Retelling the Bible, Lawrence H. Schiffman, Reclaiming the Dead Sea Scrolls, Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia 1994.


The previous chapter detailed certain apocryphal-type texts that involve retelling the Bible. Now we look at some of this material from the point of view of biblical exegesis, for whenever a biblical tale or account is retold, we encounter a form of interpretation. In Second Temple times, such retellings were quite common; they have come down to us in both Hebrew and Aramaic. Although the texts representing this approach in the Qumran documents were in some cases presectarian, in others they agreed strongly with sectarian views and may actually have stemmed from the group itself.

We turn first to Genesis Apocryphon, a retelling of the Book of Genesis, which, like other Aramaic texts in the scrolls corpus, probably predates the Qumran sect, going back to sometime during the pre-Maccabean period. Among the best-preserved sections of the scroll are those dealing with Abraham and Sarah.

In Genesis 12-10–13 we are told matter-of-factly that Abram (his name before God changed it to Abraham as a symbol of the covenant) had to go down to Egypt because of the famine in the Land of Canaan. As Abram and his wife neared the border, he told his wife to say that they were brother and sister, so that he would not be killed, for Sarai (Sarah’s name was also still unchanged) was such a beautiful woman. The text seems to assume that the Egyptians would kill Abram in order to take his wife. Commentators have pondered this story since ancient times, unable to understand by what right Abram could tell such a lie that would leave his wife subject to violation by the Egyptians in any case.

Genesis Apocryphon seeks to solve this problem in its retelling of the biblical story by relating the following incident not found in the biblical text-

Then I, Abram, dreamt a dream on the night I entered the land of Egypt. And I saw in my dream [that there wa]s a cedar, and a very beautiful date palm. Then some men came and they wanted to cut down and to uproot the cedar, and to leave the date palm by itself …. At night I awoke from my sleep and said to Sarai, my wife, “I dreamt a dream [and I] am frightened by this dream.” … [And I made known] to [her the meaning of this] dream [and] s[aid], “[There are those] who will seek to kill me and to spare you. [No]w this is the entire favor which you must do for me-] wherever [we shall be, say,] ‘He is my brother.’ Then I shall live because of you and my life will be saved because of you.” (GENESIS APOCRYPHON 19-14–20)

To answer the question of why Abraham would suddenly ask his wife to lie about their relationship, the text explains that he did it to save his life. Yet in the process the author fills in details of the story. Indeed, this kind of biblical retelling, typical also of the Hebrew Book of Jubilees, shares this tendency with later rabbinic Aggadah, a sort of expository narrative interpretation that on the surface seems merely a collection of legends about the Bible. When investigated carefully, however, the Aggadah turns out to be an attempt to fill in the interstices in the text, the gaps left blank by the biblical narrative but crying out for interpretation. This form of narrative retelling of the Bible, found in presectarian documents in the Qumran corpus, proves that this approach was developing extensively in pre-Maccabean times.

Pages 217-218

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