou couple. And through their affection for each other they come into a relationship with Buber’s the Eternal Thou. The conception of their son, Isaac, is not the product of an Abraham/Sarah sexual encounter, it is the product, to use the format of our verse, of a Sarah/Abraham/God encounter. This is perhaps why Isaac is the preferred son of Abraham. Born as a result of a revelatory relationship, Isaac is the son chosen to fulfill the revelatory promise of the covenant with God.
I hope these reflections constructively add to the conversation of harassment and provide a useful framework for how we might assess both our casual and intimate relationships. We must always ask ourselves if we are treating others as Its or Thous. And we must always ask ourselves if we are muting someone’s voice or agency.
I am in awe of the many individuals who have bravely shared their stories. I wish them healing and inner peace. And to those who have perpetrated abuse, I wish them the courage to exhibit the contrition and humility of Abimelech.
Jamie Bornstein is the founder of Mental Health Safe Space. He lives in Sharon, MA with his wife and three children. He is the Senior Director of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, North America. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.