The Art Archive/Museo Civico, Modena, Italy/Dagli Orti (A)

Sarah consorts with Abraham outside Pharaoh’s palace in this 1875 painting by Giovanni Muzzioli from the Museo Civico in Modena, Italy. In Genesis 12, Abraham and Sarah flee to Egypt because of a famine in Canaan. Once there, Abraham fears that Sarah is so beautiful, someone will murder him in order to take her. He asks Sarah to pose as his sister. She does, and she is soon taken to live in the palace as Pharaoh’s wife. When a series of plagues strike Egypt, Pharaoh realizes that he has been tricked and he summons Abraham for questioning: “Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her as my wife? Now, here is your wife; take her and begone!” (Genesis 12:19). Sarah and Abraham return to Israel via the Negev desert.

The key to interpreting this unsettling episode is to remember that the woman—in this case, Sarah—represents Israel. Her sojourn in Egypt presages the events in Exodus: A famine leads Israel-Sarah to enter Egypt, where Israel-Sarah is taken into captivity; after suffering a series of plagues, Pharaoh casts her out and she travels home through the wilderness.