Sunday, February 18, 2018

Genesis 17.1-16: Her New Name

The reading from Hebrew scripture for Lent 2B is part of the epic (Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16). In this section, God promises that Abraham will be the ancestor of multitudes of people. And then, to mark this promise, both patriarch and matriarch receive new names. Abram becomes Abraham. Sarai becomes Sarah. And the name Sarah, in Hebrew, means princess.

So it's surprising that Sarah is often shown looking more like a peasant than a princess. Granted, a royal wardrobe doesn't make much sense in an everyday nomadic life in a dusty climate. But are we so used to thinking of everyday Sarah that we forget her name may be an insight into who Sarah is. One artistic exception to "everyday Sarah" are works by James Tissot that depict the stories of Abraham and Sarah in Egypt. In his vast number of paintings of Biblical subjects, Tissot sought to create work that truly pictured the events of the Bible. He wasn't always correct. Sometimes the romanticism of it all or incomplete archaeology led him astray. But whether totally accurate or not, Tissot's images of Sarah in Egypt seem more princess-like than many others.
James Jacques Joseph Tissot. (left) The Egyptians Admire Sarai's Beauty. Watercolor and gouache. (right) Sarai is Taken to Pharaoh's Palace. 1896-1902. Watercolor and gouache. The Jewish Museum.
Sarah is dressed similarly in the two images.* She is wrapped in layers of clothing with gold bracelets up her forearms. An elaborate headdress covers all but her face. The headdress is similar in feel to the very elaborate headdress of Puabi, presumably a Sumerian queen (below). The elaborate framework and use of gold are similar. And the star-flowers on the crown of the headdress are similar shapes to elements on Sarah's waist in the "Admire" painting.
Queen Puabi's Headdress (reconstruction). University of Pennsylvania Museum. 
Puabi's grave, found in the Royal Cemetery of Ur, was discovered in 1928 by Leonard Woolley. The tombs from Ur (near the Euphrates in what is today Iraq) date between 2600-2500 BCE. In addition to the queen, two attendants were found with her in the grave. She was buried as a queen would be buried. We may usually think of Sarah more as matriarch, but we know about her burial, too. Genesis 23 tells about her death and that Abraham purchased a tomb for her. For a princess. 

*Sarah's body language and facial expression in these paintings are certainly worth considering in light of the content of the stories, but are not discussed here because the Egypt stories are not the reading for this week.

For thoughts on the gospel lesson for Lent 2B (Mark 8:31-38) click here.
For an introduction to the Tree of Abraham on the Art&Faith Matters Facebook page, click here.  

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