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?

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