Symbolic Sarah
This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Symbolic Sarah*

When Alexander the Great established the city of Alexandria in Egypt, to which he proudly attached his own name, he intended it to serve as a showcase for the finest achievements of Greek culture and the conduit through which real civilization (which of course was an exclusively Greek monopoly) could be brought to the unenlightened denizens of the orient.

The Jewish community that developed there assimilated many aspects of the Greek ethos, but for the most part remained loyal to their own religious traditions. This produced a fascinating scholarly synthesis as they learned to blend philosophical rationalism with the study of the Torah.

Most of what we know about the Alexandrian Jewish endeavour in biblical interpretation has reached us in the oeuvre of the first-century C.E. scholar known as Philo Judaeus. His detailed analyses of passages from the Torah offer precious glimpses into the variety and complexity of the exegetical approaches; and he often compares his own readings with those of his contemporaries who were involved in similar projects.

Probably the most distinctive innovation of the Alexandrian Jewish exegetes was their application of the allegorical method to the sacred text. That is to say, they would explain that certain events or personalities in the Bible should be understood as symbols representing concepts or values. This method, which Greek scholars had applied to the works of Homer, had an inherently subversive aspect to it; if used to excess, it could lead to the denial of the literal truth of the Bible, or (as would later become a major point of contention between traditional Judaism and nascent Christianity) to the abandonment of the commandments after one had grasped their allegorical meanings. Philo himself tried to steer a moderate course in this matter. He criticized the more extreme allegorists who had ceased observing the traditional religious rituals. He seemed to prefer applying the allegorical method only in cases where the literal sense raised interpretative or philosophical difficulties.

We see some remarkable examples of the Alexandrian allegorical approach in Philo’s depictions of the matriarch Sarah.

In several of his commentaries Philo equates Sarah with the noblest kind of philosophical or theological wisdom. Thus, in a discourse about Sarah's dismissal of her Egyptian maid Hagar, he contrasts the mistress Sarah with Hagar who is made to symbolize inferior secular culture. Only philosophical learning qualifies for the honour and reverence due to a true "wife" (Sarah) while lesser studies are merely her “handmaidens” (Hagar). As such, after they have served their purpose it is essential to graduate to a higher plane—to send away Hagar—and not remain at the elementary level. In this case, it is likely that Philo’s chose to interpret this episode allegorically because of the moral difficulties raised by its literal plot in such troubling matters as Abraham’s supplanting his wife with a surrogate, and Sarah’s cruel treatment of Hagar.

When commenting on God’s promise to Abraham that Sarah will bear him an heir—“and I will bless her, and give thee a son from her”—Philo cites no fewer than four different attempts to explain the (ostensibly superfluous) words “from her,” which in the Greek translation (which served as the basis for those commentaries) can have the sense of “outside of her.” Allegorically understanding that Sarah symbolizes the soul in its quest for spiritual perfection, the interpreters explained (in various ways) that the Torah is teaching us how true spiritual wisdom cannot be generated by the individual, but it must be receptive to benevolence from "outside"—from God who generously bestows this wisdom upon us.

Alternatively, in her allegorical guise as the personification of Virtue, Sarah was being depicted as the mother of all good things, where their father is God. Here as well, Philo indicates that he was impelled to interpret the biblical text in an allegorical manner because he felt that the literal meaning—that a woman who was explicitly described as “barren” was able to conceive a child—ran contrary to reason. On the other hand, if we choose to understand that the Torah is not speaking about the historical Sarah but about a symbol of the human soul, which is "barren" as long as it is pursuing wicked thoughts but becomes fruitful when it fortifies itself against the temptations of the flesh, then the story becomes morally edifying.

In fact, it seems that Philo had problems coming to terms with Abraham and Sarah’s stable marriage. According to the Greek philosophical values with which he identified, true philosophers ought to relinquish the pleasures of the flesh and devote themselves entirely to metaphysical contemplation. Women represent erotic temptation, and as such their company should be avoided other than whatever is necessary to produce a family. In keeping with this manner of thinking, Philo explains the Torah’s statement that “it ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women” as if it were saying that, as the embodiment of spiritual virtue, she elected to become celibate and voluntarily withdrew from domestic life with her husband. As such, she was now qualified to devote herself to a spiritual “marriage” with God which generated spiritual offspring.

Elsewhere, Philo cites still another allegorical interpretation to that text which he ascribes to certain "natural scientists," and with which he felt obliged to disagree. They chose to understand that Abraham, the husband, was meant to symbolize the Mind, while Sarah represents Virtue This imagery was suggested by her name which means “princess”—and of course in the spiritual realm nothing governs more powerfully than Virtue. Those scientific interpreters were aware that on the literal, physical plane, women are invariably passive parties who are subordinate to their husbands and receive everything from them. This Greek ideal is not quite in keeping with the active role that is assigned to Sarah in the Torah’s narrative, or with the philosophical doctrine that the Mind is subject to the dictates of Virtue in its pursuit of spiritual perfection. Therefore they found it convenient to construe Abraham and Sarah as allegorical concepts that are outside the norms of human family dynamics. True, in a family setting wives should be dominated by their husbands; but in the world of philosophical concepts Virtue is an active force that exerts a decisive influence on the Mind by bestowing sound moral counsel.

Philo was sympathetic to the basic premise of the scientists’ argument, but was too much of a male chauvinist to countenance a reversal of the gender roles even at an abstract theoretical level. He therefore chose a different solution to the conundrum, by turning the allegory around (arguing that previous interpreters had been misled by the grammatical genders of the operative Greek words). In reality, Philo argued, Abraham symbolized the active power of Virtue, while Sarah was the passive Mind—accurately reflecting the ideal gender hierarchy of a family.

And so—-will the real Sarah please stand up!

Are you Wisdom, the Soul, Virtue, or Mind?

Although there is no doubt much to be learned from allegorical interpretations of the Torah, I personally prefer to be inspired by our mother Sarah as a complex and very real flesh-and-blood human being.

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  • First Publication:
    • The Jewish Free Press, Calgary, November 6, 2015, p. 10.
  • For further reading:
    • Amir, Yehoshua. “The Transference of Greek Allegories to Biblical Motifs in Philo.” In Nourished with Peace: Studies in Hellenistic Judaism in Memory of Samuel Sandmel, edited by Edward Greenspahn, Earl Hilgert, and Burton Lee Mack, 15–25. Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1984.
    • Barrett, C. K. “The Allegory of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar in the Argument of Galatians.” In Rechtfertigung: Festschrift Für Ernst Käsemann Zum 70. Geburtstag, edited by J. Friedrich, W. Pöhlmann, and P. Stuhlmacher, 1–16. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1976.
    • Belkin, Samuel. The Midrash of Philo. Edited by Elazar Hurvitz. New York: Yeshiva University Press, 1989. [Hebrew]
    • Borgen, Peder. Philo of Alexandria: An Exegete for His Time. Supplements to Novum Testamentum. Leiden: Brill, 1997.
    • Niehoff, Maren R. “Mother and Maiden, Sister and Spouse: Sarah in Philonic Midrash.” Harvard Theological Review 97, no. 4 (2004): 413–44.
    • Sly, Dorothy. Philo’s Perception of Women. Brown Judaic Studies 209. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1990.
    • Stein, Edmund. Die allegorische exegese des Philo aus Alexandreia. Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 51. Giessen: A. Töpelmann, 1929.
    • Wegner, Judith Romney. “Philo’s Portrayal of Women: Hebraic or Hellenic?” In “Women Like This”: New Perspectives on Jewish Women in the Greco-Roman World, edited by Amy-Jill Levine, 41–66. Society of Biblical LIterature: Early Judaism and Its Literature 1. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1991.
    • Wolfson, Harry Austryn. Philo: Foundations of Religious Philosophy in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1948