Woman of the Week: Sarah
Editor’s Note: Every Thursday I will be posting a “Woman of the Week.” This is a woman I will choose from the Bible, history, and even women who are living and breathing. If you have any suggestions for the future “Women of the Week,” please leave your responses in the comments.
Everybody thought Sarah was dispensable, even Sarah. We first meet Sarah when she is 65, right after God calls Abraham to leave his home in Haran and go to Canaan. We find out two things about Sarah: she is Abraham’s wife, and she is barren. We find this out right after God promises to make Abraham’s descendants a nation. But Sarah is barren. Where will these descendants come from? Abraham and Sarah pack up their household and head to Canaan. When they arrive they don’t spend too much time there. There is a famine in the land, and they move onto Egypt where there is food.
Apparently Sarah was quite the looker at 65. This is the first time that Abraham views Sarah as dispensable. Abraham is afraid that someone will kill him in order to have Sarah, so he asks Sarah to pretend to be his sister. She does, and Pharaoh adds her to his harem. Abraham is richly rewarded for giving his “sister” to Pharaoh with gold, silver, animals, and slaves. But God does not see Sarah as dispensable. God comes to Pharaoh in a dream and tells him that Sarah is Abraham’s wife and to return to her to her husband. Pharaoh does so the next day and tells Abraham to leave. They return to Canaan.
Not long after this, it is Sarah who views herself as dispensable. She tells Abraham, “God has kept me from having children. Take my slave-girl, and I will have children by her.” This was a common custom in the Sumerian (modern Iran) culture they came from. If a wife could not have a child, she could give one of her slaves to her husband to have children for her. The slave would become the husband’s concubine. Surrogate mothers are nothing new. Abraham takes Sarah’s slave, Hagar, and she conceives. But things do not go as planned. Hagar is no longer a slave, but a second wife. Sarah is old and barren. Hagar is young and pregnant. We don’t exactly what Hagar did, but in the next verse Sarah is complaining to Abraham: “When Hagar found out she was pregnant, she looked on me with contempt. God judge between us!”
Hagar does not remain Abraham’s concubine for long. He gives her back to Sarah and says, “She is your slave. Do with her what you see fit.” Jealous Sarah abuses Hagar, who runs away. Hagar meets the angel of Yahweh, who tells her to go back to her mistress. But God extends God’s covenant to Hagar and her child: she will have a son and name him Ishmael, and he too, will become a nation. Hagar says, “Have I just seen God and lived.” She is the first person to name God: The God who sees me (I will do a complete post on Hagar in the future). She returns and Ishmael is born.
Many years pass, and Ishmael is Abraham’s only son, his only heir. Three strangers come to visit Abraham and Sarah. One of the visitors turns out to be God. Abraham invites them to stay, and he and Sarah prepare a meal for them. While they are eating, God asks Abraham, “Where is Sarah?” Abraham answers that she is in her tent. In fact, Sarah is listening to their conversation just inside the tent. God tells Abraham, “At this time next year, Sarah will have a son.” Sarah does the only thing she can do: laugh. She is 89 years old. She says to herself, “After all of these years, now that I’m old and dried up, will I now have children?” God wants to know why Sarah is laughing. Sarah denies it. But God says, “Oh yes, you did laugh.” And her son’s name will always remind her of that laughter.
But we see that Abraham hasn’t quite wrapped his head around Sarah having a son (most likely neither has Sarah). They journey to Gerar where Abimlech is king. I don’t know what kind of knock-out Sarah was, but at 89 years old, Abraham was still afraid of having someone kill him and take her. They once again do the brother/sister routine. They both once again view Sarah as dispensable to God’s covenant, and the future that God has promised them. Abimelech takes Sarah as his wife, but God does not let it get far. On their wedding night God afflicts Abimelech, his household, and his land with some kind of disease where they cannot bear children. God comes to Abimelech and tells him that Sarah is Abraham’s wife and to return her to him. Abimelech obeys and gives Sarah back to Abraham the next morning. He wants to know why they have deceived him. Abraham said that he only told a half-lie. Yes, Sarah is his wife, but she is also his half-sister. They have different mothers, but the same father. Abraham and Sarah may view Sarah as dispensable and replaceable, but God does not. God does not allow Abraham to replace Sarah, and God does not allow Sarah to replace herself with Hagar. His covenant with Abraham is for both Abraham and Sarah: their son will be the heir of the covenant.
In the next chapter Sarah conceives and gives birth to Isaac, to laughter (Isaac’s name means to laugh). Sarah is 90 years old and now her laughter is laughter of joy. She rejoices at Isaac’s circumcision and says, “Who ever thought that Sarah would nurse a baby? And yet I have given Abraham a son in our old age.” In God’s plan Sarah was indispensable and irreplaceable. The covenant God made with Abraham was not just with Abraham. God made the covenant with both Abraham and Sarah. And when the two tried to replace Sarah with Hagar, God in God’s mercy and grace extended that covenant to Hagar and Ishmael.
One of the last glimpses we see of Sarah is not a pleasant one. Her jealousy once again rises when she sees Isaac and Ishmael playing together. Her son will not share his inheritance with that slave woman’s son. She tells Abraham, “Send that slave woman and her son away. He will not inherit with my son. Isaac will be your only heir.” Abraham is troubled, but God tells him to listen to Sarah. The next morning Abraham gives meager supplies to Hagar and Ishmael and sends them off. At the end of their food and water, Hagar despairs and knows they will die. But once again God comes to her, shows her a spring, and reassures her that Ishmael too will grow into a numerous people.
The next time we hear of Sarah, she has died. Abraham buys a cave at Machpelah to bury her. Not only was Sarah buried in the cave, but so was Abraham, Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob, and Leah. These are Sarah’s descendants who will be the beginning of God’s promise to Abraham and Sarah that would give birth to a numerous people and to an entire nation. Through Sarah’s self-doubt, barrenness, jealousy, and thinking she could be replaced, God stays with her. God does not allow God’s plans and purposes for her life to be thwarted. Abraham and Sarah may have thought Sarah was dispensable, but God never did.
You can find out more about Sarah in Genesis 12–22.