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?

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