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As soon as Abraham’s wife Sarah was taken into the royal household, the lord rained plagues down upon the pharaoh.
Stricken, the ruler summoned Abraham and questioned him closely about what had happened. “What have you done to me?” he asked. “Why did you say, ‘she is my sister,’ so that I took her to be my wife?” Abraham’s explanation must have been compelling because, with no further ado, the pharaoh returned Sarah to Abraham. Moreover, he magnanimously insisted that Abraham keep all of the gifts and take them back to Canaan.
Many readers have tried to make sense of this story by rationalizing that God somehow gave Abraham permission to lie about Sarah so that his life would be spared. According to the Baha’i writings, however, this type of interpretation fails because it implies that a messenger of God would be willing to commit a sin. Instead, the Baha’i teachings conclude that:
Abraham wished to emphasize the superiority of the spiritual relationship binding him with his wife to the purely physical and material one. – Shoghi Effendi, Dawn of a New Day, p. 197.
This spiritual slant on the relationship between Sarah and Abraham is equally affirmed by the way that many Biblical translations depict Sarah acting as Abraham’s sister so that his soul (rather than his physical body) will live. By becoming Abraham’s spokesperson in Egypt, Sarah keeps his soul—his new revelation—alive by introducing it into the pharaoh’s household.
The notion that a spiritual relationship like the one between Sarah and Abraham could be as important—or even more important—than physical kinship is found in many religions. In Christianity, Jesus describes the bond that exists between people who are mutually devoted to obeying God this way: “For whosoever shall do the will of my Father which is in heaven, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother.” Muhammad echoes this in the Qur’an, saying “The believers are but brothers,” or, using a different translation, “The believers are but a single Brotherhood.” – Matthew 12:50; Qur’án 49:10.
In the Muslim hadith (the reported sayings of Muhammad not contained in the Qur’an), the story of Abraham, Sarah, and Pharaoh is straightforwardly linked to the idea of spiritual kinship. Sarah is his sister because the two of them are the only true believers in the land:
The Prophet Abraham emigrated with Sarah and entered a village where there was a king or a tyrant. (The king) was told that Abraham had entered (the village) accompanied by a woman who was one of the most charming women. So, the king sent for Abraham and asked, “O Abraham! Who is this lady accompanying you?” Abraham replied, “She is my sister (i.e. in religion).” Then Abraham returned to her and said, “Do not contradict my statement, for I have informed them that you are my sister. By Allah, there are no true believers on this land except you and I.” When Pharaoh tried to approach Sarah lustfully, he suffered some sort of fit. Fearing that he would die and that she would be blamed, Sarah prayed that the Pharaoh would be healed. The Pharaoh recovered, tried again to approach Sarah and again was stricken. When he recovered, he promptly returned her to Abraham. – Bukhari, The Hadith of Bukhari, 3:34:420. 15.
Using the tool of spiritual kinship as a key to unlock the story of Abraham and Sarah’s flight to Egypt dramatically changes our understanding of the events. Although it seems on the surface that Abraham was forced to flee from Canaan because of famine, the underlying purpose of the journey must have involved exposing Egyptians to the new message from God.
Sarah had already demonstrated her spiritual capacity in Harran, when she had talked about monotheism to other women while Abraham had taught the men. Now, in Egypt, she would have an even more splendid opportunity to spread the new gospel, this time to one of the most powerful men in the world. To assuage any nervousness she might feel about what was going to happen, Abraham reassured her that “my soul shall live because of thee.” In other words, the divine power of Abraham’s revelation (his soul) would be visible to Pharaoh in the mirror of Sarah’s pure and devoted heart.
As Abraham had predicted, Sarah’s faith had a powerful effect. Genesis describes it for us in terms of a plague that attacked the pharaoh, but without defining what form it took. Islamic tradition clarifies the matter slightly by adding that when the ruler tried to approach Sarah, he was stricken by either a “mood of agitation,” an “epileptic fit,” or a “stiff hand.”
After adding all the references up, one begins to think that the plagues with which Pharaoh was struck were primarily mental and educatory. Perhaps Sarah’s prayers and her explanations of the revelation of Abraham forced the pharaoh to think about religion in new and very agonizing ways. If so, he might have become so morally agitated by “the plague of his own heart,” that he was able to restrain his lust and give Sarah back to Abraham, protesting just a little too loudly that he certainly wouldn’t have taken her if he had known she was already married.
Jewish tradition adds credence to the notion that the pharaoh was overwhelmed by the virtuous faith of Sarah and the veracity of the revelation of Abraham. It notes that after giving Sarah back to Abraham and letting Him keep all of the previous gifts, Pharaoh did something completely unexpected and extra special. He gave one of his daughters—a young woman named Hagar—to serve Sarah as a handmaid. “It is better, my daughter, that you be a servant in the house of Sarah and Abraham, than a princess in some other palace.”
Pharaoh must have sired dozens of children by a number of wives and concubines, so it’s not as though he gave away his one and only daughter. Still, it’s a remarkable act. And, looking ahead several hundred years, it is intriguing to realize that it will be another pharaoh’s daughter who will pluck Moses from the bulrushes and raise him as her own.