Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Sarah and her God (Gen 16-23)

So much of Sarah's story comes to us through Abraham, who is definitely the lead character in their chapters in Genesis. What we learn about Sarah comes from several places in the text where she speaks up, and we may guess at her experience for the rest. This applies to what we know about her relationship with God as much as the other facets of her life we have looked at.

We don't really hear much from Sarah about the things that happen to her-- Abraham's call and departure, her stay in Pharaoh's house, Abraham's negotiations with Lot and his wars with the local kings, and his covenant with God--until after Abraham has received this covenant. At this point, we are reminded that of course she has been in on these events, and also seems to have been listening in on Abraham's relationship with God, all along. Her first initiated actions and words are a response to the covenant Abraham receives.

To me chapter 16 gives more away about Sarah's relationship with God than any other part of her story. We've already discussed this episode in relationship to her marriage and her infertility. But let's look back at in this context as well, because I think it does tell us about Sarah's posture towards the Lord, or at least her respect for her husband's relationship with him.

When Sarah comes to Abraham saying, "The Lord has prevented me from having children. Go and sleep with my servant. Perhaps I can have children through her," I hear a deep conflict and pain, mixed with resignation and determination in her statement. She knows Abraham has received this promise from God, and that she herself is unable to deliver it. (This is a position many a believer has found herself in over the years: I am promised blessing, but am unable to bring it about myself . . . and am tired of waiting for  it!) She ascribes her inability to conceive to the Lord, the one who has promised a baby to Abraham. But she does not hope that it will be fulfilled in her, even as she wants it to be fulfilled for Abraham. In order to help Abraham receive his promise, and really to try to fulfill God's will, she offers this alternative. To me this shows that she respects her husband, and respects his relationship with God. She wants his promise to be fulfilled, and feels pain that she is in the way of it. She does blame the Lord, but also wants to help his plan proceed. It is such a mix of faith and doubt, but full involvement.

When Sarah's bitterness at Hagar's pregnancy finally explodes, again Sarah speaks of the Lord, calling on him to be the judge between herself and Abraham. She expects that the Lord will show that she has been righteous in this plan, which implies she was trying to be righteous in carrying it out.

I love how the Lord cares for poor ill-treated Hagar in this story, while simultaneously caring for embittered Sarah.

Also, it is fascinating to me that Ishmael does not satisfy God's promise in God's eyes. The Lord has only actually promised that Abraham would have children, but as the story develops, we see that Abraham having children is not enough for the Lord, Sarah must have children too. After the birth of Ishmael, Abraham receives a covenant from the Lord that he will have "countless descendants." In this same covenant, the Lord changes Abram's name to Abraham, and gives Abraham's descendants the promised land. To fulfill the covenant, Abraham must circumcise all his descendants. Abraham does not question this, since he now has one child. But before the Lord is done speaking, he brings Sarah into the promise.

It is so interesting to me that he does bring Sarah in, specifically, in this way, but he doesn't come to her! He gives Sarah's promises to Abraham! We have seen earlier on that Sarah hears what God tells Abraham, so she surely received it. But how interesting that the text records this promise being delivered to Abraham. I wonder how God may have ministered to Sarah herself offstage. We see later that he is listening in on her laughter from inside the tent, but speaks there again through Abraham.

As part of the covenant, Sarai's name is changed, and she is promised a blessing and a son herself, and that she will be the mother of many nations with kings among her descendants.

Abraham, in disbelief, asks how he and Sarah will have a baby in their old age, and suggests that Ishmael be the one to receive the blessing, going right along with Sarai's backup plan. But God reiterates that the promise is for Sarah as well as Abraham, and that their coming son Isaac will be the true heir to the covenant, though Ishmael will be blessed as well.

Abraham, still with Ishmael in mind as his descendant, has him and the rest of his household circumcised after this message.

But then Abraham receives 3 visitors from the Lord. He quickly instructs Sarah to help him prepare food for them, and when everything is ready, he goes out to talk with them while Sarah stays in the tent. Their first question to him is, "Where is Sarah, your wife?"

On hearing that she is in the tent, they deliver the message that Sarah will have a son by this time next year. She can hear them, and they seem to be able to her her as well, though her response of laughter and doubt is recorded as "silent." A dialogue begins between them and Sarah about whether she did or didn't laugh, and the promise is reaffirmed.

There is a lot of action in the text before Sarah receives the fulfillment of her promise from God. Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed, and Abraham travels south again and gives Sarah to Abimelech. We've already discussed this a bit. But let's remember, after the specific promise has been delivered to both Abraham and Sarah that she will bear Abraham a son within a year, the two of them conspire to deceive Abimelech in a way that puts her in his harem! But the Lord mitigates this terrible plan by coming to Abimelech, not either of his chosen people, and warning him. What a confusing episode!

The very next thing that happens after the women of Abimelech's household are healed of the infertility brought upon them by Sarah's presence, is that "The Lord kept his word and did for Sarah exactly what he promised." Sarah bears Abraham a son, Isaac, and declares "God has brought me laughter." This statement shows her thankful attribution of this blessing to God and her understanding of his plan and his promise being fulfilled. It tells me she did learn to trust God and know his goodness in the end.

The last recorded story about Sarah before her death is her banishment of Hagar and Ishmael, which is permanent the second time around. Again, the Lord provides for Hagar and Ishmael in the midst of their ill treatment, working around Sarah's meanness toward them. How the Lord deals with Sarah regarding her actions is not shown to us.

We also do not see her perspective on the test Abraham is given, when he must be willing to sacrifice their precious promised son. I wonder if Sarah knew what was happening, and my suspicion is that she didn't, since Abraham departed for his journey early without even telling the servants where he was going. This story of Abraham's test is maybe the most terrible story in the Bible for me. If in reality Sarah did not know about the test, I think it was kind of the Lord to keep it from her. I wonder if she or I, as mothers, would have been able to pass it. Sarah had gone along with the rest of God's commands carried out by Abraham and suffered under several of them. Where she was tested, she did seem to pass. But Abraham takes this one representatively for her, as well as the rest of the future people of God established through their lineage.

The next, and final, thing we hear about Sarah is her departure to meet God personally at last in death.

Sarah has become such a fascinating character to me through these posts! I'm thankful to have such a colorful, complicated female figure described in Genesis in the main supporting role of the story of God's first call to establish an official relationship again with humans outside the Garden.


  • In the narrative, Abraham mediates Sarah's relationship with God for the most part.
  • Sarah does want God's plan to go forward, but doesn't seem able to trust that it will without her help.
  • When God promises that Abraham will have a son, he means that Sarah will have a son too.
  • Sarah ultimately receives her promise from God with incredulous joy and thankfulness.
  • Do you think that Sarah had her own unrecorded interactions with God, or was the mostly dealing with Him through her husband?
  • What does it mean for marriage and for God's choosing of Sarah herself that the child of her servant did not count as the promised son in God's eyes?
  • Do you think God's choosing of Sarah was based on Abraham's faith, or did she have faith of her own before Isaac was born?

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