Sarai’s Exodus: from My Princess to Princess (Genesis 12)

In Genesis 12:10-20, immediately after the call of Abram (aka Abraham) and his journey to Canaan (aka the Promised Land), the author tells the following disconcerting narrative:

Abram and Sarai in Egypt

Now there was a famine in the land. So Abram went down to Egypt to reside there as an alien, for the famine was severe in the land. When he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, “I know well that you are a woman beautiful in appearance; and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife’; then they will kill me, but they will let you live. Say you are my sister, so that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared on your account.” When Abram entered Egypt the Egyptians saw that the woman was very beautiful. When the officials of Pharaoh saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh. And the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house. And for her sake he dealt well with Abram; and he had sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male and female slaves, female donkeys, and camels.

But the Lord afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife. So Pharaoh called Abram, and said, “What is this you have done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife? Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her for my wife? Now then, here is your wife, take her, and be gone.” And Pharaoh gave his men orders concerning him; and they set him on the way, with his wife and all that he had. (Genesis 12:10-20 NRSV)

So, what is going on here?

Think Exodus.

While traditionally the correct answer in Sunday School is “Jesus”, my classes both at Church and in the Academic setting know that the correct answer is “the Exodus.” Even if you want to understand Jesus, then you need to know the basic plot and significant moments in the Exodus. In this narrative, Abram and Sarai experience an Exodus in miniature.


First, there is a famine in the land which foreshadows another famine in the time of Jacob (Israel) that will result in Jacob and his 12 sons going down to Egypt. In time, they will be enslaved to Pharaoh.

Sold into Slavery

In the case of Abram and Sarai, Sarai is effectively sold into slavery by her husband as he seeks to protect himself from Pharaoh.


When Sarai is taken into Pharaoh’s harem, the god who called Abrahm sends plagues as a warning to Pharaoh.

The Big Difference

The big difference between the Pharaoh in this scenario and the Pharaoh in the time of Moses is that the Pharaoh responds to plagues and returns Sarai to Abram. Moreover, Pharaoh admonishes Abram for deceiving him.

Deconstructing Patriarchy

In this narrative (and the two others like it), Sarai (later Sarah) and later Rebekah are representative of the nation of Israel whom the LORD rescues.

Feminist interpreters rightly draw attention to the silence and passivity of the women in these narratives (and much of Scripture). While the silence of the women likely reflects the patriarchal nature of the status of women as property in the day, in my opinion, the text is also subverting these cultural assumptions.

That is, I believe that in the narrative god in protecting and rescuing Sarai is informing Abram that the story and the promise are not simply about him. Rather, the promised nation will come through Sarai. Abram is a slow learner. The use of Hagar suggests Sarai herself fails to get the message.

  • In the ancient world (and frankly up until relatively recent history), it was assumed that in procreation men contributed the seed and women were the fertile soil. In other words, only men contributed to the material existence of their offspring. Even the phrase “bun in the oven” suggests something similar.

Thematically, Abram and Sarai are a new Adam and Eve. In electing Abram, God is also electing Sarai. Indeed, I believe the change of name also supports such a reading of the text. Sarai becomes Sarah. “My princess” becomes simply “Princess.”

The woman once called Sarai, my princess, by her father, her husband, a Pharaoh, and Abimelech, is now called Sarah. She is a Princess in her own right. The possessive is removed.

For some related reading see: Battered Love by Renita Weems and God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality by Phyllis Trible

#abraham #sarah #genesis12 #feministinterpretation #exodus #thinkexodus #patriarchy #genesis

Related Posts: Dear Abe: Bronze Age Advice for Post-Modern TimesGenesis 3: What is Adam doing?


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