Most people look at the world through the perspective of the society in which they were raised. Their views on everything from beauty to manners to equal rights are framed by the history they know and the people around them. Therefore, when the narratives in the Torah are read, it is imperative that one do their best to understand the society in which the Jewish ancestors lived.

Using this historic filter is particularly important when reviewing the narratives about the lives of the matriarchs. Understanding how harrowing ancient times (and not so ancient times) could be for women helps one better understand why, for instance, Isaac would lie about his relationship with his wife, Rebecca, and state that she is his sister (Genesis 26). He did so out of fear that the men of the place would kill a man to take his wife, but with a brother there would be extra time while they tried to broker a match (see Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch on Genesis 12). And while King Abimelech, who noticed the unsibling-like behavior of the couple, was irrate that he had been lied to, he was not dismissive of their fears. “And Abimelech said: ‘What have you done to us? One of the people might easily have lain with your wife, and you would have brought guilt upon us.’ And Abimelech charged all the people, saying: ‘Anyone who touches this man or his wife shall surely be put to death’” (Genesis 26:10-11).

It is easy, from a modern perspective, to read this narrative (and the two similar one’s earlier in Genesis – 12 and 20 – that involved Sarah) and worry about biblical chauvinism and patriarchal inequality. However, as news today regularly uncovers the outrageous behaviors of our civilized society, one should, perhaps, laud the actions of Isaac to go to such great lengths to protect Rebecca.

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