What does Genesis 20:16 mean when it speaks of a covering to Sarah’s eyes? That depends which Bible you read.
Genesis 20 in the Old Testament relates the strange story of how Abraham, when he moved into the land of Gerar, told everyone that his wife Sarah was his sister. He instructed Sarah to go along with this falsehood, intended to deceive people about the true nature of their relationship. She obeyed. Then the king of Gerar, Abimelech, took a fancy to the beautiful Sarah and brought her into his own residence. But God appeared to the king before he had wrongful relations with her, and warned him to return her to her husband. Abimelech summoned Abraham and said to him,
Genesis 20:9-16 in the Matthew Bible: What hast thou done unto us, and what have I offended thee, that thou shouldest bring on me and on my kingdom so great a sin? Thou hast done deeds unto me that ought not to be done. And Abimelech said moreover to Abraham, What sawest thou, that moved thee to do this thing?
And Abraham answered, I thought that peradventure the fear of God was not in this place, and that they [people] would slay me for my wife’s sake: yet in very deed she is my sister, the daughter of my father, but not of my mother; and became my wife. And after God caused me to wander out of my father’s house, I said to her, This kindness shalt thou shew unto me in all places where we come: that thou say of me that I am thy brother.
Then Abimelech took sheep and oxen, menservants and women servants, and gave them to Abraham, and delivered him Sarah his wife again. And Abimelech said, Behold the land lieth before thee; dwell where it pleaseth thee best. And unto Sarah he said, See, I have given thy brother a thousand pieces of silver. Behold, this thing shall be a covering to thine eyes, and unto all that are with thee, and unto all men an excuse.
Matthew Bible note: ‘Covering’ and ‘excuse’ is all one.
In verse 16 (italicized), William Tyndale translated the Hebrew word ‘kesooth’ as “a covering.” Here ‘kesooth’ is something that covers for an offence or injury in the eyes of the person(s) named. In his note on this verse, Rogers explained that ‘covering’ and ‘excuse’ had the same meaning. In early modern English an ‘excuse’ could be understood in a good sense, meaning something offered in mitigation of an offence. This is the same thing as a covering. Thus Abimelech’s gifts were both a covering and an excuse because they covered and atoned for any harm and appearances of evil that the king had caused.
Hebrew scholar H.W.F. Gesenius confirms that ‘kesooth’ had this meaning in Genesis 20:16:
Metaph. Covering of the eyes [is] a gift of appeasing given to anyone that he may shut his eyes (with regard to something deserving reprehension) … or a present given in order to obtain pardon, a mulct. So is the passage to be understood, which has a good deal troubled interpreters, Genesis 20:16. (Emphasis original. See Gesenius’ Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon, s.v. 3682)
The Geneva Bible: Robbing Sarah’s covering
The “covering” idiom at Genesis 20:16 did not trouble Tyndale or Rogers. However, it became troubling in the Geneva revision:
Genesis 20:15-16, GNV 1599: And Abimelech said, Behold, my land is before thee, dwell where it pleaseth thee. Likewise to Sarah he said, Behold, I have given thy brother a thousand pieces of silver; behold, he is the (1)veil of thine eyes to all that are with thee, and to all others; and she was (2)thus reproved.
GNV note 1: Such a head [meaning Abraham], as with whom thou mayest be preserved from all dangers.
GNV note 2: God caused this heathen king to reprove her because she dissembled, seeing that God had given her a husband as her veil and defence.
The Geneva notes are contrary to common sense. Sarah’s head, Abraham, did not preserve her from danger, but exposed her to danger. (Perhaps he thought his lie was the least of dangers; the text does not say.) The Geneva Bible also says strangely that Sarah was reproved for dissembling, whereas in dissembling she only obeyed her husband. Obedience is a wifely obligation that the Geneva Bible repeatedly insists on. Further, since Abraham was dissembling to the whole world, was she to contradict him and thus endanger and dishonour him?
Further, in the Geneva translation of verse 16, ‘kesooth’ is translated as a “veil.” Others have also translated it this way, though in a slightly different application, as Gesenius indicates:
Several interpreters have taken a covering of the eyes to be a veil; and have thus rendered the whole passage, arbitrarily enough, behold this is to thee a veil of the eyes, i.e. with these thousand shekels (no little price indeed!) buy a veil for thyself, for all who are with thee, and altogether for all, i.e. that it may be manifest to all that thou art a married woman. They add that married women only wore veils, and that virgins did not; but this is altogether opposed to Eastern manners, and it cannot be proved. (Ibid. Emphasis original.)
The Geneva treatment of this passage is wrong for many reasons, including:
(1) It is absurd and dishonest to blame and reprove Sarah for doing as her husband told her to do, and especially in a society where women were without power or authority.
(2) It is also absurd and dishonest to hold up Abraham, who told his wife to lie and got her into the situation, as her defence. It was God who was her defence.
(3) The Geneva Bible creates a classic double bind. On the one hand, in many notes and commentaries it says women must be obedient to their husbands, but here it reproves a woman for being obedient. The woman cannot win.
(4) The Geneva Bible dishonours Sarah, where the intent of the passage was to restore her honour.
Again and again the Geneva Bible proves itself contrary to women (not to mention also contrary to the Matthew Bible). It refuses to protect and honour women.
The issue of a “covering” for women also arose in Malachi 2, which I wrote about in an earlier post. But when I wrote that post, I was less certain of my impressions of the Geneva Bible, and my post was too weak. Now I realize I was on the right track. In Malachi also, the Geneva Bible robbed women of their due “covering.” It is part of a pervasive and misogynist pattern. Here is a link to the revised post, Altars Covered in Tears.
Compare also the Geneva treatment of Exodus 21, which is discussed in detail in my paper on the New Matthew Bible website: Exodus 21, Virgins or Slave-wives?
The KJV and modern Bibles
Among later Bibles, the KJV largely followed the Geneva Bible. However, moderns have come close to recovering the sense given in the Matthew Bible:
KJV: Behold, he is to thee a covering of the eyes, unto all that are with thee, and with all other: thus she was reproved.
RV: Behold, it is for thee a covering of the eyes to all that are with thee; and in respect of all thou art righted.
RSV:It is your vindication in the eyes of all who are with you; and before every one you are righted.
NIV:This is to cover the offense against you before all who are with you; you are completely vindicated.
ESV:It is a sign of your innocence in the eyes of all who are with you, and before everyone you are vindicated.
Note A: The notion of ‘reproof’ (in “and thus she was reproved”) was actually not new in the Geneva version. It also appears in the Great Bible. I have not discovered the source for this revision. It does not follow the Vulgate or the LXX. However, Geneva added even more changes to the translation, and also its notes. This will be discussed more in Part 2 of the Story of the Matthew Bible.
© Ruth Magnusson Davis, October 2019.
Information about the New Matthew Bible Project is at https://newmatthewbible.org