a1 University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida
In Genesis 26, one of the so-called wife–sister stories, Abimelech King of Gerar catches Isaac “playing” with the woman he had introduced as his sister, namely, Rebekah his wife. He immediately confronts the trickster, rebuking him for presenting his wife as a single and therefore sexually available woman: “What is this you have done to us? One of the people could easily have lain with your wife, and you would have brought guilt upon us” (Genesis 26:10). Abimelech's remarks ought to give one pause. He apparently suggests that sexual contact with this Hebrew woman is as easy as brushing elbows with a stranger in a crowded street, which is to say, he fails to consider or even acknowledge the possibility that Rebekah might have just said “No!” Furthermore, the narrowly avoided “guilt” he refers to consists not of this woman's rape by some local sexual predator—in which case her secret identity as Isaac's wife would be irrelevant—but of an otherwise innocent man's unwitting violation, consensual or nonconsensual, it matters not, of her treacherously concealed marital obligations. In other words, the underlying legal reasoning here conceives of Rebekah not as an autonomous subject whose rights (i.e., the right to refuse a sexual advance) must be protected, but as an object within the domain of her husband, whose prior claims—namely, to sexual exclusivity—must be respected. Abimelech's at-first puzzling remarks, then, provide us with a glimpse into a wholly foreign legal episteme or discursive formation.
(Online publication May 06 2011)
I would like to thank Laura Quilter, Stephen Russell and the anonymous reader at the AJS Review, whose astute comments helped me to improve this article. I am also grateful to the organizers and participants of the Annual Conference of the AJS (2006) and of the International Meeting of the SBL (2006), where I read it in abbreviated form. I wrote the first version of this study in the spring of 2006, while a Dorot assistant professor and faculty fellow in New York University's Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies, and it was there that I first presented the ideas developed more fully here; on that occasion, Mark Smith in particular provided generous encouragement and feedback. In appreciation of the three years I spent at Washington Square Park, I dedicate this article to that wonderful department and to my friends and colleagues there.