Thursday, May 25, 2017

Sarah's marriage (Gen 11:27-23:20)

The marriage of Abraham and Sarah is an interesting one to consider, since we are lucky to have record of their relationship pretty much from beginning to end, over many chapters, with both of them active in action and dialogue. In this post, we'll focus on several places in her family's chapters in the Bible that provide information about her marriage: the two stories of Abraham passing Sarah off as his sister and giving her to kings, and the stories of the struggles between Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar. But we'll also keep in mind what we looked at last time, the important factor of Sarah's infertility in her marriage and in God's plan. There's quite a bit to chew on here!

Sarah's marriage to Abraham begins in the family of Terah, Abram's father. In this family, marriage partners were chosen from close kin. Abram had two brothers, and one of them married a daughter of the other. Abram married another daughter of his father. But we should keep in mind that at this point we are not that far out of the garden of Eden, and only 10 generations down from Noah. There just weren't that many people around yet. What strikes us as weird in marriage choice may not have been weird to these early people.

Weird or not, marriage to close kin is inadvisable for many reasons, one of which could have been the cause of Sarah's big problem in life-- her infertility. These two factors, Abram and Sarai's half-sibling relationship and Sarai's infertility, combine with a third, Sarai's great beauty, to pave the way for what are some of the most jarringly unholy acts of Abram, the man God chose to establish a relationship with to create a people for himself. Because Sarah was so beautiful, and not obviously a mother to any children, and *technically* his sister, Abram is able to get away with using her to his advantage so that instead of being killed by kings who want to steal her away, on two separate occasions he is able to sell her to the kings and receive great riches instead. Yuck.

Let's give a bit of background for these two stories. Abram is a travelling man, under orders from God. He moves to Canaan at God's command, and then down to Egypt because of a famine, then back up to the Negev, then to Canaan again, then down to the Negev again, and also spends time in several cities along the way. He occasionally participates in battles, has interactions with various rulers and lords, and negotiates in land, livestock . . . and women, as we shall see.

The two stories about the Pharaoh and Abimelech form a kind of bookend to Sarah's period of infertility in these chapters. After Abram's call, the story about Sarai being given to Pharaoh is the first real episode that takes place. Then after many more promises from God, military skirmishes, relational dramas, etc.,  the last thing that happens to Sarah before she gives birth to Isaac is that she is given to Abimelech. Of course, once she has a son, it is much more difficult for everyone to pretend she is just a virgin sister, so there is a logical end to this strategy when Isaac is born.

It is on his first trip to Egypt to avoid the famine that we first hear of Abram giving Sarai to Pharaoh, in exchange for good treatment and gifts of livestock and servants. Let's stop and take that in. In our modern moral language, we would say that Abram has just evidenced himself to be a human trafficker of not only his own wife for sex, but also of unnumbered male and female servants, listed right along with donkeys and camels. How does the father of the Jewish people get away with doing this?

Two possible mitigating factors occur to me. The first is to put a filter of "times were different" over this. Servants were a part of life back then, since the 40 hour work week and minimum wage had not yet been instituted. Abram was "very rich" the text tells us, and we can hope the members of his household were well treated and valued as part of the village or part of the family. (Sarai's servant Hagar eventually officially bridges that gap.) The second partial explanation is that it does seem like these two stories are recorded to point out that it was outrageous for Abram to do this to his wife, and he shouldn't have. (Though it's true that the main voices of complaint in both stories come from the decieved kings, not Sarai.) Servanthood and brideprices were just the accepted societal arrangements of the day. Deceptively offering your own wife to someone else was not.

Both Pharaoh and Abimelech are furious about Abraham's deception. In the course of the second story, Abimelech gives a speech I want to high five him for, "No one should ever do what you have done! Whatever possessed you to do such a thing?" Whatever indeed, Abram? Abram was audacious and wrong to do this. What was Sarai's experience in these stories? In the first story where Pharaoh is the "victim," we don't have as much information about her part, but the second story tells us a little more. Whereas in the first story, Abram asks Sarai to say she is his sister, in the second story, Abimelech says that she has said she was his sister. Based on his claim, Sarai seems to have been in on it too.

I find it interesting that in 1 Peter, Sarah is held up as a "holy woman from the past." As in, "This is how the holy women of old made themselves beautiful. They trusted God and accepted the authority of their husbands. For instance, Sarah obeyed her husband, Abraham, and called him her master. You are her daughters when you do what is right without fear of what your husbands may do." Sarah did obey her husband. But was she doing what was right? This is generally the caveat given to the marital submission command of wives to husbands. Submit, unless he tells you to sin. But Sarah appears so submissive in these stories that she just sins right off the cliff along with Abram. We'll talk more about Sarah's relationship with God next post, but I don't see evidence of a closeness between them in these stories, (of course you could also question how close Abraham was to God at the moment he was hatching these plans).

To me what is most puzzling here, is that with these two chosen sinners pulling shenanigans, God comes to the kings to warn them, without so much as a remark to Abraham or Sarah. Abram is simply given more gifts and sent along with a royal reprimand, and all signs of a heavenly blessing. He actually prays for Abimelech's household to be healed from the infertility inflicted on them as punishment for having Sarai in his house. I don't know exactly how to understand this and am going to leave it in the list of questions. Please help, dear readers, if you can.

But, back to what we can learn about their marriage from these stories. Whether Sarai went right along willingly, or unhappily obeyed Abram out of a sense of duty, we can be pretty sure that Abram was not too jealous for his wife's affection, as he had no qualms about putting her at risk of having sex with other men. Perhaps he feels she is really only a sister to him, since she has borne him no children. We can guess that she was either similarly cold toward him, or else blazing hot with fury at her treatment. Theirs was not a fairytale romance.

We have another clue about their marriage dynamics when we come to the stories of Sarai and Hagar. We have seen that Abram was willing to allow Sarai to sleep with other men in theory, though it didn't occur in the end. In the stories of Sarai and Hagar we see that Sarai was also initially willing to allow Abram to take Hagar and have a child with her. But when that did occur, she was not ok with the situation.

Her motivation, as we discussed last time, was to help Abraham receive the promise God had given him. Maybe she hoped that orchestrating the fulfillment of the promise Abram had received would heal something in their relationship, since she would no longer be the roadblock for God's promise. But even though by doing this, Sarai was able to relieve the pressure she felt on herself to have a child, she found that it was not ultimately worth it to have to share the status and compromise the position she had as Abram's wife. Her relationship with her husband and with her servant suffered even more.

It's interesting that Sarai places the blame for her emotional pain on Abram, when it was her idea for him to have Hagar. This is probably because it is his hope for a son from God that causes Sarah to suggest that he take Hagar as a wife. She even calls on the Lord to judge between her and her husband in the situation, one of the only times we hear her having any involvement with God. She may be speaking to God this first time because she feels it is his influence in Abram's life that has led her to this problem. When confronted by Sarai, Abram again exhibits coldness, practicality and passivity toward his marriage relationships, telling Sarai, "Look, she is your servant, do with her as you see fit." Get off my back, will you? Abram has a deep relationship with God; his family relationships pale in comparison.

However, God is deeply involved in Abram's marriage, continuing to reiterate that Abram will have many descendants through his wife Sarai. Though Abram is the one to receive the promise, it is really about Sarai. When he has a son of his own seed through Hagar, it does not count as fulfillment of God's plan. God want's this son to be born of Sarai herself. Their marriage is lived in this context, including the wounds it contains. I do hope Sarai knew some love and tenderness from some one, since it doesn't sound like she received much from Abram. Did God comfort her? We will look at that more in a coming post, but it's not obvious to me.

Returning briefly to the discussion of Sarah and the kings, after God's most explicit promise to Abraham that Sarah herself will bear him a son within a year, we find the story of Sarah being given to Abimelech. It is extra jarring at this place in the narrative, because now Sarah is expected to bear a son within a year. If, within that time, she is in another man's harem, who will have been the father of the baby?! The Lord delivers Sarah and Abimelech from their situation by sending him Abimelech a warning in a dream. The king and Abraham then have it out, but seem to end up being friends, since in the next chapter they make a covenant with one another. Again, I ask where is God's discipline of Abraham for coming so close to blowing the fulfillment of his promise that Sarah would bear him a son?

From Abimelech, Abraham receives his choice of land and 1000 pieces of silver. And Abraham prays that the infertility of the women in Abimelech's house, inflicted upon them by the Lord because of Sarah's presence there, will be healed. (Sarah must have been in his house for quite some time for infertility to have been noticed among the other women.) In the next breath after Abimelech's household is healed by Abraham's prayer, Sarah receives what she has been promised, and she bears Abraham a son.

Sarah's reaction to the birth of her son is so touching. "God has brought me laughter. All who hear about this will laugh with me." I hope this high point brings redemption to her for her trouble in life and marriage.

A further aftershock of Sarah's plan for Abraham to have Hagar as a wife occurs next in the text when their two sons are in conflict. Even after her own son is born, Sarah is insecure in her place in the family, and also her son's place. She convinces Abraham (though he is "very much upset") to send Hagar and Ishmael away for a final time. God promises Abraham that he is involved, and will again care for Hagar and Ishmael, and He does.

I wonder how Abraham and Sarah's marriage changed with the competing family members gone. Did Sarah feel more peace, or did her wounds fester without the possibility of a healed relationship between her servant, her stepson and herself? Did the romantically cool Abraham miss them?

The next thing we are told about Sarah is that she dies at 127 years old. Abraham's extended negotiation to buy a burial place for her gives the impression that he is putting energy into honoring her memory. I love that she is buried near Mamre, where the angels visited their family to promise their son's birth.

Sarah's marriage to Abraham is not easy by any means. But it is used by God to form the root for his people. Though it seems almost too easy of an application, we can definitely see here how God's plan goes forth in the lives of constantly sinning sinners, through his guidance and faithfulness. We can also see that the purpose of this marriage was not at all the romantic fulfillment of the spouses involved. Their steadiness in family-membership despite their unsteadiness in happy companionship was the context for God's great establishment of official contact with humanity. They hung in there through heartbreak, redemption, sin, good times and bad times, and this was the stuff God used to move forward his plan to save the world.


  • Sarah's marriage was difficult, nothing like modern versions of romance. 
  • When God made promises to Abraham about his descendents, their fulfilment hinged on them being given to his first wife as well as himself.
  • Though it seems A and S had a tense marriage, their main point of unity was in their shared parentage of Isaac.
  • Though this does not seem to be a model marriage, we can say that a less than model marriage was still a context for a great work of God in building his kingdom through the birth of a child.
  • Why do we only hear God warning to the kings about the deception of Abraham and Sarah regarding the wife-sister tricks, with no consequences for either of them?
  • Do you see evidence of a loving relationship between Abraham and Sarah that I have missed?

Friday, May 19, 2017

Sarah's infertility (Gen 11:27-18:15)

When we first meet Sarai in Genesis, she is introduced in this way. "The name of Abram's wife was Sarai, and the name of Nahor's wife was Milcah. (Milcah and her sister Iscah were daughters of Nahor's brother Haran.) But Sarai was unable to become pregnant and had no children." This first detail we learn about Sarah is central to her life. As we know from our earlier reading, the story of humanity is the story of children being born, growing, and having more children. Half of God's mandate (the first half!) to the human race is that we fill the earth. Women are honored to bear the main burden in this human work, and Sarai along with her family would have looked for this as a measure of success and value in her life. Being unable to bear children was a big problem for her and would have been worth mentioning in her life summary even if not for the rest of this story.

But as we read on in the story of Abram's life, we find so much of it wrapped up in how God's plan will go forward when Sarah cannot bear a child. The weight of the world was on her womb. She must have felt this acutely. During the brief season when I was trying to become pregnant without success, my every thought was wrapped up in my body and timing, and whether any symptom was significant, and every month of waiting was a new small devastation, even though in my world childbearing is optional for women and my worth can be measured elsewhere. I can only imagine the pain and feelings of worthlessness Sarah must have endured over the 85 or so years of her life where she was unable to do the one thing God's plan of salvation for the world hinged upon--this thing she had no control over that everyone expected from her and that she was unable to produce.

The story of Abram's call and the blessings he is promised make clear the honored and intergral part women play in God's plan through childbearing. In these chapters, God meets with Abraham several times. The first one is in chapter 12, and God promises Abram, "I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you famous and you will be a blessing to others.  I will bless those who bless you and curse those who treat you with contempt. All the families on earth will be blessed through you." Already implicit in this promise is that Abraham will have descendants. Whether Abram questioned this the first time God met him, we aren't told. But the next time God comes to him and promises to give him a great reward (not even specifically descendants in 15:1), Abram responds, "O Sovereign Lord, what good are all your blessings when I don't even have a son? Since you've given me no children, Eliezer of Damascus, a servant in my household will inherit all my wealth. You have given me no descendants of my own, so one of my servants will be my heir."

This speech of Abram sounds so sad and emotional. He trusts God, but has this huge impediment to really grasping the promise he has made: Sarah is barren. We don't hear much from Sarah about the promises that Abram receives, but I imagine they deeply increased her sense of failure to conceive. She was unable to enjoy the family pleasures of raising children, and she knew that all the wealth of her family would be passed to another after her husband's death, but also, and worse, the relationship with God that shaped her husband's life was made difficult by the fact that she could not bear children. There must have been significant tension between them over this. I hope that Abraham would have been understanding and shared the sorrow with her, but the details we have about their marriage don't really point to a mutually encouraging tender partnership. Sarah may have been drowning in sorrow, bitterness, and self-contempt for many years of her life.

God responds to Abraham's question about this detail in the promised blessing with a reiterated and more specific promise, that Abraham himself will have a son of his own who will not only inherit his wealth, but will increase into a nation with descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky. This promise is what "Abram believed and the Lord counted him as righteous because of his faith." Think of it, this central point in Christian theology, that faith in God is righteousness, was in reference to a child being promised to a barren woman. This role of women is right in the middle of what God makes happen when he is at work.

I get irritated at the idea that it's demeaning to women to imply that "a woman's purpose is childbearing." Women have amazing minds, capable bodies, strong and compassionate hearts, innumerable talents and capacity for greatness. They can do many things other than childbearing extremely well. But ask any accomplished mother (professionally or otherwise) what has been her most valuable work in life, and I can almost guarantee she will tell you it was using all her abilities as she witnessed and contributed to the growth and and development of her children. Most fathers will say this as well. Bearing children is not some sideline thing that is not what's really important in life. It is high, and hard, and holy, and right in the middle of what is going on with humanity. Sarai and Abram knew this, God knows it, we should know it as well.

This story also gives such hope in situations where women are desperate to bear children but unable for whatever reason. It shows that God cares about this situation, he is there and shaping his people through long years of suffering through it, and he will ultimately redeem it. Though Sarah receives a child at the end of her long life and some women will not, we can all trust in the fact that God has worked to bring blessing and redemption to us all in the end through these promised descendants who produced his own son after many long years.

Abram must have reported his specific promise about bearing a son to Sarai, because in the next chapter, she gets right to work trying to accomplish it's fulfillment for him herself. There is such heartbreak behind this action in my mind. Sarai knows this is of ultimate importance for Abram, and so she arranges a way for it to happen that is in her own power. She gives him her servant Hagar. When her plan works, she reaps even more misery because Hagar begins to treat her with contempt. What was once a shared sorrow for her and Abram, has been lifted from him and become hers alone. Furthermore Hagar's developing pregnancy is constantly visible evidence that a servant has been able to produce what a wife had not been. Where is her place in the family hierarchy now?, I'm sure Sarah wonders. This conflict between the women gets so bad that Sarah convinces Abram to let her send Hagar away. We'll talk about Hagar more in another post. But she does eventually bear her son, who is accepted as Abram's heir while Sarah continues to live with the new family situation.

Soon after Hagar's son Ishmael is born, God gives Abraham another more specific promise, changing his name to "father of many," and Sarai's name to Sarah, and revealing that Sarah herself will bear a son for Abraham. This is followed by a personal visit to Abraham by three holy messengers from God who promise even more specifically that Sarah will bear a child within a year. Sarah does hear this promise directly, from inside the tent. She laughs. She no longer believes in any possibility of this for herself, being past the age of childbearing. But it is still central to God's plan, and he intends to carry it out through her, despite the fact that she has no hope left.

We don't know how old Sarah is when she gives birth to Isaac. We do know she dies at 127, before Isaac is married, and that Abraham is 100 when Isaac is born. They both live about 85 years or more of life suffering through infertility. Most of their testing ground as they walk with God is in this state. His promise is given, but is a long time in coming. This particular female kind of suffering was a main issue in the first family God called to form his people in the fallen world. God cares deeply about it and works in it.

We will look at Sarah's experience when she finally does receive her son in another post.


  • The "woman's work" of childbearing is integral to God's plan in establishing a people for himself. 
  • God acknowledges that infertility is hard, and he works to redeem it in his plan.

  • Why doesn't the Lord give Sarai any promises directly about the birth of Isaac?

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

God's Princess, an overview (Gen 11:27-23:20)

Today, we come to the story of a woman who's life is described, alongside her husband Abraham's, for eleven chapters! This is the first woman we come to know in any real sense after Eve. Since it is such a long story, my first step here will be to outline the information points we have about Sarah in a rough timeline of her life:
  • She is the wife of Abram (we later learn she is Abram's half sister) and she is unable to become pregnant.
  • With Abram, she moves from Haran to Canaan, and then to Egypt when there is a famine in Canaan.
  • She is given by her husband to Pharaoh, so he could avoid being killed, and then given by Pharaoh back to Abraham after plagues fell on his house.
  • She travels by Abram's side as he travels with Lot, and settles in Canaan, and participates in a local war.
  • Abram receives the promise that he will have many descendents, which depends on her.
  • She offers her servant Hagar to Abram, to help God fulfill his promise.
  • She is treated with contempt by Hagar, and sends Hagar away. God cares for Hagar and sends her back.
  • Abraham receives another covenant from God establishing circumcision, changing his name, and her name.
  • God promises Abraham that Sarah specifically will have a son.
  • Three holy messengers visit Abraham at Mamre and announce birth of a son through Sarah within a year. Sarah overhears this from inside the tent and laughs.
  • After Lot is rescued from Sodom, Sarah accompanies Abraham south. 
  • Again Abraham says she is his sister and gives him to Abimelech. The Lord warns Abimelech she is married and he gives her back, saying she was in on the deception.
  • She gives birth to Isaac in her old age, and declares God has brought her laughter.
  • She sends Ishmael away because he is mistreating Isaac.
  • Abraham offers Isaac.
  • She dies at 127, and was buried at Machpelah, near Mamre, where Isaac's birth was promised by the holy messengers and she got caught laughing at the promise.
Based on this outline, Here are several themes I want to look at.

The central one is Sarah's infertility. Though Abraham is the lead in this story, the first thing we learn about his family pertains to Sarah--that she cannot bear children. We have previously seen how important childbearing is in the story of humanity. It is certainly given first priority in these chapters. Even God's promise to Abraham to establish a people through him to be God's own special people hinges on this important womanly detail of Sarah's life.

The next interesting feature of this story is what we are told about her marriage relationship to Abram. It begins within their nuclear family (!?).  We are told she has great beauty and, with no children, a lack of obvious matronhood. This allows Abram to claim her as only a sister, and twice effectively pimp her to menacing kings. We also have God's attention to these situations without obvious reprimand to Abram.

I'd also like to look at her relationship with God. Throughout the story, Sarah is in the action, and even speaking, but not to God. God only speaks with Abraham, with one possible exception. How did Sarah herself relate to God in the often difficult circumstances of her life?

Finally, I want to think through the time in her life when God's promise is fulfilled and she finally gives birth to Isaac. We have a few pieces of information that speak about this, and the touching final record that she is buried at Mamre, where the holy messengers promised his birth within a year and she laughed.

Stay tuned! There is a lot of really valuable stuff here I suspect.

Since this is an overview, I will save the takeaways and questions for the next posts, where we will dive deeper into Sarah's life.