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In 2017, economists predict that people will spend $265 billion dollars on beauty products and services worldwide. To put that number in perspective, Facebook, one of the ten most valuable companies in the world, was worth $250 billion as of June 2015 . The countries of Chile, Ireland, and New Zealand all have yearly GDPs significantly lower than $265 billion.
Clearly, beauty is a priority with for a lot of people. And with good reason: according to the BBC, a recent study of MBA graduates showed that those who were considered beautiful tended to make 10-15% more on average. Physically attractive people are viewed as being more trustworthy, intelligent, and likeable on average. Furthermore, beauty and romantic love have gone hand-in-hand for centuries. Just try to find a love song or poem that doesn’t make at least a passing reference to the beloved’s looks!
When we think about beauty, Abraham/Abram’s wife Sarai is not usually the first person to come to mind. She is most known for giving birth to her son Isaac at the age of 90 – hardly the prime of life for most people's physical appearance. Yet, on two separate occasions, Sarai’s incredible beauty led to embarrassment and danger, both for her and others.
Genesis 12:10-20 and 20:1-18 relate two times when Abram attempts the same trick - telling local leaders that his wife Sarai is his sister - in an attempt to avoid imprisonment and death. In the first passage, the two of them travel to Egypt and Abram is afraid that the Pharaoh will want Sarai as his concubine. “I know that you are a woman beautiful in appearance,” he tells Sarai, “and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me, but they will let you live” (Genesis 12:11-12).
Abram poses as Sarai’s brother, and his deception initially pays off; instead of seeing him as competition, the Pharaoh takes Sarai to his household and gives Abram servants and livestock in return for his “sister.” God, however, curses the Pharoah until he lets Sarai go, incensed that Abram unnecessarily lied to him.
Eight chapters later, Abram – now Abraham – tries the same trick with Abimelech, the king of Gerar. Once again, the king takes Sarah to be a concubine, and this time God comes to him in a dream, warning that if he does not return Sarah to her husband he will kill Abimelech and make his people infertile. Terrified and angry, Abimelech returns Sarah to her husband, gives Abraham great blessings of servants and livestock, and begs them to leave.
(Oddly enough, Abimelech has terrible luck. Years later, Abraham’s son Isaac visits Gerar, claims his wife Rebekah is his sister, and Abimelech finds out just in time. You would think that he would institute some sort of system demanding background checks for potential wives after that point).
Two things about this pair of stories are fascinating. The first is that Abraham is so willing to give up his wife. He automatically and correctly assumes that other men will desire his wife, but his goal isn’t to protect her or preserve his marriage. Rather, his first priority is saving his own skin, even if it means breaking the marriage vows he took years before.
Secondly – as was almost always the case in the ancient world – Sarah has no say in the matter. She is a piece of property to be disputed or compensated for by men. Abraham assumes that her beauty will be seen as an invitation – and he’s right.
Thousands of years later, beauty is often still seen as an invitation.
Thousands of years later, beauty is often still seen as an invitation. Women in the public sphere are mocked are derided if they don’t focus on their appearance, but if they are beautiful they can expect unwanted attention and sexual advances on a regular basis.
Some will argue that women should welcome such attention as complimentary. Others will argue that women invite unwanted attention through the way they dress, and are responsible for men’s actions towards them. This attitude pervades a lot of Christian advice about modesty. “If it’s not on the menu,” Hailey DeMarco says bluntly in Dateable, “keep it covered up.”
The implication of this statement, though – that what isn’t covered up is “on the menu” for men – is a troubling one. For one thing, there are a lot of societal expectations overlaying what a woman wears and what it says about her, as powerfully illustrated by university student Rosea Lake’s photo project, Judgment (via The Toronto Star).
Secondly, rape occurs in every country, including the ones where women are forced by law to cover their bodies from head to toe, dismissing the idea that women’s immodestly-exposed bodies are the reason that men make unwanted sexual advances.
The famed Christian author of The Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis, has an illuminating remark to make on the topic of modesty:
A girl in the Pacific islands wearing hardly any clothes and a Victorian lady completely covered in clothes might both be equally ‘modest,’ proper, or decent, according to the standards of their own societies: and both, for all we could tell by their dress, might be equally chaste (or unchaste)…. When people break the rule of propriety current in their own time and place, if they do so in order to excite lust in themselves or others, then they are offending against chastity. But if they break it through ignorance or carelessness they are guilty only of bad manners. When, as so often happens, they break it defiantly in order to shock or embarrass others, they are not necessarily being unchaste, but they are being uncharitable.
(Mere Christianity, pp. 83-84.)
Still, the narrative continues: "Beauty is an invitation". Sarah was beautiful, and so it was inevitable that monarchs would claim her for their own. In 2015, we’re asking the same question that she must have: will it help if she covers up?
Was Sarai responsible for the Pharaoh and Abimelech’s reactions to her beauty? Is there something that she should have done to prevent them?
If you are a girl, what have you been told about modesty and your own body? If you’re a guy, what have you been told about modesty and your own body? Do you think that men and women experience the same expectations about modesty? Why or why not?
Do you think God has moral standards for our modesty, clothing, and appearance in general? If so, are they absolute and timeless, or relative to human cultures? Why, or why not?
The Bible itself has a multifaceted view of beauty. On the one hand, Peter admonishes his readers to ensure that their beauty comes “not from outward adornment,” but from “the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit” (1 Peter 3:3-4). Proverbs 31:30 notes that “beauty is fleeting,” but the fear of the Lord makes a woman admirable. On the other hand, the book of Esther focuses on a woman whose beauty enables her to save the entire Jewish nation; Esther becomes queen because she wins a beauty contest.
What is different between the society Abraham & Sarah lived in, and our society today? Are women treated the same, or differently? Better or worse?
How can we think Biblically about the topic of beauty?