A Genius for Mentorship: A Forum in Honor of Ben Wright on his 65th Birthday
~ presented by his students ~
Voice and Presence in the Genesis Apocryphon
μικρὰ πᾶσα κακία πρὸς κακίαν γυναικός
κλῆρος ἁμαρτωλοῦ ἐπιπέσοι αὐτῇ
Ms. C 5r.10-12
מעט רעה כרעת אשא
גורל חוטא יפול עליה
All wickedness is meagre compared to the wickedness of woman,
may the fate of a sinner fall upon her.
A scholar of Ben Sira might be tempted to avoid pesky misogynistic themes—for example, its many warnings of the inherent evil of women like the one quoted above—that punctuate the work, so as to not detract from its other literary and conceptual merits. But Benjamin Wright has approached this aspect of Ben Sira in the oeuvre of his scholarly work—in particular, he has discussed the construction of both positive and negative feminine sexuality and agency— as a central dimension of Second Temple Literature. Wickedness, as one might point out, is but one aspect of agency—the will to think, speak, and act. But beyond Wright’s work on the gendered dimension of Second Temple literature, he has also engaged a seemingly unrelated aspect of these texts: the first person voice and its construction of the teacher, sage, and father in sapiential works. Inspired by Wright’s work, in these two areas—gender and voicing in Second Temple texts—I will explore the intersection of women, wisdom, and agency in the retelling of Genesis 12—Abram and Sarai in Egypt—in Genesis Apocryphon. Their relationship to one another in Genesis Apocryphon, and in particular, in the retelling of the story of Abram and Sarai in Egypt. With the help of Wright’s work, we are able to see how the “I” voice constructs characters and how feminine agency is distinctly presented in Genesis Apocryphon.
Since its discovery among the manuscripts found at Qumran, Genesis Apocryphon (1Q20), has both intrigued and perplexed scholars. Surely, the diversity of texts included or excluded in various canons already complicated a natural idea of what constituted the ‘biblical’: Which canon boasted a ‘complete,’ ‘true,’ or even ‘original’ set of texts? But it was the discovery of texts like Genesis Apocryphon—and indeed, the task set upon scholars to name and thereby classify such texts—that threw down the gauntlet. What precisely was the relationship of this text to the biblical texts? Should scholars assimilate this, and other texts, into existing scriptural categories? Or, does the very need to classify such a text in relation to the ‘biblical’ expose a weakness at the core of our inherited frameworks? Eva Mroczek’s scholarship has helped us understand the limitations of our existing pictures of the ‘biblical’ and offers alternative metaphors—ones that emerge from the texts themselves—of aesthetic and biographical expansion. Mroczek’s argument in The Literary Imagination in Jewish Antiquity centers specifically on the intersection of textual morphologies—forms of texts in collections—and the literary practice of attribution—how legendary characters shape poetry and wisdom and whose biographies are shaped by their attachment to these texts. While attribution is not a central feature of Genesis Apocryphon, the text displays a related phenomenon found in a number of Second Temple texts: the reconfiguration of character voice and speech in the expansion of their legendary biographies.
The genre of Genesis Apocryphon and the nature of its relationship to Genesis remain matters of scholarly debate, issues I do not plan to engage here. I will set aside these discussions to ask a different set of questions about Genesis Apocryphon and its relationship to Genesis: What do the stories look like when they are told in Genesis Apocryphon? How does the text recast episodes, reconfigure character speech, and expand legendary biographies? What can we learn from a close comparison of these two texts—both about how these stories were understood by the Second Temple period authors and the expansiveness of biblical literary traditions? I will ask these questions by focusing on the retelling of Genesis 12:10-20 in 1Q20 19:14-20:33. In the telling of Abram and Sarai’s sojourn to Egypt in Genesis Apocryphon, beauty and agency—particularly feminine beauty and agency—become a central point of meditation.
Voice and Agency in Genesis Apocryphon
A remarkable feature of Genesis Apocryphon is its reframing of narrative history in the voice of its legendary characters. Lamech, Enoch, Noah, and Abram all tell their stories as retrospectives in their own voice, a feature that recalls the genre of Testament literature, the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, and other texts such as 4Q215, the so-called Testament of Naphtali. But this re-voicing is not only a feature of the testament genre or of narrative. Other Second Temple texts, such as prophetic and legal texts, are configured in this way. The Temple Scroll is a well known example of this, and a similar case could be made for the prophetic collection attributed to Ezekiel, which is remarkable in its first-person framing when compared to the third-person framing of other prophetic collections. We might say the same of Ecclesiastes, which although its framing is in the third person, the voice of Qohelet takes on a distinctive retrospective quality in its first-person voicing—a dimension of the work which has been recently discussed by Thomas Bolin and Matthew Suriano. Many years before Bolin and Suriano explored voicing in Qohelet, Wright explored the construction of the “I” voice in his study, “Ben Sira on the Sage as Exemplar,” (169). There he speaks of the “deliberate self-presentation” of Ben Sira’s “authorial ‘voice,’” noting that “Ben Sira wants his reader to perceive the ‘I’ who speaks here,” and that “the ‘I’ passages serve a specific function in the book.’” Wright points out that we should consider the use of the first-person voice in Ben Sira alongside similar usage of this voice by the characters of Moses in Jubilees and Ezra in 4 Ezra. In his study, “From Generation to Generation: The Sage as Father in Early Jewish Literature,” Wright examines the relational implications of the “I” voice, that such a presentation of sagely advice from the father in the first person to the child in the second person “draws, even coerces, whoever reads the text into this same relationship, one in which the author’s words possess the force of paternal authority,” (27).
How should we understand the specific function of the first person voice in these texts? As Wright hints in his work, this particular presentation of speech is not limited to articulating a relationship between teacher and student, modeled upon the father-son relationship. This voice also intersects richly with the literary practice of attribution and the author-function, a practice that Benjamin. Wright and Mroczek have recently argued that the construction of such a voice reaches its apex in Ben Sira, with the speaker’s self-identification as one of Israel’s legendary characters. It is clear that there is something about the first-person voice that makes this configuration a popular choice for the framing of texts in this period: something that surely has much to do with the authorizing and authenticating aspects of attribution; something that shapes the agency of speakers in a text and reconciles the disembodied nature of the textual medium itself.
Yet in Genesis Apocryphon, those legendary characters, re-empowered in telling their tales in their own voice—Lamech, Enoch, Noah, and Abram—are all men. No legendary women here tell their tales. But in Genesis 12, the story of Abram’s danger in Egypt and his subsequent amassment of riches—Sarai’s role is central. Nevertheless, her character is silent, voiceless, and without any agency at all. The version of this story in Genesis Apocryphon expands her role and gives her a voice in the most effective of ways. While Sarai’s beauty is passive in Genesis 12, in Genesis Apocryphon, the story draws upon existing literary tropes of agency through beauty—first through the botanical image of the date palm (the ‘Tamar’ character), and then through the association of beauty with wisdom and action in the alphabetic acrostic of the Capable Woman in Prov 31:10-31.
Abram and Sarai in Genesis 12
The story opens with a famine (v.10), which motivates Abram to go to Egypt. But as Abram enters Egypt he recognizes that Sarai’s beauty is a liability for his own safety, and tells her as much (vv.11-12). Without seemingly any concern for Sarai’s safety or voiced consent, Abram devises a plan to save himself: Sarai will say that she is Abram’s sister (v.13). Events then unfold as Abram had predicted: Pharaoh’s men see Sarai’s beauty and speak her praises to Pharaoh (vv. 14-15). As we will see in the Genesis Apocryphon version, this moment in which Sarai’s beauty is praised is expanded to include an full performance of praise—a praise that engages other traditions of wisdom and agency through beauty, notably Prov 31:10-31 (1Q20 20:2-8). In Gen 12:16, explicitly as a result of Abram’s scheme to present Sarai as his sister, Abram experiences great material success, acquiring animals and servants. This success, bestowed upon Abram by Pharaoh, is countered in by Yahweh’s affliction of Pharaoh and his household, “on Sarai’s account, the wife of Abram” (v.17). Through no further elaboration, Pharaoh comes to understand that this affliction results from Pharaoh’s acquisition of Sarai, Abram’s wife, as his own wife (vv.18-19). The incident is resolved through the expulsion of Abram and Sarai from the court. But Abram gets to keep his wealth (v.20). As we learn from the subsequent episode in the present form of the narrative (in Gen 13:1-2), Abram is now quite wealthy and the audience can rest assured that no loss was incurred through their encounter with Pharaoh. But something—or someone—is missing in the story: Sarai. Certainly, as the plot works itself out, it is due to Sarai’s beauty that Abram’s scheme even works out: they pretend to be siblings, and as her brother, he can marry her off to Pharaoh with limited risk to his own life and significant material gain. But what of Sarai? She does not speak even once throughout the entire episode. Even when Abram speaks directly to her in vv. 11-13, she does not respond. Sarai—along with her passive physical attributes—functions as a narrative device for Abram’s survival and indeed what turns out to be his material success. Wealth, of course, along with progeny, indicates divine favor. Abram is rewarded for the foresight of his scheme—but what of Sarai? Wasn’t this ultimately her doing—without her beauty none of Abram’s safety or success would have been possible.
Abram and Sarai in Genesis Apocryphon
In a recent collaboration with Suzanne Edwards entitled, “‘She Undid Him with the Beauty of Her Face’ (Jdt 16.6),” Wright points out that in Genesis Apocryphon, Sarai’s role is widened, reshaping “the text’s construction of gender,” (21). In Genesis Apocryphon, not only does Sarai speak, pivotal elements of the story—Abram’s scheme to present Sarai as his sister and the praise of the Pharaoh’s men of Sarai’s beauty—are expanded and recast to give Sarai agency in the unfolding of events and Abram’s ultimate success. In this retelling, Sarai’s mere presence—her appearance in dreams and her beauty—is configured as agency, shaping the plot as it unfolds.
In the Genesis account, Abram simply tells Sarai of his scheme to avoid imminent death at the hands of Pharaoh. But in Genesis Apocryphon, this scheme comes to Abram as a dream whose meaning is unclear. Only once Abram tells Sarai of this dream does he come to understand its significance. Sarai also functions centrally in the dream itself. There, she objects to violence towards Abram. Through botanical imagery, with Abram and Sarai as different types of trees, this objection is formulated as a statement of kinship between Sarai and Abram. In the dream, Abram is a cedar tree which is about to be uprooted. One might look to Psalm 92:13, where the cedar tree is symbolic of wealth. But the richer image is to be found in Sarai’s role in the dream as a date palm—a Tamar. There is a tradition of seductively beautiful family members named Tamar in biblical narrative. In 2 Samuel 13, as David’s daughter raped by her half-brother Amnon, Tamar’s beauty is tragic and the unraveling of David’s family as the prophet Nathan had predicted. But in Genesis 38, the incestuous Tamar saves the line of Judah—her character goes where it should not, sexually speaking, but ultimately redeems the entire family. While the Tamar of Genesis 38 evinces a kind of agency that the Tamar of 2 Samuel 13 is robbed of, both characters are participants (willing or not) in incest. Like the date palm tree, the roots of the Tamar character intertwines with the roots of others. In Abram’s dream, Sarai-as-Tamar objects to the uprooting of the cedar because their roots are intertwined—that is, they are family—and because of this, the cedar is spared.
Sarai’s agency does not end with her appearance in the dream. Sarai resists being seen by Pharaoh or his men for five years (1Q20 19:22-23). But when they finally arrive, presumably see her beauty, and report back to the king—the text is fragmentary here, but one understands from the conclusion in 1Q20 20:8 that the subsequent text belongs to the speech of Hyrcanos and his two associates. The content of the praise speech is entirely absent in Genesis 12. There, the narrator simply states in v.15, ויראו אתה שׂרי פרעה ויהללו אתה אל פרעה , “Pharaoh’s ministers saw her and praised her to Pharaoh.” The nature and content of this praise is imagined in Genesis Apocryphon, where it assumes the form of a praise of beauty—just as the description is offered of Absalom’s beauty, that from the crown of his head to the sole of his foot he was without blemish. But here the praise poem of Hyrcanos and his associates does something unusual: Sarai’s beauty is elevated to a praise of skill. This, as others such as Muraoka have mentioned, is a praise uniquely found in the alphabetic acrostic praising the Capable Wife in Prov 31:10-31. While in Proverbs, the praise explicitly demotes passive beauty as a virtue while elevating agency and skill, here in Genesis Apocryphon, Sarai’s passive beauty serves as an indicator for skill and agency.
Finally, in Genesis Apocryphon, Sarai actually speaks. She pronounces the words “He is my brother” to Pharaoh. In Genesis Apocryphon, Abram—who is tellingtells the story in his own first person voice—immediately explains that it was Sarai’s words—these words—that spared his life. Abram then seeks redress from the deity in weeping and direct petition (1Q20 20:11-15), and the deity sent a “destructive wind to smite him” (רוח מכדש למכתשה) and this affliction caused him to be unable to consummate the marriage and brought disease to the whole entire household. No learned or skilled individual in the medical-magical arts was able to exorcise this wind, since (1Q20 20:20) the wind afflicted them as well, and then Hyrcanos returns to Abram and asks for a cure. Once again, the solution lies with Sarai. As she remains in Pharaoh’s household, no amount of skill can cure the affliction, but the moment Sarai returns to Abram, the curse can be lifted (1Q20 20:23). Once Sarai leaves along with Pharaoh’s sworn oath that he had not touched her, it is Sarai who is given great material wealth (1Q20 20:31), not Abram. This intriguing shift is, however, softened by the episode’s conclusion, where Abram is described as a wealthy man leaving Egypt (1Q20 20:33) as he is described in Gen 13:1. In Genesis Apocryphon, Sarai derives power from presence, appearance, and speech: She appears in Abram’s dream, her beauty allows Abram to survive and thrive under Pharaoh’s rule, and ultimately her removal from Pharaoh’s household lifts the curse. Sarai’s presence—her inherent and passive beauty—is the very quality that gives her agency, shapes the outcome of events, and ultimately deems her wise.
The “I” voice has a power in these ancient texts that modern readers have not yet fully understood. The first person voice, as Wright’s work on Second Temple wisdom texts has productively explored, can draw—indeed, in his words, “coerce”—the reader into a relationship with the text’s speaker. This voice also takes on the memorializing and even authoritative dimension of testament: the words of the father on his deathbed, the sage to his student who will then teach the next generation, and the prophet’s report of divine words to his people. This voice also richly intersects with the literary practice of attribution, expanding a legendary character’s biography through the device of that character’s own constructed voice. But these speakers are all men. How, we have asked, does gender figure within such a matrix of the text’s ability to authorize its claims? In Genesis Apocryphon, it is not only the male legendary characters like Noah, Lamech, and Abram whose agency is widened in the telling of their own tales. Sarai too, through her beauty and her speaking voice, is reconfigured as a character whose distinctly feminine presence—as a tamar appearing in a dream, as an arresting beauty, and ultimately as a voice of wisdom—impels the plot forward and shapes the history of Israel.
Bolin, Thomas. Ecclesiastes and the Riddle of Authorship. London: Routledge, 2016.
Mroczek, Eva. The Literary Imagination in Jewish Antiquity. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.
Suriano, Matthew. “Kingship and Carpe Diem, Between Gilgamesh and Qoheleth.” VT 67 (2017) 285-306.
Wright, Benjamin and Suzanne Edwards. “‘She Undid Him with the Beauty of her Face’ (Jdt 16.6): Reading Women’s Bodies in Early Jewish Literature.”
Wright, Benjamin. “Wisdom and Women at Qumran.” DSD 11 (2004) 240-61. Reprinted in Praise Israel, 3-24.
Wright, Benjamin. “From Generation to Generation: The Sage as Father in Early Jewish Literature.” 309-32 in Biblical Traditions in Transmission: Essays in Honour of Michael Knibb, edited by Charlotte Hempel and Judith M. Lieu. JSJSupp 111. Leiden: Brill, 2006. Reprinted in Praise Israel 25-48.
Wright, Benjamin. “Ben Sira on the Sage as Exemplar.” 165-182 in Praise Israel.
Jacqueline Vayntrub is Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies at Brandeis University. She received her PhD from the University of Chicago in 2015. She has published articles on biblical and ancient Near Eastern wisdom and poetry and its framing. Her first book, Beyond Orality, will be published by Routledge in 2018.