Politics & Policy

Sarah’s Been There

Iraq takes an American woman prisoner.

The most disturbing note so far to be sounded in the present war was the news that among U.S. troops captured by the Iraqis there was a woman. In gloating fashion, al Jazeera aired a disgusting Iraqi-made video showing images of the soldiers being interrogated. While American media outlets rightly declined to broadcast the footage, reports made clear how grotesque it is. The female solider in particular was said (by CNN) to appear “terrified.”

Not at all for the first time in this conflict, the Bible comes to mind: in particular the first woman captive in the Bible, Abraham’s wife Sarah.

No war in the past half-century has been as fraught with meanings that recall Scriptural stories. This is true not only for avowedly religious folk — I’m sure it’s true for President Bush — but it is evident even in purely secular sources like the New York Times, whose Baghdad correspondent, for instance, describes the “almost biblical” pounding the Iraqi capital daily receives.

Because I just wrote a book about Abraham, I’ve looked at this war through the lens of that Biblical patriarch’s story. But even if I’d written no such book, the traditions about him would be apropos, often eerily and painfully so. As Jewish tradition relates, everything Abraham did reverberates down through the millennia as do the deeds of no other Biblical figure. His actions cut grooves in history in which we still live our lives. Says the rabbinic work Genesis Rabbah: “Thus you find that whatever is written concerning Abraham is also written concerning his children” — meaning, in context, the Jewish people. But as Christians will rightly point out, they are Abraham’s children as well.

The story in Genesis 12 concerns Abraham and Sarah’s flight from famine in the land of Canaan, to Egypt. Actually at this time the couple were still called Abram and Sarai. On arriving in the land of the Nile, Sarai is immediately noticed by Pharaoh’s courtiers, who are shocked and awed by her beauty — a radiance so unworldly it fills the whole land of Egypt.

Needless to say, what sickens us about imagining a woman held captive is the unspeakable thought of what men with no respect for women could do to her. Sarai is held in Pharaoh’s palace, where he approaches her, perhaps even lays a hand on her skin.

Little did he know — as midrashic tradition recounts, telling a more detailed version of the story than does the Bible itself — that an angel was in the room, unseen to anyone but Sarai. Ten times, the angel asked Sarai whether she would have him strike the Egyptian king with a gruesome sexual affliction called rattan. Ten times she said yes, and not only Pharaoh but also his entire household retinue, including the palace itself, were afflicted, until even the very walls pulsed with plague spots. Finally the king decided the best course of action was not merely to let Abram and Sarai go but forcibly to get them out of there as soon as possible.

The story closely parallels the chronologically later Biblical narrative of the Israelites held captive in Egypt — whose Pharaoh frees the enslaved people only after enduring ten plagues.

Their freedom is recalled in three weeks at the festival of Passover, where the emphasis is not on a long ago happening, but rather on an event that serves as a model for all genuine liberations to come. Whenever a person or a people is freed from an enslavement — private or public, from masters ranging from a personal addiction or bad habit, to the wickedest tyrant, a Saddam or a Stalin or a Hitler — the liberation from Egypt is being played out again. Sarai’s liberation, Israel’s liberation, is our own.

When confronted with terrible news like the seizure of an American woman by Saddamite Iraqis, it is a comfort to know that there is a pattern in history. Pharaoh may have laid a hand on Sarai, but he paid for it, with a fully “biblical” pounding rendered ten times in succession, much as Baghdad is paying, probably as you are reading this. And then Pharaoh let her go.

America will pound Saddam’s regime again and again. Then, along with the Iraqi people themselves, our captives will be liberated. History guarantees it.

David Klinghoffer’s new book is The Discovery of God: Abraham and the Birth of Monotheism, published this month by Doubleday.

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